Wednesday, October 31, 2012

François Jullien's "In Praise of Blandness"

I found François Jullien's In Praise of Blandness last summer in the great architecture and design bookstore in Bras Basah Complex, where I brought GH to buy art supplies. I have read Jullien's The Impossible Nude years ago with a great deal of interest while I was working on the poems for The Book of the Body. In Praise of Blandness examines not just Chinese art, but also Chinese philosophy, ethics, music and poetry for a common denominator called dan, which Jullien translates as fadeur, and his English translator Paula M. Varsano translates as blandness.

In his Prologue, after acknowledging the difficulty, in fact, the undesirability, of defining blandness, Jullien describes the word thus, at the same time summarizing the movement of thought in the book:

Blandness: that phase when different flavors no longer stand in opposition to each other, but, rather, abide within plenitude. It provides access to the undifferentiated foundation of all things and so is valuable to us; its neutrality manifests the potental inherent in the Center. At this stage, the real is no longer blocked in partial and too obvious manifestations; the concrete becomes discrete, open to transformation. 
The blandness of things evokes in us an inner detachment. But this quality is also a virtue, especially in our relations with others, because it guarantees authenticity. It must also lie at the root of our personality, for it alone allows us to possess all aptitudes simultaneously and to summon the appropriate one in any given situation. 
On this common ground of the bland, all currents of Chinese thought--Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism--converge in harmonious accord. None of these systems conceive of it as an abstraction (for the purposes of establishing a theory) or, at the opposite extreme, as ineffable (in the service of some mystical calling). But it is precisely the bland that the arts of China reveal to us through their uncluttered spareness and allusive depths. 
By taking us to the limits of the perceptible, that place where perceptions assimilate and nullify each other, the bland brings us to experience a world beyond. But this movement does not open up onto another, metaphysical world, cut off from the senses. It simply unfurls and expands this world (the only one): drained of its opacity, returned to its original virtual state, and opened up--forever--to joy. 

I am drawn to the possibility, alluded to here, of experiencing the transcendent in immanence. That blandness may be the source of ceaseless unfurling, and so give off the sense of infinity within a finite moment or life. This sense is captured by the Chinese and repeated in a musical motif, as Jullien points out. In the History of the Song, the poet Tao Yuanming is described thus:

Tao Yuanming knew nothing of music, but he had at home a simple, unadorned zither without any strings. Whenever he experienced, in drinking wine, a feeling of plenitude, he touched the zither in order to express the aspiration of his heart.

Jullien comments,

The poet did not have to "trouble himself" to produce individually each note "from above the strings." The body of the instrument contains, within itself and at the same time, all possible sounds (the very image, of course, of the Dao). 

Tao Yuanming and his stringless zither became a touchstone and a shorthand for later artists, writers and critics when they alluded to the quality of blandness.

It is too easy to accuse Jullien of treating Chinese culture as a mere foil for the West. That in differentiating Chinese thought so sharply from Western philosophy he is distorting the Chinese tradition. Jullien's has at least two defences, I think. One, he displays a genuine love of authentic Chinese artefacts. In Praise of Blandness reproduces the paintings and calligraphy alongside quotations from primary written texts for the reader's appreciation. Two, he is alert to the distinctions made by the Chinese themselves between different schools of art. So he quotes Su Dongpo's "Postface to the Poetry of Huang Zisi," in which Su contrasts the great Tang poets Li Bo and Du Fu with the earlier poets of the Wei and Jin Dynasties:

By virtue of the brilliance of their talent, they surpass all other generations and excel over all poets past and present. But at the same time, that air of having risen above the world of dust, which we find [earlier] in the poetry of the Wei and Jin, is ever so slightly lost.

Jullien comments suggestively,

... the most accomplished work of art is not necessarily the most effective; indeed by virtue of its very perfection it is found lacking. If the calligraphy of the great masters of the Tang is the most accomplished, it must nevertheless surrender its supreme position, at least from a certain point of view, to that of the preceding period, a period that was profoundly simple, whose characters appeared on the page as most spare and scant, as if they had simply been left there, abandoned by the brush, rather than as the fruit of concentrated attention, of the focused practice of an art. Far from seeking to impose their dynamic rhythm on us, far from actively demonstrating qualities of consistency and vitality, they seem to have lost a bit of their density, to already be somewhat less than fully present, as if on the verge of taking their leave.... These written characters are transitory vestiges of an inspirtation come from somewhere else, which animates them from afar and of which they preserve a certain nostalgia: these written lines are perceived only as traces, and so exude an air of renunciation hat surrounds calligraphy with a halo of indistinctness and solitude. 

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