Sunday 04 May 2003

Linguistic imperialism?

In 1972, after teaching science in a private high school for a couple of years, I wangled a job as a chemistry teacher in the state technical education system (TAFE), which was a far more congenial environment since the students were older and highly motivated. Better still, night classes counted as time and a half in one’s teaching load and the other staff members hated teaching at night, so I was able to compress my “full time” job into three calendar days (including ample time for preparation). A steady income to spend on cameras, tons of free time to take pictures: I was on my way to becoming a photographer.

On my first day at Sydney Technical College, the staff and students assembled in the auditorium to hear speeches of welcome from the principal, the Student Union president, and the registrar. Only one part of one speech made any impact on me. The registrar, after noting the high proportion of Asian students at the college and drawing attention to the fact that the university entrance exams would all be written in English, forbade the use of any language other than English in the classrooms, laboratories, library, cafeteria, corridors, and elevators. Students who disobeyed this rule faced disciplinary action. I was gobsmacked. How could you deny people the freedom to speak their own language? I later asked one of my colleagues. He laughed and said, Welcome to TAFE, pal!

I recount this anecdote as a way of indicating an awareness of linguistic injustice and, simultaneously, my inability to do much about it. Should I have approached the registrar to express my disapproval? Possibly. Would that have accomplished anything? Almost certainly not. What did I do, practically? Encouraged my students to speak English during class and lab time and made it clear that the rest of the time they could speak any language they chose.

The registrar’s speech came to mind when I read Baldur Bjarnason’s response to the wide-ranging discussion inspired by Stavros’ essay Linguistic Relativism and Korean:

Culture forms language. Language is a symptom, not a cause.

There has been an interesting discussion on linguistic relativism on several weblogs recently.

The discussion fails to recognise that language is a cultural product.

A Weapon.

Linguistic relativism is the equivalent of staring down the barrel of a gun while ignore the person whose finger is on the trigger.

Language, linguistic dominance, are the cannons of cultural warfare. Without a language, a culture is defenseless.

The linguistic relativists might be right in all of their observations, but they are simply staring at the bullet and mistaking it for the lock, stock, barrel and sniper all rolled into one convenient lump of lead.

Language is wielded, formed—your arms and armour.

It kills. Just ask the Welsh, Kenyans, Native Americans or South-American Natives.

Linguistic relativism is a nice idea to those who belong to a dominant, still imperialistic culture (and this applies to the English, Japanese, Koreans and Germans, all cultures that are strong and on the offensive in the war of globalisation).

But there is nothing relative about a bullet in the head.

Or fighting for the survival of your nation and culture.

The odds are stacked against us, in your favour.

Baldur’s first and third sentences—straddling his sardonic reference to our “interesting” discussion—are merely assertions, quite capable of rephrasing so that their meanings are reversed:

Language forms culture. Culture is a symptom, not a cause…

The counter-argument fails to recognise that culture is a linguistic product.

Baldur admits as much when he writes: “linguistic relativists might be right in all of their observations.” However, his essential argument is not just that “without a language, a culture is defenseless” but also that:

Linguistic relativism is a nice idea to those who belong to a dominant, still imperialistic culture (and this applies to the English, Japanese, Koreans and Germans, all cultures that are strong and on the offensive in the war of globalisation).

In other words, it’s all very well for you English, Japanese, Korean, and German speakers to conduct a pleasant academic discourse about linguistic relativism but, in doing so, you are ignoring the fate of other languages, which are succumbing to the linguistic assault being mounted by your respective cultures.

[Stavros and I must be classed as serial offenders by virtue(?) of our being native speakers of one imperialistic language (English) and enthusiastic students of another (Korean in Stavros’s case, Japanese in mine). Language Hat’s status as a linguistic imperialist would seem to depend on whether or not his command of the languages of dominant cultures is balanced by his fluency in languages under threat.]

Why the flippancy? It’s not that I disagree with Baldur since it’s almost self-evident that “without a language, a culture is defenseless.” And when I quoted Heidegger (“Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells.”) and Wittgenstein (“The limits of my language indicate the limits of my world.”), there wasn’t even the most tenuous implication that that “language” meant English, Japanese, Korean, German, or any other “dominant” language.

Nor is it that I’m disinclined to listen to a disapproving lecture delivered from a moral high-horse when I basically agree with the key argument.

I guess it’s that I can’t see a way to put Baldur’s ideas to use. On the one hand there’s a vague accusation of indifference towards the gradual extinction of precious linguistic resources. On the other there’s no hint of a suggestion as to how I might assist in preserving these endangered languages.

Should I abandon my study of Japanese and turn my attention to Gikuyu or Icelandic? Hardly. I love the Japanese language: the sound of it, how it looks, the feelings it evokes, its obliqueness, its lack of subjects or agents, its tendency to “view the world as a natural state or a change brought about by some force.”

Even if I were to become a language activist, I’d devote my energy to fighting on behalf of English, given that language can be threatened internal as well as external enemies. As Baldur rightly observed:

The English are lazy when it comes to their own language. They treat it like a ten dollar hooker with no self-respect and a high tolerance for having the shit beaten out of her.

AKMA alluded to the problem when he cited Orwell’s 1984:

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

I don’t know whether AKMA had in mind Diane Ravitch’s new book, The Language Police, How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, when he quoted Orwell but reviews in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times CalendarLive (links via Arts & Letters Daily) leave little doubt that left-wing and right-wing pressure groups have nearly succeeded in turning Orwell’s imaginary Newspeak into a reality by organizing the banning of a whole range of words from the textbooks or test questions used in American schools:

Among those rejected by the “bias and sensitivity” panel was a passage about the patchwork quilts made by 19th century frontier women: “The reviewers objected to the portrayal of women as people who stitch and sew, and who were concerned about preparing for marriage.” The fact that the passage was historically accurate was considered no defense for its “stereotypical” image of women and girls.

Another story about two young African American girls, one an athlete, the other a math whiz, who help each other learn new skills, was red-flagged for stereotyping blacks as athletic (even though one of the girls was not an athlete but a mathlete).

A passage on the uses and nutritional values of peanuts was rejected because some students are allergic to peanuts. Stranger still, a story about a heroic blind youth who climbed to the top of Mt. McKinley was rejected, not only because of its implicit suggestion that blind people might have a harder time than people with sight, but also because it was alleged to contain “regional bias”: According to the panel’s bizarre way of thinking, students who lived in non-mountainous areas would theoretically be at a “disadvantage” in comprehending a story about mountain climbing. Stories set in deserts, cold climates, tropical climates or by the seaside, Ravitch learned, are similarly verboten as test topics, since not all students have had personal experience of these regions.

Also forbidden: owls (the animals are taboo for Navajos), Mt. Rushmore (offensive to Lakotas), dinosaurs (suggestive of evolution, hence offensive to creationists), dolphins (regionally offensive because they live in the sea) and Mary McLeod Bethune (this early 20th century civil rights pioneer had the lack of foresight to use the no-longer-fashionable word “negro” in the school she founded).

Denis Dutton’s “review” of the Guidelines for Bias-Free Writing offers an even more dispiriting glimpse into the world of the Bias Persons and their attempts to sanitize the English language. The astonishing thing is that this censorship has not been directly imposed by governments. Rather, book publishers have voluntarily adopted “bias and sensitivity” guidelines which reflect the sensitivities of anyone who cares to complain about anything.

What these groups on both the right and left have in common, Ms. Ravitch notes, is that they all “demand that publishers shield children from words and ideas that contain what they deem the ‘wrong’ models for living.” Both sides “believe that reality follows language usage,” that if they “can stop people from ever seeing offensive words and ideas, they can prevent them from having the thought or committing the act that the words imply.”

