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View from tower block across a suburb of northern Ha Noi.

Against Nature

Clear stream meanders by this hamlet, flowing.
Long summer days, at River Village, everything is ease.
Coming, going, as they please, the pairs of swallows soaring.

Tu Fu (c. 750)

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You ask why I’ve settled in these emerald mountains:
I smile, mind of itself perfectly idle, and say nothing.

Li Po (c. 750)

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Huysmans’ book is sometimes rendered into English as Against Nature and sometimes Against the Grain. Esseintes, the book’s hero, obdurately sets himself in opposition to his contemporary social norms. Many classical Chinese poets did likewise, but whereas they retreated from urban sprawls (by 750 the Chinese capital, Chang’an, had nearly one million inhabitants) and sought to find, and to live with, the grain of nature, Huysmans’ creation moves to the opposite pole: not only against his culture, but also against the natural environment. His extreme aestheticism leaves him marooned: detached from nature as well as society. Both the poets quoted are seen as Daoist sympathizers who echo the themes of the Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu, extolling a life lived in harmony with nature. Through 1,400 years this polarity between urbanisation and nature has been divisive. The fight against environmental thoughtlessness has a long history.

Tu Fu's lines are from his poem Village by the River translated by J. P. Seaton and published in 2006 in The Anthology of Chinese Poetry, Shambhala, Boston, p.100. The Li Po lines come from his Mountain Dialogue in David Hinton‘s translation published in 2008 in Classical Chinese Poetry: an anthology. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, p.178. Huysmans’ book was originally published as A Rebours [sic cf. À Rebours] (1884) and is available in Penguin.

The photograph was taken a decade ago from the top of a tower block in the Ba Đình district of Hà Nội looking south-west. Now the view is rarely so clear, and the skyline of buildings has shot up by forty stories



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Saturday 17th October 2020

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