Catherine Pozzi : Immortal Longings

born into a very select Parisian family during the latter nineteenth century — her father was a fashionable surgeon and a Senator while her mother presided over a salon patronised by Sarah Bernhardt and Leconte de l’Isle — ‘Karin’ developed into a withdrawn, very intense young woman “tall, gracious and ugly” as Jean Paulhan describes her cattily. She traversed various emotional and religious crises, which she recounts in her voluminous Journals, before making a disastrous marriage which never survived the honeymoon. Not that she was frigid: a few years on, already suffering from the tubercular complaint which eventually killed her, she embarked on a tempestuous affair with Paul Valéry and committed the unforgivable faux-pas, not of having an affair with a married man, but of openly avowing the liaison.

If ever there was a poète manqué(e) — I am tempted to say génie manqué — it was Catherine Pozzi. In a rather pathetic passage from her Journals, she asks ‘Dieu Esprit’ to forgive her for not having fulfilled her sacred mission and having wasted too much time on trivialities. While her contemporary, Marcel Proust, also a chronic invalid and insomniac, managed to write the longest novel in the world, Catherine Pozzi left us only her Journals, one or two inconclusive philosophical prose pieces and….six poems. Out of these six, only one was published during her lifetime — though this was according to her own wishes.

Like the English Romantic poet Beddoes, Catherine Pozzi spent much of her life vainly searching for some faculty or lost sense, which would enable humanity to overcome the dreadful duality matter/spirit. To this end, she undertook serious studies in biology and physics during her maturer years, and, piecing together scattered passages from her Journals and prose pieces, it would seem that she was groping towards a theory similar to that of ‘morphic resonance’ currently advanced by Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, whereby each of our sensations, and ultimately the whole of our lives, is a sort of recapitulation of what has already been : “Je sens ce que j’ai déjà senti” as she puts it. More’s the pity she did not leave us a body of work as substantial as that of, say, Blake.

 Sebastian Hayes

That peerless love that was your gift to me,
The wind of days has rent beyond repair,
High burned the flame, strong was our destiny,
As hand in hand we stood in unity
Together there ;

Orb that for us was single and entire,
Our sun, its flaming splendour was our thought,
The second sky of a divided fire,
And double exile by division bought ;

These scenes for you evoke ashes and dread,
Places that you refuse to recognize
And the enchanted star above our head
That lit the perilous moment our embracing shed,
Gone from your eyes…..

The future days on which your hopes depend
Are less immediate than what’s left behind;
Take what you have, each harvest has an end,
You’ll not be drunk however much you spend
On scattered wine.

I have retrieved those wild celestial days,
The vanished paradise where anguish was desire ;
What we were once revives in unexpected ways,
It is my flesh and blood and will, after death’s blaze,
Be my attire ;

Your name acts like a spell, lost bliss I knew,
Takes shape, becomes my heart; I live again
That golden era memory makes new,
That peerless love that I once gave to you,
And lived in pain.


Love of my life, my fear is I may die
Not knowing who you are or whence you came,
Within what world you lived, beneath what sky,
What age or time forged your identity,
Love beyond blame,

Love of my life, outstripping memory,
O fire without a hearth lighting my days,
At fate’s command you wrote my history,
By night your glory showed itself to me,
My resting-place…

When all I seem to be falls in decay,
Divided infinitesimally
An infinite number of times, all I survey
Is lost, and the apparel of today
Is stripped from me,

Broken by life into a thousand shreds,
A thousand disconnected moments — swirl
Of ashes that the pitiless wind outspreads,
You will remake from what my spirit sheds
A single pearl.

Yes, from the shattered debris of my days,
You will remake a shape for me, remake a name,
A living unity transcending time and space,
Heart of my spirit, centre of life’s maze,
Love beyond blame.

Descending layer by layer the silt of centuries,
Each desperate moment always takes me back to you,
Country of sun-drenched temples and Atlantic seas,
Legends come true.

Soul ! word adored by me, by destiny made black,
What is it but the body when the flame has fled ?
O time, stand still ! O tightened weft of life, grow slack !
A child again, the trail toward the dark I tread.

Birds mass, confront the sea-wind blowing from the West,
Fly, happiness, towards the summer-time of long ago,
The final bank once gained, all is by sleep possessed,
Song, monarch, rocks, the ancient tree cradled below,
Stars that from old my original face have blessed,

A sun all on its own and crowned with perfect rest.


Far in the future is a world that  knows not me,
It has not taken shape beneath the present sky,
Its space and time not ours, its customs all awry,
Point in the lifespan of the very star I flee,
There you will live, my glory and my ruin — I
Will live in you, my blood your heart will fructify,
Your breathing, eyesight, mine, while everything of me
That is terrestrial will be lost, and lost eternally !

Image that I pursue, forestall what is to be !
(Acts I once cherished, you have wrought this agony)
Undo, unmake yourself, dissolve, refuse to be,
Denounce what was desired but not chosen by me.

Let me not see this day, fruit of insanity,
I am not done — let fall the spool of destiny !


The wine that courses through my vein
Has drowned my heart and in its train
I navigate the endless blueI am a ship without a crew
Forgetfulness descends like rain.

I am a just discovered star
That floats across the empyrean —
How new and strange its contours are!
O voyage taken to the sunAn unfamiliar yet persistent hum
The background to my night’s become.

My heart has left my life behind,
The world of Shape and Form I’ve crossed,
I am saved   I am lostInto the unknown am tossed,
A name without a past to find.

A Louise aussi de Lyon et d’Italie

O you my nights  O long-awaited dark
O noble land   O  secrets that endure
O lingering glances    lightning-broken space
O flights approved beyond shut skies

O deep desire  amazement spread abroad
O splendid journey of the spellstruck mind
O worst mishap O grace descended from above
O open door through which not one has passed

I know not why I sink, expire
Before the eternal place is mine
I know not who made me his prey
Nor who it was made me his love

Catherine Pozzi

Translation Sebastian Hayes

Verlaine : Il Pleure dans mon coeur

/* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0cm; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-ansi-language:#0400; mso-fareast-language:#0400; mso-bidi-language:#0400;}

/* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0cm; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-ansi-language:#0400; mso-fareast-language:#0400; mso-bidi-language:#0400;}

Il pleure dans mon cœur…


                         Il pleut doucement sur la ville.

                                    (Arthur Rimbaud)


Il pleure dans mon cœur

Comme il pleut sur la ville :

Quelle est cette langueur

Qui pénètre mon cœur?


O bruit doux de la pluie

Par terre et sur les toits!

Pour un cœur qui s’ennuie

O le chant de la pluie!


Il pleure sans raison

Dans ce cœur qui s’écœure.

Quoi! nulle trahison? …

Ce deuil est sans raison.


C’est bien la pire peine

De ne savoir pourquoi

Sans amour et sans haine

Mon cœur a tant de peine!  



            This is probably the most famous poem by Paul Verlaine, the French nineteenth century poète maudit who is today better known for his turbulent liaison with the adolescent Arthur Rimbaud than for his actual writings. I render it as


Tears fall from my heart….


Tears fall in my heart

Like rain on the town —

What is this dull smart

That transpierces my heart?


The sweet sound of the rain

On roofs and on the ground!

For a spirit in pain,

O the song of the rain !


Tears come for no reason,

To this heart sick of life,

Neither parting nor treason,

My sadness has no reason.


And the worst is not to know

Why, without love or hate,

Tears do not fail to flow,

But why I do not know. 


            [I am indebted to Claude Mignot-Ogliastri, the critic and biographer, for pointing out to me that Verlaine did not write that tears were flowing from his heart, which would be commonplace, but in his heart, causing me to emend my original translation.]   


            As far as I am concerned, poetry should essentially be

                 “what oft was felt but ne’er so well expressed”

to slightly adapt Pope’s famous line — he actually wrote “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed”.  Here, Verlaine gives perfect expression to a mood or feeling which I, and countless other people, have occasionally experienced : a sort of sadness which has no raison d’être, or not as far as one can make out. Even, it is not clear whether it really is sadness. I remember one whole summer  when, though not having any particular reason for depression, rather the contrary, I found myself afflicted by recurrent periods of continual weeping (after which I felt a  hell of a lot better), and I have met people in ‘Workshops’ of the psychological type who have recounted identical experiences.  The whole point of Verlaine’s poem is that this sadness “has no reason” and the poet is almost as much puzzled as he is afflicted.

     An article recently appeared in the New Scientist discussing whether depression can/should be cured by ‘happiness’ drugs, provoking varied reactions amongst correspondents. Currently, although almost everyone in this country, including or especially the best off, seems to spend most of their time moaning and whinging, there is a positive obligation to always be  photographed not only smiling but laughing uproariously. If the current government had another term (which currently seems unlikely) it would probably end up by making it punishable by law to appear despondent in public — a £50 fine, say, for a first offence and a warning of more serious penalties for recidivism. One envies the Victorians their right to view life as a serious  business.


                                                                                                               Sebastian Hayes    

Cavafy : Irony in the Poems of Cavafy

/* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0cm; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-ansi-language:#0400; mso-fareast-language:#0400; mso-bidi-language:#0400;}

st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }

/* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0cm; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-ansi-language:#0400; mso-fareast-language:#0400; mso-bidi-language:#0400;}

st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }

/* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0cm; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-ansi-language:#0400; mso-fareast-language:#0400; mso-bidi-language:#0400;}

Irony in Cavafy’s Poems


although the term ‘irony’ is used quite a lot with reference to certain authors, Thomas Hardy in particular, when I was preparing to give a talk to some friends about Cavafy, another author who is supposed to exemplify it, I realized I didn’t really know what it meant, or couldn’t pin it down anyway.


IRONY :  1. The mildly sarcastic use of words to imply the opposite of what they normally mean.  2. A situation or result that is the direct opposite of what was expected or intended. (Greek eironeia)”        



            Irony in conversation depends on tone and expression and so cannot easily be communicated in writing. In any case, it is rarely used nowadays : it belongs to an era where conversation was cultivated and nuances were noted. Today people are more likely to be openly insulting if they don’t like someone; moreover, the twosidedness of irony is too subtle for today’s one-dimensional world.

            Writers concentrate on irony of situation, not irony of expression. The principal feature, as the dictionary points out, is the co-existence or rapid succession of two opposite or contradictory elements. The classic example of irony is that of the hero who, precisely by attempting to avoid his or her fate, puts his head in the noose. Thus Oedipus who, warned by the Delphic Oracle that he was fated to kill his father and marry his mother, decides not to return to Corinth where he lives with his supposed parents and, shortly afterwards, comes across his real father, Laius, whom he kills in the equivalent of a modern dispute between motorists. Worse still in a way, when enthroned as King of Thebes with Jocasta as his wife, he makes a big show of wanting at all costs to find out the guilty man in the city who, supposedly, has brought the plague on its inhabitants as punishment from the gods. Bit by bit, he realizes with horror that the guilty man is himself. The situation would not perhaps be so ironical if it was part of a chronicle or history : it seems important that the audience, who are in the know, should be there to watch Oedipus going towards his doom full of good intentions.   

            The Greeks seem to have invented irony as an attitude and  dramatic device : there are few other examples that come to mind in mythology and even Shakespeare and the Elizabethans rarely if ever use it. In principle, there is tragic irony in Lear giving away his kingdom to his daughters who do not care for him and withholding her part from the one who does. Chekov would have exploited such a situation, but Lear is so objectionable that one feels he gets what he deserves — and there is no irony in that. Irony lends itself more to tragic-comedy than to tragedy as such — and there are certainly moments when Oedipus Rex teeters on the verge of black humour, as the author undoubtedly realized.

            Cavafy is the poet of irony par excellence. A fairly crude but nonetheless effective example of ‘irony of situation’ is Nero’s Deadline.


“Nero wasn’t at all worried when he heard

What the Delphic Oracle had to say:

‘Beware the age of seventy-three’.

Plenty of time to enjoy himself.

He’s thirty. The deadline

The god has given him is quite enough

To cope with future dangers.


Now, a little tired, he’ll return to Rome —

But wonderfully tired from that journey

Devoted entirely to pleasure:

Theatres, garden-parties, stadiums,

Evenings in the cities of Achaia…

And, above all, the delight of naked bodies.


So much for Nero. And in Spain Galba

Secretly musters and drills his army —

Galba, now in his seventy-third year.”


(translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)


            Once again, it seems necessary for there to be a ‘god’s eye view’ : the irony of the situation is not apparent to Nero, nor even to Galba, but only to the historian or to the reader of the poem who is put in the know by Cavafy.

            Both these examples, those of Oedipus and Nero, are examples of good fortune turning to bad — I have wondered whether there can be irony in bad fortune turning to good. In the film Les Enfants du Paradis the bandit Larcenaire and two associates waylay the successful actor in his dressing room in order to extort money from him, perhaps kill him. But when asked for money, the famous actor hands them a great wad of notes saying, “If I knew you I’d maybe let you have everything I’ve got, but since I don’t, we’ll share the takings”. The upshot is  they become his friends and offer to be his seconds in a duel he is to fight in the morning. Is this irony? I think so, but it is a rare example. Almost all examples of irony of situation are of the opposite kind. It would be ‘ironical’ if I managed to pick a quarrel for no reason with the very man turns out to be the only person who could help me out in Ia mess I  shortly afterwards get myself into. But it would not, I think, be ‘ironical’ if I render some service to a complete stranger who turns out to be a long-lost relative in disguise testing me out to see if I deserved to inherit  his vast fortune. Still, if this were a scene in a play or film where the audience knew the identity of the stranger, I suppose it could be called ‘dramatic irony’.  

            A much subtler example of ‘irony of situation’ is On the Stairs.

“As I was going down those ill-famed stairs

you were coming through the door, and for a second

I saw your unfamiliar face and you saw me.

Then I hid so you wouldn’t see me again,

and you hurried past me, hiding your face,

and slipped inside the ill-famed house

where you couldn’t have found pleasure any more than I did.


And yet the love you were looking for, I had to give you;

the love In was looking for — so your tired, knowing  eyes implied,

you had to give me.

Our bodies sensed and sought each other;

our blood and skin understood.


But we both hid ourselves, flustered.”


(translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)


            But why is this meeting ironic (which it certainly is) rather than tragic — or for that matter ridiculous?

            History, or the part of history that interests Cavafy, is deeply ironic, because of the glaring contrast between expectations and mundane realities, or between memories of past greatness and present mediocrity. Heroes such as Hercules, Theseus or Achilles  do not appear in Cavafy’s poems, not because he despises them in the rather suspect modern ‘anti-heroic’ manner, but simply because he views the situation in which they are placed as psychologically and morally uninteresting, as too one-dimensional. In a sense these heroes are never really tested : they never grow old and feeble, never have to look defeat in the face. Very few of the historical personages  who appear in Cavafy’s poems are famous figures, and even when they are, we do not see them at their zenith :  Mark Anthony only makes an appearance at the moment when the god (Dionysus) abandons him. As an example of Spartan style we are not given Leonidas (the hero of Thermopylae) but Queen Cratesiclea whom no one has ever heard of  :


“King Cleomenes did not know, he did not dare —

He did not know how to put into words such a request

To his own mother: that  Ptolemy had demanded

That she be sent to Egypt also, and be held a hostage there

As a guarantee of their agreement;

A very humiliating, unseemly matter.

And he was always about to speak; and he always demurred

And he always started to say it and always faltered.


But this superior woman understood him

(besides she had already heard some rumours about it)

And she encouraged him to explain.

