Friday 01 March 2002

Bozo marketing

Chris Locke 'interview' in e)mag Coming back on the plane from Melbourne last night, I started to flip through e)mag, a Sydney Morning Herald “magazine” for the Netgen (“inhabit the future,” says the tagline on the cover). Dinner was served, just as I turned to page 26 and saw Chris Locke’s self-portrait (“Rough edges and digital manipulation by RageBoy”). I opened the red cardboard box: pastrami with coleslaw and potato salad. I folded e)mag, opened and drank my Spring Water, poured vinaigrette on the salad, buttered my bread roll, asked for and was given a tonic water.

Rearranging the “magazine” so that it peeked out from under the tray-table, I started to eat and read. It was the typical puff-piece one associates with any new book, movie, play, concert, car, floor wax, dessert topping… in this case, Locke’s Gonzo Marketing: winning through worst practices. There were no tough questions, nor any startling or insightful replies:

e): The shortest statement you can think of to start a good conversation with a complete stranger…
CL: “Hello, Beautiful! Can I buy you a drink?” (Works best with really stiff-necked corporate execs.)

What happened to:

3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
4. Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.
22. Getting a sense of humor does not mean putting some jokes on the corporate web site. Rather, it requires big values, a little humility, straight talk, and a genuine point of view.
27. By speaking in language that is distant, uninviting, arrogant, they build walls to keep markets at bay.
75. If you want us to talk to you, tell us something. Make it something interesting for a change.
79. We want you to drop your trip, come out of your neurotic self-involvement, join the party.

Victor hates the Cluetrain. I don’t. When I read the Manifesto again tonight, it engendered exactly the same response as it had a couple of years ago: genuine insight blended with humor to accurately describe the gulf between companies and markets plus realistic suggestions as to how that gulf might be bridged.

In this interview at least, “the infamous custodian of RageBoy and co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto” offers us marketing as usual. The marketing that has, in recent years, gutted journalism, current affairs, and criticism. The marketing that has stripped the Sydney Morning Herald of any usefulness and turned it into the passive catamite of the PR industry.

I must have been distracted by the image of our beleaguered Governor-General on the inflight news because I looked down to discover a big dollop of potato salad partly covering this sentence:

The first time IBM’s Web page tells me to piss off, it’ll get my undivided attention. But I don’t forsee that happening any time soon.

That’s right. It won’t happen “any time soon.” For that to occur, marketers and advertisers would have to adopt a “don’t-give-a-damn attitude:”

That I’d love to see! But, of course, they can’t—not and remain ‘marketers’ and ‘advertisers’ in any usual sense of those terms.
It’s a koan, a conundrum. Business is impaled on the horns of a dilemma it has created for itself.

It’s not a koan, nor a conundrum. It most closely resembles an untestable assertion. If it is a dilemma, it’s not one manufactured by business.

“Business” annihilates dilemmas, by pragmatically confronting, analyzing, and dissolving every obstacle it encounters, whether self-created or not. Even if don’t-give-a-damn marketing were to be granted a few additional milliseconds of airtime, what difference would it make? Shock-the-bourgeois ads come and go; at the end of the day, when we switch off the tube, the only certainty is that tomorrow business will resume as usual. Nothing has changed since Brecht observed that capitalism gratefully swallows any poison it is offered, transforming each dose into sustenance.

Which is not to suggest that all is lost. The Happy Tutor assures us:

…you don’t have to leave America, or opt out of the Market to live in a democracy, and to participate in a vibrant civil society. You can stay right here in America, use famous brand name toothpaste, and still spend your best energies on something other than commerce. You can do that, on your own time, even if you are CEO of an advertising firm.

Maybe the Cluetrain authors were thinking along these lines when they wrote:

88. We have better things to do than worry about whether you’ll change in time to get our business. Business is only a part of our lives. It seems to be all of yours. Think about it: who needs whom?

Business is only a part of our lives. We want to spend our best energies on something other than commerce. Perhaps that’s what’s missing from the Cluetrain: they’ve spent their best energies on commerce, even as they recognize that commerce represents only a part of our lives. They imagined that marketing—if done correctly or well—could make us all better off. Marketing has a negligible impact on creating better lives, unless you’re directing your message to someone like Johnny Rocco, the gangster played by Edward G. Robinson in Howard Hawks’ Key Largo:

“You have everything,” says one of his henchmen, “what could you possibly want?”
“More,” replies Rocco, “I want more.”

In that world, which is not an imagined world but rather the world we inhabit, marketing is just as much the problem as a solution. For the things that really matter in our lives, marketing can be little more than a hindrance or a distraction.

As I cleaned up the mess with my napkin—I’d already decided to have the e)mag page framed as a gift for Victor—I recalled a ChristianityToday review of Who Killed Classical Music? Maestros, Managers and Corporate Politics by Norman Lebrecht. When I got home, I sought out Lionel Basney’s thoughts about marketing:

…there is a deep flaw in the principle that “it’s all a matter of marketing,” a flaw that was caught by Bradley Morison and Julie Dalgleish a decade ago in a fine study of audience-building for the arts. Art, they observed, has its own agenda, which cannot be altered or ignored by the marketer without destroying the art. It is “inherent in the end goal itself,” wrote Morison and Dalgleish—that is, in finding the orchestra an audience—“that the audience… participate for the right reasons.” Otherwise, whatever happens in the concert hall, the music and its meaning are not being shared.

You do not have to equate Beethoven’s Ninth with the gospel (as Higginson of Boston did) to see the problem. Marketing is not a value-free enterprise; it changes the thing it sells. If the item for sale has no “commanding reality” of its own (to quote Albert Borgmann), the marketing changes will not matter. If it does—if it is an art, or a moral stance, or an instance of charity, or the gospel itself—then marketing cannot change it without destroying the enterprise it meant to support.

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Sunday 03 March 2002

Joy and sorrow

Thunderbirds: Tracy Island I just came back from a wonderful evening out of town. In mid-afternoon I took a train to the Blue Mountains (50 miles west of Sydney), where a former colleague lives with his wife and two young boys. He met me at the station, we picked up a bottle of white wine and a six-pack of James Squire Porter from the liquor store, and headed off to his house.

I played football in the backyard with the younger boy while his older brother watched a Thunderbirds DVD. My friend, his wife, and I drank the beer (which I thought deserved better than the 3.6 out of 5 it received from beer tasting expert, eczematic). The boys and I played with their Tracy Island toy set and discussed the relative merits of Thunderbirds and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. We ate a delicious dinner of beetroot soup, Thai chicken balls with rice and salad, and pavlova (my favorite dessert). The boys had their bath and trooped off to bed. We chatted—about politics, movies, families, immigration, the boys—until I’d missed the last train. Then my friend drove me all the way home.

Though I don’t believe in regrets, I have just one: that I don’t have a child. All my closest friends have children and every time they invite me to their homes, I feel a sense of gratitude that I’ve been able to share the intimacies of family life. I’m well aware that I’m getting many of the pleasures with none of the pain, but the rewards seem so great that I’m always left wondering at what point I took the wrong turn.

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Bakersfield and Sprott

Jeff Ward at Visible Darkness was surprised to learn that in 1990 Bakersfield, where he grew up, was the 97th largest city in the US and Little Rock, where he currently resides, was 96th.

Shock number three. The 2000 figures show Bakersfield at 396,000. However, Little Rock must be growing faster. The 2000 figure is 548,000. I’m sure this includes North Little Rock, just across the river, which is a fairly substantial place. But damn, I never thought this place was that big either. So much for my small town feeling. I don’t suppose a half a million people qualify as a small town. But Little Rock still has something close to a small town mentality, though I confess that it’s actually less “hickish” than Bakersfield…

Just for giggles, I had to look up the figures for Canberra—313,000 according to the tourist web site. So, the capitol of that continent is smaller than Bakersfield? Now that does make for an interesting picture. Okay, so Sydney is twice the size of LA… that wasn’t the point. It’s just strange trying to picture places you haven’t been. I’m sure Canberra has nothing in common with Bakersfield, it just seemed like a funny thing to compare. Or, at least it would be funny if you’d ever been to Bakersfield.

I’ve been to both: Canberra many times and Bakersfield just once, in the late eighties, during my mid-life crisis, driving from San Francisco to Las Vegas via Death Valley with a girlfriend little more than half my age. It’s probably true that Canberra has nothing in common with Bakersfield. Certainly, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards never wrote a song that mentioned Australia’s capital city:

I was driving home early Sunday morning through Bakersfield
Listening to gospel music on the colored radio station
And the preacher said, “You know you always have the
Lord by your side”

And I was so pleased to be informed of this that I ran
Twenty red lights in his honor
Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord.

