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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 III

Phillipe Hunt, Comparative Literature, Yale University


Outlanders outthought: TC as patriotic cheat

We now come to a macro-sequence which seems crucial to me: the first encounter with the Chinese. I won't dwell on the historical, political allusiveness of these conflicts (of interpretation) with China, nor on TC's patriotism. What interests me is the way in which TC solves the first series of Chinese riddles, and what this tells us about the nature, and limitations, of his knowledge. An unobtrusive, but unique and I think decisive characteristic of this trial, is that TC has some time to prepare himself, that he is not taken by surprise. Another, equally unobtrusive, unique, and decisive characteristic, is that the riddle of the water melons can easily be solved: it is just a matter of knowing how many seeds there are in the various melons.50 Rather than an enigma, this is a mere problem. Now, despite the apparently simple character of the trial, compared to those he has overcome and those he is to overcome, TC is in a panic, racking his brains without any result. Afraid that he is going to lose his reputation and his life, he decides to commit suicide. He will be saved by an expedient, a supplement: the Tevada / chance, and that same power will allow him to overhear a conversation between the Chinese mandarin and the "man with a nimble mind," which gives him the answer to the riddle, and also to the other three riddles.51 TC has cheated, but without meaning to. Why did he want to commit suicide, why did he have to cheat? Quite simply, because he does not know anything, doesn't have any positive knowledge and is incapable of embarking on any research: his competence is strictly a rhetorical one, in other words linguistic and psychological, a matter of lexis and pathos. He is never at a loss for an answer, and is frightfully good at entangling his interlocutor in his own fantasy, but those are his only skills.

This interpretation can also be derived from two other sequences, one before, the other after the one we have just considered. When the king defies TC to trick him (the sethey having just boasted that TC would trick the very Tevada), TC answers that he needs his book of lies. However, he has no such book, and doesn't derive his skill from any book: we are never told that he has had any master or teacher, or that he has read any book whatsoever. The only books which appear in the narrative are pseudo-Satra, covered with a crabby scrawl, which the Chinese soothsayers, not being the subtlest of interpreters, will be unable to read, or read into, around or away. And when TC, just before his death, entrusts his secret to the king, all they amount to is a few recipes, or perhaps food taboos. So what TC tells his king is not the secret of his success as an interpreter, but some pointless prattle. And yet... that is a new, and ultimate, trick of TC's, since everyone imagines that he has imparted some knowledge to the king: the knowledge which made him invulnerable. He hasn't imparted any substantive secret, only the form of the secret. As everyone believes this to be the case, it is as though it were true, and, according to our text, it is by virtue of this nonexistent secret, which is universally held to exist, "that follows the respectful fear we still have towards the king" (M: 97).52 This fear comes from a knowledge which everyone thinks TC has given the king: if TC has no biological son, the king is his symbolic son. But we, the readers of this last but one sequence of TC, know full well that TC has imparted no knowledge to the king, who is utterly clueless as to the significance of the "secret", and what is more, we know that TC has never had the slightest empirical or theoretical knowledge: not his any knowledge that can be taught in schools, by masters, any mathèma. His knowledge is a matter of know-how, knowing how to handle, how to manage, a skill by which he finds in the heart of every unfavorable situation the means by which he will get out of it. A skill by which the weak become strong, the strong weak, combined with an irrepressible desire always to come on top. Some classic concepts allow us to name, at least partially, this "knowledge" of TC's: rhetoric, sophistics, seduction (terms which are not necessarily pejorative), also imagination. You can also see it as coming within the realm of what Plato calls poiètikè tekhnè, practical knowledge whose aim is the manufacturing (not the acquisition: ktètikè tekhnè) of things, whether these things are artifacts, images, discourse, interpretations. But it is also something like the aretè, the virtù attributed since Aristotle (a.o. in the Italian Renaissance) to a good politician.53 Except that TC, being fully confident in his universal capacity to get out of a tight spot and to lick the opposition, only thinks one stroke at a time: not only is he singularly lacking in positive knowledge or the ability to do research, but he is no planner, no Go player. Indeed the very fact that his response to a challenge, to an aggression on the part of the powerful, makes them hate and fear54 him even more, hence challenge, aggress him all the more, forms the moving force of the diegesis. We could say, as the early Russian "formalists" would have, that a character such as TC had to be put together in order to motivate this development of the action.

