The Sincere Indignation of Simon Leys16 min read

Josh Freedman reviews Philippe Paquet’s biography of the iconoclastic sinologist

If there is a single climactic moment in Philippe Paquet’s exhaustive, colorful account of the life of the writer Simon Leys, it occurs on a staid French television show about books. It was 1983, and Leys had recently published his fourth collection of acerbic essays on China’s ruling party; yet the host of the popular show Apostrophes had to work hard to cajole Leys into coming to Paris to talk about his book on the air. Leys had no interest in doing publicity for his books, and rarely granted interviews to the media; plus, in this instance, he knew that any discussion on the show would inevitably stir up controversy. Paris had been the epicenter of pro-Maoist sentiment in the 1960s and 1970s, and Leys had spent more than a decade as one of the few critics unswervingly standing up to the tide of revolutionary fervor in the Francophone world. He was, for many Parisian China-watchers, public enemy number one.

Simon Leys was actually Pierre Ryckmans, a scholar of ancient Chinese art and literature at the Australian National University in Canberra. His essays, published first in French and soon after in English, exposed in lucid, unflinching prose the uncomfortable realities of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Leys aimed many of his harshest barbs not at the regime itself, but at the phalanxes of Western intellectuals and journalists who marched in unison to blindly praise Mao. What these observers celebrated from the comfort of their European and American homes, Leys suggested, was neither cultural nor a revolution: it was a political struggle that had destroyed the achievements of Chinese culture while preserving the feudal despotism of the past. Chinese communism, he once said, “breaks eggs without ever making an omelette.”

On the living room-style set of Apostrophes, Leys sat around a coffee table with three other panelists. Furthest away from Leys sat the Italian author and politician Antonietta Macciocchi, who had parlayed her work as a correspondent in China into a widely read book praising the wonders of China’s revolution under Mao. The discussion started off politely, but when it was his turn to speak, Leys – who considered himself unassertive – could barely restrain himself as his pent-up indignation poured out into the room. As can be seen in clips of the speech available online, the studio audience laughed nervously as Leys proceeded to systematically dismantle Macciocchi’s book:

“I think fools say foolish things. Just like apple trees produce apples. It’s in their nature, it’s only normal. The problem is that there are readers who take them seriously […] Take the case of Madame Macciocchi, for example. I have nothing against Madame Macciocchi personally, I’ve never had the pleasure of getting to know her. When I speak of Madame Macciocchi, I’m speaking of a certain idea of China. I’m speaking about her work, not her person. Her book Dalla Cina – the most charitable thing we can say [about it] is that it’s a total piece of stupidity, because if we don’t accuse it of being stupid, we’d have to say it’s a con.”

Leys then pulled from his pocket a piece of paper on which he had written select quotations from Mao to back up his point. When Macciocchi tried to steer the conversation away from her prior work and toward her more recent autobiography, Leys pivoted in lockstep: in her new book, he explained, she described China as though it was not a place full of human beings but only props that allowed her to climb the rungs of Parisian high society.

Leys was not angry at Macciocchi alone; he was indignant at the whole generation of intelligent people in Europe and North America that had willingly blinded themselves to violent purges and repression in order to idealize a revolution on the other side of the world. A humanist like Leys could not forgive such an attitude. Paquet’s authoritative biography of Leys, now translated from the French by Julie Rose, proves that the memorable appearance on French television was not an aberration. In public or private, on matters enormous and trivial alike, Leys simply could not stomach ideas he considered indefensible.

Maoist fever       

Pierre Ryckmans never intended to write about Chinese politics. As a child in Belgium, he had wanted to be a painter. He was registered as a law student at the Catholic University of Louvain, but he skimped on his law studies in order to spend more time reading about Western art and French literature. He knew nothing of China until he stumbled into an opportunity to participate in a Belgian student junket to China in 1955, for which he prepared by reading books on Tang dynasty poetry and Song dynasty painting. Captivated, he threw himself into the study of Chinese art and literature in earnest: for his doctoral thesis, he translated and analyzed the ‘Treatise on Painting’ by the 17th century (early Qing dynasty) painter Shitao. Ryckmans claimed to have had no interest in politics whatsoever; he merely wanted to live a life “calmly enjoying Chinese culture.”