Far Away Eyes (from Some Girls) Library of Congress: Walker Evans, Sprott, AL

I always loved that song, though not because of the reference to Bakersfield. One of my happiest memories of being married is driving with my wife through Alabama on a Sunday afternoon in the early eighties, listening to gospel music on the colored radio station. We were looking for the crossroads store at Sprott. We turned a corner and there it was, still recognizable from the photographs Walker Evans made there in the summer of 1936. Many of the photographs he took in Alabama for the Farm Security Administration were reproduced at the beginning of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the book that he and James Agee produced when Fortune declined to publish their collaboration as a magazine article.

All over Alabama, the lamps are out. Every leaf drenches the touch; the spider’s net is heavy. The roads lie there, with nothing to use them. The fields lie there, with nothing at work in them, neither man nor beast. The plow handles are wet, and the rails and the frogplates and the weeds between the ties: and not even the hurryings and hoarse sorrows of a distant train, on other roads, is heard. The little towns, the county seats, house by house white-painted and elaborately sawn among their heavy and dark-lighted leaves, in the spaced protections of their mineral light they stand so prim, so voided, so undefended upon starlight, that it is inconceivable to despise or to scorn a white man, an owner of land; even in Birmingham, mile on mile, save for the sudden frightful streaming, almost instantly diminished and silent, of a closed black car, and save stone lonesome sinister heelbeats, that show never a face and enter, soon, a frame door flush with the pavement, and ascend the immediate lightless staircase, mile on mile, stone, stone, smooth charted streams of stone, the streets under their lifted lamps lie void before eternity.

We traveled through the South, visiting most of the places Walker Evans photographed as well as many of the towns where Robert Frank had taken pictures for The Americans. I just found our itinerary folded in the back of the copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that I carried with me. I realize it’s time to read this extraordinary book again. In his preface to the Aperture monograph on Walker Evans, Lloyd Fonvielle wrote:

The text is an extended meditation on morality, perception, the limits of language, and the deceptions of art, all unified by elaborate descriptions of rural poverty executed with surgical precision and lyric genius. It contains the best of Agee’s magnificent prose, as well as jarring passages of adolescent self-indulgence, self-pity, and pretension. The result is a work of maddening, frightful inspiration, a masterpiece by any standards but a masterpiece that parades its flaws with poignant, nearly tragic recklessness.

“adolescent self-indulgence, self-pity, and pretension”—sounds just like a weblog. For all of its supposed faults, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men remains one of my favorite books. I’m glad to have been reminded of it.

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Tuesday 05 March 2002

Gone, but not forgotten

Burningbird isn’t sure “if romance, or I should say Romance, will ever show itself again”:

Did we lose Romance when we burned our bras and marched for equal rights for women? Did we as women slap one too many men when they moved to open the door for us, creating whole generations of men who are hesitant to display anything even remotely resembling a gesture that can be construed as sexist?

In a comment, Tom Graves replies:

In my case the answer’s yes. At 50, I’m only just beginning to get past that hesitancy, and trust that simply expressing polite respect to a woman won’t merely get me yet another acid-in-the-face putdown from her but risk job dismissal or even a jail sentence. That’s how bad it’s been for men in the past few decades; that’s how bad it still _is_ for men, by law, in most Western cultures. Genuine feminism - _genuine_ equal-and-different, with genuine equality of responsibility - is vitally important; but state-feminism has been the West’s Taliban, and, worse, lives in our minds, corroding our hearts, and poisoning _everyone’s_ lives with exported fear.

Abie Hadjitarkhani adds:

It’s got nothing to do with gender or power or sexual politics. It’s about thoughtfulness, selflessness, grace, and a sense of humor—all of which can be expressed simply and beautifully in tiny gestures. Attentiveness to detail and creative implementing of those tiny gestures is part of knowing how to love.
There IS a burden of grace on the recipient too. That’s part of know how to BE loved, and it doesn’t always come naturally.

When I read Tom’s and Abie’s comments I thought immediately of Andrew O’Hehir’s response to Germaine Greer’s characterization of Tolkienian literature as a “flight from reality”:

This is true enough if you understand the ideological content of her terms, so that “flight” means “thoroughgoing rejection” and “reality” means “the accepted liberal narrative of material and political progress.”

In Ms Greer’s “progressive” narrative, a tight-knit crowd marches resolutely towards the future harboring an ill-disguised contempt for the past. Yet no-one seems to notice the mood or behavior of their companions: that the women are harried and discontented, the men alienated and resentful, the children troubled and neglected. Feminism promised women they could “have it all”—family, career, love, romance, material success—and, best of all, that these riches, this new reality, would come at little or no cost.

You’d have to be lunatic to assert that a narrow elite of Western women hasn’t benefited substantially from the triumph of feminism. And yet, why do so many women, despite all their successes, remain discontented?

Charles Frazier writes in Cold Mountain:

Ada could hear in Ruby’s breathing that she was yet awake, and so she said, Do you remember that song of your father’s about the mole in the ground? Ruby said that she did, and Ada asked if Ruby thought Stobrod had written the song. Ruby said there were many songs that you could not say anybody in particular made by himself. A song went around from fiddler to fiddler and each one added something and took something away so that in time the song became a different thing from what it had been, barely recognizable in either tune or lyric. But you could not say the song had been improved, for as was true of all human effort, there was never advancement. Everything added meant something lost, and about as often as not the thing lost was preferable to the thing gained, so that over time we’d be lucky if we just broke even. Any thought otherwise was empty pride.

That passage floored me, crystallizing beliefs I’d held unconsciously for years:

  • Everything has a cost
  • Our gains rarely outweigh our losses
  • The past is precious
  • Progress is an illusion

The Romance that Burningbird yearns for—the romance of long dresses, waltzes, smoldering looks, passionate kisses (no tongues or groping!), plucked roses, secret notes, long moonlight walks, the look, the gentle whisper light touch—has largely vanished. Burningbird admits as much when she says:

Shannon, I think in some ways you’re right—today’s society just isn’t the hearts and flowers and moonlight society it once was…good and bad.

Good and bad. The good disappears with the bad. It happens every day.

One of my favorite novels is Tanizaki Junichiro’s Sasame yuki (The Makioka Sisters), which depicts the daily life of four sisters from an upper-middle-class family—three in Osaka-Kobe, the fourth in Tokyo. First serialized in a magazine in 1943, Tanizaki’s story was almost immediately suppressed by the Japanese military censors. In Volume 3 of his History of Japanese Literature, Kato Shuichi explains:

The novel does not however go further to touch on the wider issues of the government, the army, the war and the other parts of the historical conditions of the times. Thus there is no criticism. Why then did the army censors ban this novel? Why did Tanizaki write such a novel during the war? And why is this chronicle of the minutiae of middle-class life not tedious for the reader? The answer to all these questions is essentially the same.

During the war Tanizaki must have had a bitter awareness that the life and society to which he was so attached would soon be completely lost and that no part of it—the buildings, the tableware, the cadence of local speech, the taste in kimono and the elegant countenance and deportment of the women—would ever be revived, nor would the life style that unified them. There was only one way to bring alive again these lost times and that was to write this novel. He therefore wrote, not of the ideals of sexual love which had long been his central concern, but of an entire and tangible small society, transforming his idolization of women into a celebration of all of this microcosm…

The major significance that The Makioka Sisters has in the history of the Japanese novel does not come from its defiance of tradition but from its superb realization of the possibilities of tradition…

The poignant clarity with which Tanizaki expressed his heartfelt desire to return to the world of yesterday could not have been lost on the censors. Yesterday meant a world without militarism and it was the evocation of this world, not criticism of militarism, that the authorities could not tolerate.

The movies of the 30’s and 40’s that Burningbird yearns for were based on a belief, similar to Tanizaki’s, that women are magic. The French New Wave filmmakers, who learned their craft from those Hollywood films, believed it too.

Truffaut made film after film in which the women, in James Monaco’s words, “are fuller and more sophisticated as characters, and wiser, more powerful, and more human as women, than the huge majority of women characters in films of the sixties and seventies. Godard’s cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, said about the film Contempt: “I’m positive that… he’s trying to explain something to his wife. It’s a letter that’s costing Beauregard [the producer] a million dollars.” What else is Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating but a hymn to the power of feminine magic?

The New Wave films blended romanticism and an appreciation for tradition with rigorous politics and a genuine respect for women. Hardly anyone watches them now. If women themselves do not believe they are magical, how can they expect Romance from men?

