The Adventures of Mao on the Long March

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From "Satire without Serifs" by John Updike

This piece originally appeared in The New Yorker, 1972.

The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, by Frederic Tuten, wears a nice comic book jacket by Roy Lichtenstein and is described by Susan Sontag on the inside flap as "soda pop, a cold towel, or a shady spot under a tree for culture clogged footsoldiers on the American long march." Broken into components, the hundred and twenty one pages of Mr Tuten's opus consist of (1) twenty seven pages of straight history of the Long March (October 1934–October 1935) done in a neutral, factual tone, as by a fellow-travelling Reader's Digest; (2) thirty six and a half pages of quotations in quotation marks, from unidentified sources (such as, diligent research discovers, Hawthorne's Marble Faun, Walter Pater's Marius the Epicurean, and Engels' Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State); (3) twelve and a half pages of parody, of Faulkner, Hemingway, Kerouac, the Steinbeck/Farrell school, the Malamud/Bellow school, and of modern art criticism in numerous schools; (4) nineteen pages of a supposed interview with Chairman Mao in 1968, in which the Chairman reveals himself as an avid subscriber to American highbrow periodicals and a keen devotee of Godard films and Minimal Art; (5) twenty six pages of what might be considered normal nov¬elistic substance—imaginary encounters and conversations. For an example of (5): Chairman Mao is alone in his tent, after the strain of the Tatu campaign. He hears the rumble of a tank:

A tank, covered with peonies and laurel, advances toward him. Mao thinks the tank will crush him,, but it presently clanks to a halt. The turret rises, hesitantly. Greta Garbo, dressed in red sealskin boots, red railway¬man's cap, and red satin coveralls, emerges. She speaks: "Mao, I have been bad in Mos¬cow and wicked in Paris, I have been loved in every capital, but I have never met a MAN whom I could love. That man is you Mao, Mao mine."

Mao considers this dialectically. The woman is clearly mad. Yet she is beautiful and the tank seems to work. How did she get through the sentries? Didn't the noise of the clanking tank treads wake the entire camp? Where is everyone?

Mao realizes the camp is empty. He is alone with Garbo. But Mao has always been more attracted to Harlow than to Garbo. What should he do not to break her romantic little heart?

"Madame, I have work to do," says Mao gently.

"It can wait till tomorrow, my love," she answers, unzipping her coveralls.

Mao thinks: "After all, I have worked hard and do deserve a rest." But an internal voice answers him: "Rest only after socialism."

"My Mao, this is no way to treat a woman who has made a long journey to be with you."

"But what of my wife?"

"Ah, that is an old bourgeois ploy, Mao mine."

Mao succumbs, and in the tent recites to her the entirety of the famous conclusion to Pater's The Renaissance, wherein we are entreated to "burn always with this hard, gemlike flame. "

The whole episode is, like others in the book, charming, and it illustrates how well Mr Tuten handles deadpan fantasy; except for a rare smirk like "her romantic little heart," a chaste solemnity rules the book. The tone is hard¬-edged, straight, dry, lyrical—anything but facetious. The tone, and the pamphlet like type, smooth the different textures of this outrageous collage into an oddly reasonable unity. We never doubt that a lucid intelligence is in con¬trol; unlike many experiments of fictional assemblage, The Adventures of Mao never sinks into self display, never becomes the mounted Kleenexes and tangerine peels of an author's private life. Mr Tuten, in his jacket pho¬tograph, is looking not at us but at the flame of a match that is about to light his cigarette; he is wearing long hair and a wristwatch and has no biography. The contents of his book reveal nothing of him but his attitude.

