Tenseless, untenable

Kind of chaos

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For a long time, I believed that Eileen Chang was the sort of writer I wanted to be. One of her masterpieces, “色,戒” (sè, jiè), remains the most captivating story I have ever read. The title has been translated as “Lust, Caution” but the character “” has a double meaning and is more uniformly used to mean “color.” The short novella took Chang most of her life to write but takes less than an hour to read. It follows the story of a Shanghainese college student caught up in a plot to seduce and assassinate a Japanese collaborator during World War II — a plot that unravels when she begins to fall in love with him. Ang Lee adapted the story into a film that traces the psychological underpinnings of Chang’s intrigue into a broken, untenable love story that is now heavily censored in mainland China.

Learning to read in another language is like learning to walk on your hands. It’s entirely possible, but it requires an intense inversion. I started taking Mandarin Chinese four years ago and I still do not know how to construct the future or past tenses. Or perhaps more to the point, I still do not know how to use Chinese to construct what I understand in English as the past and future tenses.

I have often been told that grammar in Mandarin Chinese is very approachable because it does not rely on verbs to convey time. Something that happened yesterday could happen today or tomorrow and the verb would remain untouched. There is an elegance to this system, but it is difficult to reconcile with the way I understand time, with the belief that action is wrapped up in the timing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about timing. I watched “Lust, Caution” for the first time a week after my first love and I broke up. It was the first Chinese-language film I had ever seen, and it touched a part of me that I didn’t think was vulnerable to cinematography. It attacked romantic betrayal so honestly, so lyrically, that I couldn’t help but assimilate the grief of my own untenable love story into the way I watched the film. 

I didn’t read the actual story until the next fall, when I got hired to write for The Daily Californian. I started dating another arts and entertainment reporter who brought me down into the fluorescent crypt of the Gardner Main Stacks to find Chang’s novella in translation.

It is difficult for me to describe what I think or feel about “Lust, Caution.” An Oscar Wilde quote comes to mind: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” That tackles the plot but it does nothing to tackle the story. “Lust, Caution” is really about loss. About love against loyalty and self-preservation. About sex as an instrument of espionage, and espionage as an instrument of intimacy. It is a paralyzed, inward-facing love story.

But what draws me most to the story is its proximity to Chang’s own life. Her first husband was reportedly a collaborator with the Japanese during World War II. Chang survived the occupation of Shanghai and Hong Kong, but she remained loyal to her husband, which explains so much about why “Lust, Caution” has no conclusively moral or political point. It is a wavering story, moving between narrative perspectives and ambitions. A story constructed around the chaos of indecision. A story that is waiting for the right moment to strike, unsure of its own timing. One that says more about the writer than about the writing itself.

But then again, it’s hard to say. I know the details of “Lust, Caution,” but I have never actually read it in the original Chinese. It feels as though I have been slowly approaching the story for years, working toward reading Chang in her own words. I think I keep coming back to her story because deep down it touches something I do not want to admit to myself. A part of me wants to be a writer, and that thought terrifies me. To me, a writer has always been someone who exists without tense. Someone who steps outside the moment to recreate a past they can no longer touch or invoke a future they cannot see. 

Such a person is untethered, concerned more with narrative timing than with the timing of their own life — the coils of chronology. Admitting that I want to be a writer frightens me because it feels as though I would have to relinquish my own temporality. As though I could slip into a sequence of events in which indecision becomes a form of narrative paralysis — as though the underpinnings of my story are just reconfigurations of an untenable love. One that I will spend my adult life developing into a novella that will take less than an hour to read.

Blue Fay writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on the relationship between art and chaos. Contact him at [email protected].