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Vietnam Generation Journal

Volume 4, Number 3-4

November 1992

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Semiotic and Agonistic Reason in Thmenh Chey1, Part I

Phillipe Hunt, Comparative Literature, Yale University

It is possible to teach that which you do not know. --Joseph Jacoto

Alone of all the animals, man has aptly been called anthrôpos, since he examines that which he has seen. --Plato

But does he actually do it? --Anonymous

Thmenh Chey, a poor, orphaned child, decides to take revenge on the local capitalist. He easily outsmarts the merchant, who foists him on the king, whereupon he promptly outwits the entire court, and, albeit with more difficulty, a first batch of wily Chinese. Having been banned to the provinces, he outfoxes the locals, then the executioners who are supposed to put an end to his career. The Chinese come back, thinking as everybody does that Thmenh Chey has died, and that Cambodia is up for grabs. Chey, disguised as a bonze, totally outguesses them. Having saved his country, he then saves the king he had so often ridiculed, by seeming to give him his secret, thereby decisively weakening the mandarins. The tales of the exploits of Thmenh Chey, known to most Cambodians, are the subject of the following address, given in Phnom Penh by a Belgian to a Khmer audience.

Captatio beneuolentiae, and other preliminaries

I am well aware how presumptuous it is for me to pretend to teach you anything at all about a Khmer literary text, when in addition to other handicaps (which can be summarized as an ignorance of Khmer history, and in particular the histories of institutions and mentalities, of literature and of Buddhism), I do not even know the language of the text. And, to make matters worse, I have chosen one of the founding texts of your culture, a text which all of you know well, which you quote incessantly, much more than we ever quote Hugo or Racine, or even the Bible.2 By way of defense, I will only mention three things: on the one hand, Thmenh Chey (TC) is precisely a text which questions the validity of knowledge, of authority and of tradition. Also, a different angle, coming from another "tradition," often allows us to notice better certain aspects which too great a familiarity would tend to obfuscate. Finally, my approach will largely be internal, immanent (not based on cultural, institutional or other con-texts), and will not rely on the detailed texture of the text (I will not propose a subtle stylistic analysis). I should add that I have read both the Monod translation,3 reissued by Cedoreck in 1985, and also a translation, as literal as possible, which a friend has been so kind as to do for me, starting from another version, which is currently used in schools in Cambodia. I will therefore occasionally underline some of the significant differences between those two versions. However, mine has not been the work of a philologist, an ethno-poetician or an "oralist": my aim has not been (nor could it have been) to compare all the versions4 which have been transcribed, and more or less rewritten, on the basis of decisions which were more or less technical, but always also more or less ideological. I don't know anything more about this problem than what Vandy Kaonn says in his Réflexion sur la littérature khmère.5 Of the version (or group of versions) entitled A Chey I have only read one brief extract, one episode, which was collected by Leclère in his Cambodge. Contes, légendes et jatakas.6 Nor shall I attempt a systematic comparison with comparable tales (featuring a wily character of modest origin, often an orphan, who outwits the rich and the powerful) such as are found in Cambodia itself (Sophea Tonsai, A Lev , and numerous tales in which a wife outwits her husband...7 ), in the Indo-Chinese cultural area (Xieng-Meng in Laos, Si Thanoncai in Central Thailand,8 Sug khâm tu in Northern Thailand,9 Plaang Thooy and other Khmu tales,10 Trang Quynh, Trang Lon and others in Viet Nam11 ), or outside that area (I am thinking in particular of the Roman de Renart, and of Till Uilenspieghel,12 both very much part of my (Belgian) culture, but also of the various legends/(hi)stories of bandits stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, such as Robin Hood, Twm Sion Cati, Mandrin...13). Even less will I try to find out who influenced whom, whether this whole corpus originates in India, in China or elsewhere, or whether it is autochthonous everywhere (in which case their similarities would be homologies, not a matter of sources and influences), or any combination of these extreme hypotheses.

