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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: Notes

Phillipe Hunt, Comparative Literature, Yale University

1This is the text of a lecture given in French under the auspices of the Ministry of Education of the State of Cambodia, in Phnom Penh, in June 1990. It was one of a series of about fifteen talks on literature, philosophy, and the methodology of literary criticism given at the Ministry, at the Research Institute or at the University of Phnom Penh in 1989-90, many of them with Elisabetta Cabassi. Perhaps I should add that these were as far as I know the first lectures on ideologically sensitive topics to be given by any Westerner in the State of Cambodia, that I was asked to give them, and that my freedom to talk as I liked on my own chosen topics was entirely unhampered. What you will read is an essentially unmodified translation of that talk, with its references to a certain context, and to a shared, French culture. I have added a few notes to the original text, including this one: this will be indicated by the abbreviation (AN). I wish to thank all the friends who made this lecture, and so many other things, possible, including Elisabetta Cabassi, Chum Nyrath, Ly Somony, Sann Lyda, Sar Kapun, Sun Héng Méng Chheang, Yin Vantha, and many others. Ang Chouléan, who knows so much more about Khmer literature than I do, was also kind enough to come to my talk and give me a few comments. I would also like to thank three "local" friends: Peter Morris and Ben Kiernan for their practical help, and Dan Duffy for enticing me to translate my text. Finally, I wish to dedicate this to my many Khmer friends, in Cambodia and elsewhere: may they never be tricked again by the butchers of Choeung Ek, who may well have shared a few impostures with Thmenh Chey, but whose aims and methods otherwise make them "leftists in appearance, fascists in reality" (to borrow--the irony!--a Maoist turn of phrase).

2 In his Contribution à l'histoire de la littérature khmère, vol.I, p.112, Khing Hoc Dy confirms that it is the best-known of all Khmer tales and legends. (AN)

3 To avoid boring repetitions, I will from now on call this the M version, while the version published in Cambodia will be the C version. I will also often shorten the protagonist's name as TC, the text as TC. There seem to be two other French translations, which I have not read: one by Aymonier, the other by Bitard. (I have now read Bitard's version, published in France-Asie 116-117 & 121-122, which largely coincides with M and/or C, and a summary by Guy Porée, in the special issue of France-Asie , 114-115 "Présence du Cambodge", which contains an additional, fiercely misogynous, episode).

4 My friend Niem Darith has since given me a copy of the version which was used in schools in the UNBRO refugee camps... but as I can't read any Khmer...(AN)

5 My thanks to Vandy Kaonn for having given me a copy of his work.

6 Reissued by Cedoreck, 1984.

7 Some collections in French published in the early 70's by the Institut Bouddhique could still be found in Phnom Penh at Tuol Tum Pung market, and at the National Library, in the late 8O's. There is also a remarkable collection of German translations, H. Nevermann's Die Stadt der tausend Drachen (1956). And collections in French by Pavie, Leclère, Monod, Martini and Bernard, Thierry, Khing Hoc Dy, all but one of them recently published or reissued. But next to nothing in English: there are two tiny collections put together by David Chandler, the first scholarly (The Friends who tried to empty the sea: Eleven Cambodian Folk Stories, 1976), the second for children (Favourite Stories from Cambodia, 1978--with 8 of the original 11 stories, and 4 additional ones), a story for children Judge Rabbit and the Tree Spirit (published by Children Book's Press in 1991), and another collection by Anthony Milne (Mr. Basket Knife and other Khmer Folktales , 1972) (AN)

8 The very name Thanonc(h)ai, or Dhananchaya (in a version edited by M.L.M. Bunnag which I was unable to locate) indicates that this is our Thnen Chey. In A Kammu Story-listener's Tales, Kristina Lindell also mentions a Pali cycle of Thanonchay Bandit (p.40). (AN)

