Friday 07 November 2003

Vivacious

Teresa left a comment on my post about introversion/extroversion, The Unbearable Heaviness of Babble.

I really could use some direction. My guy is introvert from the word go and I am an extrovert. Seriously! We have a wonderful relationship. He is a wonderful person but, I have trouble dealing with him not being social when I am. Everything I have read leads me to believe this is normal and I being an extrovert will feel rejected. I don’t want to feel this way. I could use some advice on how to deal with his alone time without feeling rejected or ignored. I want to understand who he is.

Help
Thanks

Language Hat answered:

Teresa: You just have to accept him the way he is, and trust that what appears to be anti-social grumpiness is just quiet observation and reflection. As an introvert myself, I assure you it’s awful to be prodded to be social; I enjoy talking about interesting things with one or two people, but if you put me with a bunch of people I don’t know, I clam up and observe. And I spend a *lot* of time reading and thinking. I’m deeply grateful to my wife for understanding this and not feeling abandoned; she knows I am always close to her, no matter how shut off I appear. If you can convince yourself to accept this about your guy, he will be much happier — and so will you.

I didn’t reply to Teresa’s comment. Not because I couldn’t add anything to Language Hat’s advice, excellent as it is. But because at the time Teresa left her comment I was sitting at the bottom of a deep well of introversion.

In Murakami Haruki’s Nejimaki-dori kuronikuru (The Wind-up Bird Chronicle) the protagonist, Okada Toru, meets an elderly man named Mamiya who, as a Lieutenant with the Kwantung Army in Manchuria in 1937, was sent on a secret reconnaissance mission to the border with Outer Mongolia. Mamiya and his party were captured, one of his comrades was flayed alive, and Mamiya left to die at the bottom of a well.

Okada finds a deep well near his house, in the middle of Tokyo. He buys a rope ladder, removes one of the semi-circular wooden covers, and climbs down to the bottom.

Taking a breath, I sat on the floor of the well, with my back against the wall. I closed my eyes and let my body become accustomed to the place. All right, then, I thought: here I am in the bottom of a well…

I sat in the dark. Far above me, like a sign of something, floated the perfect half moon of light given shape by the well cap. And yet none of the light from up there managed to find its way to the bottom.

I’ve always loved Murakami’s image of the well bottom, so remote from everyday babble but with the ordinary, mysterious world glimmering in the distance. After a while, Okada’s eyes become accustomed to what he calls the “pale darkness”.

…but pale as it might be, it had its own particular kind of density, which in some cases contained a more deeply meaningful darkness than perfect pitch darkness. In it, you could see something. And at the same time, you could see nothing at all.

Here in this darkness, with its strange sense of significance, my memories began to take on a power they had never had before. The fragmentary images they called up inside me were mysteriously vivid in every detail, to the point where I felt I could grasp them in my hands.

Like Language Hat, I spend a *lot* of time reading and thinking. I also enjoy talking about interesting things with not just “one or two” but up to three people! This past week, however, I haven’t had any paid work, so in addition to reading and thinking I’ve spent a *lot* of time sleeping.

It might be the Mega Memory™ pills that have caused me to think a lot about my childhood, like the other guy who bought Mega Memory™ from Karen’s pharmacy. And perhaps re-living all those memories is nearly as exhausting as living the original experiences. Or it might be other recent changes: the weather is getting warmer, I’ve started swimming again, I stopped drinking. Because on Monday morning I went to the dentist and was home by eleven, planning to do some writing. Instead I lay down on the bed for a quick nap and woke up three hours later. On Tuesday morning I went to Kmart to buy some towels and bed linen. Again I came home and slept for three hours in the middle of the day. Wednesday I stayed in bed, having decided to finish Piers Brendon’s The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 30s. At eleven I drifted off to sleep, again waking up three hours later. This time, however, I’d had a dream:

I had set up my desktop computer and 19-inch monitor on the low brick fence of a neighbor’s house in the street where I lived as a child. (I’m an adult in my dream.) After working at the computer for a while it occurred to me to wonder where the power was coming from. I looked over the monitor and saw an extension lead snaking across the lawn and down the side passage. I stood up, walked to the front door, and knocked. A woman in her mid-thirties answered the door. She was wearing a floral dressing gown—what used to be called, I think, a housecoat—and holding a mop. I apologized for using her electricity without permission and offered her some money. She refused my ten dollar note, told me not to worry about it, and asked if I’d like a cup of tea or coffee. “A cup of tea would be great,” I replied.

