Paula Varsano - March 9, 2021

Troubled Hearts and Worried Minds: Knowing the Subjects of the “Airs of the States”

In a moment when digital humanities, distant reading, manuscript studies, and a variety of historical and political lenses invite us to look at literature as a manifestation of larger and, sometimes, impersonal cultural forces, this talk takes up a different constellation of questions: how does one recognize and define the presumed poetic subject in early Chinese poetry, and how does it function as an object of understanding, as an entity whose voice we continue to seem to hear, whose words we endlessly examine? This talk will home in on the nascent lyric subject already evident in the “Airs of the States” of the Book of Odes, or Shijing. Specifically, it will explore how particular figural devices create meaning primarily through indeterminacy, enriching the seemingly easy legibility of the archetypal lovelorn maiden, the wandering soldier, or the misunderstood friend with the hidden depths of a three-dimensional subject.

Paula Varsano, Professor of Chinese Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, specializes in classical poetry and poetics from the third through the eleventh centuries, with particular interest in literature and subjectivity, the evolution of spatial representation in poetry, and the history and poetics of traditional literary criticism. Among her publications are: Tracking the Banished Immortal: The Poetry of Li Bo and its Critical Reception (Hawaii, 2003) and The Rhetoric of Hiddenness in Traditional Chinese Culture (SUNY, 2016). She is currently completing Knowing and Being Known: The Lyric Subject in Traditional Chinese Poetry and Poetics.