This post circles around Francois Jullien’s In Praise of Blandness. I first encountered Jullien during my “if I see a Zone Book I read it” phase of my college library wanderings. I stumbled into In Praise of Blandness (also a Zone Book) at a used bookstore and picked it up for old time’s sake.
This book fits into Jullien’s long-running argument about the distinctiveness of Chinese thought from Western European thought. I’m sympathetic to Jullien’s argument, but you can bracket whether or not he is precisely right about the question of cultural difference and appreciate his close portrait of a distinct form of conscious experience.
It’s that form of conscious experience that interests me most. Jullien’s elegy to blandness dovetails with my understanding of sobriety as a spiritual virtue. That Jullien, Deleuze, and Guattari are all French suggests that evn if the Chinese literati developed a sense of blandness more deeply than most, its lessons are not lost on those outside China’s cultural borders.
“…Chinese criticism never allows for the separation between a literary style and its corresponding state of consciousness: while the dimension of the blandness of things subverts all effort and escapes our grasp, it nevertheless will surrender itself, on its own, to one whose spirit has attained a state of openness by ridding itself of all attachments and intentionality. It is thus that the underlying foundation for the spontaneous and unmotivated transpiring of poetic language is recovered in all its intensity and sensitivity. There would little point in invoking irrationality or calling on the mythology of poetic inspiration to illuminate this process…” (91; emphasis mine)
The talk of attachment and intentionality will likely cue up ideas of Buddhism for many, so I should emphasize that Jullien sees Chinese Buddhist notions of non-attachment as a very specific development of blandness. Blandness precedes Buddhism in Chinese thought and Chinese Buddhists bring this sensibility to their understanding of Buddhism, not the other way round.
While Jullien contrasts blandness and inspiration, he emphasizes that the conscious cultivation of blandness makes possible rich and intense experiences, the implication being that a reliance upon inspiration blunts sensitivity and replaces subtle intensity with visible excess (also a concern for Deleuze and Guattari).
“Far from being a concept, blandness represents a balance, an intermediate moment, a transitory stage constantly threatened with obliteration.
Transitory between two poles: on the one side, a too-tangible, sterile, and limited manifestation; on the other, an overly volatile evanescence, where everything disappears and is forgotten. Caught between the dangers of signifying too much and of ceasing to function as a sign at all, the bland sign is just barely one. It consists not of the absence of signs but of a sign that is in the process of emptying itself of its signifying function, on the verge of becoming absent: as marks of an invisible harmony, or scattered traces….
Blandness, prompting one to gradual and never-ending discovery, is the richest of the poetic modes…. [I]t is itself a ‘world’ that must be entered.” (93-94)
To consider this in ritual terms, we need only turn to the I Ching:
The neighbor in the east who slaughters an ox
Does not attain as much real happiness
As the neighbor in the west
With his small offering. (Hexagram 63, changing line 5)
The one who makes the great sacrifice often mistakes the visible greatness for spiritual greatness and summons forth the thing “rich in color [that] run[s] out, dry[ies] out” instead of discovering the “bland [that] grow[s] gradually richer” (to quote Jullien quoting Mei Yaochen).
Setting aside the religious connotations a little longer, the discussion of blandness as a poetic mode that deals in an “invisible harmony” and “scattered traces” ought to bring to mind the early Romantics, like the Schillers, who were ardent Orientalists. Remember that Fin de Siecle French decadence? Well, here we have its roots passing out of Europe and stretching into the vast terrain of Asia, the cross-cutting of cultural connections lost, found, rediscovered, remade, and lost all over again.