Friday, October 30, 2015

In Praise of Nonconformity: Vagrants, Misfits, Rebels, and Liumang

The Vagrants: A Novel by Li Yiyun
I've just finished reading The Vagrants: A Novel by Li Yiyun.

Now the first thing I'll say is that everyone should read everything Li Yiyun writes. I particularly like the stories in the collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.

A couple of things about The Vagrants struck me particularly.

One is that this novel is gives a very realistic account of people in China being swept up in all kinds of different ways in a political campaign. I've read a lot of fiction from China that deals with this issue, but I've never read anything that does so while also conveying the feeling of private life and inner life so convincingly.

Another -- and this is what inspired this blog post -- is that I found myself taken with the central character -- a boy named Bashi -- despite the fact that he is an odd duck . . . a nuisance . . . and potentially worse. (Bashi isn't the only "vagrant" in Li's novel.  In fact, just about everybody who is described has broken free of the moorings of that crushing social system, or nearly so.)

I kept thinking to myself, "This Bashi is just like all those odd boys in Flannery O'Connor novels and stories -- the abrasive Enoch Emery in Wise Blood, the stuck-in-his-ways Francis Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away." Those were characters who made me more and more anxious with each page I read, because they not only had wacky ideas, but they were living them out. I read a lot of O'Connor in college, and wrote quite a bit about her works, and it's only just now becoming clear to me what I really felt as I was doing it.

Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor
These characters often cross the line from "different" to "criminal." (As I said, anyone reading The Vagrants will wonder when Bashi is going to do something really awful.)  After all, Flannery O'Connor didn't just subject me to Enoch Emery and Francis Tarwater, she also made me witness the sadism of "The Misfit" (in "A Good Man is Hard to Find").

Thinking about this has put me in mind of one of my favorite films, City of Sadness. In it, the patriarch of a Taiwanese family describes how his family were always liumang -- operating at cross-purposes with the authority being imposed by the Japanese occupiers in the first half of the 20th century, or by the officials sent by the central Chinese government before that -- in short, anyone who tried to tell them what to do.  Liumang is common Chinese vocabulary word, which we students were taught meant something along the line of "juvenile delinquents" or "bad apples," and in etymology it has some of that flavor of "unmoored." But it was the pride with which the old man in described his family's traditional liumang status that made me thing of it as something to valorize.

The film's subtitiles translate liumang as "gangsters." Take two minutes to click on the City of Sadness trailer above, and see what it feels like to you. Yes, there is a definite element of racketeering. But there's also a feeling of simple, youthful, impulsive, bad behavior. Sort of The Godfather meets Rebel Without a Cause. meets Rome, Open City. (More about this aspect of City of Sadness here.)

I guess the lesson for me in all of this is that we need vagrants, misfits, rebels, and liumang. And that while anxiety is worth noticing, that's not the same as saying it's undesirable, or should be shunned.

So: here's to nonconformity! And to the anxiety it creates . . . .

Related posts

 So as I watched Ziggy for the first time last night, I asked myself, "What is it? What is it? What is the frisson that one feels? It's part charisma, part sexuality, partly the thrill of gender-bending, partly adolescent rebellion . . . . But what is it that Ziggy did (and does) for so many people?" (It can't be a single thing, can it?)

(See "You're NOT alone!" (Ziggy the Subversive) )

The very act of free expression, itself, has become so hazardous ... what you say hardly matters . . . "He could not help feeling a twinge of panic. It was absurd, since the writing of those particular words was not more dangerous than the initial act of opening the diary." (From 1984 by George Orwell)

(See Building Metropolises of Self-Censorship )

I believe that once the Church comes out of the closet -- that is, once we start speaking quite openly about the difference between the world as we find it and the world as we believe God wishes it to be -- there is no way this old world will be able to stay the same.

(See Let the Church Out of the Closet )

In a composition suggestive of a yin-yang symbol, a woman in a burka (but wearing audacious red glitter platform heels) is surrounded by genie-ish tableaus of the many male obsessions/pastimes that some of us rail about frequently -- sexualized pop singers, professional sports -- as well as some that we probably should rail about more (such as patriarchy in religion and political violence).

(See VIOLENCE: " . . . and the women must live with the consequences . . . " )

Posterboard and markers: $21.79
Leaflets: $7:50
Bullhorn: $99.99
Standing up for peace and justice when everyone around you is saying "Get a job!" and "GO F**K YOURSELF!": PRICELESS!

(See Dissent: PRICELESS!)