9 See Viggo Brun: Sug, the Trickster who fooled the Monk (Curzon Press, Lund, 1976). This tale-cycle displays a number of striking similarities of motifs with TC, notably tricking a monk, and scatological episodes and language (both however much more prominent than in TC); a sequence in which Sug, despairing of solving riddles set by Bangkok people (every bit as dangerous as the Chinese!), tries to commit suicide by drowning, fails and overhears the Bangkok people explaining the riddle, one about seeds in watermelons as in TC (but in this case the smaller melon has more seeds); one in which he claims, to the king, that his power comes from books (whereas he is, like TC, illiter-ate), and, in a variant, crab writing. There is also the progression from easier to more difficult opponents, and the move from local to distant ones (but Sug doesn't visit them, they visit him). However, Sug is not in the least disinterested, and he has to rely much more on luck (or the "supernatural", when he understands the language of frogs). (AN)

10 See Kristina Lindell et al.: A Kammu Story-Listener's Tales, Curzon Press, Lund, 1977, especially tale 5, "Aay Caang Laak" (but also tales 1, 18-20). The introduction to tale 5 sketches many of the interconnections, but almost totally ignores the Khmer domain. (AN)

11 Also, quite a number of tales in what are euphemistically called (often, the better to eliminate them) "minorities". On these, see Chants-Poèmes des monts et des eaux, translated by Mireille Gansel (Paris, Sudestasie/UNESCO, 1986), in particular tales from the Rhadée, Van Kieu, Katu, Mnong and Nung ethnic groups. Many of those groups speak languages of the Môn-Khmer family. Also, a Swedish study and collection, A Kammu Story-Listener's Tales, by Kristina Lindell, Jan-Öjvind Swahn and Damrong Tayanin (Curzon Press, Lund, 1977).

12 Coster-Wijsman's Uilenspiegel-Verhalen in Indonesië suggests similarities (or influences) in Indonesia (I have not read that book). (AN)

13 On which see the classic works of Eric Hobsbawm. (AN)

14 As I recall, the main question, coming from a professor of Khmer literature at the University of Phnom Penh, concerned the prevailing Marxist interpretation of the text, which I said seemed to me correct as far as it went, but a bit reductive, undialectical. (AN)

15 See his collection of essays Culture and Practical Reason (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1976). The semiotic reason explored in Eco and Sebeok's The Sign of Three also comes to mind.

16 In the classic work which he co-authored with Evelyne Maspero, Moeurs et coutumes des Khmers , Guy Porée claims that " Sganarelle devenait alors un frère de ce filou de Thmen Chey, héros de nombreux contes, qui joue des tours pendables à chacun, à commencer par son père et sa mère." (p.254). My reason for quoting this is not that it dangerously trivializes our text (which it does), but that it seems to mix the fatherless Thmenh Chey up with A Lev. In "Personnages comiques des contes populaires" (France-Asie 114-115, p.460) the same Porée equates him him Arlequin, A Lev with Guignol, A Chak Smok with Pierrot ... the urge to assimilate, or, as Hanke has called it, the misery of comparing.

16 In the classic work which he co-authored with Evelyn Maspero, Moeurs et coutumes des Khmers, Guy Porée claims that "Sganarelle devenait alors un frère de ce filou de Thmen Chey, héros de nombreux contes, qui joue des tours pendables à chacun, à commencer par son père et s mère"(p.254). My reason for quoting this is not that it dangerously trivializes our text (which it does), but that it seems to mix the fatherless Thmenh Chey up with A Lev. In "Personnages comiques des contes populaires" (France-Asie 114-115, p. 460) the same Porée equates A Lev with Guignol, A Chak Smok with Pierrot ... the urge to assimilate, or as Hanke has called it, the misery of comparing.