And she laughed and said certainly she would go.

And indeed she rejoiced that she was able

Still to be useful to Sparta in her old age.


As for the humiliation — well, she was indifferent.

Assuredly he, a son of Lagus, born only yesterday,

Was unable to understand Spartan pride;

And so his request could not really

Humilate a Great Lady as

Illustrious as she, the mother of a Spartan king.”


                                    (translated by Rae Dalven)  


            Historical characters like Queen Cratesiclea manage to turn the tables on destiny — by accepting it with equanimity rather than by defying, let alone reversing it (which they know to be impossible). The gods (or the Romans)  always win  but it is still possible for humans to gain a moral advantage : the unexpected reaction to disaster of persons such as Mark Anthony or King Demetrios takes the fates by surprise, knocks them off balance, as it were. 


 “When the Macedonians abandoned him

And proved they preferred Pyrrhus,

King Demetrios did not, so it is said, behave

In the least like a king. He went

And took off his robes of gold,

And cast off his purple shoes.

He dressed hurriedly

In simple clothes and went off

Behaving like an actor

Who when the performance is over

Changes his clothes and departs.”


                                    (translated by Rae Dalven) 


            Cavafy’s Greece is not that of Pericles or the Parthenon, nor even that of Alexander the Great, it is above all Greece during the Roman and even Christian period that engages Cavafy. The civilization is in decline but, Cavafy, a fervent Hellene, shows that the Greek spirit was never greater than when the entire people had lost out militarily and politically — but not aesthetically and morally — to the all-conquering Romans, or, in terms of belief, to the all-conquering Galilean.

            The supreme example of Cavafy’s irony is directed against himself. There are one or two poems — but not that many — where Cavafy  protests against society’s attitude towards homosexuals. But even here he is far-sighted enough to anticipate that all this inner torment and soul-searching which he obviously lived through will one day appear hardly worth talking about. This is how I interpret “The Rest I Will Tell To Those Down In Hades”


“ ‘Indeed,’ said the proconsul, closing the book,

 ‘This line is beautiful and very true.

Sophocles wrote it in a deeply philosophic mood.

How much we will tell down there, how much,

and how different we’ll appear.

What we protect up here like sleepless guards,

wounds and secrets locked inside us,

protect with such great anxiety day after day,

we’ll reveal freely and clearly down there.’


‘You might add,’ said the sophist, half smiling,

if they talk about things like that down there,

if they bother at all about them any more.’ ”


            (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)  


                                Sebastian Hayes 


Jean Rotrou : "Le Veritable Saint Genest", a Baroque Masterpiece

st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }

/* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0cm; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-ansi-language:#0400; mso-fareast-language:#0400; mso-bidi-language:#0400;}

The Play’s the Thing and Le Véritable Saint Genest


the idea, or simile, that ‘Life is a Play’ has a very long history. It can be traced back at least to the Romans of the second and third century AD. At its basis is the notion, or rather feeling, that life in this world is  “not only unimportant [but] also in some sense not quite real”. (The quotation is taken from E.R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, a book I cannot recommend too highly.)

            In what is still a somewhat obscure passage in The Republic Plato compares life in this world to the situation of chained prisoners in a cave. It has been suggested that this potent image is based on the actual experience of initiates to the Eleusinian Mysteries, a sort of elite Freemasons’ Society of the time, and it is quite conceivable (though by no means certain) that Plato himself was an initiate as a young man. The rough idea seems to be that the chained persons have their backs to the light (which either comes from outside the cave itself or from a blazing fire behind them), and the shapes they see in front of them are shadows cast on the wall of the cave, not the actual puppet figures which are being manipulated by someone standing behind them, and of whose presence they are unaware. In their ignorance and delusion, these prisoners take these shapes on the wall for the real thing. The main aim of philosophy (lit. ‘love of wisdom’) should be, according to Plato, to enlighten the wretched prisoners in the cave — the mass of humanity — as to the true state of affairs in the universe and beyond. It is striking that modern physics and mathematics, which owe a lot to Plato indirectly if not directly, tell us that ‘reality’ at its most irreducible level, that of quarks and quantum vacuums and space-time warps, is quite different from the ‘reality’ we perceive through our senses — a difference that is greater, not lesser, than the ‘reality’ the chained prisoners are familiar with compared to the Platonic daylight outside the cave.

            There are two main features about a play, or other ‘realistic’ art form : firstly, there is the conflict between ‘illusion’ and reality which is all the more telling if the play is really persuasive, and, secondly, there is the situation of the actors and actresses who are not free to do what they wish. Plato is perhaps the first prominent thinker to have specifically connected these two features and made the connection the central plank of his philosophy. It is precisely because what we fondly call ‘life’ is such a persuasive illusion, a master play if ever there were one, that we, as living beings, are not free for much the same reason as a madman is not free. For the true ‘reality’ is not down here, but is the world of eternal Forms of which this world is a pale copy. Only the philosopher, the man who has ‘seen through’ the physical world, is capable of ‘free’ action. Humanity  is doomed, not because of any deep-rooted character flaw such as pride or disobedience — this is the Judaeo/Christian approach —  but because of ‘wrong judgement’ about what is truly real. This is close to the Buddhist position. But, during his own lifetime, this otherworldly side of Plato did not have much effect : Athenian society was still too buoyed up with its own successes to turn away from physical reality which it was beginning to master through technology, rational thought and mathematics. 

            From about the time of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (who appears in the opening scene of the film Spartacus) a general feeling sets in, amongst pagans and Christians alike, that life in this world is hopelessly inadequate and not worthy of much more respect than the antics of puppies fighting over a bone — the simile comes from the Diaries of Marcus Aurelius himself.  What is new  is not the idea that human society is bad, but that it is also in some sense insubstantial —  the ‘substance of a dream’. This view of the world  contributed to the eventual triumph of Christianity since the latter placed ‘true reality’ in the afterlife, but it certainly did not originate there, indeed many of the early Christian writers, such as Gregory of Nyassa and Saint Augustine, were trained in the ‘pagan’ universities and imbibed a lot of their otherworldliness from strictly pagan sources. The ‘illusionist’ view of the world, though it left a strong mark on the development of Christianity, never quite became orthodox doctrine since, ephemeral and imperfect though it might be, the physical world was nonetheless created by God and thus retained something divine within it, as did mankind.

            The Renaissance took up the theme of ‘Life is a Play’ but with a considerably reduced belief in the afterlife. The prolific Spanish playwright Calderon wrote a very effective play entitled Life is a Dream  where the protagonist actually has considerable difficulty in distinguishing between what is real and what is dreamed — because he is suddenly transported from his mountain prison to the King’s palace for a single day, and then transported back again, all this without being told what is going on. But Calderon is no Platonist : he is much more concerned with human behaviour in the real world down here than with any supposed contrast between deceiving physical reality and what is ‘ultimately real’. The most we get is the rather too pat ‘argument’ that there is no foolproof way of  distinguishing between dream and reality : it is all on a level with Chuang-tzu’s parable of the man who dreamed he was a butterfly and, on waking up, could not decide whether he was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man. But, in point of fact, outside very special circumstances like being under the influence of hallucinatory drugs, or when people play tricks on us, we do not have much difficulty in distinguishing between dream and reality : if we did life would be a good deal more dangerous than it actually is. It is also perhaps worth remarking that it is not possible for an actor, at any rate in the theatre, to get completely carried away by the part he or she plays, since, if he did this, he might well actually kill someone for real, or more likely fall off the stage and break his leg.   

               Shakespeare uses the theatre simile a good deal in his plays, but never to contrast illusion and reality in the truly metaphysical or Buddhist sense. Jacques’ famous speech “All the world’s a stage…”, memorable though it is, is essentially a put-down on life, not a philosophic statement. And Hamlet does not arrange for the staging of The Murder of Gonzago to show people that life, and the world, is unreal, or that ‘art is truer than ordinary reality’ : he has the play put on for a specific, pragmatic, purpose, namely to reveal the truth about his father’s death. The contrast is not between the sequence of events narrated in The Murder of Gonzago and the actual sequence of events that led to the death of Hamlet’s father, but between the action of the play-within-the-play and what most people think happened in reality, which is quite another matter. In The Tempest Shakespeare comes closer to tackling the Illusion/Reality issue via the character of Prospero who is supposed to be a magician, that is, a person who can create his own reality. But it is obvious that Shakespeare, a man of this world if ever there was one, does not believe in magic as certain near contemporaries of his such as Dr. Dee definitely did.

            The forgotten seventeenth century French neo-classical drama, Le Véritable Saint Genest, which I came across more or less by chance, is a far subtler and more suggestive treatment of the Illusion/Reality theme than anything the Renaissance or Elizabethan period produced, and has been rightly compared to the work of twentieth century authors such as Pirandello — as far as I am concerned, it goes far beyond them.

            What makes Rotrou’s play so striking is that it recounts a double martyrdom, the miraculous conversion to Christianity and subsequent  disgrace of a famous Roman actor, Genest, together with the earlier martyrdom of a prominent public official, Adrian. The two martyrdoms are fitted one within the other, like the painted wooden figures given as presents in Eastern Europe at Eastertime, since the actor, Genest, supposedly becomes converted while playing the part of Adrian in a play put on before the Emperor himself — an extreme case of an actor getting carried away by his theatrical persona.

            The occasion for the ‘play within the play’ is the forthcoming marriage of Diocletian’s daughter, Valerie, to the conquering general and co-Emperor, Maximin. The famous actor, Genest, is summoned and asked to provide an entertainment for the Court; rather rashly as it turns out, he decides to stage a play relating the martyrdom of an official, Adrian, for which Maximin himself was responsible. The real Maximin will thus shortly see an actor representing himself on the stage — “César à César sera représenté” . Genest’s odd  choice of play for the festive occasion  — he specifically rejects the idea of a comedy which would seem more appropriate — and his bold decision to actually ‘double up’ one of the spectators and get him to watch himself, soon unleashes disaster.  This is perhaps the ‘original sin’, as it were,  of the entire action, as if, by messing about with layers of illusion and reality from the very beginning, the actor Genest has broken a sacred law and must pay the penalty. At first,  however, all is well since Maximin readily accepts the idea of  seeing himself on the stage :


                        “Oui, crois qu’avec plaisir je serai spectateur

                        En la même action dont je serai l’Acteur ».


                        (‘ Yes, of course, I shall be happy to view as a spectator

                        the same events in which I was an actor’)


            In Act II we are behind the scenes, as it were : Genest chats with the Decorator, arranges his costume and reads through his script. He, as the leader of the troupe, plays Adrian, the future martyr, and, left alone, he recites  the stirring speech when Adrian, a high Roman official and in the past relentless persecutor of the Christians, steels himself to declare publicly his own conversion to Christianity, well aware that this will almost certainly lead to his death. Genest’s actual wife, Marcelle, the leading lady of the troupe, interrupts his private rehearsal to complain about the unwelcome attentions of hangers-on back-stage. Genest observes that, most likely, she does not find all this attention as objectionable as she claims, and asks her to read out one of her set speeches from the ‘play within the play’ which she does, much to his satisfaction. He then asks to be left alone once more to carry on practising and Marcelle leaves.


            We now reach Act II Scene IV, the crucial scene on which all the subsequent events depend. According to Aristotle, every well constructed tragedy should have a peripeteia, a ‘reversal’ or ‘turnabout’ when the whole play suddenly takes a completely different and usually unexpected course. Generally, the peripeteia  comes a lot later, since we are concerned with private emotions — a form of religious conversion — it is appropriate that the ‘turnabout’ occurs much earlier, since it needs time to work itself through the actor’s inner processes before being translated into action. A less skilful dramatist would have had the actor Genest converted, or at least knocked down, on the spot in the manner of Saint Paul and in the earlier Jesuit play, from which Rotrou took the idea, it seems that this is what happens. But Rotrou has Genest little by little feeling himself getting carried away, fighting against this and attempting to reason himself out of the situation. Moreover, Genest is a sincere pagan who believes, as Diocletian and Maximilian do, that Christianity is wrong and adds piquancy to the situation by  actually appealing to the Roman gods to come to his aid :


      « Dieux, prenez contre moi ma défense et la vôtre;

      ………….je me trouve être un autre ;

      Je feins moins Adrian que je ne le deviens… » 


            [‘O gods, defend me against myself, defend yourselves,

              …..  I feel myself turning into someone else,

            And instead of playing Adrian I am becoming him.’]


            He tells himself that, as an actor, he is used to the sensation of taking on a strange identity, but suspects there is something more at work here. Feeling himself more and more attracted to Christian ideas, he is horrified by the ‘sacrilege’ — in much the same way as a sincere Christian would be horrified by a sudden attraction to another belief. He rallies and tells himself firmly that he must stick to his professional role — “Il s’agit d’imiter , et non de devenir”  (‘My job is to represent someone and not to become him’).

            At this point, Genest hears a voice from above which exhorts him to continue in his role, and promises God’s help if he does so. This ‘role’ is not the theatrical one of the play within the play, but Genest’s future role as a martyr, or, if you like, it is both at once. Genest is astonished, at first impressed but immediately afterwards he returns to his rational self and concludes it must be someone playing a trick on him — “Quelqu’un s’est voulu diverter par cette feinte voix”. But the effects of this voice and its message are, he has to admit, undeniable. In total confusion he prays once more to the (pagan) gods to come to his aid, but amusingly ‘hedges his bets’, if  one can put it that way, by simultaneously praying to the Christian God to show his hand more clearly.

            At this point the Stage Decorator enters to light the candles for the show. The spell is broken — for the moment — and, with delicious irony, Genest mocks himself but at the same time says more than he realizes :


      « …  Tu m’as distrait d’un rôle glorieux

      Que je représentais devant la Cour des Cieux… »


      (‘You have distracted me from a glorious role I was 

      playing before the Court of Heaven’).

            Note that Genest compares the ‘play’ that is about to be put on in front of Diocletain’s Court with the ‘play’ which is Genest’s earthly life and which is being observed by the Court of Heaven. This is baroque indeed !  For look at the boxes within boxes. We, as spectators in the Parisian theatre, are watching an actor preparing to put on a play before the Roman Court. However, everything that takes place is a sort of ‘play’ that is being performed in front of a heavenly audience, an audience, moreover, which intervenes in the sort of way in which a Prompter intervenes in an actual play if he feels the actor is departing from his lines.

            Overriding the terrestrial Illusion/Reality conflict, there is the Christian/Platonic dualism which places our ‘real’ lives in the beyond. Later on, Genest makes this point specifically :


“Ce monde périssable et sa gloire frivole

Est une comédie où j’ignorais mon rôle ; »


(‘This ephemeral  world with its vainglory

Is a comedy in which I mistook my role’)          


            Rotrou was writing at a period when there was intense religious feeling in certain circles in France : it was the era of Saint Vincent de Paul, also of the Jansenists at Port-Royal. Blaise Pascal, who originally made his name as a mathematician and was something of a freethinker in his youth, actually did undergo a sudden conversion rather like that of Genest, though he did not hear a  voice from the sky.

