Sublime Shanghai: A Review of Jacob Dreyer’s ‘The Nocturnal Wanderer’

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A fabulous account of an American’s experience of living in Chinese cities, particularly Shanghai. The novel sways from personal recollections of the changes throughout the author’s life to a rich exploration of the subjective pursuit of meaning as a westerner living in Asia. Reading the book one immediately connected to the nocturnal element of the writing. The twilight hours with which so many people who have nurtured creative ambitions will admit to frequently experiencing. Those moments when you can not sleep, just stay awake, and do something to entertain your mind – this and much more can be encountered in Dreyer’s loving text. His passion for Shanghai is shown to be so strong as to be an alibi for his very existence. In the book this Chinese super city is found to be in opposition to his birth place of America and its open spaces. Shanghai’s critical mass of humanity is revealed to contain much more than the Hu dialect potentially seeks to keep secret. When reviewing a book such as this it would be nice to be able to offer you a classical literary review. This however is not possible because this book has a dark hold over me. It has lured me into it’s labyrinth strewn covers and now I fear I will be forever lost in its pages. Just as the title suggests as soon as you start to read, darkness prevails, and all that is left is to wander. Where to begin? What topic in this Nocturnal adventure nullifies any doubts you could harbour for abandoning this novel in favour of a more daylight based narrative?

Could it be love that holds this collection of musings, explorations, and confessions together? Love: unavoidable, moreish, insatiable, inescapable, invigorating, and implicit in the affairs of man. Is represented here by letters, of which two seem the most important: Q and A. I choose to believe that Dreyer is true to his word, due to the confession-like nature of his recollections, which is why these two letters represent actual females not some fortuitous gambit on the essence of relationships being one of “seeker” and “keeper”, or worse “withholder”. Yet, perhaps such a thing is not so dafter notion. Indeed, perhaps it was on Dreyer’s mind to offer up a subliminal reminder that the actions of seeking and keeping are innate, unisex, and internal to human relations of the most complex forms. There are potentially no forms more complex than that going by the name love; here one wishes to draw attention to the fact that infatuation and love are not one and the same, but often merge into one. Furthering the notion that humans are irrational animals. Often to be found loving things over people? This is just a small section of the narrative this novel offers its readers – a foray into literature wrote with an Asian time.

Dreyer writes in a way which is open to hitch hikers, his sentences snake and coil their way around components and concepts. Just like Nietzsche’s snake imagery of the man eternally bound to wrestle with his own venom. An interesting moment in the book that Neitzsche regretted writing in German, yet Zarathrustra’s presence will forever serve as an example of what happens when we venture below where the air is not as heavy nor clean. I want to one day discuss with this writer the idea of masculine inferiority. Certain French thinkers have pointed out, or made this clear, that philosophy is feminine. Quentin Meillassoux for instance writing in After Finitude (2006) articulated this rather well using ‘she’ to refer to philosophy. This combines with a contemporary trend inside the academy of woman regaining, and occupying the top positions in the modern anglo-saxon/european universities. This I think is a very correct statement to make in light of the labours of Amy Ireland, Rosi Braidotti, Avital Ronnel, Judith Butler, Catherine Malabou, and Donna Haraway. This of course is one’s opinion but based upon thoughts that are true! Speaking of truth, it is true that there is this attitude that you hear sometimes adopted towards western men that go to Asia for the exotic erotic. Men that buy into the idea that there is an abundance of partners or prey in some cases. Speaking from experience, what is really sad is that there are some male numb nuts out there that go for the novelty of being an object for the female’s sexual gaze, and because they have such low standards for themselves and others commit themselves to a diseased sense of sexuality, a misguided notion of prowess, and full of disloyalty. Both, me and Dreyer, bearing in mind that we are male therefore stupid and more than capable of regressing to the behaviour of the latter description. After reflection we would likely agree that although it is delightful spending time with any woman it only has value if you genuinely care for the person rather then just seeing them as another object for one’s own mostly physical pleasure. In the book, nowhere is the deep feeling for an individual felt so strongly then at the beginning on page 8, ‘it felt as though we were floating, dreaming, twisting … There was nothing else in the world’. By page 81 and 82, raw feelings are expressed through weeping.