In order to steer clear of the presumptuousness mentioned earlier, I will only formulate some proposals for reading, sketch some interpretive schemes, ask some questions to the text, hoping that the discussion which will follow will allow us to develop certain points, or to correct certain inflexions.14 First of all, I would like to explain a little why I changed the original title of this talk--the talk itself will provide a fuller explanation of the change. I had suggested something like "Practical and theoretical reason in Thmenh Chey." This now seems unsatisfactory to me because those terms almost automatically suggest Kant's concepts of theoretical and practical pure reason. Now, the least that can be said is that pure reason, whether theoretical or practical, only plays a role in our text by its absence, a real absence which is it must be said occasionally marked by a fictive, simulacral, purely rhetorical presence. On the other hand, we might have used the distinction drawn by the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins between practical and symbolic reason.15 The former designates an activity which is entirely oriented towards the accomplishment of a goal or of a particular interest, towards acquiring some personal or group advantage (this arithmetic of means and ends clearly has nothing to do with Kantian ethics), while the latter represents the production of meaning, of culture (language and ideologies). It soon becomes apparent that TC (contrary to e.g. A Lev) only marginally strives to get rich, or to acquire actual power. His activity therefore essentially takes place in the realm of what Sahlins calls the symbolic, and which I prefer to call the semiotic--more precisely, it revolves around the question of who has power over that realm (hence the word "agonistic" which refers to that aspect of fighting).

Of females, women, strumpets and usurperesses

Before I move on to the main object of this talk, viz. the struggle for power of language, over language, through language, I should like to briefly mention two points, the one of a rather thematic nature, the other more narratological. The first point concerns the place of women in the narrative. A very modest place, in the M version, since only two or three women put in an appearance: essentially the mother (very briefly indeed), and the wife. The former, though she is not explicitly arraigned for her stupidity, contrary to A Lev's mother,16 is narratively defined by the fact that she gets tricked, which trick actually sets the whole story moving. She produces a prophetic dream, has a professional interpreter explain it to her, and fails to ask herself any questions when the hermeneut, though he has indeed understood the dream (not a major feat in this case), proffers a blatant misreading: TC will be a slave, not a great man. The dream will come true, however, but only after a number of tribulations which seem to prove the dishonest (or unscrupulously time-serving) hora right. After Thmenh Chey's birth, his mother no longer plays any part, except that she tries in vain to dissuade her son from seemingly accomplishing the false interpretation of the dream, when he wants to hire himself off as an indebted slave to the rich merchant, the sethey (whereas TC only wants to do this in order to wreak revenge on the sethey, hence to refute the false prediction). We should note that TC's father has disappeared without trace: even his absence doesn't deserve any mention. However, it could be argued that the sethey (and conceivably, also TC's later opponents) plays the part of a substitute, of a (bad) father figure. This role is particularly apparent when the sethey opposes a comparison (more-less, a lot-a little: a finite number) to the absolute superlative (infinity) of TC's desire for food/ for salary. It is possible, indeed required, to measure the value of TC's returning to the sethey's wife the shuttle she has lost: to a given (finite) job corresponds a given (finite) salary. We are bound to underline, however great our disapproval of the inequality of fortune between the sethey and TC's mother (again, this is a comparative, the ratio is a finite number), that TC has put to the sethey's wife a demand which was hardly reasonable, indeed limitless. Being a woman, she is not able to counter the inexperienced trickster, so it is left to the sethey himself to, rather legitimately, set a law: enjoyment has to be limited. But then TC does not give him, and will not give anyone, the right to dictate any law whatsoever to him. It would not in my opinion be entirely legitimate to link this episode with Marx's conception that the proletariat, not having anything, is everything: the main difference is that here, in this early episode, everything is taking place within the realm of having, without any shift from having to being.17