(“In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”)

The results of a similar process are evident in conversations with young Japanese who know next to nothing about Japan’s colonization of Manchuria and Korea, the rape of Nanking, the inhumane treatment of Allied POWs, and war crimes in countries under Japanese occupation, let alone the biological warfare experiments by Unit 731 on Chinese prisoners and villagers.

Why are they so ignorant? Why do so many Japanese believe that, because of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they were the greatest victims of the Pacific War? Because they learned history from sanitized textbooks.

So, ultimately, as much as I sympathize with the disappeared languages of the Welsh, Kenyans, Native Americans or South-American Natives, I suspect that every language is under threat—from linguistic imperialism, from benign or malicious neglect, from Language Police acting out of the “best” intentions. And I can’t help but believe that reading and discussing Heidegger and Wittgenstein form at least part of an acceptable response to the problem.

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Tuesday 06 May 2003

Ignorance bought and paid for (in Japanese too)

Golly, Blogaria’s a strange old world. Before dinner I started an entry about Heidegger’s On the Way to Language. But on Monday night SBS screens the English Premier League Highlights show—and what a delightful hour it turned out to be: eating a delicious home-cooked Thai chicken stir fry accompanied by a couple of glasses of Cabernet Merlot while watching Australians Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka save Leeds United from relegation and, simultaneously, thwart Arsenal’s last chance of staying in Premiership contention (which is not to say I’m celebrating Manchester United’s victory).

I returned to my Heidegger post only to find a trackback from Stavros responding in his usual forthright fashion to a New York Times article (link via Language Hat) about one “William C. Hannas, ‘a linguist who speaks 12 languages and works as a senior officer at the Foreign Broadcast Information Service,’ author of a newly released book which claims that Asian science has suffered because the main Asian languages are written in “character-based rather than alphabetic” systems.” Stavros adds:

Not to get off on a rant here, but : in and of itself, this seems to me to be the most vile form of egregiously wrongheaded bullshit, and I suspect Mr Hannas is precisely the sort of person that I’d take great pleasure in pummelling until he whimpered like a frightened infant (a reaction that may reveal to some extent why I left academia many years ago, having dipped no more than a toe in its calm waters). But that’s not the thing that bothered me.

The article states, presumably parrotting Mr Dipshit, that “Western specialists are better informed today […and] now recognize that the writing systems of East Asia, including Chinese, Japanese and Korean, are “syllabaries,” in which each character corresponds to a syllable of sound.”

Now, I can’t speak for written Japanese (for which I think this may in part be true, depending on which way of writing the language one chooses - Jonathon may be the better person in the immediate neighbourhood to address that), and I’m only semi-certain it is true as far as my knowledge goes for Chinese, but this is completely and laughably wrong in the case of Korean.

Stavros is correct in saying that in Japanese this may be partly true, depending on which way of writing the language one chooses. Japanese can be written using the hiragana and katakana syllabaries—in which each character corresponds to a syllable of sound—but the only Japanese who regularly do so are kindergartners. By the end of their first year of elementary school, Japanese children are expected to have memorized and be using 80 kanji characters, many of which have multisyllabic pronunciations, such as:

migi (right), hidari (left), ame (rain), hana (flower), yasu (rest), sora (sky), tsuki/getsu (moon), yama (mountain), ito (thread), onna (woman), shita (below), ue (above), mori (wood/grove), mizu/sui (water), ao (blue), ishi (stone), aka (red), kawa (river), mura (village), shiro/haku (white).

By the end of elementary school, Japanese twelve year olds will be using 1006 kanji characters, hundreds of which have multisyllabic pronunciations.

In other words, as far as Japanese is concerned, the assertion that the language is based on characters corresponding to a syllable of sound is utter nonsense. Unless you’re referring to five year olds—but then there aren’t too many five year olds of any nationality winning Nobel prizes.

And, since Stavros went to the trouble of rendering “a rude bit of English, sloppily and phonetically… into the Hangul alphabet in 5 letters and two syllables for Mr Hannas, sounding something like ‘puhk kyu!’”, here’s the equivalent in Japanese:

Katakana: fakku-yuu

In this case, “fakku-yuu!” Naturally, since this is an English loan expression, I’ve used the katakana phonetic syllabary.

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Wednesday 07 May 2003

Hannas revisited

Mark Griffith from pushed back against my post about William C. Hannas, the “Master Linguist” in such a pleasant and well-informed way that his comment deserves reproducing:

Mind you (trying to sound most demurring and non-confrontational here!) isn’t it the case that Japanese newspapers and books are crammed full of hiragana and katakana alongside the imported (and very occasionally home-grown) Chinese kanji?

The last time I did a rough count, something approaching sixty per cent of the ink marks on a Japanese newspaper page were from one of the two syllabaries. And Japanese dictionaries spell kanji for users using hiragana (most of which users I assume are above kindergarten age). Of course most kanji are multi-syllable, but a small number are also one-syllable in their spoken form.

Indeed Japanese text is crammed full of (monosyllabic) hiragana and katakana alongside the Chinese kanji characters, as can be seen in this introduction to the career of the actress Hara Setsuko, star of films by Ozu, Kurosawa, and Naruse (the hiragana appear in blue, katakana in red, kanji in black).

Introduction to Hara Setsuko's career in Japanese

And Mark’s estimate that syllabic hiragana and katakana characters outnumber the kanji is also correct, as Jack Halpern makes clear in the introduction to his New Japanese-English Character Dictionary:

A running Japanese text consists of a mixture of kanji and kana, with the latter normally outnumbering the former.

In the example, hiragana are used for particles such as wa, ga, nado, no, ni, mo as well as for verb endings such as -shita, -rete, and -shite imasu. Katakana are used for loan words such as terebi (television).

However, it’s important to note that, since Japanese text is written without spaces, the process of reading involves skipping from one set of kanji characters to another. As Halpern explains:

Hiragana characters server as natural borderlines that help the reader segment the text into meaningful units. For this reason, a Japanese text is easier to read than a running Chinese text, which consists of Chinese characters only.

It’s also important to stress that much of the “meaning” of the text comes from the Chinese characters (in the same way that one could get the gist of an English text even if the prepositions, pronouns, and verb endings were missing).

And while it is true that “Japanese dictionaries spell kanji for users using hiragana”, that only goes to prove that Japanese is not fundamentally a phonetic language, since the hiragana are provided to give the pronunciation, not the meaning—a Japanese reader can look at a forgotten or unfamiliar kanji and be able to figure out its meaning, without necessarily knowing its pronunciation. To be fair, the form of the kanji often suggests possible pronunciations, but that’s very different from the phonetic (“each character corresponds to a syllable of sound”) definition of Japanese that Mr Hannas suggests.

So isn’t it a bit steep to say it’s utter nonsense to claim Japanese uses characters representing syllables, and that only kindergarten children spell with kana? Sounds to me a rather reasonable simplification to introduce new readers to a tricky language with a fascinating hybrid script.

Not really, since only kindergarten children spell exclusively with kana whereas Hannas quite specifically (and wrongly) states that “the writing systems of East Asia, including Chinese, Japanese and Korean, are ‘syllabaries,’ in which each character corresponds to a syllable of sound.” That is only true for the writing system used by kindergarten students. As soon as they start elementary school, Japanese children are rapidly introduced to multisyllabic Chinese characters.

Is it Hannas’ main argument you don’t like? The bit about precision overriding innovation? That’s obviously a big claim of his, but the syllable component of Japanese seems slightly more than utter nonsense to me.