Pockets of Romantic behavior still exist: they remind me of the booklovers striding back and forth in the snowclad forest in Fahrenheit 451, learning by heart the texts that will soon be consigned to the flames. Truffaut made a film from Ray Bradbury’s novel:

I wanted to make the movie because I wanted to show books in difficulty, almost as if they were people in difficulty. I wanted the audience to suffer as if they were seeing animals or people burning.

These days, the books are fine; it’s the people who are burning. If our concern is for Romance, it wasn’t always like this. To paraphrase Talleyrand:

She who has not lived in the years before the revolution cannot know what the sweetness of living is.

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Wednesday 06 March 2002

A Japanese wedding

A Japanese wedding One of my close Japanese friends has three nieces. In the last couple of years, the two younger girls married (their elder sister was already married with a child when I was welcomed into my friend’s family). I attended both weddings, which were held in a church in the grounds of a “wedding hotel.”

The bride wore a white wedding dress and veil, the groom white tie and black tails. Their respective fathers wore morning suits, and the mothers black kimono. The Scots Presbyterian church was consecrated in 1877 but, as the sign outside explains, “changes in society have meant that churches have combined, with the result that some buildings have required to find new uses.” The church was purchased by the hotel, dismantled stone by stone, shipped to a large city south of Tokyo, and reassembled next to the hotel. It is easily the most popular wedding venue in the city.

The ceremony was conducted by an American minister, who spoke alternately in English and excellent Japanese. The entire proceedings were videotaped—by a camera crew augmented by a number of cameras mounted on the walls of the church. Whenever the bride and groom had their backs to the congregation—for example, during the exchange of rings—the video signal from a camera at the back of the sanctuary was displayed on two large flat screens on either side of the altar, including a zoom and tight closeup as the ring slid onto the bride’s finger.

As I was leaving the church at the end of the more recent wedding, the minister recognized me from the year before and we had an opportunity to chat briefly. He was a Christian missionary who augmented his stipend by officiating at Japanese weddings on the weekends. He seemed a kind, gracious man, well aware that almost none of the young couples he married would embrace Christianity at any point in their lives. Rather he hoped that a “Christian wedding” would leave them favorably disposed to the Christian church so that, if at any point they found themselves in need of spiritual guidance, they might include the Christian god amongst the multiplicity of gods to whom the Japanese normally pray.

In the few minutes I spoke to him, while the wedding party was getting organized for photographs outside the church, I came to like and respect him: his frankness and, more particularly, his lack of doctrinal rigidity amazed me. Then I realized that he’d absorbed—as I have—the relativism towards God and belief that underpins Japanese religious behavior.

The bride’s aunt, my friend, saw it differently. “My family doesn’t really care what religion it is,” she told me during the reception, “as long as it looks pretty.”

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Saturday 09 March 2002

Let Us Now Praise the Art of Digression

At Visible Darkness, Jeff Ward offers a lament:

My mentor in the English department has a short attention span. If I want to be put in my place, all I have to do is talk to him. He’s got a Ph.D. from Duke, and is always so wrapped up in his own ideas that he doesn’t have much time to spare for other people. However, he’s brilliant and I talk to him when I can. I was really let down that I couldn’t take the seminar he’s teaching now on Blake, Sterne, and Locke. I spoke to him at the lecture a few days ago. I tried to tell him about what I was working on right now, but it was too complicated to explain in short sentences. He stopped me cold:

C’mon, get to it—you’re worse than Tristram Shandy!

Worse in what sense? Doesn’t much of the joy of reading Tristram Shandy arise from Sterne’s taking his own sweet time to “get to it”? From the fact that occasionally he never arrives? And this from someone who’s teaching a class on Sterne?

Nowadays, when our primary social imperative is to come to the point, the art of digression—formerly undervalued—is regarded with palpable hostility:

“There’s just 79 seconds until we get to the commercial break, can we wrap it up quickly?”

“Umm, you realize this is going to an RSS feed… any chance of condensing it for our subscribers?”

Tristram Shandy, untroubled by TV or RSS, still felt the need to justify himself to his more impatient readers:

when a man sits down to write a history,—tho’ it be but the history of Jack Hickathrift or Tom Thumb, he knows no more than his heels what lets and confounded hinderances he is to meet with in his way,—or what a dance he may be led, by one excursion or another, before all is over. Could a historiographer drive on his history, as a muleteer drives on his mule,—straight forward;—for instance, from Rome all the way to Loretto, without ever once turning his head aside either to the right hand or to the left,—he might venture to foretell you to an hour when he should get to his journey’s end;—but the thing is, morally speaking, impossible: For, if he is a man of the least spirit, he will will have fifty deviations from a straight line to make with this or that party as he goes along, which he can no ways avoid…

These unforeseen stoppages, which I own I had no conception of when I first set out;—but which, I am convinced now, will rather increase than diminish as I advance,—have struck out a hint which I am resolved to follow;—and that is,—not to be in a hurry;—but to go on leisurely, writing and publishing two volumes of my life every year;—which, if I am suffered to go on quietly, and can make a tolerable bargain with my bookseller, I shall continue to do as long as I live.

Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (Volume I, Chapter XVIII)

The blogger’s dream: “to go on leisurely, writing and publishing two volumes of my life every year.” I can’t imagine a happier way to while away a life.

My love of the digression came not from Sterne, but Fielding (whose works I devoured at the impressionable age of seventeen):

First, then, we warn thee not too hastily to condemn any of the incidents in this our history, as impertinent and foreign to our main design, because thou dost not immediately conceive in what manner such incident may conduce to that design. This work may, indeed, be considered as a great creation of our own; and for a little reptile of a critic to presume to find fault with any of its parts, without knowing the manner in which the whole is connected, and before he comes to the final catastrophe, is a most presumptuous absurdity. The allusion and metaphor we have here made use of, we must acknowledge to be infinitely too great for our occasion, but there is, indeed, no other, which is at all adequate to express the difference between an author of the first rate, and a critic of the lowest.

Henry Fielding, Tom Jones (Book X, Chapter I)

Anyone still in any doubt as to why I’m committed to the long-form blog?

Jeff adds:

In the Rhetoric department, they think I’m a model of clarity and insight. In the English department, I’m often accused of rambling. Thank god! The worst thing in the world would be starting to feel successful; that would be a guarantee of my failure.

Jeff hates it when people tell him he’s a good writer. As do I. We both know “what happens anytime [we] get anywhere near success.” We blow it. My career as a photographer foundered upon that deceptive rock.

It’s a dilemma for anyone who tries to make art: we make the work and send it out unguarded into the world, hoping beyond hope that it might find an appreciative audience. And, when a few (or many) gather to appreciate our work, we call their judgement into question. In her biography of Samuel Beckett, Deirdre Bair quotes the director Alan Schneider, who—together with Beckett—attended five performances of the London production of Waiting for Godot in preparation for his forthcoming American production:

Every night, also, we would carefully watch the audience, a portion of which always left during the show. I always felt that Sam would have been disappointed if at least a few hadn’t.

“At least a few.” But Beckett—who recoiled from unanimous approval—still appreciated the majority, who stayed until the curtain fell.

Why should there be any conflict between “rambling” and being “a model of clarity and insight”? Particularly if we replace “rambling” with “digression.” (After all, who in these modern times could take issue with “clarity” and “insight”?) Shouldn’t we be able to ramble/digress clearly and insightfully?

Jeff resigns himself to The Rambler’s Way:

Sometimes thinking like Tristram Shandy can be problematic. Unfortunately, I don’t have much choice in the matter. I suppose I’ll always be irritating to somebody.

You and me both, Jeff. And yet, for every person we irritate, let’s choose to believe there are two or three who delight in our inability (or reluctance) to get to the point.

In 1958 Godard made a film (Histoire d’eau) from footage of a flood, which Truffaut had shot before realizing he didn’t know what to do with it. James Monaco recounts the story in The New Wave:

 Jean-Claude Brialy et Caroline Dim in Godard's Histoire d'EauGodard salvaged the film, dubbed the dialogue, and made of the botched footage the first really “Godardian” film, full of puns and wordplay (the title recalls the erotic novel Histoire d’O which had some notoriety at the time), in which our attention must be divided carefully between the subject of the film and its narrative style. Godard ignores, for the most part, the facts of the footage, the flood, and uses it as a stage from which to launch his dialogue collage. The key to the film lies in a story the young woman tells about Louis Aragon giving a lecture at the Sorbonne on the subject of Petrarch. (As she begins, she opens a car door and says, “Here I open a parenthesis: Everybody hates Aragon, but I like him, and I close the parenthesis.” Whereupon she closes the car door.) Aragon, she tells us, started his lecture on Petrarch by throwing himself into a forty-five-minute discourse in praise of Matisse. Finally a student cried out from the back of the room: “Get to the subject!” whereupon Aragon, completing the phrase he had started before the interruption, said simply: “All the originality of Petrarch consists precisely in the art of digression!” “Histoire d’eau” is Godard’s first Petrarchan invention, after the style of Aragon. Its interest is in its digression.

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Tuesday 12 March 2002

Visions of Japhy

I’ve been learning about American literature at In a Dark Time: The Eye Begins to See. Loren’s conclusion, after a weeklong discussion of Kerouac’s On the Road with Diane McCormick, drew attention to another of Kerouac’s novels:

I started out this week hoping that On the Road would become one of my favorite novels of the 20th Century. It hasn’t. In fact, I found that I prefer Dharma Bums, the only other book I’ve read by Kerouac, to On the Road. The two works are written in a very similar style, and both focus on the narrator’s relationship to another person. In my opinion, Japhy is more interesting than Moriarity, and that makes the difference between the two books.

I read On the Road once and The Dharma Bums a half-dozen times, in my twenties. Loren’s discussion of the latter brought back a rush of memories, forcing me to accept that my passion for Japan and the Japanese language started with Kerouac, or rather with Japhy Ryder (the character based on poet Gary Snyder).

I’ve answered the question How did you become interested in Japan? so many times that it’s a shock to discover I’ve been giving the wrong answer all these years. I became interested in Zen Buddhism, I would explain, and I saw Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, and my interest grew from there.

That’s not how it happened.

I read The Dharma Bums, identified with Japhy Ryder, read Gary Snyder’s poems and Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen, and saw Seven Samurai. Snyder, Watts, and Kurosawa were my entry points into Japanese culture—but Snyder came first. (Strange to see him looking professorial, in a collar and tie, and contented too.)

Gary Snyder still holds a place on my bookshelf, though I haven’t visited in a long time. The photograph opposite the title page of Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems shows him leaning in the doorway of the cabin on Sourdough Mountain Lookout in the summer of 1953.

Gary Snyder: Cold MountainPoems

His poem Migration of Birds, written in 1956, contains these lines:

Jack Kerouac outside, behind my back
Reads the Diamond Sutra in the sun.

In the final section of The Dharma Bums, Ray Smith (Kerouac’s alter-ego) spends a season as a fire lookout in the Cascade Mountains, almost certainly in a similar hut. Earlier in the story Smith has told us:

I reminded myself of the line in the Diamond Sutra that says, Practice charity without holding in mind any conceptions about charity, for charity after all is just a word.” I was very devout in those days and was practicing my religious devotions almost to perfection.

I was very devout in those days too, until I bought a camera. Then I found less and less time for Buddhism as I devoted my life to perfecting my skill as a photographer. Every few years I’d take a Japanese class but, before long, photography would lure me back. Only when my passion for picture-making withered did I return to Japan, one of two first loves. The other’s name was Lindy. Still when I read Gary Snyder’s Four Poems for Robin, it’s as if I’ve tumbled into my own autobiography. The last poem in the sequence is titled December at Yase:

You said, that October,
In the tall dry grass by the orchard
When you chose to be free,
“Again someday, maybe ten years.”

After college I saw you
One time. You were strange.
And I was obsessed with a plan.

Now ten years and more have
Gone by: I’ve always known
             where you were—
I might have gone to you
Hoping to win your love back.
You still are single.

I didn’t.
I thought I must make it alone. I
Have done that.

Only in dream, like this dawn,
Does the grave, awed intensity
Of our young love
Return to my mind, to my flesh.

We had what the others
All crave and seek for;
We left it behind at nineteen.

I feel ancient, as though I had
Lived many lives.

And may never now know
If I am a fool
Or have done what my
          karma demands.

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Friday 15 March 2002

Cold Mountain Poems

Han-shan and Shih-te Han-shan and his friend Shih-te were Chinese Zen recluses who lived at a place called Cold Mountain in the T’ien-t’ai range that stretches along the coast of Chekiang Province, south of the Bay of Hangchow, in the late eighth or early ninth century. What we know of them comes from the preface, written by a T’ang Dynasty official named Lu-ch’iu Yin, for Han-shan’s Cold Mountain Poems:

“He looked like a tramp. His body and face were old and beat. Yet in every word he breathed was a meaning in line with the subtle principles of things, if only you thought of it deeply. Everything he said had a feeling of the Tao in it, profound and arcane secrets. His hat was made of birch bark, his clothes were ragged and worn out, and his shoes were wood. Thus men who have made it hide their tracks: unifying categories and interpenetrating things.”

Lu-ch’iu Yin sent clean clothes and incense to Kuo-ch’ing Temple, near Cold Mountain, asking that the gifts be delivered to Han-shan and Shih-te. But on the approach of the messenger, Han-shan disappeared inside a mountain cave. Shih-te vanished too. Lu-ch’iu Yin then asked the monks “to hunt up the poems written on bamboo, wood, stones, and cliffs—and also to collect those written on the walls of people’s houses. There were more than three hundred.”

I have two books containing various Cold Mountain Poems. Here’s one of my favorites, in two translations. (The washing of one’s ears refers to the recluse Hsu Yu who, when asked to take over the throne by the Emperor Yao, ran away and washed his ears to cleanse them of the suggestion.)

This translation is by Burton Watson:

Thirty years ago I was born into the world.
A thousand, ten thousand miles I’ve roamed,
By rivers where the green grass lies thick,
Beyond the border where the red sands fly.
I brewed potions in a vain search for life everlasting,
I read books, I sang songs of history,
And today I’ve come home to Cold Mountain
To pillow my head on the stream and wash my ears.

This one by Gary Snyder:

In my first thirty years of life
I roamed hundreds and thousands of miles.
Walked by rivers through deep green grass
Entered cities of boiling red dust.
Tried drugs, but couldn’t make Immortal;
Read books and wrote poems on history.
Today I’m back at Cold Mountain:
I’ll sleep by the creek and purify my ears.


Saturday 16 March 2002

The truth of experience

This morning I learned from wood s lot that Hans-Georg Gadamer died a few days ago, on March 13. I have never studied Gadamer, never bought any of his books, never really discussed his work with anyone; and yet I cannot imagine how my life might have turned out had I not read three paragraphs of Truth and Method.

Many years ago, a friend who was studying sociology and philosophy gave me some photocopied pages from Section (B) The Concept of Experience and the Essence of Hermeneutical Experience of the chapter Analysis of effective-historical consciousness. If you are put off by the titles, so was I. But my friend had been deeply touched by Gadamer’s ideas and he knew me well enough to guess that I would respond similarly. After swiftly outlining Husserl’s, Bacon’s, Aristotle’s, and Hegel’s theories of experience, Gadamer writes:

The truth of experience always contains an orientation towards new experience. That is why a person who is called ‘experienced’ has become such not only through experiences, but is also open to new experiences. The perfection of his experience, the perfect form of what we call ‘experienced’, does not consist in the fact that someone already knows everything and knows better than anyone else. Rather, the experienced person proves to be, on the contrary, someone who is radically undogmatic; who, because of the many experiences he has had and the knowledge he has drawn from them is particularly well equipped to have new experiences and to learn from them. The dialectic of experience has its own fulfillment not in definitive knowledge, but in that openness to experience that is encouraged by experience itself.

But then this gives the concept of experience that we are concerned with here a qualitatively new element. It refers not only to experience in the sense of the information that this or that thing gives us. It is that experience which must constantly be acquired and from which none can be exempt. Experience here is something that is part of the historical nature of man. Although in bringing up children, for example, parents may try to spare them certain experiences, experience as a whole is not a thing that anyone can be spared. Rather, experience in this sense involves inevitably many disappointments of one’s expectations and only thus is experience acquired. That experience refers chiefly to painful and disagreeable experiences does not mean that we are being especially pessimistic, but can be seen directly from its nature. Only through negative instances do we acquire new experiences, as Bacon saw. Every experience worthy of the name runs counter to our expectation. Thus the historical nature of man contains as an essential element a fundamental negativity that emerges in the relation between experience and insight.

Insight is more than the knowledge of this or that situation. It always involves an escape from something that had deceived us and held us captive. Thus insight always involves an element of self-knowledge and constitutes a necessary side of what we call experience in the proper sense. Insight is something to which we come. It too is ultimately part of the nature of a man, ie to be discerning and insightful.

“the experienced person proves to be… someone who is radically undogmatic”
“the experienced person is particularly well equipped to have new experiences and to learn from them”
“experience which must constantly be acquired and from which none can be exempt”
“experience in this sense involves inevitably many disappointments of one’s expectations “
“every experience worthy of the name runs counter to our expectation”

At first glance, these statements may appear to be profoundly pessimistic, a charge that, later in the chapter, Gadamer attempts to deflect. In practice, they are not. The openness to experience that Gadamer regards as the sign of a mature individual inevitably leads to all kinds of experiences: positive and negative, joyful and sorrowful, pleasant and painful. Only by embracing the extremities offered by human experience, he suggests, is it possible to live life most fully.

Words like “disappointment”, “painful”, “disagreeable”, and “negative” sit uneasily in a culture that holds “happiness” and “success” as its highest values; a culture that is eager to allocate blame when any experience runs counter to expectation; a culture in which, as Meryl Yourish wrote six weeks ago, “personal responsibility is for everyone else.” Meryl’s essay, titled, The Myth of the Evil Lawyers, carefully distinguishes between negligence and the vagaries of human existence:

And here’s the kicker, which apparently nobody believes: Sometimes, shit happens. Sometimes, really bad stuff happens that results in horrible injuries and deaths. And often, it isn’t anybody’s fault. People like the one in the subway who pushed that man under the train often exhibit no signs of insanity until that horrible moment. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It was a horrible, horrible coincidence, and it’s terrible that he lost his legs, but the man has no right to sue the city for it. But you know he’ll win at least a six-figure settlement, because the new American Dream is no longer to work hard and become a millionaire: It’s to hit the lottery, literally or figuratively.

A person who is “radically undogmatic” can easily be mistaken for someone who doesn’t believe in anything. To the contrary, the radically undogmatic person does not act according to a fixed set of beliefs but from an openness to new experience, whatever the quality of that experience may turn out to be. The “experienced” person, in Gadamer’s sense, is relucant to succumb to the corrosive effects of victimology and is therefore increasingly rare in a world which rejects the bad cards in the hand that life deals out.

In Australian schools there is a growing imperative to shield children from any experience that might result in “low self-esteem.” Since everyone is a winner in the game of life, children learn early that success comes with minimal effort. And yet, “experience as a whole is not a thing that anyone can be spared.” As Mike Sanders wrote some weeks ago:

We need to recognize the virtues in ourselves. That is the root of self-esteem. At the same time we need to look at our own faults with the goal of correction not criticism. That is self-appraisal.

We’re unlikely to look at our own faults when we are in the raptures of a new love affair or while lying on a beach in Bali. That, crudely, is Gadamar’s point. The will to correction comes from insight which in itself accrues from negative experience. I guess it’s no accident that amongst all the books I own, one of my favorites is by Ivan Morris: The Nobility of Failure.

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Sunday 17 March 2002

Disagreement and respect

A throwaway remark I made last week has generated a considerable degree of heat and friction. And although any attempt on my part to put out the flames can only be seen as that of an arsonist handing out fire extinguishers, I feel an obligation nonetheless.

My first suggestion — not just to the participants, but to all inhabitants of Blogville—is that they read The Happy Tutor’s advice on How to Disagree Agreeably, or at least Effectively, a document which was happily saved from the flames that engulfed the old Wealth Bondage building in the Houston redlight district. If the Tutor’s advice does not resonate, allow me to tell you a story about two Australian masters of the art of disagreeing agreeably.

Fred Daly and Sir James (Jim) Killen were politicians who served on opposite sides of the Australian Parliament for thirty years or so: Fred was an old-style Labor social democrat, Sir James a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. They were the best of friends. Americans might try to imagine an intimate friendship between a Chicago machine Democrat from the time of Mayor Richard J. Daley and a patrician Savannah lawyer turned Republican senator.

On the days that Parliament sat in Canberra, Fred Daly and Jim Killen would devote their considerable energies to advancing conflicting political agendas. In the evenings they ate dinner together and took pleasure in each other’s company.

In the 32 years that Fred Daly was a member of Parliament, the Labor Party was in power for only three. On November 11, 1975, the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr dismissed the Labor government and installed the Liberal (actually conservative) Party in its place. Sir John Kerr was a drunken buffoon, selected by the Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in the most extraordinary act of naïvety in the history of Australian politics. After the dismissal, Fred Daly refused to succumb to bitterness though he did rename his dog Sir John.

When Jim Killen was Minister for Defence, his private secretary resigned and Killen advertised for a replacement. As a joke, Fred Daly applied for the job then sent in another application for his dog. Killen gave the job to Sir John, he told Daly, because it had better writing skills.

The condolence speeches given by Fred Daly’s political opponents after his death are revealing:

Tony De Domenico: “When I was elected. He said, ‘Listen, I think the attitude you should take is clock on, get in there, go for the political jugular, clock off, and then shout the first beer.’ In fact, I think that is the way Fred Daly lived his life, whether it was politics, whether it was sport, or whether it was anything else he did. Do it properly, do it to the best of your ability, but do not take it personally and, last but not least, shout the first beer.”

Peter Morris: At the funeral I said to Jim Killen afterwards, “Jim, you’ve lost your partner.” He said, “No, I’ve got an advocate in the place that you haven’t got one.” That was the ultimate in Jim Killen and Fred Daly; that he had an advocate in the place that I did not have one.

These days, when not just politics but everyday life itself has become a bitter struggle, it’s easy to dismiss people like Fred Daly and Sir James Killen as dinosaurs. I admire them more than anyone else in Australian policital history. Why? Because they refused to allow their human relationship to be contaminated by their political convictions. They recognized that we are defined not by our beliefs but by our actions.

But it wasn’t just because they had such a high regard for each other that they were able to sustain an enduring friendship. There was something in their individual characters that made it possible to not just to respect but to genuinely like an individual whose beliefs you passionately oppose. As someone once remarked, Fred Daly never made an enemy he couldn’t be friends with. We’d all do well to emulate him.

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Monday 18 March 2002

The ambiguity of perception

I eat once a week at Mamma Maria in Newtown, an Italian restaurant owned by two Egyptian brothers (one tall, the other short, who look after the front of house) and a Portuguese woman (who runs the kitchen). The short brother is on holiday in Egypt. They never know what night I’ll be there but somehow the table closest to the entrance is always free, and they invariably sit me there. I like to sip a Crown Lager while I wait for my meal, observing the restaurant patrons as they arrive.

Tonight, a blonde woman walked in and said to the tall brother: “A table for one, please.”

“Table 8,” he said to a waiter. The woman glanced briefly at a bearded man coming up the stairs, then walked with the waiter towards her table.

“A table for one, please. At the other end of the room,” said the man who’d come in behind her.

It was a joke, of course. They sat down together, ordered a bottle of wine and, when it arrived, poured each other a glass. She drew a few strands of hair back behind her ear then reached across and took his hand. He kissed her.

I went back to reading my book (John Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener). Not long after my meal was served, another couple walked in. An older man and a younger woman. She wore a yellow T-shirt, inscribed with white Chinese and black Japanese characters on the red circle of the Rising Sun. As she walked across the restaurant, I managed to decipher the first and last Chinese characters: red and blue. (In addition to two phonetic alphabets, the Japanese use about 2000 Chinese characters to represent concrete words or concepts.)

Renegade Graphic Boutique T-shirt

As I struggled to make out the middle character, I glanced up and saw that the young woman was looking at me over her shoulder with disgust. “Shit,” I said to myself, “she thinks I was perving on her tits.”

After the waiter took their order, I approached the table to apologize.

“Excuse me,” I said to them both. Then to her, “I didn’t intend to be rude. I’m studying Japanese and whenever I see Chinese characters I just seem to go into auto-pilot, trying to figure out what they mean.”

She looked skeptical.

“I recognized the first and last white characters,” I added. “I’m not sure of the middle one.”

“What are they?” she asked.

“Red and blue,” I replied. “I can recognize parts of the middle character—the part on the left means thread and that on the bottom right water—but I don’t know what the actual character means. I’ll have to look it up in the dictionary.”

She relaxed a little. “I’ve been told that the black text uses a different alphabet,” she said.

“It’s katakana,” I told her. “A phonetic alphabet. The Japanese use it for words they borrow from other languages.”

“What does it mean?” she asked me, making it sound like a test.

Strange that initially she’d taken offence at my staring at her chest, and now she was inviting me to look more closely.

Katakana is easy, once you get the hang of it. I spelt out the syllables to myself: “RE-NE-GAY-DO—GU-RA-FI-KU—BU-TI-KU.”

“Renegade Graphic Boutique,” I explained. “It’s the name of a graphic design company.”

She looked pleased. And relieved. I returned to my table.

Red and blue. A graphic design company. You’d think I’d have figured it out straight away. When I came home, I looked up the character in the dictionary. Midori. Green. Red-Green-Blue. Renegade-Graphic-Boutique. Doh!

How does one judge another’s intentions? The young woman in the restaurant was absolutely wrong in assuming that I was interested in her breasts, and yet what else was she to think when she noticed an older man staring at her T-shirt? I knew I had inadvertently offended her so I made an effort to apologize and explain myself. She was initially suspicious, then accepting, and finally curious.

In this case, there were no calamitous consequences. Her mind was set at rest, what might have been an affront turned out to have an innocent explanation. Still, it’s a strange experience to be comprehensively misjudged, to have one’s character, motives, and worth impugned on the basis of a casual glance. I had to explain myself once. Lots of other people in our society have to explain themselves—or remain silent—a dozen or more times a day.

As I left, I asked the tall brother about the couple who’d asked for separate tables. I told him it looked like an affectionate routine. “I don’t think so,” he said. “She seems really angry with him.”

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Wednesday 20 March 2002

Intelligence and compromise

Mike Golby praises Michael Webb’s essay, What is a superpower to do? A few remarks on Israel and Palestine.:

I share the gist of Michael’s sentiments, and applaud him for tackling a subject that elicits extreme and irrational responses. If he is to be accused of ‘liberal sentiment’, then let us look at just one of the realities of global politics. For it is forces such as these that those seeking a world free of domination by one of another will have to undermine, destroy, and relegate to distant memory.

And Mike finds Douglas Ord’s pictorial and textual essay, Stereopticon, “simultaneously profound, disturbing, moving, and satisfying.”

Ord’s work has phenomenal power and anybody not moved by it must have something wrong with them.
They will either agree or disagree with what they see and hear. Ord leaves little room to carve a middle path through this remarkable reflection of a world gone wrong.

The first time I experienced Ord’s hypnotic juxtaposition of images and texts I was equally impressed. Later, as I reflected on it, I felt a nagging doubt.

It’s not that I disagree with Douglas Ord. His deconstruction of “a group of Palestinian men and boys watching the attacks on the World Trade Centre from an almost bare room in their refugee camp” is perhaps the best visual analysis of a news event I have ever encountered. It’s not that I disagree with Ord’s ruthless delineation of Arial Sharon’s complicity in the massacre by Israeli-armed Lebanese militia of hundreds (or thousands) of Palestinian men, women, and children in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila. In post-war Japan, the War Crimes Tribunal executed dozens of Japanese soldiers and civilians for crimes less serious and on the basis of slighter evidence than that amassed against Sharon. It’s not that I don’t support Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

It’s because Douglas Ord’s polemical essay, to borrow Mike Golby’s words, “leaves little room to carve a middle path.” I would find it infinitely more compelling if it did; if Ord had also turned his considerable forensic skills on the actions of Yasser Arafat and the PLO. <edit> And, in doing so, addressed the argument that Bill Allison raises today at Ideofact

I think, in 1993, Arafat was presented with a rare opportunity. Oslo allowed him to be the vanguard of the Arab world. Had Arafat embraced peace, played Ghandi rather than the thug, insisted on a democratic Palestinian authority, and given the Israelis confidence that they had a partner in peace, he could very well have created a statelet, and then a state, that would stand in sharp rebuke to the rest of those dysfunctional Arab states. He could have turned to the dictators in Syria and Egypt, in Iraq and Iran, and told them that he was building a democratic, secular Palestine. It would not have been easy, indeed, it might have been suicidal. Instead, Arafat played the role he knew best, that of the thug. Long before the most recent wave of violence began roughly a year and a half ago, Arafat had already managed to impoverish his people and strip them of any chance of a decent life. That’s the price the Palestinians paid for Oslo.</edit>

But Ord’s essay lacks what is most needed—a middle path—whereas this precisely forms the foundation of Webb’s, which equally deserves the adjectives “profound, disturbing, moving, and satisfying.”

Profound in its application of American political ideals to contemporary circumstances:

Washington saw in government an opportunity not for contention of opposing points of view, but their reconciliation, recognizing the common and good. His plea for foreign and commercial efforts was that “we seek to promote the good for all, that only in that will we prosper.”
I see Washington’s Farewell Address as a plea for a foreign policy not disengaged, but disinterested. In plain words, not selfish. We may reflect that much, although not all, of our foreign policy has notably lacked this element, and that unintended consequences have dogged nearly all occasions of protecting or extending “American interests”.

Disturbing in its demand that ideals be matched by actions:

To those who deride these sentiments as “liberal sentiments” and advocate ‘real politic’ or a machiavellian approach, I just remind you that they are the principals and sentiments on which our country was founded, and the source of the strength we now enjoy. America is an adolescent country, founded on hope and a faith in the goodness of man, tempered by admission of common failings. We find ourselves now with the challenges that suggest it is time to grow up.

Moving in its willingness to fuse the personal and the political:

Many of the powerful emotions that sweep people and nations are the same ones that move and trouble me, and ultimately self examination, not external situations are the only solution. But like a drunk who can’t stop drinking, the self destruction of Israel-Palestine needs to be put in detox, some measure of health restored before that healing can start.

and satisfying in its even-handedness:

Who killed hope and the future in the mid-east is not material. Who has right or title does not matter. Who was there first does not matter. Israeli or Palestinian, each locked in their own mythologies and personal histories, have little hope for a future. Those substantial portions of the Israeli population that envision an Israel cleansed of Palestinians, or Palestinians who draw a map without Israel are hallucinating a world that will not be, or that would sacrifice their humanity and their religion to accomplish.

As I walked back from the pool this afternoon I suddenly realized why I responded to Michael Webb’s essay. I’d recalled a moment in La Femme Marieé, which—although it is not one of my favorite Godard movies—contains one of my favorite Godard scenes, a monologue—titled Intelligence—by the neglected critic and director Roger Leenhardt:

… I think this is the best definition of intelligence: “Understand before you act.” In order to search further, to reach the depths, the heights, to understand others, to find a small bridge between oneself and the other, between pro and con… . Not everybody cares for this intellectual approach. Especially nowadays, when things are either black or white, and seeking shadings seems a bit gray. But to me, it’s the fanatics who are boring; you always know what they are going to say… . But people who like paradox are fun. Paradox offers an alternative to the self-evident. And then there is compromise, the finest, most courageous of intellectual acts… . It’s come to mean lack of conviction. Still, I’ll go on looking for the proper synthesis and I insist the world isn’t totally absurd. And intelligence is precisely the attempt to inject a little reason into this absurdity.

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Replying agreeably

Anyone seeking instruction on how to respond gracefully to criticism might wish to read Douglas Ord’s comment on my remarks about his image/text work, stereopticon.


A Symposium on W.G. Sebald

The Threepenny Review has put together an online symposium in memory of the writer W. G. Sebald, who was killed on December 14 last year in a car accident in Norwich, England, where he had lived since 1970. T. J. Clark wrote:

A friend who spent an evening with Sebald a few months ago—a relaxed evening, the writer talking with people he knew well—told me that in this setting he came across as easily, caustically, a man of the Left. His remarks were brief but their drift unmistakable. We agreed that this was not surprising, but that it mattered that neither of us would have risked a prediction of Sebald’s politics—his political attitudes, his style in the face of day-to-day events—on the basis of the books he had written.

Oddly, I found this resonated with what another friend, a German literary critic, had said to me a year or so before, explaining his failure to go along with the lionizing of Sebald in the English-speaking world. He found Sebald’s prose too reminiscent of a run of late-nineteenth-century elegiac German and Swiss essayists (he named names, but they meant nothing to me and are long forgotten), sharing their slightly aggrieved disappointment in modernity, and like them not giving an inkling of the form of life he would prefer. Not even going in for nostalgia.

I did not doubt the charge, but I ended up thinking that what I admired in Sebald had to do with just this ability to retrieve a late-nineteenth-century tone—a minor tone, if you like, a posture of privacy and bad nerves—and have it apply to the hugeness, the atrocity, of the century following. And in applying, change key. Likewise, the verdict on Sebald’s suspension between past and present seemed to me to cut both ways. The books he wrote are about living in the past, and what it is that conspires to make this a way— maybe the only bearable or defensible one—of living in the present. Preference has nothing to do with it. Sebald’s past is a spell, a medication—sometimes transparently a fake—whose purpose is to figure and resist the madness pressing in on all sides. On goes the querulous patter of the memoir, past flow the indecipherable photographs, up pile the facts about herring and Omar Khayyam—and we are in hell before we know it, smelling the smell, hearing the screams, being offered a path through the fire. It is bitter to think the path now peters out.

(link via wood s lot)

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Ah, but I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.

Gould's Book Arcade, Newtown This afternoon, on my way to the pool, I walked into Gould’s Book Arcade. Bob Gould, a legendary warrior of the Australian Left, has run an enormous, disorganized, secondhand bookstore in various locations for as long as I can remember. Its current incarnation is five minutes from where I live.

Gould was sitting with his ample belly resting comfortably against the front counter. His hair and beard have turned a beautiful silvery white. I hadn’t seen him for quite a few years.

“I’m after a copy of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” I told him.

“Third aisle from the left at the back of the shop,” he replied. “If I have a copy.”

As I walked towards the rear I heard him yell out, “I know you! What’s your name?”

I turned back to face him. “Jonathon Delacour,” I said.

“That’s right. I remember now. You’ve put on weight. You were thin and intense then. And you called yourself ‘John’.”

He’s right. I’ve put on a few pounds. And I’m Mr Mellow compared to how high-strung I was when Gould and I used to run into each other at demonstrations in the seventies. I always hated the names my parents gave me—John Anthony—so I collapsed them into a single name. (After a dream in which I was standing in line waiting for my name to be called. A voice said: “Jonathon.” I thought to myself, “That’s me.” And, to confirm it, I looked down at the 3x5 index card I was holding and saw it spelled out: J-O-N-A-T-H-O-N.”)

I located a copy of Kundera’s novel, filed — miraculously — under K. Gould’s shop is such a shambles that you can never be sure of finding anything. I took it back to the counter and handed it to him with a $50 note. He gave me back two twenties and some change. Later, when I looked inside the front cover, I saw it was $6.95, a third of the new price.

We chatted for fifteen minutes or so about the old days. He told me he’s written 500,000 words of a memoir. He’d recently gained access to the dossier that ASIO (the Australian Security Intelligence Organization) had compiled on him through the sixties and seventies. “They did me a great favor,” he said, “although they didn’t realize it at the time. I didn’t keep a diary then and now I have a complete record of my comings and goings.”

He gave me a stack of printed sheets, some chapters of the memoir. Knowing Gould and knowing just a fraction of what he’s seen and done, it’ll make extraordinary reading if he manages to finish it. I promised to read what he’d given me and to come back again to discuss it. Then I headed off to the pool. I can’t bear the thought of being intense again but I’d certainly like to be thinner.

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Thursday 21 March 2002

A loss of faith

Since I started this weblog I’ve been encouraged, by reading a variety of other weblogs, to reflect on the nature of faith and belief. Although I am not a Christian, I love reading the King James Version of the Bible (particularly the New Testament). I have a number of Christian friends whom I greatly respect, mainly because there is no discernable difference between their beliefs and their behavior, a phenomenon that is greatly at odds with the experiences of my Catholic childhood and, more particularly, my adolescence. I attended a religious school where the gap between what was preached and what was practised was so immense that only a child or a fool could fail to apprehend it.

In my last couple of years of high school, the members of the religious order to whom our “education” had been entrusted became almost manic at the prospect that those students who intended to enrol in a university course would, by doing so, risk “losing the faith.” My faith had already been cast adrift and all that kept me connected was a thread of loyalty to the beliefs of my parents. In 1969 that thread was cleanly severed by a book: Peter Farb’s Man’s Rise to Civilization, a work of cultural anthropology that is now, unfortunately, out of print.

Peter Farb: Man's Rise to Civilization I cannot recall buying the book, though I know I must have been attracted by a paragraph on the back cover:

Peter Farb examines the contrasting customs of North American Indian tribes to explain the evolution of man as a social being—his relationships with his family and kin groups, his religions and his political institutions.

Farb’s book traces the history of the major indigenous cultures of North America, from Mexico to the Arctic. By the time I was halfway through the last chapter, titled The Hopes of the Oppressed, I was no longer a Catholic or a Christian.

Farb’s argument is straightforward. It was then, and it remains, persuasive. The emergence of Jesus Christ, like the Native American messiahs who appeared in the late nineteeth century, was an inevitable response to specific social conditions.

Every messianic movement known to history has arisen in a society that has been subjected to the severe stress of contact with an alien culture—involving military defeat, epidemic, and acculturation…

Farb argues that such societies, whether the Jews under Roman occupation or Native Americans engulfed by the tide of white settlers, deteriorate to the point where they no longer possess the will to resist, and inevitably they reach a point of imminent collapse.

The collapse may be forestalled or even averted if a revitalization or messianic movement arises that is acceptable to the culture. Such a movement depends upon the appearance of a particular personality at a certain precise time in the disintegration of the culture.

Almost every messianic movement known around the world came into being as the result of the hallucinatory visions of a prophet.

Invariably the prophet emerges from his hallucinatory vision bearing a message from the supernatural that makes certain promises: the return of the bison herds, a happy hunting ground, or peace on earth and good will to men. Whatever the specific promises, the prophet offers a new power, a revitalization of the whole society. But to obtain these promises, the prophet says that certain rituals must be followed. These rituals may include dancing around a ghost pole or being baptized in water, but usually numerous other duties must be attended to day after day. At the same time that the prophet offers promises to the faithful, he also threatens punishment and catastrophe, such as world destruction or everlasting damnation. The prophet now declares the old ways dead and shifts attention to a new way or to a revised conception of an old part of the culture. To spread the word of what he has learned from his visions, he gathers about him disciples and missionaries.

The prophet has generally lived in obscurity until he suddenly emerges, liberated from spiritual apathy. Immune to the stress that still afflicts his brethren, he appears supernatural to them.

The disciples who gather around the prophet also, like him, undergo a revitalizing personality change—as did Peter, to name one very familiar example. The prophet continues his spiritual leadership, but the disciples take upon themselves the practical tasks of organizing the campaign to establish the new movement. They convert large numbers of people, who in turn also undergo revitalizing personality transformations. If the messianic movement has been allowed to survive to this point by the oppressive, dominant culture that called it into being in the first place, a vital step must now be taken. The prophet must emphasize that he is only the intermediary between the converts and the supernatural being whose message he has been spreading. This step is essential, for it ensures the continuity of the new movement after its founding prophet dies. The prophet puts the converts and the supernatural being into close touch with each other by calling for certain symbolic duties the faithful must perform toward the supernatural being, such as eating peyote or partaking of bread and wine.

At this point most messianic movements attempt, and usually fail, to resist both the alien oppressors and internal factionalism.

Most messianic movements, though, make the disastrous mistake that almost all Jewish and American Indian messianic movements did: They choose to fight. Islam alone succeeded by force of arms, whereas the success of the early Christians was their choice of universal peace as their weapon.

Once the messianic movement has won a large following, a new culture begins to emerge out of the death of the old—not only in religious affairs but in all aspects of economic, social, and political life as well. An organization with a secular and a sacerdotal hierarchy arises to perpetuate the new doctrine. The religion in that way becomes routinized in a stable culture. All routinized religions today (whether they be the Native American Church, Mohammedanism, Judaism, or Christianity) are successful descendants of what originated as messianic movements—that is, one personality’s vision of a new way of life for a culture under extreme stress.

The Pueblo prophet Popé in 1680, the Delaware Prophet in 1762, the Shawnee Prophet Tenskwatawa at the beginning of the nineteenth century and Smohalla at the end, the Paiute prophet Wodziwob and his successor Wovoka who preached the Ghost Dance religion (and greatly impressed the Mormons who regarded the Indians as the descendants of the Jews)… Farb’s accounts of these and other prophets annihilated any lingering belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Ultimately the Marist Brothers were correct, though I doubt any of them would have anticipated that I would lose my Catholic faith by reading a book about the rise and fall of Native American civilization.

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Sunday 24 March 2002

The fragility of belief

Working in Japan taught information architect Adam Greenfield that “there is simply no such thing as a universal good.” He resisted a Japanese client’s wish that their book site have a “book sommelier” function, a tool that would elicit “a few lifestyle preferences from site visitors, after which it would recommend a book they might like.” Why the resistance? Because Greenfield thought the name was pretentious and that few Japanese would understand what it meant. As it turned out, his company never completed the project, which was assigned to another design firm.

In the end, I believe nobody won. By inflexibly holding the line on “best practices” regarding a label, and a few other similar disagreements, I contributed to a situation in which a site was built that shafts the hapless user far more thoroughly than any we might have created.

The lesson here is really not a difficult one; it’s merely hard for a headstrong person like me to accept. And that is to slowly back out of the picture and do what I claim I’ve been all about from the beginning: listening to what the user wants. It so happens that, in the States, this is easy for me because “what the user wants” may mesh quite well with all those High Modernist values I hold dear. That is, there’s a happenstance overlap between the crisp grids and clearly articulated navigational schemas I personally like, and defensibly good usability practice for an American audience.Hello Kitty toaster

But what does “usability” or “clarity” mean in a culture like Japan? Have you ever ridden a Tokyo subway? If you have, I’m sure you’ll remember those ads, stuffed to the nonexistent margins with bright yellow copy against black backgrounds, sporting celebrity headshots, bikini girls, cute mascots and entire forests of exclamation points (the one I’m thinking of is an ad for a news weekly). How about all the consumer goods, including more than a few otherwise high-end efforts, overprinted with nonsensical Japlish slogans and cartoon characters?

For me, the most important outcome of living and traveling in Japan, learning to speak and read Japanese, and mixing with Japanese friends, has been this: I’ve come to accept the arbitrary nature of belief. From my first visit I found it extraordinarily liberating to find myself in a society in which both strongly held beliefs and unconscious assumptions frequently seem irrelevant. Japan polarizes foreign visitors and I wonder if this love-hate response isn’t due to an assault on certainty that proves too threatening for some to handle.

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Monday 25 March 2002

The tyranny of colonization

I can’t believe there is a worse place for a book lover to live in the English speaking world than Australia where, until quite recently, book publishing was controlled by a British cartel that limited the range of books that could be sold and overcharged for the books they deigned to publish here. An Australian government report (Copyright and Monopoly Profits: Books, Records and Software) outlines the background to this iniquitous arrangement:

Historically British publishers had a monopoly over publishing in the colonies and later, the countries of the Commonwealth. The British cartel was supported by the ‘British Publishers’ Traditional Market Agreement’ which divided the English speaking world in two, to be shared by British and American publishers. The British had Britain itself and the former British empire while the Americans had the US and its dependencies. Publishers in one or the other had exclusive rights to their own territory. This formal arrangement was upset by an antitrust action in the mid 1970s which prohibited US publishers from engaging in market sharing. However, since then, as noted by the PSA, publishers have been able to maintain the status quo through means such as the territorial tying of copyright as well as tacit understandings on the part of publishers. In the case of Australia this was enforced through the provisions banning parallel importation of books. The effect was that while availability was a concern, so too was price. Australia was served by the more expensive British publishers and there was the extra markup over British prices.

Wanting to read George Steiner’s The Portage to San Christobal of A.H., I looked for it without success in a couple of local bookshops over the weekend. Today I was in central Sydney so I tried at the biggest bookshop, Abbey’s.

“Out-of-print,” said the shop assistant. “In fact, most of his books are out-of-print.”

They may be out-of-print in Australia, I thought to myself, but that’s only because the British publishing houses that still control the book trade here are only interested in supplying gardening books, cookbooks, and movie tie-ins. Given that policy, I can understand why they wouldn’t be interested in “a ‘what if’ story in which young Israeli Nazihunters find Hitler in the Amazonian jungle thirty years after the end of the Second World War.”

A pox on them. Amazon have the book in stock, of course, but I don’t want to wait. I have an essay on the boil about the importance of allowing villains to defend themselves to the best of their ability. I searched the Newtown secondhand bookstores (including Gould’s), again to no avail. has 74 copies available but none in Australia. Finally I located a pre-loved copy at Gleebooks. They’re holding the book for me until I come by to collect it.

We turned our back on the British and begged to become an American colony in late December, 1941. If Roosevelt and MacArthur hadn’t rejected Prime Minister Curtin’s plea, I’d be reading Steiner’s novel tonight, instead of having to wait until tomorrow.

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Sunday 31 March 2002

Ladies in Rivalry

Sei Shonagon has the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction. Yet, if we stop to examine those Chinese writings of hers that she so pretentiously scatters about the place, we find that they are full of imperfections. Someone who makes such an effort to be different from others is bound to fall in people’s esteem, and I can only think that her future will be a hard one. She is a gifted woman, to be sure. Yet, if one gives free rein to one’s emotions even under the most inappropriate circumstances, if one has to sample each interesting thing that comes along, people are bound to regard one as frivolous. And how can things turn out well for such a woman?

The Murasaki Shikibu Diary (translated by Ivan Morris)

Murasaki Shikibu

What could be more refreshing than the tart envy and barely restrained malice of Murasaki’s judgement on her rival? These two women, who were not only the best writers in eleventh century Japan but remain among the greatest writers of any age, disliked each other for many reasons.

Most obviously, Murasaki and Shonagon served as ladies-in-waiting to, respectively, Empress Akiko and Empress Sadako, the wives of the Emperor Ichijo. One has only to read a few pages of a woman’s diary such as the Kagero nikki (The Gossamer Years) to grasp the bitterness between rival wives under the polygamous marriage system of Heian Japan.

And while the antagonism between the Empresses would have tainted any potential relationship between Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon, their contrasting personalities would have fuelled the conflict between the two writers.

Murasaki descrbes herself as shy, gentle, and unsociable, “looked down on like some old outcast,” whereas Shonagon was a glittering success: forthright and opinionated in a milieu where women were expected to be quiet and demure, she seems to have demolished any opposition with the force of her sarcastic wit.

Both women were enthralled by the vagaries of male-female relationships: Murasaki’s novel, The Tale of Genji, is (in Ivan Morris’ words) “primarily a study of the varied manifestations of sexual and romantic love” while Shonagon’s Pillow Book is crammed with gossip and innuendo about the sexual behaviour of the Heian aristocracy.

Sei Shonagon

One always has the sense that whereas Murasaki’s views came from astute observation, Sei Shonagon’s grew out of direct and enthusiastic participation. When we consider too the hothouse atmosphere in which their respective works were handed around and commented upon, it’s little wonder they disliked each other so intensely.

Ultimately though, what separated them then is what separates them now. They are each very different writers, as different as Proust and Barthes. And that, more than anything, can hardly have endeared one to the other.

Arthur Waley, who translated both The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book into English, says about Sei Shonagon:

As a writer she is incomparably the best poet of her time, a fact which is apparent only in her prose and not at all in the conventional uta [31-syllable poems] for which she is also famous. Passages such as that about the stormy lake or the few lines about crossing a moonlit river show a beauty of phrasing that Murasaki, a much more deliberate writer, certainly never surpassed.

Initially I was drawn to Sei Shonagon — to the personal essay rather than to the romance or tale—and I’ve read The Pillow Book four or five times. But recently, I decided to read the three English translations of The Tale of Genji (by Arthur Waley, Edward Seidensticker, and Royall Tyler), a chapter at a time. Seidensticker’s prose is terse compared to the rich poeticism of Waley’s; Tyler’s is colloquial. I’d love to read three translations of the Pillow Book too. Most of all, I’d like to read both books in Japanese (though, because modern Japanese is so different to that spoken and written a thousand years ago, I’d be reading Japanese “translations” too).

Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon each wrote an extraordinary book. Though the society we inhabit could hardly be more different than theirs, their writing reaches out across a millenium to touch our hearts. With a few exceptions, the books men wrote in that period have been forgotten. Mostly it is the women’s writing that is held in high regard.

I wonder if at any time Murasaki and Shonagon were able to transcend their mutual antipathy and grasp their commonality; to realize that they were both consumed by the same grand passion; that they were not, in essence, rivals but rather colleagues. The evidence seems to suggest not.

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In Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, pioneer feminist Phyllis Chesler documents “the usually underhanded and often devastating ways that women attack each other.” Salon reviewer Laura Miller summarizes Chesler’s findings:

Groups of women tend to espouse an “illusion of equality” (and uniformity) in which variations from the norm are seen as dangerous betrayals. “Any expression of anger or the introduction of a tabooed subject may result in the group’s scapegoating of one or two of its members,” she observes. Because one of the biggest taboos is against any overt display of female aggression, these attacks are invariably covert, indirect and maddeningly unexplained—which makes them especially devastating. “Most women have a repertoire of techniques with which to weaken, disorient, humiliate or banish other female group members,” Chesler writes.

Margaret Talbot’s recent New York Times article, Girls Just Want to Be Mean, explains in intricate detail how this repertoire of techniques is learned and honed in middle-school. Girls are just as aggressive, the research shows, though in different ways:

They were not as likely to engage in physical fights, for example, but their superior social intelligence enabled them to wage complicated battles with other girls aimed at damaging relationships or reputations—leaving nasty messages by cellphone or spreading scurrilous rumors by e-mail, making friends with one girl as revenge against another, gossiping about someone just loudly enough to be overheard. Turning the notion of women’s greater empathy on its head, Bjorkqvist focused on the destructive uses to which such emotional attunement could be put. ‘’Girls can better understand how other girls feel,’’ as he puts it, ‘’so they know better how to harm them.’’

After years of listening to interminable rhetoric about how “women enlightened by feminism would live and work together in perfect, nonhierarchical, mutually supportive solidarity,” it’s a relief to have one’s empirical observations borne out by research. Women have warm, intimate, supportive friendships. Women compete ruthlessly and undermine each other. Welcome to the real world.

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour