Monday, September 1, 2014

The Death Sentence

Wu Ch’eng-en

(China, 16th century)

   That night, at the Hour of the Rat, the Emperor dreamed that he had walked out of the palace and in the darkness strolled through the garden, under the flowering trees. Something knelt at his feet and asked for asylum. The Emperor granted the favour; the supplicant said that he was a dragon and added that the stars had revealed to him that, on the next day, before nightfall, Wei Cheng, the Emperor’s Minister, would cut off his head. In the dream, the Emperor swore to protect him.
   Upon waking, the Emperor asked after Wei Cheng. He was told that his Minister was not in the palace. The Emperor sent for him, and then kept him busy the whole day through, so that the Minister might not kill the dragon; toward nightfall he proposed they play a game of chess. The game was long drawn out; the Minister grew weary, and fell asleep.
   A clap of thunder shook the earth. Two soldiers presently burst upon the scene; they carried the immense head of a dragon drenched in blood. They threw it at the feet of the Emperor and vociferated:

   “It fell from the sky.”

   Wei Cheng, who had meanwhile awakened, gazed at the head in perplexity and observed:

   “How strange. I was dreaming I killed a dragon just like that.”

   Did I once read that tale in Kafka – or does it simply echo in his tales, as it does in those of Valery and Borges and Rabbi Nachman of Breslau? Did I once write that tale, in the dream-murder of Simcha Hurlitz – yet I hadn’t yet read Wu Ch’eng-en?

   It would be fatuous to attempt to analyse the implied fatalism of this tale. Stories like these are not parables with hidden meanings for academic critics or psychopathologists to decipher. They are epiphanies of the imagination, and should, like a powerful sleeping draught, be allowed to dissolve slowly in the reader’s imagination, until they have induced their own waking dream.

   The real beauty of such a story is its succinctness – and it is for this reason that I feel justified in including it in what is essentially an anthology of poems. Just as the poets do – save only Pope and Byron – Wu has condensed his tale into the minimum of words needed to recount each aspect of it, the language infinitely condensed, infinitely precise: poetry as an act of fastidiousness. It could, quite easily, have seeded an epic, a roman fleuve, a tetralogy – every incident, after all, has that capacity – and in the hands of another writer it might well have done so: the Emperor’s childhood, a historical account of the Cheng dynasty, his love for the queen and the tragic death of their eldest daughter, a sociological portrait of contemporary Sin, the loves and rivalries of his courtiers, the three wars he fought – and won – against the Mongol hordes, the struggle between Shu Li and Tai Po over the succession; and alongside all this, the sub-plots: the years of Machiavellian conniving or unwavering loyalty through which the dragon-slayer at last achieved the rank of Minister; the devastations wrought against the population in the north, for decades, by entire tribes of warrior-dragons; the designing of the Imperial gardens; the proposal by the Emperor’s cousin – sadly rejected – that the rules of chess be repealed to allow diagonal movements by the pawns. All this, and more, might have hatched into an immense saga, instead of the minuscule prose-poem that Wu created. And for this he deserves our gratitude. For everything that merits the telling has been told, everything that requires revelation is revealed. The other thousand pages, prolix and irrelevant, though they might have entertained us for a thousand nights, are prudently omitted. For Wu’s aim is not entertainment, but epiphany; his tale, like Keats’ Grecian Urn, suspends a single moment in statuesque disanimation, and strips it bare. Long after the Emperor, the dynasty, have been swept away, long after the extinction of all dragons, this one abstruse idea remains, irrational yet credible, a moment out of Prospero, and poetry. And that is all.

   Or not quite all. I am left with one outstanding question. Why is the dragon informed of his fate by the stars, awake, when to have informed him in a dream – though still perhaps per vox stellarum – would have added yet one more level to the conceit?

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