After childhood, women disappear from TC's life, to reappear only once he has successfully undergone his trials with the sethey, the king and the Chinese scholars. The king then wants to give him as a reward (women as objects) one of the women of the palace (one of a series), as his maid or his concubine, but he refuses, and in this refusal shows once more his right to name (i.e. his right to the use of language in its power to institute): these are mere females, not women. He alone can find, or rather institute, constitute a woman. He finally meets her. Her name is Suos-Dey: Hello,18 and she is a woman marked with signs, a text-woman.19 She is the first woman who opposes him, who shows herself to be his match in a verbal joust of questions, of riddles (something which not a single man had managed!) . What matters in the context of the purely subordinate function of women in the story, is that TC once married is in no way different, less of a solitary hero, than before20--even though in another sense he is never alone (he clearly needs an audience, he is an actor). His last adventures do not involve his wife, and he is only seen with her when he is in articulo mortis. Women in this story are largely reduced to two interrelated roles, those of Mother Earth, of Magna Mater, who first delivers man into this world, then takes him back into her bosom. Between those two bosoms, man, and man alone, holds the stage, with his tribulations, his labors (his travails). Of course, this entails that the time before and after the performance belongs to women: a woman dreaming of the son she will have, a woman protecting the tomb, the memory of her husband--two women who are entirely preoccupied, defined by a man. On the other hand, TC has no more children than he has a father: we will come back to this when we deal with knowledge, and with the handing down of knowledge in our narrative.

All I have said, as mentioned, only concerns the M version. In the version used in Cambodia at present, and in that by Bitard, women appear more often, and there are a greater number of them. First, the hora is absent, and his wife usurps his role. To this first deception, arrogating to herself a power to interpret which only recognized professionals can have, she adds another, the one which in the M version was ascribed to the hora. Having interpreted correctly a dream similar to the one in M (but adding immediacy to totality in the enjoyment of desire) as forecasting that TC will be king (a grander, or simply more precise, prediction than in M21), she utters an interpretation which is the exact opposite of the meaning, with again a time dimension, absent from M: TC will remain a slave all his life. King becomes slave, immediately becomes forever: the contradiction is not the same in the two cases. The text moreover explicitly states, in a narratorial "intrusion", that this interpretation is the contrary of the true one.

Also, palace women play an important role in two additional sections, not present in M, and in a modified version of the final sequence. In all three cases, the women play an entirely negative role--more precisely, a scatological one. In the first section, TC talks about the anus of these women, probably to denounce their profession: they are courtesans, and as such live by their charms, their body. In the second sequence, the king orders his concubines to defecate at TC's house, and in the final sequence, the husbands who were ridiculed by TC when he was alive send their wives to his tomb, to desecrate it by their excretions. These are very gross episodes, but no more so than that of the bonze's face, or that of TC's "second face" (his bottom), present in M. They mostly stand out by their extreme, ferocious misogyny: the women appear as parasitic, nasty, totally devoid of autonomy: they are mere playthings to the king or to their husbands. And they have to face the consequences of the actions they were forced to carry out: those who obey are wrong, whereas, as we shall see, those who interpret (those who pervert orders) are right.

A nosegay of tales, or a novel?

