Thursday, February 12, 2015

Caught a scent

There's few things I enjoy more, in my nerdy way, than a bibliographic wild goose chase: some unexpected reference or anomaly in a citation, which leads to others, disclosing unimagined networks and histories of reading (and misreading)... I found such a one here last week, my first in China! In Beijing someone gave me the new book (in English) by Renmin University Professor of Comparative Literature and Religion Yang Huilin, China, Christianity and the Question of Culture; she thought I'd be particularly interested in the discussion of the Book of Job in an essay on the Shoah and the Cultural Revolution. Was I ever!

The first anomaly wasn't so interesting. "The Contemporary Significance of Theological Ethics: The True Problems Elicited by Auschwitz and the Cultural Revolution" is not about the Book of Job, but I'm used to Job synechdochically standing for the problem of evil, which was definitely the subject. The essay takes three "models of evil" from an essay by Catholic theologian Didier Pollefeyt on forgiveness after Auschwitz and uses them to assess and critique views of the Cultural Revolution. Pollefeyt's "diabolicization," "banalisation" and "apology of evil" weren't distinctive enough to make me want to follow up; in any case, Yang found them useful for diagnosis but not for prognosis. More interesting, and confronting, was Yang's assertion: it is not possible for forgiveness to become the starting point for rebuilding the ethical order subsequent to the Cultural Revolution (72).

But then I did a search for discussions of Yang's essay, which the new book indicates first appeared in English in 2004 (so did the essay by Pollefeyt it employs). I found an essay by Austrian theologian and classicist Leopold Leeb introducing Yang's "view of Christian culture" in the now defunct journal Inter-Religio (published by Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture in Nagoya), whose main focus was the Auschwitz/Cultural Revolution piece. Leeb's essay appeared in 2000, and was clearly discussing a Chinese version of Yang's essay (key phrases were translated differently). But the most recent work of Yang's it names is the book 追问"上帝"-信仰与理性的辩难 Questioning "God": A Debate between Faith and Reason, published in 1991. So was the piece originally written more than a dozen years earlier?! A quick search of Pollefeyt's career showed he'd published nothing, certainly not on the relevant topic, in the early 1990s. Was there an earlier, pre-Pollefeyt version? What was going on?

Eventually a Chinese friend tracked down the Chinese original of Yang's essay: "from 1991," he confirmed. But that turned out to be a misreading - it's 199901, so actually appeared in early 1999. And the Questioning "God" wasn't published in 1991 either, but in 1998. The 1999 essay references a paper Pollefeyt gave in 1998, later published in the form referenced in the English translation. Mystery solved! I suppose I could have been spared all this snooping if the new book had included the original Chinese in its background for the essay, or if Leeb had had a better editor. But I'm glad I was forced to snoop, because I suddenly had on my desktop (real and virtual) works - the internet is full of pdfs! - by Yang and Pollefeyt which between them raise incredibly powerful and interesting questions not only about the legacies of Shoah and Cultural Revolution but also about intercultural and -religious encounter, reading and translation, time and memory, religion and ethics...

More coming! (Here)

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