Fishing for fishermen: TC as illegal legislator

After his first ambiguous exploit against the wily Chinese, who are not wily enough for him (especially when fate is on his side) TC is more than ever exposed to the king's fear cum hatred: someone who is so good at saving his throne might be equally good at seizing it.55 The king sends him into internal exile, very far from his capital, in the region of the Great Lake (one of the two geographical details in the text), just as earlier he had sent him away from his palace, then his eyes.56 The monarchy obviously only exercised limited control over those distant regions, just as communications with the center were limited. This being so, TC can easily claim that the king has appointed him " supreme leader of this region" (M: 76). He therefore sets about instituting some political order: finances, law (implicitly), surveying, naming--in that order.57 We have to admit that he has pulled off his trick, since the names he has chosen are still in use nowadays. Of course, it is exactly the other way around, and the narrative here has an etiological function, as it does later on when it provides the origin of noum banchock and of kites, or in version C, when it quite explicitly gives the origin of the Chinese in Cambodia. Also, it gives us an explanation of the origins of absolute monarchic power. Thmenh Chey is not an etiological narrative, but the etiological genre is one of the genres it shuffles together.

Punning on the meaning of one of the names he has invented, TC extorts huge taxes from the lake's fishermen, catching them in the net of his linguistic power. The fishermen complain to the king, TC claims that the legal, financial, administrative58 order he has set up was all for the greater good of the kingdom. However, it seems obvious that, had this been the case, the king himself would have promulgated this order: the one instituted by TC was for his own personal use. This is perhaps the only time in the text when TC behaves as just another A Lev. If TC were really there as the king's representative, this would be a case of graft. David Chandler, in another article,59 underlines the insurmountable dualism, in traditional Khmer society, between a rigorous, even rigid, but inapplicable, order based on Buddhism, and real everyday practice, which is entirely pragmatic and unrelated to those principles. It is a form of bricolage, as Lévi-Strauss would say, which ensures people's survival in the lacunae of the system: what is called, in economics as in art, the informal.60

I have already mentioned two other moments of institution: when TC gives the king, and his descendants, the illegitimate legitimacy thanks to which they can continue to reign, and when the sethey teaches TC, who doesn't want to know, the law of exchange, the basis for the comparability of things of different types (a service: restoring the shuttle, and a salary: the rice cakes). Less explicitly, there is also the meso-sequence which shows TC "working" in the fields: by playing on the ambiguity of words /of boundaries, TC forces the sethey to lay down the boundary between agriculture and husbandry, between chamcar and pasture. But institution is also involved in the meeting between TC and Suos-Dey. They have chosen each other, after their verbal joust, without asking for anyone's opinion, bypassing Daddy, the vicar and the mayor. TC however does subject himself, pro forma and after the event, to the whole pre-marital ritual, with all its categories of official intermediaries,61 who mostly appear in version C. This is more clearly an instance of the debunking of an institution, but TC's relationship (and that of the narrative as a whole) to the institutions which he founds or uses is always highly ambiguous. He exposes their illegitimacy, their weak points, their possible perversion,62 but at the same time he leaves them standing, however wobbly, and he occasionally leans on them, or buttresses them.