17 Another interpretive scheme could be used: TC's is the in(de)finite desire of primary narcissism, before the law of the father institutes a limited enjoyment. In a sense, TC is the "pervert" who always plays with the law, tricks it and pays lip service to it. Obviously, more could, and should be said in this connexion, but it is not my object--and I am, again, incompetent.For some suggestive views on the links between perversion and politics, see Rosolato et al.: Le Désir et la perversion. (AN)

18 Though this simple, everyday greeting actually means "prosperity, good fortune" (see Khing Hoc Dy: Contribution à l'Histoire de la littérature khmère, p.230). (AN)

19 See Khing Hoc Dy:"Notes sur le thème de la femme "marquée de signes" dans la littérature populaire khmère", Cahiers de l'Asie du Sud-Est, ndeg.2, 1977, pp.15-43. (AN)

20 And his wife seems to become just another female, tamed by marriage. Given the Khmer belief in the infiniteness of woman's desire (oral communication from Judy Ledgerwood), it takes the infinite (or transfinite?) desire of TC to impose a law, a boundary on this dangerous creature. So in a sense this "etiological" episode founds the circumscription of women within the home, the domestication of that wild animal within the bounds of matrimony... or so men would like to think! (AN)

21 It would seem that in some versions TC does actually become king: this at any rate is what Judith Jacobs writes in the Thmenh Chey entry of the Dictionary of Oriental Literatures (vol.II, p.159). (AN)

22 This weak structure is something Aristotle has taught us to despise (see Poetics, 51b33-52a1, 59a17-59b1), and hard-core structuralists (but not Shklovskii or Barthes) would agree. Pierre Bitard considers that TC is in the same class as Lazarillo de Tormes, and quotes it at the start of his translation. (AN)

23 I was stating this on the basis of the quite loosely organized Institut Bouddhique version. To be fair, I should say that this version does have some minimal rules of succession, such as trick-counter-trick (attempted revenge)--second (counter-counter-) trick; also the fact that men first appear among the hare's beneficiaries in sequence 15, surely a progression of some sort, and the fact that sequences 24-26 involve rather more elaborate, semiotic, TC-like skills than the rest. I have since read another version, in a French anthology for children, Maurice Percheron's Contes et légendes d'Indochine (Nathan, 1955), which is more tightly organized. It has a frame explaining in what mythic space-time the story originates, and how its truth is established by the presence of Sophea's image on the Cambodian seal of justice, and the tales themselves move up from crocodile to tiger to man (with a clear explanation of why the hare was promoted to being a judge in men's affairs). However, this may be a rationalization, superimposed on a looser "original" structure. (AN)

24 Called by the Russian Formalists "staicase-like struc-ture", one of the common forms of zamedlenie, or retardation. (AN)

25 This seems to outline a hierarchy between different classes of servants: we could on the basis of TC and other stories sketch a description of Khmer society at the time when the stories were conceived ..., if, that is, we can be sure that they are "true" pictures of their society.

26 I am not suggesting that the anonymous Khmer tellers had read Hegel, nor even that Hegel knew about oral Khmer literature... but was there anything that Hegel didn't know?

27 Of course, reduplication of episodes can serve a narrative purpose: that of delaying, of creating suspense. In folk tales, as Shklovskii has shown ( O Teorii Prozy, 1925) episodes are often triplicated, which can also, at the actantial level, show how brave, persistent, etc. the hero is. And the additional episode, at the level of informants, indicates that in the world of the text, there were buffalo fights as well as cock fights, and presumably, that they were more prestigious (since this comes after the cock fight). (AN)

28 In a text which remains essential, "Introduction à l'analyse structurale des récits" (English translation in New Literary History 6), Roland Barthes shows how the lower levels of description are integrated, fit into the higher levels. The mode of enunciation, of narration of the narrative is the highest level, unless that is we leave the narrative proper and see how it is integrated in other structures, discursive formations (genres) and social formations. See also, on this, Gérard Genette's Figures III (English translation as Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method). These, and other essential works in literary theory, can be read at the Research Institute and the Publishing House of the Ministry of Education, and at the University of Phnom Penh.

29 This has not prevented the author of the Institut d'Etudes Boudhiques translation of Sophea Tonsai (Histoires du Juge Lièvre), Pierre Midan, from calling it a "roman", a novel.

30 On this genre, a very common one in the Khmer tradition, see Solange Bernard: Le Cambodge des contes, pp.73-74, and chapters III, IV and V.

