I wrote the other day about Pierre Ryckmans, and want to share another aspect of his New York Review of Books feature that struck me. It deals with concepts I’ve been working through for a while relating to locality, sense of place, and cultural memory:
In one of [Ryckmans’] most interesting and provocative essays on Chinese culture, he tries to find an answer to an apparent paradox: why the Chinese are both obsessed with their past, specifically their five thousand years of cultural continuation, and such lax custodians of the material products of their civilization. India and Europe are full of historic churches, temples, cathedrals, castles, forts, mosques, manor houses, and city halls, while contemporary China has almost nothing of the kind. … People in the Chinese cultural sphere, and perhaps beyond, did not traditionally share the common Western defiance of mortality. The idea of erecting monumental buildings meant to last forever would have seemed a naive illusion. Everything is destined to perish, so why not build impermanence into our sense of beauty? The Japanese took this aesthetic notion even further than their Chinese masters: the cult of cherry blossoms, for example, fleetingness being the essence of their unique splendor. … But if even the strongest works of man cannot in the end withstand the erosion of time, what can? [Ryckmans’] answer: “Life-after-life was not to be found in a supernature, nor could it rely upon artefacts: man only survives in man—which means, in practical terms, in the memory of posterity, through the medium of the written word.” As long as the word remains, Chinese civilization will continue. Sometimes memories replace great works of art.
I think a worthy challenge lies in attempting to live out a reconciliation between Eastern and Western tradition—in embracing the worth and place of tradition and real tributes and monuments and markers as “timeless” symbols in the same way the written word might, while also embracing their fleeting nature.
What are great stone memorials for if not conveying a sense that even though some stories have a greatness that hints at infinity, the storyteller himself was made for death? We have to be moving toward something, with some metaphysical basis for virtue, to understand that the sweetness of our tributes and memorials isn’t really sweet at all if those things don’t lead to a stirring in our souls, and a visibility in our own lives.
If “the word remains” but the heart has lost its capacity for feeling, then words become worthless. We have to be moved, transported, utterly awed by history for it to matter.