Stephen Owen and the Labyrinth of Comparative Literature

Book Review
Mi-Lou: Poetry and the Labyrinth of Desire by Stephen Owen

What is desire? What forms does it take? Does it matter whether the object is a person or a text or a painting? How do different types of desire interrelate?

These are the kinds of questions Stephen Owen asks in perhaps his most ambitious book, Mi-Lou: Poetry and the Labyrinth of Desire. In attempting to answer these questions, Owen draws on (and usually translates himself) Irish folk tunes, classical Chinese poetry, Plato’s dialogues, Michaelangelo’s sonnets, Goethe’s imitations of Rumi, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Rainer Maria Rilke, Pablo Neruda, and a host of minor poets from all over the European tradition, deliberately discarding historical and geographical context in order to get at the core of desire. Owen takes us down the many twisting paths of his labyrinth, from methods of seduction to vicissitudes of memory to the frustration of desiring one with a (literal or metaphorical) heart of stone. The journey is pleasant; the sites, wondrous; the guide, loquacious.

Stephen Owen, a scholar of Chinese literature by training (and one of the most influential at that), makes a point to focus not on his specialty. Translations from Chinese count for only 1/4 of the material analyzed in this book. The purpose here is to open up a conversation between various disparate literary traditions, traditions that have little to no historical connections. This effort is to be highly applauded, as it teaches us scholars of Chinese literature to venture beyond the provincial realm of Sinology, and it teaches scholars of comparative literature that Europe is not the universe, that the world did not begin with Homer, and that theory did not begin with Kant. More truly comparative scholarship in this spirit must be written if we are to escape the dangers of Eurocentrism (or Sinocentrism, to look at it from the Chinese-speaking side).

Owen’s approach, in essence, seems to be modeled on Theodor Adorno, especially as found in Minima Moralia, a collection of hundreds of brief (2-7 page) essays which pick apart various cultural phenomenon – a Hegelian-Marxian dialectic applied to everything from Kierkegaard to classical French literature to the cult of American masculinity to the phenomenon of third-world citizens who go to college in the U.S. and Europe. While Owen remains focused on poetry, he picks up Adorno’s emphasis on fragments and particularities as a means of resisting totalitarianism. For example, Owen’s “Brief and Unfair Execration on the Novel” tells us that the novel is a totalizing medium, that even experimental fiction is “revolutionary on the model of the Khmer Rouge and the National Socialists,” in that it subsumes all particularity to its grand design, and then concludes:

Rebel against its work. Open a novel and read only one paragraph; read it many times; refuse to “go on.” At some other time open it elsewhere and read another paragraph at random. Eventually you will understand that the paragraphs are more important than the whole, which wants to swallow them up and diminish them. By reading only those paragraphs you are violating a taboo about understanding the novel; you are taking them “out of context.” Remember, it’s only a book: you can read it as you please.

In what is certainly a meta-textual statement, Owen tells us why he would write a book like Mi-Lou: to resist the totalizing impulse of (geographical and historical) contextualization.* This aligns him squarely with Adorno, the German-Jewish theorist who fled to the U.S. during World War II and made it his mission to figure out how the Enlightenment project of 17th- and 18th-century Europe could culminate in Nazism.

The problem is that where Adorno sought the intellectual roots of a very real evil which utterly changed his home country, Owen is fighting a turf war in academia, a consequence of historians and literary critics squabbling after being housed in the same “(East) Asian Studies” department. Thus, totalization in the politics = totalization in thought = totalization in cultural production (Adorno’s move) = totalization in disciplinary approach (Owen’s move). We have come a long way from Auschwitz and the killing fields of Cambodia, Owen’s protestations notwithstanding. Perhaps if Owen were to read Adorno more, ahem, historically, he could find a better conceptual synthesis. And in fact, Adorno saw himself as working to historicize, that this was the only way to fight reification under capitalism. “History does not merely touch on language; it takes place in it” (Minima Moralia #141).

Even if we were to accept Owen’s move, he would still fall prey to his own criticism of totalization. After all, why look at poems in so many different languages except to “subsume” them all under the “totalizing” concept of desire? In so doing, all poetry becomes expression of a singular, universal humanity. That is to say, we are left with a humanism remarkably similar to the one which, according to Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, kicked off totalitarianism as we know it.