As we sat at her kitchen table I suddenly felt her foot rubbing against the back of my leg in an unmistakably provocative way. This doesn’t feel right, I thought to myself. I’m not the slightest bit attracted to this woman. But I’ve used her electricity and I’m drinking her tea. What should I do?

I did what one frequently does in dreams: I teleported myself into a new scene. Now I was walking away from her house. But it still worried me that I hadn’t paid for the electricity and, in any case, I needed to retrieve my computer. I walked back and knocked on her front door again. This time, when she opened the door, she gazed at me for a long time before saying, “You look depressed.”

“I am depressed,” I admitted. “But I know what to do about it.”

And I woke up.

For someone who spends so much time at the bottom of a well, I never feel lonely and am only rarely depressed. When I was a photographer, there were periods when the photographs I was making were so mediocre that the very idea of taking photographs seemed pointless. And yet I knew that the only way to improve my pictures was either to take an extended break or to press on in the hope that I’d make my way back onto the right path. I couldn’t bear the idea of stopping because I loved the process—the physicality of taking photographs and the sloshing around in the darkroom (in its own way, another kind of well). So I pressed on. And eventually made some work that satisfied me.

My “knowing what to do about it” comes from experience: when things aren’t going well, maintain one’s practice. Except these days, now that my focus is on writing, I’ve expanded the idea of practice to reading too. Which, when I think about it, isn’t a radical change since I spent so much time as a photographer looking at other people’s work.

But, as I lay in bed on Wednesday afternoon, reassembling the fragments of my dream, I realized that though I was depressed, I wasn’t depressed about writing. On Monday morning, before going to the dentist, I’d read about the attack on the Chinook helicopter that killed 16 US soldiers in Iraq on Sunday. When I returned home, I’d read David Rieff’s long New York Times Magazine article, Blueprint for a Mess.

Cover of Piers Brendon's The Dark ValleyOn Monday night I’d started to watch Takahata Isao’s Grave of the Fireflies, an animated film about an adolescent boy’s ultimately unsuccessful attempts to care for his younger sister in the aftermath of the Tokyo firebombing. And, for the past few weeks, I’ve been reading Piers Brendon’s account of the inexorable march from the disaster of the Depression to the catastrophe of World War II. It’s impossible—if you have a modicum of intelligence and an even semi-open mind—not to draw parallels between what happened in the 1930s and how events are playing out in Iraq, where American policy has been formed by people who combine a doctrinaire view of history with a startling lack of empathy for non-Americans. You know we’re all in deep trouble when even a hardliner like Richard Pipes, the historian-turned-NSA-analyst who shaped the Reagan administration’s aggressive stance towards Soviet Russia, describes the architect of Bush’s Iraq policy in these terms:

“Paul [Wolfowitz] didn’t have much education in history,” Pipes says. “It’s not his field. He was educated as a military specialist, a nuclear weapons specialist. Like most scientists, he doesn’t have a particular understanding of other cultures.”

Just like an astrological confluence of planets, the books I was reading, the movie I was watching, and the tragedy unfolding in Iraq had combined to send my spirits into a tailspin. Ultimately, though, it’s little more than self-indulgence to allow one’s moods to be dominated by events which lie largely outside your control. At the same time, it takes one kind of skill to realize why you’ve wandered into the slough of despond and an entirely different set of skills to drag yourself out of it. Sometimes you need help. Or luck. Or both.

Late in the afternoon the phone rang. It was my friend Nana, asking if I’d like to get together for dinner.

“I’m sorry,” I told her. “I’m not eating out until I’ve bought all the Ozu DVD Box Sets.”

“It can be my treat,” she replied. “You sound like you need cheering up. But I’ve been teaching yoga so I’m only half-decent.”

Half an hour later I heard the front gate open and there was Nana, looking cool and elegant—and at least three-quarters-decent—in her yoga outfit.

My cat, Reimi“Let me quickly say hello to Reimi-chan.”

Reimi had walked down the hallway then stopped, stretched out her front paws, and arched her back. With typically supple grace, Nana eased onto the carpet and mimicked Reimi, who responded by licking Nana’s face and pressing against her chest.

“You can rub my boobs,” Nana told her, “because you’re a girl.”

