Tuesday 01 April 2003

You need a shovel not a slogan to dig yourself out of a hole

“Iraq has Highway 28. South Vietnam had Route 19, which ran from the coast up into the Central Highlands,” wrote Joseph L. Galloway last week. “It was garrisoned from beginning to end by American and Korean soldiers guarding the bridges and the high mountain passes.”

Off to the right of Route 19, on a barren hill, stood a monument and a small, empty cemetery full of markers bearing the names and ranks of an entire regiment of France’s finest, Groupe Mobile 100, proud veterans of the war in Korea.

As their column drove across the Man Yang Pass between An Khe and Pleiku in 1954, they were ambushed by Viet Minh guerrillas. They all died on that lonely highway, and with them died the last hope of French victory in Indochina.

Galloway wrote the book We Were Soldiers Once… And Young, with Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore, who commanded the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry during the battle of Ia Drang in November, 1965. In the book, Moore describes a visit to the French cemetery:

Shortly after we arrived in Vietnam, Sergeant Major Plumley and I took a jeep and a shotgun guard and drove ten miles west of An Khe on Route 19, into no-man’s-land, to the PK 15 marker post. There, the Viet Minh had destroyed most of the French Group Mobile 100 in a deadly ambush eleven years earlier. We walked the battleground, where a bullet-pocked six-foot-high stone obelisk declares in French and Vietnamese: “Here on June 24, 1954, soldiers of France and Vietnam died for their countries.” In my hand was Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy, which describes the battle. Plumley and I walked the battleground for two hours. Bone fragments, parts of weapons and vehicles, web gear and shell fragments and casings still littered the ground. From that visit I took away one lesson: Death is the price you pay for underestimating this tenacious enemy.

In the movie version, We Were Soldiers, Lt. Col. Moore—played by Mel Gibson—is obsessed by the French defeat, poring over books about the engagement and devising tactics to protect his men from a similar fate. The film opens with a flashback to the massacre.

At the end of the firefight, a Viet Minh soldier stands over a wounded Frenchman and asks his commander: “Do we take prisoners?”

“No,” replies the officer. “Kill all they send… and they will stop coming.”

It is one of the most fondly cherished illusions of the anti-Vietnam protest movement that they played a major role in bringing the war to an end. Such a claim demeans the courage and tenacity of the Vietnamese who had endured occupation by the French since 1884, the Japanese during the Pacific War, the French again until their defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and then by the Americans and their Korean and Australian allies.

The influence exerted by the anti-war movement is negligible when compared to the sacrifices made by generations of Vietnamese who dedicated their lives to the liberation of their homeland—and to the sacrifices made by those on the American side who fought with sincerity of purpose. That Vietnam is united and no longer colonized is due not to the anti-war movement but to the implacable determination characterized by the Viet Minh officer, a single-mindedness that Lt. Col. Moore recognized and respected in the North Vietnamese regulars who followed in that officer’s footsteps.

My last entry, which challenged the peace/anti-war movement to offer more than the tendentious narcissism of street marches, provoked a range of angry responses—most of which focused on my depiction of conventional protest as little more than hollow rhetoric. In doing so, they ignored both the substance and the subtleties of my argument:

  • I was paralyzed by the war in Iraq; Steve Himmer energized me and pointed to a way forward.
  • Military victory in Iraq is irrelevant, the political war is lost.
  • If the coalition “wins” militarily, they will eventually lose the war of occupation (as did the French and the United States in Vietnam). If they lose militarily, Islamic fundamentalism—and, consequently, terrorism—will be strengthened and energized.
  • We are now all at greater risk than had the war not been prosecuted.
  • We don’t have the right leadership. To put it bluntly, we’re fucked.
  • Chanting “End the war” and “We want peace” is a ludicrous response to the predicament we now find ourselves in.
  • I have some reading to do. (In other words, I can no longer sit on the sidelines but must engage at some level with the protest movement and work to find a solution.)

From the sobbing, handwringing, bruised egos, and despair that greeted my post arose—in my comments and in the comments on Steve’s and Burningbird’s posts—the beginnings of a determination to devise practical approaches to digging ourselves out of the shit we’re in. Steve Himmer understood exactly what I was saying (although he remains as committed as I am opposed to the tactics of conventional protest):

I don’t agree that these tactics are unsophisticated, because I’m a firm believe in intelligent, political ‘play’ as a radical critique of capitalist projects, and I also have greater faith in them as valuable—Johnson and Nixon both acknowledged the impact of protests on their Viet Nam policies—but I also have to agree with Jonathon in a way. There needs to be something else, too; there needs to be a proactive element to the peace movement to bolster the reactive we’ve been seeing so much of. We need to be able, when our marches are stopped in the street by those who disagree and demand of us, ‘If not war, what then?’ when we concur that Saddam Hussein should not remain in power (I won’t assume that all peace activists feel that way, but I assuredly do), we need to be able to answer firmly, powerfully, and with as much evidence, articulation, and forethought as the Neo-Con warhawks have been able to muster in pushing their destructive agenda.

Burningbird—after taking me to task for “mocking” those who have marched for peace and characterizing me as an exponent of Elegant Despair—came back with three superb postings:

Burningbird wrote too much for me to quote but this resonated:

The peace movement, or whatever we call it, does need to focus, and I think this conversation now is a good one and I’m appreciative that it’s started. But I also think there’s a deep disappointment underlying some of the pushback against the movement. Ultimately, we failed people — we didn’t stop the war and we didn’t come up with a alternative that would stop this war in time. Now, the coalition of Bush and Blair and Howard have invaded Iraq and we’re in for some nasty, nasty times. We failed the world by not stopping this. So now, we’re being asked, what are we going to do about it?

That I don’t have a high regard for the peace/anti-war movement will not surprise anyone who has read even a few of my war-related entries. Many of the Australian anti-Vietnam protestors of my generation are now sleek state and federal politicians, judges, university professors, or government bureaucrats—drawing fat salaries and looking forward to even fatter pensions while many of the veterans they spat on and reviled are either crazy, sick, dead, or damaged in a thousand other ways: struggling with guilt and shame, their marriages broken, the suicide rate amongst their children three times that of the general Australian community.

I can’t watch the current anti-war/peace protests without having my feelings contaminated by the bitterness and contempt I hold towards those who imagined they were doing good by denigrating our Vietnam veterans and magically wound up doing well.

It will be part of my struggle to put those feelings aside, although I know I’ll never join a march. But my criticism of conventional protest is based on more than anger and resentment. I believe with all my heart that the current anti-war/peace protests are based on a paradigm that is thirty years out of date.

I’d figured out by the time I was 19 years old that the Domino Theory was bullshit and that Vietnam posed no threat to anyone other than its immediate neighbors, Laos and Cambodia. So protestors could chant their slogans and wave their placards without exerting any significant influence but also—as long as they attacked the war and not the soldiers fighting it—without doing any real harm.

Our situation is radically different. Muslim fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism pose a grave threat to all of us. To paraphrase Ann Coulter, they want to invade our countries, kill our leaders, and convert us to Islam. Think I’m exaggerating? Pay $2.95 to the New York Times and read Paul Berman’s The Philosopher of Islamic Terror.

The word PEACE is not like a lump of anti-terrorist Kryptonite that will miraculously weaken the bad guys then gradually make them love us. Being against war is admirable in theory but the real challenge is to devise strategies that will safeguard our lives and our values and protect us from what are now tangible and terrible dangers. The neo-conservatives have dumped us in this mess and, as usual, courageous soldiers are expected to make unimaginable sacrifices. We have to figure out how to extricate ourselves. As Burningbird wrote, we have a great deal of thinking and work to do.

For death is the price we will pay for underestimating this tenacious enemy.

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Thursday 03 April 2003

Ideas and actions

An opinion I expressed in my previous entry—“If the coalition ‘wins’ militarily, they will eventually lose the war of occupation”—provoked the following comment:

It’s just pure racism to suggest that the Iraqi people are incapable of democracy. Or, if you’re not racist, then please explain why in the world you think democracy will fail in Iraq?

Statement Comment
If the coalition “wins” militarily, they will eventually lose the war of occupation the Iraqi people are incapable of democracy
democracy will fail in Iraq

Given that the only common words in my statement and the comment are “the”, “will”, and “of”, I simply cannot comprehend the imaginative leap (or linguistic distortion) required to make them equivalent.

This style of discourse is, however, the the logical outcome of years of political correctness: instead of addressing someone’s ideas or opinions with counter-arguments, you dismiss them as racist. Or sexist. Or anti-Semitic. Though quick, effective, and infinitely easier than thinking, it is at best intellectually dishonest and at worst an unwarranted calumny.

Why do I believe the coalition (mainly, in fact, the United States) will “eventually lose the war of occupation”?

Because, as I wrote in an earlier entry, “it will take perhaps a half a million troops to occupy Iraq and defend its fledgling ‘democracy’ against a new intifada that will make the last twenty years in Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel look mild by comparison.”

Because I believe that the Bush administration has neither the political and diplomatic skills nor the long-term commitment needed to establish and nurture a genuinely democratic Iraqi government in the face of internal dissent from those Iraqis who remain loyal to Saddam Hussein’s memory and external subversion from the many Middle Eastern states who are deeply hostile to Western democratic ideals.

Because I have no faith in the Bush administration’s ability to avoid what Steve Himmer describes as “another shameful and bloody Chile-esque manipulation, in which the democratically-elected leadership was unacceptable to the United States and was therefore sacrificed along with our ideals of fostering freedoms.”

The Iraqi people are just as capable of democracy as were the people of Chile. I was simply expressing my doubt that they will be given the opportunity to transform a capability into a reality.

I’ll note in passing the irony that the people of Iraq are being promised freedom and democracy by a man whom Ray Davis sums up as “consequence-free”:

Bush went AWOL, and speaks as a patriot; he failed in business, and remains rich; he snorted and drank and raised those who snort and drink, and pushes life imprisonment for dabblers; he lost an election, and became President; he dragged the FBI off his Saudi business associates and some of them attacked our country and Bush hid and bin Laden still hides, and Bush was praised for his bungling; he squanders our national treasury and destroys our tax base and increases government spending on anything that might profit his domestic business associates, and I still don’t see the so-called fiscally responsible turning against him. He keeps inviting disaster, and retribution keeps passing harmlessly through him and onto the nation.

But, let us return to the accusation of racism, which I’ll address by recalling an episode of NYPD Blue that screened recently in Australia (a year after it aired in the US). Detectives Baldwin Jones (played by Henry Simmons) and Greg Medavoy (Gordon Clapp) are investigating the firebombing of an electrical store, a crime for which the Arab owners accuse a neighbor who has obviously held a grudge against them since the September 11 attacks.

As Jones and Medavoy are about to interview the family in the hospital corridor, Detective Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) makes a throwaway remark that “they should give them [Americans of Arab descent] their own hospital until this blows over.” Jones, who is African-American, takes exception to the remark and rebukes Sipowicz, though he later confesses to his Assistant District Attorney girlfriend (Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon) that he’s had similar thoughts himself.

“It’s not what you think,” she replies. “It’s how you act.”

Her remark touched me, since the belief it expresses is so deeply at odds with what I was taught as a child: that thoughts, as well as acts, can be sins. They can’t, of course, since that would make us morally culpable for the murky depths of our unconscious, over which we have only the most tenuous control.

Unusually—since I can’t help analyzing the story structure and the niceties of the writing of any movie or TV show I’m watching—it only occurred to me a few days later what an extraordinary piece of dialog the writers, Bill Clark & Matt Olmstead, had crafted for actors Simmons and Beauvais-Nilon. And with what ingenuity they had devised a way to help viewers of the show deal constructively with the dark thoughts and feelings that had welled up in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

Thinking is one thing, they told us, acting is another. In this belief lies the essence of tolerance: for if we cannot forgive ourselves, how can we look upon and deal equitably with those around us? Between the “wrong” thought and the right action lies a process that David Brooks describes in a passage I’ve quoted before. Discussing Christopher Hitchens’ Why Orwell Matters, Brooks wrote:

Hitchens argues that Orwell’s most prominent quality was his independence, and it was an independence that had to be earned through willpower. Orwell was, Hitchens continues, something of a natural misanthrope: “He had to suppress his distrust and dislike of the poor, his revulsion from the Jews, his awkwardness with women, and his anti-intellectualism.” It was through continued acts of self-mastery that Orwell was able to overcome most of his natural prejudices, in order to see things as they really were and champion groups that needed championing. Orwell was always checking himself, which perhaps explains the tone of cool reserve that marks his prose.

All of us, like Orwell, harbor prejudices and anyone who says differently is either a liar, a hypocrite, or a fool. Just as anyone who has traveled extensively will have seen and experienced racism of one form or another. The best we can offer ourselves and each other is to try to emulate Orwell’s practice of “checking himself,” his “continued acts of self-mastery.”

Championing one group frequently requires criticizing another. While I do not resile from my remarks about Muslim fundamentalists and Islamic terrorists, I’m well aware that—as I’ve previously noted—“I need to occasionally corral my instictive exuberance, my heartfelt belief that conflict, and only conflict, offers the key to engaging an audience’s attention.” Though there is sometimes a fine line between the provocative and the offensive, nothing I have written could be construed by any reasonable person as “racist.” My recent entries have been all been written with the goal of contributing to what Steve Himmer describes as “a valuable conversation about how the peace movement should proceed.”

Steve’s own responses to my arguments, with which he finds much to disagree, have been exemplary in their honesty and intellectual rigor. I look forward to continuing the conversation in the direction he has mapped out.

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Friday 04 April 2003

A Minimalist March

In an entry titled Why March? Steve Himmer refutes my criticism of street marches as “red-daubed faces, drumming, banal chants, puerile street theater, trite placards, histrionics, self-indulgent moralizing, and wishful thinking.” What I’ve always regarded (and, to be honest, still regard) as a fundamental weakness of protest marches—that the marchers look like a disorganized and ineffectual rabble—Steve sees as their primary strength:

The individual voice in an election doesn’t individually matter. Done. In a march or a rally, on the other hand, that voice can matter—and it can matter without having either the individual voice or the collective subsumed. As 10,000 people march in a street, there is necessarily a unified message—we’re all marching for the same overarching goal, stating our opposition to war, in the current case. At the same time, each of us holds an individualized sign, or wears a uniquely sloganed t-shirt, or a mask, or performs a piece of personally important street theater. While the collective voice of the march can’t be ignored, neither can each individual voice welling up into the collective.

Why is this important, why does it matter particularly to the left? Because, as I’ve argued at length before, the contemporary liberal position has been hindered by a necessary inability to speak in a collective, representative voice by our own (correct) recognition that individual, varied voices exist and are relevant. A public protest that allows both individual and collective voices to be heard is one way (albeit it an imperfect one) of acknowledging both those voices without sacrificing the power of either. Far more than an election can.

Recently my friend Natsuko asked me what it would take for me to attend an anti-war march.

“Everyone would have to agree to wear only plain black clothes,” I told her. “There would be no chanting, no placards, no street theater, no drumming, no red-painted faces. Nothing but hundreds of thousands of black-clad people marching silently through the city.”

It’ll never happen but, if it did, I believe that such a demonstration would be an immensely persuasive theatrical event, with overwhelming moral and political force.

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Against fundamentalisms

A friend recently emailed me to ask: “Given that you recognize the threat posed by Islamic terrorism, do you really think the coalition forces should withdraw from Iraq now, as many peace activists are suggesting?”

Absolutely not, I replied. I’d assumed this would have been clear from my assertion that:

a coalition defeat—as in a negotiated withdrawal that leaves Saddam or his minions intact—will, as Dave Rogers suggests, “only guarantee far more death and destruction in the years to come.”

Dave Winer put the case for immediate withdrawal:

Then I came up with a new doctrine. It goes like this. If you have a choice, you have no excuse going to war. You can only go to war if you have no choice. I’m sorry Dubya. Let’s just put the tanks in reverse and bring the boys home. Say we’re sorry and ask for forgiveness. It’ll be a lot easier than playing it out. This war is just plain wrong

Here’s the deal — we can’t [win] the war in Iraq. Even if by some miracle we should win it militarily, our occupying force is going to be picked off by suicide bombers from all over the Middle East. It’ll be like Woodstock for our enemies. Imagine, hundreds of thousands of US troops a bus ride away, and throw in some CIA and FBI, and civilians from Bechtel and Lockheed-Martin. It’ll make Vietnam look like a pot party. It’s time to stick the tail between the legs and get the fuck out of there folks. This doesn’t smell good.

“Say we’re sorry and ask for forgiveness.”

And the infuriated and humiliated Arab/Muslim world will say what?

“Don’t worry about it. Everybody makes mistakes. No hard feelings. Let’s work together now to build a peaceful world.”

I reluctantly supported a UN-sanctioned invasion of Iraq. When it was clear that the Bush administration was determined to invade no matter what, I expressed the desire that the war be brought to a swift conclusion with the minimum casualties on both sides. (Given the overwhelming superiority of the coalition forces, it was inevitable that the Iraqi army would eventually be defeated.) I have, however, consistently argued against unilateral military action and the pre-emptive strike, the policies which underpin the current war.

My only concern, since I’ve started writing about the war again, has been with how its aftermath is managed. I believe that the call for an immediate cessation of hostilities is naive and unrealistic since it ignores the fact that, once the war started, there was no earthly possibility that it would end without Saddam Hussein’s removal. More importantly, retreating from the battlefield would send exactly the wrong message to the forces of Islamic terrorism.

Burningbird and Doc Searls have both argued against immediate withdrawal (though they may have reached that conclusion for different reasons than mine).

Burningbird wrote:

Once we entered the country, once we dropped the bombs, we started something and to leave now will just result in a stalemate that will result in yet more death in a country that’s seen too much of it. The same type of death that resulted when we encouraged the Iraqi people to revolt 12 years ago, and then didn’t stay around to help them. I bitterly regret that we started this war, but we can’t just leave now.

However, acknowledgement of finishing what we’ve started is not support. I do not support Bush and his administration. I do not support their short-sighted arrogance, or their frightening long term view for the Middle East.

Doc wrote:

Now that we’re in there, I want us to finish with minimal loss of life on all sides. I hope we take out Saddam Hussein’s regime and return the country to its oppressed people. Then I hope we go home.

In that spirit, I suggest that the anti-war/peace movement would do better to direct its energies not to stopping the war but rather to formulating policies for what occurs after the current Iraqi regime has been ousted.

This is how I replied to my email friend’s question…

I believe that this war was never about Islamic terrorism but rather constitutes the first stage of implementing the strategy for US military and political dominance outlined in the first draft of Paul Wolfowitz’s 1992 Defense Planning Guidance.

Therefore I see the next essential steps as:

  • “Winning” the war (though I believe that under the current US leadership any “victory” contains the seeds of eventual defeat).
  • Getting rid of Bush & Co.
  • Finding a diplomatic solution to the Palestinian situation that will guarantee the security of Israel and give the Palestinians their own state (replacing both Arafat and Sharon will probably be needed to achieve this).
  • Using a combination of diplomacy, economic sanctions, police investigation, covert counter-terrorist action, and small scale military engagements to combat Islamic terrorism.

In a Salon profile of Salman Rushdie, Michelle Goldberg describes the novelist as:

a defender of an idea even less fashionable, at the moment, than moral relativism — secular humanism. It’s a cause some of our best thinkers, such as Hitchens and Martin Amis, are increasingly taking up. Though hardly politically expedient, the fight against religion’s tyranny makes intellectual and emotional sense right now. It could even replace the struggle against first-world imperialism as the organizing principle of radical thought, encompassing as it does the fight against the lunatics of al-Qaida, the butchers in Gujarat, the hard-line settlers in the West Bank, the rapists in the Catholic Church, the bombers of abortion clinics and, of course, our own attorney general.

One of secular humanism’s greatest qualities is that it confers the same rights and freedoms regardless of whether one is a believer, an atheist, or an agnostic. For me, the real battle is against any fundamentalism which threatens those rights and freedoms.

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Monday 07 April 2003

Things and people, charming and splendid

The only surviving description of Sei Shonagon comes from a less than reliable source: an entry in the diary of Murasaki Shikibu—her contemporary and rival at court—that begins: “Sei Shonagon has the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction…”

Her father was Kiyowara no Motosuke, a scholar and poet. She might have been born in 965, or 966. Perhaps she married Tachibana no Norimitsu though it’s more likely he was merely one of many lovers. They possibly had a son.

Though, according to legend, she died in old age, lonely and impoverished, this is probably wish fulfillment on the part of those—including Murasaki—who disapproved of Shonagon’s lively intelligence, argumentative spirit, intolerance towards inferiors, lack of inhibition, and masterful prose style.

The paucity of detail about her life matters little when she is so entirely present in every word she wrote.

On the first day of the First Month and on the third of the Third I like the sky to be perfectly clear.

On the fifth of the Fifth Month I prefer a cloudy sky.

On the seventh day of the Seventh Month it should also be cloudy; but in the evening it should clear, so that the moon shines brightly in the sky and one can see the outline of the stars.

On the ninth of the Ninth Month there should be a drizzle from early dawn. Then there will be heavy dew on the chrysanthemums, while the floss silk that covers them will be wet through and drenched also with the precious scent of blossoms. Sometimes the rain stops early in the morning, but the sky is still overcast, and it looks as if it may start raining again at any moment. This too I find very pleasant.”

Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book (translated by Ivan Morris)

Cover of a German edition of Sei Shonagon's Pillow BookThis is one passage in The Pillow Book I never tire of reading.

I love the rigorous order in the numerical pattern she fashions and how the year advances as a consequence. I love the steady rhythm as cloudy skies alternate with clear. I love the fact that she enjoys the clouds, the rain, the drizzle, as do I. I love the quality of her attention. I love the sense that she is instructing nature, expecting it to furnish her with the weather she requires.

To put it simply, I love her: who she is, or was, or rather how she creates herself on the page, regardless of who she may have been.

I imagine her, clothed in layers of beaten silk, gossamer, and gauze, of differing lengths and in meticulously chosen colors, strolling in the garden of the Kokiden apartments on the ninth of the Ninth. The rain has stopped earlier that morning but could start again without warning. She seems unconcerned that her hair, which is just slightly longer than her height, brushes lightly on the dewy grass. She is plump, with a whitened face, and bright red lips. Her teeth are dyed black, her eyebrows plucked and replaced with two rectangular black blotches, about an inch above where her real ones used to be.

She may be alone, though given her partiality for company, she is probably not. I wonder, as she looks at the heavy dew on those chrysanthemums, if she is already thinking about what she will write.

One day Lord Korechika, the Minister of the Center, brought the Empress a bundle of notebooks. “What shall we do with them?” Her Majesty asked me. “The Emperor has already made arrangements for copying the Records of the Historian.”

“‘Let me make them into a pillow,” I said.

“Very well,” said Her Majesty. “You may have them.”

I now had a vast quantity of paper at my disposal, and I set about filling the notebooks with odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the most trivial material. On the whole I concentrated on things and people that I found charming and splendid; my notes are also full of poems and observations on trees and plants, birds and insects.

Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book

I imagine her later the same day in her “room,” really nothing more than an enclosure of thick curtains, seated at a writing table, with her inkstick, her brushes, her notebooks. She stares briefly at an empty page then picks up a brush, wets it lightly with ink, and—quickly and fluidly—covers the paper with characters.

I suspect her sentences arrive fully formed: surely to have her writing a rough draft in one notebook for later transcription in another is at odds with her sharp wit and ability to summon up an apt quotation.

And yet, in her list of Rare Things, she includes: “to avoid getting ink stains on the notebook into which one is copying stories, poems, or the like. If it is a very fine notebook, one takes the greatest care not to make a blot; yet somehow one never seems to succeed.”

