Pierre Ryckmans (1935-2014)

Before I arrived on this continent these many years ago, the image of Australia to me as depicted via Private Eye was the comic strip Barry McKenzie written by the brilliant Barry Humphries. In fact, the first movie I saw in Australia was the second of the Barry McKenzie films. It more or less fixed the image that had commenced with Monty Python’s Australian Philosophy Department. What radically then changed my view of Australia was to discover that Simon Leys, the author of Chinese Shadows, lived in Canberra and taught at the ANU. He has now passed away, on August 11. I would not have known except for the notice in The Australian today written by Theordore Darlrymple, a writer I have almost as much affection for as Leys, a Belgian whose real name was Pierre Ryckmans. This is from the notice. The first sentence below can only ever be stated once in this day of the internet. It is incredible, but not misguided, that Darlrymple says what he says:

I admired Simon Leys more than any other contemporary writer. He was, in fact, my hero, in so far as I have ever had one. ­Although he had previously written discerningly about Chinese art, I first read his books about the Cultural Revolution. Leys, of Belgian origin, was a passionate lover and connoisseur of Chinese culture and viewed its barbarous destruction with horror during the Revolution; he abominated Maoism at least two decades before it became obligatory for all right-thinking persons to do so. From the very first page — no, from the very first sentence — of all his books and essays it is obvious that Simon Leys always knew what he was talking about.

Leys’ guiding star was cultivation (in a broad sense) and his betes noires barbarism, stupidity and humbug. There was no better sniffer out of humbug, the besetting sin of intellectuals, anywhere in the world.

I have always been taken by his notion that universities should not award degrees so that only those who truly wish to learn would bother to go. The final line of the notice reads, “Australians should be proud that he chose Australia as his home for the last 44 years of his life.” I feel exactly the same.

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12 Responses to Pierre Ryckmans (1935-2014)

  1. Rafe

    Bazza McKenzie met Karl Popper circa 1971, as reported in Honi Soit the Uni of Sydney student paper.

    On a more serious note, Ryckman/Leys was an adornment to the intellectual life of Australia and it will be interesting to see what sort of reaction his passing calls forth in the other papers and journals of the nation. I would like to compile a list of notices for comparison, so please post links if you see anything on line.

  2. Des Deskperson

    I remember Leys/Ryckmans from a devastating review he wrote – decades ago now – of a book on Mao by a soft left group thinking academic, one Ross Terrill, currently described by Wikipedia as ‘a specialist in the history of China, especially the modern People’s Republic of China’.

    I can’t find the review on line- it may not have been digitised- and I can’t recall the precise wording, but Leys carefully and logically dissected Terrill’s stuff, concluding, without in anyway descending to personal abuse, that it was shallow, ignorant and, well, ‘uncourageous’.

    This made me aware of Ryckmans as a person whose views were worthy of attention. As for Terrill, well, If I were he after such put down, I would have given up academia for some other career, maybe quantity surveying, but as Wikipedia records, he still prospers.

  3. Token

    On a more serious note, Ryckman/Leys was an adornment to the intellectual life of Australia…

    A germ hidden from view of too much of our community.

  4. “I remember Leys/Ryckmans from a devastating review he wrote – decades ago now – of a book on Mao by a soft left group thinking academic, one Ross Terrill … I can’t find the review on line- it may not have been digitised”

    See his review (of Mao by Ross Terrill), “All Change Among the China-watchers”, The Times Literary Supplement, March 6, 1981, reprinted in The Burning Forest: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics (1985), and as reprinted later in, and largely online via, Communism: A TLS Companion (1993; as “The China-Watchers”), and in The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (as “The China Experts”) from 2013.

  5. Des Deskperson

    Scott, thanks. I’ll check these out.

  6. Top Ender

    To get into my uni’s philosophy department – which for some reason I thought was a group which would discuss philosophy – I had to stand on a chair, drink two beers, recite the song completely, and then drink another beer.

    I succeeded. I don’t think the meetings ever talked about philosophy. They discussed beer and women.

  7. one old bruce

    His books are wonderful and timeless. I love his Confucius translation especially. Greatly missed.

  8. Marion of the Glades

    Where to start? The man was truly academic. Thoroughly true to his interests and such a rewarding read. His very best moments were being the alternate to populist Terrill and others, with an attitude to sources that many of today’s “experts” might consider.

  9. Giffy

    You’ve probably seen Peter Craven’s ode to Pierre Ryckmans in The Australian this morning.

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