Saturday, September 21, 2013

Nobody’s Dupe: Simon Leys vs. the European Maoists

In his latest film, 2012’s Après mai (released in the U.S. with the much less evocative title Something in the Air), Olivier Assayas’s depiction of student revolutionaries in post-May 1968 France, there is a fascinating scene in which our protagonist, Giles, gets into a discussion with several of his fellow revolutionaries about the Belgian-Australian sinologist Simon Leys.  Giles, you see, has a copy of Leys’ book Chairman Mao’s New Clothes.  Now, in this book, Leys explains matter-of-factly how the great Proletarian Cultural Revolution actually consists of punk kids terrorizing, torturing, and murdering innocent people while destroying China’s cultural heritage.  Giles, who identifies more as an anarchist than a communist (although, as a white child of privilege, he’s really neither), seems pretty convinced by Leys’ arguments, but his interlocutors will have none of it. “No,” they insist, “the Americans and the Soviets are just afraid of what the Cultural Revolution truly means.  Leys is just a CIA agent.”

Now, Leys certainly was not (nor is he now) a CIA agent, so who is he?  Born Pierre Ryckmans in Brussels in 1935, Simon Leys (his pen name) is a brilliant sinologist and one of the greatest essayists of our time.  A “best-of” collection of his essays, entitled The Hall of Uselessness, was recently published by NYRB, and the back cover contains the following blurb from Assayas: “That early on I developed a critical distance from the ideologies of the epoch I owe to writers like Simon Leys and Guy Debord.  They kept me from being a dupe.” And lord knows the epoch of which he speaks was full of people trying to dupe him, perhaps first and foremost the insufferable European Maoists of whom we here at Say a Prayer for the Octopus have complained so vociferously in the past.  These were people who had never been to China, and had probably never actually spoken to a Chinese person, but who nonetheless felt comfortable insisting that Mao was the savior of his nation and that the Cultural Revolution was doing wonderful things for China and, soon, the world!

Imagine their irritation, then, when someone like Leys comes forward who actually knows what he’s talking about, who’s talked to Chinese people, and who knows that the Cultural Revolution is just a psychotic bloodbath meant to help Mao strengthen his grip on power.  When Leys published Chairman Mao’s New Clothes and similar writings, he earned himself the hatred of a large swath of the European intellectual class; the feeling is evidently mutual; the idiot Maoists and their apologists of the ‘70’s have been replaced by a new class of would-be radicals and in The Hall of Uselessness, Leys delivers cutting rebukes to dead French intellectuals like Roland Barthes (who had nothing but good things to say about his brief trip to Maoist China in 1974) and the very much alive, like Alain Badiou, who in the twenty-first century still defends the legacy of the Cultural Revolution and of Stalin and Mao.  With people like Badiou on the loose, another generation is at risk of becoming dupes.  Thank God Leys is here to save us.

1 comment:

  1. Not a comment, but a question. When, exactly, was Leys revealed to be the Belgian Pierre Ryckmans? According to Assayas's film, this was already known in the spring of 1971 (when Gilles is warned to be careful of what he reads, and told that Leys is actually Ryckmans). But as a historian, I'm wary of relying on films as historical truth, and I wonder if Assayas didn't jump the gun here for the sake of the story. There was a celebrated exchange between Michelle Loi and Leys in 1975-76 (see Leys's Image Brisées (it's NOT found in the English translation for some reason). But I think the Leys-Ryckmans association was known before that. . . .