He says he is not a fighter–or rather, the narrator says it; he’s “an onlooker,” someone who steps aside, “frail,” “not the savior of the world,” not a “prophet,” speaking only to himself, living “his own insignificant life,” “the epitome of ordinariness,” and not even a dissident after all this. If the world is the will to power and we ourselves are this will, as Nietzsche puts it, what are we to make of the will not to have power? To somehow not extend whatever it is–idea, point of view, ethos. Is it to be believed? Is it denial, and if so, of what?
It is a position of leadership that the young narrator of Gao Xingjian’s novel, One Man’s Bible, briefly seizes during the early, most terrible and confusing period of the Cultural Revolution in Beijing. He takes the floor at a meeting of a rebel faction to speak decisively against certain Red Guards and end a stalemate. An ambiguous impulse, we learn, but overnight he is a leader drawn further in. He is looked up to as a writer employed in a Communist Party editorial office, but he is more at risk than he knows. This would seem to be 1967, when Mao Zedong’s radical purification purges had unofficially unleashed wholesale violence against “intellectuals,” party members, any or all of those targeted in antisocialist categories that were accepted unquestioningly by that time.
In the streets, thousands were beaten to death, driven to suicide, in homicidal rage of the young against their elders. But not against Mao, revered by millions of “youngsters, waving the…little red book,” who would assemble hours ahead of time in Tiananmen Square to see him pass by in his jeep, “hot tears streaming down their faces…shouting ‘long live’…. [t]hen… [going] home to smash…everything that was old–…schools…temples…” At explosive meetings behind closed doors we hear the narrator excoriate those who used blacklists to drive the discredited to their deaths. Yet his power has raised his profile. He is about to come under investigation. He has long known that party policy contaminates the truth. Every night posters go up attacking someone new.
The narrator was “crazy” in those days, he says. Around him are people who have lost their own voice. Never a convinced activist, he gives up this game in order to protect himself. Become anonymous–like the people who appear and disappear whose stories fill this novel about survival. Survival of what? An office co-worker gets a phone call that her husband has gassed himself. Without a word she tidies her desk and goes home to write up a poster separating herself by making clear that her husband has “cut himself off from both the people and the Party.” Elsewhere, the narrator’s colleague Liu sees himself instantly isolated by a poster condemning him as a renegade profiteer who has protected his reactionary father. It can happen to anyone. The narrator, who often seems damaged, wakes at dawn the next day and looks out the window at the roof tiles: He himself is “probably…a concealed enemy” and to survive will “have to wear a mask.”
It seems so even today to the traveler in mainland China. Custom? Self-censoring that continues? How well I recall those healthy workers looking out at me from posters of a traveling exhibition at a Warsaw gallery in the cold war Poland of 1966. Art direct from Red China at the threshold of another great plunge forward, the Cultural Revolution decade. Posters of pink-cheeked peasants, single-minded soldiers, as I recall, young women and men. Pictures that spoke as plainly as the words that were safe to speak in China–to explain this work of reconstruction, re-education, willed change, commune unity, to say nothing of manifold repression and want that those poster paintings translated into strength and interchangeable banality. Wordless, yet not unlike the indicting posters pasted up day and night in One Man’s Bible, shouting vengeance upon Ox Demon, Snake Spirit, “black gang” elements (the educated, in effect) or “offspring of dogs” (if the family background was wrong). Or slogans that had to come out correctly down even to the right intonation when you shouted them at meetings, if you were not to excite suspicion–assuming that certain words had not shifted overnight from correct to incorrect. Until, for Gao Xingjian the writer, language itself is suspect, though this is not only because “disaster springs from the mouth,” as it is said in China, but I would guess because in his highly original ink paintings (a selection of which is available in Return to Painting, HarperPerennial 2002, with an essay by the artist), so much is possible in the visual image alone.