Infinity: Gao Xingjian and “Soul Mountain”

La Fin du Monde, 2006

From Soul Mountain

I don’t know if you have ever observed this strange thing, the self. Often the more you look the more it doesn’t seem to be like it, and the more you look the more it isn’t it. It’s just like when one is lying on the grass and staring at a cloud — at first it’s like a camel, then like a woman, and when you look again it becomes an old man with a long beard, but this doesn’t last because clouds are transforming every instant.

Suppose you use a lavatory in an old house and you happen to look at the water stains on the wall — every day you go there are changes in the stains. First you see a face, when you look again it’s a dog dragging a sausage, afterwards it turns into a tree, there is a woman under the tree and she’s sitting on a skinny horse. After a couple of weeks, or perhaps after several months, one morning, you are constipated and you suddenly find that the stain is in fact still a face.

When you are lying on the bed looking at the ceiling, the light projected onto the white ceiling too can undergo many transformations. If you concentrate on looking at yourself, you will find that your self will gradually separate from the self you are familiar with and multiply into many startling forms. So if I have to make a summary of myself, it terrifies me. I don’t know which of the many faces represents me more and the more closely I look the clearer the transformations become, and finally only bewilderment remains.

You could wait, wait until the stain on the wall again turns into a human face, or you could hope, hope that it would one day turn out to have a particular form. But in my experience, it grows and grows but often not as you wish and moreover, mostly, contrary to what you wish. It is a monster child which you find impossible to accept, yet ultimately it was born of the self and has to be accepted.

Title unknown

I once looked at the photo of me on the monthly bus ticket I had thrown on the table. At first I thought I had a charming smile, then I thought the smile at the corners of the eyes was rather of scorn, arrogance, and indifference, all deriving from self-love, self-adoration, and a sense of superiority. But there was also an anxiety which betrayed acute loneliness, and fleeting snatches of terror — certainly not a winner — and a bitterness which stifled the common smile of unthinking happiness and doubted that sort of happiness. This was very scary, it was like a void, a sense of falling without somewhere to land, and I didn’t want to go on looking at the photo.

Observateur, 2015

After that I went about observing other people, but whenever I observed other people I found this detestable omniscient self of mine interfering, and to this day there is not one face it hasn’t interfered with. This is a serious problem, for when I am scrutinizing someone else, I am at the same time scrutinizing myself. I search for faces I like, or expressions I can tolerate, so I can’t get rid of myself. I can’t find people with whom I can identify, I search without success, everywhere: in railway waiting rooms, in train carriages, on boats, in food shops and parks, and even when out walking on the streets, I am always trying to capture a familiar face or a familiar build, or looking for some sign which can call up submerged memories. When I am observing others I always treat the other person as a mirror for looking inwardly at myself. The observations are inevitably affected by my state of mind at a particular time. Even when I am observing a woman, my sense react to her and my experiences and imagination are activated in making a judgement. My understanding of others, including women, is actually superficial and arbitrary. Women I like are inevitably illusions I have created to delude myself, and this is my tragedy. As a result, my relationships with women inevitably fail. On the other hand, if I were a woman and living with a man, this would also be a worry.

The problem is the awakened self in the inner mind, this is the monster which torments me to no end. People love the self yet mutilate the self. Arrogance, pride, complacency or anxiety, jealousy and hatred, all spring from this. The self is in fact the source of mankind’s misery. So, does this unhappy conclusion mean that the awakened self should therefore be killed?

Gao Xingjian, Soul Mountain(tr. Mabel Lee).

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