These additional (interpolated?) episodes allow us to say something about the structure of Thmenh Chey, about the economy of the narrative. It goes without saying that the structure is episodic, picaresque,22 that the narrative is an entirely linear stringing together of episodes, of sequences which all share the same protagonist, TC--this is true even in the initial and final episodes, where TC is not physically present. The episodes are simply successive, without any anachrony (analepsis or prolepsis), or simultaneity. However, the structure is not as simple as that of Sophea Tonsai23 for example: here the structure is not simply a matter of stringing, but also of steps.24 The adventures encountered by TC are increasingly difficult and dangerous, and they take him further and further away from his birth place: hence a double stepping structure. There is some form of a loop at the end, for though the house where he dies is not the house where he was born, he again has a very limited field of operation--and has to rely on a woman. Within this stepping structure, a certain number of macro-sequences can be discerned, and there is some evolution from one macro-sequence to the next, as well as within each macro-sequence, from one meso-sequence to the next. Let us make this clearer: we can consider that the text, which in spite of its rather rigorous structure I would hesitate to call a novel, after the introductory sequence /dream+interpretation+shuttle/, starts with a macro-sequence /in the service of the sethey/, followed by a macro-sequence /in the service of the king/. There then occurs the first Chinese incursion, with its consequences for TC, then the second Chinese incursion, then TC's stay in China, then his return to Cambodia. Each of these six macro-sequences can be subdivided into generally three meso-sequences, which are themselves made up of one or more sequences. One example: the /sethey/ macro-sequence includes the meso-sequences /court/, /field/and /house/--the latter two in inverse order in C. Each meso-sequence comprises in this case two contrary sequences, and each meso-sequence constitutes a demotion, when compared to the one just before it.25 The same holds in the other macro-sequences: they all start with a meso-sequence at the court, followed by removal/demotion, and often by worse removal/demotion. In the macro-sequence /in the service of the king/, we have: court--outside--not visible; in the macro- sequence /Chinese incursion 1/ we find: court--exile to the Tonle Sap--executioners--monastery. And so on.

So we encounter on the one hand a continuous progression from each macro-sequence to the next, a rise (in terms of the social rank of the adversary and of the difficulty of the trial): confrontation with the sethey-- confrontation with the king--simple Chinese riddles-- difficult Chinese riddles--confrontation with the Chinese king--(re)foundation/legitimation of Khmer monarchy. On the other hand, inside each macro-sequence, we have a regression, a descent, and it is at the lowest point that there is, each time, a recovery, viz. a return to the court, which leads to the starting of the next macro-sequence. This logic, another double (contradictory) stepping structure, would seem to echo the general scheme of Hegelian dialectic, as manifested, especially, in his Phänomenologie des Geistes, but I can’t here pursue that intriguing homology.26

What this rather rigorous structure does indicate, is that it is impossible to tamper with the macro- or meso-structures, or with their order, without jeopardizing the coherence of the narrative. But it is often possible to add, subtract, or invert the order of sequences, and the same applies, at a lower level, to functions and to indices/informants. This is indeed what a comparison between the two versions M and C will show. At the level of meso-sequences, there is only one difference: the inversion field—house in the first macro-sequence. At the level of sequences, we find three adjunctions: the two involving scatological females, and also, in the same macro-sequence, a /buffalo fight/ episode which clearly duplicates the cock fight, and could therefore be dropped.27 But of course there are also differences inside sequences, some of them interesting. In general—not always—Version C is more explicit, gives more reasons, explanations, motivations, while at the same time it gives less development to transitions between episodes: a bizarre combination of late traits and of archaic traits. Moreover, some of the explanations are different (e.g. the king’s reaction to the boat-elephant: in one case he laughs at the absurdity of the apparition, in the other he is reduced to silence by TC’s “logical” explanation), or they are given in a different manner (narrator’s intervention in C instead of TC’s interior monologue, or dialogue). However, this decision to give more or fewer explanations, and to give them through the narrator or through a character (whether protagonist or walk-on, through dialogue or monologue), though it shows itself at the level of a sequence or a mere function, has implications for the entire narrative.28 A narrative in which the narrator can enter the heads of his characters (version M) is very different (more “modern”, in the XIXc sense ... though perhaps not more contemporary, “postmodern”) from a narrative in which the narrator always has to “intrude” to make sure that the message will come through (version C) - or from an entirely smooth narrative, in which the adventures simply come one after the other, without any explanation as to their meaning or sequentiality (this is essentially the case with Sophea Tonsai, a more “primitive”, less unified and novel-like collection of stories than our two versions of TC29).

Continue to Part II

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