Ivan Karamazov with a Maoist Face: Guo Songfen’s Book Collections and Third World Existential Marxism

Written by Po-hsi Chen.

Image Credit: Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Taiwan University.  

On March 25, 2019, a special exhibition on Guo Songfen (1938-2005) and Li Yü’s (1944-2014) book collections and manuscripts was held at their alma mater, National Taiwan University, to commemorate the two late alumni’s literary accomplishments. Both Guo and Li majored in Foreign Languages and Literatures at NTU, and were the contemporaries of renowned modernist writers such as Kenneth Pai, Wang Wen-hsing, and so on. In this sense, the donation of Guo and Li’s manuscripts to their home institute can be seen as a long-awaited homecoming.

Guo and his wife Li, together with the novelist Liu Daren, have mostly been known as writers from the ‘Protecting Diaoyutai’ (Baodiao) generation. After the 1969 Nixon-Sato Joint Declaration stated that the U.S would return the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands to Japan, overseas students from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau in the U.S launched a series of demonstrations and protests against what they deemed as the revival of Japan’s imperial past coupled with the rise of American neo-imperialism. In response to the students’ call, the Kuomintang (KMT) government, which heretofore boasted the U.S as a close ally, failed to secure its territorial claim. Worse still, it mobilised its overseas organs—professional students, secret agents, and even gangsters—to sabotage the students’ campaigns.

As a result, in 1971, student activists like Guo, Li, and Liu turned left to support the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate representative of ‘China’ at the United Nations. On the University of California, Berkeley campus that had just been baptised in the Free Speech Movement and the Civil Rights Movement, Guo and Liu spearheaded in the Protecting Diaoyutai campaigns, to the extent that they abandoned their pursuit for doctoral degrees. As the movement abated, both were put on the ‘blacklist’ by the KMT government, meaning that they were thenceforth banished from Taiwan. Both Liu and Guo ended up working as interpreters for the PRC at the United Nations.

Today, with the rise of Taiwanese consciousness, the Diaoyutai Movement is sometimes seen as an outmoded Sinocentric campaign of irredentism. In comparison with his contemporary modernist and nativist writers, Guo has hence been less canonised in Taiwanese literary history. However, with the posthumously published volume on his political and philosophical writings, edited by Li (whose 2010 lecture series at NTU also helped popularise Guo amongst younger postgraduate students), Guo has been gaining tractions in recent years. In 2008, the English translation of his fictional works, Running Mother and Other Stories, was published by Columbia University Press.

In the initial years at the United Nations, Liu and Guo respectively paid visits to the PRC during the Cultural Revolution. Both wrote short stories afterwards about their travels as an experience of disillusionment. Their fictional accounts feature overseas Chinese intellectuals who returned to China, only to find their distant relatives suffering from PTSD as a result of persecutions by the Red Guards or local cadres. Structurally, as the narrators delved deeper into the stories, they were also approaching the crux of China’s recent traumatic past. Guo’s ‘Auntie’ (1983) relates to an uncle who was coerced by the Red Guards into hanging himself. Li’s ‘First Snow at the River’ (1983) features an art historian researching on a bodhisattva’s sculpture, and found a despaired mother guarding it, because it revealed the face of her daughter who had been killed by a superstitious county official. Liu’s ‘Azaleas Cough Out Blood’ (1984), perhaps the best work of its kind, follows an aunt who was put in an asylum. As the story unfolds, it turns out that she gauged and ate her former lover-comrade’s heart.

The heart-rending experiences notwithstanding, Guo did not simply renounce his commitment to communism. Instead, he took painstaking effort to retain a faith in it. In the mid- to late 1970s, Guo sought recourse to an even deeper reflection on communism by returning to a debate within French existentialism. In 1956, the French literary magazine Les temps modernes, edited by Jean-Paul Sartre, published Francis Jeanson’s scathing criticism of Albert Camus’ The Rebel (L’homme révolté). While Camus contended that communism inevitably led to violence, Jeanson repudiated that Camus’ humanism would only lead to political incompetence.

Indeed, according to a recent book chapter on the introduction of Camus and Sartre to Taiwan, Guo was the first author to systematically study existentialism after the end of the WWII (to the extent that he named himself ‘Ivan’ after Dostoevsky’s character in The Brothers Karamazov who notoriously claims that ‘If God does not exist, everything is permitted’). In as early as 1961, still a senior, Guo published ‘Self-Destruction of Sartre’s Existentialism’ in the renowned literary magazine, Modern Literature. One can detect from the title that Guo did not whole-heartedly embrace the Sartrean existentialism.  Rather, he criticized Sartre for his ‘self-estrangement’. During his ‘Protecting Diaoyutai’ years, Guo pushed this criticism further, chiding that Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus mythologised the Westerners’ post-war sense of absurdity, while that the early Sartre’s morose individualism was a depoliticised understanding of history. In response, he advocated anti-colonial writers from Taiwan. Guo did so also because the Diaoyutai Movement, as an anti-imperialist campaign, dictated that he polarise the East and the West, and dichotomise his literary criticism accordingly.

One year after the Cultural Revolution ended, Guo started publishing a series of articles chronicling the debate between Camus and Sartre on a Hong Kong-based magazine, where he also translated parts from the Spanish communist Santiago Carrillo’s Eurocommunism and the State. An avid reader of Sartre and Camus, Guo held an ambivalent attitude towards the fallout between the two. Having internalised the conflict between supporting and denouncing communist ideology, he oscillated between the two poles during this period. At one point he sided with Sartre, criticising that Camus ‘regarded all kinds of revolutions since 1789 as commensurable, irrespective of their different natures, and despised them from a “humane/humanitarian” standpoint’. In the next article, however, Guo concurred with Camus that ‘in committing the red terror, communism has an intact ideology as its theoretical foundation’.

All in all, Guo’s concern resembled the philosophical rendition of the post-war Czechoslovakian ‘socialism with a human face’, which emphasised individual freedom and personal choice under the Soviet regime. Indeed, Guo passingly referred to ‘Second World’ Eastern European communist theorists’ re-reading of Sartre in the post-Stalin context. For instance, he noted that both the Yugoslav communist Milovan Djilas’s The Unperfect Society: Beyond the New Class (1969) and the Polish philosopher Adam Schaff’s The Philosophy of Man (1963) as attempts to ‘humanise Marxism with existentialism’.

Finding a new way to mingle Marxism with existentialism, so as to put a ‘human face’ on Marxism while shedding existentialism of its individualist sentimentalism, was not uncommon in the Third World. For instance, a recent study on Arab existentialism notices that some younger Marxist intellectuals in Syria were attracted to what Georg Lukács condemned as a ‘fetish of (abstract) freedom’ in existentialism. In Latin America, a scholar suggests that the ‘anguished solitary individual in a meaningless solipsistic world, often found in the thought of self-proclaimed European existentialists, has not been a common feature of Latin American philosophy’, the latter of which focuses more on ‘intersubjective relations and national and continental identity’.

To this day, the revived interest in Guo has mostly centred on his existentialist aspect—the Camusian nihilism and absurdity, for example. However, as the Hong Kong editor Lee Yee reminisced, the later Sartre’s leftist turn also shifted Guo’s attention to Marxism. The NTU’s collection of Guo’s books and the digitisation of his manuscripts, hopefully, would also enrich the researchers’ understanding of his reflection on communist revolution in the post-Mao period.

Po-hsi Chen is doctoral candidate in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale UniversityHe is currently researching on overseas Chinese intellectuals in the 1970s. He is the Chinese translator of Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. This research was supported by the Council on East Asian Studies at Yale University. This paper is part of the North American Taiwan Studies Association (NATSA) 2019 conference special issue.

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