31 The phrase "effet de réel" was coined by Roland Barthes to designate the overabundant, narratively non-functional, or even dysfunctional, details of the realistic novel, whose function is to make the whole story look real. See the translation of that essay in Tzvetan Todorov ed., French Literary Theory.

32 According to Cirlot, four is " Symbolic of the earth, of terrestrial space, of the human situation, of the external, natural limits of the 'minimum' awareness, of totality and, finally, of rational organization. It is equated with the square and the cube, and the cross representing the four seasons and the points of the compass.(...) It is the number associated with tangible achievement and with the Elements." (Dictionary of Symbols, p..232-33). The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion mentions quite a few Buddhist foursomes: Four certainties, Four famous mountains, Four foundations of mindfulness, Four immeasurables, Four noble truths, Four perfect exertions, Four stages of absorption and Four stages of formlessness (pp.109-10). In two essays on the Bayon (France-Asie vol.XII, pp.343 and 672, Henri Marchal and G. Coedes-Herzog underline the link between the number four, the points of the compass, and the country as a whole... could TC be suggesting that his fight against the Chinese is on behalf of the whole srok khmaer? Solange Thierry (op.cit. , p.134, writes:" Quant aux 4 directions (ou 4 directions + le centre, ou 8 directions), il s'agit là d'un thème associé au pouvoir souverain, qu'il soit divin, bouddhique ou royal." ... TC usurping the king's power, again?(AN)

33 The breakthroughs of structuralism, semiology and deconstruction have made us familiar with the idea that the real can be constituted, structured as text, or discourse--or indeed, in the more radical forms of these "theories," that the real is always already language. As an exemplary observer, François Wahl, put it: "Comme remarquait un jour Lacan, la simple présence d'objets dans une tombe est déjà une forme de discours."

34 This différance of interpretation of course extends to the present text. (AN)

35 These two mentions of the Tevada are absent from the C version, as is the adjective " prophetic" with which M describes the dream. Could this be a case of anti-religious censorship, before Buddhism became the state religion of Cambodia (Revised Constitution of 1 May 1989)?

36 Of course, in a sense, he is the essence of opportunism: he has the knack of seizing the opportunity, the kairos, the deon, of seeing in a flash, in every situation which presents itself, what course he has to follow to rout his adversary. However, his is not conventional opportunism, or careerism, which always aims at power, venality, or both. If TC doesn't embody utilitarian courtliness, this èthos is well represented in the text: the sethey, the mandarins, and in C the courtesans are all perfect sycophants. On the other hand, there isn't a single character in the narrative who represents truth, justice, morals: neither political nor religious power (whose clear interdependence is not thematized, as it goes without saying) represent anything other than tradition, the unquestioned, unconscious of itself locus of the good, of legitimacy in societies which are therefore called "traditional". Of course, such a tradition only derives its "naturalness" from the fact that no-one questions it, that its recognition goes without saying, without thinking: no-one can imagine that things might be different: other cultures, if known, and if considered as fully human, are simply different ontological entities--of course crocodiles don't fly! We can therefore consider that TC, by making this tradition visible, by proposing ludic, imaginative variations on the meaning of words and customs, establishes the conditions of dissolution of that tradition. What he puts in its place is not clearly defined by the text, but it would seem to be a more absolute monarchy (through weakening of what we call, in a highly dubious analogy, "feudalism"), no longer founded on tradition (a form of naturality), but on the transmission of a form of transcendence (the secret slipped into the king's ear). An empty transcendence, obviously, and one which can therefore be saturated, accomplished by all fears, all desires of subjects and courtiers.

37 This is type 1693 in Aarne-Thompson: The Types of the folktale, p.480. (AN)

38 This is the central mechanism which Claude Reichler has identified in his book La Diabolie. La séduction, la renardie, l'écriture: cunning is only possible because the duplicity which it wields is already at work in the law itself.