No, I don’t necessarily disagree with Hannas’ contention that East Asia has failed to make significant scientific and technological breakthroughs compared to Western nations (although, to be honest, there is definite disagreement about whether or not this is actually true). But I think he’s absolutely wrong to blame the writing systems of China, Japan and Korea for that. [Does he also blame the Thai and Vietnamese writing systems for those countries having failed to make “significant scientific and technological breakthroughs”?)

To the contrary, I strongly believe that one of the reasons for Japan’s rapid and successful industrialization after the Meiji Restoration in the mid-nineteenth century is that their uniquely flexible writing system—coupled with a historical willingness to accept ideas from abroad—allowed the Japanese to easily import, comprehend, and put to use an astonishing range of Western cultural, political, aesthetic, and technological ideas.

I have an alternative (language-based) theory for why Japanese science and technology may be less innovative than their Western counterparts, but that will have to be the subject of another post.


Trevor Hill at Glome offers an absolutely first rate rejoinder to Hannas’ nonsensical assertions about East Asian languages, including a persuasive argument that Chinese characters actually facilitate abstract thinking. (I’d actually been planning to write a post along the same lines, based on some ideas in the Halpern essay I cited above, but Trevor has done such a great job that I may not bother.)

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Saturday 10 May 2003

Enabling CJK language support

Following the lead of Trevor Hill at, Stavros has posted two entries that include Korean characters: This Is a Test of Korean and Seeing Asian Characters. The screenshot below shows how the Korean characters appear as question marks without Korean Language Support enabled (in Windows 2000):

Korean characters appear as question marks without Korean language support

With Korean Language Support enabled (instructions here), the Korean is rendered properly:

Korean characters appear correctly with Korean language support installed

Having enabled Korean, I also installed UniPad, a Unicode text editor that I expected would allow me to enter Korean text—I was hoping to eventually impress Stavros by displaying a Korean sentence in a weblog entry. No such luck. I just couldn’t figure out how to get the individual Hangul components (Jamo?) into a single syllable. (The UniPad Help indicates this isn’t supported so I tried Word 2000 and failed. Yet Stavros says he can do it with Microsoft’s execrable Notepad, which I also used without success.) So my Korean text-entry career is stalled. (Well, to be honest, it was stalled before I turned the key in the ignition, since the sum total of my Korean knowledge is what I’ve managed to glean from the introduction to the Berlitz Korean for Travellers phrasebook.)

In any case, enabling Korean (or Japanese) in the OS only gets me halfway there. If I’m to display CJK in my weblog posts, I also have to change my character encoding from charset=iso-8859-1 to charset=UTF-8. It seems there are two ways to do this:

  1. Hard code the character encoding sent in the HTTP headers as charset=UTF-8 in each Movable Type template.
  2. Change the character encoding by modifying the “Preferred Language” in my MT user profile (not an option because only “US English” is available).
  3. Set the PublishCharset flag in mt.cfg to UTF-8.

Since Stavros didn’t specify which procedure he adopted, any suggestions will be gratefully received (and adopted).

Something else that puzzled me is that although I couldn’t originally read the Korean characters in Trevor Hill’s post (this was when I had Japanese enabled in Windows 2000 but not Korean), the Chinese and Japanese characters appeared to render correctly. I say “appeared” because even though the Japanese characters are correct, I’m only guessing that the Chinese characters are also correct (the same three characters appear in both the Chinese and Japanese words for SARS).

Explanation of how diseases such as diabetes and SARS are rendered using Chinese characters in both the Chinese and Japanese languages

This would seem to indicate that identical Chinese and Japanese characters share the same Unicode entities, which is not what I’d have expected. It could be that if I enable Chinese in Windows 2000, the Chinese characters for SARS will be different. Which leads me to another question: do I need to enable both Traditional and Simplified Chinese? I assume I do—since Traditional Chinese is used in Taiwan and Hong Kong while Simplified Chinese is used in mainland China—though naturally I’m curious as to which Trevor Hill has used.

Finally, I should confess to having had some misgivings about this entire CJK enterprise. Even though it’s a pain to have to create images of Japanese text in Photoshop every time I want to include Japanese characters in a weblog entry, at least everyone can see the characters whether or not they have Japanese enabled in their OS. If I start to encode Japanese text in my entries, only visitors with Japanese support enabled will be able to see the Japanese characters. Everyone else would see the Japanese text as question marks or hollow boxes. This struck me as a significant problem, since I didn’t want to force visitors to enable Japanese in their browser or OS.

On the other hand, never in a million years would I render English text as an image since this causes major accessibility problems:

  • Text in an image can’t be resized.
  • The ALT text would have to replicate the text in the image.
  • Text in a image can’t indexed by Google.

Therefore, if I wouldn’t use “image text” in English, why should I use it for Japanese (or any other language)?

Accordingly, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s actually preferable to render Japanese text properly, using Unicode/UTF-8 encoding. Anyone who is sufficiently interested in seeing the Japanese characters can enable Japanese support in their OS (Windows, Macintosh, or Linux). Everyone else can tolerate the question marks or hollow boxes or skip that entry.

It occurs to me—and I’m sure that I’m not the first to come to this conclusion—that the best way to popularize Unicode and to celebrate the intrinsic beauty of language is to write our weblog posts not just in English but in any other language we understand and love. So thanks to Trevor and Stavros (apologies to anyone else I’ve missed) for leading the way.

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Sunday 11 May 2003

This is a test of Japanese

I’ve implemented Trevor Hill’s Movable Type modifications (explained by Stavros in his comment on my previous post) by:

  • Turning on the PublishCharset UTF-8 and NoHTMLEntities 1 configuration settings in mt.cfg.
  • Ensuring that the character encoding in each of my templates is set to use MTPublishCharset rather than a hard-coded charset i.e. <meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=<$MTPublishCharset$>" />
  • Modifying the send_http_header code in lib/MT/ (using Trevor’s code sample from his post in the MT forum).

So now I should be good to go. Here’s the obligatory test post, with Japanese characters (I’m following John’s example and using a proverb). If you have Japanese support enabled in your OS and can see the characters (or not), please leave a comment. (Please note that you don’t have to go through the above rigmarole just to see the characters.)


Language Hat made the excellent suggestion that for visitors who can’t or don’t want to enable CJK support, “it would be good policy to always accompany [Asian text] with transliterations.” (I think I would probably have done that but it’s good to have it as a formal policy.)

So, the transliterated Japanese is San nin yoreba monju no chie, which means “three people together have the wisdom of a Buddha”; or as we would say in English, “two heads are better than one”. A related proverb plays on the fact that the Chinese character for kashimashii (“noisy, clamourous”) is made up of three small versions of the character for “woman”:


Or Onna san nin yoreba kashimashii (“where three women gather, there is a noisy clamor”). As Kittredge Cherry points out in her book Womansword: What Japanese Words Say About Women:

Of all the characters imported from China, [kashimashii] is almost always the first example that springs to mind when linguistic sex discrimination is discussed. Three women add up to a sin worse than noise when the same character is pronounced kan. This spells wickedness or mischief, and it can be stretched into the verb form kansuru, meaning to seduce, assault, or rape. The hidden corollary to the kashimashii character is that a trio of men getting together is nothing remarkable. There is no character composed of three male ideograms. In fact, the male symbol almost never appears as a component of other characters.

Other words reinforce the concept that women can cause a hubbub. In old Japan, the most likely spot for women to gather was beside the well (idobata) where they drew water and washed clothes, so the term “well-side conference” (idobata kaigi) is still used to describe a group of gossiping women. The word for chatterbox (oshaberi), which literally means “honorable talker,” is almost always used to describe—or put down—a woman. Gossip is considered something women do, while there are few similarly derogatory terms for men who babble about trivial topics.