Moreover, Mi-Lou is uneven in its treatment of sources. Whereas the original texts of Italian, French, Spanish, and German are given, we find none for Latin, Greek, Arabic, or Chinese. By this, it seems that Owen wishes to imitate the style of the grand European intellectual, that nearly extinct figure who translates nothing, alludes to authors by surname alone, and generally assumes the reader to have the same aristocratic knowledge as he. Putting aside issues of elitism, this style needs to be avoided for other reasons. For one, Owen touches on such a broad range of materials that he should not assume background knowledge in his readers. Second, many of the Chinese materials he uses have rarely, if ever, been translated into English before. By not giving the original Chinese texts (or romanization or citations), he denies the reader access to the standard by which to judge him. In effect, Owen silences the original and chooses to speak for it.

The reason that this silencing of the original is so dangerous is that Owen is a rather impressionistic (if prolific) translator. To give just one example, on pages 118-123 and 147-149, he relates the story of Táng 唐 Dynasty poet Bó Jūyì 白居易 (772-846 CE) writing about a woman named Pànpàn 盼盼. The story goes that while Bó was feasting with his friend Secretary Zhāng 張尚書, his courtesan/concubine Pànpàn entertained them with music. Afterward, when Zhāng died, she was left to waste away in a place called Swallow Tower 燕子樓. Ten years later, Bó heard about the couple’s tragic fate and wrote three short poems on it. Over time, the story grew into a legend, going through many iterations.

Owen chooses to translate Bó’s preface, one of the three poems, and a poetic response by Sū Shì 蘇軾 some 200 years later. While his work is admirable, touching on themes of memory and desire, he botches several of the details and leaves out a host of others. The secretary Zhāng, for example, is misidentified as Zhāng Jiànfēng 張建封, whereas it should refer to his son Zhāng Xī 張惜 – a common error, but one that has been identified in all critical editions of the tale since the 13th century.**

Though this may seem like nitpicking, Owen’s insistence on the importance of “particularities” invites such criticism. Furthermore, it makes one wonder: if Owen is careless (or deceptive) with such insignificant details as this, what else is he fudging? A literary critic builds his authority on expertise, on the fact that the reader can trust him to navigate a whole host of difficult texts; once that trust is broken, everything comes in to question.

So while I find the idea of Stephen Owen’s Mi-Lou to be a very exciting contribution to the fields of Comparative Literature and Sinology – a breakthrough, even – the actual execution leaves much to be desired (which is perhaps ironic for a book about desire). The dichotomy of “particular” and “contextual” is a false one; history and literature ought to be concerned with both. Neither is meaningful without the other. The very concept of “desire” is a case in point – it means much different things to an 8th century Chinese Buddhist (for whom desire is the root of all suffering) and to a 21st century American capitalist (for whom desire is the engine of economic growth).

A much better route to making meaningful comparative literary analysis comes through philology, as outlined in Erich Auerbach’s “Philology and Weltliteratur.” This would mean making use of particularities – historically and linguistically provable facts – as a way of approaching the universal and understanding the human through it. Such a work would be less the labyrinth and more the ball of string to guide you through it.

I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball:
It will lead you in at Heavens gate
Built in Jerusalems wall.
-William Blake,
from Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion

*Owen actually tells us as much in response to an early review of his book by historian Mark Elvin. For both review and response, see China Review International 1.1 (1994): 192-201.

**Such as: Bó Jūyì jí jiànjiāo 白居易集箋校, ed. Zhū Jīnchéng 朱金城, 15.926‐930; Wáng Zhòngyōng王仲鏞, Tángshī jìshì jiāojiàn 唐詩紀事校箋, 2:2024-2028; Féng Mènglóng 馮夢龍, Xīnpíng jǐngshì tōngyán 新評警世通言, ed. Qián Bóchéng 錢伯城, 10.129-138; and André Lévy et al, Inventaire analytique et critique du conte chinois en langue vulgaire, pt. I, vol. 2, 400‐404.

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