The Metaphor of Wind, as Chaos Narrative

I’ve measured my adult life by affiliations with a succession of French intellectuals–Camus, Barthes, Foucault, Bourdieu, Latour, and now François Jullien. Jullien is a sinologist who writes specifically about the landscape painting of the literati, among whom Shitao (1642-1707) might be the culminating figure. For these artists, poetry and painting were necessary complements; they also wrote treatises on art. One of Jullien’s titles In Praise of Blandness describes the style of these paintings. On another level, Jullien is using painting as a medium for exploring radical cultural difference and the difficulty of thinking that difference. But I want to get to a specific quotation. What I am actually writing about is research, and beyond that, the problem of writing about people living lives at some extreme, suffering.

Late in The Great Image Has No Form (the book is about how to understand that enigmatic line), Jullien quotes the painter Tang Zhiqi. He describes, as all these treatises do on Jullien’s account (which I’m in no position to question), how the goal is to depict “the very aspiration to come about” rather than “seeking to describe and represent”. So: “If you want to paint the wind passing through the landscape, Tang Zhiqi continues, you will have to keep from trying to characterize it externally–picturesquely–by making all the branches bend in the same direction.” If you do that, or only that, “You will still not feel the wind blowing.” Here we reach a crucial question about both research on suffering and clinical work: do people want to feel the wind blowing? Or, I ask myself of what I read: is this another way of “characteriz[ing] it externally” so that you won’t have to feel it?

“If you are to feel it,” Jullien continues, “the image must contain internally the ‘impossibility of facing it head on and resisting it,’ as a tension running through it and orienting it intentionally.” That’s the key phrase for me: the impossibility of facing it head on and resisting it. If I were asked what one single idea I might wish to preserve from all I’ve written, it would be the naming of the chaos narrative in The Wounded Storyteller. What I meant and mean by chaos is living with this impossibility of facing it head on and resisting it. What cannot be faced head on is the condition that has brought someone to believe that only this way of speaking can evoke her life. But to write or speak of “the condition” is already to render it external. Chaos is embodiment coming to speech and speech resolving back into the body. It is the speech/condition relation, blurring boundaries. To depict chaos is to contest the separation of one into cause and the other into effect. In English we can contest that separation, but we can never fully evade it without losing syntax, which chaos stories often do. The epistemology/ontology relation of Chinese art can prepare us for that refusal, especially as Jullien shows how Western translations of the treatises reinstate a subject/object opposition that the Chinese is all about doing without, in the sense of simply not needing it. That last idea takes a long time, at least for me.

These thoughts lead me to King Lear, because if the next question is when, in language, has the wind of suffering ever been evoked, I turn to Lear. Lear opposes the storm; he rails against it, discovering a language. But he is undone by what he faces but cannot face; he resists but cannot resist. His chaos becomes madness, flowers in his hair. He is rescued temporarily by Cordelia, and then things get worse. In the original source story, Cordelia lives and marries Edgar. Shakespeare’s refusal of that resolution, when Lear carries Cordelia’s dead body onto the stage, shocked the first audiences, literary historians tell us. Shakespeare went for an ending so without hope that for several centuries it was rewritten, because only that made the play tolerable, watchable.

The landscapes of Chinese literati painting are placid, bland, places to rest. Apparently. Shitao spent his life on the run; his royal birth made him a target for execution by those who had disposed his lineage. His is a Shakespearean story. The bland ink-wash of the scroll paintings is a form of witness to periods of horrific violence. If I can make any sense of this word resilience, it looks to those paintings, in which things are perpetually coming into being and fading back into mist, and there is no world beyond this one. King Lear is one solution to the depiction of chaos. The landscape in which all is internal tension is another.

I’m off to visit my 99-year-old father. Be back in a couple of weeks, if that is willed.