3/11/20

&: World-without-us

(Lovecraft, Flock of Ba-Hui, Thacker, the window through which we view Chinese literature, mostly just bullshitting)



Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading and puzzling over Matt Turner’s translation of Lu Xun’s Weeds (which you might know as Wild Grass), trying to write a review, tracking down Turgenev prose poems, re-reading Baudelaire, and also flipping through Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang's Selected Stories of Lu Hsun for the first time in a long time.

I set aside Selected Stories of Lu Hsun after being reminded of a vague commitment to comment on The Flock of Ba-Hui and Other Stories, a collection of translations of Lovecraftian horror by a pseudonymous Chinese author, Oobmab.

I should write a proper review, but this is just wool-gathering, notes from trying to write that proper review, and also folding in notes from what else I was reading, and I’m not going to come to any conclusions. I don’t really know Lovecraft well. That’s the first problem.

The stories in The Flock of Ba-Hui were culled from the Ring of Wonder, a discussion board for fantasy worlds, games, and literature, which has several sections devoted to various elements of the Cthulhu Mythos.

As Arthur Meursault reminds us in the foreword to his co-translation, Lovecraft was the “first open-source programmer." He might go down in history as the creator of a fictional world, rather than as a writer. You can immerse yourself in his world without ever reading a word of his writing. As Houellebecq says of some Lovecraft fans: “They haven’t read him, and haven’t any intention to do so. However, curiously, they long—regardless of the texts—to know more about this individual, and the way in which he constructed his world.”

In the West, Lovecraft has experienced something of a revival in recent years, but I think it’s fair to say that his influence never really waned in East Asia (I mean here: Japan, Taiwan, South Korea in descending order of strength of influence), where Lovecraftian esthetics have infected manga, light novels, and anime.

Until recently, Lovecraft fans in China would have to read most of his work in English. There’s record of a translation of Lovecraft’s "The Music of Erich Zann" appearing in the KMT-established Literary and Art Vanguard in 1948, but not much between then and the early 2000s. In the past few years, the number of Lovecraft releases has ramped up: there was a translation of The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by Li Heqing 李和庆 and Wu Lianchun 吴连春 from an imprint of People's Literature 人民文学出版社 in 2016, and when I was at the Beijing International Book Fair last year, I saw that the third volume of a Cthulhu Mythos 克苏鲁神话 collection, translated by translated by Yao Xianghui 姚向辉, had been published by Zhejiang Literature and Art Publishing House 浙江文艺出版社.

The collection’s titular story, “The Flock of Ba-Hui,” is related by the colleague of a young archeologist, Zhang Cunmeng, who has gone missing and is presumed dead. Zhang is the perfect Lovecraftian hero, a complete cipher, dedicated only to an intellectual pursuit—in this case, proving the existence of an ancient state called Nanyu, based on his own archeological findings. Using hints from a scroll he has found and references in various quasi-literary histories, he goes looking for traces of the extinct kingdom, which seems to have worshipped a serpent god, called Ba-Hui.

(A fun Lovecraftian touch is pulling in various fictional and real texts—the Kunlun Scriptures, the Classic of Mountains and Seas, the “unfathomable” Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan, the Records of the Great Wilderness...)

Zhang returns from a long absence with a few pottery shards:
However, during my study of the fragment, I was compelled to an emotion I could not name. Distraught, anxious thoughts bubbled to the surface of my mind. I eventually noticed that the pottery shard leached a noisome ichthyoid scent, which I instinctively loathed. Zhang was more than familiar with the smell — he told me the odor had been left by a liquid stored in the large pot, which had spilled its contents all over his body when he stumbled over it. He guessed that it was some kind of fermented alcohol or herbal medicine. I doubted it was either.
Zhang ends up being committed to a mental institution after torching his notes and burning down the house.

Shortly after being confined to the institution, Zhang goes missing, but our narrator recovers one of his scorched notebooks. He gets together some colleagues and they set off to retrace the steps of Zhang Cunmeng, finally locating the cave where he collected the pottery shards.

