The Art of Escape: On Sven Lindqvist’s “The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu”

By Nick HoldstockMarch 3, 2013

The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu by Sven Lindqvist


LAST MONTH I WAS CAUGHT by a painting in a gallery in London. In the picture people were playing cricket. I do not like cricket. Like Oscar Wilde, I believe it to be a dull, imperial game that "requires one to assume such indecent postures." Ordinarily I would sooner turn to stare at a patch of blank wall than look at anything to do with the sport. What stopped me was the triangular patch of orange at the picture’s heart. It was so super saturated a shade of orange that everyone else in the room — the frail old man in a tweed jacket, the young woman with a racking cough, a man with twitching lips — was immediately forgotten. They were not in the picture, not standing on the orange sand of a long beach cut by cyan-colored waves. This was where the game was taking place, though it was not a proper game, just one person bowling at a man standing before a multicolored box. Behind the batsman there was another person, somewhat like a wicket keeper, though he stood further away. Parts of him were painted over, so that he seemed both present and not, and it was this quality that kept me looking after the shock of the orange had faded. The picture seemed to contain many places at once, not just a beach, but also fields, a wood, and this was not the only contradiction: if the three figures were in the same place, they appeared to be present at different times.

After 20 minutes the painting seemed as real as anything around me. This was helped by its size — 10 feet tall and six feet wide — and the fact that every picture, by virtue of its shape, cannot help but mimic a window or door. It would be an exaggeration to say that at any point I considered it possible to actually climb into the painting, but I inhabited it far more than the room in which I stood. The London streets I had walked through to get there — passing the Syrian Embassy in Belgrave Square, then along the eastern edge of Hyde Park, into Mayfair, past the US Embassy — were as distant as legend. I certainly did not remember anything of what those places had evoked, neither the fact that planes had just bombed a bakery in Halfaya, nor the recent shootings in Newtown. All I knew, as I stared at the painting, was that I felt sublime.


If we, as viewers, can get lost in pictures, it does not seem unreasonable to posit that a similar thing may happen to their creators. It took the Scottish artist Peter Doig six years to finish Cricket Painting (Paragrand). When asked how he knew when a work is completed, he said, “A painting is a living thing. It’s finished when it’s let go, when it’s out the door.” I do not presume to know whether Mr. Doig has ever stood in front of one of his paintings and imagined stepping through. But any work of art, whether visual or not, requires its artist to reside within it for long periods. You cannot write, paint, sculpt, or compose without stepping out of the world.


Sven Lindqvist’s book of philosophy, criticism, and more, The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu, begins with the story of a Tang Dynasty painter who is said to have literally done so:

Wu Tao-tzu one day stood looking at a mural he had just completed. Suddenly, he clapped his hands and the temple gates in the picture opened. He went into the work, the gates closed behind him, and he was never seen again.

Lindqvist, a Swedish writer, is best known to English-speaking readers for books such as Exterminate All the Brutes, Terra Nullius, and A History of Bombing. Their overlapping concerns are European racism, genocide, and colonial warfare, subjects he explores by seamlessly interweaving passages of historical and literary analysis, travel writing, and philosophy. All are written in short, numbered sections that deftly move the reader through place and time, most impressively so in A History of Bombing which asks the reader to follow a number of narrative strands through the book by reading non-consecutively numbered passages (e.g., 3, 46, 55–57), where the lowest numbers are furthest from the present. What might sound like an Oulipolian game is actually an ingenious way of ensuring the reader has a vivid sense of historical context that builds with each strand. One strand follows the development of bombs and airpower from the 11th century to the 20th century, ending with section 62, then 65–68; the next strand follows developments in Victorian science fiction, jumping from sections 59–60, then 72–73. The numerical (and thus chronological) proximity of these passages means that the technological and literary aspects of the era are next to each other on the page and thus inform each other.

The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu is in part the story of how Lindqvist went from being a writer whose goal was "beauty and harmony" to one whose writing was more politically engaged. The book was first published in Swedish in 1967, but has only now been translated into English with a new preface by the author. It combines accounts of trips to India and China in the late 1960s with an analysis of the life and works of Hermann Hesse in an attempt to explore a series of issues raised by the story of Wu Tao-tzu. Lindqvist wants to know how the painter

penetrated his painting and found an inner room, a liveable, habitable inner space, behind the surface of art. […] What did he do in there? What happened to him?

Lindqvist’s belief about the function of art (and thus the role of the artist) was that art should provide “a reality in which to disappear.” As examples he cites several elderly, saint-like figures in Hesse’s work who have removed themselves from life. The old Music Master in Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game lives “increasingly in a world of his own,” his gaze “more inward-looking, more secretive and insistent than ever.” By the time of his death his face is a “testimony to complete happiness.” Similarly, in House of Dreams, an unfinished book written in 1914, an old gardener has removed himself from the world and retreated into the contemplation of Chinese poetry. This was written at a time when Hesse was publicly urging intellectuals not to get involved in the Great War, for which he was ostracized and exiled.

The image of stepping into a painting is a symbolic representation of an inner event, the withdrawal of one’s self from the world into a kind of secular, aesthetic paradise. In his preface, Lindqvist claims that, “Literature has been really important to me only as Utopia.” Making art is thus a bubble into which the artist can retreat. “What had been a means of attaining becomes a means of escaping,” he writes, “a desperate last way out of the prison of reality.” The absorption offered by art is “an abyss in reverse and one falls upwards.”

