Category Archives: Leys, Simon

Like a butterfly to an entomologist’s board

The essays of Simon Leys, writes Dalrymple,

often combine delicacy with irony—a combination that few writers, especially in our times of stridency and parti pris, achieve.

Dalrymple cites the opening of Leys’ An Introduction to Confucius:

If we consider humanity’s greatest teachers of wisdom—the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Jesus—we are struck by a curious paradox: today, not one of them could obtain even the most modest of teaching posts in any of our universities.

Leys goes on to explain:

The reason is simple: their qualifications are insufficient—they have published nothing.

In two sentences, writes Dalrymple, Leys

has pinned, like a butterfly to an entomologist’s board, the bureaucratic sickness that has overtaken our institutions of higher learning (and not only those institutions). There is no madness more difficult to treat than that which believes itself sane, and there is no irrationality greater than that which believes itself perfect.

It is no surprise that Leys

retired early from his university chair because the university no longer bore any resemblance to what it had once been, and misled students and the rest of society into believing it still was. A community of scholars had become an organisation of foremen on a production line.

Maria-Antonietta the shepherdess torn to pieces

Leys turns wolf and eats Macchiocchi for breakfast

Sometimes Marxist baloney requires to be countered — and vigorously

Simon Leys, writes Dalrymple,

conveyed his authority—moral and literary—from the first sentence of everything he wrote. He never descended into obscurity and could say the most serious things with a light touch and in the simplest language.

He was a mild-mannered, restrained and courteous man,

as remote from self-advertisement or self-promotion

as it is possible to be, yet he once unaccountably found himself on television, on a talk show called Apostrophes. He was pitted against a conceited Maoist by the name of Maria-Antonietta Macchiocchi, a journalist-politician who had briefly visited China for the Gramsci-founded newspaper L’Unità. Speaking not a word of the language and knowing almost nothing about the country, she had been led by the nose by her guides. Her ignorance did not prevent her from publishing Dalla Cina (1971; 433 pages), which on the subject of the Cultural Revolution was, Dalrymple notes,

full of gushing sentiment. Because of the ideology she espoused, she was utterly credulous and foolish. She believed she was witnessing a dream come true — when she was in the midst of a nightmare involving scores of millions of people and the total destruction of much that was precious. In terms of deaths, the Cultural Revolution was not as bad as the Great Leap Forward, but it was bad enough.

The immensely learned China scholar Leys — who among many other things, produced an outstanding translation of the Confucian Analects — was outraged by people like Macchiocchi and their abominable ideas

because he loved the people and civilisation of China.

Leys rightly regarded Macchiocchi and her kind as

frivolous and ignorant, fundamentally uninterested in that of which they wrote, and using China as a tool in the resolution of their trivial personal psychodramas.

Macchiocchi: mammouth de la bêtise

On the TV show, the presenter asked Macchiocchi to speak first. She prattled about her life having been one of chastity and of devotion: the saints were wedded to God, she to the People. And she would redeem the People; she positively immolated herself day and night for the People.

Rot of such egregiousness, says Dalrymple, was too much for Leys, who remarked:

Je pense que les idiots disent des idioties, c’est comme les pommiers produisent des pommes. C’est dans la nature, c’est normal.

Une certaine idée de la Chine

Leys made clear that what he was saying was nothing personal, it was just that he had to take a stand against all the frivolous idiocies that had been written about Mao and Maoism by Western intellectuals. He had this to say about Macchiocchi’s 433 pages of drivel:

Le problème c’est qu’il y ait des lecteurs pour les prendre au sérieux et là évidemment se trouve le problème qui mériterait d’être analysé. Prenons le cas de Mme Macciocchi par exemple. Je n’ai rien contre Mme Macciocchi personnellement, je n’ai jamais eu le plaisir de faire sa connaissance. Quand je parle de Mme Macciocchi, je parle d’une certaine idée de la Chine, je parle de son œuvre, pas de sa personne. Son ouvrage De la Chine, c’est — ce qu’on peut dire de plus charitable, c’est que c’est d’une stupidité totale, parce que si on ne l’accusait pas d’être stupide, il faudrait dire que c’est une escroquerie.

It was as devastating as Leys’ comment on Malraux, Barthes and and all the other frauds who thought they had grasped the essence of China:

Ces mammouths de la bêtise qui n’en finissent pas, depuis un quart de siècle, d’étirer leurs pondéreuses caravanes sur les rayons des librairies.

Leys’ ferocious television onslaught on Macchiocchi was, of course, richly earned and necessary, for as Dalrymple observes,

any Chinese who had lived and suffered through those terrible years would suffer a second time if he read the praise lavished on his tormentors by those who were so easily duped by the régime’s flattery machine. Macchiocchi deserved what she got.