They enter the cave to find that its walls are painted with frescoes describing fantastic beasts, war, and cannibalism:
Those humanoid beasts would storm the other villages in packs, murdering any living thing they could find. They would cunningly ambush armies trying to cross the steep mountains, breaking up any groups of soldiers too slow to react, or simply pushing them down the mountain. The half-ape giants would lumber over the battlefield after the killings and bring the slain corpses back to the cave. We had known that cannibalism was not exactly unimaginable in the dawn of humanity, yet still we shuddered to think of such organized efforts to make prey of other people. … To these ancients ... the people of other tribes were nothing but a daily food source, like an additional form of game animal. They held no grand ceremony for the slaughter of man, nor did they view human flesh with any precious significance other than as food. A strange fantasy took hold of us, suggesting that these ancestors were not, after all, human; rather, that they were wicked abominations in the form of men.
As they go deeper in the cave, they find murals depicting an even older society, where three classes of degenerated human (or something else)—a sort of giant ape with "human-like features," then a creature that was roughly human but ran on the ground like a dog, and then one that looked like "a bald monkey ... with outgrown forearms and stubby hindlegs"—collaborated with two classes of humans—workers and aristocrats. The murals revealed that the aristocrats were reduced to "livestock specially reared for offering to the gods."

The researchers find a mural depicting how children were divided up in Ancient Nanyu:
The first group of children would become tall and strong and take care of the heavy work. The second group of children would crawl on the ground on their hands and feet, studying hunting with the four-legged humanoid beasts. The third group of children’s eyes and ears would enlarge, and they would climb trees alongside those uncanny ancient midgets. The fourth group of children would become precocious, begin to fornicate, and bear even more ordinary children once they reached a certain age. The fifth and sixth groups of children would become utterly similar to those images of humans we had seen in the previous murals.
The researchers find piles of bones, including some that correspond to what they have seen in the murals:
It was the perfectly preserved skeleton of an unknown species, some large four-legged beast with a humanoid S-shaped spine. Its skull and other fine bones indicated a highly evolved primate or a human, but its prognathic jaws had the sharp incisors and giant canine teeth of a wild animal. We stopped to carry out a closer investi- gation — and realized, with growing revulsion, this was the very same hairless, beast-like human-creature we had seen in the murals. The emergence of this skeleton proved it: every hateful monster we had seen in those murals had once walked this majestic cave. I tremble merely to think of it.
It goes on like that, and I’m not going to ruin the ending.

But after escaping from the cave with Zhang’s notebook, they read his final words: “I have no fear; it told me not to worry. I can finally enter; I am already a child of Ba-Hui.”

And I can turn back to Lu Xun and read, in “A Madman's Diary”:
Brother, probably all primitive people ate a little human flesh to begin with. Later, because their outlook changed, some of them stopped, and because they tried to be good they changed into men, changed into real men. But some are still eating—just like reptiles.
This is the story of a man who comes to the understanding that he lives among cannibals and is in danger of either being eaten, or of becoming a cannibal himself.

It’s tough to go against the political reading of Lu Xun carved into my brain, but the comparison with “The Flock of Ba-Hui” is an invitation to read Lu Xun as “simply” horror, and get into what these stories in common: a “madman” who has seemingly revealed buried, secret history of cannibalism, the line between madness and sanity, men becoming beasts or beasts becoming men, and there is the found journal of the archeologist and the recovered diary of Lu Xun’s Madman… And now, it might be good to explain the ways in which they don’t really work the same, and how the Lovecraftian story is supposed to work.

Eugene Thacker marks out the world-for-us, "the world that we, as human beings, interpret and give meaning to," the world-in-itself, "the world in some inaccessible, already-given state, which would then turn into the world-for-us," and the "spectral and speculative" world-without-us. The world-without-us is not antagonistic and it isn't really against us, because it doesn't account for us at all and cannot be put into human terms.

