Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Great Within Part 2: The Forbidden City, Joris-Karl Huysmans and Riding a Bus through San Francisco’s Chinatown

forbiddencity2 The Madness of Weeds, The Forbidden City circa 1920’s

In my first blog post entitled The Great Within I deployed the theory of photography formulated by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida in order to explore the imagistic desire which is awakened in me by photographs of The Forbidden City. On the level of evocation, this desire goes beyond the photograph as an expression of knowledge, history or culture. Looking at images of The FC my desire is distilled into the phrase, “I want to live there…” And more deeply, this desire, “I want to live there…”, is symbolically characterized as a return to the womb of the Mother, a place of certain existence without language or culture. Of course, this return is a physical impossibility and it evokes in me feelings of loss, loneliness and nostalgia.

Yet, in addition to evocation, my desire is animated by the actuality of The Forbidden City: its history, its architecture, its art, its meaning. Specifically, I am fixated on The Garden of Forgotten Favorites. After an emperor died, his concubines would live out their remaining days in this area of the city. This garden, its inhabitants and its function are extremely poignant to me, a circumscribed space that also exudes loss, loneliness and nostalgia.

Often I feel that I am languishing in my own Garden of Forgotten Favorites: an imagined, fantastical space within my mind and at times the physical, lived space of my apartment itself. Like the concubines in The Garden, I have served my emperor (And what was my emperor exactly? Sex, clubbing, drinking, looking for/having a boyfriend, I am not exactly sure, but all of that is long gone and now I at times feel like Mrs. Haversham wandering amongst her things in a tattered wedding dress.) I have not quite figured out the second half of my life. How did a concubine endure her remaining life when her very purpose for existence was no longer alive?

Many years ago on Gay Pride Shame, I took a black t-shirt and bedazzled it with sequined letters that spelled out CONCUBINE. No one quite got it, but it gave me immense pleasure.

Unfortunately, I still have not been able to locate an image of The Garden of Forgotten Favorites in order to more fully revel in and explore my desire for this place and how it generates meaning for me. I have a certain need to see this place if only in a photograph and thereby be assured of its existence along with the hope that this photographic reproduction will somehow reveal The Garden’s secrets and in turn (and this is folly) help me make sense of my own life at this moment.

In my search for the elusive Garden, I found recently the following snapshot that I hoped depicted a bridge in The FC.


This was confirmed by the notes on the back of the photograph:


Bridge scene at entrance to West Gate Museum 8/21/36 Concubine’s Bathroom” and then in a darker ink perhaps added at a later date: “Inside West Gate Entrance to Forbidden City”. It is likely that the photographer of the snapshot was an early tourist to The City which had been turned into a museum in 1925 after the expulsion the last emperor Pu Yi in 1924.

The caption indicates the referent of the photograph, a bridge over The FC canal. The canal is called The Inner Golden Stream. Without this text, this image could be anywhere, any bridge although I might deduce its Asian character by its formal elements. Yet, even with the specificity of the text, there is no reference point within the photograph that tells me, the viewer, visually which exact bridge is depicted in comparison to the many bridges that cross The Inner Golden Stream. Moreover, within the photograph I, as the spectator, am situated within the muck of the canal itself which increases the sense of disorientation as to the photograph’s place and subject.

The state of the canal filled with algae, debris, muck and the weeds which sprout from between the stones of the canal wall enhance this sense of dislocation as well. This visible decay signifies an end, a past, a ruin of something that I, at first glance, cannot quite determine from the photographic depiction itself. I am simply, but profoundly confronted with the disturbing that-has-been of the photograph. I know that this bridge, this canal, this water, these weeds, this muck existed, but what knowledge can I glean from the depiction? Without the caption, the photograph is opaque, an image lost in and to the past yielding little knowledge about its subject.

As I argued in my post The Great Within, it is the weeds in these old photographs of The Forbidden City and this photograph of the bridge in particular which distract and unsettle me. (And in the photograph of the bridge the muck of the canal is also disturbing.)


More than just a symbol of the decay and neglect of The Forbidden City after the end of the Qing Dynasty, they are for me an evocation of the punctum as conceptualized by Barthes. The weeds disrupt the very knowledge of the image no matter how meager it is. In other words, how many weeds are there? I cannot describe each and every single weed though there it is reproduced in the photograph. For me, this inability to denote the weeds combined with the profound utterance of this and every photograph, that-has-been, conveys the madness of photography, the madness of the weeds.


The opacity of the bridge photograph in addition to its composition of disorientation/dislocation combines (and this is perhaps a contradiction) with the information of the caption in order to enable a free play of desire, association and meaning. (I could also argue that the that-has-been of the photograph contributes to this sense of displacement. We are in the past, but which past?)

The caption reads “Concubine’s Bathroom”? Is this an accurate statement? Or is it the pejorative conclusion of the western tourist? I don’t know. Whatever, the truth is, and indeed the canal is choked with algae, debris and muck, the word concubine stirs my imagination and immediately takes me to The Garden of Forgotten Favorites. Does crossing this (photographic) bridge lead into The Garden of Forgotten Favorites? Does the canal flow through The Garden? Are the ghosts of the languishing concubines of The Garden just beyond the trees in the background of the photograph? My desire to behold The Garden of Forgotten Favorites has animated this photograph for me beyond its actual depiction and identifying caption.

I often wonder if actually going to The Forbidden City, finding and seeing The Garden of Forgotten Favorites, would satisfy my desire and my curiosity, thereby bringing about some sort of catharsis (or perhaps disappointment). When I imagine this (potential) trip, I am reminded of an episode in the decadent and perverse French novel Against the Grain by Joris-Karl Huysmans. Huysmans In the novel, the main character Des Esseintes has isolated himself from the world in order to engage in various sensual pursuits. At a later point in the novel, he believes he must break out of his self-imposed seclusion from the world or face ruin, so he decides to travel to England. He goes to take the train to the coast in order to make the Channel crossing, but he is early and must wait. To pass the time he eats dinner in a local establishment run by English expatriates. He eats English food, experiences English language and customs. At the end of the meal, instead of boarding the train for the Channel crossing and beginning his trip, he decides he has already been to England and there is no need to travel to the actual place.

I find this part of Against the Grain extremely profound and as an indication of the sensibilities of the aesthete it is also quite sad. There is an intellectual richness and beauty in Des Esseinntes’ adventure in the train station, but there is also an emotional emptiness to it. He privileges a (momentary) sensation/artifice/simulation over the actual engagement that his trip to England could have been. Instead, he returns to his own inner world of seclusion.

Huysmans' novel reminds me of a trip I took to San Francisco over 20 years ago. For some reason, almost everyday of the trip my friend and I took the same bus through Chinatown. At some point during our daily journey, we were the only white people on the bus. The entire bus was filled with mainly Chinese women and some men talking with great verve, gesticulation and animation as they went about their daily shopping, errands, etc. In this moment, I was (like Huysmans at the train station) in China experiencing its language, customs, sights and sounds. It is one of the great memories of my life.

In the end, perhaps my imagined and fantastical Garden of Forgotten Favorites is richer, more profound, more poignant than the real place ever could be no matter how this fantasy at times might limit my life. Maybe, there is no need to actually go there. Yet, I’m still looking for that photograph and its secrets.



  1. Hey Kelly: As a Huysman/Against the Grain fanatic, I applaud your reference to the man/work/chapter, but must correct you in one important element: Des Esseintes actually goes to Paris, not the north coast of France and ultimately decides to skip the train, not the boat. In addition to the themes you mention, I think this adds an interesting dimension to the story, i.e., the idea that great cities contain within them references to other great cities.

  2. Thanks Matt for pointing out my error. It has been several years since I read A Rebours and I could not alas find my copy. I will definitely edit the post!