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Monday 12 May 2003

Unicode rocks

The feedback on my previous post, This is a test of Japanese, indicates that our East Asian languages experiment is proving to be surprisingly successful. The number of visitors—mainly on Mac OS X and Linux/Unix systems—who could see the Japanese characters without making any modifications to their system surpassed my expectations.

A couple of visitors reported success with Windows 98 and Windows XP, though Phil Ringnalda suffered a typically Microsoftian experience:

You two are killing me. I know how to enable CJK (I assume someone will be along with Chinese, anyway) characters, just fine. Then Windows says “show me your Windows CD”, and I say “how about this piece of crap ‘recovery disk’ that’s all I got instead?” Time to toss this laptop for something better. How’s OS X’s support for Japanese?

From the feedback so far, Phil, OS X’s support for Japanese is excellent. Looks like you might be another step closer to buying a PowerBook. If you decide on the 12-inch model though, make sure you buy a pair of asbestos gloves—it seems that cute little sucker runs hot.

Kurt Easterwood came up with a great piece of advice:

I wonder if it might not be a good idea to point users to how to install the Japanese IME from Microsoft. This page has good instructions and download links. (It’s from the same site Stavros linked to for the Korean IME.)

The page in question, Declan’s Guide to Installing and Using Microsoft’s Japanese IME, is a “comprehensive guide to installing and using the Microsoft Japanese IME for Window95/98/ME, Windows 2000 and Windows XP. The IME allows users of non-Japanese versions of Windows to read and enter Japanese hiragana, katakana and kanji scripts in IME enabled applications.” I’ll write a post with links to these and other East Asian language resources and link to it from my sidebar.

There were two reports that the Japanese characters didn’t appear in my RSS feed. That’s the fault of Burningbird’s Evil Twin who cast a spell that made me forget to change the character encoding from iso-8859-1 to UTF-8 in my RSS 1.0 and 2.0 templates. My apologies—it’s fixed. I’ve just downloaded and installed FeedReader and both RSS feeds look fine. (I thought about using the highly-regarded SharpReader but I’m trying to avoid the .NET framework for a little while longer.) Hopefully the Japanese characters is also displaying properly in other newsreaders.

I noticed one vaguely interesting glitch when I looked at the post in Mozilla 1.3.1 on my RedHat 7.2 installation: the period at the end of the sentence is near the top of the block of characters rather than near the baseline.

Mozilla 1.3.1/RedHat Linux 7.2 Japanese characters as seen in Mozilla on Linux
Mozilla 1.3.1/Windows 2000 Japanese characters as seen in Mozilla on Windows
IE 6/Windows 2000 Japanese characters as seen in IE on Windows

The IE Windows text also looks smoother than it’s Mozilla equivalent. Now I’m wondering whether it might be useful to include a font:family font-family declaration in my stylesheet—though to do that I’ll have to find out the names of the Japanese fonts on Mac OS X, Linux, and BSD Unix. And I’d really rather write Japanese-related entries than continue fussing with the technicalities of East Asian typography, particularly now that Stavros has made such an impressive start to his long-promised review of Hangul, the Korean writing system.

Korean is a subject-object-verb language, for example, and has a rich system of postpositional case markers. Chinese, a subject-verb-object language, does not. Korean has a complicated system of honorifics, part of which is expressed as verb endings. Chinese does not, and doesn’t have any characters to represent these verb-ending morphemes.

I hadn’t realized that Korean and Japanese so similar structurally: like Korean, Japanese is a subject-object-verb language with postpositional case markers and a system of honorifics. In one of my Japanese grammar books, Senko K. Maynard’s An Introduction to Japanese Grammar and Communication Strategies, it says that “Japanese is suggested to be distantly related to Korean, and therefore to the Altaic languages (among them, Mongolian and Turkish).” I’m looking forward to seeing how Stavros’ series unfolds and am hoping he’ll cover how to use the Korean IME to write Korean sentences (there’s one I’m dying to include in a post).

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Tuesday 13 May 2003

I Go Back to May 1937

This is for Burningbird, who is working on her RDF Poetry Finder and finding it very difficult:

to find poems to demonstrate points I want to make, primarily because I need something like RDF Poetry Finder in order to find them. My repertoire of known poetry is very limited, and I hesitate to put the poets and poetry enthusiasts in the audience on the spot asking for poems where, for example, an owl symbolizes the soul.

I wouldn’t have described myself as a “poetry enthusiast,” though perhaps the fact that certain poems are lodged firmly in the back of my mind makes me one. Had I not read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, I doubt I’d ever have discovered Sharon Olds’ poetry. Yet a Google search for “sharon olds” yields nearly seventy thousand results, including a comprehensive profile at Modern American Poetry, a Salon interview, and sixteen poems at I’m not even sure whether the following poem will meet Burningbird’s needs but I’d be surprised if she (and others) were not moved by it.

In a chapter devoted to the problems of writing truthfully about one’s life, Lamott explains that she hands out this Sharon Olds poem, called I Go Back to May 1937, to every writing class she teaches:

I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the
wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips black in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips like chips of flint as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

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Wednesday 14 May 2003

From Dresden to Tokyo

Book covers: four books about the bombing of Nazi Germany

I’m immersed in the firebombing of Dresden. On Saturday night SBS showed the BBC Timewatch program, Bombing Germany. Waiting for me at the post office today was a copy of David Irving’s The Destruction of Dresden. Last week, Alexander McKee’s Dresden 1945: The Devil’s Tinderbox arrived in the mail. Both of these books are out of print, though easy enough to find via Abebooks. The Destruction of Dresden is by the David Irving, the notorious Holocaust denier. (Had I checked his website I could have downloaded a PDF of the 1995 reprint, instead of shelling out for a 1963 first edition.)

Yesterday, at Kinokuniya, I picked up Robin Neillands’ The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive Against Nazi Germany. Tomorrow I’ll see if I can locate a local copy of Denis Richards’ The Hardest Victory: RAF Bomber Command in the Second World War.

Since the Neillands and Richards books deal with the bombing of Nazi Germany in general terms, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five might be the only book still in print whose main focus is the firebombing of Dresden.

After reading a dozen or more books about the firebombing of Tokyo—almost all of which are out of print—it occurred to me that if I was to understand what happened in Tokyo I needed to know more about how the Allied bombing campaign against Germany was conducted. So, over the past six months, I read Martin Middlebrook’s The Nuremberg Raid, The Battle of Hamburg, The Scheweinfurt-Regensburg Mission, and The Berlin Raids. But, when dealing with the bombing of Germany, all roads lead to Dresden.

Five volume history of the Tokyo firebombingI’ve come to realize that General Curtis LeMay’s decision to abandon the precision bombing tactics the USAAF had used against military targets in Germany and, instead, to attack Japanese civilians must have been based on his observation of the RAF’s area bombing methods, which were directed almost exclusively against civilians. When I know enough about how Dresden was destroyed, I can re-read the books in English about the Tokyo firebombing. At the same time, I’m steadily improving my Japanese reading skills so that eventually I hope to tackle the five volume 東京大空襲・戦災誌 (Tokyo daikushu sensaishi - The Tokyo Air Raids: A Record of War Damage).

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Remembering Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn handbag in store window

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Thursday 15 May 2003

Tattoo what?

I’ve always been intrigued by the fashion for tattoos displaying Chinese characters, so much so that a couple of years ago I set up Though I never pursued the idea, my intention was that each post would comprise separate photographs of a tattoo and its owner with an accompanying text about why they’d chosen the particular Chinese character(s).

