Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Question of Hu

I just read Jonathan Spence's historical narrative The Question of Hu. It's the story of a forty-year old Chinese man who is brought (at the last moment, and as a choice of desperation rather than a deliberate selection) by a Jesuit priest, Jean-François Foucquet, who had spent more than twenty years doing missionary work in China, along with him back to France to serve as his secretary and copyist. It didn't work out: Hu was, seemingly, mad -- and while precisely to what degree what seemed like madness was simply culture clash is one of the questions of the book, if the accounts are at all accurate (they mostly rest on Foucquet's testimony) he was certainly borderline. He was put in a madhouse for several years before eventually being freed and sent home.

Spence is a marvelous writer -- I read his Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci for a class six years ago and just loved it -- and The Question of Hu is a beautifully written book, as well as an extremely engaging narrative -- for me, at least, it grabbed me from the beginning and pulled me through it in the space of a few hours (it's a short book). But unlike The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, I felt upon finishing it that The Question of Hu was an unsatisfying narrative. Too many questions were left unanswered; I, for one, would have liked information -- or, failing that, speculation -- about them.

So I went on the web to see what other people said. Depressingly, googling "Question of Hu and Spence, or "Question of Hu and Review, brought up mostly sites trying to sell things -- copies of the book, understandably, but also a lot of sites that seemed to want to sell term papers. One feels fairly dishonest even having stumbled on such things; it's certainly depressing how readily available they seem to be. Darn it, I wanted to engage with other readers about a book I'd read and enjoyed, not cheat on my homework!

Ultimately I found two interesting reviews. One was an essay entitled "The Question of The Question of Hu," by Bruce Mazlish (full text available only on JSTOR, accessible through University libraries and the like but not for free to the public; but an abstract is here). Mazlish seemed to share my frustrations with the narrative more, saying that he is frustrated that Spence doesn't speculate more about what he thinks was really true about Hu (he reports that Spence said in a seminar that he felt it wasn't his place as a historian to do so, but I don't see what would have been the harm in (clearly labeled) speculation). Mazlish also said Spence should have done a bit more to enlighten the reader about Chinese cultural issues that might have been at work, and I'd have to agree. (I would also have liked to find out more about the eventual fate of Foucquet and his rather heretical ideas; but Spence sticks with Hu, pointing us in the direction of a biography of Foucquet if we want to know more.)

Mazlish ultimately argues that Spence's book isn't a work of history (or even a historical novel!), but something more like a (true-story) novel, since true history must be analytical. I don't think I agree -- I'd give the label 'history' to any thoroughly-sourced, accurate story -- but this seems mostly a semantic distinction, since clearly Spence hasn't written an analytical history, and if you want to limit history to that, then Mazlish's claim is pretty clearly right. -- Actually, though I suspect that it is a normative claim about what historians ought to be doing as well as a semantic claim, and there I think I disagree -- I think there's place in history for simply well-told, vivid stories that bring to life periods of the past. Certainly Spence lets us know a great deal about the texture of life in the 1720's across a wide range of space, which seems to me is not only knowledge but genuinely historical knowledge too.

The other review I found printed on dead trees, namely John Updike's review, included in his collection Odd Jobs. Updike seemed more willing than Mazlish to flatly call Hu mad (justifiably, as I said, assuming one credits Foucquet with basic accuracy, as Spence seems to) -- though Mazlish draws some nice (and apt) comparisons between certain of Hu's seeming insanities (e.g. preaching to a Parisian crowd in Chinese with no hope of being understood) and behaviors we accept from missionaries (who often do similar things). I suppose P. Z. Meyer would call them both mad; but here, I think, Foucault's claim (which Mazlish reiterates) about madness being a social judgment is precisely right. But madness is at times more than that: it is a disease of the brain, just as eczema is a disease of the skin, and there seems some evidence that Hu suffered from that. Updike is also more willing, ultimately, to accept the book simply as putting forward unanswered and probably unanswerable questions, writing:

What [Spence] has produced is, if not quite Dada history, history with postmodern texture, minimalist and enigmatic -- subtly fantastic history that in its very minutiae of research mocks our ability really to know another age or another person. We are disconcerted and charmed, rejoicing (not quite sanely) in the question of Hu as we rejoice in the face of all unanswerable but beautifully posed questions.

I don't think Updike's right about The Question of Hu being postmodernist in texture -- I think Updike means by this simply that it raises but does not answer questions, but I don't think that's sufficient for the label, which is not otherwise apt. But Updike is clearly right about the spirit in which Spence's book ought to be taken. And while I ended Spence's book with all the feeling of a cartoon character running off a cliff -- "Wait, is that it? What happened to Hu afterwards? What in the !@#$% world was going on with him anyway?" -- I think Updike has soothed me into accepting the tale simply as a mysterious story. And he is unquestionably right that whatever questions it poses are beautifully posed.

And I suspect that that is the judgment that Spence intends. One key thing in the book -- not mentioned by either Updike or Mazlish -- is the epigraph: "Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage." -- Joachim du Bellay. ("Happy he who, like Ulysses, has made a beautiful voyage.") Returning to the beginning of the book, wondering what on Earth Spence thought of Hu, we find the epigraph: Hu, like Ulysses, made a beautiful voyage. Like Ulysses, he was a captive for most of it (in his case in a mental institute, not in thrall to Calypso); but he came home alive, and even managed to finagle some money out of the Jesuits in Canton which he claimed Foucquet owed him (dubiously, from our viewpoint, although Mazlish suggests that what a contract meant to the Chinese in the early Eighteenth century might have supported him.) Hu, in the end, "... Et puis est retourné, plein d'usage et raison/ Vivre entre ses parents le reste de son âge!." So Spence has given us an answer after all! -- But to more than that. After all, it is not just Hu who made a beautiful voyage, but we the reader as well. It is a gripping tale, that takes us across the world, in thrall as we view strange places and meet strange men: for the majority of it we are its captive, as in its thrall as Ulysses was to Calypso. So Spence tells us, in the end, what he intended for us as well. And I think Updike is right: it is a voyage worth taking.

A good book, recommended, with the caveat that closure -- whether narrative or historical, analytical or biographical -- is not in the offing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your analysis, but the frequent parenthetical comments were a little distracting.