Quinn Lester, trying to apply that system to Lu Xun (and also Frantz Fanon), proposes the idea of a world-against-us:
The world-against-us would name the collapse of ontological and political violence to the point where the world is experienced not as indifferent, as implied by Thacker’s “without,” but instead as actively hostile. … No longer a philosophical problem of horror, the world-against-us names the nefarious horror of political regimes that actively take on the character of eldritch abominations and so construct death-worlds in their wake. (I copied and pasted that quote and now I can't find it. It's definitely from Quinn Lester.)
And so, setting aside Lu Xun for a moment, doubling back to the world-without-us, Thacker says: "...the 'cosmic horror' in Lovecraftian stories results from the possibility of a logic of life that is absolutely inaccessible to the human, the natural and the earthly."

This is horror that is “ontologically destabilizing,” and John Yu Branscum and Yi Izzy Yu suggest that we can find plenty in zhiguai 志怪 stories.

They suggest we read Ji Yun 纪昀, but Lin Wang suggests this brief story in Youyang Zazu 酉阳杂俎:
楊慎矜兄弟富貴, 常不自安. 每詰朝禮佛像, 默祈冥衛. 或一日, 像前土 榻上聚塵三堆, 如塚狀, 慎矜惡之, 且慮兒戲, 命掃去. 一夕如初, 尋而禍 作.
I’m going to borrow her translation:
After Yang Shenjin and his brothers rose to power and wealth, they often felt restless. Every morning they worshipped the Buddha image and silently prayed to be blessed. One day, three piles of dirt appeared on the bed in front of the image, and they looked like burial mounds. Shenjin found this sight repulsive. He also thought it was a trick, and he ordered the dirt to be swept away. The next morning, the dirt piles appeared the same way as they had before. Shortly afterwards, disaster struck. (This is from a paper called: ("Celebration of the Strange: Youyang Zazu and its Horror Stories.")
And her explanation:
These incidents are not Carroll’s monsters [talking about Noël Carroll's The Philosophy of Horror and the idea of monsters as "abnormal, as disturbances of the natural order"]; rather they are signs of something vague yet powerful—an unforgiving fate that is under the control of a mysterious cosmic force. Throughout the story, the force is not embodied, yet its presence is strongly implied. The force cannot be explained by natural laws, yet its mysterious way of working manifests itself through the connection between the incidents and the central characters’ destinies. One may feel the force but cannot adequately conceptualize it; one may describe it but do not understand it; one may experience it, but cannot control it. The fear of this unknown force is at the center of this horror story. The horror goes beyond what monsters embody...
(I don’t know if Thacker has read Youyang Zazu, but read him on Ugetsu Monogatari 雨月物語, where he identifies some of the same vibes.)

That’s looking very narrowly at how Lovecraftian horror works. There is more going on in “The Flock of Ba-Hui,” and it’s about racial difference.

That is what horrifies the researchers in the cave, all the "humanoid beasts," the degenerated humans, "human-like features" on “half-ape giants…”

Houellebecq on Lovecraft is important here, again. He quotes from one of Lovecraft’s letters, written to Belknap Long after he—Lovecraft—had visited the Lower East Side (“that awful cesspool”), where he goes on at length about the “monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal” that “could not by any stretch of the imagination be call'd human.” (These quotes are all from HP Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life.)
This hallucinatory vision is directly at the source of the descriptions of the nightmarish entities which people the Cthulhu cycle. It is racial hatred that provokes in Lovecraft that state of poetic trance where he surpasses himself in the rhythmical and insane beating out of cursed phrases; which illuminates his later major works with a hideous and cataclysmic glare.
...the torturers, servants of unnameable cults, are almost always hybrids, mulattos, mixed-race “of the most base kind”. In Lovecraft’s universe, cruelty is not a refinement of the intellect; it is a bestial impulse, which is associated precisely with the benighted stupidity. As to those courteous, refined individuals, of great delicacy of manner…they furnish the ideal victims.
The racial hybridity is what is horrifying about the creatures that Lovecraft—and Oobmab, also—write about.
Could it be that those strange, hateful images we had seen in the murals, and those detestable, deformed bones scattered across the shaft-bottom, were human? The half-apes, the quadrupeds, and the gibbons — were they really the flesh and blood compatriots of those abominable ancestors? Was there actually a bizarre and occulted technique by which these ancestors transformed their descendants into inhuman deformities in order to maintain their grotesque and terrifying generational traditions?
Maybe we could bring in Lu Xun again. This might be just an interesting diversion...