In the trendy inner-city area where I live there’s no shortage of pierced and tattooed men and women, so I still try to decipher the tattoos I see—though a necessarily brief glance and my imperfect knowledge ensure that I’m only occasionally successful. A month or so ago, when the weather was still warm, I noticed a young woman on the platform at Newtown station, with a single character inscribed on her tailbone. “Why on earth would she want the character for ‘water’——(in Japanese, sui/mizu), tattooed just above her bum?” I asked myself. Then she shifted her weight from one foot to another and I saw the top of the character that had been obscured by the hem of her T-shirt. It wasn’t “water”, it was “eternity”——(ei/naga•i).

Newspaper clipping about a young man whose Chinese tattoo doesn't mean what he thought it didImagine my delight, then, when Victor sent me a JPEG of a newspaper clipping (dated Thursday, June 6, 2002) about a young Englishman, Lee Becks, who thought he’d been tattooed with the characters “Love, honor, and obey” but learned from a woman in a Chinese take-away shop that the tattoo actually said, “At the end of the day, this is an ugly boy.” When he went back to the tattoo shop to complain the next day, he found it had closed. Lee’s boss summed up his trusting employee’s predicament: “I don’t think Lee stands much of a chance with any attractive young Chinese lady he may meet.”

Detail of tattooI can recognize the characters for “evening”——(seki/yū) and “man”——(dan/otoko) but the character used in Japanese for “ugly”——(shū/miniku•i) bears no resemblance to that in the tattoo.

There is, of course, a fair chance that the entire story—which looks as though it comes from an English tabloid—could be a beat-up. But it’s good for a laugh, particularly these alternative tattoo phrases, attributed to the “University of Cambridge Department of Oriental Studies”:

Chinese phrases: A fool and his money are easily parted; Always read the small print; I'm stupid enough to think this tattoo looks cool

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Tuesday 20 May 2003

Dresden, Theresienstadt, Prague, Nuremberg

Dorothea Salo inquired (via Steve Himmer’s comments):

And where’ve you been, JD? Post count seems down lately.

Post count has been down, indeed. Thirteen posts in twenty days (including this one).

Where’ve I been? In Dresden, mainly.

Dresden, after the firestorm, February 1945

In Theresienstadt too.

Plan and aerial views of Theresienstadt

I had no idea that Theresienstadt (renamed Terezin after WWII) lies halfway between Dresden and Prague, which are only 70 miles apart. I’m taking a crash course in Central European geography.

Maps showing the location of Theresienstadt, near the River Elbe, midway between Dresden and Prague

As far as I can recall, Dresden is never mentioned in Sebald’s novel Austerlitz. After visiting Terezin, where his mother was interned in the ghetto before being deported to one of the Nazi death camps, Austerlitz leaves Prague to travel through Germany for the first time. But, whereas Dresden lies northwest of the Czech capital, Austerlitz heads southwest, through Pilsen, where he had passed with the Kindertransport in the summer of 1939, then on into the mountains dividing Bohemia from Bavaria until he reaches Nuremberg:

…and when I saw the name on a signal box in its German spelling of Nürnberg, which was unfamiliar to me, I remembered what Vera had said about my father’s account of the National Socialist Party rally of 1936 and the roars of acclamation rising from the people who had gathered here at the time.

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Wednesday 21 May 2003

Provocation and retribution

“I’ve been in Dresden too,” wrote language hat in a comment on my previous post, “by way of Victor Klemperer’s amazing diaries, translated as I Will Bear Witness. Scary how as soon as Hitler takes over everyone starts falling into line. And every time a cousin emigrates you want to holler ‘Get out while there’s time, dammit!’”

Tonight I saw a brief interview with Antony Beevor—author of Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943 and, more recently, The Fall of Berlin 1945—who is in Sydney for Writers Week. The interviewer baldly asked him what caused the German descent into depravity. After carefully pointing out that not all Germans were “war criminals,” Beevor mentioned Goebbels’ brilliant manipulation of fear and hatred, of both the Jews and the Slavs, as well as Hitler’s strategy of gradual incremental change. “You only have to read Victor Klemperer’s diaries,” said Antony Beevor, “to see how it happened, a tiny step at a time.”

As I continue to read books and watch films about the persecution and extermination of the Jews and the annihilation of German civilians in the Allied bombing raids, it’s difficult not to imagine one as retribution for the other.

In W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, the protagonist recounts a conversation with Vera, his nurse in Prague before he was sent to England in the Kindertransport:

But to come back to my story… It was when I had returned from the Schönborn Garden, as we were sitting in Vera’s flat again, that she first told me about my parents at greater length: their origins so far as she knew of them, the course of their lives, and the annihilation, within the space of only a few years, of their entire existence. Despite her dark and rather melancholy appearance, so I think Vera began, said Austerlitz, your mother Agáta was a very genial, on occasion even light-hearted woman. In this she was just like her father, old Austerlitz, who owned a fez and slipper-making factory in Sternberg which he had founded while the country was still under Austrian rule, and who had the ability of simply ignoring any unpleasantness. Once, when he was visiting this house, I heard him speak of the considerable boom in his business since Mussolini’s men had taken to wearing that semi-Oriental item of headgear the fez, saying that he could hardly manufacture and export enough of them to Italy. At the time, Agáta herself, secure as she felt in the recognition she had won much faster than she dared to hope in her career as an opera and operetta singer, thought that everything would turn out all right in the end, whereas Maximilian, in spite of the cheerful disposition which he shared with Agáta, had been convinced ever since I knew him, said Vera, so Austerlitz told me, that the parvenus who had come to power in Germany and the corporate bodies and other human swarms endlessly proliferating under the new regime, a spectacle which inspired him, as he often said, with a sense of positive horror, had abandoned themselves from the first to a blind lust for conquest and destruction, taking its cue from the magic word thousand which the Reichskanzler, as we could all hear on the wireless, repeated constantly in his speeches. A thousand, ten thousand, twenty thousand, thirty-seven thousand, two hundred and forty thousand, a thousand times a thousand, thousands upon thousands: such was the refrain he barked out in his hoarse voice, drumming into the Germans the notion that the promise of their own greatness was about to be fulfilled. None the less, said Vera, Austerlitz continued, Maximilian did not in any way believe that the German people had been driven into their misfortune; rather, in his view, they had entirely re-created themselves in this perverse form, engendered by every individual’s wishful thinking and bound up with false family sentiment, and had then brought forth, as symbolic exponents of their innermost desires, so to speak, the Nazi grandees, whom Maximilian regarded without exception as muddle-headed and indolent. From time to time, so Vera recollected, said Austerlitz, Maximilian would tell the tale of how once, after a trade-union meeting in Teplitz in the early summer of 1933, he had gone a little way up into the Erzgebirge, where he came upon some day-trippers in a beer garden who had been buying all manner of things in a village on the German side of the border, including a new kind of boiled sweet which had, embedded in its sugary mass, a raspberry-coloured swastika that literally melted in the mouth. At the sight of these Nazi treats, Maximilian had said, he suddenly realized that the Germans had wholly reorganized their production lines, from heavy industry down to the manufacturing of items such as these vulgar sweets, not because they had been ordered to do so but each of his own accord, out of enthusiasm for the national resurgence. Vera went on, said Austerlitz, to tell me that Maximilian visited Austria and Germany several times in the 1930s, to gain a more accurate idea of general developments, and that she remembered precisely how, immediately after returning from Nuremberg, he had described the Führer’s prodigious reception at the Party rally. Hours before his arrival, the entire population of Nuremberg and indeed people from much further afield, crowds flocking in not just from Franconia and Bavaria but from the most remote parts of the country, Holstein and Pomerania, Silesia and the Black Forest, stood shoulder to shoulder all agog with excitement along the predetermined route, until at last, heralded by roars of acclamation, the motorcade of heavy Mercedes limousines came gliding at walking pace down the narrow alley which parted the sea of radiant uplifted faces and the arms outstretched in yearning. Maximilian had told her, said Vera, that in the middle of this crowd, which had merged into a single living organism racked by strange, convulsive contractions, he had felt like a foreign body about to be crushed and then excreted. From where he stood in the square outside the Lorenzkirche, he said, he saw the motorcade making its slow way through the swaying masses down to the Old Town, where the houses with their pointed and crooked gables, their occupants hanging out of the windows like bunches of grapes, resembled a hopelessly over­crowded ghetto into which, so Maximilian had said, the long-awaited saviour was now making his entry. It was in just the same vein, said Vera, that Maximilian later repeatedly described the spectacular film of the Party rally which he had seen in a Munich cinema, and which confirmed his suspicions that, out of the humiliation from which the Germans had never recovered, they were now developing an image of themselves as a people chosen to evangelize the world. Not only did the overawed spectators witness the Führer’s aeroplane descending slowly to earth through towering mountain ranges of cloud; not only was the tragic history they all shared invoked in the ceremony honouring the war dead during which, as Maximilian described it to us, Hitler and Höss and Himmler strode down the broad avenue lined, in straight serried ranks, with columns and companies created by the power of the new state out of a host of immovable German bodies, to the accompaniment of a funeral march which stirred the innermost soul of the entire nation; not only might one see warriors pledging themselves to die for the Fatherland, and the huge forests of flags mysteriously swaying as they moved away by torch­light into the dark—no, said Vera, Maximilian told us that a bird’s-eye view showed a city of white tents extending to the horizon, from which as day broke the Germans emerged singly, in couples or in small groups, forming a silent procession and pressing ever closer together as they all went in the same direction, following, so it seemed, some higher bidding, on their way to the Promised Land at last after long years in the wilderness.

