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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Words about nothing: writing the ineffable in Calvino and Ma Yuan Teichert, Evelyne


The thesis links the writings of the Italian Italo Calvino and the Chinese Ma Yuan through the Taoist symbol of the Tao and the Borgesian concept of the Aleph, an imaginary point in space containing all points in space and time. Based on Zhuangzi’s parable of the Emperor Hun-tun (Chaos) who lost his original state of chaos when he had sensory openings poked into him, the vision of the Aleph/Tao represents the return to that chaotic state of undifferentiated knowledge one experiences when one closes all sensory perceptions. This unnameable vision allows one to transcend all apparent conceptual dichotomies as it lies in the realm of intuition rather than language. Calvino, like Borges, posits that the chaos of the universe cannot be represented through the sequential language system, but nevertheless demonstrates this ineffability through language. Ma Yuan celebrates the chaos of life by writing about a mythological Tibet, upholding the uniqueness of that culture as a subtle subversion to the Chinese political and territorial takeover. Chapter One and Two, respectively, discuss the “Overlapping Conceptual Spaces” in Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Ma Yuan’s ‘The Temptation of the Gangdisi’. Chapter Three looks in greater detail at the images of the Aleph and the Tao in the two main texts against the backdrop of Borgesian thought. In accordance with the concept of the Aleph/Tao whose definition is continuously unsettled by contradictory conjectures, the fourth chapter undoes the conclusions reached in the previous chapters. This chapter discusses Calvino’s Cosmicomics and Ma Yuan’s shorter Tibetan stories in the light of comic parody. That which was earlier posited as the ineffable in these stories is elaborated in a profusion of words. The Conclusion discusses from a Taoist point of view the predominantly male voice in the writings of the two authors. While both advocate the spiritual sameness of all phenomena in an undifferentiated knowledge of the world, they nevertheless write from the male perspective of the yang pursuing and wanting to possess the yin.

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