39 This dirty trick is also played by Xien Meng on his master, Guru Paramarta. (AN)

40 This places TC in the category of "archie Debunkers", which includes Derrida and Nietzsche (and de Man): see Paul de Man: Allegories of reading, pp.9-10. (AN)

41 I would like to add here something which I did not mention in the talk: Prime Minister Hun Sen was then often compared to Thmenh Chey -- referring among others to his humble origins and the skill (and the twinkle in his eye) with which he dealt with kings and emperors. (AN)

42 Even though he has never gone to school, doesn't know anything--nothing but the powers, the spells of language. But who ever said that you had to go to school to be an intellectual, or that those who do often become intellectuals? Besides, intellectuals "proper" wouldn't often have TC's courage in the face of authority. (AN)

43 The Greek word kratos means power, and can be found in the suffix of a number of words used in a great many languages: democracy, aristocracy, ploutocracy, technocracy, bureaucracy, statocracy,... Another, quasi-synonymous, Greek word, arkhè, has given anarchy, monarchy (but also archbishop, archeology, archaic etc.). Dictatorship comes from latin, a rare exception in that field... and "democradura", a portmanteau word, is of recent Latin American (Argentinian) coinage (let us hope that it doesn't have any relevance in post-1993 Cambodia).

44 David Chandler, in a paper on the ritual aspects of the reign of king Ang Duong (also an important figure in the history of Khmer literature), shows that Cambodia was first and foremost a theatre-state (a term borrowed from the anthropologist Clifford Geertz), in which the king essentially has to play the roles of mediator, master of names and of protocol.

45 As Solange Thierry shows (op. cit.), the forest (and the mountain), contrary to the srok (a word which can also designate a district, or the whole country, Srok Khmer), does not belong to humans: it is the realm of divine and demonic beings (more recently, of the Khmer Rouge). This is actually true in many other cultures. (AN)

46 A horse taken from the king's chessboard, a chick which routs the king's cock: TC not only answers the challenge, but his answer is itself a challenge, a challenge which the king is unable to answer. Indeed it is plausible, in this narrative space in which everything can be transformed into anything else-- though there is no religious magic, only a magic of rhetoric, of signs--that the king's cock, through a combination of metaphor and metonymy, is the king himself, whereas the chick, through the same tropic transformation, is TC. The king-cock is thus ridiculed by the TC-cockerel.

47 This is probably one of the reasons why man, who is never sufficiently sure of his masculinity, his virility, invented cock fights. Likewise, bull fights... or beating one's wife. What man really manifests in all these cases is his barbarism.

48 Clerics victimised by tricksters or otherwise mocked are frequent in folk literature (Aarne-Thompson 1725-1849*), and in the region, one could think of A Lev, Xien Meng, Sug. (AN)

49 TC as interpreter often reminds us of the points or conceits of the mannerist poets of the 16th-17th c. in Europe, those scholarly euphuists, précieux et précieuses... that really takes the cake, when you think that TC never set foot in a school.

50 In version C, the logic of the answer is even clearer, since the series (1,2,3) of the seeds is congruent with the series of the sizes of the water melons: the smallest one has 1 seed, the middle one 2, the largest one 3.

51 These other riddles are more his line, since they are solved by a pun. However, they come within the purview of some basic metaphysical-mathematical problems: continuous/ discontinuous, divisibility, and the link between real and representation.

52 This conclusion does not appear in version C, but the logic of transmission of power through transmission of an alleged knowledge is the same.

53 "Good" here not in a moral sense, but to designate a politician who by a combination of prudence and capacity to decide (also to decide quickly, in critical moments) carries out his task to the greatest advantage of the res publica.

54 I know that TC's feats also arouse admiration, but it is an admiration which, mixed as it is with hatred and fear (hatred because of fear) only serves to intensify those negative emotions. " In times past... in the kingdom of Tep Borey "it was not good to arouse the admiration of one's king... as for the present time...

55 Since the Renaissance at least, subtle connoisseurs have noticed how dangerous it is for a courtier to be visibly cleverer than the king. Vide Baltasar Gracian, indispensable complement of Machiavelli and Castiglione.

