A good friend recently gave me a copy of a book called ‘The Hall of Uselessness‘ by Simon Leys, the pen name of the late Pierre Ryckmans, the renowned Belgian-Australian sinologist, literary critic, and writer.
The ‘uselessness’ theme is not incidental. In his foreword the author quotes Zhuangzi:
“Everyone knows the usefulness of what is useful, but few know the usefulness of what is useless.”
In case there was any doubt, the first chapter ‘The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote’ demonstrates Ryckmans’ deep appreciation of useless:
“In his quest for immortal fame, Don Quixote suffered repeated defeats. Because he obstinately refused to adjust “the hugeness of his desire” to the “smallness of reality,” he was doomed to perpetual failure. Only a culture based upon “a religion of losers” could produce such a hero.
What we should remember, however, is this (if I may thus paraphrase Bernard Shaw): the successful man adapts himself to the world. The loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the loser.”
I’m already into the second chapter, which includes an amusing private exchange between the author and the late Christopher Hitchens on the topic of Hitchens’ irreverent attack on Mother Theresa.
I’m especially looking forward to his chapter on G.K. Chesterton, amidst a wealth of other literary commentary; but I suspect the most intriguing section will prove to be the significant minority of the book dedicated to Ryckmans’ work as a sinologist, exploring Chinese political and literary culture from the misunderstood Confucius to contemporary political dissidents.
I’ll leave you with a poem from Tao Yuanming, quoted in Ryckmans’ essay on Chinese aesthetics:
I built my hut among people
And yet their noise does not disturb me
How is this possible, I ask you?
Solitude can be created by the mind, it is not a matter of distance.
Plucking Chrysanthemums at the foot of the hedge,
I gaze toward the faraway mountains.
At dusk the mountain air is beautiful,
When birds are returning.
Truth is at the heart of all this:
I wish to express it, yet find no words.
Thank you greatly for the gift Mark, I know I will enjoy it!