In the first pages of The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays, Simon Leys asks us to reconsider the term “quixotic”: Why should the defense of romantic, chivalrous values in an otherwise cynical world be a bad thing? Might we even admire those who tilt at windmills? Leys, the Belgian sinologist and cultural critic most famous as one of the first Western intellectuals to condemn the Chinese Cultural Revolution, is familiar with fighting lonely battles. This collection of his essays and criticism, to be released by New York Review Books in early August, highlights Leys’s erudition and moral pugnacity.
Leys, a scholar of classical Chinese aesthetics, is an intellectual in full: In this collection, he casts his penetrating gaze on not only ancient and modern China but a bounty of other topics and themes—Waugh, Orwell, “Belgianness,” the sea, Chesterton, the Cambodian genocide, the subtleties of literary translation, and more. As a sinologist and a fixture in both the Anglophone and Francophone intellectual worlds, Leys sits at an intriguing intersection of different cultural spheres. His literary criticism and historical sketches are those of the experienced translator intimately acquainted with a language, culture, genre, or period yet also able to regard it with the critical distance of an outsider. His writing is littered with aphorisms, digressions, and anecdotes which illustrate his insights without distracting. The Hall of Uselessness (composed of critical essays, plus a few lectures and incidental writings) exemplifies the appeal of essayism and criticism as genre forms in their own right: Even if we don’t buy all of Leys’ arguments and interpretations, then we are still the better for having had the opportunity to inhabit, if only temporarily, his well-stocked mind and follow his trains of thought.
Simon Leys’s real name is Pierre Ryckmans; he adopted his pen name for the publication of his landmark critique of the Cultural Revolution, Les habits neufs du président Mao (or, The Chairman’s New Clothes), to avoid jeopardizing his continued ability to travel to and study in China. A section of The Hall of Uselessness dedicated to his bittersweet writings on China, East Asia, and Communism reveals the frustration—and, sometimes, hot anger—of a man distressed by the pointless destruction that totalitarian ideology has inflicted on a people, language, and culture he loves.
An unapologetically old-fashioned moral (and Christian) sensibility informs Leys’s essays. Even if we disagree with him (as I sometimes found myself doing, especially when he veered into social commentary), we must respect Leys for never hiding behind irony or opacity to avoid passing moral judgment or putting his opinions on the line—unlike far too many intellectuals today. His temperamental conservatism is obvious. He recognizes that there are values that are timeless and larger than ourselves—and, yes, difficult to understand. And he’s okay with that.