150. (Cao Xueqin)

This morning, I deleted, for the first time, one of the posts on this blog, the most recent, on Marguerite Yourcenar. Then, meandering through Easter Sunday with a book, I finally finished, somewhat exhausted, the second volume in Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone.  It’s an extraordinary novel, in five volumes, not only like Proust because it spans thousands of pages, but because of the vividness of the characters, who swirl and shoot in and out of scenes; and in many ways it is not like Proust at all, not like anything I’ve read, in that it shows how little a character’s reality for the reader depends on the representation of their inner life. It does not need to be dwelled in, scooped out, analyzed by a novelist, as if the fiction of plumbing depths were proof of their existence. Looking at a lot of  fiction, the desire to prove heavy-handedly often destroys, petrifying or muddying or bloodying in purple prose. It makes Proust’s achievement all the more impressive; or else it suggests what might be the case, that he’s not doing much with depths at all, but rather than surfaces constantly in flux.

The Story of the Stone (the translation by David Hawkes, available in Penguin Classics, is apparently definitive) tells the story of the Jia family, as it enters into a period of decline. The members of the current Jia family are Han Chinese aristocrats serving the Manchu ruling family, having inherited their status from their ancestors, two Jia brothers, who received patents of nobility (“Dukes”) from the Manchu; each brother was endowed with a mansion, one the Rong-guo House, and the other, next door, the Ning-guo House. Most of the action of the first two volumes centers in the Rong-guo House, with its gardens, pavilions, chambers, and landscape; it is a pastoral world unto itself.  The central character is Bao-Yu, though the book is hardly exclusive in its focus on him, a beautiful, delicate, pampered, and precocious young man of 15 or 16 (the whiff of Proust drifts across the page again); he is surrounded by a cast of aunts, cousins, a grandmother, and servants. Notable among them are Dai-Yu, his orphaned cousin, and Bao-Chai; both are young women with competing claims on Bao-Yu’s attention.  The novel is full of incidents of daily life, meandering, digressive, sometimes featuring exclusively the servants, in their own hierarchy, sometimes homoerotic schoolboy antics, at other times the necessities of household management; art appreciation, family discipline, sexual desire and romantic love, jokes, sorrows, illness, ceremony, these are all in the novel’s labyrinth. But each of the first two volumes is shaped by a central event or interest: in the first, the construction of a large garden, to honor a daughter of the family being made an imperial concubine; in the second, a poetry club formed by the band of kin and cousins (aged 15 to 17), who now live and meet and spend their days in the enclosed world of the garden, with its different pavilions, ponds, groves and hills. It is at times tedious, then suddenly absorbing, and then suddenly moving or funny; it never insists upon itself, but asks that we attend, living in its time.

As I was wrapping it up, I thought that I’d probably not blog about it at all, certainly not till I’d read at least one more volume. But then, for some sort of closure, and to refresh myself in the shape of arc the novel had taken, and the foundations on which it stood, I read the opening chapter of Professor Dore J. Levy’s excellent study, Ideal and Actual in The Story of the Stone, and I was struck by how the novel’s ambitions, as she articulates them, match better than I could have hoped, what it was that I was trying to say earlier.

Levy also reveals how powerful a foil the novel should be to all who care about fiction, realism, Victorian and otherwise. For one thing, my account of the novel is woefully incomplete. Though I’d not forgotten, I was inclined, in my memory, to demote the novel’s framing narrative, which is an allegorical-religious tale. The realism of the novel, in other words, is intended, not to be read allegorically, but to have a transformative effect would best be narrated in allegorical terms. Here is Levy–summarizing with the requisite knowledge and insight, which I lack:

To enter the world of the Jia family, the reader must step through a narrative frame set in a mystical realm called the Land of Illusion (Taixu haunjing). The Land of Illusion is a spiritual realm whose denizens have completely internalized the mystical doctrine of the unreality of worldly, particularly emotional, attachment (qing). ‘Qing’ comprises and is generated by every stimulus that connects a person tot he world and frustrates attempts to transcend it… ‘Desire’ as used in comparative literary criticism, is appetitive, dynamic, and goal-oriented, whereas ‘qing’-as-attachment is more encompassing. 

The novel is called The Story of the Stone because it transcribes the story that is written on a jade stone found in the Land of Illusion, and that story is, in Levy’s words, “the Stone’s own account of his experience of qing/attachment.” Levy again:

This Stone was originally made by the goddess Nu-wa during large-scale operations to repair a hole in the sky. For some reason he (the Stone is explicitly identified as male) was left over and discarded when the job was finished. As a magical object, the Stone and consciousness and therefore was full of restless disaffection, feeling his existence to be without purpose. He wandered about the Land of Illusion until he found the Crimson Pearl Flower. The Stone was so entranced by its beauty that he took to watering it daily with sweet dew, which eventually transformed the Flower into a fairy girl. The sense of her obligation to the Stone weighed upon her mind, until finally she decided that the only way she could repay her benefactor would be to submit to a lifetime in suffering in the mortal world, where she could repay her debt, drop for drop, in tears,

The agents of the Stone’s disillusionment and the Flower’s payment of her debt of tears are the lame Taoist Mysterioso and the scabby-headed Buddhist monk Impervioso. When they meet the Stone, they agree to carve some mystical words on him and arrange for his incarnation as a human boy, The Stone needs to be liberated from two delusions that block his spiritual emancipation. The first is his feeling of rejection from Nu-wa’s repairs because of some imagined effect. The second is his romantic attachment to the Crimson Pearl Flower. The purpose of sending him to experience the vicissitudes of a human life is to awaken him not only to the emptiness of the mundane world of emotional–especially romantic–attachment but also to the emptiness of longing itself.

As an incarnated boy, the Stone becomes Bao-Yu, born with a piece of jade in his mouth (but with no memory of his earlier life as the Stone); Crimson Pearl Flower is incarnated as Dai-Yu, prone to weeping, sickly, and, pretty clearly by the end of the second volume, not long for the world.

But the story does not start there–it starts after the Stone has already completed its “course in the ‘world of the red dust (hongchen ti, e.e, the mundane world, especially the mortal realm of human affairs) and returned to his place in the universe. He has already lived his lifetime as the main character of The Story of the Stone” (Levy) and the framing narrative recounts a Taoist, Vanitas (Kongkong daoren), encountering the Stone on his journey to enlightenment. What he finds on the stone is the text of the novel itself; but Vanities reads it incorrectly at first and is not “able to grasp its potential as a spiritual vehicle.” How did he read it incorrectly?

Here is Hawkes’ translation, from the first chapter of the first volume:

Vanities read the inscription through from beginning to end and learned that this was once a lifeless stone block which had been found … [and so the back story is provided]…the inscription named the country where it had been born, and went into considerable detail about its domestic life, youthful amours, and even the verses, mottoes and riddles it had written…From his reading of the inscription [a quatrain on the back of the stone] Vanitas realized that this was a stone of some consequence. Accordingly he addressed himself to it in the following manner:

‘Brother Stone, according to what you yourself seem to imply in these verses, this story of yours contains matter of sufficient interest to merit publication and has been carved here with that end in view. Bt as far as I can see (a) it has no discoverable dynastic period, and (b) it contains no examples of moral grandeur among its characters–no statesmanship, no social message of any kind. All I can find in it, in fact, are a number of females, conspicuous, if at all, only for their passion or folly or for some trifling talent or insignificant virtue.’

Vanitas, that is, wants to read the Stone didactically, as an epic with heroic exemplars or else with historical information; but it lacks both. It is another sort of literature, as the Stone itself explains, answering him back. Arguing against “historical romances,” “erotic novels” and “boudoir romances,” he offers what is in fact a defense (from the perspective of a fantastical talking-stone no less!) of realism:

‘All that my story narrates, the meetings and partings, the joys and sorrows, the ups and downs of fortune, are recorded exactly as they happened. I have not dared to add the tiniest bit of touching-up, for fear of losing the true picture.

My only wish is that when in the world below may sometimes pick up this tale when they are recovering from sleep or drunkenness, or when they wish to escape from business worries or a fit of the dumps, and in doing so find not only moral refreshment but even perhaps, if they will heed its lesson and abandon their vain and frivolous pursuits, some small arrest in the deterioration of their vital forces.’

And it’s lesson? It is a lesson of attachment to the illusions of the world, brought to an end only by disillusion with the world. It is a lesson, explains Levy, that can only be received if the novel is read not by one looking for something deeper than the life it presents, but by one who is willing to accept the life that it presents on its own terms, to allow oneself to become attached to that life, to enter into sympathetic relationship to it–in order that one may become disillusioned and so learn not to value the enticements and longings experienced in  life more generally. In other words, it requires a sympathetic absorption into Bao-Yo, his world, and the characters in that world, so that we can experience disillusionment along with them, and release ourselves from attachment:

For a long time Vanities stood lost in thought, pondering this speech. He then subjected the Story of the Stone to a careful second reading. He could see that its main theme was love; that it consisted quite simply of a true record of real events; and that it was entirely free from any tendency to deprave and corrupt. He therefore copied it all out from the beginning to end and took it back with him to look for a Publisher.

As a consequence of all this, Vanitas, starting off in the Void (which is Truth) came to a contemplation of Form (which is illusion); and from Form engendered Passion; and by communicating Passion, entered again into Form; and from Form awoke to the Void (which is Truth). He therefore changed his name from Vanities to Brother Amor, or the Passionate Monk, (because he had approached Truth by way of Passion)…

“In a mere sixteen character (the parenthetical phrases were inserted by Hawkes,” Levy explains, “the author lays out the novel’s emphasis on passion and experience as a vehicle for awakening to their vanity.” But what is more, the author lays out a defense of art, as a vehicle not for enlarging Passion tout court (the Victorians would call it Sympathy; I can imagine a Victorian translator needing to choose just that word), but for enlarging it in order to transcend it. And Passion can only be enlarged and released through Form, which is the Form of Art–the implicit argument made here is that the form of art most suitable is that of realism, since “the Stone needs an environment in which he can be exposed to the full range of emotional attachment an social aspiration.”


What I find so thrillingly original is that the entire edifice of perfect realism is constructed on a fantasy of the Land of Illusion; realism growing out of, if not allegory, then something very near to a landscape one would find in an allegory.

The realism does succeed: and the framing fantastical landscape urges us to accept it even when it would seem too pedantic, too tedious, defending it as a matter of the illusory Form of Art, which admits and denies a reality, for an end that is greater than itself in so far as it is a denial of itself.

What I find most forceful and persuasive in the defense of the novel’s realism, and in the defense of art offered up here, is that it feels true to experiences beyond this novel–true that is, even to genres that are not realist. In other words, the scope of its application is broader than the Stone tells Vanitas. It does not feel far off from the sense I found in reading the opening pages of Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, and this exceptionally beautiful moment (Yourcenar says it is the only one she retained from the first draft):

I shall die at Tibur or in Rome, or in Naples at the farthest, and a moment’s suffocation will settle the matter. Shall I be carried off by the tenth of these crises, or the hundreth? That is the only question. Like a traveler sailing the Archipelago who sees the luminous mists lift toward evening, and little by little makes out the shore, I begin to discern the profile of my death.

But maybe the Stone is right. To read a work like Memoirs of Hadrian is not like entering into the thick world of a realist novel, be it Chinese, Victorian, French, or anything else; if I find that sense of attachment yielding to detachment (not surrendering, not fleeing, but arriving at detachment and even disillusion) in many of the the works of art I care about most–Tolstoy, even Dante, George Eliot, Byron’s Don Juan, the poetry of Tennyson, Wordsworth, Eliot, Christina Rossetti, the novels of Willa Cather, others–it is not because they all bring me there in the same way, and that is for the best; stubborn and recidivist as I am, I require variation, surprise, and ingenious means be used on me.

And what detachment and disillusion mean or demand or feel like cannot be the same at all times, for all people, with whatever beliefs. But it might be called something like a reconciliation with time, to change, to things passing, that cannot be achieved except through an intense attachment and reckoning of them.


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