In many respects The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu is a bildungsroman. What forces its protagonist to develop is his travel in China and India. He went to Beijing in 1960 (where he was cultural attaché to the Swedish embassy) not because of the social upheavals caused by Mao’s Great Leap Forward, but to study calligraphy. Here is his description of his purpose:

Chinese was studied in Stockholm as a dead language. It was stepping into a world of ancient words of wisdom on rice paper. They laughed at me and left me to it. I took the train and got off in Peking

A passing reference to the "great crisis" is the closest he gets to social or political context. What he provides are perceptions:

On the way home. A flock of birds rises from the roof of the palace. The surface of the water in the moat is touched with cold and becomes ice, disappearing into the mist far away in the south. Light sky, dark earth. All around me, crowds of workers cycle past — the street slopes, the hubs humming as they freewheel.

Crowds on bicycles is such a stereotypical image of China that it shouldn’t really work, and yet this does, mostly because of its immediacy. It’s sparse, like a hurriedly jotted diary entry, and wholly evocative of a particular moment. The “hubs humming” is the kind of simple, powerful detail that Lindqvist excels at. In only a few short vignettes, Lindqvist offers more telling moments than one finds in many other books about the country. There are a group of children pulling a plough, loudspeakers shouting “COMRADES! WALK CAREFULLY! COMRADES! MIND THE CHILDREN! COMRADES!” and his calligraphy teacher’s pithy comment on the uses of the People’s Daily.

“So a newspaper can be used in two ways?”

“Yes. One can write characters on it. And one can give it to the waste-paper collection.” 

But for all his powers of observation, Lindqvist’s experience of Maoist China doesn’t jolt him from his belief that artistic creation is inherently worthwhile, and that it is sufficient to concern oneself with aesthetics. The closest he gets is when he gains access to the restricted section of the philosophy library. There the forbidden knowledge he finds to be “the history of imperialism. It is the misery of the masses. It is the state of the world.” Given that he hasn’t encountered (or even hinted at) the starvation and purges going on throughout the country, this conclusion seems both grandiose and unearned.

It is only during his visit to India, where he is able to travel more freely, that Lindqvist is properly shaken. Attending the trials of workers who wanted to form a union, talking to landowners and political candidates, and wandering through the countryside’s “mile after mile of starved soil and villages beyond despair” culminates in a profound scepticism about peace, order, and law — the benefits of civilization brought by British rule. Democracy no longer seems like a cardinal virtue of society: it is just “a veil thrown over the realities of power.”

At this point in the book there is a sense that Lindqvist has painted himself into a corner. His encounters with poverty and suffering have instilled a despair he wants to escape from, whilst shaking his faith in the purpose of art. As he says later: “What are beauty and harmony when you are running for dear life between crumbling walls?”


In the fourth century BC, Confucius proposed that the role of the arts was to return us to what is essential about humanity. In answer, Mozi, one of his opponents, argued that the arts were a wasteful practice reserved for the enjoyment of the rich. Though Mozi fell from favor, and had his works burnt, it is arguable that the intervening 25 centuries have not blunted the force of his objections. Though many still believe (tacitly or otherwise) that art is a light that illuminates the darkness around us, whatever its source (whether social, theological, or existential), Lindqvist suggests that it may be essentially a distraction:

Is there an art more important than the world? Is it the function of art to make mass graves banal? […] Spiritual happiness that makes the world irrelevant will also make suffering, oppression, and extermination irrelevant.

Like much of Lindqvist’s later work, The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu is pleasingly merciless in its determination to remind us what Western European civilization is built on. Unlike Lindqvist’s best work, though, The Myth loses coherence. The final section of the book is fragmentary, often little more than aphoristic notes:

Proust takes the past by surprise.

Musil penetrates into what is to come.

Hesse has meant most to me.

The problem is that Musil and Proust haven’t featured in the book at all; this is a summing up of an argument that hasn’t been made. There are a number of similarly impenetrable judgments, the oddest of which is his assertion that “Maoism was more benign from the start.” This is followed by 10 pages of short, fragmentary paragraphs that attempt to decide whether economic and social liberation is possible without violence:

Our consumption of oil, coal, paper, metal, meat etc. cannot be multiplied by the population of the world.

Synthetic materials?

They entail changing raw materials.

Not that one can dispense with raw materials.

Here there isn’t a proper argument, but a series of floating propositions that, though far from unimportant, require more attention than Lindqvist gives them.

Ironically, the cumulative effect of these Delphic pronouncements is to take the reader away from the idea that art is primarily a bourgeois escape. Though the book’s final few pages return to the issue, they do little more than restate the question. The best answer to the issues that Lindqvist raises is his own subsequent writing career: a series of exquisitely written books with a strong political agenda. But perhaps the idea that “art” is separate from “the world” and its ills presents a false opposition. I suspect this is why many adults roll their eyes when Hesse’s name is mentioned: his allegorical novels rely too heavily on the clash of abstract ideas. At 17, the conflict between reason and emotion dramatized in Narziss und Goldmund seems both fundamental and urgent. At twice that age it seems simplistic, as does the idea that there is a necessary relation between aesthetic and ethical goals. After all, what possible connection could there be between my enjoyment of an early Rothko in an exhibition sponsored by an oil company and the tragic events in a small town in the Middle East that I have never even been to? Surely there is nothing wrong with staring at paintings while people are being killed waiting for bread.


LARB Contributor

Nick Holdstock is the author of The Casualties, a novel out from St. Martin’s Press, and two books of nonfiction — China’s Forgotten People and The Tree That Bleeds.



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