Tag Archives: Jonathan Spence

Spence's New Book: Scholarly or Not, a Borgesian Passage

Jonathan Spence has a new book centered around a late-Ming intellectual Zhang Dai. I have not read the book (nor have I seen it yet in Beijing), but the folks at Frog in a Well have critiqued the New Republic review and it’s an interesting meta-discussion. Most interesting to me is a passage included by Alan Baumler in what amounts to his own review on the blog. Noting that the new book is no simple academic monograph (and fretting a little that related academic discussions are absent from the text), Baumler notes “There is more in heaven and earth than is in academic monographs, and Spence apparently thinks so as well, as he includes this little story…”

…. at the heart of the scholarly life itself there often lurked a real element of futility. Strangely, Zhang Dai followed up this particular theme most carefully with the example of his own grandfather, whom at many levels he had clearly loved and respected, even revered. Yet, despite all his brilliance, grandfather—according to Zhang Dai—spent his last years of life in pursuit of a truly impossible vision, the compilation of an immense dictionary that would marshal all knowledge in composite categories based on a rhyme-scheme series of classifications. As Zhang Dai wrote in an essay aptly named “Rhyme Mountain,” right up to the end he rarely saw grandfather without a book in his hands, and piles of books lay in disorder all around his study, under layers of dust. When the sun was bright, grandfather took his books out of doors so he could read more easily. At dusk he lit candles and held his book right close to the flame, “leaning across the desk into the brightness.” Thus he would stay far into the night, showing no signs of tiredness. Claiming that all the previous dictionaries were inaccurate, grandfather determined to create his own, using the idea of mountains as his controlling metaphor of organization: key words were termed “high mountains,” catch phrases were “little mountains,” characters that had variant rhymes were termed “other mountains,” proverbs were classified as “worn-out mountains” and so on. In this “Rhyme Mountain,” wrote Zhang, grandfather’s columns of little characters followed in tight columns “like the pleats in a skirt, on sheets of paper yellowed from the beat of the lamp”; he had filled, in this way, over three hundred notebooks, “each thick as bricks.” Some rhyme schemes might fill ten books or more.

Tell me this grandfather’s life work is not akin to something that might occur in Borges’ “La Biblioteca de Babel.”