Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
These reflections are from the translation by Mabel Lee of Soul Mountain by Nobel Prize winning author Gao Xingjian. I received this book as a birthday present 10 years ago and started reading it but stopped, perhaps because it is over 500 pages long. This year I used my lengthy bus commute to finally return to the book.
In 1983 Gao Xingjian was diagnosed with lung cancer but shortly afterwards a second examination revealed there was no cancer. He was fled the repressive cultural environment in Beijing, and the threat of being sent to a prison farm. Gao travelled to the remote mountains and ancient forests of Sichuan in southwest China and from there back to the east coast, a journey of fifteen thousand kilometers over a period of five months. Soul Mountain is the result of this epic voyage of discovery.
Fleeing the social conformity required by the Communist government, he wandered deep into the regions of the Qiang, Miago, and Yi peoples located on the fringes of Han Chinese civilization and discovered many traditions, histories, legends, folk songs, and landscapes. Gao recorded these practices, which are likely endangered, like the ancient forests Gao’s characters visits at the Giant Panda research station. I suspect that this is an important book from an ethnographic perspective.
On the whole I did not enjoy the book and I gave up on it again after 174 pages. This is obviously a failing on my part but I do have a high level of tolerance for dense and oblique writing. I did find the frequent references to violence against women in the folk tales disturbing. I rarely give up on books and wouldn’t normally record reflections from a 1/3 reading of a book but I wanted to share my three favourite passages with you.
My husband and I are 42 years old. We don’t have a mortgage but we value balance so we’ve both been working part-time and therefore we forego potential earnings. After 15 hectic months of financially, physically, and mentally draining renovations we have taken a break. Neither of us is working in the field of our PhDs and we don’t have brilliant careers. We’ve started to look to the future and think seriously about saving for our children’s futures and our retirement.
This passage from Soul Mountain resonates with me:
Today, you can’t know what traumas tomorrow will bring. You’ve learnt through experience everything you need to know. What else are you looking for? When a man gets to middle age shouldn’t he look for a peaceful and stable existence, find a not-too-demanding sort of job, stay in a mediocre position, become a husband and a father, set up a comfortable home, put money in the bank and add to it every month so there’ll be something for old age and a little left over for the next generation?
I often feel starved of good conversation. I’m an introvert by nature and I seek out conversation. I’d rather be alone than spend time with people I can’t converse with. This reflection from time spent in a giant panda research station resonates with me
He’s the only person in the camp I can have a conversation with, maybe it’s because we’re both from the world of hustle and bustle. The others are in the mountains all year long, they have grown silent like the trees, and seldom speak. A few days later he went down the mountain to go home. It’s frustrating not being able to engage the others in conversation. I know that they only think of me as an inquisitive tourist. But why have I come to this mountain? … If it’s just to get away from the problems I was experiencing, there are easier ways. Then maybe it’s to find another sort of life. To leave behind the unbearably perplexing world of human beings. If I’m trying to be a recluse why do I need to interact with other people? Not knowing what one is looking for is pure agony. Too much analytical thinking, too much logic, too many meanings! Life has no logic, so why does there have to be logic to explain what it means? Also, what is logic? I think I need a break away from analytical thinking, this is the cause of all my anxieties.
I enjoyed reading this description from a pristine conifer forest
Some distance away is a white azalea bush which stuns me with its stately beauty. It has an ethereal purity and freshness and as I get closer, it seems to get taller – it is swathed in clusters of flowers with petals larger and thicker than those of the red azaleas I saw earlier. Lush white flowers are scattered beneath the bush. They have not begun to wither and are so charged with life that they exude a lust to exhibit themselves. This is pristine natural beauty. It is irrepressible, seeks no reward, and is without goal, a beauty derived neither from symbolism not metaphor and needing neither analogies nor associations.
What did you think of this book? What did you think of me for giving up?!