Then we were sitting in an Italian restaurant not far from my house, deciding what to eat. We chatted about Nana’s work and her (extremely complex) love life, about Japanese painting and Ozu’s movies (both too sad, said Nana, who prefers happy things), about mutual friends. She taught me how to send SMS text messages with my new mobile phone. We didn’t discuss the war in Iraq. Three hours slipped by in an instant before I walked Nana back to her car.

The next morning, when I woke up, it occurred to me that lately I’ve been starved of female energy, that it’s not healthy for a man to forgo the company of women. But, reflecting on Teresa’s comment, I realized that it wasn’t so straightforward, that spending three hours with Nana’s introverted doppelganger wouldn’t have done me nearly as much good. I realize now how mistaken I was to respond like this to Liz Lawley’s extroversion post:

I realized that I’ve often wondered about what it might be like for an introvert to be married to (or in a relationship with) an off-the-scale extrovert. No offence to Liz, or any other extrovert, but I think I’d rather spend eternity having my fingernails pulled out. At the very least, it seems to be a recipe for unendurable torment on both sides.

My apologies to Liz. For I’ve come to the belated understanding that introverts need extroverts (albeit in carefully calibrated quantities). And who knows, maybe the inverse might also be true.

Which brings us back to Teresa’s quandary:

I really could use some direction. My guy is introvert from the word go and I am an extrovert. Seriously! We have a wonderful relationship. He is a wonderful person but, I have trouble dealing with him not being social when I am. Everything I have read leads me to believe this is normal and I being an extrovert will feel rejected. I don’t want to feel this way. I could use some advice on how to deal with his alone time without feeling rejected or ignored. I want to understand who he is.

We’ll first need to ignore the irony of Teresa’s asking advice from someone who, had he not squandered more chances than he deserved, might well be sharing a life (instead of an occasional dinner) with a woman as warm, smart, generous, beautiful, and sexy as Nana. (I’m reminded of computer pioneer Alan Kay’s quip about consultants, which brought down the house at his Macworld keynote in 1988. “Isn’t a consultant,” asked Kay, “someone who can tell you a hundred different ways to fuck but doesn’t have a girlfriend?”)

Although Language Hat was right in saying “You just have to accept him the way he is”, I’m convinced that it cuts both ways, that he has to accept you the way you are, as well. If I were in your situation, here’s what I’d do:

  • Every day make the effort to show him (not tell him) how lucky he is to be with you.
  • Accept that, as Language Hat says, when he appears to be distant, he’s still connected to you.
  • Buy a book about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and read it, then ask your boyfriend to read it too (Keirsey and Bates’ Please Understand Me or Kroeger and Thuesen’s Type Talk are both good). A long time ago, while researching the MBTI for a magazine article, I attended a Myers-Briggs couples workshop during which, over and over again, individuals experienced the most profound relief at gaining some insight into their partner’s behavior.
  • Ignore those who knock the Myers-Briggs model, at least until you no longer feel rejected or ignored and he no longer feels harrassed about being unsociable.
  • Find out the maximum number of people he’s comfortable spending a few hours with and organize some social activities within that constraint.
  • Let go of the idea that you have to do everything together. Spend time with your extroverted friends while he’s happily reading and thinking, alone.
  • Ask your question again, but this time ask an expert, by adding it to Liz Lawley’s post, an extrovert speaks (quelle surprise!). Liz is a classic extrovert, happily married (for ten years!) to a classic introvert. Listen to the voice of experience.

As for me, now that I’ve finished The Dark Valley, I’m about to start—at Dave Rogers’ suggestion—Philosophers of Nothingness. Some people never learn, you may be thinking. But that’s not true. I’ve relaxed my policy about not eating out, even if it means waiting a few more months to buy all the Ozu DVDs. So if I find myself falling into a blue funk, or suffering an attack of what Holly Golightly called the “mean reds”, I can SMS a friend and say:

R U OK 4 DINR L8R 2NITE? MY TREAT.

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Saturday 08 November 2003

Grab some books and run

Via Joe Duemer comes a challenge from Everything Burns: an oppressive regime has taken control of your country and you have to cut and run. After packing the essentials, you have room for 7 or 8 books and 5 minutes to choose them. The books must be in your possession at the time you take the digital photo showing your choices.

