Ralph W. Emerson said that the origin of books is noble -- the world came to the writer dead fact; now it is quick thought. This remark is increasingly untrue. Great beginnings do not protect books from paltry ends, even though authors still speak of the origins of their books as embryos of something great to come. Books, the greatest books, gather dust in obscure corners of libraries. They find their way to garage sales, used bookstores, flea markets. Finally they are pulped, and the paper is recycled to make new books. When I see such august names as Aristotle, Plato, Marx, Nietzsche, or Freud, as well as those resounding titles of contemporary scholarship or theory -- even those published six months ago -- reduced to a dollar apiece in used bookstores, my heart sinks at the prospect of adding another work to the pile.
The origin of this book is prosaic. It began in disenchantment and embarrassment. As I was growing up during the Cultural Revolution, I felt the strain of having to become more than I was. The post Cultural Revolutionperiod was one of enlightenment as well as disenchantment. I grew increasingly tired and suspicious of all the imperious demands that Communist culture had made of me and many of my generation. This feeling colored my perception of heroism and transcendence, the grandiose, the epic, and the magnificent. These to me had crystallized into a cultural practice and an aesthetic discourse that can be described as sublime or chonggao. I felt a strong urge to de