“Did my mind digest love and finally “grow out of it?” An oceanic feeling is impossible to grow out of, and love is an ocean, but a warm one; an amniotic ocean… in moments of love we forget Money (that is to say, death). The cold clinking and stacking of life; of the precise quantity of weights we can and cannot lift; of the precise quantity of objects we are able to purchase; of our precise value; these are antithetical to love, whose softness blurs borders.[ Jacob Dreyer, The Nocturnal Wanderer, Eros Press, London, MMXV (2015), p. 81.]”

Blurry borders are to be found at every corner, edge, and lattice of The Nocturnal Wanderer. One confesses that it is this aesthetic of blurriness evoked by both the title and book cover that made me acquire it. It would be nice to know the story behind such a delightful maze. It certainly hints at what to expect when you turn its pages. The philosophical references contained inside reach a crescendo as Dreyer on page 64 especially, but before that you read him articulating Hegel’s CEO-ish status (thought in the boardroom of the mind), then taking the big H and along with Baudelaire and Benjamin claims that they are not to be found on today’s highways because the urban unlike the city nullifies individual spirit – evidently the role of the individual is transcended, or re-affirmed by the never-ending Nietzsche, ‘who believed in a place unencumbered by the masses, a utopia that could be visited alone, built alone, inhabited alone.’ being untimely? The reference to Nietzsche opens the text up to another major seed that it plants in subtle ways. Directions that are quite anthropocentric in the sense that the noun ‘Anthropocene’ connotates: an epoch where humans have a much more central impact and role on the earth’s health – its when humanity has achieved a truly geological stature. What was then planted in my mind, and how I interpreted this section is that due to this change: from the modern city to the concept of the urban if one is to protect individuality one has to bow to the power of a nomadic existence. The conclusion of the book backs this up. Dreyer is done with the perversity of domesticated slavery. Yet, does this not indicate a strong belief in freedom? To be free of something one can appreciate, however freedom for oneself is much harder to fathom? The former implies an abandoning of something you may have objectively possessed, but the latter deals with subjectivity and sensibility. Freedom for oneself is already in a conversation with your sense of self and its limitations. All of which are most likely fully artificial constructs: your self-hood, sense of a thing, community, and civilisation. Dreyer’s writing navigates this very real disjunction between “belonging and becoming” on the line from “start to finish”, that is human life thought as literally linear.

This novel never delineates in this way its realism is anchored in a tacit acknowledgement that the microbe called homo and the macrobe known as humanity are both predetermined to be in an active process of negotiation. Finding a method best suited for dealing with the fact that belonging is always becoming. This cryptic utterance is present in Dreyer’s script as a meditation on the bourgeois white male’s privilege of choice, and this is heavily worked into the books deep well of narrative by means of a somewhat silent discourse on just how often ideology manifests clearly in architecture. To clarify Dreyer comments on the changes that have happened throughout history, but are now happening again in China with renewed ferocity. China currently has over one hundred cities that now house over one million people. So, through this literature we as a reader are invited to join in the journey from the wide open expanse of America all liberally imperialist dogmatically coded by it’s capital dependency to the wild east of China’s newly formed metropolises. Being born into western culture makes you lazy and a little hazy because we know that our privileges do not appear by miracles. But, by the exploitation of cheap labour both its outsourcing and intelligence recruiting, or talent scouting. However, China’s self belief is something that has the wider world listening (even if we do our best to hide it) … I want to ask Dreyer what his thoughts are regarding the following: China’s monetary power (especially the interesting thought that it has enough capital to weaponise it), how extreme is Xi Jinping’s People’s Republic of China’s law enforcement? Paying necessary respect to a great country to what extent does Confucianism influence the Chinese world view; just how together are their societies, and society built from the bricks of a nuclei called family? Finally, if we had the opportunity to sit down with this author. One imagines being able to have a great conversation quickly progressing from a comparison of our shared but separate experiences in living in the two main Asian countries: China and Japan. Then, on to the interconnected and extremely different (at least to western perceptions) of the ‘innate’.

Now, some individuals may suggest that just through the English word ‘innate’ they can grasp the cultural difference between the west and the east. Nevertheless, there is much to discuss here because it is different there is a level of acceptance of some phenomena in the east that is absent in the west. Let us relay this back to Language: the Chinese have the Confucian concept of 仁 ren, and the Japanese have a phrase 思いやりomoiyari. Both terms have different yet relevant meanings. Ren, is often translated as ‘the altruistic nature of being human’ maybe best expressed as an innate genuine quality of your kindness and intentionality. Omoiyari, is traditionally used in Japan to reference a state of an alignment between thought and action – an unwavering togetherness. To bring the inclusion of these examples of Asian language back to the book. The reason I reference them is to stress the importance of Mr. Dreyer’s admission of his own privilege and his unashamed recollecting on that which is public and private. In doing so his book offers a doorway into Asia, that was not here before…at least that’s how it was for me reading the book as I returned back to the west in a state of confusion, somewhat sad, and over thinking one’s relation to society or community. During the darkness of that flight this book helped me split reality into two. Two parts that are perhaps never one and the same?

“A POMPOUS ORATION. Consciousness discovers itself, with some vague past and a sense of agony, surrounded by a brutal state of nature. To escape this pain and achieve mastery over his environment, he does not merely wander through his creation (again, unlike an animal) but re-configures it. This reconfiguration takes the form of industry – of the city. Within this grey replica of the green wilderness, consciousness finds its station, a consciousness enforced by necessity. Consciousness as a particularity, is merely a tool of reason, and just as there can be no two options about a logical axiom, there can, in a truly rationalised world, be no space for individuality. The social, the aesthetic, or the political – different potential names for Spirit are merely vehicles for the ultimate triumph of reason. One reason has become dominant in material terms, individuality and subjectivity will also melt against its totality.[ Ibid p. 62.]”

So there are these two lives carved into reality by Dreyer the first is the one made by love, a love of questioning, a continuum anchored around asking: what makes this person so addictive? So… essential to my very existence. Then the second line this book has drawn consists of the unavoidable phenomenon of human dependence on Topos; for are we all not to be found waiting for the place named city to reveal existential insights into what “we” are? Alas, surely not as in the above quote where reason is accused of triumphalism, and westerners have their well ingrained notions of the individual and the subject totally liquidated. In such a way that the monster known as Mr. One may gulp them down with absolute relish. If you find this chilling then you need not fear. There is still a manner in measuring, providing a ratio where your well rooted western sense of separation can continue – that is why the above quote is pompous. It seeks to suggest that we have already arrived or reached totality with one reason being dominant. One here would like to offer up an alternative for the sake of furthering the conversations this literature may continue to invite. Reason as powerful as it is often creates a reasonless void – I am thinking of the Nanjin Massacre (1937), Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966), and many other examples as evidence of this nasty habit of the power of reason and those that offer rationalisations for even the most nefarious of acts. Therefore today in a country in which to a large degree the future of humanity will be shaped. One has to fully apprehend the power of the Chinese夜(night) after being so brilliantly led to Dreyer’s Sublime Shanghai one chooses to believe for every western person lucky enough to live in Asia. There is an Asian counterpart that is making the opposite journey and struggling to adjust to western weirdness. This suggestion is more than a little driven by one of the thinkers that Dreyer says is not to be found on the highways of China. Walter Benjamin, or at least his ghost, is I assure you present, when a young Chinese man from a less wealthy background makes the journey from rural to the urban, and finds himself digested into industrial mechanics of growth. During his long arduous hours the necessity to create and document his struggle manifests. Kanji is entered into the mobile phone, and through this technopoetic aesthetic the Angelus Novus appears, history remains hysterically hypnotic, and we are compelled to keep wondering through many marvellous nights.

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