Monthly Archives: September 2016

Film: The Assassin
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien

An assassin finds that she no longer wishes to kill.

We first see the assassin, Yinniang, as she is commanded by her master to kill a man. “His guilt condemns him.” We watch her sneak up on him as he rides a horse: one instant he is sitting erect, the next he is cut down. The horse runs on as he slumps over. The scene is shot in black and white, as if to capture the austerity of her calling, the pitilessness of the “way of the sword.”

Yinniang is ordered again to kill. She approaches her target, finds him with a child on his lap. She cannot kill him, and leaves. When confronted by her master, she says that she could not kill in front of the child. Her master scolds her, says she lacks resolve. So far as we know, this is true: it is the child who stayed her hand. That is to say, not an inner decision but something external that overpowers her will, which is a will to kill, to follow the way of the sword.

Her master orders her to kill again, her own cousin this time (Tian Ji’an), to whom she was once betrothed. Besides the emotional ties, there are delicate political factors in play, an unstable alliance between Weibo (ruled by Tian Ji’an) and a neighboring power that threatens to be disrupted if she carries out her assignment. This is the reason she gives to her master when she returns, the deed once more undone: the time was not right to kill him, for it would plunge Weibo into chaos.

Such is her explicit reasoning, but it is a paper-thin veneer over the reality: she no longer desires to kill. She does not wish to be an assassin. And indeed, looking back, this applies even in the second case, only she had not realized it. The film is thus the coming to consciousness of this unconscious shift. She was an assassin; now she is not. The first time, the excuse may be believed, and treated as a weakness. The second time, it falls away. She cannot fool herself twice.

The film, it is said, disdains plot. That is untrue. The plot is both clear and strictly followed, but it concerns Yinniang’s internal development. The external plot—her past, the political tensions in China at that time, and so forth—matter only insofar as they contextualize this internal development, and not in their own right. They are brought in only so far as is necessary to make clear her state of mind.

It is a triumph of the film that her inner life is made clear without reliance on the usual indicators. Her face is generally impassive. She speaks little. There are no voiceovers to let us know her thoughts. No, there is only the camera, delicately hovering, drifting, capturing those moments that reveal to us what matters of the world in which Yinniang exists and comes to know herself.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is a film I will remember.



In my youth, long enough ago that I cannot recall whether it was in my first, true childhood or my second, collegiate childhood, I dreamt of the contentless work of art. I saw the partiality of all plot and representation and imagined a work that would dispense with it altogether, a perfectly abstract work that through its rejection of content would achieve perfect, complete expression.

Thus I came to Susan Sontag’s essay “The Aesthetics of Silence” well-primed. Here Sontag attempts to characterize the role of silence in “radical” art. She considers two myths concerning the purpose of art. In Myth #1, art is the expression of consciousness seeking to know itself. Art conceived in accordance with this myth is essentially communicative. Silence finds its place as spiritual preparation for this communication, as an ordeal through which one gains the right to speak.

By contrast, in Myth #2, art is an attempt to fulfill the mind’s need for self-estrangement. It is an “antidote” to consciousness. Though (as Sontang stresses) it cannot escape communication with an audience altogether, it resents this and perpetually fights against it, antagonizing the audience and seeking, ultimately, silence. In this myth, silence is no longer mere means: it is the supreme end of art.

My own inclination is toward the first myth. I view my own poetic endeavours as essentially communicative. Nonetheless I find the resources for an attraction to the second myth inherent within me. If I would align myself wholeheartedly with the first myth (or in any case something in its vicinity), I must overcome those aspects of myself that pull me toward the second. In this I find Sontag a valuable antagonist: in characterizing the second myth explicitly and sympathetically, she makes it easier for me to identify just what it is that I must overcome.


In the second myth, art is the locus of a struggle between the spirit seeking embodiment in art and the frustrating, ineluctable materiality of the artist’s tools—materiality that is not perfectly malleable to the spirit’s ends. The gentle vision of Plato’s Timaeus, in which Reason “persuades” Necessity, has given way to a more antagonistic relationship. Reason would force Necessity into submission, and Necessity resists.