It’s her lists for which The Pillow Book is best known; they include lists of:

Elegant Things
Unsuitable Things
Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster
Things That Give a Pathetic Impression
Surprising Things
Depressing Things
Things That Gain by Being Painted
Things That Give a Hot Feeling
Squalid Things
Things That are Distant Though Near
Things That Have Lost Their Power
Things That Should Be Short

When I read in her list of Different Ways of Speaking that “the common people always tend to add extra syllables to their words,” I thought instantly of my father who loved words and, in an idiosyncrasy at odds with his kind and compassionate character, took delight in hearing people mispronounce words, even to the extent of contriving to have them repeat their mistake.

Shonagon’s disdainful attitude towards “the common people” is a constant of The Pillow Book, a sensibility at odds with the mandatory egalitarianism of today. In her list of Unsuitable Things she includes:

Snow on the houses of common people. This is especially regrettable when the moonlight shines down on it.

And, later on:

It is very annoying when one has visited Hase Temple and has retired into one’s enclosure, to be disturbed by a herd of common people who come and sit outside in a row, crowded so close together that the tails of their robes fall over each other in utter disarray.

But the snobbishness and elitism is part of the Shonagon package, an intrinsic component of her opinionated, abrasive way of looking at the world. And since the outstanding quality of The Pillow Book, apart from her incomparable prose, is precisely the freedom with which she offers her opinions on absolutely everything—from taking a daytime nap to the ideal size of an ox’s forehead to the qualities of the perfect lover—it’s hardly reasonable to damn her for offering them a little more freely than we might like.

The way in which carpenters eat is really odd… I cannot stand a woman who wears sleeves of unequal width… Nothing annoys me so much as someone who arrives at a ceremony in a shabby, poorly decorated carriage… Men have really strange emotions and behave in the most bizarre ways. Sometimes a man will leave a very pretty woman to marry an ugly one.

I realize I’m attracted to her willingness to give voice to the thoughts we all have but are too polite, ashamed, or afraid to say—especially nowadays when even what we may think is so severely circumscribed. She writes, about halfway through, that she “never thought that these notes would be read by anyone else, and so I included everything that came into my head, however strange or unpleasant.”

And yet I wonder if Sei Shonagon, in her writer’s heart, ever gave more than scant consideration to keeping her thoughts to herself.

When the Middle Captain of the Left Guards Division was still Governor of Ise, he visited me one day at my home. There was a straw mat at the edge of the veranda, and I pulled it out for him. This notebook of mine happened to be lying on the mat, but I did not notice it in time. I snatched at the book and made a desperate effort to get it back; but the Captain instantly took it off with him and did not return it until much later. I suppose it was from this time that my book began to be passed about at Court.

Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book

That her notebooks rapidly attracted a wide and enthusiastic audience seems to have curbed neither her wit nor her candor.

It’s a commonplace observation that nowadays Sei Shonagon would have a weblog since The Pillow Book is an obvious precursor of the quintessentially Japanese genre known as zuihitsu—literally “following the brush”, but commonly translated as “random jottings,” “occasional writings,” “informal essay,” or, perhaps most accurately, “miscellany.” Yet the weblog could also be said to draw upon two other equally important Japanese genres: the nikki (diary) and shi-shosetsu (very loosely translated as “autobiographical novel” or “I-novel”)—but I shall leave that discussion until another day.

Sei Shonagon

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Tuesday 08 April 2003

The raw and the cooked (Cetacean)

While the world’s attention has been focused on the Middle East, respected Australian environmental scientist, Dr Tim Flannery, has caused a furor by suggesting that “less intelligent whale species are much like sheep and should be sustainably hunted.”

In a paper about to be published in the Quarterly Essay, Dr Flannery, who is director of the South Australian Museum, accuses some “save the whale” campaigners of wooly thinking:

What people fail to realise is that the Cetacea (the group to which whales and dolphins belong) is an extraordinarily diverse group of mammals… It includes relatively large-brained hunters like dolphins and killer whales (which have the demonstrable intelligence of land-based hunters such as dogs) and tiny-brained filter feeders such as the blue whale. These leviathans are aquatic vacuum-cleaners, whose need for intellectual power is slight indeed.

If these animals are closer in intelligence to the sheep than the dog, is it morally wrong to eat them if they can be harvested sustainably? My view is that at present the anti-whaling lobby is frustrating the attempt to develop a sustainable industry based on these creatures, and is therefore frustrating good management of marine resources.

Arguing that it is these filter feeders—rather than the more intelligent hunters—that Japanese and Norwegian whalers target, Dr Flannery added insult to injury by suggesting that it’s the Japanese who are actually trying “to create a sustainable whaling industry.”

Needless to say, anti-whaling spokespeople were massively unimpressed. The Sydney Morning Herald quoted Michael Kennedy, director of Humane Society International in Australia, as saying: “Flannery’s argument only has friends in Japanese, Norwegian and Icelandic circles.” Quentin Hanich from Greenpeace told ABC News Online that “even though blue whales might have small brains, there are only around 2,000 left and they need to be preserved.” He added:

“We don’t protect trees because of intelligence or any other vulnerable species because of their intelligence, we protect them because of their importance in the ecosystem and because of their biodiversity values,” he said.

“To me it’s totally irrelevant whether a blue whale is able to play chess or is a filter feeder.”

I might find Mr Hanich’s argument more persuasive if the anti-whaling lobby hadn’t worked so assiduously to persuade us that whales and dolphins shouldn’t be hunted because they are so intelligent. If blue whales are closer in intelligence to the sheep than the dog and if they can be harvested sustainably—as Dr Flannery suggests—then surely the argument against hunting them falls apart. (Although my case may be weakened or strengthened, depending on one’s viewpoint, by the fact that I’ve eaten sheep, dog, and whale—as well as snake, cat, crocodile, kangaroo, and emu).

For me the most logical position is to be either a carnivore or a vegetarian. Whereas I respect anyone who refuses to eat meat for ethical reasons, I’m happy to eat pretty much anything that’s put on my plate, as long as it’s not a protected species and it’s not still alive. That the issue is frequently discussed on the basis of emotion rather than logic was brought forcefully home to me in a conversation I had with a Chinese woman while I was living in Japan. She was horrified to learn I’d eaten kangaroo—“But they’re so cute,” she told me—while seeing no problem in eating live monkey brains. Accordingly, in Japan I feel OK about eating whale meat that has been legally harvested under the quota allowed by the IWC but won’t eat live lobster sashimi.

As Gregory Jackson writes in this old Asahi Evening News story, “whale still appears periodically on the menu at izakaya bars around the country, but not many restaurants specialize in it.” Kujira-ya (The Whale Restaurant) in Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya district offers a complete whale-based cuisine including the three dishes I tried: sashimi, steak, and tonkatsu (crumbed and deep-fried). Apart from suggesting the restaurant is difficult to find, which it’s not really—it’s in a basement, not far from the corner of the 109 Building and diagonally opposite the Book One bookstore—this BBC Science/Nature story, titled Dining out on a guilt trip gives an accurate account of the experience, concluding that:

All in all, it is a fascinating and delicious experience - but then I guess animal rights campaigners would say that while whale, veal and paté foie gras may all be tasty, they are also morally unacceptable.

It’ll be interesting to follow Dr Flannery’s suggestion for sustainable whale harvesting though my guess it will have little impact. Gregory Jackson notes researcher Anny Wong’s belief that the reluctance of environmentalists to give up the fight extends beyond whaling itself. As Wong herself says:

The ramifications may be even greater for those environmental movements than for the pro-whaling countries. The latter are fighting for a principle, while the former rely on the anti-whaling campaign for their image, credibility as an environmental group, and for finance. The whale icon is a powerful money raiser.

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Sunday 13 April 2003

Neither sharp, nor precise

Burningbird wrote:

Thanks to Doc I found out about an exchange between Frank Paynter and Tom Shugart regarding Tom’s posting in response to Jonathon’s fundamentalism post. (Tom had a couple of additional postings on this, but the Blogger permalinks seem to be screwed up. Frank, also, has continued this. Jonathon is wisely staying out of this fest, choosing instead to write about less flammable issues.)

Actually, I wasn’t “wisely staying out of this fest,” I was blissfully unaware of it, having spent the week in Adelaide where a 28.8 modem connection constrained my Internet activities to checking email and posting a couple of entries to my own weblog. As for those “less flammable issues,” I can only assume that Burningbird is having a sly dig at my post about hunting and eating whales (if she’s not, I can’t begin to imagine what she’d classify as a truly flammable issue).

By Friday night I was feeling the same bone-tiredness that Pascale Soleil describes in her post, Fatigue:

I’m learning something new. In the past, I’ve been sleep-deprived, I’ve been stressed-out, I’ve been mentally and emotionally exhausted… but never before have I been literally BONE-TIRED. I am learning the meaning of true, bodily, physical fatigue.

I’d eaten out all week, so last night I planned to cook instead. When I looked at the refrigerator door, I realized I didn’t even have the energy to open it, let alone prepare a meal, so I trudged up to my second favorite restaurant (which is really now my favorite restaurant since the original favorite closed a month or two ago). After I’d ordered, I wanted nothing more than to lay my head down on the table and drift off to sleep. When my food arrived, I was too weary to do anything but pick at it. A couple of glasses of wine revived my spirits and I headed home to bed.

This morning, Sunday, I caught up on the fracas Burningbird mentioned, most particularly Frank Paynter’s statement:

I find myself in disagreement with my friend Tom Shugart. Tom and Jonathon Delacour have put themselves in what seems to me to be an awkward position — rooting for the Bush team. Tom seems to have been seduced by an image of representative democracy that went out the door when the Reichstag burned and the loyal opposition’s offices were seeded with anthrax spores.

I’m puzzled by the accusation that I’ve put myself in the awkward position of “rooting for the Bush team” since the post of mine to which Frank Paynter links, Against fundamentalisms, contains the following statements:

I have, however, consistently argued against unilateral military action and the pre-emptive strike, the policies which underpin the current war.

I believe that this war was never about Islamic terrorism but rather constitutes the first stage of implementing the strategy for US military and political dominance outlined in the first draft of Paul Wolfowitz’s 1992 Defense Planning Guidance.

Therefore I see the next essential steps as:

  • �Winning� the war (though I believe that under the current US leadership any �victory� contains the seeds of eventual defeat).
  • Getting rid of Bush & Co.

So, according to Frank Paynter, I’m rooting for the Bush team even though I’m against unilateral military action and the pre-emptive strike, I believe the war is stage one of the neo-Reaganite plan to maintain US hegemony, I don’t think the current US adminstration is capable of winning the peace, and I think it’s essential to get rid of Bush and Co.

Frank Paynter’s post might be a grubby play for attention, or he might have taken up residence in backwards Bizarro World, where Up is Down and Down is Up (and, dare I say it, Left is Right). Or perhaps he’s fallen under the spell of (former) Iraqi Minister for Information, Mohammed Said Sahaf, and is merely emulating Mo’s ability to recast reality by denying or dismissing any contradictory, irrefutable, and inconvenient facts.

The latter seems the most likely explanation, given two statements he made in the comments on Burningbird’s post:

“But I didn’t call Tom or Doc or Jonathon pro-Bush.”

“Really I didn’t call anyone pro-Bush!”

Earth to Paynter: in this context, to “root for” something and to be “pro”-something are functionally identical.

root pro-

1. To give audible encouragement or applause to a contestant or team; cheer.

2. To lend support to someone or something.

1. An argument or consideration in favor of something: weighing the pros and cons.

2. One who supports a proposal or takes the affirmative side in a debate.

In simple terms, “rooting for the Bush team” = “pro-Bush.” Whereas I am, and have always been, anti-Bush.

I’ve already devoted more time and energy to this than it deserves. There are other issues I’d rather be writing about but, just as it’s important to defend oneself against false accusations of racism, it’s equally important to refute wilfully-dishonest misrepresentations of one’s clearly stated views.

In a more recent post, Frank Paynter wrote that “this whole thread began for me in a critical assessment of  Tom’s assertions regarding the futility or inappropriateness of street demonstrations,” suggesting that the thread had perhaps begun “in the blog of that notorious whale noshing carnivore, Jonathon Delacour.” That’s correct, it started with the post “�always already writing about war” in which I challenged the the anti-war/peace movement to:

come up with something more sophisticated and useful than red-daubed faces, drumming, banal chants, puerile street theater, trite placards, histrionics, self-indulgent moralizing, and wishful thinking.

Tom Shugart amplified my argument in the thoughtful, well-written post to which Frank Paynter took exception:

it’s time to forget the peace marches. These actions now represent a colossal waste of energy. The energy needs to be directed instead toward the question of what kind of world order we want to build out of the chaos that has been inflicted upon the people of Iraq.

A million peace marchers pouring onto the streets every single day isn’t going to make a lick of difference in addressing this complex problem�other than creating more and more polarization. And guess who’s going to be on the losing side of that one.

I don’t have any interest in arguing with Frank Paynter—the gulf between our respective positions is simultaneously closer than he admits and too wide to bridge. In any case, his weblog posts on this issue strike me as the written (I can’t bring myself to say “literary”) equivalent of red-daubed faces, drumming, banal chants, puerile street theater, trite placards, histrionics, self-indulgent moralizing, wishful thinking and—a couple of characteristics I omitted from my original list—paranoia and conspiracy theory.

By describing September 11 as “our modern Reichstag in NYC in 2001,” Frank Paynter is obviously referring to the Bush administration’s use of the terrorist attacks as an pretext for curtailing civil liberties, just as Hitler and the Nazis did in 1933. But the metaphor is highly problematic because of the strong possibility that the Nazis actually lit the Reichstag fire. Since no sane person, no matter how much they detested Bush et al, would suggest that the hijackers were acting under instructions from the current administration, this implication contaminates and discredits the Reichstag metaphor. As Tom Shugart argued—in a comment on this post— “your conspiracy theory weakens your argument.”

In a post titled Certidudes, Doc Searls frames the disagreement in these terms:

But my point isn’t about any of that. It’s about partisanship and paranoia. To me all the certidudes are equally off base because they’re convinced the Other Guys are part of some big-ass Conspiracy, or are what Craig Burton calls EWBU: Evil, Wrong, Bad and Ugly. That’s how Michael Moore sees the Bush and the Administration. And that’s how Andrew Sullivan sees Howell Raines and the Academic Left. Their rants make for great reading; but they’re not fully engaged with Reality, which includes, let’s admit, the possibility that the other side isn’t always full of shit.

See, here’s the real problem. (Brace yourselves. I’m leveraging Lakoff again.) Basically, all our politics proceed from two radically opposed notions that are nonetheless equally true. The one on the Right holds that the world is a dangerous place, that bad people are on the loose, and that we need to keep ourselves safe from those people. The one on the Left holds that the world is a good place, and that we should do everything we can to nurture whatever keeps it that way. As bases for default thinking both serve to explain and dismiss much of what goes on in the world. Neither is correct in every case, and both are biassed. (A reader makes a good point: Basing ones thinking at one end or the other often leads to hatred and contempt � which we find in the language of blogging from both political extremes.)

Doc is absolutely correct to suggest that “all our politics proceed from two radically opposed notions that are nonetheless equally true” (though I would have preferred the word “valid” rather than “true”) and that “neither is correct in every case, and both are biassed.” But then, in a curious elaboration of his argument, he apportions all the blame to the Right, letting the Left off the hook.

Only one of those, however, makes interesting news. Only one of those is good for stirring up the kind of righteous anger that carries us to war, and to “delivering justice,” whatever we decide that is, and to justifying the deaths of the few for the good of the many (or of the wrong for the right, or whatever). Only one of those lends itself to handy all-simplifying sports and war metaphors. Only one of those justifies killing folks who have the misfortune of living in the wrong house, eating in the wrong restaurant or wearing the wrong clothes.

Until we discover the limits of the might-makes-Right’s moralities, its obsessions with power and security, its willingness to trash the very liberties it seeks to protect, and its ability to carry out its military ambitions, theirs are the arguments that are not only going to carry the day, but be tested in the real world.

Chinese poster: A People's Army Has No RivalYet would not the victims of the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, and the Killing Fields bear witness that the Left has an equal aptitude for “stirring up the kind of righteous anger that carries us to war,” for “delivering justice, whatever we decide that is,” for “justifying the deaths of the few for the good of the many,” for trashing “the very liberties it seeks to protect,” and for “killing folks who have the misfortune of living in the wrong house, eating in the wrong restaurant or wearing the wrong clothes”?

(I’m reminded of a line in Joanna Burke’s An Intimate History of Killing: “more hatred was expressed by trade unionists during an average strike than by men in the midst of battle.”)

“Right now,” writes Frank Paynter, “we have two choices. Support Bush or oppose him.” And later, “I think that is the choice.  You are either with them or against them.”

“You must understand, sir,” says deputy-governor Danforth in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, “that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, now, a precise time—we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God’s grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not light will surely praise it.”

Paynter and Danforth. Certidudes indeed.

But here’s an incontrovertible fact: nothing is pure or simple, for we remain mired in the dusky afternoon, where evil inextricably mixes with good and befuddles the world; and I doubt it will ever be any different.

Frank Paynter’s argument, which attempts to reduce complex issues to a false polarity, is hardly any different from Attorney-General Ashcroft’s. I realize that it’s difficult for ideologues to deal with complexity, to “admit to the possibility that the other side isn’t always full of shit,” just as it’s difficult for them to accept that someone can:

be simultaneously against Bush and against street marches.

oppose unilateral military action and the doctine of the pre-emptive strike while accepting the possibility of a just war.

support the Palestinians’ right to an independent state but be implacably opposed to Islamic fundamentalism.

But the real world is like that: complicated and nuanced. Burningbird summed up the problem of peace marches and suggested an course of action not dissimilar to Tom Shugart’s:

And I won’t attend the ones this weekend because, to me, they lack focus and discipline. Are we protesting to support Iraq? Or against Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Ashcroft? Are we for UN? Or against the Patriot Act? And before you say the lines are clear on all these issues, they aren’t. The ‘peace movement’ needs to make a decision about what the fight is, develop an effective voice, and then stick with it.

To which I would add that the anti-war/peace movement would do well to find common ground with those on the Right who opposed—for whatever reasons—the invasion of Iraq.

Or, alternatively, they can stick with the hollow posturing of street marches.

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Tuesday 15 April 2003

Alibis and consistent lies

Last night, watching a 1999 French documentary I’d taped about the novelist John Le Carré, I was struck by the comparison he drew between writing and spying:

We shouldn’t ever forget the strong cultural and literary tradition that our Service perpetuates. I am one of lots of writers who did secret work, who were in the Service at one time or another: Grahame Greene, John Buchan, Compton McKenzie, Iris Murdoch I believe… and a whole number of writers whose imaginations were put to work. So there was a natural affinity between the creative imagination of the artist and the creative imagination that was necessary to produce good deception and intelligence work, to produce alibis and consistent lies. It’s only a very small shift from the kind of fable making in literary terms to the same kind of fable making in espionage terms.

Richard Burton as Leamas in John Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in from the ColdIn the following scene, Le Carré’s talking head was replaced by a still of Richard Burton in Martin Ritt’s movie version of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, accompanied by a brief voiceover narration of a scene from the novel. I stopped the VCR. Not that I’d lost interest, but I’d recalled the “cast of characters” in the Persons and Places section of James Agee’s and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:

James Agee          … . a spy, traveling as a journalist
Walker Evans       … . a counter-spy, traveling as a photographer

And the poem that starts Book Two, dedicated by Agee to Evans:

Against time and the damages of the brain
Sharpen and calibrate. Not yet in full,
Yet in some arbitrated part
Order the façade of the listless summer.

Spies, moving delicately among the enemy,
The younger sons, the fools,
Set somewhat aside the dialects and the stained skins of
          feigned madness,
Ambiguously signal, baffle, the eluded sentinel.

Edgar, weeping for pity, to the shelf of that sick bluff,
Bring your blind father, and describe a little;
Behold him, part wakened, fallen among field flowers
But undisclosed, withdraw.

Not yet that naked hour when armed,
Disguise flung flat, squarely we challenge the fiend.
Still, comrade, the running of beasts and the ruining
Still captive the old wild king.

I thought too of the discussion precipitated by Steve’s post about Liter(al)ture, which Burningbird had mentioned, a conversation that evoked in me the most profound sense of relief.

Thank God, I said to myself, someone’s started talking about this stuff that’s been on my mind for ages.

And then: Shit, they’ve started the conversation without me.

How wonderful that Steve had quoted an old (and esteemed) acquaintance, Mark Bernstein, who summed up in a couple of sentences ideas that for months I’ve been creeping up on, like a spy, and trying to startle into action:

It’s time for weblogs to grow up, to move beyond their obsession with authenticity and to get over the panic that accompanies any hint that a weblog writer might not be exactly what they say they are. Who is?

Steve figures large in this—for cranking up the conversation and for emphasizing the importance of story:

the weblog is the collection of stories, the way they’re told, the element of time (and especially change over time) introduced to narrative in ways that aren’t possible with newspapers or novels.

Liz Lawley as well, not so much for her observation about the blogging pioneers’ party line (though I have a long essay in the works about that), but more for a remark she made a while ago:

Let me start with a disclaimer. I like Jonathon Delacour — at least, I like the persona he displays to us through his weblog.

Ah, Liz, I wondered when I read those sentences, are you the only one who’s figured out I’m making a lot of this up? Or just the first to suggest it publically?

Burningbird too, in a negative yet entirely positive way. Her post, Obliquely Yours, helped me clarify my own position. By focusing on the technique of writing obliquely, of feeling and experiencing one thing, but writing about another—something that, for me, holds little fascination—she helped me formulate precisely where my own interests lie.

That’s it: where my own interests lie. In other words, hardly anything to do with telling the literal truth; and everything to do with fashioning an authentic persona from bits of alibis and consistent lies.

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Truth or belief

In Burningbird’s comments, Stavrosthewonderchicken pushed back in no uncertain terms against Bb’s enthusiastic response to my post Alibis and Consistent Lies:

I really intensely dislike the idea of people misrepresenting themselves in order to tell an interesting story. I realize this is a completely unsophisticated stance to take. I never claimed to be sophisticated - in fact, I pride myself as being someone who understands sophistication but prefers not to partake. A meta-sophisticate, if you will.

Anway. Sure, tell stories. Sure, spin yarns. But if those yarns are Made Up Just So Stories, and someone is presenting them as the truth, well, they can shove it.

Of course, there is no such thing as the *truth*, I think. Objectivity is an illusion, certainly. This odd thing people have about not editing their posts is inexplicable to me, I must admit. Art is just experience repurposed, maybe.

If someone chooses to be entertainment, that’s fine. They can play sleight of hand with malleable reality, spin a delicate tower of partial truths and entertaining lies, but they will remain entertainment to me, and enjoying entertainment is something that’s much less important to me than feeling as if I know a person, certainly valued, but not in the same way. Any dipshit can tell entertaining lies. It takes more to live a life whose story is worth telling, or to find a way to chant the song of ones life in a way that makes others wish to listen.

Not everyone is Hunter S Thompson. Everyone has an obligation to self-mythologize, to paraphrase someone or other, but in the end, a failed mythmaker is just a liar.

To which Burningbird replied:

To be honest, I’ve probably mis-represented Jonathon’s style and approach. I’ve been doing this a lot lately, in a continuing sequence of muddying up the waters. Pretty soon, people will cringe to see my trackback link to their writing.

To the contrary, Burningbird. Lately I’ve been misrepresented by experts, whereas your post provided an honest and valuable insight into how I’d originally embraced the concept that not all of this is as it seems.

There’s a fine irony here in that Stavos, Burningbird, and myself were the three offenders in the How Dare Anyone Criticize Meg Hourihan case, which happened to be the first time I articulated the notion—following Stavros’s lead—that blogging could be more than link+quote+comment, time-stamped in reverse-chronological order.