            When Genest actually does appear on the stage representing Adrian on his inevitable course towards martyrdom, the Court audience is full of praise for his extraordinarily vivid acting. There is an Interval while the audience comment on the performances, the play within the play recommences and leads up to the scene when Adrian declares his indomitable Christian faith and defies the Emperor. At this point, to the dismay of the rest of the cast, and the Prompter, Genest steps out of his role and makes a public declaration of his (Genest’s) conversion to Christianity. The audience at first thinks this is still part of the play, but it seems to be going on too long, Diocletian gets increasingly irritated and eventually ‘the penny drops’ and the audience realizes that Genest really means what he says. In fury, Diocletian has him thrown into prison and threatens him with torture and death if he does not recant. In the ‘play within the play’, Adrian’s wife, Natalie (played by Genest’s wife, Marcelle) visits Adrian in prison. She turns out to be a secret Christian herself and, far from trying to deflect him from his course, she exhorts him to be brave and prepare himself for the glory of martyrdom. This scene has, as its deformed mirror image, the scene towards the end of the (real) play when Marcelle visits Genest in prison and makes a desperate attempt to change his mind. She considers Christianity a low-down sort of religion and dismissed Christ as a criminal that no self-respecting Roman would worship. More to the point, she appeals to his responsibilities towards his wife and his troupe, since they are threatened with ruin because of his crazy behaviour. But Genest is inflexible and goes to his death with serenity. Maximilian sums up the whole sorry tale from his point of view, leaving us once again with the bittersweet theme of Illusion/Reality

« Il a bien voulu, par son impiété,

Par une feinte, en mourant, faire une vérité »


 (‘In his impiety, his aim was, by dying, to

turn  play-acting into reality’).




 Note on Jean Rotrou


Jean Rotrou was, during his lifetime, a highly successful dramatist and quite a prolific one — he wrote over  thirty-five plays in the space of twenty years. Surprisingly, considering the complexity and genuine religious feeling of Le Véritable Saint Genest, Geoffrey Brereton, though he praises the play in his French Tragic Drama in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, presents Rotrou the man as an ambitious and opportunistic person.  

            Since the seventeenth century this minor masterpiece has been almost completely neglected : it was only put on twice in Paris during the entire nineteenth century. In 1963 the Théâtre de Paris staged it and it received a mixed reception. 





Three Novels of Love and War viewed from a Schopenhauerian Perspective: Introduction

st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }

/* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0cm; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-ansi-language:#0400; mso-fareast-language:#0400; mso-bidi-language:#0400;}


Three Novels of Love and War: A Schopenhauerian Perspective



this essay started off as a comment on the unjustly forgotten novel whose setting is China during the Japanese occupation, A Leaf in the Storm. As a ‘novel of love and war’ it immediately made me think of two other great novels with similar themes and settings, War and Peace set in Russia during Napoleon’s invasion and Gone with the Wind, set in Georgia during the American Civil War. I was re-reading Schopenhauer at the time and I felt strongly that he would have very much approved of A Leaf in the Storm, with its Buddhistic moral of self-sacrifice and renunciation. This in turn drove me to re-read War and Peace and Gone with the Wind and to ponder whether a similar Schopenhauerian analysis could be applied to them.

            Nietzsche’s powerful antithesis between the Apollonian and Dionysian elements in a culture or personality has been used time and again since the author’s death to get a handle on all sorts of things which otherwise would be slippery or impenetrable. Schopenhauer’s dichotomy between the ‘World as Will’ and the ‘World as Idea’ is even more useful but has not been much applied in works of criticism (mainly, one feels, because of the difficult and rather misleading term ‘Idea’). As it happens, the Schopenhauerian dichotomy fits these three novels I have mentioned amazingly well but before I deal with  them, it is as well to give a brief résumé of Schopenhauer’s views on life and the world as I understand them.        


Schopenhauer, the Supreme Pessimist


The world and ourselves within it are not self-explanatory. There is, seemingly, something (or someone) behind and within phenomena, and behind and within ourselves. But this something is not a loving God, nor even a Being at all, it is a sort of power that Schopenhauer, not inappropriately, calls ‘Will’. This Will manifests itself within individual human beings as the ‘will to live’ or survival instinct, it informs the Darwinian struggle for existence, is what drives sexual and commercial competitiveness and manifests itself historically as the force propelling men to carry out ‘great deeds’ of conquest, exploration, industrial invention and so forth.

            But Schopenhauer takes matters a good deal further than most life-denying philosophies of East and West in that he views activities in the inorganic world as manifestations of this same merciless Will. Even rocks and pools of water are engaged in the selfsame horrible struggle — by occupying a position in space and time a humble pebble is by implication excluding all other pebbles from occupying the selfsame position, and it is not even satisfied with where it is since it is attracted by gravity to a position which it does not currently occupy.       

            Organic nature is even worse :


“The existence of the plant is just such a restless, never satisfied striving, a ceaseless activity through higher and higher forms, till the final point, the seed, becomes anew a starting-point; and this is repeated ad infinitum; nowhere is there a goal, nowhere a final satisfaction, nowhere a point of rest.”


  Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation Part I  (p. 309)   


            Mankind is subject to the same ceaseless striving, what in Buddhism is called ‘trishna’ (‘craving’, ‘needing’) and, being more sensitive than pebbles or plants, suffers more than they do. Everywhere  we have the spectacle of 


“…constant suffering without any lasting happiness. For all striving springs from want or deficiency, from dissatisfaction with one’s own state or condition, and is therefore suffering so long as it is not satisfied. No satisfaction, however, is lasting; on the contrary, it is always merely the starting-point of a fresh striving. (…) That there is no ultimate aim of striving means that there is no measure or end of suffering.”    


                Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation  Part I  (p. 309)   


            Like Buddhism, Schopenhauer’s philosophy is a philosophy of salvation since the gloomy Western thinker does give indications of how to escape from the interminable misery of being-in-the-world. By renouncing one’s individual will, one can attain to a kind of liberation within this life, at least for a few precious moments :


 “The man in whom the denial of the will-to-live has dawned, however poor, cheerless, and full of privation his state may be when looked at from outside, is full of inner cheerfulness and heavenly peace.  (…) Nothing can distress or alarm him any more; nothing can any longer move him; for he has cut the thousand threads of willing which hold us bound to the world and which as craving, fear, envy, and anger drag us here and there in constant pain. He now looks back calmly and with a smile on the phantasmagoria of this world which was once able to move and agonize even his mind, but now stands before him as indifferently as chess-men at the end of a game, or as fancy dress cast off in the morning, the form and figure of which taunted and disquieted us on the carnival night. Life and its forms merely float before him as a fleeting phenomenon, as a light morning dream to one half-awake, through which reality already shines, and which can no longer deceive; and, like this morning dream, they too finally vanish without any violent transition. ”

                                                         (op. cit.  p. 309)


            It is here that, according to Schopenhauer, art has an important role to play since, for those of us who are incapable of leading a monastic style of life, viewing or hearing great works of art  offer us some temporary relief from the horror of everyday existence. Why so? Essentially because of the ‘distancing’ and ‘depersonalization’ which are essential features of all great works of art. In the tranquil contemplation of the beautiful   


“we are raised for the moment above all willing, above all desires and cares; we are,  so to speak, rid of ourselves.” 


We can, for example, admire the perfection of human form in a piece of sculpture without feeling the torments of sexual desire, or enjoy the play of light on stone and marble without needing to own the building. Music, being the least earthbound and least specific of the arts, rates highest, though tragedy is the most instructive since it demonstrates the “self-mortifying effects of will on individuals” and, in the finest examples, shows us the hero or heroine ending his or her life with an attitude of resignation, “having renounced, after a long conflict and much suffering, the aims pursued so keenly, and willingly giving up life itself” 1. This ‘quietening of the will-to-live’ produces a kind of ecstasy which is the nearest we are likely to get to happiness in this world.  

            Note that such moments are not moments of action, but rather of inaction and contemplation which is why I propose, in this essay, to use the term ‘spectacle’ rather than the technical Platonic term ‘Idea’, or the rather pompous term ‘Representation’. The term ‘spectacle’ does at least emphasize  the key notion of being present but not actively participating, and this is the philosophic attitude that Schopenhauer recommends. It is best not to take life and the phenomenal world too seriously, in effect to adopt the attitude of the spectator at a drama, who, however  much he or she is engrossed in what is happening on  the stage, nonetheless knows that the swords are made of wood and that the actress playing Desdemona does not in fact run any risk of being strangled.

            This reminded me of a famous classical simile of life, supposedly originating with Pythagoras, to which, as far as I know, Schopenhauer does not allude, but which would have suited his purposes perfectly.        


“Life, he [Pythagoras] said, is like the gathering at the Olympic festival, to which people flock from three motives : to compete for the glory of the crown, to buy and sell, or simply as spectators. So in life… some enter the service of fame and others of money, but the best choice is that of those few who spend their time in the contemplation of nature, as lovers of wisdom, that is, philosophers.”                                   

                                             Guthrie, Greek Philosophy


            From the Schopenhauerian perspective, of course, the first two classes of people, the athletes and the merchants, are one and the same : they are all persons driven by Will, the desire for glory being just as foolish and self-defeating as the desire for riches. The bystanders, however, who do not participate directly in the competitions are those persons who have renounced the Will to live in favour of peaceful contemplation.     

"Gone with the Wind" Chapter 1 Three Novels of Love and War

st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }

/* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0cm; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-ansi-language:#0400; mso-fareast-language:#0400; mso-bidi-language:#0400;}

“Gone with the Wind”


i propose to start my examination of  the three novels on the twin themes of love and war with Gone with the Wind and end with A Leaf in the Storm, since the former shows us a society where almost all the main characters envisage life in terms of Will, while the latter puts in the foreground a figure, Lao Peng, who specifically views the World as Idea, or Spectacle    he is a Zen Buddhist — and whose world-view seems, with some reservations, to be shared by the (Chinese born) author. War and Peace is situated squarely in the middle, having a foot in both camps.


            The society depicted in Gone with the Wind fits neatly into the three categories of the Olympic Games simile. The southern gentry are the equivalent of the athletes : they are healthy, self-confident, move in a world of thoroughbred horses, gossip, balls, poker games, duels and barbecues. They have no culture to speak of, no interest in abstract ideas, and their religious beliefs are either completely lacking or utterly superficial. The men particularly are overgrown children but for all that good-humoured and vital; they are ‘good sorts’ and generally come to each other’s assistance when it is needed.

            The Yankees, despite their peculiar notion that slavery is wrong — an idea that the Southerners do not just reject but genuinely cannot comprehend — are, viewed up close, rapacious and corrupt, certainly always on the look out for financial gain : they are obviously the equivalent of the merchants selling their goods at the Games.

            We would not expect to come across many equivalents of the  Olympic Games bystanders in this sort of society : in effect there is only one amongst the main characters, Ashley Wilkes, and he is presented by the author as an odd man out and a failure. Rhett Butler and Melanie Wilkes have some touches of the ‘intelligent bystander’ but are too dynamic and involved in life to be true spectators.


Scarlett O’Hara


The enormous figure of Scarlett O’Hara dominates — and unbalances — the book as surely as Heathcliffe dominates Wuthering Heights. In all modern fiction no one epitomises the Schopenhauerian Will as completely as Scarlett O’Hara : her only female rivals in Western literature are Becky Sharpe of Vanity Fair  and Manon Lescaut of the novel with the same title. But Scarlett O’Hara outdoes them both in sheer nerve and callousness. (I must stress that I am speaking of the Scarlett of the book, and not of the film who is a toned down, bowdlerized version of the real thing.) It never ceases to amaze me that so many women, who have always formed the bulk of Gone with the Wind’s vast readership — it was the best-selling book of its time — admire Scarlett O’Hara, perhaps more than any other fictional heroine. For Scarlett O’Hara is scheming, ruthless and opportunistic to a quite astonishing degree — “She’s a mighty cold woman and I can’t help it if I think so” as Belle Watkin sums her up.

            She is also, with all her cleverness, extremely stupid when it comes to human relations, as Grandma Fontaine tells her


“‘Oh, you’re smart enough about dollars and cents. That’s a man’s way of being smart. But you aren’t smart at all like a woman. You aren’t a speck smart about folks.’ ”

                                                (GWW, p. 704)


            The only genial traits Scarlett shows are a certain respect and tenderness for her own mother and occasional consideration for some of her negro dependents — they are, of course, not in any position to be rivals and so she can afford to be nice to them.  She insists, for example, on Pork inheriting the expensive watch of her father, and makes a point of praising Dilcey’s work in the cotton fields. Otherwise there is nothing but unadulterated ego and Will-to-Power. With the single exception of her crazy infatuation with Ashley, she is not basically interested in love, nor in having affairs, nor even in sex, simply in power, the delirious thrill of having young males at her beck and call. She cuts out other girls without a moment’s thought and although the most successful belle in the whole county, is jealous if one of her ex-beaux, let alone current beau, shows the slightest interest in anyone else.  


“She [Scarlett] had never had a girl friend, and she never felt any lack on that account. To her, all women, including her two sisters, were natural enemies in pursuit of the same prey — men.”    

                                 Gone with the Wind  (p.62)


            She is not even a femme fatale who has an intellectual curiosity about human psychology : even on her own territory she is never a thinker, always a pragmatist:


 she knew nothing of the inner working of any human being’s mind, not even her own. She knew only that if she did or said thus-and-so, men would unerringly respond.”


            Unsurprisingly, “mathematics [understand arithmetic] was the one subject that had come easy to her in her schooldays” (p. 62) and she certainly manages to do the accounts efficiently when she eventually gets her hand on her second husband’s business affairs.

            It is not just book knowledge and culture that she despises : even her interest in hats and dresses is not the disinterested appreciation of the aesthete, it is the interest a hired killer has in guns and holsters.  

            Scarlett is quite literally unconcerned about everything which does not advance her own interests. Alone of all the characters in Gone with the Wind  she does not even feel any solidarity for her own class, the Southern gentry, and the ‘Cause’ bores her completely. Military strategy, casualties, the destruction of armies and the defeat of the entire South are not subjects she avoids because she fears to hear or think the truth : they are  simply topics of no interest because they don’t concern her personally:  


 “Except for the ever-present torment that Ashley might be killed, the war interested her not at all, and nursing was simply something she did simply because she did not know how to get out of it.”

                                                                      (p. 157)


            She muses that even nursing   


 “might have been endurable if she had been permitted to use her charms on the convalescent men, for many of them were attractive and well born, but this she could not do in her widowed state.”  (p. 157)


            In the majority of women, self-interest usually extends as far as their own offspring — or so we males fondly believe — but not in Scarlett’s case. Children are to be avoided if at all possible because they are a nuisance to look after, and, more important still, increase your waistline. Wade, her first born, is permanently frightened of his mother  and Scarlett ridicules and threatens her ‘favourite’, Bonnie, because the little girl is scared of the dark and subject to nightmares.

            As a businesswoman, Scarlett has no compunction in selling timber she knows is shoddy at inflated prices and she employs convicts and puts them under the control of a bullying foreman who half-starves them, steals their food, and even kills one of them. When asked by Rhett why she does not “steal from the rich and strong instead of the poor and weak” she makes the staggering reply, “Because,” said Scarlett shortly, “it’s a sight easier to steal — as you call it — from the poor”.   

            One might try to make excuses for Scarlett because of her youth. : she is not even thirty at the end of the book. But Scarlett is not selfish in the thoughtless way in which, for example, the Tarleton twins are : she is, from the beginning selfish in a mature calculating way.

            Readers of Gone with the Wind might protest that they do not recognize their heroine in this poison pen portrait. But there is only one thing I have left out : beauty. Had Scarlett been ugly, no one would have taken the slightest notice of her, or rather would have swatted her aside without a moment’s thought. And the reader would not find her sympathetic either — I don’t think anyone finds Suellen, Scarlett’s plain and equally selfish sister at all engaging, or even of interest. Glamour, it seems, successfully covers a multitude of sins. This is a somewhat melancholy comment on society, or rather on life itself — sexual appeal in a female, like strength and virulence in a male, both have solid Darwinian credentials whether Christians and moralists accept the fact or not.

            Like all devoted followers of the World as Will, Scarlett’s  worldly successes do not bring her any satisfaction and right at the end of the book she has a rare moment of self-appreciation, or rather self-depreciation :


“She had never understood either of the men she had loved and so she had lost them both. Now, she had a fumbling knowledge that had she ever understood Ashley, she would never have loved him; had she ever understood Rhett, she would never have lost him. She wondered forlornly if she had ever understood anyone in the world.”


            But this encouraging moment of enlightenment doesn’t last long ; a few minutes later she is her old boastful, confident self


“She could get Rhett back. She knew she could. There had never been a man she couldn’t get, once she set her mind upon him.”


                                             (GWW p. 1011)


            In this particular situation, her stance is more bravado than anything else but it demonstrates her essential quality which cannot but command respect — Scarlett O’Hara is the supreme survivor. There are obviously situations in which we need persons like her, and the situation in Georgia after the loss of the war was one of them. She has all the essential qualities of the survivor, raw courage, perseverance, the ability to make rapid decisions, a complete lack of sentimentality. She has “the spirit of her people who would not know defeat, even when it stared them in the face”. This is the ‘positive’ side of  Will, a side Schopenhauer refused to recognize and which it was left to Nietzsche to develop and applaud. 

            Suellen, Scarlett’s younger sister, is selfish in a way that could never benefit anyone else in any circumstances whatsoever, since Suellen is cowardly and self-pitying, but Scarlett is different.  While still a young  woman in her early twenties, she takes command of the entire household, organizes everything from how to to grow cotton to doing the accounts, calmly shoots dead a Yankee marauder and buries him in the ground behind the house without a hint of remorse, and, last and worst of all by the standards of Southern gentry, she does not shrink from the ignominy of working in the cotton fields herself at the cost of ruining her precious hands. In extreme situations, self-centredness transmutes into what one might call heroic realism. At one point there is talk of a family marriage that goes against protocol. But this cuts little ice with Scarlett.  “’What a pity he can’t marry her now!’ she thought. ‘That would be one less mouth to feed!’  Excellent!   


Ashley Wilkes


The foil for Scarlett is Ashley Wilkes, the dreamer and impractical idealist, a sort of Prince Andrei (from War and Peace) who lacks the latter’s staying power and judgment. Like Prince Andrei he is a landowner, owns slaves, and voluntarily enlists in a war with whose aims he has only partial sympathy  — which does not stop him from  fighting gallantly.

            Another author, George Eliot for example, would have made him the main character — as I would myself — but Margaret Mitchell has little time for him, although she portrays him convincingly enough and tells us enough to make him, to me at any rate, the most interesting  (but not the most impressive) character in the book. 


            From the beginning, Ashley is presented as an odd man out amongst the Southern gentry, someone who, in Beatrice Tarleton’s scornful put-down, “would prefer books to going on a hunt, he really would!”  


         “Ashley was born of a line of men who used their leisure for thinking, not doing, for spinning brightly coloured dreams that had in them no touch of reality. (…) He stood alone [from the other planters] in his interest in books and music and his fondness for writing poetry. (…)He moved in an inner world that was more beautiful than Georgia and came back to reality with reluctance.”


                                                         (GWW p. 28)


            For him life is clearly spectacle, not action, Idea not Will :   he is  to be classed amongst the bystanders in the Pythagorean schema. But, though regarded with a certain suspicion, he just about passes muster within the macho Southern society because he is a good horseman and a good poker player —  he is not mocked as a buffoon  like  Pierre in War and Peace.

            Ashley Wilkes is a ‘philosophe manqué’ and at the beginning of the novel he actually looks like the real thing. He has seemingly  attained the coveted state of ataraxia, the ‘positive indifference’ which was held out as the goal of Stoic and Epicurean phislophy alike :


         He looked on people and he neither liked nor disliked them, and was neither hearted nor saddened. He accepted the universe and his place in it for what they were and, shrugging, turned to music and books and his better world.”  

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     (GWW p. 28)


            His tragedy, and it is a tragedy, is that he is incapable of retaining this philosophic attitude when things go wrong, not even that, when things begin to get too real. The attitude of  Stoical ataraxia is not only supposed to help you retain a sense of proportion in the boom times —  the voice in the ear of the Roman Emperor during his investiture repeated ‘Remember you are mortal!’ — but it is also supposed to tide you over disaster as well. The reality of the front line, likewise confrontation with woman in all her power as represented by Scarlett O’Hara, is too much for him :


         “I don’t know when it was that the bleak realization came over me that my own private shadow show was over. Perhaps it was in the first five minutes at Bull Run when I saw the first man I killed drop to the ground. But I knew it was over and that I could no longer be a spectator. I suddenly found myself on the curtain, an actor, posturing and making futile gestures.

(…) I tried to avoid you too, Scarlett. You were too full of living and too real and I was cowardly enough to prefer shadows and dreams.”


            He is, in his own thoughts at least, bold enough  since, alone of all the Southerners (apart from Rhett Butler), he not only does not believe in the war aims but actually disapproves of war altogether. Melanie, the only person who understands him, says at one point


 “He thinks the war is all wrong but he’s willing to fight and die anyway, and that takes lots more courage than fighting for something you think is right.”


                                                                                                        (GWW p. 230)


            This is well said and puts Aunt Pitty in her place decisively. All this, along with his distaste for Scarlett’s business methods and his surprising admission late in the book that he actually intended emancipating his slaves once his father died, make Ashley a deep and problematical character torn by moral dilemmas, exactly the sort of character modern writers are especially fond of, male novelists anyway. 

            What is damning about him is that he is no survivor, and he happens to be living in an era when the qualities of the survivor, not the gentleman or the philosopher, are what the time and place require. Instead of confronting the present, he relapses into nostalgia mixed with self-pity. As Grandma Fontaine puts it :


“Ashley was bred to read books and nothing else. That doesn’t help a man pull himself out of a tough fix, like we’re all in now. From what I hear, he’s the worst plough hand in the County!”       

                                                                                         (GWW p. 678)


            Scarlett O’Hara’s passion for him is the pointless and self-defeating attraction of opposites, it is certainly not love in any positive sense. She is interested in him because he is different and because he eludes her  — “The things about him she could not understand only made her love him the more” (p. 29). But her aim is to reduce him to her level, not to raise herself to his. When her father says


“‘Now, Puss, tell  me true, do you understand his folderol about books and poetry and music and oil paintings and such foolishness?’

‘Oh, Pa,’ cried Scarlett impatiently, ‘if I married him, I’d change all that!”

                                                            (GWW p. 37)


            By a ludicrous mismatch the incarnation of Will falls in love with the incarnation of the World as Idea, and vice-versa. Scarlett, like all characters from the Will side, has neither self-knowledge not understanding of other people and can only justify her obsession with Ashley by deceiving herself, or trying to, that ‘underneath’ Ashley is not like that. Ashley, however, the observer of life and sound psychologist, has no contrary illusions about Scarlett whom he recognizes as the incarnation of Will in its negative and positive aspects.

            In the portrait she gives of Ashley Wilkes, Margaret Mitchell is in effect attacking the philosophic position taken by Schopenhauer and by Pythagoras in the Olympian Games passage. Ashley is a genuine philosopher up to a point, he does see through the prejudices of the society around him, he is by temperament an observer rather than an actor and is free from both humbug and ambition. He even makes a succinct statement of his view of life, a view that the ancient Greek philosophers would have wholeheartedly approved of : “You see, Scarlett, I’ve never wanted to get anywhere at all. I’ve only wanted to be myself” (p. 900).   


            The problem is that Ashley is not resigned in an inspiring way, he is more disheartened and demoralised than truly resigned. His favourite tone is the elegiac and it comes too easily to him, rapidly turning to self-indulgence. Even Scarlett, in her last tête à tête with him, starts getting sucked into his all-enveloping Southern nostalgia. But then — rightly for once — she breaks out of it


“ ‘But why are we talking like old people talk?’ she thought with dreary surprise. ‘Old people looking back fifty years. And we’re not old!’ ”

                                                         (GWW p. 902)     


            This is a point scored against the Schopenhauerian view of life : it is an old person’s view, and that limits it severely.


Rhett Butler


a more successful foil for Scarlett O’Hara is Rhett Butler, an ambivalent and attractive figure, poised halfway between the World as Will and the World as Idea. He also is a survivor and even goes further than Scarlett — because he can afford to — in despising the Southern gentry with their absurd pretensions and ludicrous morality.   He participates up to a point in the ‘Olympic Games’, Southern gentry style — he is a good shot, a good poker player and belatedly even fights in the war  — but he is also an unscrupulous money-maker who gets on perfectly well with the Yankees. In effect he flits between all three categories of the Olympic Games simile, is now participant, now businessman, now observer, and he is more or less at ease in each role, which is a considerable achievement.

            He is philosophe and observer enough to see, what the Southern gentry cannot, that their own struggle against the Yankees is just another episode in the endless human struggle for existence, and that the collapse of their world is not the collapse of the world. Only two persons do in fact realize this, making them the only two ‘knowing’ persons in the book, Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes, and although they are rivals and dislike each other they know they are of a kind, while the rest of the Southern gentry are of another type entirely — an inferior type. Right at the end of the book, Scarlett turns against Ashley and calls him a “helpless, poor-spirited creature, for all his prattle about truth and honour” (p. 1002) but, to her surprise, Rhett won’t have this


“ ‘No,’ said Rhett. ‘If you must see him as he is, see him straight. He’s only a gentleman caught in a world he doesn’t belong in, trying to make a poor best of it by the rules of the world that’s gone.’”

                                                         (GWW  p. 1002)    


            But whereas knowledge of the way of the world is a handicap for Ashley, in Rhett Butler’s case it helps him to accommodate himself to changing social realities : Southern gentry or Yankees, in the last resort it’s all down to self-interest, making money, attaining status, in a word to Will. For Ashley, knowledge impedes survival, for Rhett it improves his prospects in life.   

            But not only does Rhett Butler distance himself from the people around him, but from society as a whole : he views the whole world with sceptical, but not narrowly self-interested, eyes. He is the sceptic who has seen the limitations of scepticism. Not only does he have sincere respect for Melanie, and, to a lesser extent, one or two of the other ladies in Atlanta, but he actually matches his feelings with actions, by discreetly supplying them with money. He is fond of children and treats women, notably Scarlett, a good deal better than they deserve. He is not the seducing Vicomte  from Les Liaisons Dangereuses. He falls under the spell of Scarlett not just because of her femme fatale persona, but because he recognizes a person who is his superior in worldliness and ruthless self-interest : she is a force of nature in a sense in which he is not. A romantic who does not dare to speak his name, he shows his ‘true’ character by enlisting in the Confederate Army when the war is lost, and by remaining true to his infatuation with Scarlett right up to the end, despite having every reason to dislike her.



Melanie Wilkes


melanie wilkes is Scarlett O’Hara’s most formidable rival precisely because she does not see herself as a rival at all. One could call her a successful representative of the World as Idea, inasmuch as this is feasible. Whereas Ashley is contemplative at the wrong time and the wrong moment, Melanie Wilkes, though a natural ‘observer’ on the scene of life (because of her lack of ambition) is capable of being extremely energetic when circumstances require it. Not only does she applaud Scarlett for shooting the marauder, but she helps her dig the grave and conceal the body.

            Melanie Wilkes is the ‘exception that proves the law’ inasmuch as she is a character who has very little going for her, who is perpetually confronted with one misfortune after another and yet who is nearer to being happy than anyone else in the book.  “Such an unworldly face, a face with no defences against life”, Rhett says of her. It would seem that it is precisely this defencelessness that is her protection : she is certainly not ‘knowing’ — Scarlett despises her for being so easily hoodwinked — but she is trusting and, oddly enough, this trusting nature of hers wins out because everyone likes her.

            She is not easy to characterise in terms of the three Pythagorean categories though clearly more of a bystander than a main actress. She has enough willpower and vitality to stop herself lapsing into the helplessness of her husband, indeed it is this aspect of her which responds to Scarlett whom she sees as Will in the ‘good’ sense.  Though reduced by the author almost to the status of a minor character, Melanie Wilkes is a considerable creation, since she is  a ‘good’ person who is actually likeable and, up to a point, even holds her own, by a combination of naivety and good sense, against someone who is the opposite of good, Scarlett O’Hara.


"War and Peace" Chapter 2 Three Novels of Love and War : War and Peace

Three Novels of Love and War "A Leaf in the Storm"

st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }

/* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0cm; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-ansi-language:#0400; mso-fareast-language:#0400; mso-bidi-language:#0400;}

3. Lin Yutang :“A Leaf in the Storm”


apart from its distinction as a novel  with the traditional virtues of strong plot, exciting narrative, varied and interesting characters (virtues it shares by War and Peace  and Gone with the Wind), A Leaf in the Storm is fascinating from a philosophical and ideological point of view since it puts Buddhism and Schopenhauer’s philosophy on trial in a most unexpected and devastating way. Currently, in the West there is a certain vogue amongst literati for a watered down version of Buddhism which envisages it as no more than a ‘philosophy’, by which we should understand an intellectual system that does not involve giving up the Western consumer life style and is certainly not to be classed as a ‘religion’, now become a dirty word. Buddhism, at its best, has always viewed itself, not as the last word on the subject, but as a sort of well of clear water from which very different travellers can quench their thirst, and there can be no doubt that the West,  desperately needs some sort of release from the interminable samsara of unfulfilling work, possession-gathering, status-seeking and sexual obsession that fills most people’s lives today. However, the uncomfortable fact is that Buddhism in both its forms, the Hinayana and Mahayana, is a deeply pessimistic and world-denying religion : this is its signal achievement, its originality, its merit and its usefulness as Schopenhauer realized more clearly than anyone before him in the West. As much try to dispel the sceptical, world-denying core of  Buddhism as try to eradicate the ideal of self-sacrifice from Christianity. What you are left with may well in both cases have its merits but is neither Buddhism nor Christianity.

            What is notable about A Leaf in the Storm is that it shows us  the Buddhist ethical ideal at its best, exemplified in the person of Lao Peng, but challenges its justice and relevance, while ultimately endorsing this same ideal in a slightly different form. Lin Yutang, the author of A Leaf in the Storm, was uniquely placed to write such a book. Born into a rural Chinese Christian family, as a young man he immersed himself in Buddhist and Taoism and eventually emigrated to America where he absorbed very different cultural influences. Extremely well-read in both traditional Chinese and modern Western literature, as well as being an inventor (he was one of the first people to design  a typewriter for Mandarin Chinese), he seems to have done the virtually impossible, namely to have taken the best from three mutually incompatible world-views. From Buddhism and Taoism he took tolerance, the search for peace of mind and a set of values which radically downgrades the ego; from Christianity he took the urge to give practical assistance to the underprivileged, and from America and the West he took individualism and romanticism. A Leaf in the Storm can be read as a dramatic and highly charged love-story (the romantic strand); it is also the story of how certain human individuals transcend selfish concerns and find satisfaction in life by devoting themselves to the community (the Christian element). Finally, it is a profound, though inconclusive,  enquiry into the human condition (the Buddhist element).


How did I come across A Leaf in the Wind ? By chance, in much the same way as I came across other forgotten great books such as The Black Obelisk by Remarque or Reflexions sur la Vieillesse et la Mort by Marcel Jouhandeau (that I am currently translating). A few months ago, in a room I occupy when I stay with my ‘friend’ — I don’t like the term ‘partner’ — I came across a faded old-fashioned ‘Book Club’ novel at the back of a cupboard that I was urging J  to clear out. J said it must have belonged to the people she’d stayed with when an evacuee during the war and that she’d never read it.

            As soon as I glanced idly at the first paragraph, then the first two or three pages, I was absolutely gripped and could not put the book down. The image of Poya, one of the three main characters, strolling through the outskirts of Beijing on a beautiful autumn evening, his carefree mood in stark contrast to the sombre backdrop of the Japanese Occupation during World War II, immediately captivated me. A lesser novelist would have had Poya stopped by brutal Japanese soldiers, but the peacefulness, even nonchalance, of the opening — which perfectly  balances the quiet of the close of this tragic novel —  is just what is required.


“He turned left to reach Lao Peng’s house, which was situated in an alley so small that a rickshaw could  barely go through.

   He  gave a few knocks on the iron rings of the closed gate and soon heard the coughing of a man approaching whom he knew to be the old servant of Lao Peng.

         ‘Who is it?’ the man called.

         ‘It’s me.’

         ‘Is it Yao shaoyeh?’


         The door latch was slowly drawn, to the accompaniment of a violent fit of coughing.

         ‘Is laoyeh in?’ asked Poya.

         ‘He left this morning and has not returned yet. Come in.’

(…) Poya walked across the yard into the parlour. It was a characteristically bare room, with the simplest of furniture, a cheap varnished square wooden table, a few cane chairs covered with hard cushions of dark-blue cloth, and a rickety old armchair that must have cost ten dollars secondhand at Tungan Bazaar.”


            It is a deft touch to have Lao Peng, the central male character, absent, for he is all the more in evidence because of this : it allows us to see the contents of the room, including his small library of books — “an odd assortment ranging from poultry and bee culture to Buddhism” — and to hear Poya’s inner thoughts about his best friend and mentor.  


            It transpires that Lao Peng, a failed small businessman and language teacher, is absent because he has been to a rendez-vous with Grandma Chao, the incredible sixty year old illiterate Chinese Resistance leader, and, on entering, he immediately asks Poya to advance some money to buy ammunition for the guerrillas. Add in the romantic interest when Poya confides to his friend that he is becoming increasingly captivated by the mysterious young woman with the cinnabar birth-mark behind her ear who is staying at the family home, and we have all the necessary ingredients of  a hyper romantic novel or film…



After the brooding opening, like that of a symphony by Mahler or Bruckner, the novel changes key as it shifts to the comfortable family milieu of Poya, a somewhat dandified half-Westernized Beijing intellectual, and the book becomes temporarily more like a Jane Austen or Trollope novel. It is all the more interesting to the contemporary Western reader because of this since we have few pictures of such a social ambiance, soon to be swept away for ever by Mao’s Cultural Revolution. For example, I was bemused to find that a favourite delicacy of the time, the equivalent to our Crisps, was dried ducks’ gizzards : in one scene the central character, Malin, takes one out of a glass jar and munches it for a good twenty minutes prior to the main meal. And I learn that both men and women commonly wore in winter, “quilted leg sheaths that were  tied around the ankles below and laced at the top, the seats cut away” (p. 105). Malin has some difficulty putting them on “because there was no trouser braid to which to tie the top strings since she wore foreign panties”. Another interesting detail is that, apparently, as late as the mid twentieth century, traditional ‘big-drum Storytellers’, who gave public recitations to the accompaniment of a  hand-held drum, still managed to compete successfully with Hollywood films for the attention of the Shanghai public, since Malin and her mother were mad about them.

            Throughout A Leaf in the Storm  there is the right balance struck, exactly as in Tolstoy, between interest of plot and characterization, keen social observation and philosophic speculation. However, the novel only really takes off for me with the appearance of the central character, Malin, the recapitulation of her early life in a Shanghai working-class district and her dangerous life as a penniless young woman living on the margins of society and currently pursued by the police and the Japanese.   

            Those who are sufficiently intrigued by what I have written, might be well advised to stop reading this now, and get hold of a copy of the novel either through the Library Service or via Amazon (it has long been out of print). In what follows, I cannot avoid giving away the plot which is extremely important and well managed : my concern at present  is to view A Leaf in the Storm not so much as a work of art but as a lucid voice in my exploration of the twin themes of love and war that I have been dealing with so far. As a matter of fact, it was A Leaf in the Storm which started the whole ball rolling, forcing me back to have a further look at Schopenhauer’s gloomy philosophy and ponder his powerful dichotomy between the World viewed as Will and the World viewed as Idea (or Spectacle). Then I felt I needed to re-read War and Peace and read right through, for the first time, Gone with the Wind, since I saw at once there were parallels between the storyline and setting of these three novels, and I was curious about how the very different authors approached, or evaded, the troubling underlying philosophic  issues.

            Malin, the main character in A Leaf in the Storm, at first sight strongly resembles Scarlette O’Hara. She is devastatingly attractive to men while not being a perfect beauty


“There was a slight defect in her eyes, which might be called a squint if it had been more, but which in her case was so slight that it gave her face an inimitable individuality, as if she was looking at the world from a special point of view of her own, as indeed she did.”


                                           A Leaf in the Storm, p. 28


            Like Scarlett she is fearless, hardy and resourceful with a certain worldly wisdom oddly (but beguilingly) mixed with high-flown romanticism. Left penniless and without a profession at the age of eighteen in mid-twentieth century Shanghai when her mother died, Malin learned to live by her wits from an early age and managed to negotiate the obvious perils such a situation represented for a beautiful young girl without this souring and hardening her character.

            She has a prominent birthmark under her right ear which one might think would be considered a defect, but, since it is of the right cinnabar colour, it is considered a rare trait of beauty and, when she is urged to change her name by Lao Peng to evade the police, they both go over various names, only to reject them as “either too literary or too common”. At length Lao Peng hits on the name ‘Tanni’, the Vermilion Maid, since it refers to this birthmark, and she accepts it at once. The change of name increasingly marks a profound change of personality, and it is anticipated, very much in cinematic style, by the very first time we see her in the book when she decides to do her hair “in a different way which left the red mark in clear view”.           

            She differs from Scarlett in being well-versed in Chinese literature and history (without having ever been to college), but above all because  she has what Scarlett O’Hara, and similar figures such as Becky Sharpe, completely lack : common humanity. The one-roomed flat where she lived with her mother faced an undertaker’s  and  


“she could not bear to see a child’s coffin, or a humble woman buying one for her child. ‘You kow,’ she said to Poya, ‘even in death there is a difference between the rich and the poor. Sorrow strikes deeper among the poor bereaved of their kin. Sometimes I saw rich brothers, clad in silk, come to buy an expensive coffin for their parent, bargaining as jocularly as if they were buying a piece of furniture.’ ”


            She is speaking to her lover, Poya, himself a rich man who, while not going quite so far as the rich brothers bargaining ‘jocularly’ over the price of a coffin, is to say the least extremely casual in his attitudes to people in distress. When she tells him about Lao Peng feeding starving refugee children, he says rather sharply — “You don’t expect me to hand out food to refugees, do you?”  


The Wheel of Karma 


The first half of A Leaf in the Storm is, in the main, an exciting adventure story which has a charm and innocence about it similar to certain Shakespearian comedies, since Malin  dresses up as a boy in her efforts to evade the police and pretends to be the nephew of Lao Peng, who himself poses as a travelling merchant. Although they pass through the outskirts of the war zone, we do not see any actual killing or even fighting. It is all somewhat like the beginning of World War II for children in England before the blitz really got going : the evacuee children relished the unaccustomed freedom of life in the country and, temporarily, found the war a stirring Enid Blighton adventure. Malin herself is a city girl  who has never even seen a mountain much to the amusement of the donkey drivers. The guerrillas they meet include swashbuckling figures straight out of Chinese folklore like Rattlesnake who sings opera tunes to the assembled villagers before leading a band of virtually unarmed peasants to rescue their women from the hands of the Japanese. And when eventually Malin gets united to her lover Poya in a hotel in war-torn Shanghai, the atmosphere is very much like that of a  Hollywood forties war movie — Casablanca with a happy ending in view. However, all this is about to be shattered into a thousand pieces and the tragic second part of the book is all the more effective for having this lengthy mainly light-hearted prelude.

            In point of fact, the leitmotif  of Buddhistic renunciation sounds as early as page 8, though we hardly notice it then.  While waiting for Lao Peng’s return in the opening scene, Poya idly opens a book and comes across the story of Ananda and Pchiti. Ananda, traditionally the Buddha’s favourite disciple, is doing the rounds with his begging bowl and comes to the house of the beautiful prostitute Maudenka. Her daughter, Pchiti, is attracted to him and she persuades her mother to cast a love spell over him. Ananda, bewitched, enters her room :


“The Lord Buddha had known all along what was happening to Ananda and now called Manjusri and bade him repeat the great Dharani at the place where Ananda was yielding to temptation. As soon as Mansruji reached the house, the magic spell was broken and Ananda regained his self-control. Mansruji encouraged Ananda and Pchiti and they returned with him to meet the Lord Buddha.” 


            I found the parable tiresome in its moralism the first time round  — there is, incidentally, plenty of this kind of stuff in Buddhist hagiography. It seemed to strike a false note, though with hindsight I see that it encapsulates much of what will come to pass during the course of the novel. Note the odd ending, quite different to a Christian morality tale : instead of being punished as one might expect, the pair are not only pardoned but rewarded, since “they return with him [Mansruji] to meet the Lord Buddha”.

            The climax of the first half , and the hinge-pin of the entire  book since it leads on to the dramatic change from the personality of Malin to that of Tanni, is the Shanghai dance-hall scene where Malin comes across Poya dancing with another woman, Sianghun, and the pair pretend they do not recognize her. This is not an ordinary betrayal. Malin, who has only returned to Shanghai in order to meet Poya and, hopefully, get married to him, is being sought not only by the Japanese authorities but also by the Chinese Resistance because of her previous association with a prominent Chinese traitor who had used her name, Tsui Malin, without her knowledge, to receive and transmit letters. In reality, when she found out what was happening, she denounced him  to a Resistance group and fled to Beijing (where she meets Poya). However, a newspaper report accused her of making off with the man’s jewellery and of complicity in the whole affair. Back in Shanghai for the first time since these events, Malin keeps strictly to her hotel room where she is registered as the niece of Lao Peng, and anxiously awaits the arrival of Poya who has a family house in Shanghai. He is delayed but eventually reaches Shanghai and visits Malin clandestinely in order to keep her presence there a secret from his family, especially his wife. At this stage Poya does not know about Malin’s past involvement with various men in Shanghai including the Chinese collaborateur. They visit a dance-hall together where Malin introduces him to Sianghun, a young woman Malin knows from their common past as paid dancing partners, and who works there still in this capacity. After the meeting, back in Malin’s hotel room, Malin and Poya formally plight troth Chinese fashion  by writing their names on two scrolls of red silk, promising to love each other “until the rocks decay and the seas dry up”. This pledge is not just play acting since by Chinese law at the time, once witnessed and presented to a lawyer (as subsequently happens), it becomes legally binding. It looks as if Malin’s fortunes have changed for good.

            However, the following day Poya is escorted to the house of a Shanghai godfather figure, Mr. Tung, who has put his organisation at the service of the Chinese Resistance and in particular arranges for the assassination of prominent Chinese collaborateurs. He tells Poya that Malin is on his list and asks if he knows her and where she is living. Poya makes an evasive reply but from this point onwards, since he knows he is being followed, he does not go to see Malin or telephone her. The following day he decides to go to the dance-hall in question to warn Sianghun to say nothing to anyone about Malin’s presence in Shanghai. Malin, now known as Tanni,  naturally, cannot understand what is happening and, fatally as it turns out, she suggests to a peasant girl, Yumei, who is living with her, that they go to a dance-hall (which the latter has never seen) to pass the time.

            The scene is brilliantly described : we see the well-dressed fashionable people, both European and Chinese, desperately seeking pleasure in the midst of war (just as many people did in Paris under the German Occupation) while starving refugees throng the streets outside. Just after Tanni and Yumei arrive, five half-naked Russian women dancers perform somersaults in the middle of an applauding crowd — “Shames one to death”, says the outspoken peasant girl Yumei, “but it is beautiful”. By ill luck, Poya is dancing with Sianghun telling her about the situation, and he knows that agents of the Underworld are there watching him so he has no choice but to pretend not to recognize Tanni and the pair walk coldly by pretending they do not know her.


“Tanni sat stupefied, her hands cold and numb.

      The band struck up the St. Louis Blues. The lights dimmed, and the huge glass in the ceiling was turning round and round, throwing its coloured points of light on the jostling crowd. Tanni heard the mad squeals of the saxophones.

      With her senses heightened by anger, Tanni saw what others in the room did not see. They were living in a madhouse inhabited by madly whirling shadows of grotesque human shapes — puny shadows wearing masks which covered emptiness within, going around in that giddy swirl. The music was shrieking its own emptiness in a wild ecstasy of destruction. Everything crashed, reeled, shrieked, swam before her like that infernal music and the ghostly faces of men and the white arms of women suddenly became very small, as we sometimes see the room before us when we sit up too long at night… The people were dancing like automatons without a heart, except one bleeding heart that was her own.”


            So far the above passage might have come from any number of Western writers, though one should note the repetition of the term ‘emptiness’ which has strong Buddhistic connotations. But what follows would not have come from a Western novelist : this is not just a moment of heartbreak and disillusionment, as it would be in a contemporary film, but a moment of enlightenment in the  Buddhistic sense, a moment when the true nature of life in the world becomes apparent, and not only in a negative sense :  


“The feeling that all was over brought her a strange inward feeling of peace within, like calm on the sea after a violent storm.  (…) Tanni knew the beauty of the human form. But at that moment she saw human nature in all its naked brutality, and seeing it after her sharp impression of a human madhouse a moment ago, she saw the folly and futility and incompleteness of her past life, the life of the senses that she had known so well.”  

                                             A Leaf in the Storm,  pp. 218-9


            That night, returning to her hotel room with Yumei, she has a dream which she recounts to Yumei

“I ran on and on and I suddenly realized that I was naked and that many men were chasing after me. I was rolling along very fast, more like skating than like running , and soon I was rolling on a big waterwheel and my body was attached to the wheel, and it went round and round and my body with it going backwards, and there were many people watching me, some of them, laughing and some of them admiring my body.”

                                             A Leaf in the Storm,  p. 211


A little later the wheel grinds to a halt and she manages to get off it.


“I landed suddenly on my feet. And who do you think I saw…. Lao Peng. He was in a monk’s robe and staring at me. And we went along the road hearing the squeak of the water wheel behind me. We went up a hill and stood on the top and looked down the valley, and he said to me: ‘Look there. That is the Wheel of Karma!’ And I saw the wheel turning, with a big word ‘Nieh’ [Karma] in the centre, and there were still many naked women tied to it. Then I saw there were many other wheels in the valley and they kept turning with many women on them. ‘Was I turning like that?’ I asked, and Lao Peng said: ‘Yes’.”


                                             A Leaf in the Storm,  p. 223


            Tanni burns the wedding pledge and also, to the peasant girl Yumei’s emphatic approval, the brassières which are now seen as a symbol of Westernisation and ‘emancipation’ in a negative sense.      

