Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Immunology by Yiyun Li

I came to this country as an aspiring immunologist. I had chosen the field – if one does not count the practical motive of wanting a reason to leave China and of having a skill to make a living – because I had liked the working concept of the immune system.. Its job is to detect and attack non-self; it has memories, some as long lasting as life; its memories can go awry selectively, or worse, indiscriminately, leading the system to mistake self as foreign, as something to eliminate. The word immune (from the Latin immunis, in - + munia, services, obligations) is among my favorites in the English language, the possession of immunity – to illnesses, to follies, to love and loneliness and troubling thoughts and unalleviated pains – a trait I desired for my characters and myself, knowing all the while the futility of such a wish. Only the lifeless can be immune to life.

One’s intuition is to acquire immunity to those who confirm one’s beliefs about life, and to those who turn one’s beliefs into nothing. The latter are the natural predators of our hearts, the former made into enemies because we are, unlike other species, capable of not only enlarging but also diminishing our precarious selves. .  .  .

There was a time I could write well in Chinese. In school my essays were used as models; in the army, our squad leader gave me the choice between drafting a speech for her and cleaning the toilets or the pigsties – I always chose to write. Once in high school, several classmates and I entered an oratory contest. The winner would represent the class in a patriotic event. When I went on stage, for some mischievous reason, I saw to it that many of the listeners were moved to tears by the poetic and insincere lies I had made up; I moved myself to tears, too. That I could become a successful propaganda writer crossed my mind. I was disturbed. A young person wants to be true to herself and to the world. But what did not occur to me then was to ask: Can one’s intelligence rely entirely on the public language; can one form a precise thought, recall an accurate memory, or even feel a genuine feeling, with only the public language?

In the ideal, argument is a commitment- both parties, by giving and taking, discover something new. But this belief is as naïve as a young person’s idea about the perfection of love. The possessiveness in human nature turns loving or arguing into something entirely different: winning, conquering, owning, destroying.

The talent of argument becomes about finding the right rivals – those who can be awed or bullied into agreement- and dismissing those who cannot be as irrelevant. That talent needs an audience. The world will always quote Mann on Zweig’s death. Yet the latter’s silence prevails.

There is another way to cope with the  same autoimmune condition. A friend is good at arguing against herself from the perspective of others, even when she sees through the fallacy of their arguments. The mind, to avoid targeting itself, becomes two: one which, by aligning with others, is protected; and one which, by staying quiet, eludes being conquered. A self preserved by restraint is the self that will prevail.

To be more than one, to be several, and to live with the consequences, is inevitable. One can err the opposite way, and the belief in being nothing used to seem to me the most logical way to live. Being nothing is being invisible and replaceable; being nothing to others means remaining everything to oneself.  Being nothing is one way to battle the autoimmune condition of the mind. 

My intention  is not to defend suicide. I might have done so at many other times in my life, but I have arrived at a point where defending and disputing my actions are the same argument. Everything I say is scrutinized by myself; not only the words and their logic but also my motives. As a body suffers from an autoimmune disease, my mind targets every feeling and thought it created; a self dissecting itself finds little repose.

 Years ago my husband cautioned me  that writing would require more than a scientific career. No real madness, no real art, he quoted the old Chinese saying, but I had refused to consider it an obstacle. If I had writing, what was there to fear?

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