China was closed to foreigners, so Ryckmans spent years on the periphery: Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. It was in Hong Kong that the seeds of Simon Leys took root. As much as he preferred to avoid politics, he could not escape the reach of the Maoist state. A pivotal moment came when Ryckmans witnessed – on his doorstep in Hong Kong – Chinese government thugs assassinate a Cantonese talk-show host who had dared to satirize the mainland regime. Over the following years, as he gleaned more information about what was taking place across the border, he could no longer refrain from speaking out. He was not sure his views alone were the correct ones; he was only certain that the prevailing narrative of Maoist China in the West was even more disconnected from reality.

“Leys – who considered himself unassertive – could barely restrain himself as his pent-up indignation poured out into the room”  

Leys’s stance was both anti-capitalist and anti-communist – his first book, The Chairman’s New Clothes, criticized Mao for failing to be sufficiently revolutionary – and was thus unacceptable to both the political right and left in France. “Awareness is dawning, in the East as well as in the West, that the existing systems – capitalism on the one hand, Stalinism on the other, and bureaucracy everywhere – have become monstrous anachronisms that we need to make a clean sweep of,” Leys had written to a friend a couple of years prior. Everybody had a reason to inveigh against Simon Leys, both in word and even in deed. A group of Marxist-Leninists in Paris, upon finding copies of Leys’s book for sale, attacked the merchant and tore up the remaining copies. “As I had hardly handled the Western Maoists with kid gloves, it was only natural that they should pay me back in kind,” he later said.

If Leys landed a few good punches, so did his detractors. Paquet, who leaves no stone unturned, dedicates multiple chapters to the myriad characters who dismissed Leys. It is hard to imagine that Leys would not have admired the creative lengths to which his detractors went to dismiss his work. My favorite – sadly not included in Paquet’s already extensive account – is a review that dubs the scholar “the unrepentant Don Rickles of sinology.”

Leys will be remembered for his writings about China, but he eschewed labels such as “sinologist”; he described himself simply as “a writer of Belgian origins settled in Australia.” Like many contemporary readers, I first encountered Leys through The Hall of Uselessness, a collection of his essays published in English in 2010. It is a masterwork in breadth, spanning European literature, Chinese art and linguistics, communist politics, the decline of academia, and the sea. Leys is admirable not only for his early resistance to Pollyannaish views of communist China, but also for his resistance to specialization. He remained a true generalist in an age hurtling toward personalized brands and narrow expertise. He summed up his attitude in an interview with Pierre Boncenne, author of Le parapluie de Simon Leys, in 1983:

“What interests me is following my own bent in all the things I’m curious about, according to my needs at any given moment, at the risk of contributing nothing original from a scientific point of view, but with the advantage of being able to derive a considerable spiritual benefit for its own sake.”

The man who hated biographies

Leys publicly discouraged anyone from trying to chronicle his life: he tried to dissuade Paquet, for whose previous biography of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek Leys provided an introduction, from pursuing the project. “I don’t think the subject is interesting enough,” he wrote to Paquet in 2010. Leys felt his published writings contained everything that would be of value to other readers; he thought the idea of himself as subject, not author, was ludicrous.

Leys, who passed away in 2014, was not subtle in suggesting the myriad alternatives that were preferable to biographies. His collection of quotations, Other People’s Thoughts, includes an entire section on biographies, and begins with Emil Cioran’s quip: “It’s a wonder the prospect of having a biographer never discouraged anyone from having a life.” George Orwell, another writer whom Leys admired, left instructions that no biography ever be written of him – a demand that was promptly disregarded, and provided Leys with fodder for his thoughts in an essay entitled ‘The Intimate Orwell.’ The publication of Orwell’s collected correspondences and the scores of posthumous biographies revealed, on the one hand, a life ostensibly split between the pugnacious polemicist George Orwell on the page and awkward, reserved Eric Blair off of it. Yet Leys also found such a dichotomy misleading: exploring the author beyond the page proved that the private observations of Eric Blair and the public politics of George Orwell reflected the same impulses toward decency, justice, and the joy of discovering quotidian pleasures.

