sometimes witty book reviews
First published: 209-141 BCE
Found: Syllabus of a Literature Course at Peking University
Pages/read time: 288, one day (under pressure – so much pressure)
[Edited version of a class summary]
I too have ventured not to be modest but have entrusted myself to my useless writings. I have gathered up and brought together all the old traditions of the world that were scattered and lost. I have examined the events of the past and investigated the principles behind their success and failure, their rise and decay, in 130 chapters. I wished to examine into all that concerns heaven and humankind, to penetrate the changes of the past and present, putting forth my views as one school of interpretation. … When I have truly completed this work, I will deposit it in the Famous Mountain archives. If it may be handed down to those who will appreciate it and penetrate to the villages and great cities, then though I should suffer a thousand mutilations, what regret would I have? Such matters as these may be discussed with a wise man, but it is difficult to explain them to ordinary people.
Appendix 2, Records of the Grand Historian (Qin), Sima Qian
This passage of ‘Appendix 2’ of the Qin dynasty Records resonated with me in two particular ways. First is in reference to one of my favourite operas. Second is in reference to my recent writing of a fairly long piece of original historical research. I appreciate that neither of these points resonate with the crux of the text, Sima Qian’s ‘catch twenty-two’. That being to die honourably but without completing the Records or to suffer tremendous humiliation, finish the text and (possibly) have the events and himself remembered for all time. I am not, however, either a person of the Confucian age (or even of a contemporary Confucian society) in possession of a set of testicles, or currently in a position of knowing if my work will be given a grand enough title to last longer than my own living memory.
Firstly, the opera. The coda of this text, the appendices, gave me a similar sensation to what I felt during the final ten minutes of John Cage’s Einstein on the Beach. Einstein is a four hour opera with no plot, no characters, no discernible melodies, and…no intervals. In the first hour, I was confused. In the second, amused. Reaching the third, I was starting to feel nauseous. Heading into the fourth, I was in physical pain. But, in the final ten minutes, Cage presented a single, precious melody sung to a text with beginning, middle, and end. It was a deep apology, a sudden intense spark of brilliant human doubt in one’s own creation. I fell in love with the entire production immediately. Similarly, Sima Qian’s desperate anguish in this letter for me makes the unending stream of facts and detail in the previous 130 chapters of records all the more brilliant. It is clear by the length and detail that the work is astounding. It is clear by the meticulous style of writing that Sima Qian is a gifted historian. It is also clear that Qian’s greater anguish lies in self-doubt, not in the thought of castration.
This brings me to my second point, the feeling of ‘doing’ original historical research, and through this coming to terms with how futile the entire exercise may be. It’s hard because it’s sometimes so empty. It’s hard because it’s sometimes too full. Research feels like repeatedly casting a net into a barren ocean, praying for a handsome tuna and instead hauling up yet another piece of driftwood or coral. Writing feels like shooting a dart into the fish-tank of facts you managed to salvage, yet only writing about the one or two stories you managed to pierce. You bake your catch into a chapter, thesis, or book and finally hope to present it to the realising that in your ambition you were obliged ‘not to be modest’. Yet the feeling that you have ‘entrusted’ your whole person into your metaphorical fish-pie is often overwhelming. In this way, it is also humbling. Even the Grand Historian himself described his record as ‘[his] useless writings’. This fact, to a budding writer or history, is at once comforting and incredibly distressing.