The Chinese Pleasure Book: Q&A with Michael Nylan

When did you start researching and writing The Chinese Pleasure Book? What was your process like?

I started the Pleasure Book eighteen years ago. I was determined that there would be one book that I wrote only for myself and not according to someone else’s schedule. Throughout the entire eight years of George W. Bush, I found I couldn’t write anything (presumably political depression), so there was a very long hiatus, and I didn’t really get back to rethinking parts of the book and writing two chapters until the Obama era. I was determined to finish the book once I realized, early on, that I might be facing eight more years of political depression.

Mencius, Xunzi, and Yang Xiong are prominently featured in the book. How did you choose these figures?

These are not only some of the best prose writers in classical Chinese but they are also the best thinkers to contend with (“good to think through”). Mainly, however, I was looking to see who had written the most about which kind of pleasure, for once a lot has been written about one kind of pleasure, the Chinese thinkers to follow just refer to the earlier writings, often by indirection. Generally they did not take up a topic they deemed thoroughly worked over, except to add new theoretical insights in extremely brief comments.

Chinese poems are also a great presence in the book. What’s your relationship to poetry?

I’m a prose person, so it is mainly my friendships with Frederick Tibbetts, a truly great poet, and with Marty Verhoeven, a truly great appreciator of poetry, that have reintroduced me to my earlier love of poetry. When I was at boarding school and university, I wanted to be a second E.E. Cummings, but I came to feel that I had no talent whatsoever in that direction, more’s the pity. Now, thanks to Rick and Marty, I am reading poetry every week (W.S. Merwin’s Unchopping a Tree being my current favorite).

Do you find that writing a book is a way of sharing pleasure?

I am always teaching my undergraduates and graduate students that writing is a form of self-exploration and communication. I suspect that I couldn’t survive without writing my thoughts down, or I would survive far less well. To me, writing is as natural as birds cheeping.

Did researching pleasure help you find it in your own life?

Yes, absolutely. When one is translating classical Chinese, one has to think about the precise word to translate the precise pleasure being described, and rolling those ideas over in the mind is marvelous. Also, I have enjoyed discussing the book, even the problems in writing the book, with trusted friends and with some new acquaintances.

Could you describe your own philosophy of pleasure?

I am a firm believer in the Chinese model, which says first, that I have no identity apart from my social engagements, and second, that different parts of me will come to the fore in different social engagements, and all of them belong to the situation as it unfolds. Another firm belief: I recently read in The New York Times that neuroscientists are debating whether the pleasures to be had from watching porn are or are not the same as those to be had from viewing the “Mona Lisa.” I believe they are not the same, although I do not expect to be able to prove it. The Chinese do not use the word “pleasure” for many short-term delights, nor do they expect to be relieved of pain in life.

What do you hope readers will take away from The Chinese Pleasure Book?

I hope that they will take away the Chinese notion that life is a gift to be treasured for what it is, and that each of us brings to life a unique range of capacities, but all of us have what it takes to experience profound pleasure.

Can you say what you will work on next?

Inspired by my friends Henry Rosemont and Hans Sluga (both superb writers and thinkers, and also excellent human beings), I am writing a book to be entitled The Politics of the Common Good in Early China. In that book, I will try to think through a series of problems about “tradition” and “cultural memory” and “patriotism” that I have been circling around since college.