      Then “Tanni lost interest in her body”. It has become fashionable, even politically correct, to view sex in an entirely favourable light and to dismiss fears about it becoming too powerful in society as old-fashioned rubbish and superstition. But there is a fatal ambivalence about sex, mankind’s most powerful instinct since it can even overcome the instinct for self-preservation. Even if sex is not inevitably associated with aggression (which it all too frequently is in imagination if not in fact) it is certainly linked to competitive display and jostling for position. One moment it may appear to lead to a Garden of Delights, at another one feels there is something almost demonic about it — one has only to look at the porn on the Internet to obtain both impressions simultaneously.  

            The dance-hall scene is immediately followed by a chapter where the narrator/author, coming forward for the first time,  gives scarcely credible examples of the depravity of the Japanese military (without dwelling on them unnecessarily) and raises, without resolving it, the question of the nature and origin of  human evil. The sensuality displayed at the dance-hall which suddenly appears to Tanni as something maniacal, is paralleled by the ‘ecstasies’ of physical sadism in which the Japanese soldiers indulge themselves and indeed mix with sex. The two extremes are seemingly both part and parcel of the same eternal round of birth, suffering, death and rebirth from which the only escape is the Buddhist  Nirvana.


Salvation through Action


And yet not so. Lin Yutang, brought up as a Christian, is not content with this essentially passive and inactive avenue towards salvation, and Malin/Tanni is too vital a character to make a good Buddhist, at this stage in her life at any rate. She leaves Shanghai immediately after the dance-hall scene (refusing to listen to Poya’s explanations on the telephone) and eventually traces Lao Peng to where he is qworking for the Buddhist Red Cross. They find an abandoned mansion near Henkow where no one goes because it is supposed to be haunted, and turn it into a centre for refugees. At first, she shows some interest in Buddhist teachings partly because they must in some way explain the enigma of Lao Peng himself, — “You have the secret of being happy,” she says to him, “Is it your Buddhism? Why did you never explain it to me?” Lao Peng says that religion “has nothing to do with learning, it is an inner experience”. Nonetheless, Tanni finds some of the doctrines strange and incredible : what she takes from Buddhism is not its otherworldliness but its compassion.       

            Tannu thus finds a different sort of happiness in useful, charitable actions : she is revered by the odd assortment of waifs and strays who make up the refugee community as a sort of Mother Theresa and they call her Kuanyin chiehchieh after the Chinese Goddess of Mercy. karma leads on to salvation through karma — the term originally just meant ‘action’, ‘activity’.  She is so changed from the former Malin that Lao Peng scarcely recognizes her at first  :


“The final shock had not only shattered her hope but had changed her attitude toward all romance. Defeated once more, and acknowledging defeat with a sad finality, she also seemed to have transcended love.”   


                                                A Leaf in the Storm   p. 231


            At one point it even looks as if, having renounced personal human love for communal, eros for agape, she will, by a kind of positive ‘poetic justice’, get human love thrown into the bargain, since Poya eventually manages to get a letter through to her explaining the tragic misunderstanding in the dance-hall which she accepts.

            A lesser author would have left things there, and we would have had a happy ending. This would be emotionally more satisfying than what actually happens, but the book would have been a far less subtle and penetrating one. However, before tracing Tanni’s further development, it is time to turn the spotlight on the two men with whom she is irrevocably involved, Poya and Lao Peng.

respect from other people.




“He [Poya] was young and tall and called handsome, brought up in all the luxury of a large, rich family, with cultivated tastes in art, literature and the pleasures of living…. ”


Although one hesitates to say he has ‘peace of mind’, since one hopes there is more to it than that, he has the sort of easy indifference which one associates with certain Roman aristocrats. He views everything including the Japanese Occupation and even his own love affairs dispassionately, as if it concerned other people rather than himself. (This is how the ancient philosophers and certain types of Buddhists were encouraged to view life.) He fancies himself as a military strategist and indeed his ideas, based apparently on the actual deployment  of Chiang-kai-chek’s armies, are by no means stupid. But he feels no desire to volunteer himself — strangely enough there was no conscription in China at the time — though he does eventually, through his connections, procure himself a job well away from the front surveying the terrain for the building of a great road for the retreating  army. He treats it more as a means of visiting celebrated Chinese beauty spots and historical sites than a serious contribution to the war effort.      

            If this were all there were to him, he would not be the stuff to fill a good deal of this novel. But there are two things which mark him out from the average educated, wealthy Westernised Chinese of his time and which are both related to his family background. 

            A certain respect for, and hankering after, ‘true love’, despite a life of casual philandering, no doubt owes something to the tragic incidents of his childhood. In what was most likely a typical incident amongst wealthy Chinese families of the time, Poya’s grandmother, who disapproved of her son marrying a servant-girl for love, drove Poya’s mother out of the house when the grandfather was absent, kidnapped the child and refused the mother entrance to the house. The latter committed suicide when Poya was still a child. Also, typically, the grandmother became tormented, not exactly with remorse, but fear of being pursued by her dead daughter-in-law’s ghost.  Another member of the family, Red Jade, committed suicide for love and so, with hindsight, it is not quite so surprising that this seemingly superficial and self-satisfied Beijing intellectual eventually carries out a supreme act  of self-sacrifice at the close of the book.

            The second strand comes from his grandfather and is what connects him to Lao Peng.  


“[But] with all Poya’s mental gifts and polish and savoir-vivre and worldly understanding of women, he had a touch of mysticism which he inherited from his grandfather. This …. enabled him at once to understand the different character of his friend’s genius. Old Peng had all but saved him from becoming a cynic, which would have been the development of a young man of his intelligence and circumstances.”                    A Leaf in the Storm   (page 5)

Lao Peng


Lao Peng is introduced to us in the very first scene as someone truly remarkable which indeed he turns out to be.


“Poya sat down in the creaky armchair, picking up the newspaper which lay on it, intending to read. But soon he let the sheets slip from his hand and fall to the floor. He sat reflecting on a mystery, more important to him than the war news. Ever since he had come to know Lao Peng a few years ago, the man had fascinated him. It seemed unbelievable that in this bare room lived a great man in obscurity, the only perfectly happy man he knew, without wife and children. A man who had found himself, ‘without fear and without worry,’ as Confucius described the gentleman.”                        


                                               A Leaf in the Storm  p.3


            Lao Peng’s imperturbability is not destroyed by the war, though we are told there was a period when he and Poya  would spend their evenings “drinking in sorro w” as they called it, ending up weeping  as they talked about the disastrous retreat of the Twenty-ninth Army and the abandonment of Biejing to the Japanese. Lao Peng is too naturally ‘good’ a person, and also too commonsensical, to blithely ignore the human tragedy all around him , dismissing it as ‘illusory’ along with the rest of physical reality, or as other people’s karma. Instead, he devotes what remains of his small fortune to helping refugees and supporting Grandma Chao’s guerrillas. “You will feel better,” he says to Poya, “travelling and seeing the people and doing things. (…) It was silly how we used to drink and weep.” Though he does not actually fight, he aids people who do and the moral issue of whether, as a practising Buddhist, committed to pacifism, he should support armed resistance does not apparently bother him unduly.     

            In the eyes of Poya and Tanni, and many other people who come across him, Lao Peng seems to have achieved what so many philosophers and writers like Rimbaud spent their lives searching for, “la clef du bonheur”, the ‘key to happiness’.  


“ ‘You are a happy man, aren’t you?’ asked Tanni. The fascination of this middle-aged man was strong upon her.

‘Happy?’ he said. ‘I have no worries and I have a clear conscience, if that is what you mean.’ ”

                                             A Leaf in the Storm  p. 239


            The lack of false modesty or diffidence in his reply makes a pleasant contrast to what a Christian, with his eternal guilt complex, would have said in reply. Lao Peng actually convinces us that he is not only a ‘good’ person but someone one would actually want to meet. He has something of Gandhi in him but, great man though Gandhi was, I do not think I would have particularly wanted to meet him. Lao Peng does not have anything cranky, or even especially striking,  about him : he is, as ‘enlightenment’ is supposed to be, ‘nothing special’.

            But as it happens, Lao Peng is standing on the edge of a precipice. At the beginning, he is not troubled by Malin, as a beautiful young woman,  except inasmuch as he fears for her since, as a Buddhist, he knows that this passion between her and Poya is bound to lead to sorrow.


“He could understand why his friend was enchanted with her. He had known many young men and women and heard stories of their romances. There was always something pathetic about love and romance — the greater the love, the more tragic the romance. (…) And so when he saw Malin’s bright eyes and heard her pleasing voice, he felt a kind of pity that those eyes and that voice controlled a destiny that she must live through.”


                                                A Leaf in the Storm, p. 109


            However, this turns out to be a moment of hubris. The forty-five year old Lao Peng, whose wife is dead, sincerely thinks he has got  beyond the attraction of the senses, a dangerous illusion for anyone to have as the early Christians found to their cost. “His mind classified feminine charms with the desires of the senses, and he saw not a lovely girl before him, but a woman in the abstract” (p. 109). Lao Peng is not in the least the repressed puritan who projects his inner torment onto the world around him and takes it out on other people, especially women, either in reality or in imagination. Lao Peng genuinely means it when he says, “We must not judge”. By Victorian standards — and mid-century China within the well-to-do families can only be compared to Victorian England — Malin was a thoroughly scandalous person who had been the mistress of several older men at a young age and was believed (though wrongly) to have run away with the money and jewels of one of her lovers. As Malin senses, Poya, like most male philanderers, is far from having a liberal attitude towards women on the sexual level (except, of course, where his own advantage is concerned), and for this reason she keeps back details of her previous life from him. But she has no hesitation in telling Lao Peng everything — “She felt that if anybody would understand her, Lao Peng would. She felt at ease with him as she was not with Poya”.

            During their flight together from Beijing — Poya remains in the capital and does not know what is going on exactly — Lao Peng is thrown into intimate contact with Malin day and night but both of them handle the situation with good sense and discretion. People of the present era may simply say, or think, “Why the hell doesn’t he just take the girl?”  But there are serious issues involved, far more serious than passing sexual satisfaction. Apart from anything else, Lao Peng is Poya’s best friend and he has entrusted Malin into his care. “He found himself under the obligation to take her to Shanghai for Poya. The attitude dictated by old tradition was that ‘a friend’s wife should never be taken advantage of’’”.

            Apart from that, any sexual involvement would, one feels, ruin everything. As it is, there is something of a children’s escapade about the situation especially since Malin, like a Shakespearian heroine, is dressed up as a boy. The relationship has a genuineness and a charm which the Hollywood romance with Poya entirely lacks. Added to this, they are both in serious danger and, as time goes on, are united by their joint charitable work in the ruined house they turn into a refuge for old people and orphans. All this takes Malin away from Poya more irrevocably than the latter’s apparent betrayal, though she does not realize this for a long time. 

            As it happens, it is not simply the sexual attractiveness of Malin that troubles Lao Peng — he would have been repelled by Scarlett O’Hara or Becky Sharpe — it is  the combination of sex appeal with her trusting and affectionate behaviour towards him. He has enough self-knowledge to admit, to himself, that he is not so much of an ascetic as she and Poya think he is. For most of the novel the ups and downs of their life fleeing from the Japanese and running the orphan hostel in the keep them busy enough for the situation not to become too intolerable. However, once Tanni discovers that she is pregnant (from Poya) Lao Peng offers to marry her “for the child’s sake”. This is a point of no return, not from the marriage point of view which soon proves to be no longer necessary since Poya finally succeeds in making contact by letter  and explains the circumstances of his apparent betrayal which Tanni eventually accepts.

            But Lao Peng has revealed himself. The real drama in the latter part of the book is not the commonplace eternal triangle situation, but the inner drama within Lao Peng himself. This is one of the things which takes the book completely out of the normal run of such stories.  For Lao Peng has lost what, in Poya’ eyes, and in Tanni’s, made him unique, his peace of mind that they both sense has something to do with his strange Buddhist beliefs. He coped with the war and, even had he been captured by the Japanese, would doubtless have inspired his fellow prisoners in much the same way as Pierre does in War and Peace when he is taken prisoner during the disastrous French retreat from Moscow.


“Suddenly he felt the supreme irony of it — to be caught in the meshes of passion, at forty-five? What was love? Where was the border between the natural affection of congenial and devoted friends and the deeply personal love between man and woman? How unconvincing the theory of Buddha’s impersonal love seemed now! Certainly he had come to love Tanni as a person. How else should it be?  To abolish personal hatred was easier than to abolish personal love. If the assumption of self and individuality was the origin of all struggle and all hatred, it was also the strongest basis of our sentient life. He loved Tanni as a person; it was useless for him to think of her as an abstract woman….”


                                 A Leaf in the Storm,  p. 303



            Yet it is precisely as  an ‘abstract woman’, not as a person, that the Stoic sage, the Christian saint and the Buddhist bodhisattva is supposed to love someone : this is rising above the ‘principle of individuality’ and seeing the world as Idea, not as Will. 


            As if to add insult to injury, parallel to Lao Peng’s turmoil, we have the tragic-comic situation of Poya back in Shanghai embarking on a casual affair with Tanni’s old friend, Siangyun. Siangyun, a sympathetic character, while not being exactly a courtesan makes a precarious living, as Tanni once did herself, as a dance-hall hostess and occasional mistress of well-to-do married men. She has a worldly wisdom which would appear cynicism in someone else, but in her case inspires respect. At this moment in time, Poya has not heard from Tanni or Lao Peng for over two months. Siangyun tells Poya that they must certainly be living together.


“ ‘You shut up!’ said Poya angrily. ‘You don’t know Lao Peng. He is my friend.’

   ‘I have never yet seen a man who could resist a woman,’ she said. ‘Not even a monk.’ ”

         Siangun had a fund of droll stories making fun of the monks, over which she laughed as she told them. They always played upon the same theme, of the reputed sainthood of men and women, especially of the Taoist immortals and sainted widows, and always ended with a shattering climax.”


                                                     A Leaf in the Storm, p. 285


            This is very to the point and, once again, takes A Leaf in the Storm right outside the usual ‘romantic’ story which certain other passages might lead the reader to believe it is. Poya is hardly in a position to contest Siangyun’s views, since he himself has started this quite unnecessary affair when he is supposed to be ‘eternally’ in love with Tanni. It is, moreover, an affair on the cheap since he does not bring her expensive presents and “when he gave her a hundred dollars she thanked him in a way that was almost humiliating” — in the context her ‘thanks’ were doubtless ironical. It is Siangyun, who flaunts  a cynical worldly-wise philosophy, or rather makes an attempt to do so, who is in reality the victim of Poya. There is even something of the detestable Clare of Tess of the d’Urbervilles about Poya — scratch a serial seducer and you will find, if not a puritan, at least a traditionalist.   


The Dénouement


The eternal triangle is ‘resolved’, if one can call it that, by the mutual self-sacrifice of all of the characters involved — somewhat in the manner of  Racine’s Bérénice.

            Poya eventually makes contact with Lao Peng and Tanni in the refugee house near Henkow and tells Tanni that he has had their marriage vows legalised and is about to divorce his wife, Kainan, a superficial and self-satisfied creature with whom it is impossible to have much sympathy. He does not know that Tanni is pregnant, but it would seem that this Chinese wartime romance is set after all for a happy ending and Tanni is even visited by a member of the Yao family, Mulan,  who is sympathetically inclined towards her, while knowing something of her past, and who facilitates the marriage as much as she can.