A sad fate

Macchiocchi, Dalrymple explains,

never fully recovered from the humiliation that she suffered on that night because Leys was so obviously a man of integrity, intellectual quality, and attachment to the truth that she must have known that what he said was both true and justified.

She lived with this knowledge for another 24 years, dying at the age of 85. You can, Dalrymple supposes,

endure such a humiliation when you are young (though it might deform your character if you are inclined to be so deformed), but you still have time to overcome it by later success. But to live the last quarter of a long life in the shadow of such a humiliation, one that nothing will now erase, is a sad fate indeed.

Barthes in Beijing

By a Western expert

Malraux and friends

Leys delivers the coup de grâce

Eviscerator of the idiocy of the age

If fame were the reward of merit alone, writes Dalrymple, Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans)

would have been one of the most famous men. Not that he would have greatly enjoyed such fame: his probity and attachment to higher values was too great for that. He combined in his person qualities that are rarely so closely associated: erudition and scholarship, taste, intellectual honesty, wit, literary gifts. I admired Leys more than any other contemporary writer.

Leys was a connoisseur of Chinese culture

and viewed its barbarous destruction with horror; he abominated Maoism at least two decades before it became obligatory for right-thinking persons to do so.

The Cultural Revolution, Dalrymple notes,

was not a very funny subject, since it was one of the greatest episodes of vandalism in history and caused the death of a million people; but Leys wrote so as to make you laugh. He was contemptuous of Western Mao-fanciers.

Dalrymple explains that

Leys’ guiding star was cultivation (in a broad sense) and his bêtes noires barbarism, stupidity and humbug. There was no better sniffer-out of humbug, the besetting sin of intellectuals.

Leys, Dalrymple points out,

could eviscerate the idiocy of an age in a few lines.

For example:

If one thinks of the great teachers of humanity — the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Jesus — one is struck by a curious paradox: today, not a single one of them would be able to obtain even the most modest teaching post in one of our universities.

One of the great essayists of the age

Dalrymple explains that the Belgian sinologist Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans)

lived more than half of his life in Australia, and retired early from his chair at Sydney University because he said that universities had become degree mills. As a colleague of mine put it with regard to medico-legal reports, from which he made a considerable income, ‘You turn the wheel and the sausage comes out.’

It was Leys, Dalrymple reminds us,

who first alerted the world, contrary to the lazy, corrupt or stupid hosannas of his academic colleagues, to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, in prose of exceptional wit and lucidity for which he was much hated at the time.

Leys was also

a literary essayist of genius. If I were teaching someone to write, I would give him Leys to read.

To be right before the time is right to be right — unforgivable!

The well-known (except in Flanders) sinologue Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans) was, writes Dalrymple,

proud to be Belgian, though he spent more than half his life in Australia.

French universities

despised Leys because of his consistent, but early, anti-Maoism.

Dalrymple comments:

There is no greater sin in academia than to be right before the time is right to be right.

Dalrympian Confucianism

analectsDalrymple draws attention to Analects 13.3:

子路曰。衞君待子而爲政、子將奚先 子曰。必也正名乎。子路曰。有是哉。子之迂也 奚其正 子曰。野哉、由也 君子於其所不知、蓋闕如也。名不正、則言不訓。言不訓、則事不成。事不成、則禮樂不興。禮樂不興、則刑罰不中。刑罰不中、則民無所措手足。故君子名之必可 言也、言之必可行也。君子於其言、無所苟而已矣。。

Here, Dalrymple explains, Confucius pointed to

the political dangers of saying what is not meant. If language is the medium of thought, then loose language undermines proper thought.

Leys renders the chapter thus:

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 19.07.39Zilu asked: ‘If the ruler of Wei were to entrust you with the government of the country, what would be your first initiative?’

The Master said: ‘It would certainly be to rectify the names.’

Zilu said: ‘Really? Isn’t this a little farfetched? What is this rectification for?’

The Master said: ‘How boorish can you get! Whereupon a gentleman is incompetent, thereupon he should remain silent. If the names are not correct, language is without an object. When language is without an object, no affair can be effected. When no affair can be effected, rites and music wither. When rites and music wither, punishments and penalties miss their target. When punishments and penalties miss their target, the people do not know where they stand.

‘Therefore, whatever a gentleman conceives of, he must be able to say; and whatever he says, he must be able to do. In the matter of language, a gentleman leaves nothing to chance.’


The Master said: To see what is right and not to act is want of courage

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 04.19.39Simon Leys, writes Dalrymple, did not want courage. Throughout the Cultural Revolution, he

mocked and excoriated the Western sympathisers, who were legion, of that dreadful revolt against civilisation.

(The Master said: ‘To worship the ghosts of strangers is fawning.’)

During those locust years, the great Belgian sinologue

defended the immemorial refinement of Chinese civilisation from the brutality of the assault upon it in the name of ideological purity, and defended intelligence and decency from stupidity and cruelty. He was almost alone.