56 TC's demotions are at the same time banishments away from the centre of power. In the connotative geography of the text, the periphery is the bottom, the centre is the top--as is generally the case, and as is the case in present-day Cambodia. All movement therefore takes place along two axes, in a 2-D metaphorical space.

57 In many traditions, maybe in all, naming, of human beings but also of animals and things, at least things of nature, has been invested with great solemnity, with an aura of secrecy. This by virtue of a mimological semiology, for which the word resembles/must resemble that thing which it designates, or indeed is the thing itself. To know the name of a thing is tantamount to having power over it. In our tradition, which in spite of everything remains partly a biblical one, Genesis comes to mind, with the authorisation it seems to give us to do what we like with our environment-- which is exactly what we have done. We could see the positive aspect of this phenomenon, as Hegel does: " Through the name, the object as being is born out of the I. This is the first creative power which the spirit exercises. Adam gave all things a name. That is the right of majesty and first taking possession of all nature or the creation of the latter out of the spirit. Logos (is) reason, essence of things and discourse, sake (Sache) and saying (Sage), category." (Jenaer Realphilosophie, ed. by Johannes Hoffmeister, Felix Meiner, Hamburg--my translation). Existentialism, being less confident that reality gets anything out of it, has said: "The word is the murder of the thing." Mastery cadaverizes: what good is it to master things if through that mastery they cease to be?

58 The order in which those realms are listed is different from that in their first mention, which is not unimportant: the place of the law in that system is crucial. No less crucial is the difference in the place, and the weight, of finances. Another point which deserves mention is the total absence of education as an area of administration. In the founding work of the philosophical problematic in Europe, Plato's Politeia, education (albeit that of the guards, not of the population as a whole) is the touchstone of the whole construction of the ideal polis(a rather despotic, if not totalitarian one: education is brainwashing ... but of course it is an enlighted despotism).

59 "Songs at the Edge of the Forest: Perception of Order in Three Cambodian Texts", collected in the volume Moral order and the Question of Change (Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, New Haven, 1982).

60 This should be qualified: on the one hand noone could claim that Western societies, for instance, have ever functioned on the basis of Christian principles (or any of the numerous interpretations thereof ... that is, short of casuistry!), or on the basis of any other "grand récit". On the other hand, I don't think that dualism exhausts the whole of Cambodian behaviour: pre-Buddhist "superstitions" (as we call other people's, other times' religions) play an important role in everyday life.

61 Matchmakers, like the hora and the Chinese soothsayers, can be considered to belong to a more general category of professional interpreters (and intermediaries), whom TC reveals to be all useless, incompetent or malevolent.

62 Within the context of a "traditional" society, he weakens them simply by showing that they haven't always been there, that they are not natural (in the current lingo: that they are constructed), or founded by some supernatural being or event (such as the white elephants which choose the site of a city in some Khmer etiological tales). (AN)

63 A problem raised in Eco's Trattato di Semiotica generale. (AN)

64 We had in this first series a kind of mixed semiology (as in comic strips, film, etc.), with on the one hand words, on the other sign-things. In the last riddle of that series, the thing is not supposed to be unveiled or cut, but manufactured (and what has to be manufactured is a material representation).

65 We could bring into play Heidegger's distinction (in Unterwegs zur Sprache) between mehrdeutig and vieldeutig, or that of Derrida between polysemy and dissemination. TC is here very much on the side of Mehrdeutigkeit, of polysemy, of unity within multiplicity. But even that is too much for his one-track opponents.

66 Though we can't rule out that an ingenious mathematician à la Thom could establish the law of a crab's movement, or even of those of a group of n crabs on a given surface. But of course he would be looking for a law, a scientific, causal explanation, not for an understanding, a meaning.

67 I should add that for the Khmers their writing is not just something instrumental, but something unique and precious, and a major embodiment of what it is to be Khmer--and trad-itionally it was considered to be a gift from the gods (cf. Khing, op.cit. p.6). (AN)

68 Based on the translation by Richard Janko (Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, 1987). TC is not only good at making metaphors, also at baring them, reviving them, literalizing them. (AN)

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