But what is that attitude? What is The Adven¬tures of Mao saying? Is it satirical? In general, when confronted with, say, a giant toothpaste tube of sewn canvas or a silkscreen of soup cans, we are predisposed to assume satiric content; our liberal prejudices and romantic aesthetics (in favor of trees, naked women, sunsets., and bowls of fruit) can accept any number of wry putdowns of our comfortably deplorable mass trash society., But works viewed this way need only a glance. The more rewarding and plausible assumption, I think, is that the artist was obscurely delighted—"turned on"—by toothpaste tubes and soup cans, and that the ancient impulse of mimesis has led him to lift these things from the flow of transient impressions and to cast them into enduring form. Mr Tuten likes Chairman Mao, is the first message of the novel. The school¬book account of the Long March inspires admiration on the flat level of propaganda. Sub¬-heroically (as Homer dimples Hector's heroism with glimpses of the private man), Mr Tuten portrays Mao as sensitive to criticism of his poetry, as self doubting and diffident and eroti¬cally wistful. In one of the funniest episodes, Mao lies awake coveting Eva Braun and Mussolini's mistress ("Claretta, what was the marvelous creature but the Mediterranean itself") but not Mrs Roosevelt and Señora Franco ( "a rosary kissing midget, as sexy as a decayed turnip"). Mr Tuten seems to be confessing that his Mao is a figment, a poster personality in a whimsical canon; he likes him as the author of the Gospel of John liked Jesus, but with the difference that he knows the Logos is a myth. Still, this is not satire, and in Mao's spirited championing of the bourgeois avant garde we reach a level of serious statement:

"Pragmatically speaking, I like the opulent severity of this art, Minimal or ABC, because it both fills the imagination with the baroque by way of dialectical reaction to the absolute starkness of the object, and denudes the false in art and in life. [Such] work is like the Long March, a victory over space and time, a tri¬umph of the necessary over the unnecessary, and, above all, it is like Marxism, or should I say like Heraclitus."

The American interviewer finds this enthusiasm "astonishing" and the Chinese Interpreter exclaims, "To be honest, Chairman Mao, hearing all this talk from you confuses and disturbs me." It is, of course, impossible for Mao to be saying these things, but not—and herein the interest, the seriousness—implausible. When, in the same interview, he asserts that

"youth is never reactionary; youth is progres¬sive in time and hence always in the avant garde, hence never wrong in spirit, hence never to be satirized,"

the statement originates from a profound depth, where the Free World's youth proud greening merges with the mind that unleashed the Red Guards upon the entrenched Establishment of Communist China. We are confronted, in this elevation of youngness to a moral absolute, in this denial of any possibility of venerable wis¬dom and selective conservation, with something truly other than the reasonable liberalism and sentimental romanticism that have shaped our radically imperfect world.

The Ideological fabric of The Adventures of Mao is deliciously complicated by Mr Tuten's heavy reliance, for authority in aesthetic mat¬ters, upon fusty old wizards like Hawthorne and Pater—and Pater, it should be said, holds up nobly in this curious context. Another complication is that while the battles of the Long March are presented with the heroic generality of a newspaper recap, vivid and bloody and in¬glorious episodes of our own Civil War, as described in Whitman's Specimen Days and John William De Forest's Miss Ravenel's Con¬version, are interspersed. The warrior Mao, whose revolution, after all, was bought with millions of lives, is thus displaced, along with the Mao who, on cultural matters, declared (at Yenan in 1942):

There is in fact no such thing as art for art's sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics. Pro¬letarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause; they are, as Lenin said, cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine.

For this implacable and dynamic dogmatism Mr Tuten substitutes a "longing for the great sim¬ple primeval things." Mao's interviewer tells him, "All your thoughts have given me the desire to be inert." Tuten's Mao is a suave decadent, whose languor, nevertheless, has a certain appositeness to revolution. The book's last sentence (quoted from Oscar Wilde's De Profundis) sounds a call for purification: "I feel sure that in elemental forces there is purification, and I want to go back to them and live in their presence."

So, in part, was Dada a call for purification—a purgation of cant through nonsense. Like Pop, it embraced its age's random materials with a frantic hug that transcended criticism, cynicism, or satire. Such violent gestures seem to ask for revolution in human consciousness; what they achieve is, more modestly, a refreshing of conventional artistic forms. The Adventures of Mao on the Long March provides an intelligent, taut, and entertaining change from conventional novels. Its substance is satisfyingly solid and satisfyingly mysterious. Like any work of art, it could not be mindlessly replicated; a sequel might slip into being a mere anthology. Nor would It be easy to locate another symbolic person as fabulous and germane as Mao. As is, Mr Tuten's studied scrapbook, . . . contains the live motion of a novel within a jagged form that does "cut the reader into awareness."