Life in the present tense

In the June 1980 edition of Chinese Literature,m there is an article by Huang Wu on Prof. Zhu Guangqian, "The Distinguished Aesthetician." The author describes how, during the reign of the "gang of four," part of Professor Zhu's house was taken over by force. His bookcases were sealed, and his translation of the last two volumes of Hegel's "Aesthetics" was missing, presumed destroyed. He had decide he would translate them again.

Huang Wu comments, "When I heard this, I almost screamed! How could they treat a man's work life that? But Professor Zhu sat there, calm and indifferent , as though nothing had happened." The author was reminded of Thackeray, who having learned that the manuscript of one of his novels had been destroyed by a maidservant, said nothing but took up his pen to write again. "Fortunately," Wu concludes, "the lost translation was recovered and has been published recently."

What the story exemplifies, I think, is a sense of detachment. On one way, to be detached from the world, from one's work, from one's fellowman, is to commit the unpardonable sin of psychology and sociology, the sin of alienation. But what I mean is the precise opposite of alienation. Detachment in its best meaning is in fact integration, wholeness: it is being detached precisely from the alienated self.

From birth onwards we are reflected, distorted in the distorting mirror of the gaze of others. The false self, the self-referential ego which is so brilliantly discussed by Laing in "The Divided Self," is constructed when we internalize the looks, acts, words and thoughts of those sorrounding us. Thism ego is fundamentally a self-worshipper: for even when its egotism is disguised as altruism, it is not difficult to discern the craving for approval which underlies even its most virtuous-seeming actions. This craving for approval, for a finite/temporal identify, is manifested in ambition, desire, attachment.

It means that our work has a purpose external to it, placed outside of itself , always in the future. If I am working towardsm something my work is quintessentially unsatisfying, since its purpose is detached. The apotheosis of alienation, of self-worship, is the desire for fame. It is recorded of some of history's most dangerous predators, the Nazis. On the eve of suicide, with Berlin in flames, their prime concern was for history to justify them.

Since there is nothing wrong with fame, per se,m my quibble is with work carried through in in order to become famous.m The Vikings, acutely aware of the evanescence of temporal things, of the coming twilight of their gods, thought to preserve for themselves an ersatz eternity through "wordfame," through the epic recording of valourous deeds. It is not difficult to discern, in such a seemingly praiseworthy desire, the frantic attempts of the alienated self to stave off annihilation, to perpetuate, if not itself, then at least the memory of itself. And possibly the seeds of a later and far more destructive lust for a sham immortality can also be discerned.

What Professor Zhu and William Makepeace Thackeray have in common, I think, is a recognition of the value of beingm , as opposed to becoming.m An understanding that the value of one's life and one's activity does not consist in the impression it makes on others, on the achievement of any external goal, but in life, activity itself. It is a realization that, while we are responsible for what we do, we are not responsible for its success. And that the universe is, probably, capable of maintaining its order and harmony without our attempts at assistance.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.