            The first person to sacrifice himself, or at any rate his emotions and aspirations, is Lao Peng who leaves the refugee home in Tanni’s care, ostensibly to move into the interior nearer the war zone. Tanni, however, knows that he is removing himself so as not to impede her marriage.


“This great-hearted man was now without a question taking himself out of the way as unselfishly as he had offered to protect her name before the word from Poya came. (…) The sacrifice on his part touched her more deeply even than his offer to be father to her child.”

                                             A Leaf in the Storm, p. 321/339


            This personal act is set against a backdrop of the newfound, stubborn resistance of the Chinese to the Japanese. In the first part  of the book, what fighting there is, which we do not see at close quarters anyway, is  of the Robin Hood variety and this matches the mood of the ‘romance’, if such it can be called, of Malin and Lao Peng travelling incognito through the countryside with Malin dressed up as a boy. But in the second part, the war becomes a much more serious and ugly business as the civilians are bombarded mercilessly and millions of starving refugees throng the roads and rivers of eastern China. Lao Peng and Tanni themselves narrowly escape death in a bombardment and the refugee hostel itself is hit. The self-sacrifice of Lao Peng and eventually Tanni and Poya also, on the personal plane is matched by the increasing heroism and self-sacrifice of the Chinese soldiers, the guerrillas and ordinary civilians.


“Eight hundred volunteers came forward, when three hundred were asked for, to form a suicide squad, and they captured by hand-grenade fighting the Changtoushan Hill immediately north of Taierchuang. (…) The first historic victory over Japan had been promised and delivered.

         On April 7th, Wuchang was in uproar. At half-past seven, Miss Tuan came to the refugee home like a mad person, bringing news of the victory which she had heard by radio.”


            Tanni herself leaves to go nearer to the front to gather orphan children but takes the opportunity to visit Lao Peng and finds him alone and ill in a hotel near the war zone.


“He was soundly asleep. (…) Lightly and noiselessly she approached his bedside and stood looking at this man who in her eyes was without fear and without reproach, who had done so much for her and now had come to live in solitude on her account.”

                                             A Leaf in the Storm, p. 353

            Tanni realizes that, now that everything is prepared for her, she does not want to live the sort of life that Poya could give her. During this scene, which cannot  be given in detail, the true nature of their feelings for each other is revealed. However, Lao Peng insists on her going through with her marriage to Poya, probably rightly, and the situation seems impossible when eventually Poya arrives. He is at first somewhat irritating, even to Tanni, by his casual behaviour and he takes Tanni and Lao Peng as well on a sort of sight-seeing trip to a place well known in Chinese history and folklore which happens to be on the edge of the war zone. He has realized by now what the situation is between Tanni and Lao Peng and has learned a lot about their life in the refugee hostel. Tanni is now becoming conspicuously pregnant and the marriage has to be speeded up. They happen to come by chance to a spot where there is still sporadic fighting and Lao Peng leaves them to make his own way back along the canal, Tanni and Poya being on a bicycle. Poya sees that Tanni is sobbing because she fears that Lao Peng might die getting back. But then there is a clatter of hooves and a small group of twelve Japanese cavalry come riding across the field. Poya gets up from their cover, stands there in the middle of the road, aims at the horsemen and kills three before he is fatally wounded himself.


“She bent over him, calling his name between her sobs.

         “Tanni, don’t cry,” he said in a gasping whisper. “Marry Lao Peng.” He stopped and began again with great effort. “All my money is yours. Bring up the child.” Pointing to his pocket, he said with a last smile: “It is there. Our pledge!” “


                                                         A Leaf in the Storm, p. 381



          This self-sacrifice of the apparently superficial and unreliable Poya is not, as we find out later, a quixotic spur-of-the-moment act. Tanni later has the opportunity to see his Diary where he discloses his feelings about the situation, and writes notably


“Oh, what a fool I have been! Lien-erh [Tanni] must be quite a changed person. She has gone beyond me. I must yet try to understand her better — this Buddhism and her interest in the war work. I feel almost unworthy of her.”


  This supreme act of self-sacrifice, all the more impressive because it comes from a character with whom one has lost sympathy, is followed by an equivalent act of self-sacrifice by Tanni. She is given the free choice by the Yao family to get married posthumously “before Poya’s spirit-tablet in the presence of the closest relatives”, in which case the child will be legitimate but this will condemn her to life-long widowhood. It is made clear that financial arrangements should be no part of the decision since the family is committed to providing well for the child in any case. Tanni has to show her decision be the next day wearing either a blue or a white knot in her hair — white being the colour of mourning in China. She is in effect free to marry Lao Peng at last but, true to character, he advises her to accept the marriage


“ “Courage, Tanni! You will soon have your baby and he will fill your life. Lose yourself in work for others and you will find that greater happiness which is above the sorrows of our individual lives.”

            “Can I still join you in your work?”

            “Why not? After this, both you and I must find a higher happiness.” ”

                                             A Leaf in the Storm, p. 390



            Buddhism is a religion of withdrawal and compassion but not a religion of active charity and self-sacrifice. By a combination of the best of the two religions, Lin Yutang concludes the novel — ending that is sombre but not tragic. It is quite the opposite of the ending of Gone with the Wind since in the latter romanticism triumphs, or attempts to at any rate, and different from the ending of War and Peace which is somewhat bathetic though we do have the young Prince Andrei raising the banner of idealism in the last scene. On the other hand, Lin Yutang has an easier task since he has chosen not to show us what happens ‘twenty years after’.


“A calm settled over the refugee house at Hungshan. Lao Peng and Tanni found in their common devotion a happiness which they ahd not thought possible.

   Not far away was Poya’s grave. Above it stood an ep[itaph chosen by Tanni and approved by Lao Peng. It was a non-Buddhist, but curiously universal text :

   Greater man hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.     






Is there causality in Mathematics?





is there causality in mathematics?  

Perhaps we should start by pondering whether causality exists at all. Hume thought not and Wittgenstein dismissed the ‘causal connection’ between events as a superstition (Tractatus Logico-Philsophicus). Certainly no one has ever claimed to see or touch the ‘force of causality’, and if the supposed ‘causal connection’ between certain events were self-evident we would not have the difficulties we so manifestly do have in distinguishing  bona fide causal pairs from chance associations of events.

            For all that, I have never lost any sleep over Hume’s attack on causality and don’t intend to. “We know there is causality and there’s an end to it”, as Dr. Johnson said about free will. Hume himself, revealingly, admitted that he “dropped his philosophic scepticism when playing backgammon”.

            Belief in causality is undoubtedly a psychological necessity, and thus  a  biological necessity as well : as a species, we need to believe that we can ‘make a difference’ and, looking at what we have done to the planet, we’ve certainly proved that! If modern philosophers have their doubts about the existence of causality, well, so much the worse for them.

            Science in the West remained happily married to determinism for  three  centuries and Claude Bernard actually went so far as to define science as the application of causality to the material world. But then, in the course of the twentieth century, physics suddenly got infatuated with indeterminism. Why? The official answer is that this was forced on science by experimental discoveries in the atomic and subatomic domains where ‘statistical determinism’ rather than ‘complete individual determinism’ is the norm. Yes, but the phenomenon is far less comprehensive and radical than people think. The individual molecule in a gas is, if you like, allowed freedom of movement — but only because this is very unlikely  to affect the overall result. It is like Saddam Hussein giving Iraqis the vote. Also, it is usually only the order of appearance of the events that is random, not the events themselves. A good example is the process of photographic development which is a chemical amplification of initial atomic events. It is possible, using very weak exposure, to arrange for the  individual photons to arrive one after the other and if this is done the photographic image builds up in a way that is completely unpredictable. But the fact remains that all the micro-events have been completely specified in advance (by the object that is being photographed)1.

            In other cases, ‘random mutation’ for example, the consensus is that the events themselves are basically indeterminate but this remains an untested and probably untestable hypothesis. One suspects that the sudden vogue for indeterminism in physics and elsewhere during the twenties and thirties (strongly resisted by Einstein) was part of the Zeitgeist : the senseless slaughter of the Great War and, later, the Wall Street Crash (which no one had predicted) seemed to many people to demonstrate that the world was not fully comprehensible by rational means after all.  But the real culprit was  logical positivism, a philosophy which has had a crippling effect on the way we think about science and life generally. Whereas common sense always prefers to assume that there is an agent for all changes in the external world — “Every event has a cause” — logical positivism holds fast to the verification principle instead. Since causality cannot be verified directly, it has no right to exist, therefore it doesn’t exist. Stripped of causality, physics becomes an exercise in applied mathematics, while mathematics itself is, according to the moderns, either symbolic logic (Russell) or “a game played according to fixed rules with meaningless marks on paper” (Hilbert). This effectively puts paid not only to determinism but to objective reality itself which has become the unwanted ghost in a wholly symbolic machine. Britain’s most acclaimed theoretical physicist (Hawking) once admitted disingenuously that he was not really concerned about the underlying truth of a theory but only whether it was ‘interesting and fruitful’. 




In the real world by my book events cause other events :  they do not simply happen to precede them. Coercion is involved, not  ‘functional co-variance’. But when we shift to the logical, sanitised universe we find that all we are left with is ‘material implication’  P Þ Q.  

            I don’t expect I need to remind readers that the validity of P Þ Q does not mean we can just invert the terms and conclude that Q Þ P.   What is, however, accepted in both logic and mathematics is that the truth of P Þ Q entails the truth of the Contrapositive  Not-Q  Þ  Not-P    


                        “If (a, p) = 1 and p is prime  ap-1 = 1 (mod p) for all a            True

                        “If ap-1 = 1 (mod p) for all a, then  p is prime       False  (because of Carmichael Numbers such as 561)


“If  it is not the case that ap-1 =1 (mod p)  for all a, then p cannot be prime” —   True.


            Logically speaking the Contrapositive is equivalent to the original statement because the truth tables are identical. However, if the original statement has a causal basis, this feature disappears when we form the contrapositive. Negating an event is not the same thing as negating an assumption, since something that does not occur can neither cause something else to occur nor positively prevent its occurrence.


            “I shot my noisy next door neighbour in the head ten minutes ago, so he is now dead.”

            This statement is valid because the underlying causal connection is valid (a shot in the head causes death) whether or not it corresponds to the facts.  


            “If my next door neighbour is currently alive, I cannot have shot him in the head ten minutes ago”


is, I suppose, valid reasoning but sounds most peculiar — as if I were a psychopath suffering from recurrent bouts of amnesia. This shows what happens when we empty statements of causal content. 


            The point is that Contrapositives are always a good deal weaker than affirmative statements. One of the reasons why Newtonian physics got off to such a flying start, was because it was formulated positively : “Every particle attracts every other directly with respect to mass and inversely in proportion to the square of the distance between them”. Practical people like engineers took to Newtonian mechanics because they could visualize what was going on, “If rod A makes  B go down, then B will make C go up, and C will make D move to the right….”   

            All this has grave consequences for modern mathematics since most modern proofs are indirect (75% it has been estimated) and proceed along the lines, “But if A  is not so, then Y, then Z, but Z is nonsense, therefore not-A cannot be true, therefore A”.   Stevenson and Brunel would not have been impressed. Modern mathematics is choc-a-bloc with entities whose only right to exist is that, if they didn’t, someone would be contradicting himself somewhere.2 Compare this to direct proofs which actually show you how to turn up an example of the thing you are looking for.




In logic  P
ÞQ  [P logically implies Q] is always valid except when P is true and Q is false. Thus


“If  all triangles are equilateral, then no square can be inscribed in a circle”


“If 8 is a prime number,  then G.M. ≤ A.M.”


 are both valid (since we have F Þ F and F Þ T).

            Both these sentences are not even untrue, they are just rubbish because there is no connection between the respective statements.

            Examples like the above only go to show foolish it is to completely ignore meaning when we are setting up a logical system. The rules governing, say,  embroidery or bridge are neither here nor there, they are ‘meaningless’ and none the worse for it. But logic is not embroidery since it can, in principle, have considerable bearing on the decisions we actually make, such as, for example, whether a country is a potential threat to us, and in consequence whether we should go to war or not.

            Logic teaches you how not to contradict yourself. But why not contradict yourself if you feel like it?  One answer is that this frustrates the main purposes of speech which is to communicate with other people. But there is a second reason which is much more significant. We insist on non-contradiction in logic and mathematics because Nature actually is non-contradictory (at the macroscopic level anyway)  :  it (Nature) obeys a very important principle which I have baptised the Axiom of Exclusion “An event cannot at one and the same time both occur and not occur at the same spot”. Without this assumption science would be impossible  for there would be no point in working out, for example, that an eclipse of the sun was going to take place at such and such a locality if it was simultaneously feasible for it not to take place there3. Logic is, or should be, the faithful servant of reality rather than the legislator of what is and is not : The Axiom of Exclusion is the justification for, not the consequence of, the logical rule (in bivalent logic) that “A proposition cannot at one and the same time be true and  false”.    


            Of course, if the reality we are modelling is inherently  fluctuating and ambivalent it is a mistake to make the symbolic system too cut and dried because it will not fit the original. This is basically the reason why literature is able to give a far more convincing picture of actual human behaviour — which seems to be incurably irrational — than bio-chemistry. The maddening ambiguity and vagueness of language — as the mathematician sees it — become assets if we are dealing with a shifting,  inconsistent reality.




The Buddhist logician Dharmottara considered that


            “There can be no necessary relation other than one based on Identity or Causality.” 4     


            This is admirably concise so let us apply it to mathematics. If causality has nothing to do with mathematics, which is the usual view, this means that mathematics is entirely based on ‘Identity’, i.e. it is all one vast tautology.

            This seems to be true of mathematical formulae such as those for summing the figurate numbers.  


0                               0000                                                  00000

00                 +           000         =                                      00000

000                              00                                                  00000

0000                              0                                                  00000


            Since the above is perfectly general we can conclude that the sum of the natural numbers commencing with unity can be presented as a rectangle with one side equal to the greatest natural number of the sequence and the other side equal to that amount plus an extra unit, i.e. 1 + 2 + 3 + ….n  = (n (n+1)/2     Causality as such does not seem to be involved.

            But proofs by rearrangement, though the most convincing of all proofs, are not that common in modern mathematics : one reason why  infinite series are such a minefield is that rearrangement can radically alter the nature of the series, the most notorious case being that of log 2 5.

            But what about mathematical induction? Here there is a definite sense of compulsion : if such and such is true for n, it must be true for (n+1).  Certainly, mathematical induction is not mere rearrangement : there is a sequential element which reminds us unmistakeably of a bona fide causal process, steam forcing a piston along the inside of a cylinder whether it wants to go there or not. A large number of functions — all? — can be defined by recursion rather than analytically, and this often seems a much more natural way of doing things. But definition by recursion is very different from analytical definition  n  à  f(n)  because in the recursive process a function is built up piecemeal instead of being there in its entirety from the word go. Philosophically speaking, analytical definition is being, definition by recursion becoming.  



