Some Reflections after a Sharing (7th October, 2016)

During my hasty sojourn in Hong Kong and invited by my previous teacher (and also one of my best mentors) Heidi, I had the privilege to share my learning experience with the current cohort of postgraduates majoring in MA Comparative and Literary Studies at my alma mater, Hong Kong Baptist University. Despite a talk fairly short, and seemingly a lot shorter compared to the span of history of art, I felt thankful for being given such a prime opportunity to rethink, reconsider and reconstruct my thoughts about those days on which I attended the classes as they are now.

Asked whether I encountered any problems while studying the course (called Global Modernisms), I instantaneously denied. However, had I been compelled to retake the same lectures again, I would have come across more problems or problematiques. Perhaps just as the Chinese idiom says “newborn calves make little of tigers”, I had oversimplified the term ‘modernism’, its complicated chemical reaction when combined with the word ‘global’, and the annoying multitudinous interpretation when‘s’ is followed by the m-word to form countless cacophonous small ms instead of a harmonious M. Dumbfounded by the variety of definition out of the same m-word, I sometimes romanticized, or philosophized it by claiming to others that ‘to un-define it is perhaps the best and the most unique definition’.

But you cannot, I told myself, not define it despite your full awareness of what I tried to coin as ‘un-define-ability’. Our understanding of the same word ‘modernism’ becomes so diversified that each of our own definition seems to be our faith, our belief. In a society where freedom of speech and religion is revered, nobody will be offended if you are a Christian, a Protestant, a Buddhist, and/or an atheist. So long as you hold your own faith in your own interpretation, go ahead, justify your own choice, and you will not and you cannot, I believe, be too off track. Occasionally I am too glad to live in the 21st century instead of the previous centuries during which elites, higher classes or high caste usually dominated or overshadowed all other voices.

Somebody might challenge me that Chinese soil should be separate from the occidental landscape. Nonetheless, consider the stressful Chinese official examination Keju (or 科舉) through which all candidates should write, in the Ming and Ching dynasties, the mundane eight-legged essays with the so-called model answer, one could but follow the rule in order to be qualified as an official even though s/he might hold a different perspective.

When thinking how imagination are stuffed to a verge of death in the old days of China, I always consider myself as fortunate. I would have never known Spivak and her academic essays had she lived in the Middle Ages, for the dark dominant church organization would not permit a second voice, let alone letting the minority a voice. Thus, though at times solitarily, I enjoy how my thoughts ramble freely, boundlessly around the earth, across time and beyond space.

Near the end of the sharing, one student told me how he overcame the language barrier when it came to reading English articles/essays. He said he would either consult the dictionary, or employ google translator to accelerate his reading and understanding. Frankly speaking, when I empathize with those whose English learning experience is relatively short, to read all of a sudden a dozen of articles each week can perhaps be comparable to l’enfer – the hell – delineated by French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867). In reminiscence, when I was still in my third year learning German (indeed I did not persist in doing it throughout the whole year, but did it intermittently) and when I tried to read Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (English: The Sorrow of Young Werthers), I felt like being at an alien planet. But Wittgenstein was right: “The border of my language signifies the border of my world”[1] I prefer to sustain temporary pain to open up the gate of the new, the unknown, rather than to ward off it.

Finally, I remember Vicktor Shklovsky has said elsewhere by analyzing Tolstoy’s War and Peace that “after we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it”[2]. Viktor, for sure, proposes the above statement to formulate his theory of de-familiarization, but it does apply to language learning, too. When you surmount the language barrier after perseveringly reading similar articles or essays of a similar field, you will soon be familiar with them. Batman becomes Batman because he wants to overcome his fear for bats. So what about you?

[Featured photo taken on 15th September, 2013]

[1] The original quotes, “Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.”

[2] Vicktor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique” in Literary Theory: An Anthology, Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, ed. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 1998 (p.16)


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