Paquet delves deep into Leys’s writings in both French and English, and supplements the exploration with years of his own personal correspondence with Leys. Paquet makes no pretense of providing a gripping narrative or unconventional argument; it is clear that he aims only to honestly chronicle a life. This is a point underscored by his choice of epigraph, drawn from Leys’s essay on the French poet Victor Segalen, from whose novel Rene Leys Ryckmans took the latter half of his pen name: “A good biographer basically just provides the material for a trial in which the final judgment is handed down by the reader.”

No matter how vehemently he deflected comparisons to Orwell, such a detailed exhumation of the years before Pierre Ryckmans became Simon Leys provides unequivocal evidence that, like Blair-Orwell, Ryckmans-Leys was absolutely of one piece. There was no epiphany, no climax, no moment at which Leys shook off a timid former self and built up the bravery to stand up to conventional wisdom. As early as his primary school years, Leys already had “an old and instinctive allergy to uniforms and military ways” – and had absolutely no intention of compromising his beliefs in the name of politeness or public approval. Wherever he went, the written word was the medium through which his careful observations and moral indignation were transmitted to the world.

Despite the claim that his life was uninteresting, Ryckmans’ early years were filled with globetrotting adventures. He went on a trawling expedition in the frigid waters outside of Iceland; he nearly died while hiking in the fog-shrouded mountains of the Japanese countryside; and after a three-month stay in the Belgian Congo, he tore into colonial administrators who distanced themselves from local society and were “totally devoid of curiosity” about the cultural world surrounding them. He preferred to travel by ship, and would always opt for steerage class when possible, as it was “cheaper than a plane, and a hell of a lot more interesting.” Added together, he sailed around the world and back, hitting ports from Suez to Saigon to Seattle. He traveled by bus across America carrying only a backpack and a Japanese paper parasol, having worked on perfecting his English by reading Gulliver’s Travels and Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast on the ship journey across the Pacific. He shared his dual role as scholar-adventurer with many of the writers and thinkers he referenced most: Confucius, he pointed out, was not a weakly bookworm but an avid sportsman.

“Separating the cultural from the political was what allowed Leys to avoid the snare that entraps many well-intentioned China watchers who, in attempting to respect China’s differences, turn a blind eye to political oppression” 

Leys loved literature and read voraciously, but it was clear from the start that the essay would be his form. He was an essayist not by choice but by necessity: what he wanted to say had to be said in the form of an essay. A successful essay puts forth and defends a singular thesis, whereas fiction is steeped in ambiguities. As he explained, “If a writer really wants to communicate a certain message, what need is there for him to encode it in a novel? If the message is truly urgent and important, he had better spare himself and his readers and go straight to the point.” Leys was indignant, and the essay suited his cause. The lives of a billion Chinese citizens, the oldest civilization on earth, and the source for some of humanity’s greatest achievements – what could possibly be more important, and thus more deserving of an essay? He mastered the craft of stretching the outer limits of his knowledge while channeling his passion into a singular argument; and throughout it all, he maintained prose that was literary but not pretentious, combative but not cloying, and clever without trying too hard.

A good biography, then, in some ways shares more with fiction than essay. If there is a flaw in Paquet’s account, it is when he strays from the task set out in his epigraph – to provide information and let the reader decide – and instead veers into hagiography. Paquet tries hard, and unnecessarily, to reaffirm that Leys was correct in his views of China and that his detractors had propped themselves up with hollow arguments. A full and accurate account should let the reader decide, blemishes and all. We do not need to be told what to think; and in this case, the facts themselves paint a picture of a man who was consistent, often indignant, and usually correct.