In Alexander McKee’s Dresden 1945: The Devil’s Tinderbox a young woman, Eva Beyer, who was seventeen years old at the time of the bombing of Dresden, describes her experiences while doing volunteer Red Cross work at the main city rail station:

Once in mid-January I was on duty and the train which drew in had been bombed on the way. What I saw there was worse than horror. Not only were the people squeezed together in a goods train, but they had to suffer hunger and thirst and the bombs, too. There were so many injured on that train that we didn’t know where to start. The screams and cries for help were almost unbearable. We could bandage their wounds and satisfy their thirst and hunger, but not their emotional suffering. Many died from their injuries, because our help came too late.

I bent down to a woman who had a baby at her breast, to see if I could help, for she was smeared with blood. She was dead but the child was alive. Beside her lay an old man. He was her father. He called: “Annie, come and help me!” His arm was torn to pieces. When we told him that Annie was dead, he broke down completely and sat crying: “What is going to happen to us? My son-in-law in the war, my daughter dead, a two-months-old baby, and an eight-year-old boy.” The old man clung to me, asking: “What can we do next? We have lost our homes, our possessions. Oh God, what have we done, that we are being punished like this? Can there really be a God who allows such things?”

I was shocked the first time I read Maximilian’s account of the new kind of boiled sweet with its embedded raspberry-coloured swastika and of his—and, one presumes, Sebald’s—belief that the German people had not been driven into their misfortune but had “entirely re-created themselves in this perverse form, engendered by every individual’s wishful thinking and bound up with false family sentiment” and that Hitler and his henchmen, rather than blindfolding Germany and leading its people into catastrophe, were the “symbolic exponents of their innermost desires.”

W.G. Sebald's On the Natural History of DestructionA week ago, Desbladet, commenting on my post about books on the Allied bombing campaign, drew my attention to a Guardian profile of On the Natural History of Destruction, which belongs in my list, of course, as does Jörg Friedrich’s Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940-1945.

But Der Brand has not yet been translated into English and I’ve put off buying Sebald’s book—partly because I have a policy of not buying hardcover editions unless the book is out of print, mainly because I want to read all the other books first (saving the best till last, one might say).

In that Guardian profile, Sebald is quoted as saying:

If you know in the generation before you that your parents, your uncles and aunts were tacit accomplices, it’s difficult to say you haven’t anything to do with it. I’ve always felt I had to know what happened in detail, and to try to understand why it should have been so.

I looked at On the Natural History of Destruction again in the bookshop tonight, and saw that at the end of his essay Sebald describes Hitler’s enthusiastic response to Goering’s plan for setting densely packed London ablaze with incendiary bombs—just as the British would do to Hamburg, the British and Americans to Dresden, and the Americans to Tokyo and dozens of other Japanese cities. “Most Germans,” Sebald writes, “understand that we actually provoked the annihilation of the cities in which we once lived.”

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Thursday 22 May 2003

Coercion and consent

“You might also be interested in reading Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which I read back in Feb. or March,” suggested Elaine Nelson, in response to my post about ordinary Germans’ complicity in Nazi war crimes. “I didn’t review it in my media diet blog, but I put a quote into a blog entry about women and war.”

Although I was aware of Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, I recall being put off by the polarized reception the book received upon publication. But, following Elaine’s recommendation, I checked it out at Amazon, only to find—I guess not surprisingly— reviews that are sharply divided between those which characterize the book as brilliant and original and those which describe it as a partisan and repetitive PhD dissertation. I put Hitler’s Willing Executioners in the “maybe” category and returned to reading about the bombing of Germany.

Book cover - Robert Gellately: Backing Hitler, Consent and Coercion in Nazi GermanyLater in the day I was looking for something else at Amazon when it occurred to me that it had been a while since I’d checked out my recommendations. At the top of the list was Robert Gellately’s Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany. Why was I recommended this? Because I’d recently viewed Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Only occasionally am I pleasantly surprised by Amazon’s machine-generated recommendations. In this case, Elaine’s human endorsement had done the trick.

And, it seems, all paths lead to Victor Klemperer. In his introduction, Gellately writes:

A sense of how Germans responded positively to various waves of persecution and even to the spirit of Nazi ‘justice’, is conveyed on almost every page of Professor Victor Klemperer’s recently published diary. It represents the most detailed chronicle we have of the implementation of the repression, especially the measures aimed at the Jews. Klemperer recorded one telling conversation he had in late February 1935 with his last two students, whom he said were ‘completely anti-Nazi’. The fact that they persisted in studying with this Jewish professor showed they had some civil courage. However, when their discussion turned to a recent newspaper story about the trial and execution of two young aristocratic women in Berlin, the students said they found the court’s verdict ‘totally appropriate’. They saw no fault in the procedures of the secret trial, nor were they troubled in the least that the accused had been denied essential legal rights. Klemperer concluded sadly that ‘the sense of justice is being lost everywhere in Germany, is being systematically destroyed’. In this book I examine the background of such stories, explore how coercion and consent were entwined, and finally how and why the German people backed the Nazi dictatorship.

They saw no fault in the procedures of the secret trial, nor were they troubled in the least that the accused had been denied essential legal rights. Doesn’t that sound unpleasantly familiar? Coercion and consent, in the name of Homeland Security.

