Himalayas and Yangtze


I learned in a high school biology class that the Tilapia fish can only survive within the temperature range of 5 to 42 degree Celcius. As for humans, the optimal range is from 4 to 35 degree Celcius.

Interestingly, there is a correlation between temperature and height. When we go higher, the temperature drops, and it irritates our body, which is why there are just a few ethnic groups living in the mountainous areas, like Hmong people whose accommodation was compared to the nest of phoenix by Nguyễn Tuân in Xòe.

Places of extremes in height or depth are no man’s land and it consequently condemns its habitants to solitude. This scenario turns heights and depths into the symbol of absolute loneliness. Those who are too evolved in their own direction and reach the point where nobody of his kind could get him must face loneliness.

A certain number of writers have been obsessed with this symbol.

Barthes, when elaborating the difference between style and language in Le degré zéro de l’écriture, remarked that style has “a vertical and lonely dimension”:

A language is therefore on the hither side of Literature. Style is almost beyond it: imagery, delivery, vocabulary spring from the body and the past of the writer and gradually become the very reflexes of his art. Thus under the name of style a self-sufficient language is evolved which has its roots only in the depths of the author’s personal and secret mythology, that subnature of expression where the first coition of words and things takes place, where once and for all the great verbal themes of his existence come to be installed. Whatever its sophistication, style has always something crude about it: it is a form with no clear destination, the product of a thrust, not an intenion, and, as it were, a vertical and lonely dimension of thought. Its frame of reference is biological or biographical, not historical: it is the writer’s ‘thing’, his glory and his prison, it is his solitude.

Cioran applied this concept of heights and depths to the title of his maiden work, On the heights of despair, in which we repeatedly noted that each of us is a lonely creature that cannot understand and so cannot be understood by others.

There was probably a Vietnamese composer coming across this concept, and that is Phó Đức Phương with his song Trên đỉnh Phù Vân, or On the heights of the drifting cloud (浮雲). It tells the story of a woman who goes to the ends of the Earth to seek her soulmate:

Lên đỉnh núi cao cách trời ba thước
Up to the heights three foots close to the sk

Xuống đáy thung sâu thăm thẳm sông dài
Down to the depths of abysmal rivers

Vào rừng trúc mai véo von con sáo sậu
Into the bamboo forrest resounded with starlings’ songs

Ta khóc ròng một câu, đâu người ta yêu dấu?
I cried out in pain, sought my soulmate in vain.

However, the literary work that really takes in this concept thoroughly should be Hy Mã Lạp Sơn, or Himalayas, by the Vietnamese poet Xuân Diệu. This poem is included in his poetry collection Gửi hương cho gió, or Send the scent to the wind, written while he was still part of The Self-Strengthening Literary Union.

Nghìn thế kỷ đã theo nghìn thế kỷ,
Ta đứng đây nhìn thấy triệu mặt trời
Tắt và nhen và phân phát cho đời
Những thời tiết tái tê hay ấm áp
Ở chốn tuyệt mù, dưới chân ta đẹp.
Ta đứng đây, vĩnh viễn giữa mùa đông,
Tuyết trên đầu vĩnh viễn choá từng không.
Trán vĩnh viễn nặng mang sầu Trái Đất
Ta là Một, là Riêng, là Thứ Nhất.

Không có chi bè bạn nối cùng ta

Centuries after centuries,
I stand here and witnessed a million suns
have set and risen, and devoted
chilly and toasty weather to this life.
In this secluded place, underneath my feet is beauty
above my head is dazzling white snow
Bear in my mind the sorrow of Earth
I’m the one, and only, and the first
No companion to feel connected

Isn’t it worth reflecting since it coincided with another poem of very similar theme by Huy Cận, Tràng Giang, or Yangtze, which was written for Trần Khánh Giư, as known as Khái Hưng.

Không cầu nối lại niềm thân mật
Lặng lẽ bờ xanh tiếp bãi vàng

No bridge to fill the gap of intimacy
Green shores followed with yellow sand

(to be continued and revised)

Photo: Dong Zhang

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