There’s a greater irony too, that Stavros is—despite his protestations—an accomplished storyteller: a natural, if you will, like Burningbird. He might argue that he is only recounting the events of “a life whose story is worth telling,” that he’s merely “chanting the song of [his] life in a way that makes others wish to listen.” I’d reply that, although literal “truth” might be fundamental to Stavros’s method of storytelling, when I read his stories it’s irrelevant whether the events occured exactly as he describes them, I simply wish to surrender to his narrative voice.

So, Stavros’s reservations included, I’m thrilled by this debate. Not just because it’s encouraged me to focus on the only two things that truly matter to me—writing and story—but equally because the viewpoint that Stavros articulates lies at the heart of the debate about the Japanese literary form I love the most: the shishōsetsu. I’ll write a lot about shishōsetsu in the coming weeks and months but, as it happens, something Steve Himmer wrote today—perhaps the most wonderful compliment that anyone has offered about my writing—sums up the essence (and the problematic nature) of the shishōsetsu form:

I don’t know if Jonathon ever dated a woman named Ikuko for real, but I know that I believe the stories he tells about her.

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Wednesday 16 April 2003


Actor George SegalIt must have been twenty-five years ago that I read a magazine profile of George Segal in which the writer described an exchange between Segal and another guest, after both had appeared on a television chat show. As I recall, the conversation went something like this:

“You were amazing,” said the other guest. “Nothing like I’d expected. I knew you’d be smart and funny but I never imagined that you would open up and reveal the real George Segal, that you’d be so honest and vulnerable.”

“Well,” replied Segal, “that’s not really so difficult. After all, I’m an actor.”

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Thursday 17 April 2003


What does this mean? That I arrive home from having my new car washed to discover that, while I was sitting in the carwash cafe, sipping a flat white and reading the last hundred pages of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Burningbird was momentarily trapped in a carwash.

Carwash, Cleveland Street, Redfern

What an odd coincidence. I hadn’t owned a car and hadn’t been near a carwash since 1991; but last week a close friend of my mother gave me a 1990 Daihatsu Charade (you can see it in the photograph, beyond the tables—a man in a red coat is shampooing the seat covers).

I don’t really need a car, since I chose where I live very carefully: close to shops, restaurants, swimming pool, hospital, movie theaters, university library, parks. The railway station is a seven minute walk; eight different bus routes pass within five minutes of my house. Whenever I did need a car, I borrowed my mother’s or my sister’s or, most conveniently, Natsuko’s, since she’s only a twenty minute walk away. But Natsuko’s dilapidated Nissan gave up the ghost a few months ago and she’s been at me since then to split the cost of “a five thousand dollars car.”

The Daihatsu turned out to be a five hundred dollars car ($510 actually—US$314 or €287): $343 for some minor repairs, $37 to transfer the registration, $40 for a resident parking permit, and $90 for the deluxe wash, polish, and interior clean—including a “free” cup of coffee. The car seems mechanically fine, it just needed sprucing up.

Reading WG Sebald's Austerlitz at the carwashAlthough the carwash manager told me I’d only have to wait an hour, the job wound up taking twice that long. I didn’t mind. I finished Austerlitz just a few minutes before he came to tell me the car was ready. For those couple of hours I was utterly content, for it’s the last part of the book with which I identify most strongly: Austerlitz’s visit to the Theresienstadt ghetto where his mother was interned, his journey from Prague through Germany to Paris, his failed relationship with Marie de Verneuil (and their unhappy sojourn at Marienbad), his obsessive viewing of the film of Theresienstadt made by the SS, his nervous collapse after visiting the museum of veterinary medicine in the grounds of the Ecole Vétérinaire, his attempts to find in the records of the Bibliothèque Nationale a trace of his vanished father. But, most of all, his yearning for Marie de Verneuil.

WG Sebald's Austerlitz, page 378

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Art and entertainment

The willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurous on behalf of us all.

John Updike

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Friday 18 April 2003

German assistance requested

In W.G Sebald’s Austerlitz, the eponymous protagonist, in the course of investigating the fate of his mother, describes a book by H.G. Adler “on the subject of the setting up, development, and internal organization of the Theresienstadt ghetto.

Reading this book,which line by line gave me an insight into matters I could never have imagined when I myself visited the fortified town, almost entirely ignorant as I was at that time, was a painstaking business because of my poor knowledge of German, and indeed, said Austerlitz, I might well say it was almost as difficult for me as deciphering an Egyptian or Babylonian text in hieroglyphic or cuneiform script. The long compounds, not listed in my dictionary, which were obviously being spawned the whole time by the pseudo-technical jargon governing everything in Theresienstadt had to be unravelled syllable by syllable.

Austerlitz cites the following German compound words:

  • Barackenbestandteillager
  • Zusatzkostenberechnungsschein
  • Bagatellreparaturwerkstätte
  • Menagetransportkolonnen
  • Küchenbeschwerdeorgane
  • Reinlichkeitsreihenuntersuchung
  • Entwesungsübersiedlung

If a German speaker could explain in a comment the meaning of each of these words I’d be most grateful.

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Sunday 20 April 2003

Art’s emotional charge

What a strange feeling, waking up on a drizzly Sunday morning to find oneself characterized as callous and manipulative, someone not to be trusted, the sort who would betray a troubled friend by disclosing information given expressly in confidence.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was a photographer, I was fortunate to have as an assistant a young woman who is now an acclaimed and highly respected artist. We spent all our working hours either photographing other people’s art or discussing our own. I once asked J how she knew an idea for a project was worth pursuing. She replied without hesitation:

“I know it’s something I have to do when my own first response to an idea is ‘No, I couldn’t possibly do that. It’s too risky. It’s too difficult. It reveals too much about me. It will offend too many people…’”

I knew instantly what she meant. The unconscious throws up a fascinating idea and our first impulse is to reject it, for all the reasons J listed and others too: it’s unfashionable, it doesn’t fit within an accepted genre, it breaks the rules, curator X won’t like it (art practice—both conventional and avant-garde—is in many ways as constrained as life under the Taliban).

J was saying, obliquely, that the objections raised by her conscious mind were a direct indicator of the emotional charge of the idea. The trick—and she understood this equally well—was to harness that energy, to marshall all one’s technical skills in packing the work with these psychic associations.

The primary danger in such an approach is of creating épater les bourgeois art, art whose main purpose is its calculated effort to shock those with (what the artist regards as) conventional values—Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ comes immediately to mind. An audience’s only defence against such “art” is to judge the body of work, rather than individual works, over time.

I believe the same idea can be inferred from Steve Himmer’s explanation of the importance of reading a weblog in context, over time:

When we read an isolated essay, by Annie Dillard, maybe, we read it as a discrete, ‘closed’ unit—there is no context unless we set out to find that context elsewhere, in biography and criticism. A weblog, on the other hand, is all context—every post we read is read through the lens of the other posts we’ve read, and if you only read one post from a blog you’re not reading the blog—which as a whole is the text, not the individual post. Why does this matter? Because what the weblog offers, unusually, is the element of time: both the work and its author are able to change and shift over time, trying out new positions, refuting them, reclaiming them; trying on voices and faces. As readers, though, we have a unique opportunity to read through this play of time: unlike the novel, complete between its covers, the physical author reduced to a cypherical ‘author’ composed of the publicly-traded values assigned to that author, we are able to watch an author/text interaction occur in real time. It’s a different way of writing, and it requires a different way of reading. It requires us to learn, over time, how to read Jonathon Delacour or Shelley Powers or Stavros the Wonder(ful)chicken—they don’t know, as authors, all at once who they are, so why should we, the readers? Like Joyce said, more or less, it took him years to write a novel; it should take at least as long to read it.

Implicit in Steve’s argument is that it is the audience’s responsibility to discover context, just as it is the artist’s/writer’s/blogger’s responsibility to act in good faith.

Explicit in Dorothea’s criticism of my Ikuko post/story is the acccusation that, by blurring the line between fact and fiction in a weblog, I acted in bad faith and am, accordingly, not to be trusted.

The Happy Tutor saw it differently. Responding to Dorothea, he wrote:

Some of us today believe that most of what we are fed by popular news and culture is a fiction, created by Knaves for Fools, and that these false seemings work because most readers are good-hearted, ignorant, and gullible. Hence, we Teachers adopt the stratagems of indirection, creating elaborate and absurd canards and defending them with all the energy of Ari Fleischer. If you can read us well, and see through us, you are prepared to read the daily papers.

An admission: I was “bit” by Delacour’s tale of Ikuko. What helped me as I thought about it was my sense that he is a moral man — and that no one of his taste and intelligence would ever write of a real lover with so little concern for her privacy. So, I was forced to conclude that his Ikuko was just another street-walker from the Ginza, where lost souls of that name are found on every corner.

As did Liz Lawley. In a comment on my post, Alibis and consistent lies, Liz wrote:

I’ve been floating around virtual communities and computer-mediated communication spaces for a long time, and I long ago gave up any attempt to separate truth and fiction…

On some level, all we have are situation-specific personas. The persona I project in the classroom where I teach is quite different from the one I display in the classrooms where my children learn. The woman my husband knows and loves is in many ways not the same woman who goes out dancing with her girlfriends.

It’s too simplistic to see it as simply onion-like layers, which can be peeled away to find a core of truth. The reality is far more complex and multi-dimensional.

I do believe that there are relationships in which we come very close to the “real” person. But even when we don’t, there’s plenty of room to take pleasure in the interactions. I still like the persona you display here. I don’t feel betrayed by any revelation that not everything you write is literal truth…it doesn’t change the fact that you’re a hell of a writer, and your words bring me pleasure every time I read them.

Interesting that so much of the conversation has revolved around the Ikuko post. I remember being quite struck by that post, myself. Like the Happy Tutor, I suspected that it was too intimate in its detail to be entirely literal—the persona that dominates your weblog is too concerned with privacy and restraint to share so much detail about another person in such a cavalier way. But that didn’t change my enjoyment of the story. I wonder now if I remember it so well because of my doubt of its “truth,” or my appreciation for its truth?

“The persona that dominates your weblog is too concerned with privacy and restraint.” “No one of his taste and intelligence would ever write of a real lover with so little concern for her privacy.” I could hardly have described myself in those terms—in the sense that, even though I carefully circumscribe what I write about my everyday life, it came as a shock that Liz and the Happy Tutor (correctly) interpreted that absence of detail as evidence of my essentially private nature. It appears that they, who “know” me only from what I’ve written, know me—in a fundamental way—as well as my closest friends.

That Dorothea cast the Ikuko post in a different light is best taken, from my perspective, as evidence of the emotional charge associated with blogging fact and blogging fiction. Although I can assert that, in blending fact and fiction, I am neither acting capriciously nor in bad faith, this assertion is unlikely to satisfy Dorothea and its truth (or otherwise) will only be revealed over time and in context.

Context is everything, I agree, though not in the sense that Dorothea meant when she wrote:

Context. Context. Context. In a basically self-revelatory context, I expect self-revelation, not roleplaying games. Now, to burn another straw man, I’m quite aware that not all blogs exist to be self-revelatory, and I don’t have any particular bone to pick with that, either. I just want to know, one way or the other, what to expect. If a blogger picks the pothole-ridden road of self-disclosure (and we all know how big and bad and black those potholes can be!), I genuinely prefer not to suddenly read about invented people on that blogger’s blog as if they were real.

All I can say is this: there are many strategies of self-revelation and that if Dorothea wants “to know, one way or the other, what to expect” then, should she choose to read on, she must expect not one or the other but both: self-disclosure and invented people.

In that regard, the Happy Tutor was only partly correct about my being in a transitional phase:

To take the conversation one step farther, what of counterfeits that are meant not to be unmasked, but to pass “coin of the realm”? That was, I think, what made Jonathon’s post, maybe, “transitional.” It wasn’t clear that it was meant to be seen as a fiction, or that we were gradually meant to wake up to its fictional strategies. And having discovered that we were fooled, there does not seem to be a particular point that ties back to the story — not moral “aha so that is what he was driving at.” This is not a criticism, really. I think he is making a transition from essay to fiction, and has one foot in either genre.