One connection between Lovecraft and Lu Xun is Ernst Haeckel, the German naturalist that gave us a polygenist racial theory of humans evolving from a common ancestor and then splitting off into various species with Caucasian man, Homo Mediterraneus, the most highly developed.

Lu Xun translated and helped popularize Haeckel, although James Reeve Pusey in Lu Xun and Evolution argues Lu Xun was not particularly supportive of his views on race, especially given the edits and amendments he made to Haeckel’s work. (It would be hard to say that “A Madman’s Diary” is about racial differences, though, even with all the stuff about “true men” wiping out the cannibals. It’s more of a Nietzschean fable, as Pusey argues, with the madman as possible Übermensch—but it’s too late, and he was eating people, too.)
Lovecraft’s rhetoric is once again trying to trace an invisible but nevertheless broad line between civilization and barbarism in terms of race and culture, to advocate instead an aesthetic polygenist view—races seen as separate products with different origins—by separating the real humans from the less civilized dark-skinned people. He knew and believed that apes “preceded us ancestrally” and that “the negro, australoid, neanderthal, rhodesian” were all “human and humanoid types”, with “the negro” representing “a vastly inferior biological variant which must under no circumstances taint our Aryan stock.” (This is from: “Race and War in the Lovecraft Mythos: A Philosophical Reflection” by Cesar Guarde Paz.)
But I’m running on fumes here and fumbling for a conclusion.

The last story in The Flock of Ba-Hui is “The Ancient Tower.” It concerns a man who tracks down an ancient stupa on the Tibetan Plateau and descends into it. There’s a lengthy explanation of how he finds it, including a thing about a thangka depicting ancient religious rites. But so, he eventually descends into it and has a vision:
The varied scenes all changed at different speeds. While some scenes seemed to condense thousands of years into a fast-forwarded movie, others were shown at a normal pace or even near-solidified clips of utter meaninglessness. Within these images, I saw ghostly jungles of innumerable weird plants flourishing under a sky of surging whitewater vapor that then withered and degenerated into a vast and sinister swamp. ... I saw an infinite expanse of lofty mountains transform itself into a vast and gloomy ocean, and the rolling waves of that same ocean recede against the formation of a new land. ... I saw immeasurable numbers of towering incomparable buildings, piled up like children’s building blocks, rising from a dense jungle until they entered the unseen outer limits of the sky. The sky-scraping towers then collapsed, leaving behind corpses of giant stones half-hidden in the yellow desert sands. I saw countless such reincarnations: each city comparable to our bustling modern metropolises — actually much more magnificent than our puny urban dwellings — but none of them escaped their ultimate fate. Each city would eventually collapse into ruin, either to be consumed by the desert or replaced by a new city. It never stopped.
Apart from this time lapse of civilizations rising and falling, there are other images:
These scenes were filled with all types and kinds of monstrosity that had never been included in any fossil record or archaeological book. The creatures slithered, shambled, and flapped in their respective worlds, committing the most unmentionable acts.
This is something purely Lovecraftian—posthumanist despair (or triumphalism) and the rejection of anthropocentric modernism. And Houellebecq again:
The universe is merely a chance arrangement of elementary particles. A transitory image in the midst of chaos. Which will end with the inevitable: The human race will disappear. Other races will appear, and disappear in turn. The heavens are cold and empty, traversed by the faint light of half-dead stars. Which, also, will disappear. Everything disappears. And human actions are just as random and senseless as the movements of elementary particles.
And maybe the conclusion should start with this: since these are fairly fringe, obscure pieces of writing, how or why did this book come to be?

It’s not that Chinese web writing has never been translated. I’m thinking of Shen Haobo 沈浩波, who made a name from poems published online (and who once made a living as a publisher of online lit), and also Murong Xuecun 慕容雪村, whose Leave Me Alone was first posted online—some of that has made it to ink and paper, but most of the translation of web stuff remains online, and it’s mostly in the form of light novels, like Godly Stay-Home Dad 神级奶爸 and the nearly 5000 chapter Martial God Asura 修罗武神.

Those are two extremes, though: material of academic interest on one side and trashy shit on the other side. This is something around the middle: somewhat serious genre fiction. It's sort of like Hao Jingfang 郝景芳 in that regard (Folding Beijing was kind of a web novel, right?)

And but I would also say those choices above fit some definition of essential Chineseness, and the academic interest in Shen Haobo or Murong Xuecun is because of what they can tell us about China, and the interest in those wuxia novels is at least partly because of their essential Chineseness, too (whether the readers are diaspora kids reconnecting with the culture or white bread American geeks that know more about Daoism than I do, just from reading those stories). Despite the Chinese setting of most of the stories in The Flock of Ba-Hui, they don’t fit with that.

It’s not surprising that the two translators of this book would probably proudly call themselves neoreactionaries, maybe Landians—or they are at least broadly sympathetic. The collection hits all the notes that NRxers love, particularly racial difference and the post-human creepout vibe of world-without-us horror. (And there’s nothing interesting left to write about neoreaction and Lovecraft, so the paragraph ends abruptly.)

I liked the book (speaking as someone that does this for a living, the translation was very good!), but that aspect is more interesting to me.

Most of the translators of Chinese fiction into English are left liberals or ******* ********* ** **** ********** who are mostly harsh critics of contemporary Chinese society and culture and politics. That ***** *****, **** *** *** academics stationed at Western universities. ***** *** ******** **** ******** ** ** **** ****, *** ** ******* ******* about North America here: 1) ****, ************ ****** ********* that learned Chinese in the ‘70s and likely traveled to China for the first time before Reform and Opening, 2) a younger generation of literary youth from the coasts, who might have learned Chinese in high school, and despite spending years in China in the mid 2000s ***** ******* **** ***** *************, 3) ***** ** ****** ********** ********** ** *** ****** ****** *** *******, who tend to be the least left-leaning of the three groups but are smart enough to find jobs in tech or whatever, or at least more stable jobs in academia.

With academic publishing mostly controlled by **** ******** ************* **** ***** *** ********* ******* (a flood of Chinese state funding to other outlets skews that somewhat), that means that readers of Chinese fiction in translation are given a unique window through which to gaze on the country: Chinese literature is defined by dissidents and slackers. This is why ** ***, *** ******, and ** ***, as well as many ******* ******** *** ****** ******** are the biggest literary stars out of China, if you go by what gets published and reviewed.

It's also why the most politically relevant fiction being translated right now is science-fiction, all of which is grossly misunderstood by those that read Liu Cixin 刘慈欣 as a fun futurist or something, rather than a ****** ***** *** ***** **** ** *** **** *** ***, or imagine Hao Jingfang to be a social democrat rather than a ******** ******** (her books are good, though). The politics there usually fly under the radar, but that entire enterprise—publishing science-fiction—has mostly been taken out of the hands of the academics and Sinologists, since it has a different audience to fund it. I don't want to speculate about the ideological leanings of the popularizers of Chinese science-fiction, but, from what I know, they're not—with some exceptions—completely in line with the authors that are being translated.

I'm not saying that The Flock of Ba-Hui is simply a political project, some kind of neoreactionary propaganda work—but so what if it is? We need more of that. I was thinking, you know, I picked up the translation of Cao Zhenglu's There 那儿 partly as a political project. It's an attempt to spread my own political beliefs, but also an attempt to knock out the wall around that window which people have to look at Chinese literature through, since New Left fiction has never appeared in translation. (Interestingly, it was chosen by a fringe Marxist group in the States for a cooperative translation project, too, but that never came to anything.) It will remain unfinished, though. Unfortunately, once you are ******** ** ********* ** ****** * ******* *** ******* ***** ****** it becomes harder to make choices like that, or even to carve out the time to work on similar projects. That makes this book even more rare.