Generations and Literary History

I recently read an article in The Weekly Standard by Andrew Ferguson called “Millennial Mongers,” about why sweeping statements about a given generation are arbitrary, “a dog’s breakfast of conjecture, research-trolling, and poll sifting.” These sentences summarize his basic point:

If the category called “a generation” isn’t really a category, and if human life studied within the noncategories is too various to afford generalization, and if we can’t know whether the nongeneralizations were caused by the arbitrary labeling of the categories, then .  .  . isn’t this all rather pointless? Can’t we just pack it in and go home?

Ferguson then goes on to show how pulling on the thread of a recent New York Times article‘s citations causes the whole thing to unravel, revealing the author’s bald assertions underneath.

There are times when I feel the same way about literary history. The works of Yoshikawa Kōjiro 吉川幸次郎, Stephen Owen, and many others have been a boon to me, providing a general framework to think about Táng and Sòng dynasty poetry. The same can be said for Luó Gēnzé 羅根澤 about the history of Chinese literary criticism, or René Wellek about the history of Euro-American literary criticism.

But each of these bears the same flaws as articles about Millenials’ Niceness or Meanness. Though more subtle than your typical clickbait or newspaper piece, they still cherry-pick evidence to support large-scale claims that are barely more than opinion. Mountains of facts must be tossed aside in favor of a cleaner, more elegant thesis. Such literary historians attempt to carve figurines out of flowing water, but, as Lǐ Bái 李白 once said, “Pull out a knife to cut water, and water flows the more” 抽刀斷水水更流.

Which brings us to the ethics of translation. Part of the reason such selective evidence is used in narratives of classical Chinese literary history is due to the lack of translations. In the Táng, a select few poems by a select few poets get translated again and again, are said to be “representative,” and are then mobilized for telling a tale of the development of poetry. Revisionist histories choose a few other pieces and do the same thing. All of this could be mitigated if larger bodies of work were translated (or at least annotated), allowing the scholar to skim through a much larger amount of material before building a claim. It would also allow our work to be verified more easily by non-specialists. This is already the case, to a much greater extent, with classic Greek and Latin works. More works have been translated, and less selectively. I, a non-reader of Latin, can go pick up Livy or Tacitus and read through both authors’ extant works in their entirety. I cannot do the same thing with Hán Yù 韓愈 or Ōuyáng Xiū 歐陽修.

But the problem with literary history goes much deeper than translation. The drive for a historical narrative, a generation’s few defining characteristics, is endemic to human thought. We need to process facts in order for them to make any sense. Borges once wrote a story about a man with a perfect memory, named Funes. Though staggeringly good at learning languages, he proved himself to be a very poor reasoner, since “to think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract.” Not being God, we are not omniscient, nor could we handle omniscience were it given to us.

So I know my criticisms of literary historians are unfair. Such scholars are only human, doing the best they can to find design in a heap of broken images. The good ones will acknowledge their limitations up front, or stress the creative tension between individual and group. They will note how Táng poets were just as complicated and contradictory as Millenial Americans. Their story will ever be partial, even as their knowledge.

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