Rather than making a transition from essay to fiction, I see myself as adding a fictional element to the essays and autobiography that already make up the bulk of my recent posts. There shouldn’t be any surprise in this, since I’ve alluded to it twice before. Firstly in my About entry:

Although this site may appear to be a weblog, it does not follow the conventions of journalistic truth that many bloggers adhere to. Rather, my desire is—to borrow Susan Sontag’s description of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge—to crossbreed fiction, essayistic speculation, and autobiography in a linear notebook rather than a linear narrative form.

And again, more recently, in the post Riding easy in harness:

I feel similarly about the craft of writing and the debt I owe to certain Japanese literary traditions, particularly the zuihitsu, nikki, and shishosetsu, as well as to Fielding and Sterne, to Agee and Sebald, and—as The Tutor recognizes in his entry How He Rambles! - Freedom and Craft—to the classical English essayists: Addison, Chesterton, Hazlitt, Johnson, and Lamb. In other words, to writing which, in Susan Sontag’s description of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, “crossbreeds fiction, essayistic speculation, and autobiography in a linear notebook rather than a linear narrative form.”

Thus it appears that, in addition to having a foot in each of the fiction and essay genres, I have a hand in the autobiography genre, and five fingers free to tap out my weblog entries. With the proviso that, as Steve pointed out, I don’t know, as an author, all at once who I am or what I’m doing. Brecht said it best:”You never know where you are with production. Production is the unforeseeable. You never know what’s going to come out.”

If the party line is that fiction, essays, and autobiography shouldn’t appear in the same weblog, then I can only borrow Steve’s line and say: “I guess I didn’t get invited to that party.” I’ve been thinking and dreaming about this ever since I stopped photographing, fifteen years ago. Rightly or wrongly, it seems entirely legitimate to simultaneously love the weblog form and wish to employ it in the service of art rather than journalism. Fiction, essays, autobiography… Burningbird nailed it when she suggested that this is “the real Jonathon’s writing.”

In another post, Dorothea wrote that she never claimed or even seriously wanted to be an artist and perhaps therein lies our difference; because I—apart from my youthful desire to be a soldier—never seriously wanted to be anything else.

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Ceci n’est pas un blogue

Ceci n'est pas un blogue

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Monday 21 April 2003

Exploring downtown Tokyo

Loren Webster, Jeff Ward, and the Dynamic Driveler (amongst others) have made fresh contributions to the truth in blogging debate; Liz Lawley pointed to a post by Jill Walker that offers me the perfect opening for a series of posts about the Japanese “I-novel”; Language Hat’s MOTYHOLE entry (caution: “misogynistic language and rank etymological speculation”) has encouraged me to write about the variety of characters used to construct the different Japanese words for prostitute; that should amuse the Happy Tutor while I’m scouting out more information about Ikuko… and what have I been doing? Looking at maps.

A few days ago, the Dynamic Driveler sent me a link to an online collection of Japanese historical maps from the East Asian Library at UC Berkeley:

The Japanese Historical Map Collection contains about 2,300 early maps of Japan and the World. The collection was acquired by the University of California from the Mitsui family in 1949, and is housed on the Berkeley campus in the East Asian Library. Represented in this online collection are about 100 maps and books from this Collection. The maps were selected by Yuki Ishimatsu, Head of Japanese Collections at the East Asian Library, and scanned and put online by David Rumsey and Cartography Associates. The project was initiated by Peter Zhou, Director of the East Asian Library. Funding and project management is provided by Cartography Associates and the East Asian Library.

The collection can be viewed in three ways:

  • The Insight® Browser that requires no plug-ins or downloads (I couldn’t get this to work with Windows Mozilla 1.2.1 but had no trouble with IE6).
  • A downloadable Insight® Java Client that provides greater functionality.
  • A special GIS Browser that allows detailed overlays of historical maps and current geospatial data.

I started with the Insight Browser but soon switched to the Java Client, which offers vastly improved scrolling, measurement and scaling options, and the ability to add annotations. (This Help page gives a good idea of what’s possible.)

1858 map of Edo (Tokyo) by Mori Fusai and Subaraya Mo

I’ve spent hours exploring the Shitamachi (downtown) district on two maps of Tokyo: an 1858 case map by Mori Fusai & Subaraya Mo and a 1905 pocket map by Ando Rikinosuke. This detail shows the Azuma Bridge, joining Honjo and Asakusa wards, close to the epicenter of the area attacked in the fire bombing raid of March 9-10, 1945.

Even if you’re not interested in Japan, the entire David Rumsey Historical Map Collection comprises over 8,000 maps online with a particular emphasis on rare 18th and 19th century North and South America cartographic history materials. When you launch the Java client, you can choose between opening the complete collection, the Japanese maps, or both. Anyone with even a slight interest in geography or cartography will be richly rewarded. (If you are working to meet a deadline, under no circumstances should you visit David Rumsey’s site. If you’re looking for an excuse to avoid work, you won’t find anything better than this.)

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Tuesday 22 April 2003

Shishosetsu and the myth of sincerity

Jill Walker had heard about but not read Vigdis Hjorth’s novel, Om bar, which “the literary crowd at the university and Café Opera agreed was a malicious act of vengeance against Hjorth’s ex-partner, who happens to be a professor of literature [at the University of] Bergen. The novel was unanimously decried as terrible, awful, embarrassingly bad, as well as morally despicable.”

When she read the book, Jill was surprised and impressed:

It’s amazing. Relentlessly honest, but not at all in the simplistic sense of gossip and scandals. Yes, it can be read as a very thinly disguised account of the author’s relationship to the professor, but its factual accuracy (or lack of such) is irrelevant because the honesty here is of an altogether different nature. It is in the emotions portrayed: merciless love that shoves aside all normality, all sense, all expectations as to how we (women? mothers? people?) are supposed to behave. The extremity of it is terrifying and recognisable. I see it in myself and in my friends (calm, married women turn thirty and explode), though we pull back before we lose ourselves, only glimpsing the destructive potential of such obsession.

The debate about this book has been symmetrically opposite to some of the recent complaints about truthfulness and blogs. The novel that is too close to reality is ridiculed and condemned. The blogger, on the other hand, is expected to adhere strictly to what actually happened.

How strange.

“The novel that is too close to reality is ridiculed and condemned.” Not universally. In the shishōsetsu—one of the most influential genres in the Japanese novelistic tradition—the praise and admiration bestowed on a book depended almost entirely on how closely it adhered to the reality of the author’s life.

Three books on the shishosetsu: Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit's Rituals of Self-Revelation, Edward Fowler's The Rhetoric of Confession, and Tomi Suzuki's Narrating the Self

The titles of the three main studies in English of the shishōsetsu—Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit’s Rituals of Self-Revelation, Edward Fowler’s The Rhetoric of Confession, and Tomi Suzuki’s Narrating the Self—neatly illustrate how strongly the shishōsetsu narrative is grounded in the writer’s lived experience.

In the introduction to his study, Edward Fowler provides a useful overview of the genre’s main characteristics:

the shishōsetsu (more formally watakushi shōsetsu; commonly translated as “I-novel”), [is] an autobiographical form that flourished in Taishō Japan (1912-26). The shishōsetsu, narrated in the first or third person in such a way as to represent with utter conviction the author’s personal experience, is riddled with paradoxes. Supposedly a fictional narrative, it often reads more like a private journal. It has a reputation of being true, to a fault, to “real life”; yet it frequently strays from the author’s experience it allegedly portrays so faithfully. Its personal orientation makes it a thoroughly modern form; yet it is the product of an indigenous intellectual tradition quite disparate from western individualism. Progressive critics have ridiculed it over the decades as a failed adaptation of the western novel, while traditionalists have reveled in its difference. The difference lies not so much in its autobiographical “purity” (as the Japanese literary establishment, or bundan, would have us believe), however, as in its ultimate distrust of western-style realistic representation from which it has presumably borrowed so heavily. Its critically mixed reception notwithstanding, the shishōsetsu has been championed by many important writers and occupies a central position in modern Japanese letters. Coming to terms with it means coming to terms in many ways with the entire literature.

The Rhetoric of Confession contains—nested between a lengthy introduction outlining the difference between Japanese and Western narrative method and a brief epilogue dealing with contemporary shishōsetsu—three main sections: an examination of the social, linguistic, and literary foundations of the shishōsetsu; an explanation of how the form developed and its reception by readers and critics; and, finally, detailed studies of three shishōsetsu authors.

The title of Part 1—The “Transparent” Text—as well as the titles of its three chapters—Fictions and Fabrications, Language and the Illusion of Presence, and Shishōsetsu Criticism and the Myth of Sincerity—should offer some clues as to how reading and thinking about both shishōsetsu and shishōsetsu criticism over an extended period (albeit in English, rather than the original Japanese) has shaped my thinking about the inherent contradictions in writing for what is widely regarded as a self-revelatory medium, the weblog.

Why does the shishōsetsu fascinate me? Because it uses, in Edward Fowler’s words, “the techniques of essay, diary, confession, and other non-fictional forms to present the fiction of a faithfully recorded experience.” In other words, it collapses genres that are commonly regarded in the Western tradition as quite separate and exploits the tension between fictional and non-fictional modes of representation.

Why does the shishōsetsu fascinate me in relation to blogging? Partly because of similiarities between issues that have arisen since I acknowledged that some elements of my weblog entries were fabricated and how those same issues were regarded and articulated in Taishō Japan. Mainly because I suspect that both the way the problems were resolved over time and the differing Japanese and Western perceptions of the shishōsetsu might offer clues about writing for a self-revelatory medium.

Fowler explains that while the shishōsetsu’s name suggests it should be read as fiction, most Japanese critics (and readers) treat it as non-fiction:

By far the most common approach to the shishōsetsu has been the nonfictional one, for the general critical perception has been that it is resistant by definition to analysis as an autonomous text. Unlike “pure literature” in the west, which calls to mind an author aloof from his writing after the manner of Flaubert or Joyce, “pure literature” in Japan (a category to which the shishōsetsu belongs) is considered inherently referential in nature: its meaning derives from an extraliterary source, namely, the author’s life. The Japanese as readers of shishōsetsu have tended to regard the author’s life, and not the written work, as the definitive “text” on which critical judgment ultimately rests and to see the work as meaningful only insofar as it illuminates the life. The Japanese reader constructs a “sign” out of the signifying text and the signified extraliterary life, with no misgivings about this apparent blending of “intrinsic” literary and “extrinsic” biographical data. Literature which is not “pure” (i.e. literature that does not serve as a window on the author’s life) is relegated to the realm of “popular” reading and considered less worthy of critical attention.

In his introduction, Fowler also explains how the shishōsetsu author was highly conscious of one particular aspect of classical Japanese literature, “what might best be described as the actor-audience relationship”:

Classical poetry and drama, for example, especially in the centuries immediately preceding the modern period, are noted for their strong tradition of audience participation in the reading—one almost wants to say mutual production—of a text. Haiku artists like Bashō and Issa filled their poetic stages with their presence in a way that made every observation, however grounded in experience or in nature, a virtuoso linguistic performance. Readers were attracted to the persona as much as to the poem and read each verse or sketch against the larger image of the poet they had constructed from the corpus.

In a similar way, the shishōsetsu “thrived on an intimate actor-audience rapport made possible by the audience’s homogeneity and limited size”:

Readers of the shishōsetsu in its heyday (the second and third decades of this century) numbered only in the thousands. They would recognize the authorial persona in any story regardless of the main character’s (or narrator’s) name or situation. The convention of the author as an actor who played himself had the effect of drawing the reader closer to the narrator-hero and creating a bond that was often stronger than the reader’s affection for any single text. Out of this relationship emerged the institution of the bundan, which means, simply, literary circle(s) but which in the Taishō period referred specifically to that close alliance of writers, critics, and interested readers who had an emotional or intellectual stake in the equation between art and private life. Neither author nor reader took seriously the realistic convention of an anonymous, omnescient narrator who remained hidden behind the characters he created. For both, reality in literature stemmed largely from the narrator’s ability to speak in literally the same voice as his hero and thereby invite reader identification.

It’s impossible not to draw a comparison between the Taishō period bundan—the rhetorical triangle (as Jeff Ward might describe it) of writers, critics, and readers—and what one might call a Blogarian bundan, also made up of writers (of original posts), critics (other bloggers who respond on their own blogs and readers who leave comments), and interested readers (who feel compelled neither to blog nor to comment but are sufficiently engaged to read a weblog over time).

In the light of the debate that’s occurred over the past week or so, this passage from Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit’s Rituals of Self-Revelation resonates:

…the specific interpretation of the naturalist demand for truth in the sense of unsparing personal revelation and its adoption in literary practice by Katai, Tōson, Hōmei, and others gave the bundan the character of a controlling body, which could attest to whether the work involved corresponded to the facts and could so certify or deny the degree of sincerity, that is, the artistic value of a work. Reviews were essentially an examination of the relationship between fact in the work and in reality, which the general reader could follow upon their publication.

The only problem is, as Jeff Ward pointed out:

Facts only mean something when they are directly experienced. When they are written down, they are subject to distortions and lies that have little to do with the original event. It depends a lot on who says them.

It’s for exactly this reason that I’ve suggested that “honesty” and “sincerity” in self-revelatory weblog posts are, at best, problematic; or, at worst, illusory. Again, Jeff Ward:

We weasel our way around it by summoning motive to justify our bending of the truth. Often these motives are rhetorical and transparent—but just as often these motives are opaque, hidden, personal, and not apparent even to ourselves. We construct our image of self by creating consistent fictions. There are seldom easy points of reference to measure truth, especially regarding our selves.

Similarly, Fowler, Hijiya-Kirschnereit, and Suzuki—using different arguments and analytical methods—all call into question the transparency and sincerity of the shishōsetsu. About Shiga Naoya, the acknowledged master of the form, whose nickname was shōsetsu no kamisama (the god of the shōsetsu), Fowler says:

That a writer like Shiga really does sound more sincere than others, then, is a tribute not to his honesty but to his mastery of the rhetoric (the intimate voice, ellipses, allusions, etc.) of authenticity.

(A master of the rhetoric of authenticity. Sounds rather like George Segal.)

It should come as no surprise, then, that Shiga Naoya (and Nagai Kafū, whose best work subverts shishōsetsu conventions) are my favorite authors nor that a few years ago, when asked why I’ve put so much time and energy into studying Japanese, I replied: “So that one day I can read [Shiga’s] An’ya kōro (A Dark Night’s Passing) and [Kafū’s] Bokutō kidan (A Strange Tale from East of the River) in Japanese, rather than English.” I really want to experience the myth of sincerity—without the layer of mediation imposed by a translation.

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Wednesday 23 April 2003

Keep the Bird Burning

Burningbird’s en route from San Francisco with a car full of possessions, completing Stage 1 of what she calls her Moving Adventure. I woke up yesterday morning thinking that I’d write her an email saying simply: “You are greatly missed.” Only to find that she’d posted from SF while I was asleep.

Thanks for all the kind comments in the last post, and the offers of hosting help. They are appreciated. Chris/Stavros from EmptyBottle has found a new weblog home so he won’t be going dark at the end of the month. As for me, I might see if a friend’s offer of a host is still open. Bandwidth’s still an issue, though and it’s running late to make a change. Knock on wood.

I replied in her comments:

It’s time for someone to step up to the plate and organize a “Keep the Bird Burning” fund and it looks like that someone is me.

I’ve emailed Euan Semple to ask him about the dynamics of setting up a PayPal account (Euan organized the Mark Woods computer fund) and, as soon as I have it figured out, I’ll post an entry on my weblog.

Broke, tip-jar’d out, or cheap… it doesn’t really matter. I hate the thought of losing Shelley’s unique, powerful, generous presence and I trust that enough people agree with me to ensure that the flame is not extinguished but rather will continue to burn even more brightly than before.

To that end, I’ve set up a PayPal donation account called Keep the Bird Burning and I’m now officially soliciting donations. Clicking on the button below will take you to a PayPal Payment Details page displaying the details of the donation you are (hopefully) about to make. If you don’t have a PayPal account, you can quickly and easily set one up.

The donations will go to my PayPal account and I’ll progressively transfer the money to Shelley’s account. (Do I need to reassure anyone that this post has no fictional elements?)

As far as the target amount is concerned, I don’t have a clear sense of what a reasonable goal should be. The last twelve months have been tough for Shelley so I’d like to collect enough cash to secure her plenty of space on a reliable server with gobs of bandwidth for at least a year, preferably two.

Obviously I’d be grateful if you’d publicize the Keep the Bird Burning campaign on your own weblogs. If you’d like to add the donation button to your own site, you can either copy the code from my source or email me (jonathon[don’t forget the at symbol]delacour.net) and I’ll send it to you.

I’m well aware that we all have limited financial resources. I guess all I can say is that I’m hoping as many of us as possible will be able to give something back to Shelley, who has given so much of herself, in her passion, her commitment, and—most of all—her wonderful writing.

UPDATE: The campaign has now concluded. We raised just over $800 in 72 hours, thanks to the generosity of everyone who supported the project with cash or by publicizing it on their blogs or both.

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Friday 25 April 2003

Bb fundraiser update

Thanks to the generous support of everyone who has made a donation and/or publicized the Keep the Bird Burning fund, we’re on track to raise enough money so that Burningbird will have a couple of years without having to worry about paying for web hosting.

I agree with Marek, who organized Project Dell’Essum to provide Jeneane Sessum with a refurbished Dell laptop, that campaigns like this should have a limited lifespan. As I write, the Bb fundraiser has been running just under 48 hours. I’ll probably let it run another day then wrap it all up. There’s still some room left in the pot so, if you’ve been meaning to donate but haven’t yet got around to it, click on the button here or on one of the many others you’ll find scattered around the neighborhood. Dorothea summed it up perfectly:

On the up side, an email from Jonathon indicated that the Burningbird campaign is going well. Could always be improved upon—especially given Bb’s tastes in server hardware—so ante up, folks.

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Saturday 26 April 2003

That’s a wrap, folks

Shelley is back—bigger, brighter, and better than before. So now it’s time to thank everyone who has made the Keep the Bird Burning campaign such a spectacular success: by contributing cash or publicizing the project on their weblog or both. We’ve raised a little over $800 in 72 hours, a spectacular effort by any measure.

I’ve removed the “official” donation button from my site and I’d encourage everyone who is currently displaying one to do the same. Shelley has told me that as soon as I’ve sent her the list of donors she’d like to formally thank them herself. (She’s already thanked those who mentioned the fundraiser on their blogs—if she missed anyone, please let Shelley know, or me, so that you are properly acknowledged.)

Some of you who have donated cash have indicated in email to me that you’d like to remain anonymous and so I’d like to ask anyone else who would like to be an anonymous donor to let me know via email (you’ll have my address on the thank-you email I’ve already sent).

So, that’s it. All that remains is for me to say thanks to you all for getting behind the project and supporting it with such open hearts.


Sunday 27 April 2003

Relatively speaking

Like Stavros, I’m not “a full-fledged linguist (like languagehat)” but rather “an enthusiastic dabbler.” And a linguistic relativist it seems, in the sense that Stavros explains in his essay, Linguistic Relativism and Korean:

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which is variously referred to as the ‘Whorfian Hypothesis,’ ‘linguistic relativism,’ and ‘linguistic determinism’ (a description of the strong formulation meant by implication to be a bad thing, I think) concerns the relationship between language and thought, and suggests in its strongest form that the structure of a language determines the way in which speakers of that language perceive and understand the external world. This formulation is generally understood by many to be untenable, but the hypothesis also exists in a weaker form: that language structure and content does not determine a view of the world, but that it shapes thought to some degree, and is therefore a powerful impetus in influencing speakers of a given language to adopt a certain world-view.

Is it only those of us with, as Stavros puts it, “little knowledge of Hardcore Linguistics” to whom the weaker form of Sapir-Whorf (i.e. linguistic relativism) seems self-evident?

I doubt I’d ever thought about linguistics until I was in my mid-twenties, when I saw Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her. There’s a conversation in the film between Juliette, the protagonist, and her child, Christophe, who comes to the doorway of her bedroom to tell his mother about his dream the night before: walking along a narrow path next to a precipice he encounters a pair of twins and wonders how they will manage to pass. Suddenly the twins merge into a single person and he realizes that they are North and South Viet Nam reuniting. Godard cuts to a close-up of Juliette and we hear Christophe’s voice asking: “Mummy, what does language mean?”

Juliette replies: “Language is the house in which man dwells.”

I remember being absolutely entranced, and I suppose I still am, by the beauty of this idea: that we live within language rather than language living within us. Not that language determines our thinking but that each language encourages its speakers to perceive the world in a particular way.

I didn’t realize until tonight—thanks to Google—that Godard was probably paraphrasing Heidegger:

Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home.

Yet Heidegger’s viewpoint would appear to contradict Sapir-Whorf, in the sense of the counter-argument that Stavros poses:

A possible opposite claim, from a sociolinguistic viewpoint, is that the thought (and thus culture) of a linguistic group is mirrored in the structure and content of their language, that because they behave and understand things in a certain way, their language reflects those behaviours and understandings - the idea that language is molded, if not determined, by culture.

Heidegger seems to be suggesting a far more active role in the construction of language (and therefore) culture for those who think (philosophers?) and those who create (writers and poets?). Hopefully, a fully-fledged philosopher will clarify Heidegger’s intention.

After providing us with a concise yet thorough introduction to the origins of the Korean language, its distinguishing grammatical features, and the influence of Confucian ethics on the language, Stavros states that the question which most interests him is this:

Do structures and forms like these in the Korean language shape the way in which Koreans think, particularly in terms of their relationships not so much to the world but to the people in it, to such a degree that we can say that language has given them a world-view substantially different than, for example, my own, as an English native speaker? It certainly seems so, to me.

It certainly seems to me, too, that the structure of the Japanese language has given the Japanese a world-view substantially different to that of an English native speaker (or, for that matter, a Korean speaker). This difference in how the world is perceived has always been, for me, one of the great attractions of learning Japanese. Not in the sense that it has radically changed my world-view, since the level of my Japanese is such that I only occasionally “think” in Japanese (though I do more often dream in Japanese). It’s rather that communicating in another language is such a direct way of making the familiar strange (Shklovsky’s ostranenie or Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt).

Given that linguistic relativism seems self-evident to Stavros and myself, a couple of questions immediately present themselves:

What kinds of people accept or reject linguistic relativism, and for what reasons? (I noticed that I quickly skipped through the section about Chomsky and Pinker in Stavros’s essay, wanting to get to the material about the Korean language.)

If an English native speaker achieves a high degree of fluency in another language, do they perceive or behave differently in any substantial sense when speaking one language rather than the other?

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Monday 28 April 2003

The cafe universe

Stavros’s Linguistic Relativism and Korean essay continues to resonate, giving rise to some terrific comments on my previous entry, including a pointer from the Dynamic Driveler to a rather skeptical view of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis by Mick Underwood which, nevertheless, contains a couple of fascinating references to Wittgenstein’s views on language. The first made me laugh out loud:

Wittgenstein said that he was once asked by one of his colleagues whether Germans think in the order they speak in or think normally first and then mix it all up afterwards.

Though I’ve never studied German, I do know that the verb comes at the end of the sentence, as in Japanese. I’m not sure, however, what other characteristics Japanese shares with German.

For example, Japanese uses post-positional particles to indicate grammatical and interpersonal relationships and these particles follow the element (e.g. Tokyo ni, “Tokyo to”, meaning to Tokyo). Similarly, the basic word order in Japanese is reversed in that modifying clauses precede the element being modified; as in the Japanese sentence, Tokyo de katta hon o yonde iru.