            For Plato actual lines and circles were imitations of ideal states of affairs and the imperfect nature of the sublunary world meant there might  occasionally be some slight deviations and discrepancies (a tangent drawn in the sand or on papyrus might well touch a circle at more than one ‘point’ for example). For Newton and Kepler what happened down here was wholly dependent on the prior decisions of a mathematical God, and we still seem to think like this a lot of the time which is why we still talk of the ‘laws of Nature’ — we do not speak of  ‘the observed regularities of Nature’. God may not have known, i.e. not bothered to work out in detail, all the particular consequences of his original handful of edicts, but then again He didn’t need to. So long as the original laws were basic and far-reaching enough, the world could be left to take care of itself. There is causality of a kind here because there is compulsion : rocks, plants and animals have no choice but to comply with the rules and even man, though he has free will, remains constrained in his physical being. But, according to this paradigm, the causality we find in Nature is not itself ‘natural’ : it has a supernatural origin and purpose.

             In the classical (post-Renaissance) world-view there is no real difference between physical and mathematical law, between pure and applied mathematics, so the same schema applies. God determined the axioms and everything else is theorems. But today we no longer believe in an omnipotent intelligent Creator God (most of us anyway) so the ‘laws of physics’ and ‘laws of mathematics’ revert to being something rather similar to Platonic Forms, existing out on a limb. This does seem to remove causality from mathematics and physics unless we view the way in which phenomena model themselves on ideal states of affairs  — how an actual gas approximates to the behaviour of an ideal gas, for example — as a sort of watered down ‘formal causality’. In the Judaeo-Christian world view which was that of Kepler and Newton, everything hinges on actions and decisions made ‘in the beginning’ : someone (God) had  sometime in the distant past ‘divided the light from the darkness’ and distinguished primes from composite numbers. But Platonic Forms and mathematical formulae simply are , they do not do anything.   




Supposedly, the whole of mathematics can be derived from the half dozen or so Axioms of von Neumann or Zermolo Set Theory (se M500 206 p. 20). But no one ever sat down of a night to see what interesting theorems he or she could derive from them : they are strangely remote like mountains one sees in the distance but which are utterly unrelated to life down here in the plains.

            But then most modern mathematics has an insubstantial air : the very way in which we are taught to do our mathematics, to consider the basic entities and procedures, inclines us towards a view of the world where nothing really happens. The old-fashioned viewpoint, still very much in evidence in school textbooks of the pre-war era, goes rather like this. We have a numerical or geometric entity, we do something drastic to it, multiply it, chop it up into bits, rotate it &c. &c. and then we see what we are left with. The modern way is to ‘map’ certain values to certain other ones : we make up two sets  (a, b) and (a’, b’) selected according to a rule. Everything exists in a sort of eternal present and we merely move around looking at what’s here and comparing it with what’s there. The idea of an unknown which by dint of intelligent manipulation gets transformed into a known is both intuitively clear and exciting  : it is like  working out the  identity of Mr. X from circumstantial evidence and witness statements. But the idea of a variable is quite different : somehow x has all possible values at once (usually an infinite number) each of which incidentally is a constant. Also, in the real world effects always succeed causes which means, mathematically speaking, that the dependent and independent variables are not freely invertible — precisely what we are told to assume in Calculus. Examples can be multiplied endlessly….

            What nobody seems to have noticed is that the two dominant tendencies in modern mathematics, the axiomatic approach and the analytical, ‘functional’ presentation (which is essentially Platonic) are pulling mathematics in two completely different directions and may well eventually tear it apart.  An axiomatic approach means that deduction is all-important since, not only can everything (or nearly everything if we take Gödel into account) be derived from the axioms, but nothing that is not so deducible will crop up (again pace Gödel). But deduction involves step by step argument, thus temporal sequence; also, there is a strict hierarchy with certain propositions being much higher up the pecking order, as it were, than others. But the ‘functional’, analytical treatment is, implicitly at least, atemporal and non-hierarchical. All the properties of  y = f(x)  are there as soon as we have written down the expression and it is ‘our fault’ is we don’t spot them straightaway. Moreover, all the cross-references between different functions also exist as soon as the functions are properly defined, and in fact prior to their being properly defined (by us). As for some propositions being key ones on which others depend, if everything is already out there nothing ‘depends’ on anything else, it either is out there or it isn’t. There either are odd perfect numbers or there are not. This rather cuts the ground from under the feet of the ‘prove-at-all-costs’ lobby and, moreover, because computers can usually prove or disprove whether such and such an assertion is true over the domain that concerns us in practice, it ceases to be so important to know if something is ‘always’ true or not — indeed, some philosopher will shortly come along and tell us that this is a ‘metaphysical question’ and thus not worth bothering about.

            Currently there are only three theories of mathematics left in the running, formalism, logicism and Platonism . Neither of the first two schools of thought can explain the often amazingly good match between mathematics and physical reality, and, while Platonism does explain this, the metaphysical price to pay is a very high one indeed. Even mathematicians who are not afraid to call themselves Platonists (such as Penrose) fight shy of giving any coherent statement of their philosophic position to the general public. Now logicism and formalism do not recognize causal processes at all while Platonism admits only a very watered down sort of causality at best. So this explains the inevitable demise of causality in the scientific world-view.

            But more significantly none of these mathematical schools can explain the surprising vitality of mathematics which never ceases to astonish (and sometimes to alarm). Formalism allows for human invention since that is what in the last resort the whole of mathematics is but has little to say about how and why inventions come about. I am so far from being a positivist that I see ‘vital forces’ operating everywhere, not only in the biological and physical domains but also in supposedly abstract areas like pure mathematics and even, in a very rarefied form, in logic. There is perhaps a single unified ‘force of necessity’ which is (almost) tangible in an arrangement of rods and levers and which, in a good mathematical proof, can be sensed thrusting the tortuous argument on to its triumphant crescendo.   

            Moreover, this élan vital is surely active in mathematics as a whole, ceaselessly pushing it in new and unexpected directions : mathematics, like technology, has a life of its own and individual mathematicians get dragged along whether they want to go in that direction or not. What is absent from the logicist, Platonist and formalist views on mathematics is precisely a recognition of this vital principle. There is just no driving force in Set Theory : it is a steam-engine that has been cleaned up, varnished and put to rest in a science museum. This is why Poincaré, who was a creative mathematician in a sense that Russell and Whitehead were not, dismissed logicism with the crushing retort, “Logic is sterile but mathematics is the most fertile of mothers”.


References and Notes  


1  See French and Taylor, An Introduction to Quantum Physics, pp. 88-89  The remarkable illustrations show the picture of a girl’s face building up from randomly distributed dots.

            I have conjectured that there is some sort of a law involved : if all the events are specified in advance, their order of appearance need not be, if not all of the events are specified in advance, there must be strict order.  


2 Does anyone, for example, really believe that ‘almost all’ numbers are transcendental? (I remind readers that a transcendental number is a real number that is not the root of a polynomial equation with integer coefficients.)  Apart from e and p I doubt if anyone reading this could produce one without consulting  a dictionary of mathematics. On doing this I find that 10 -1+ 10–2 + 10 -3 + …..  is also a member of this highly select (but apparently very well attended) club.    


3 The trouble with Quantum Mechanics is that it does not verify the Axiom of Exclusion since it permits a physical system to be in incompatible states at the same time. The Many Worlds version of QM does verify the Axiom of Exclusion, of course, but there is a heavy price to pay in universes. 


4  Stcherbatsky, Buddhist Logic Vol. 1. p. 259.  This is, incidentally, an extremely interesting, readable and, I believe, important book despite its abstruse air. It is more concerned with speculative philosophy than logic as such. The world-view of certain Buddhist thinkers in Northern India during the first few centuries of our era, has a distinctly modern feel  — they would have been quite happy with Einstein’s attempt to describe the physical world in terms of causally related events occurring in a single unified Space-Time field.

            This raises the question of why India didn’t get there first in terms of the scientific revolution. Needham, in discussing the question with reference to China, concludes that the key notion of natural law was lacking. But this was certainly not lacking in India (the law of karma). Maybe these Hinayana Buddhists were too advanced in their conceptions : it was necessary to work  through the cruder scientific paradigm of a world made up of ‘hard, massy particles’ interacting with each other by pushes and pulls before moving on to the vision of evanescent bundles of energy evolving in Space/Time. Also, of course, there was little motivation to develop science as such  :  for a Buddhist the physical world was just not important enough to bother about. 



5 log 2  =   1 1/2 + 1/3 1/4 + 1/5 +………   

            =  (1 – ½) 1/4  + (1/3 1/6) 1/8 + (1/5 1/10) ……

            = ½ ¼ + 1/6 1/8 + 1/10 …….

            = ½ { 1 1/2 + 1/3 1/4 + 1/5 +………}   

            =   ½  log 2 


 NOTE.  Ackowledgments toM500 Magazine where this article originally appeared.



A Forgotten Novel : "A Leaf in the Storm"

st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }

/* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0cm; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-ansi-language:#0400; mso-fareast-language:#0400; mso-bidi-language:#0400;}

“A Leaf in the Storm”  by Lin Yutang


this strikes me as being a great book, and there are probably not more than a dozen or so novels about which I would say this. On reading the final pages alone in a carriage on the way to London, I actually found myself bursting into tears.   

      Why do I find this forgotten book, discovered by chance at the back of a cupboard in a friend’s house, so interesting and moving?

      Let us deal with the more superficial reasons first. The author, Lin Yutang, was a twentieth century Chinese man who eventually emigrated to America and wrote fluently in both English and Chinese. As a highly cultured individual who embraced Western literature and ideas while retaining deep interest in traditional Chinese art and philosophy, he was very much a man who straddled two worlds, and we have very few articulate accounts of people like this. Moreover, unlike the author of  The Three Swans, he has no particular axe to grind which makes his book, though dealing with a chapter in Chinese history if anything even more dreadful  than Mao’s Cultural  Revolution, a much more humane and inspiring book. The modernization of China had in fact been going on apace for more than fifty years before Mao ever came to power : China’s  ‘Cultural Revolution’ should, in a sense, be backdated to Sun Yat Sen’s time for it was in the early twentieth century that Western ideas and mores really began to powerfully affect the Chinese people.

            As a realistic — but not naturalistic — novel there are plenty of details about how Chinese of all classes during the mid-twentieth century period actually lived, what clothes they wore, what furniture they possessed, how they travelled  and what sort of things they ate. I was bemused, for example, to find that a favourite delicacy of the time, the equivalent to our Crisps, was dried ducks’ gizzards : in one scene the central character, Malin, takes one out of a glass jar and munches it for a good twenty minutes prior to the main meal. And I learn that both men and women commonly wore in winter, “quilted leg sheaths that were  tied around the ankles below and laced at the top, the seats cut away” (p. 105). Malin has some difficulty putting them on “because there was no trouser braid to which to tie the top strings since she wore foreign panties”. And I learn that, as late as the mid twentieth century, traditional “big-drum Storytellers” in Shanghai still managed to compete successfully with Hollywood films for the attention of the urban public. At the same time the Shanghai young Chinese women seem to have been amazingly ‘modern’, far more so, to judge by certain scenes in the novel, than their equivalents in, say, Italy during the same era.  

            For all that, I would like to think that, even if I were a contemporary Chinese man or woman, to whom many of these everyday details would be a good deal less strange, the novel would still have much the same effect on me. As a love story acted out against the backdrop of war, A Leaf in the Storm makes one think immediately of War and Peace on the one hand or Gone with the Wind on the other. Though a good deal shorter than these two epics, and marred by a slow beginning, in many ways it stands up quite well against these mammoth best-sellers.

          A Leaf in the Storm tells a highly romantic story and   could easily be turned into a tremendous Hollywood film — quite as good as Titanic  — but it is also a novel with an underlying  philosophy and message. The implicit ethic is an ethic of self-sacrifice, but not taken to a masochistic or suicidal extreme : Lao Peng even departs from the strict non-violence of traditional Buddhism by actively aiding the insurgency, and we feel that, in the circumstances, this is entirely right. The principle of self-sacrifice is something that has completely disappeared from western society, especially since the decline  and fall of Christianity, and the result is a  culture of  self-indulgence and self-seeking whose baleful results are only too obvious today. A Leaf in the Storm  is, philosophically, a strange mish-mash of Buddhist, Christian and Romantic ideas  but it is an impressive and entirely successful mixture.  Lin Yutang, the author, was brought up as a Christian but later immersed himself in Taoism and Buddhism, while his literary tastes, Chinese and European, were clearly Romantic. The Buddhist in him counters the intolerance of Christianity, the Christian in him offsets the abstractness and lack of warmth of Buddhism, and the Romantic in him makes him, at moments, sweep aside impatiently both Christian and Buddistic morality, at any rate where ‘love’ is concerned.

            A Leaf in the Storm is notable in that it presents us with a genuinely ‘good’ person, Lao Peng, who is both convincing, likeable and even interesting! Novelists and scriptwriters have serious problems with ‘good’ characters since audiences and readers, especially women, so obviously prefer violent and masterful characters like Heathcliffe or Scarlett O’Hara (without even mentioning  debased film ‘heroes’ such as James Bond and Rambo). Dostoevsky gets round this by making his good characters physically or socially disfavoured — Prince Myshkin is an epileptic and Sonia a poor prostitute. But this has always struck me as being an easy way out and is one of the reasons why Dostoevsky is markedly inferior to Tolstoy as a writer and thinker, at any rate the Tolstoy of War and Peace. As for Dickens, his ‘good’ characters, with one or two exceptions, tend to be either implausible or silly, or both at once. But Lao Peng, the unassuming  middle aged Buddhist comes over as someone one would actually like to meet — whereas I am not sure I would have enjoyed meeting Gandhi.


         “Beijing did not know Lao Peng. He had done nothing extraordinary. His outward life had been one failure after another. But ever since he [Poya] came to know him, the man had fascinated him. It seemed unbelievable that in this bare room lived a great man in obscurity, the only perfectly happy man that he knew, without wife and children. He was a man ‘without fear and without worry’ — Confucius’ definition of the gentleman.”


            A Leaf in the Storm also has some tremendous minor characters straight out of Chinese folklore (though for all that perfectly credible) such as Grandma Chao, an innocuous looking, illiterate Chinese woman of sixty, who runs single-handed a vast guerrilla network, or, at the opposite extreme, the swashbuckling, boastful guerrilla leader known as Rattlesnake.

            Unlike most serious western novels, there are no villains in A Leaf in the Storm — Lin Yutang does not need them — except, of course, the faceless and ubiquitous Japanese invaders. Sex is present but kept in its rightful place and Lin Yutang thankfully spares us the tiresome descriptions of intercourse that a contemporary novelist, even more so a film director, would consider de rigueur.      

            Many great novels have disappointing endings and I for one wish Tolstoy  had never written the bathotic Epilogue to War and Peace where the two main characters who survive the war, Natasha and Pierre, turn into a tiresome middle-aged couple : it seems hardly worth having gone through so much to end up with so little.  

            A Leaf in the Storm ends in a surprising and thoroughly satisfying manner, neither tragic nor happy exactly, and the great thing is that we feel that each of the three main characters really has learned something from his or her experiences and is a better person at the end than he or she was at the beginning (even Lao Peng). Of all novels known to me, A Leaf in the Storm strikes me as the one of which Schopenhauer would have most approved. The main characters pass from the turbulence that comes from subjection to the World as Will to the serenity, inevitably mixed with sadness, that comes from renunciation of the individual Will and everything that goes with it.


“ ‘What about you?’ she asked feebly.

‘I shall carry on my refugee work. Try to remember the vision you had at the Chenghow hotel. Courage, Tanni. After this, both you and I must try to find a higher happiness. (…) Lose yourself in work for others and you will find that greater happiness which is above the sorrows of our individual lives.’”  

                                 A Leaf in the Storm, p. 390



« Older entries