The meanings (if any) of meaning

Many other scenes and devices could be discussed, but as there isn't much time left I will simply analyze the main scene of interpretation, a double one: the second joust between TC and the Chinese. We could say, as a first approximation, that the first meso-sequence, in which the Chinese take the initiative, presents polysemy, the power of poly-interpretation, whereas the second one, initiated by TC, raises the question of asemy, of the boundary between sense and non-sense. However, we could also say that the first one raises the question of the power of ostension, of indiciality: pointing at things to define them--and of the limits of this power. But also of the power and limits of iconicity, of those signs which, in some manner, resemble the things they designate. And that the second meso-sequence deals with the limits of all semiology, of "sign-ness": can there be a sign where there is no intention?63 Also, what is writing? But let us look at things in more detail. The first meso-sequence is divided in two. The first sequence, in turn, is divided in two: first TC has to respond to each Chinese riddle with a compatible counter-riddle - which presupposes that he always has at least some fore-understanding of the riddle which has been submitted to him, that he is aware of the field in which it operates. Only after this does the actual battle of interpretations start: each camp has to interpret the riddle of the other, knowing that the series of riddles forms a narrative string, a kind of story. The riddles, as I have already said, are either indicial or both indicial and iconic. Not a word is uttered, contrary to the first encounter (M: 74), where furthermore the things on which the riddles were based were physically present, not pointed at or represented.64 The field in which the interpretations unfold, their isotopy, is that of cosmology, not of course an empirical or physico-mathematical cosmology, but a "metaphysical" and figurative one--whereas in the first encounter only purely terrestrial mathematics and sciences were involved. In fact, the story in this episode moves gradually from the limits of the visible cosmos (the sky) towards what for most pre-modern cosmologies constitutes the center: the earth, and the absolute point of view: man. The second sequence is even more silent, and like the first one it ends in a draw (M: 83). This time the gestures don't point towards the environs, but remain inside the bodies of the riddle setters; moreover, they are iconic rather than indicial. No interpretation is offered, and "the Chinese withdraw without saying a word," reduced to silence, the silence of powerlessness, as the sethey and the king had been so often, whereas like them, and contrary to TC, they are officially empowered to speak. This gesturing will not however remain uninterpreted, but here TC alone will interpret for both sides of the dispute. He proffers for the whole string (a narrative made up of four interrelated riddles) three different interpretations, or rather three interpretations which move in different realms, or isotopies. To the chief of the bonzes, he talks about food, to the samdech chauvea about war, to the king about religion (or rather, about Buddhist "geography" and "history"). These three isotopies correspond to the three orders of Indo-European society according to Dumézil--or to the three types of citizens in Plato's Politeia: producers, warriors and philosophers/priests--can this be a coincidence? It is rather piquant that in this tripartition the bonze should find himself on the side of production...(or is it consumption?). This is however not unique to TC: in Xien Meng and Sug khâm tu too, bonzes are shown to be uncommonly fond of their food... and so are actual bonzes! Another point of interest in this multiplicity of interpretations is that TC, being a good sophist, fits his interpretations to his listeners, though being perverse he sees to it that each one is disturbing to its target. The listeners, sharing their interpretations, noticing that they are divergent, are as usual reduced to silence. They can't see that these interpretations in fact obey a very orderly polysemy, that they can easily be combined, are all not only possible, authorized by the text, but even "compossible."65

In the second meso-sequence, TC has a riddle constructed (or rather, the precondition of his riddles: the writing in which they will purportedly be couched): this will be enough to rout the Chinese soothsayers, as they too are men of one interpretation only. What TC proposes to their shrewdness is very simply, a "crabby scrawl", senseless patterns "written" by crabs, but in a mise en scène which suggests that any schoolboy--any Khmer schoolboy at least--could read it without difficulty. Faced with this to them (and indeed to everyone) radically new writing, the Chinese find their act quite crabbed ... These are people who either know or don't know, who either understand or don't understand, and in this case, clearly, they are in no position to know, or to understand, since this involuntary writing does no represent any object, any concept, anything preexisting.66 In the face of non-sense, silence: TC on the contrary is hardly likely to be bothered by this non-sense, he is only stumped when faced with a perfectly univocal meaning (the watermelons). So he produces a whimsical, spurious interpretation (also quasi-unintelligible in version M--version C calls the crabbed writing "writing of Brahman-ism"67), but the Chinese are completely hoodwinked.

There is no time left to talk about TC's other interpretive games, with his wife, his wife's parents, the mandarins, the Chinese king. Nor will I attempt to draw up a list, or a typology, of the rhetorical devices which TC uses, or the much shorter list of the devices which his opponents are able to use. Nor will I analyze TC's inventions, and show that, like his foundations, they are part of his interpretive activity. I will not indulge in the inevitable, delightful but fallacious game of application, of deciding what present-day character on the tragic Khmer stage is like TC, like the king, like the mandarins, like the Chinese... everyone will have his list (and so of course, do I). On the other hand, many of the problems raised by the text, problems of juridicity, of legitimacy, of power, of resourcefulness, of conflicts and their modes of resolution... are still painfully open in Khmer society, and if Thmenh Chey--He who always has the last word does not in fact have the last word--the answer to these problems--it certainly does allow everyone, every Khmer to keep these questions open, alive. It also teaches us to be wary of last words - for TC's last word is always the next one, never the latest one.

To close this talk, without a conclusion, I will let someone speak who, in my tradition, has founded all technical discourse on literature, Aristotle, in his Poetics (59 a 4-8):"... the metaphorical is the most important by far. This alone cannot be acquired from someone else, and is an indication of genius. For to make metaphors well is to observe what is like."68 And it is to see it where it is least evident, where crabs write, where elephants set sail, where kites cry out, where the pawns of chess come alive, where victories have teeth. Where the king's power resides in the place of a fish's scales.


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