Sunday, January 05, 2014

The Myth of Wu-Tao-tzu

Sven "Exterminate All the Brutes" (*) Lindqvist was born in Stockholm in 1932. He holds a PhD in History of literature from Stockholm University. This is an excerpt from a piece written while a cultural attaché at the Swedish embassy in Beijing, China, in 1960-61: 

"One day the Tang-artist Wu Tao-tzu appraised a recently completed mural of his. He clapped his hands, the gates of the temple opened, and he entered into his work. The gates closed behind him.

We often speak about art appreciation (/einfühlung/), but rarely in a concrete manner. Only very young children tend to understand what it entails. One hasn't "penetrated" a work of art until one has made the banal mistake of confusing fiction with reality. ...

In the mountains to the West of Beijing there's a cavern with a gilded Buddha sculpture. According to local myth it's a real human being whose expressive face has been overlaid with a thin sheath  of gold. Those who listen can hear his heart beating.

The same dream speaks from this legend as from the story of Wu Tao-tsu: To be from within that which can only be apprehended from without. Art is merely a gilded material brushed onto reality so as to fixate it. Under the surface there's a living human being, introvert and maintained by the golden surface.


In prison I asked for permission to paint.

Permission was granted.

I painted a small landscape onto the cell wall.

It encompassed almost everything I had enjoyed in life: Mointains and rivers, oceans and clouds, deep forests. A small train ran at the center of the painting, driven by a steam locomotive. It approached a tall mountain and the locomotive had already entered the tunnel.

But the wardens  wouldn't leave me alone.

Finally I thought it was time to end the misery. If they wouldn't even allow such innocent artictic games I would have to make use of the more serious arts that I had devoted many years of my life to master.

For a moment I stood up, holding my breath.

Then I politely asked my wardens to wait while I entered into the small train in the picture to check on something.

They laughed and let me continue.

Then I made my fire and stepped into my image, entered into the small wagon and was driven by the train into the tunnel. The steam from the locomotive flowed like a cloud out of the tunnel and hid the picture. When the smoke cleared the image was gone.

The wardens were left in a state of great confusion."

Lindqvist, Sven, /The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu/, Stockholm, 1967, pp. 5-8.

(*) A translation of the Swedish /Utrota varenda jävel/, 1996. The following is from wikipedia: Lindquist's later works tend to focus on the subjects of European imperialism, colonialism, racism, genocide and war, analysing the place of these phenomena in Western thought, social history and ideology. These topics are not uncontroversial. In 1992, Lindqvist was embroiled in heated public debate, when his book /Exterminate all the Brutes/ was attacked for its treatment of the Second World War and the Holocaust. Opponents accused Lindqvist of reducing the extermination of the Jewish people to a question of economical and social forces, thereby disregarding the impact of Nazi ideology and anti-Semitism and what they viewed as the unique historical specificity of the Holocaust. Some of the harshest attacks were launched by Per Ahlmark, who declared Lindqvist to be a "Holocaust revisionist". This prompted a furious response by Lindqvist, who considered it a defamatory smear -- at no point had he ever called into question the Nazi responsibility for, or the number of dead in, the Holocaust. Regarding the original dispute, Lindqvist retorted that his main argument was correct: the Nazi quest for Lebensraum had at its core been an application of the expansionist and racist principles of imperialism and colonialism, but for the first time applied against fellow Europeans rather than against the distant and dehumanized peoples of the Third World. However, he agreed that the long tradition of anti-Semitism in European and Christian thought had given the anti-Jewish campaign of the Nazis a further ideological dimension, and amended later editions of the book to better reflect this.