The Eastern Aesthetic

Interesting thoughts on the differences between the rise of the Western novel vs the Eastern, from Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading.

Chinese critics have identified over 600 characters in The Scholars, 800 in The Water Margin and the Jin Ping Mei, 975 in The Story of the Stone. And since size is seldom just size—a story with a thousand characters is not like a story with fifty characters, only twenty times bigger; it’s a different story—all this ends up generating a structure which is very unlike the one we are used to in Europe. . . . Preventing developments: that’s the key. Minimizing narrativity. The Story of the Stone is often described as a Chinese Buddenbrooks, and they are certainly both stories of the decline of a great family, but Buddenbrooks covers a half century in five hundred pages, and Stone a dozen years in two thousand pages: and it’s not just a matter of rhythm, here (although that is obviously the case), but of the hierarchy between synchrony and diachrony: Stone has a “horizontal” dominant, where what really matters is not what lies “ahead” of a given event, as in “forward-looking” European prose, but what lies “to the side” of it: all the vibrations that ripple across this immense narrative system—and all the counter-vibrations that try to keep it stable.

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Answer to the above: No. Qualification of answer: Moretti’s shtick is that you need not read these texts at all. This is the difference between ‘distant’ and close reading. According to him and his coterie, there are too many texts for them to be read ‘closely.’ Close reading invariably leads to a canon; canons are unrepresentative; therefore, let’s not read. Which is funny, because he’s a pretty good close reader.

The shtick is disposable, trendy and politically correct – but the methodology has many possible uses, and Moretti himself can be most insightful, as he is here. I’m halfway through the second volume of five in the Penguin edition of “The Story of the Stone,” and I see exactly what Moretti means about the “horizontal dominant.” This is the first classic Chinese novel I have read, and despite any idea that knowing ABOUT it is enough, I wouldn’t wish to have missed one of the greatest reading experiences of my lifetime. It has confirmed in me the intention to read ALL the classic Chinese fiction that is available in English. I am pro-canon, pro-expanding the canon, and pro-looking at everything that isn’t in the canon. This of course means that there are “too many” texts for me to read, but what the heck! It keeps me off the streets and out of trouble.

I know his big idea is distant reading. My point is, apart from the translated novels, all he has going is the words of Chinese critics, hardly a rigorous basis to start making comparisons between European and Chinese novels.

But I’m even more curious about this: if The Story of the Stone has 2000 pages and 975 characters, that’s little more than 2 pages per character. How well developed can these characters be? Is characterization even important at all?

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