Nowhere is this more felt than in language, which drags with it a tremendous burden of historically accumulated meaning. “Language is the most impure, the most contaminated, the most exhausted of all the materials out of which art is made.” Every word the artist uses is a reminder of some earlier achievement. There is then a struggle between the artist’s own, intended meaning and a “second-order” meaning that results from this historical accumulation. To escape this antagonistic second-order meaning, the artist dreams of a wholly ahistorical art. And it seems that only silent art can fulfill this role.

How different things seem from the perspective of the first myth. I think of Paul Valéry’s definition of poetry as the organization of fortuitous accidents. Words and their (sonic and semantic) relations are the accidents, mostly uninteresting. It is the task of the poet to find the felicitous ones (eg. the similarity between ‘Sophocles’ and ‘Sepulchre’, found by Geoffrey Hill) and to create a context in which this felicity becomes perceptible. Valéry’s conception recognizes the obvious fact that all meaning is second-order,” is the result of a history of usage. This is so even in the case of the coinages of Carroll and Joyce. There is simply no way for the artist to create his own meaning except via the manipulation of this historically accumulated meaning.

I am not accusing the adherents of the second myth of failing to recognize this obvious fact. Indeed, the very desire for silence in which that myth culminates is the product of recognizing this fact. But whereas the communicative poet looks on the historically accumulated semantic burden of words as the condition that makes his existence possible, and so celebrates it, the silent poet is wearied by it, finds it too much to bear. Words, the silent poet feels, mean too much: they have become unfit materials. The silent poet looks at the task before him, thinks it impossible, and so is discouraged.

Perhaps you will think it unfair that I have characterized the motivating impulse of the silent poet as a form of weakness, and perhaps you are right. I know only this: when I consider what in me inclines toward the second myth, it is precisely weariness and weakness, a kind of nihilistic disgust.


In viewing language in this way, the silent poet comes to see two possible relations to his audience. Either he flatters them by giving them what they know, or he is aggressive against them and gives them what they don’t want. Now this is a remarkably contemptuous view of one’s audience: they want only what they know; they do not wish to be surprised. It is made possible by viewing first-order and second-order meaning as opposed, for understanding must rely on second-order meaning, and of course an audience desires to understand. Thus, from this vantage, for the poet to insist on first-order meaning is to deny the audience what they want. It is, or should be, obvious that such contempt does not arise for the communicative poet.

This brings us to one of the central issues raised by Sontag’s essay: the question of the audience. I contend that the second myth is buoyed by an impoverished view of the audience. Once this view is left behind, the urge to contempt vanishes, and the failure of communication that motivates this myth is seen to rest on problematic expectations.

The silent poet and the communicative poet disagree on three points concerning the audience. (i) For the silent poet, the audience is faceless, “an assembly of voyeuristic spectators.” The audience is an assembly, a crowd, only incidentally composed of individuals. By contrast, the communicative poet always speaks to the individual, to the (perhaps unknown) friend. I know for whom I write. I can see him, can imagine his responses, his delights and consternation. It is always an individual I see, and I speak to him directly. If I am lucky, and if I develop my nascent talents sufficiently to warrant such luck, perhaps I shall find multiple such readers, but they do not thereby form an assembly. I never reach out to the mass.

(ii) Because the silent poet performs before an assembly, the role of the audience is reduced to pure receptivity—“voyeuristic spectators,” again. The artist pronounces, the audience ingests, and that is the end of it. But the communicative poet, in speaking to a friend, is engaged in a fundamentally interactive project. It is speech in the sense of the Phaedrus: the friend may respond. This need not be a conversation strictly speaking, a back-and-forth between poet and reader, for the fact remains that the friends may never meet, need not even be contemporaries. The ideal nonetheless remains the Virgilian ideal of “song replying to song replying to song.” It is a bi-directional interaction.

(iii) These two differences point us back toward a more general difference. The silent poet aims at mass, impersonal communication and finds it wanting, partial. The receptivity of the assembly is never complete, the poet’s own, first-order meaning is never fully grasped, and thus the silent poet despairs of his art’s communicative potential. To the communicative poet, the problem arises at the level of the aim. Impersonal communication is doomed to fail, yes, but it is the wrong goal.