Tokyo de katta hon o yonde iru
Tokyo in bought book object marker reading am
(Someone) is reading (a) book (they) bought in Tokyo.

The weird thing is that—as long as I don’t think about it too much—there’s no need to “think normally first then mix it all up afterwards” into Japanese. Somehow the “mixed up” order seems perfectly logical.

The other interesting reference is a quotation from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus:

The limits of my language indicate the limits of my world.

Mick Underwood comments:

This is often advanced in support of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. (Actually, given the context in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, I’m not at all sure that that’s what he was saying, but it’s a good quote, anyway!)

Although I recognized this quotation immediately as coming from a voiceover commentary in Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her (mentioned in my previous entry), what struck me was an observation that Language Hat had made about Godard’s films:

The funny thing is that as I read your post I had my video of Comment ça va? on the tv. I find it helps with Godard to not always watch intently but also to just have the movie going, picking up bits here and there that I might not notice watching in a more connected way. You’re never going to get everything in a Godard movie, after all. And the more I see the movies, the more I realize that a huge percentage of the dialog is a quotation of or reference to something else, poetry or philosophy or other movies. Tout se tient.

Of course you’ll need to understand French in order to “not always watch intently but… just have the movie going, picking up bits here and there that [one] might not notice watching in a more connected way.” I certainly can’t do that with Japanese movies though, now that I think about it, that sounds like something worth trying.

But Language Hat is absolutely correct about Godard’s movies being packed densely with quotations or references to poetry, philosophy, linguistics, and—of course—other movies.

Coffee cup still frame from Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her

The Wittgenstein quotation occurs in one of the most arresting sequences in any Godard movie, the one that James Monaco calls in his book, The New Wave, “the café universe,” in which shots of Juliette watching a young couple alternate with close-ups of a cup of coffee, as a male voice (Godard himself?) speaks:

Perhaps an object like this will make it possible to link up… to move from one subject to another, from living in society, to being together. But then, since social relationships are always ambiguous, since my thought is only a unit, since my thoughts create rifts as much as they unite, since my words establish contacts by being spoken and create isolation by remaining unspoken, since an immense moat separates the subjective certitude that I have for myself from the objective reality that I represent to others, since I never stop finding myself guilty even though I feel I am innocent.

A spoon is stirring up the cup of coffee. It is withdrawn. A small circle of foam is left swirling round on the surface.

Given the fact that every event transforms my daily existence and that I invariably fail to communicate… I mean to understand, to love, to be loved, and as each failure makes me feel my loneliness more keenly, as… as… as I can’t tear myself away from the objectivity that is crushing me nor from the subjectivity which is driving me into exile, as I can neither raise myself into Being nor allow myself to sink back into Nothingness… I must go on listening. I must go on looking about me even more attentively than before… the world… my fellow creatures… my brothers.

…the world today, alone, where revolutions are impossible, where bloody wars haunt me, where capitalism isn’t even sure of its rights… and the working class is in retreat… where progress… the thundering progress of science gives to future centuries an obsessive, haunting presence… where the future is more present than the present, where distant galaxies are at my door. My fellow creatures… my brothers.

A lump of sugar tumbles into the coffee and breaks into crystals. The dark circle of the cup glistens with bubbles, like galaxies.

But where to begin? But where to begin with what? God created the heavens and the earth. Of course, but that’s an easy way out. There must be a better way of explaining it all… We could say that the limits of language are the limits of the world… that the limits of my language are the limits of my world. And in that respect, whatever I say must limit the world, must make it finite. And when logical, mysterious death finally abolishes these limits, and when there are, then, neither questions nor answers, everything will be blurred. But if, by chance, things become clear again, they would only become so through the phantom of conscience. Then, everything will fall into place.

It’s impossible to do justice to the spectacular beauty of this sequence, particularly in a cinema, where the coffee cup fills the gigantic TechniScope screen, acting as a counterpoint to the intimate tone of the narration. “This is not a film talking, it is a man,” writes James Monaco. “It is the most personal—and most painful—moment in all of Godard.”

I was surprised to learn from Language Hat’s comment that he loved Godard’s films, that he’d “wanted the video [of Two or Three Things] for years, and finally got it.” And yet I shouldn’t have been, since I cannot think of another filmmaker who cares as much about language—and, by extension, the ethics of film language—as Godard.

The limits of my language are the limits of my world.

Language is the house in which we dwell.

I bought the video of Two or Three Things I Know About Her ages ago and must have watched it a half dozen times. Might be time to watch it again.

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Wednesday 30 April 2003

To Make Them Monumental

Sydney Goldfarb's poem, To Make Them MonumentalRecently I’ve been trying to bring some order to my tiny house. Like my mother, unfortunately, I’m a bower bird: I can’t throw anything away. My hallway is stacked with paintings, prints, and photographs that—eight years after I moved in—I’ve never got around to hanging (though, in my own defence, I don’t have the wall space I did in my old apartment). There are crates of books too, since I’ve run out of shelf space. This afternoon, looking for a particular book about Godard, I moved a stack of small framed prints to get at the bottom shelf of the bookcase. Curious, I shuffled through the prints and found a poem that a lover had given me thirty years ago and which I’d subsequently had framed.

The paper is pale brown and mottled and the gum from the tape I used to join the two sheets of photocopy paper has leached through, creating a thick border between the pages. The poem is called To Make Them Monumental and at the top of the left hand page, in my ex-lover’s edgy hand, is written:

Speech, for Instance
                    Sidney Goldfarb

At the bottom of the right hand page she wrote:

from ******** (with the short hair)

And the poem itself:

There are only
so many people
that you
can talk to,
and they aren’t
It took you years
to uncover them
and then they disappear.
And then you disappear.

Then you’re in a certain place
with people all around you,
interested, friendly people
in the way that a tribe of natives
might be interested and friendly
but you’re completely alone:
out the window
isn’t the building
he works in, she
doesn’t do her
laundry down the street.

You know where they are:
They’re there
in a marble
remembrance of the gods
that once returned eternally
but never comes back anymore.

Winter is a condition,
spring is spring,
and women are beautiful,
No season holds them
and promises them
in a particular
movement of the earth.
No hand comes
to make them
monumental out of stone.
And you forget
the outline of their faces,
and you can’t taste
their breasts in your mouth,
and their smell is an incense
that always escapes you,
and you don’t remember exactly
their eyes of eternity
in that attic, in that desert,
in that bar that no one
ever went into again.

Only the form of them
can find you, straddling
a crack on any abandoned stretch
to drag an accident of words
out of your mouth
so someone will tow you
into town, so something
will bring them back.

Sydney Goldfarb teaches at the University of Colorado. He published three books of poetry (Speech, for Instance, in 1969) then turned his attention to writing for the theater.

It’s a lovely poem, though I’d be hard pressed to explain why I like it so much. Frequently, though, odd lines will pop into my head:

“in a marble/remembrance of the gods”

“…women are beautiful/momentarily”

“No hand comes/to make them monumental/out of stone”

“…you can’t taste/their breasts in your mouth”

I suspect it’s a man’s poem, if there’s such a thing, though I’m curious as to what others might think or feel about it. A poem about the transient quality of a certain kind of love. A poem that, thirty years later, forces me to reflect on how I was then and the choices I made that have brought me to now.

I know I like To Make Them Monumental infinitely more than when I first received it as a gift, because in a certain sense I’ve lived the poem, so that the experience it describes is no longer abstract. The wonder is that ******** knew me well enough then to divine my future; and that she—who was herself an accomplished writer—knew we couldn’t last and borrowed Sidney Goldfarb’s words to explain, in advance, what had and was bound to happen.

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Missing Persons

Scene from Naruse's Meshi (Repast)Earlier this evening I slipped over the Harbor Bridge to see Naruse’s Meshi (Repast, 1951) at the Japan Foundation. Audie Bock, in Japanese Film Directors, describes Meshi as:

Superb psychological description with a minimum of plot and a maximum of nuance, the kind of woman’s film Ozu tried to make in his 1952 Flavor of Green Tea over Rice but could not surpass Naruse. A childless couple living in the Osaka suburbs are drifting apart. The woman dreams of escape from the dreary life of a low-salaried white-collar worker’s wife, and returns to her family in Tokyo, where she hopes to find a job. In a trapped ending Naruse added to Hayashi Fumiko’s unfinished novel, the woman resigns herself to going back to her husband.

Naruse and Mizoguchi are known in Japan as feminisuto (feminist) directors—meaning not so much that they are committed to equality for women as that they made films sympathetic to the female point of view. (The Japanese have this endearing—or, depending on your point of view, irritating—habit of reinterpreting foreign loan words in ways that bear little resemblance to their original meanings. Accordingly, my Japanese-English dictionary defines feminisuto primarily as “a man who is polite and attentive to women”, adding almost as an afterthought “a person involved with the struggle for women’s rights”).

Despite the fact that Naruse handles the wife’s decision to return to her husband more convincingly than Ozu, I prefer Flavor of Green Tea over Rice—even though it is generally regarded as one of Ozu’s lesser films.

Still, a few lines of dialog in Naruse’s Meshi touched me deeply. In Tokyo, the unhappy wife, Michiyo (played by Ozu’s favorite actress, Hara Setsuko), is talking to her mother who tells her bluntly that she should return to her husband. If she’s not careful, her mother says, he may find another woman.

“Who’d be interested in him?” asks Michiyo scornfully.

“There are lots of women,” her mother replies.

And it suddenly struck me—as it no doubt did Michiyo—that there were lots of women, eager to have a man, in Japan in 1951, since so many Japanese men were dead or missing. Michiyo has already encountered an old school friend who, six years after the end of the war, still doesn’t know what has happened to her husband. Later she sees the woman again, selling newspapers in the street to support herself and her young child.

In Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II, John Dower describes the efforts individuals made to locate missing loved ones:

Throughout the country, makeshift notice boards carried handwritten notes asking for information about missing family members or providing information about the writer’s own whereabouts. This was not just a phenomenon of the months immediately following surrender. Beginning in January 1946, a radio program called Returnee News provided ongoing information concerning the names of incoming repatriates as well as their vessels and ports of entry. When this proved inadequate, a program called Missing Persons was introduced in June 1946. Almost immediately, the station was inundated with four to five hundred written inquiries a day in addition to dozens of phone calls. By August, broadcast time had been increased to twice daily, five days a week. For a while the program included a special segment—“Who Am I?”—devoted to inquiries from disoriented returned veterans. Missing Persons had considerable success in accomplishing its mission. Initially, some 40 to 50 percent of the inquiries it broadcast were answered, and until 1950 the program continued to clear up the whereabouts or announce the deaths of significant numbers of individuals. Missing Persons continued on the air until March 31,1962.

Between 1.6 and 1.7 million Japanese soldiers surrendered to Soviet forces in Manchuria and northern Korea, of whom 300,000 remain unaccounted for. Dower recounts how, in 1950 (the year before Meshi was made):

General MacArthur received a remarkable appeal from some 120,000 individuals living in Shiga Prefecture, all of them relatives of still-missing soldiers. It was accompanied by an unusual gift, laboriously made over an eight-month period: an embroidered portrait of MacArthur, to which all 120,000 petitioners had each contributed a stitch. The inspiration for this striking present lay in one of the more intimate symbolic acts of the war years—the practice of sending soldiers cloth stomach warmers sewn with a thousand stitches, each by a different person. Both making and wearing the sennin-bari haramaki (“thousand-stitch belly bands”) were affirmations of the closeness between men fighting abroad and their communities, especially their womenfolk, back home. A short letter accompanying the gift thanked the supreme commander for his “immeasurable compassion” in ensuring the repatriation of millions of Japanese, and pleaded for his continued endeavors on behalf of those who still remained abroad. Four and a half years after the surrender, great numbers of people still wrestled with grief and uncertainty, and cherished the hope that their shattered lives might be made whole again.

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour