by Oscar Handlin
A memory which reaches back a quarter of a century wistfully recalls the concept of One World. In those more innocent days it was possible to hope that once the fascists were extirpated, men everywhere would recognize their common humanity and join forces to further their mutual interests. The will to believe, inflated under the pressure of war, blinded Americans, among others, to the intractable problems of the future. Cultural and social differences that separated peoples would be as important as the similarities among them in determining their fate. And we suffer in 1967 as we did in 1942 from inadequate knowledge of these differences.
China, for instance, remains an enigma to the West. Although a correct appraisal of the prospects for coexistence is absolutely vital in setting policy for the 1970s, the melancholy fact remains that no one outside Peking was able to predict or explain the major developments of the past decade. The Hundred Flowers, the Great Leap Forward, the break with the Soviet Union, and Mao’s recent cultural revolution — each came as a surprise, and the reasons for each remain obscure.
Censorship, restraints upon travel, the size of the nation, and language difficulties inhibit serious reporting from within the country. In the past year, French, English, Australian, and Swedish writers have published in the United States about a dozen books containing observations of trips through China. Not one was worth reading. Like their counterparts on the Soviet Union in the 1930s, these volumes blandly and unconsciously transmitted the line supplied to their authors by Communist hosts.
THE CHINESE LOOKING GLASS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $6.95) by DENNIS BLOODWORTH is a considerable cut above the level of the usual China book. Bloodworth, the Far Eastern correspondent of the London Observer, is a resident of Singapore, married to a Chinese wife, and knows something of the language and literature of the country. He has a genuine feeling of sympathy for Chinese culture and writes deftly and often movingly. The touches of humor that enliven his account nicely set off the pathos of parts of the story.
Bloodworth made two recent trips to China but has no illusions about how much he was able to see. In any case, his book is not primarily a travel journal but rather an incisive analysis of national character. Surveying the long span of Chinese history, he seeks to make out the basic traits that influence the habits and the thought of the people. The Communist regime in this perspective becomes merely one of a long succession of systems of control generated by this culture.
The interplay between a Confucian emphasis upon rigid adherence to precepts and a Taoist stress upon natural spontaneity is the underlying force in Chinese life, according to Bloodworth. But this general interpretation is less enlightening and less important than the shrewd and perceptive treatment of many specific topics. Such subjects as the nature of the language, the role of the soothsayers, the import of the poetry, and the character of the painting receive lucid explanations.
The deficiencies of the book arise from its perspective. A resident of Singapore knows best the overseas Chinese, who look at their homeland through the distorting prisms of emigration. People who try to preserve an ancestral culture in an alien environment cherish an ideal image of “back home,” one in which contradictions and ambiguities fade away and all is whole, consistent, and coherent. The tendency is particularly strong among the Chinese, some aspects of whose culture stress the value of changelessness.
Bloodworth yields to the temptation to describe a “timeless Chinese world” that has endured for millennia and that is much the same under the leader Mao as under the Emperor Yao. As a result, Bloodworth consistently underplays the importance of internal differences and of changes through time. The peasant in Jehol has the same culture as one in Fukien and the same also as that of the Mandarin in Peking, in 1900 as in 900. Thus regarded, the vast record of Chinese culture sometimes supplies the data for contradictory conclusions. In chapter eight women are a kind of marginal property; in chapter nine they rule the household.
More to the point, Bloodworth gasps helplessly when it comes to judging the relationship of the current regime to Chinese tradition. His concluding sentence implies that Mao may ultimately fit into a line of thinkers which reaches directly back to Confucius. But the argument also implies that Chiang and the Nationalist Kuomintang could also (equally well?) have come at the end of the same line. And the effort to explain the Red Guard’s cultural revolution against tradition breaks down completely.
In a timeless culture whatever happened had to happen because the essentials never changed. There was therefore no possibility of accommodation with Western democracy. Bloodworth thus writes off the significance of the whole effort at Westernization. Yet in a relatively brief period that effort made millions of converts, and its achievements indicate that the process which fastened Communism on China was not as inevitable as The Chinese Looking Glass indicates.
The primitive condition of the scholarship which deals with China explains part of the depth of our ignorance of the subject. Traditional Mandarin learning ascribed no value to scientific method or criticism, and modern students in the West and in the East have only begun to scratch at the surface problems.
CADRES, BUREAUCRACY, AND POLITICAL POWER IN COMMUNIST CHINA (Columbia University Press, $12.00) by A. DOAK BARNETT illustrates the value of serious scholarly inquiry in this difficult field. This sober analysis should find readers beyond the circle of political scientists at whom it is primarily directed, for the book explains in careful detail how the Reds rule their immense empire. The problem is complex not only because of the size of the country and its population but also because of the absence of limits on the role of government. In a society which recognizes no private spheres, the state administers the economy and the culture, and polices all personal as well as social relationships. To govern under these circumstances is to control the life of the whole society.
Professor Barnett describes the operations of the Communist system with skill and ingenuity. Although he has used whatever published data exist, his chief sources are exhaustive interviews conducted in 1964-1965 with defectors who had themselves once been part of the system. Such informants are, of course, biased. But Barnett is aware of the danger of uncritical reliance upon their statements and has successfully coped with it. There is no better account of how the Communist government actually operated in 1965.
Barnett’s conclusions are not comforting. The cadres — state functionaries of every sort — are controlled by the Communist Party, which dominates every agency of government and transmits the dictates of the leaders to every corner of the land. The Party has wiped out or absorbed all rival institutions — villages, clans, guilds, religious bodies, and the family — and has imposed a straitjacket on all intellectual life. There is no opposition capable of challenging the regime; terror and the absence of alternatives prevent the existing widespread dissatisfaction from jelling into any serious organized form. Barring an attack from outside, only a falling out among the leaders could shake the Party apparatus on which the structure of government rests. The significance of the Red Guard movement may lie in the fact that it represents such a split in leadership.
Contacts of culture
Cultural differences are, to some extent, independent of the economic and social systems. Americans and Japanese thought and behaved differently in the 1930s and 1940s despite the fact that they lived in industrialized capitalist countries. Englishmen and Indians, Frenchmen and Moroccans remained apart although they worked in the same enterprises and were subject to the same rulers. The contact amongpeoples under such circumstances offers fascinating material both to the historian and to the novelist.
WILLIAM CRAIG’S THE FALL OF JAPAN (Dial, $6.50) is popular contemporary history at its best. It rests upon careful research, which included examination of the sources in Japanese as well as in English, and draws also on interviews with the main actors in the drama. The book is popular in the sense that it emphasizes the narrative as against interpretation. It gives more space to the bombing of Nagasaki than of Hiroshima, for instance, because the flight to the former city was more dramatic, not more important, than that to the latter. Craig knows enough not to try to get everything in. A skillful selection of details brings the leading personalities alive, conveys a sense of the actuality of the situation, and moves the story along at a good pace.
the book covers a span of less than a year, from the autumn of 1944, when it became clear to many Japanese military leaders that their war was lost, to August, 1945, when their surrender was consummated. The somewhat unexpected hero proves to have been the Mikado. Only his personal intervention on two occasions prevented his army from carrying forward a costly and suicidal struggle after it was clear that there was no hope of victory.
The destructive evidence of the atomic explosions persuaded Hirohito to act as he did. Until then, the military were prepared to resist an invasion of the home islands. Their intelligence was accurate enough to enable them to predict the exact sites of the planned American landings. The Japanese were ready on the beaches of Kagoshima and Ariake in Kyushu, by the time “Downfall,” the United States strategic plan for the invasion, was approved. No doubt the Americans would have prevailed in the end even without the atom bombs — but at the cost of many more lives.
The behavior of the Japanese seemed senseless and irrational to those who did not understand the function of suicide in their culture. Through the last year of the war, the worthiness of a voluntary death dominated the thinking of the Japanese military. The kamikaze attacks were effective precisely because thousands of pilots gladly chose thus to give up their lives. Admiral Takijiro Onishi, who devised the kamikaze tactic, later committed hara-kiri himself in expiation for his failure to avert defeat. The mournful wife of Colonel Ida, who came to the War Ministry to claim her husband’s body, was outraged to discover that his friends had persuaded him to go on living. The shock to family honor sent her into hysterics.
The divine Mikado compounded the bewilderment of surrender. The unimaginable trauma of his acceptance of defeat immobilized the officers who really believed that the Emperor was god. They were quite prepared to die for him, but they simply did not know how to behave in the face of an order from him to cease fighting. The pathetic plot of the palace guard to prevent a surrender proved a fiasco. The men who wished to uphold the Mikado’s prerogatives could not do so by disobeying him. Later, it made all the difference in the world when the Americans embellished the surrender proclamation with the appropriate Imperial references.
THE TIME OF FRIENDSHIP (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $4.95) is a welcome collection of short stories by PAUL BOWLES, an author who has published relatively little in the past decade. Bowles is a master of his craft. Each story in this collection, as in his earlier books, The Delicate Prey and The Sheltering Sky, is carefully polished. Although the stories are not long, they leave a sense of leisurely exposition. Economy of organization and careful design permit them to say a great deal within a limited space. Even the least successful of them, “Tapiama,” grips the interest.
The tales with an American setting deal with pathological subjects — two mad sisters murder thirty-seven babies, an eccentric plans to distribute poisoned gum through the subway slot machines, a small boy’s hatred of his father comes to the surface during a nightmarish Christmas Day. But Bowles is at his best in the stories set in Morocco. Long years of residence in Tangier have made him familiar with the place, the people, and the folklore. Moreover, the culture of the country supplies an especially appropriate background for the themes Bowles finds most congenial.
In Morocco, the cultures of Western Islam and of Europe touched each other temporarily and uneasily. Until recently, the Europeans were the superiors in the encounter: they were the rulers, the patrons of the hotels, the managers. The Moroccans were the subjects, the servants, and the laborers. But now the influence of Europe has begun to ebb, and as the thin veneer of its civilization peels away, the older indigenous habits and beliefs are exposed largely as they were before. Thus Driss, a modern soldier who knows that spells and conjurers are wrong, nevertheless reverts to the use of magic in his crisis. In “A Friend to the World,” too, the drugs of the witch prove extraordinarily effective, and the enlightened policeman is trapped by his obedience to the law.
The context of incipient decay provides a nice backdrop against which Bowles outlines his characters clearly. The European women feel the effects of the change most acutely. Fräulein Windling, the Swiss teacher who comes to the desert hotel, understands the young boy she befriends but cannot communicate betfeelings to him. In any case, nationalism dissolves their fragile relationship, She must leave, and he runs off to join the guerrillas. Mrs. Callender’s obsessive insistence upon English properties, in another story, leads first to misunderstanding and then to tragedy.
When the constraints of European obligations drop away, the Moroccan men can once more live fecklessly, taking each day as it comes, reconciled to a fate that is heedless of man’s intentions. Salam and “He of the Assembly” have no wish to harm anyone. Their cruelties are the unintentional reflexes of selfindulgent personalities unaccustomed to estimating the consequences of their actions. People who do not believe that they can control their own destiny are constantly tempted to escape into the narcotic stupor induced by drugs or daydreams.
In the world Bowles describes, all efforts to transcend the limitations of culture are futile. His may be an incomplete view which underestimates man’s capacity for rising above his environment, but within the boundaries he marks out for himself, Bowles is a perceptive and enlightening observer.
The liberal societies of the past century have generally tolerated the coexistence of a variety of cultures reflecting class or ethnic differences and migration. A special place has also been conceded to the creative personalities unwilling to accept the dominant values and standards of behavior. The musician, the artist, and the writer have often claimed exemption from the rules governing other people and have sometimes made good the right to live by codes of their own in communities of their own. The residents of bohemia enjoyed cultural freedom but suffered from a lack of function, which inhibited the use of their talents.
The second volume of THE DIARY OF ANAÏS NIN (Hareourt, Brace & World, $6.95) covers five years (1934-1939) in the life of a gifted writer. Anaïs Nin had begun to keep this remarkably candid diary as a girl; she continued to record her impressions as she matured. Since she moved familiarly through the avant-garde circles of Paris and New York, she knew well and commented shrewdly on Henry Miller, Pablo Neruda, Waldo Frank, and Lawrence Durrell. But the selections printed in this volume most often come back to the writer exploring herself as a woman and as an artist.
To others, Anaïs Nin generally seemed buoyant and self-assured. Yet the dominant impression left by the intimate diary for these years is the lack of fulfillment. The Spanish Civil War was the great shock of her generation. “The death of the Republicans in Spain,” she wrote, “wounds me like the death of flesh I love.” Her Marxist friend Gonzalo burned with fervor to do something. Yet all the passion dissolved in talk. It was significant that Anaïs Nin’s medium should be the diary, in which she built a private world, conceding the inability to help build the world outside.
The characteristic figure of a somewhat earlier bohemian generation was JEAN COCTEAU, whose THE DIFFICULTY OF BEING (CowardMcCann, $4.50) is now made available in a good English translation. The loosely connected fragments are not, properly speaking, an autobiography, yet they have inner continuity, and amount to an effort to justify the author’s career.
Cocteau was a man of abundant gifts, a dazzling innovator on the movie screen and on canvas as well as in print. His talent was genuine, but he dissipated much of it. As the memories of his conversational brilliance and of his flamboyant personality fade, his durable achievements prove to be few in number. In retrospect, too, his taste often seems to have been undiscriminating and faddish.
Cocteau was intelligent enough to know his own faults. “My dreams are nearly always criticisms of my actions, so severe and so accurate that they could be a lesson to me.” But self-knowledge did not give him the means to do battle with himself. “I correct carelessly, let a thousand faults pass, am lazy about rereading my work, and only reread the idea.” These attitudes may well spring from the undisciplined context within which he worked and from lack of rapport with the heterogeneous audiences he addressed.