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Saturday 24 May 2003

Calibrating art in moral terms

It is always useful to have one’s cherished beliefs or preconceptions challenged. Last year, AKMA wrote that “the murderous violence that makes someone else’s life pay the price of my envy or moral outrage or thirst for justice, arrogates to human judgment (however apparently well-justified) the prerogative that belongs to God alone”. I challenged AKMA’s conviction in these terms:

The contradiction, as it appears to me, is that the surviving Jews in Buchenwald, Auschwitz, and the other death camps were not liberated by pacifists. Those few Jews left alive were set free by courageous men and women who had fought their way across Europe against determined German resistance—men and women who, whether they were motivated by moral outrage, a thirst for justice, the instinct for self-preservation, or a sense of loyalty to their comrades, took part in a sustained campaign of murderous and coercive violence that resulted in the defeat of the Nazis.

I was brought up short by Joseph Epstein’s review of Karl Shapiro’s Selected Poems (link via Arts & Letters Daily), which includes the following paragraph:

But I don’t want to make Karl Shapiro seem a cheerful or relentlessly upbeat poet. (“Optimists,” noted Paul Valéry, “write badly.”) He could also be angry, satirical, and smart about his contrarian nature. The prose poem “I Am an Atheist Who Says His Prayers” resounds with this last quality: I am an anarchist and full professor at that… . / Physically a coward, I take on all intellectuals, established poets, popes, rabbis, chiefs of staff. His sympathies tended to be wide, as a poet’s should be; and his poem “Conscientious Objector,” written by a man who in combat himself won several Bronze Stars, is better because subtler than E.E. Cummings’s famous conscientious objector poem “I Sing of Olaf.”

Epstein includes the last stanza of Shapiro’s poem, which deserves quoting in full:

The gates clanged and they walked you into jail
More tense than felons but relieved to find
The hostile world shut out, the flags that dripped
From every mother’s windowpane, obscene
The bloodlust sweating from the public heart,
The dog authority slavering at your throat.
A sense of quiet, of pulling down the blind
Possessed you. Punishment you felt was clean.

The decks, the catwalks, and the narrow light
Composed a ship. This was a mutinous crew
Troubling the captains for plain decencies,
A Mayflower brim with pilgrims headed out
To establish new theocracies to west.
A Noah’s ark coasting the topmost seas
Ten miles above the sodomites and fish.
These inmates loved the only living doves.

Like all men hunted from the world you made
A good community, voyaging the storm
To no safe Plymouth or green Ararat;
Troubled or calm, the men with Bibles prayed.
The gaunt politicals construed our hate.
The opposite of all armies, you were best
Opposing uniformity and yourselves;
Prison and personality were your fate.

You suffered not so physically but knew
Maltreatment, hunger, ennui of the mind.
Well might the soldier kissing the hot beach
Erupting in his face damn all your kind.
Yet you who saved neither yourselves nor us
Are equally with those who shed the blood
The heroes of our cause. Your conscience is
What we come back to in the armistice.

Epstein’s judgement of Shapiro’s poem as “better because subtler” seems overly generous to Cummings, whose I Sing of Olaf is overwrought and obvious beyond belief. Instead of taking the easy path of characterizing soldiers—officers, NCOs, and enlisted men alike—as mindless bullies, Shapiro acknowledges the hostility that a soldier enduring the agony of combat might feel towards the pacifist or conscientious objector. Then, in a sharp and persuasive reversal, argues that those who took a principled decision not to fight are just as much heroes as those who did. Their conscience, “what we [came] back to in the armistice”, is what prevented Shapiro and his comrades from behaving like the brutes in Cummings’ poem.

The other challenge to my belief system—Shapiro’s principled refusal to support Pound’s nomination for the Bollingen prize—turns out to be even more troubling. Epstein explains:

W.H. Auden said that the right time to be born if one were to be a major poet was between 1870 and 1890, and the remark contains the wistfulness of one—Auden was born in 1907—who feels he came along too late. Something of this spirit also weighs on Shapiro’s middle and later poems. Poetry had already lost its audience. To write poetry in America, said Henri Coulette (an American poet despite his Frenchified name), is “like making love to someone sound asleep.” Unlike Auden and Coulette, though, Shapiro had an argument for why things went wrong.

He must have had the first inkling of what it is when, as one of the Fellows of American literature who comprised the jury for the Bollingen Poetry Prize of 1949, he voted against giving the prize to Ezra Pound and found himself alone with one other juror (Katherine Garrison Chapin, who was also Mrs. Francis Biddle) in doing so. In a symposium in Partisan Review on the subject of giving an award to Pound, who was then resident in St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital in Washington, D.C., Shapiro wrote: “I voted against Pound in the balloting for the Bollingen Prize. My first and more crucial reason was that I am a Jew and cannot honor anti-Semites. My second reason is as I stated in a report which circulated among the fellows: ‘I voted against Pound in the belief that the poet’s political and moral philosophy ultimately vitiates his poetry and lowers its standards as literary work.’ This statement I would place against the official statement of the Fellows, which seems to me evasive, historically untrue, and illogical.”

The other members of the panel of jurors were W.H. Auden, Conrad Aiken, T.S. Eliot, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Louise Bogan, Robert Penn Warren, Willard Thorpe, Paul Green, Katherine Anne Porter, Theodore Spencer, and Leonie Adams, all of whom took the line that, whatever Pound’s politics, his contributions to poetry outweighed them. Shapiro must have felt the loneliness of his decision—I think it was the correct one—and it not only marked him as a man distinctly not traveling with the gang, but must have encouraged the iconoclastic strain that already ran strong in him.

Following my belief in the divisibility between artist and artwork, I too would have voted for Pound. I’ve already written about:

an inverse correlation between the work of art and the character or behavior of the artist who had made it. The art I admired most had frequently been created by men and women whose conduct or personality I found repulsive whereas the most decent and engaging artists made work I regarded as dull, trite, or derivative.

I empathize with Shapiro’s stance and yet, at the same time, am greatly discomforted by the idea of judging an artist’s work partly or entirely on the basis of their questionable or merely unfashionable moral, racial, religious, or political beliefs. Were I Jewish, would I think and feel differently? Probably. Though one can cite, as a counter argument to Shapiro, the Skokie vs. ACLU case in which ACLU attorney David Goldberger, himself a Jew, defended the right of a neo-Nazi group to hold a march in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, a location chosen deliberately because one in six of its inhabitants was “a survivor—or was directly related to a survivor—of the Holocaust.”

The ACLU lost 30,000 members because it chose to defend the free speech of Nazis. Yet what is the point of belonging to an organization that will defend some civil liberties but not others? And what is the point of bestowing prizes for art or literature on the basis of the artist’s character, behaviour, or beliefs? Even if a “poet’s political and moral philosophy ultimately vitiates his poetry and lowers its standards as literary work”, might not the work still be superior to that of his colleagues whose political and moral philosophy conform to contemporary standards?

Perhaps the problem lies in determining whether the Bollingen prize was awarded to Pound the poet, Pound the man, or to The Pisan Cantos. Israel Lewis suggests that Pound the man was being honored by stealth:

The selection of Ezra Pound as the first recipient was politically as well as artistically motivated. Archibald MacLeish tells of a meeting in June of 1948 (he was not in attendance) including James Laughlin, Julien Cornell, T.S. Eliot, E.E. Cummings, W.H. Auden, Allen Tate, and Dudley Fitts, at which an idea was conceived “of a new national prize for poetry to be awarded by the Library of Congress through a jury of notables who would select Pound as first recipient, thus dramatizing his situation, and putting the government, and particularly the Department of Justice in an awkward, if not untenable, position”.

Contradicting MacLeish’s assertion, the Fellows of the Library of Congress defended the award by stating that it was bestowed upon The Pisan Cantos not Pound:

To permit other considerations than that of poetic achievement to sway the decision would destroy the significance of the award and would in principle deny the validity of that objective perception of value on which any civilized society must rest.