In personal conversation, one does not expect perfect understanding. It is the very essence of such communication that themes are dropped, or picked up but developed in new directions. Conversation does not wait for perfect understanding, but always moves on, content with its partiality. It circles around a topic, or jumps between them, never exhausting them, never completed, always ready for renewal. In the end, as a friend of mine once put it, it is a process only of “more or less understanding and being more or less understood.” But this “more or less” is not viewed as failure, but completeness was not the aim. (This is not to say that the communicative poet does not have a complicated emotional and intellectual relationship with this “more or less.” But this relationship is not the weary despair of the silent poet.)


This misconception of the audience has at least two further ill effects. (i) Because the silent poet aims at perfect understanding, he sees human scrutiny as violating his meaning—for the scrutinizers always bring so much baggage, which distorts their understanding. Their role is to be purely receptive, but they fail at doing so. Silent art, as a reaction to this failure, is an attempt to create a work that is inviolable. Here the communicative poet simply asks: to what end?

(ii) Sontag also characterizes silent art as an attempt to create an opening for new ways of thinking, and as “providing time for the continuing or exploring of thought.” Why should silence be needed to open new paths of thought? Because “speech closes off thought.” This is a striking claim. What could justify it?

Once again, it grows out of the image of the audience as a purely receptive assembly. If there is a unidirectional relation between artist and audience, if the audience cannot respond, then the artist’s pronouncement becomes authoritative, definitive, unchallengeable. But only because the audience has been conceived so as to forbid responsiveness, which always upsets authority, always opens pronouncements to challenge. The communicative poet, who sees his audience as a partner in an ongoing conversation, is not driven to silence in an effort to allow his audience to think. He does not patronize them enough to think they need silence.

Indeed, to the communicative poet, it is questionable that silence is an adequate response to the problem, even if the silent poet is granted his conception of the audience. For all thought finds its origin in response, in reaction to some material—whether that material is found in society or in solitude. Silent art, in not wanting to close off thought, fails to furnish any materials for thought—just as, in rebelling against second-order meaning, the silent poet finds himself without any resources to express his first-order meaning. Of course, as Sontag notes, silent art is never really silent. That is an unobtainable ideal. Insofar as it fails to achieve true silence, silent art may indeed furnish materials for thought after all—but only by relapsing into a kind of speech.


Is it any wonder that the silent poet, with such a view of language and such a view of his audience, turns away from poetry in disgust and, insofar as he remains a poet, does so only under protest? Yes, there is something in me that inclines to Sontag’s second myth: something sickly and ugly: my weariness and my nihilism. It is the first myth, the myth of the communicative poet, that speaks to my life and my joy.

Poem: Spring Night
Poet: Su Tung-p’o

Spring night—one hour worth a thousand gold coins;
clear scent of flowers, shadowy moon.
Songs and flutes upstairs—threads of sound;
in the garden, a swing, where the night is deep and still.

[Burton Watson, translator]

A spring night is to be cherished (“one hour worth a thousand gold coins”) for its beauty: the scent of flowers, the sight of the shadowy moon. This is a simple enough thought. It is with the final two lines that the poem becomes a masterpiece.

We hear “songs and flutes upstairs”—thus a third sense is introduced. The audible revelry contrasts with the visual and olfactory beauty of the spring night. Not that it disrupts it (the night remains “deep and still”), but the “threads of sound” are beautiful in a different way.

Even more important than the contrast of the senses, however, is the information this third line gives us about location. The music is “upstairs.” This tells us that the subject of the poem, the voice of the poem, is located downstairs. That is to say: neither with the revelers nor in the night. Rather somewhere halfway between them, enjoying neither. This is confirmed in the final line, where we see an unoccupied swing, unmoving in the night. There is a place for him in the night; he does not take it. We do not know why.

A spring night is to be cherished, in company or alone it does not matter. Here Su Tung-p’o presents us with a person who cannot cherish the spring night: neither the society it offers, nor the solitude.

[It is interesting, with these thoughts in mind, to consider what a disaster the Kenneth Rexroth translation is. Leaving aside that it is unpleasant English regardless of its accuracy or lack thereof, it captures nothing whatsoever of what I find in the Watson translation. By focusing so exclusively on the images themselves, Rexroth entirely effaces the person from the poem. In Watson’s translation this person is in the margins to be sure, is merely hinted it, but that is precisely the source of the poem’s quiet effectiveness. Rexroth’s poem has no margins whatsoever. It thus becomes a trite bit of nature poetry and nothing more.]