chapter  9
Voices of empire in Dubliners and Taibeiren: titles, Taiwan, and comparability
Pages 27

It is something of a scholarly convention in Taiwanese literary studies to speak of Bai Xianyong’s Taibeiren (Tales of Taipei People, 1983) and James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) in the same approximate breath. Bai’s celebrated short stories “gave readers something in Chinese letters to compare to Joyce’sDubliners,” writes Edward Gunn; Yu-chen Lin states that the collection “is reminiscent of Dubliners in tone and design”; and for Ko Ch’ing-Ming, their composition “clearly harks back to James Joyce’s Dubliners.”1 The readiness with which this linkage trips to the tongue comes, of course, from the deep rapport that the two texts share, and so at first sight it is puzzling that the bounty which these collections offer to comparatists has been picked over quite summarily to date.2

Yet, at the same time, and somewhat contradictorily, if the relationship between Taibeiren and Dubliners tends to be cited only in passing, this is perhaps because the two collections can seem too self-evidently connected. As Umberto Eco puts it, “A title already-and unfortunately-is a key for interpretation,”3 and he may well be right that literary scholars will tend to favor smart sleuthing over tracking so apparently clear an interpretative trail. If Bai’s stories had been called almost anything but Taibeiren, critics might well have probed the Joycean connection with a good deal more enthusiasm. Yet the echoing title is not always as self-evident as it seems, as Gérard

Genette makes clear in his discussion of titrologie, or “modern title science.”4

Whether the desired effect is “the prestige of cultural filiation,”5 unblinking hubris, the mischief of pastiche, or something more subtly defiant, the borrowed title is often something of a gauntlet-and it is one which Bai Xianyong has thrown down twice, first with Taibeiren, and a couple of years later with Niuyueke (New Yorkers 1974). If Lessing is right that “A title must be no bill of fare. The less it betrays of the contents, the better it is,”6 then it might be reasonable to ask why it is that Bai Xianyong chose, with his two metropolitan collections, to disclose so much, so soon. But perhaps disclosure was never really his intention. On the contrary, Bai’s decision to call his stories Taibeiren might be more about testing the inherent comparability between his world and that of Joyce than presenting their similarities as a simple fait accompli, conveyed by a “copied” title. For sure, there are many points of commonality between the two texts. But Taibeiren is also, and more

interestingly, a literary work which uses the notion of comparability to probe exactly where the limits of the cognate lie. As Susan Stanford Friedman observes, this “tension between commensur-

ability and incommensurability” is what animates all comparative enquiry.7 It is the old story of apples and oranges, everyday comestibles which encapsulate that awkward philosophical state in which closely cognate objects can at the same time signify both similarity and difference. But useful as the fruit-based analogy may be, over time it has had the effect of confining the debate to the realm of the broadly similar. What’s more, the “apples and oranges” quandary forms a set of parameters which, in veiled or overt form, continues to shape quite a lot of comparative enquiry, and in so doing it obscures other sorts of questions. At what precise point, for example, does incommensurability shade off into irrelevance? Does it ever? Or is, in fact, something akin to the law of six degrees of separation at work in comparative enquiry as in human networks, such that, to offer a cultural example, two apparently “non-comparable” textsSuperman and the Avesta, say-can be brought into resonant dialogue with each other via an extended chain of textual kinship? Or, to approach the problem the other way around, what about the internal limits of commensurability, the degree to which the apple is divided unto itself ? Clearly, it is unproblematic to compare Red Delicious with Granny Smiths, but what happens to “appleness” when we contrast the fruit with its liquid derivatives such as cider or Calvados, or assess Titian’s rendering of the apple against that of Magritte? It is only rather more recently that questions about these internal and external

limits-where they lie and how best to map them-have begun to reshape the boundaries of the apples-and-oranges paradigm. These changes are quite relevant for Taiwan studies, since it is a field of enquiry which has tended to pursue that paradigm in its tamest, yet most unbending form-as a contrastive mode which Marcel Detienne disparagingly dubs “comparing the comparable.”8 Given the prevalence of “comparing the comparable” across Taiwan studies, it is worth briefly reviewing here some of the limitations of the practice. One is conservatism, or the degree to which aligning like with like keeps each contrasted object safe within its settled groove rather than making their encounter creatively disruptive. Another is predictability: the fact that “comparing the comparable” can yield results which are too easily intuited ahead of time, for the simple reason that we tend to findwhat we set out to look for. A third, more surreptitious, shortcoming is the latent will to mastery that can drive “comparing the comparable,” particularly when, to paraphrase George Orwell, one of the comparative partners is more “equal” than the other. Together these shortcomings constitute a core conundrum faced by many

researchers who work on Taiwan. This is because Taiwan studies is a field of inquiry which has been helped into reasonable prominence through sustained efforts to “compare the comparable”: polemically speaking, this practice is pretty much the field’s scholarly crucible, although it may not be politic to say as much. This potent comparability stems, paradoxically enough, from the fact that Taiwan is “special” on a series of separate disciplinary fronts. It has been

colonized more often than almost any place on earth; it spawned a postwar economic miracle the likes of which are hard to match; it is the most curious of diplomatic anomalies; it is the first Chinese-speaking democracy and home to one of the rowdiest, most rumbustious forms of elected government on earth. Yet each time this specialness is ritually invoked, it can only be done so via what José Rizal, in his famous insight, dubbed “the devil of comparisons” (el demonio de las comparaciones).9 It is the tireless, roving eye of crosscultural comparison that picks out what it is about Taiwan that makes it worthy of the world’s attention. More to the point, if this comparability is to succeed as a strategy of recognition, it cannot avoid “comparing the comparable” since it is through the signaling of a readily identifiable similarity that the attention of global audiences is gained. For some scholars, this comparative demonio can only be an accursed one.

Harry Harootunian, for example, suggests that “One of the more remarkable but unobserved occurrences invariably effaced by area studies is the obvious fact that the peoples of the world outside of Euro-America have been forced to live lives comparatively by virtue of experiencing some form of colonization or subjection enforced by the specter of imperialism.”10 Comparison as a default mindset is, according to this logic, the unshakable burden of belatedness, so clear a sign of post-colonial hangover that, in this context at least, it can only be a compromised practice. Harootunian is not alone in arguing that comparison can be blighted in a world still haunted by colonial inequity. Gayatri Spivak, writing from the “other” perspective, claims that: