Isn’t it quite amazing how the appearance of a butterfly can inject a stutter or pause into any conversation? Words and words pour out of the animals in assembly, before they are all of a sudden arrested by the passing flight. Heads turn to trace a lilting poetics, attempting to close the distance with this seemingly awkward beauty. There are no straight lines here, only a relative arrival and departure to bracket a brilliant and bewildering trajectory, surging and lurching in a vibrating and nomadic line avant la lettre.
(Sean Smith, ‘I Seek You: Countdown to Stereoscopic Tear’)
Confronting us with its subtitle, Butterfly foregrounds itself as nothing more, nor less, than a novel—allowing, inviting, us to flutter through its tale. Keeping in mind that what is novel is also new; whilst never forgetting Umberto Eco’s teaching that “what is new is old.” It is, after all, a revisiting of the past—the Second World War & Sino-Japanese War (1931-45). But also constantly reminds us that all revisitings always already occur in the present, haunted by the possibility of revisions, revisionism, spectral visions.
Butterfly: fluttering between ripping and crying: a stereoscope to tears: hearing ruptures whilst glimpsing tears; bears witness to tearing whilst tuning to registers of weeping. Attempting to inscribe some of the different calls of history—some of the cries of stories forgotten. Sometimes, difficult tales, tales that resist being told—Nanking amongst them. And in her tale, surrounded by inhumanity that is war, Julie O’Yang opens the dossier of the most human of all notions: love. By asking the difficult question of ‘amidst all of this madness, what is love?’
Never letting us forget Ian Curtis’ warning that “love will tear us apart.”
For, to love one has to attend to—without subsuming another, some other, under ourselves. Which means that to love, one has to be willing to risk oneself, to open oneself, to allow oneself to be wounded, torn apart. In new ways, ways that we have yet to understand, come across, ways we do not yet have a name for.
Never letting us forget that writing itself is haunted by echoes of scribere; scratching, tearing.
And it is this task that O’Yang sets herself: responding to the unknown in both history and to the story that she is attempting to tell. Which is why the novel can never do anything other than move, touch, respond to the in between. In this sense, the novel itself is precisely the relation between her story and history. Which is why “a few liberties have been taken with the historical record in the interest of the truth” (165). For the truth is precisely in its telling: never forgetting that we are also never using our own language—borrowed, stolen, an act of memory.
Not in the banal post-modern sense that all truths are constructed, composed, narrated. But more profoundly that truth itself is a name for what is yet to be named—“avant la lettre.”
And if truth is a name for something that is yet to have a name, this suggests that it is a future possibility—a dream. Which is why there was no other way for Butterfly to end but with a tale on dreams, dreams of butterflies.
Zhuangzi dreamed he was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then he awoke. Now he wonders: Am I a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man.
But just because it is all quite possibly a dreams doesn’t mean that one is free from risks. For, one must never forget that if it is always only to come, one can never be sure of what awaits—one can also never be sure if one is always only waiting. And in opening oneself to possibility, one is always also opening oneself up to being touched by another: for, if dreams are potentialities to come, one’s dreams and another’s might well be the same dream.
To dream—to love.
But most of all, one can never be sure if one might just awake.
I met you in my dreams.
If I had known that I was dreaming,
I would not have woken.
I miss you.
(Japanese 12th Century poem)
[Julie O’Yang. Butterfly, A Novel. Amazon: CreateSpace, 2012.]
by Jeremy Fernando
Jeremy Fernando is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow at The European Graduate School and a Fellow of Tembusu College. He is the author of five books—amongst them Writing Death (The Hague/ Tirana: Uitgeverij, 2011)