An ongoing battle

Long after the Maoist star faded in France and the events of 1989 by Tiananmen square firmly vindicated Leys’s early views on China in the eyes of Western audiences, Leys did not retreat from controversy. He found new targets for his indignation in the shibboleths of the modern era: moral relativism, commercialization, and a decaying social fabric. In a memorable set of radio speeches broadcast across Australia in the late 1990s, Leys eviscerated the modern university, declared the Olympic games to be “moronic,” and suggested that the idea of a “literary scholar” was an oxymoron.

Paquet, like many admirers of Leys, does not dwell on or try to theorize too deeply about Leys’s social conservatism. Yet to understand a full picture of Simon Leys requires further exploration of the foundations of the iconoclastic thinking that allied him with missionaries like Mother Teresa and social democrats like George Orwell in equal measure. Whether looking at his critiques of Chinese politics in the 1970s or the commercialization of higher education in the 2000s, we can identify a common core of Leys’s thinking: he saw the world in terms of multiple distinct spheres, each of which required its own value structure. Within this, he exalted the idea of difference wherever possible. In the realms of culture, knowledge, aesthetics, and love, to name just a few, difference was not the enemy of equality, but rather the foundation of respect, dignity, and humanity. Yet what applied to the cultural world did not apply to the political, in which democracy and equality were paramount. Those who tried to merge the two distinct spheres found themselves floundering in moral quicksand.

“In Leys’s mind, the Western observers who accepted the political purges of Mao’s totalitarian regime during the Cultural Revolution refused to acknowledge the humanity of the Chinese people”

Separating the cultural from the political was what allowed Leys to avoid the snare that entraps many well-intentioned China watchers who, in attempting to respect China’s differences, turn a blind eye to political oppression. Leys did not object to Mao’s attempt to equalize the semi-feudal politics of pre-revolutionary China; Mao’s failure lay in his dehumanizing attempts to crush difference across all aspects of life under the totalizing ideology of the communist state. The celebration of cultural difference, on the other hand, was what enthralled Leys about studying China; to try to view Chinese culture with a universalizing brush diminished the unique characteristics of the Chinese tradition. Knowledge of China’s cultural heritage did not detract from Leys’s love of French literature or art but rather added to it, irrevocably broadening his horizons. He looked favorably upon the quixotic quest of Victor Segalen to rehabilitate the idea of an “exoticism” shed of its negative connotation. “China,” Leys explained, echoing Segalen and the writer Andre Malraux, “is simply the other pole of the human experiment: China is the essential ‘other’ without the knowledge of which the West would not be able to perceive the outline and the limits of its own self.”

Leys believed that the relativistic impulse to accord the same value to all things cultural, aesthetic, and scholarly would not only fail to equalize; it would lead to less diversity. An “anything goes” mentality that failed to take difference seriously would inevitably devalue its importance and create a shallow, homogenous society. For Leys, a positive path forward for society could not be found in the oppressive feudal past or the rudderless progressive future; it had to be a different form – some combination of conservatism, liberalism, and socialism, perhaps – that combined equal respect for all human beings and the veneration of cultural differences. Whether in China, Belgium, Australia, or out at sea, Leys saw tension, but not incompatibility, between an appreciation of tradition, a belief in the centrality of individual human expression, and a skepticism of market forces.

In Leys’s mind, the Western observers who accepted the political purges of Mao’s totalitarian regime during the Cultural Revolution refused to acknowledge the humanity of the Chinese people; those who later wanted to achieve equality by postmodern homogeneity threatened the cultural differences that gave life meaning. When faced with a threat to either one, Simon Leys was overcome with sincere indignation. He could not help himself but to speak out. ∎

Simon Leys: Navigator Between Worlds, Philippe Paquet, translated by Julie Rose (La Trobe University Press, September 2017). Header image: Wikicommons.