T’sao Hsueh Ch’in, The Dream of the Red Chamber
Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Casanova, History of My Life




T’sao Hsueh Ch’in,
The Dream of the Red Chamber

The Chinese The Dream of the Red Chamber may well be as great a book as the Japanese The Tale of Genji. Its virtues are not as obvious. In fact, they are not obvious at all. They are the virtues that distinguish Chinese civilization from Japanese — the virtues of a vaster humanity. Both novels have a lucidity and immediacy of narrative seldom encountered in Western fiction of a serious character, but amongst us confined to cowboys, detectives, and the funny papers. Alex Comfort once compared Chinese fiction to Pepys’s Diary, “a perfectly translucent medium through which we see the characters in all their moral nudity.” The contemporary author most like a Chinese novelist is Georges Simenon. You are too busy with the story to notice psychological insight or dramatic command until a week after you have finished the book.

The plot is the familiar, recurrent one of so much great fiction, as it is a specialty of both Chinese fiction and philosophy of history — “When women rule, the house decays” — but also its contrary, a celebration of the matriarchy that underlies and sustains Chinese society. Like all great fiction, it is also the story of the immensely difficult achievement of personal integrity. The narrative works toward a transcendental meaning of life through that life itself, which so conspicuously hides all such meaning. The characters are all “fallen beings.” The hero is an unprepossessing, idle scholar-gentleman, timid, oversexed, unstable. The two young heroines are both hysterics, the villainess a stock ruthless sister-in-law. The action is confined almost entirely to the women’s quarters and consists mostly of vapors, tantrums, fugues, and quarrels. Time goes by. As in life, the characters run down, coarsen, sicken, and die. At the end everybody is worn out.

Yet Pao Yu’s meaningless life unconsciously evolves slowly toward illumination. He is a Taoist saint who doesn’t know he is one and doesn’t want to be one. Like Prince Genji, he is indifferent to and ignorant of his cosmic role. He struggles, unaware, against an embodied principle of hate. When salvation comes, it is scarcely distinguishable from its opposite. Behind commonplace life and death lurks another world which intrudes at all crucial moments, a mirror-image more real than this life, where destiny is achieved and manifest; like the dream time of the Australian aborigines where everybody is his own ancestor that lies dormant below the dust of the desert and is awakened by penances of blood and feathers.

Genji is a mystical Buddhist work. The Dream of the Red Chamber is Taoist; its principle of salvation is inaction — wu’wei: the strength of the still keystone in the arch; the water wandering amongst mountains, seeking its own level, eventually wearing away the highest peaks. The talisman of Pao Yu’s integrity is the uncut stone of precious jade with which he is born, which he loses and finds again at the brink of death. Pao Yu’s father, Chi Cheng, the embodiment of patriarchal legalism, presides over the waking world with iron rigor and unrelenting contempt for his son and all his ways; but the dramatic pivots of the novel are a series of dreams, apparitions of the true world in which doubled images of the girls who love and hate Pao Yu function as moral determinants, presided over by the great matriarch, the grandmother of the family.

It is the metaphysical modesty of Taoism that gives The Dream of the Red Chamber its style, that modesty which is the necessary ingredient of the very greatest style in any art. The most profound human relationships; the deepest psychological insights; the most intense drama; the revelation of the moral universe in trivial human action, in the simple narrative of ordinary happenings — greatness of heart, magnanimity (“human-heartedness” is the Chinese term) is the substance from which the narrative is carved.

Reading The Tale of Genji, you are always conscious of the ethereal refinement of the characters, the profundity of the issues, the skill of the author. In Red Chamber you are conscious only of what is happening. Lady Murasaki’s Japanese courtiers seldom eat or drink, and never move their bowels. The Dream of the Red Chamber is haunted by the faint odor of night soil from which a hundred flowers spring.

When you first read about all these people with strange names doing curious things in an exotic setting, you get lost. Then gradually the sheer human mass of Chinese fiction, a mass whose components are all highly individuated, envelops and entrances you. You realize yourself as part of a universe of human beings endless as the dust of nebulae visible in the Mount Palomar telescope, and you are left with the significance of a human kinship powerful as flowing water and standing stone.

From the date of writing, the mid-eighteenth century, until our time, The Dream of the Red Chamber was anonymous. In 1921, Hu Shih, after immense research, ascribed the first eighty chapters to T’sao Hsueh Ch’in and the remaining forty chapters to Kao Ngoh, one of the editors of the 1791 edition. Evidence later discovered would indicate that Kao himself had worked from first drafts by T’sao.

Hu Shih believed the novel to be autobiographical, but it is significant that until the twentieth century no one bothered to disturb its anonymity. Like Gothic cathedrals, which sufficient research can usually demonstrate were built by somebody, the great Chinese fictions are more anonymous and communal than The Iliad. The Chin P’ing Mei (Golden Lotus), The Water Margin (All Men Are Brothers), The Romance of Three Kingdoms are end products of the accretion of hundreds of tales by street-corner storytellers, and their luxuriance of natural growth is characteristic of the Chinese novel even today.

* * *

If completely translated, The Dream of the Red Chamber would require about a million words. The European versions are all drastic abridgments. Bancroft Joly’s version (Kelly and Walsh, Hong Kong, 1892-93), two large volumes, was only the first third of the original. Chi Chen Wang’s (Routledge, London, 1929) was drastically cut, simplified, and secularized until not much more than a Balzacian domestic epic remained. The English of Florence and Isabel McHugh, from the German of Franz Kuhn (Pantheon, New York, 1958), preserves the Taoist otherworldly emphasis which surely was all-important to the author. Chi Chen Wang’s (Twayne, New York, 1958; Anchor Books paperback, 1958) is a new translation greatly expanded and improved and, so to speak, desecularized.

[NOTE:The Dream of the Red Chamber has now been translated complete under the alternative title The Story of the Stone (Penguin, 5 volumes). That version is highly recommended. See also Rexroth’s essay The Chinese Classic Novel.]



Edward Gibbon,
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

“It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.”

Scarcely a sentence from all the autobiographical literature of the world has been more often quoted, and hardly a historian of note in all the years since the publication of his great work but has written something of Gibbon, if no more than in a preface. It would be possible to fill a book with the wise things they have said and a sequel with the foolish ones. The most often repeated, the most vulgar but at the same time the most perceptive, is that, in his Autobiography, “he wrote of himself as if he was the Roman Empire.” The secret of Gibbon lies in the reverse of this proposition. He wrote of the Empire as if it had been himself.

The Decline and Fall has a hero — the man of reason. Its thesis is that the life of the man of reason in history is tragic by nature. It has been said again and again that Gibbon’s history is the perfect expression and fulfillment of the Age of Reason, the eighteenth century — greater than anything of Voltaire’s, greater than Tiepolo or Watteau, greater than any of the noble domestic architecture. Certainly Voltaire’s History of Charles XII does not stand comparison with any major connected narrative in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, much less with the work as a whole. The reason is simple. The Augustan intellects of the eighteenth century prided themselves on their aloofness. Voltaire is never overcommitted.

One of the greatest stories, true or fictional, in all literature is Gibbon’s account of the life and martyrdom of Boethius under the Ostrogoth Theodoric. Senator, poet, philosopher, man of reason, he was the last of his kind in all these categories. The story is an incomparable masterpiece of prose. From the opening sentence, “The Senator Boethius is the last of the Romans whom Cato or Tully could have acknowledged for their countryman,” Gibbon builds a mighty organ toccata. He always seems to see ahead to every echo and resonance and inversion of rhythm, through the idyllic description of The Consolation of Philosophy to the terrible climax — the philosopher garroted and clubbed to death in the last gloomy hours of Theodoric, followed by the swift cadence, and the coda of the martyrdom of his fellow Senator Symmachus — four crowded pages of the most solemn music. Each man speaks in his own style. Gibbon speaks with such sublimity because, sitting in his quiet study, he was totally involved in the defense of reason against the triumph of barbarism and superstition and the ruin of all bright things.

At the beginning of the fall of Rome, Saint Augustine wrote The City of God; and Gibbon, looking back in his book from the walls of burning Constantinople in the final fall, on the eve of a new age of enlightenment, is in fact committed to the same interpretation of history as Augustine. Against the destructive irrationality of circumstance and the folly of mankind stands the community of the elect. In Augustine it is the community of faith; in Gibbon the elect of reason, a society that transcends history. The ideal Rome that Gibbon describes in his opening chapters on the Antonines is a passing avatar of the enduring City of Enlightenment. This, after all, is the subject of all tragedy: the defeat of the ideal by the real, of being by existence.

Even more than Toynbee’s work, Gibbon’s is a judgment, but a judgment achieved by the presentation of an integral work of art, the magnificent progress of a great story and the scenic aspect of marvelous events. Although scholarly research, most especially in Byzantine and Islamic studies, has undergone several revolutions since Gibbon’s day, all but an insignificant few of his facts still stand. His carping critics have quarreled with his accuracy only as a cover for their objections to his dramatic thesis. In an age of scientific history when the art was turned over to committees of specialists, J.B. Bury — the editor of the Cambridge Medieval History volumes that cover the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and the history of the Byzantine Empire and the Christian heresies and councils and the rise of Islam — also edited The Decline and Fall and could find nothing in it to correct except trivial failures of information. The recent new edition of the Byzantine volumes of the Cambridge Medieval History are extraordinarily difficult reading, and they certainly supply little information that cannot be found in Gibbon. Laying aside the massive volumes, you know that no one of the committee of authors was personally involved.

The quarrel between history as art and history as science has often been interpreted as a matter of stylistic felicities. So for instance does C.V. Wedgwood in her essay on Gibbon. She is wrong. Why should not history be interpreted in terms of good and evil? She thinks the quarrel with the pure-science advocates is over inordinate attention to the embellishment of style. It certainly is not. The question is: is the historian a value-neuter investigator, as the physicist and the etymologist claim to be?

The great histories of the world — those of Thucydides, Su Ma Ch’ien, Gibbon, Ibn Khaldun, Tacitus, Livy, Herodotus — and those of lesser figures like Commines and Froissart or Hume and Macaulay have all been integral works of art. They have been so not because of their pretty prose but because of their objective dramatic presentation of the great truth that history, like life, is neither optimistic nor pessimistic but tragic. All values wear out at last or at once in the attrition of the passage of the world of facts. Gibbon’s millennium-long drama is a tragedy presented with a good humor peculiar to himself. His story is of the decay of civilization, with the loss of self-determination and control of the human environment. He presents it with a maximum of civilized determination and self-control.

Pedantic minds have found his Byzantine chapters the least interesting, although certainly the majority of his readers have liked them best. He is accused of depreciating the Byzantine achievement. Does he? Not as much as Procopius, or Anna Comnena, or Psellus. He is remarkably like the most urbane Byzantine historians who were his sources. Panoplied and ceremonial chaos, ideological warfare, and silken barbarity are described with balance and deliberation, with quiet wit and malice, and with devastating understated footnotes, where necessary “relegated to the decent obscurity of a learned language.”

In his own time, Gibbon’s Latinate antithetical style already sounded archaic, yet it is still today eminently suited to his solemn subject. How else is one to describe the beauty, lechery, and political malevolence of Theodora, or the economic folly of her husband, Justinian, than in a quiet language derived from the letters of Cicero, the most ironic passages of Thucydides, and the innuendos of Tacitus? For the Muse of History appears like the child Theodora in the arena, dancing naked on the head of a bear, more often than she appears as the noble goddess of Livy’s and Plutarch’s mythologies. What better response to the spectacle than the caustic caution and gentlemanly calm, the prudent incredulity Gibbon developed in meditation on a thousand years of the slow triumph of disorder — meditation by the orderly Swiss lake of Voltaire’s exile?

[Another Rexroth essay on Gibbon]



Casanova, History of My Life

Purity, simplicity, definition, impact — these qualities of Homer are those of Casanova too. In addition, he has a special talent for giving the impression of complete candor. Only when we escape from the swiftness of his narrative and recollect his adventures in tranquillity do we ever suspect that he is not telling the strict truth. Candor is the essence of the art of autobiography. Proust, Pepys, Rousseau, Madame Rolland, Saint Augustine and Henry Adams — as long as we are carried along we cannot help believing them.

The greatest of adventurers in an age of adventurers, from Catherine and Frederick to Saint-Germain and Mirabeau, from throne rooms to brothels, Casanova is the most credible of a century of incroyables. Perhaps there is a deeper social kinship to Homer. The breakup of feudalism, the loss of Christian belief, the accelerating economic change created a social chaos in the eighteenth century like a barbarian invasion. The new classes and their parasites were predators in a Viking age of satin breeches and powdered hair — an age of transformation, a Heroic Age, the ideal environment for those blessed with inordinate love of life, for the superlatively healthy amoral animals who gamble away earldoms and seduce countesses and chambermaids and all in the same night, as the Berserkers burned monasteries and raped nuns. Casanova is natural man living at the highest pitch, loving a life made of nothing whatever but a leonine physiology and the wits of a fox — a self-made man.

People have argued about the transition from “shame culture” to “guilt culture” during the Heroic Age. Casanova is a freebooter to whom these terms are meaningless. With its hundreds of sexual capers, his narrative has no prurience whatsoever and no monotony. It has no malevolence, either, and Casanova’s Italianate vengeances are without petty malice. He is always being ruined by his na├»ve good nature. He falls in love with adventuresses more unscrupulous than himself who tease him with sisterly kisses and beggar him betimes. He falls for the most hackneyed confidence games, if only they involve a pretty woman. He hoodwinks an old codger with a magic conjuration to raise an imaginary treasure. Instead, he raises a terrifying lightning storm and cowers within his own magic circle, praying for mercy. Always in his love affairs he seeks first the pleasure, sexual and otherwise, of the girl. This talent made him adored in a brutal time by countless women of all ages and conditions from Moscow to Portugal.

Sometimes his giddiness pays. Down to his last three gold coins, headed east in Poland into the unknown, he tips a waitress with the lot and immediately establishes his credit as a prodigal millionaire. Most gamblers are like arsonists — addicted to the exquisite, guilty thrills of tempting destruction. Casanova gambled as children gambol, for the pure love of the great chance of living.

Whatever Casanova does, he assumes responsibility for consequences in the act of doing. So he never looks back on his life with regret, except for one moment of irresponsible gossip which damaged the career of a man who was hardly a friend — and the abiding regret that it is all over. “When I was young I was very fond of sailor’s hardtack. I had thirty-two beautiful teeth. Now I have only two left and can no longer enjoy it.” Conscience, even introspective curiosity, are foreign to Casanova. Nonetheless, the long tale is told with a scarcely audible but persistent note of melancholy. Men who live like Casanova are seldom interested in themselves; their egocentricity does not give them time for egotism. Neither was Casanova, probably, until old age and loneliness came over him — once the king of bohemians, exiled to a castle in Bohemia.

Time and its ruining passage color all the book. His sense of his own imminent death lurks in the dark background of every brilliantly lit lusty and bawdy tableau. After all, Casanova’s memoirs are not a diary but an aged man’s memories of his youth. Saint Augustine’s Confessions are the confession of the betrayal of his own youth because he was in love with eternity. Casanova was passionately in love with a perishing present that long since had perished. The gavel of mortality raps steadily and beats out a moral judgment of life — the most fundamental judgment, the judgment of the amoral.

Cellini is an immoral healthy animal, and disagreeable because actually sick in some irrelevant way. Restif de la Bretonne is a moral imbecile. Casanova is a man without interiority except for a profound awareness of the vanity of human wishes. Proust seeks for the meaning of time. Casanova knows it has none. Since this is one of the major conclusions that wisdom can form from the facts of existence, the book has a peculiar naked profundity certainly lacking in those other adventurers, Cellini and Restif. Havelock Ellis said of him that he was the consummate master of the dignified narration of undignified experience.

It is the wisdom of the doomed flesh that is responsible for Casanova’s redeeming dignity. He has equals but no superiors in the art of direct factual narrative. Chinese adventure novels and the greatest modern detective stories do not surpass him. From the very beginning, the simple facts of his childhood and youth roll along like the wheels of an express train. The narrative carries all before it and carries the most indifferent reader with it. This is action writing at the highest pitch — preemptory story-telling.

When we pause for breath, we notice other qualities that Casanova shares with detective stories. We feel that we are always skirting the edges of a mystery. Something seems to be going on that we are not being told about. This isn’t true; it is a tone, which is due to the fact that Casanova was at the very center of the mystifying occult Freemasonry of the mid-eighteenth century with its mixture of eroticism, mathematics, deism, and international espionage. Unlike Saint-Germain, who pretended to be immortal, to speak all languages, and to have unlimited wealth; unlike Cagliostro, whose speculations must have astonished him whenever they accidentally escaped from total charlatanism, Casanova had no need to pretend. His life was illuminated by the glamour of liberated sensual devotion — the mystery of flesh and blood and nerves and bones in action.

The most mysterious thing about this apparition is that it comes out of nowhere and returns to nothing. The loving human body hurtles through time like a thrown battle-axe. “Eminently rapid, plain, direct in thought, expression, syntax, words, matter, ideas,” said Arnold of Homer, “and eminently noble.” Everyone would agree that all these terms apply to Casanova, except the last, which many would change to “eminently ignoble.” Is this true? One meaning of the word “noble” is “descended from the chiefs of the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Lombards, or Burgundians.” It is this blood relation to the epic hero which distinguishes Casanova from the other rascals of literature.

[NOTE: The best edition of Casanova’s memoirs is the one translated by Willard Trask (6 volumes).]


Selections from Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited (copyright 1968 Kenneth Rexroth) and More Classics Revisited (copyright 1989 Kenneth Rexroth Trust). Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Both of these volumes are in print and available from New Directions. Do yourself a favor and get them.

Other “Classics Revisited” essays