Lewis notes that Irving Howe, writing in the Partisan Review, argued that it was impossible to celebrate Pound the poet without celebrating Pound the man:

Irving Howe saw the issue as a matter of conscience: to honor Pound with a literary award was to honor him as a man, and therefore a moral act. “To honor him is to regard him as a man with whom one can have decent, normal, even affectionately respectable human and intellectual relations; it means to extend a hand of public fraternity.” Of course, Howe admits, this position has difficulties: there can be clashes between aesthetic and human values; when they occur life must take precedence over literature.

I’m at a loss over this since, if “life must take precedence over literature”, the judgement will surely be muddied by personal and political considerations, as it was in the case of Pound. Even as I’m haunted by Sebald’s Austerlitz, his life hollowed out by the loss of his parents in the death camps; and even though the Bollingen prize was awarded to a Fascist sympathizer and an anti-Semite for a work containing (in Karl Shapiro’s words) “vicious and ugly ideas”, I still can’t help but think that by calibrating the worth of an artistic work on the basis of the artist’s beliefs or behavior (or, as in the case of Pound, both) inevitably we run the risk of privileging a kind of state-sponsored art which is both aesthetically and morally repugnant.

Arno Brecker's Nazi sculptures, The Party and The Army
Arno Breker: The Party and The Army
(statues at the entrance of Hitler’s Reich Chancellery)

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Sunday 25 May 2003

tATu you

Eurovision Latvia 2003 logoI doubt I would ever have heard of tATu (t.A.T.u/Tatu/tatu/TATU—pick your own capitalization and punctuation) were I not a loyal fan of the Eurovision Song Contest, which will screen on the “multicultural” SBS network for the twentieth year tonight. Eurovision is addictive viewing because it combines, as Amanda Keenan puts it, “all the frou-frou, glitz and gaudiness of a cruise ship cabaret… with the I-don’t-want-to-look-but-can’t-help-myself magnetism of a car crash.” Plus a transparently corrupt voting system in which Greece always gives maximum votes to Cyprus, Cyprus returns the favor, the Scandinavians stick together, and the former Eastern Bloc countries don’t seem to have realized the Cold War is over.

This year, with the 48th contest being held in Latvia, SBS is dispensing with Terry Wogan’s commentary because, according to the network, much of Wogan’s cruel but witty repartee is incomprehensible to non-British viewers. Instead, the cruel, witty voiceover will be delivered by Des Mangan, the head comedy writer for a Sydney breakfast radio program and host of the SBS Saturday Night Cult Movie Show. The network tried replacing Terry Wogan two years ago with Mary Coustas (a relentlessly unfunny ethnic “comedian”) and a bunch of drag queens, a strategy that precipitated a record number of viewer complaints and forced them to reschedule the Wogan version. This year SBS is taking no chances, having already promised to repeat the three-hour show, with Terry Wogan’s commentary, next Saturday afternoon.

Despite the overwhelmingly negative response on the SBS Online Forum (sample: WOGAN IS EUROVISION! SHAME SBS SHAME), I have a gut feeling that Des Mangan might be able to pull it off (and that’s not because I regularly watch the Cult Movie Show, an eclectic mix of sixties Italian slash films, Japanese samurai movies, Chinese martial arts extravaganzas, and Korean horror flicks, with the occasional Godard, Herzog, and Suzuki Seijun movie thrown in as a concession to the arthouse set). After all, Des is the guy who attracted his own boatload of complaints for wrapping up a movie about necrophiliacs with the remark “Well fuck me dead!”

Russian 'lesbian' pop duo, tATu (Julia Volkova and Lena Katina)But wait a minute, this entry was supposed to be about tATu (Julia Volkova and Lena Katina), whose debut single, All the Things She Said, I’ve yet to hear. Nor have I seen their “sensational video, directed by… manager and mastermind Ivan Shapovalov” which, according to the SMH, “courted controversy by portraying Tatu as nubile schoolgirls engaging in passionate embraces while being watched from behind a wire fence by a disapproving crowd of stony-faced adults.” A friend (and fellow Eurovision fan) advised me to check out the late night Video Hits show rather than the Saturday morning program which, she said, runs an expurgated version for young viewers.

It doesn’t really matter that I haven’t heard their hit song nor seen their controversial video—what appeals to me about tATu is how effortlessly they’ve hijacked this year’s Eurovision contest with their faux lesbian personae and seemingly limitless repertoire of publicity stunts:

  • A recasting for American consumption of the meaning of their name—an abbreviation of the Russian phrase “tadyevushka lubit tu”, “this girl loves that one”— as “Teens Against Tobacco Usage”.
  • An offer by producer Alexey Monzhnosov to give up his group, “7B”, in exchange for tATu. “Let him [Shapovalov] take “7B”, if he gives me tATu instead. I will turn them into normal girl, marry them to good guys, they will have a lot of children, and lead the Russian teens to the right path at last.”
  • A vow to get married in Germany if they win the Eurovision contest—last year they promised to get married in Holland, at the bottom of a swimming pool, insisting that they were rehearsing how to drink champagne and put on rings under water. (“We have felt that we are a single whole, therefore we wanted to connect our destinies.”)
  • A refusal to do a full rehearsal earlier in the week on the basis of Julia’s sore throat (or damaged vocal chords, depending on who you believe) thus provoking a threat of disqualification from the Eurovision organizers and allowing Shapovalov to wheel in his next protege, Katya Nechaeva, to lead the backup singers. “Ivan says I should be like a Lolita,” Katya explained. “He wants me to make an accent on my young age and sexuality.”
  • A ban by Russian authorities on tATu’s filming their latest video clip—featuring hundreds of young girls in plaid skirts and white blouses—in Red Square after London police had already prohibited Shapovalov from shooting the video opposite the Houses of Parliament.

Needless to say, as Neil McCormick reveals, Julia and Lena aren’t really lesbians.

“It is really funny that the Tatu campaign in the West goes in a very different way to how it went in Russia,” says Artemy Troitsky, a veteran Russian music journalist and DJ. “In Russia, this whole lesbian thing has never been taken seriously. When they’ve been interviewed on talk shows and asked, ‘Are you really lesbians?’, they’ve said, ‘No, it’s a trick, we have boyfriends, we are normal girls, we do this for image.’”

Their “lesbian” antics can be legitimately seen as a cynical marketing ploy calculated to excite tabloid newspaper editors, offend both religious conservatives and gay rights activists, pander to heterosexual male fantasies, celebrate a rite of passage not uncommon amongst teenage girls, exploit anxiety about homosexuality, all with the goal of selling lots of CDs.

Despite all the handwringing about “how low music svengalis will sink in their quest for publicity”, I’d suggest that tATu’s (and Shapovalov’s) most substantial—though certainly unintentional—achievement lies in holding up a mirror to the hypocrisy of a Western culture that condemns pedophilia whilst lionizing teen idols like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, whose tawdry “hooker pop” makes tATu appear chaste and elegant.

Some people get tATu though, as evidenced in this conversation between Word Magazine and Morissey about the duo’s cover of the Smiths’ How Soon Is Now? (on the tATu CD 200 Km/H in the Wrong Lane):

Word: Did you hear t.A.T.u.’s version of “How Soon Is Now?”

Morissey: Yes, it was magnificent. Absolutely. Again, I don’t know much about them.

Word: They are teenage Russian lesbians.

Morissey: Well, aren’t we all?

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Friday 30 May 2003


This will be my last post for a while. I’ve decided to take an extended break from weblogging in order to focus on other projects. I appreciate the attention and feedback my weblog entries have received over the past sixteen months—I’ve met some wonderful people and learned a great deal from the experience. I hope to catch up with you again at some point in the future.


© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour