19 March 2011


I said in an earlier post, about Conrad's Heart of Darkness, that an essential aspect of civilization is the devoted performance of daily actions which accrete into durable phenomena lasting longer than a lifetime.  The successful transmission of that sense of duty from one generation to the next is vital.  Here is the beautifully specific example which led me to that rather clumsy and abstract formulation.

David Kidd went to China as a student just before Mao took over.  Quite soon thereafter, he met and married Aimee, a young woman from a wealthy family, and came to be immersed in Chinese culture just as it underwent a sea-change (out of something rich and strange).  His book Peking Story: the Last Days of Old China, includes the following poignant episode.  Kidd's father-in-law, a famous antique collector, had recently died, and his brother-in-law decided to catalogue the rarities in the house. 

Eventually, we came to the bronze incense burners.  They were the most important objects in the Eastern Study... The old man had been famous among connoisseurs in China for being their owner... These bronzes were clean and smooth and comparatively new, having been cast only five hundred years ago.  However... their like had never been made before or since.  Made of a serendipitously assembled mixture of gold, copper, and ground rubies, these incense burners... had been kept constantly hot... Some [others] had gone out... but these fourteen had never cooled in five hundred years.

They were magical objects, glowing and shimmering like jewels, no two alike.  Some were red; others were speckled with iridescent green or with twinkling bits of ruby or gold.  One had a smooth gold surface, incredibly bright and shining.  When Aimee had explained their origin to me, she went to a cabinet and brought out an incense burner of exquisite shape but of a dull, brassy color.  "This is what would happen if the fire went out," she said.

"Couldn't you build another fire in it?" I asked.

"Of course," Aimee said, "but nothing would happen.  Once the burner is allowed to grow entirely cold, the color fades and no later heat can bring it back."

The cold, empty-bellied little incense pot seemed tragic to me.  Because I knew what it must have been like when it was alive, I could see that it was dead.

You can guess the rest.  The caretaker's twelve-year-old daughter, taught in school not to obey the class enemy, pours water into the last fourteen 'living' incense burners, leaving them the color of a brass doorknob.  Five hundred years of tending this magical convergence of alchemy and metallurgy, over in an instant.

Of course that purposeful destruction of culture which culminated in the Cultural Revolution was also born out of a sense of the durability of civilized institutions.  Would-be revolutionaries have always had to reckon with the maddening truth that the centuries-old interrelation of privilege and servitude is only one aspect of the gnarled, unconscious, impenetrable tangle of civilization, and perhaps nowhere more so than in the old China.  The Maoist Year Zero is also a dream of civilization. 

And so are these lines from Yeats's "Lapis Lazuli:"

                 All things fall and are built again,
                 And those that build them again are gay.

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