I thought briefly about books in English I’d take but most of them were translations from Japanese originals. I knew I’d need a kanji dictionary to look up characters and compound words but, as you can see from the three dictionaries in the background of my photo, a useful dictionary is enormous. So, after reading the rules carefully again and noting that you were expected to have packed a flashlight, I decided to take my Sony Data Discman with Jack Halpern’s New Japanese-English Character Dictionary on an 8cm CD-ROM, plus an ample supply of batteries. And, because the standard Japanese (bunkobon) paperback format is so small, I could choose 7 titles, even though 2 of them come in multiple volumes.

A stack of Japanese novels with an electronic dictionary

My choices:

  • Kokoro, Natsume Sōseki
  • An’ya Kōro (A Dark Night’s Passing), Shiga Naoya
  • Bokutō Kidan (A Strange Tale from East of the River), Nagai Kafū
  • Sasame Yuki (The Makioka Sisters), Tanizaki Jun’ichirō
  • Yōji kari•Kani (Toddler Hunting•Crabs), Kōno Taeko
  • Onnazakari (A Mature Woman), Maruya Saiichi
  • Noruwei no mori (Norwegian Wood), Murakami Haruki

I’d like to have added at least one Japanese translation of an Arsène Lupin novel but I couldn’t manage a trip to Kinokuniya within the allotted 5 minutes. I heard about Arsène Lupin via Language Hat’s link to a marvellous post at Canticlysm in which Emeth explained how she learned Japanese by the Reading 400 Mystery Novels in Eighteen Months method. That reminded me of one of my Japanese teachers who’d learned English in Australia by watching game shows on TV and reading Agatha Christie novels (because the grammar and vocabulary were simple). When I checked at Amazon Japan, there were well over a hundred Agatha Christie mysteries in Japanese including Soshite dare mo inaku natta (And Then There Were None). I haven’t read a mystery novel in years but now might be the time to start again.

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Thursday 20 November 2003

Preaching to the converted

A couple of Blogarian colleagues, whose powers of perception are otherwise acute, have mistakenly suggested a pharmacological cause for my recent lull in activity. In the comments on Language Hat’s pointer to Cor Kwant’s gingko site, msg wrote:

Ginkgo supplements for cognitive enhancement: daily use seems to be counter-productive, some kind of mineral depletion probably.
Every three days or so seems to be about it, for my metabolism.

To which Language Hat replied:

Aha, that explains why you haven’t been posting lately, Jonathon!

In the same spirit, this morning Burningbird left a comment on my MegaMemory™ post:

Jonathon, did you forget to blog?

Although I’ve certainly been preoccupied, I’m sure it’s not the MegaMemory™ pills that have had such a drastic effect on my output. One reason is that I’ve been reading a lot, and thinking a lot—as we introverts do—and writing a lot too, then finding myself reluctant to publish what I’ve written. Mainly, I suspect, because of Dave Rogers’ entry about his increasing reluctance to “speak up”. I tried unsuccessfully to summarize Dave’s insights so I trust he won’t mind my quoting his entire post:

I find I have less to say about things these days. Often I feel the familiar urge to say something, but now I’m as likely to keep quiet as I am to speak up. This bothers me a little, because I’ve always felt it was important to speak up when you felt strongly about something. Now I’m not so sure about that.

Sometimes the urge to speak up is the result of habituated thinking, a conditioned response. Someone writes something that triggers an emotional response, certain automatic behaviors kick in, and before I know it I’m writing some kind of negative response. I can’t think of a case where it did any particular good. I get to feel a bit of an adrenaline rush from the experience, and maybe a couple of people agree with me and I get a little validation; but most of the time, the target of my ire and indignation is unaffected. There is no change of opinion, no reevaluation of position. It’s all energy expended to no good end, other than perhaps to stimulate the already persuaded and generate a little titillation for the folks who like to watch. I also can’t recall a case when, finding myself on the receiving end, I’ve altered my point of view; especially if it was something I cared enough about to have an opinion that was likely to provoke that kind of response.

I suppose this is a kind of self-censorship, but I think it’s a good thing. One person’s self-censorship is another person’s self-discipline perhaps. Just as I’ve learned to pay attention to what’s going on inside my own mind when I’m behind the wheel, becoming a calmer and safer driver in the process, I’m learning to pay attention not just to what I write, but why I want to write it.

I’ve been working for a long time on a couple of related entries: about George W. Bush’s aircraft carrier stunt and the Private Jessica Lynch debacle. Obviously I’m convinced that I have something interesting to say about these subjects—despite the fact that both topics have been covered exhaustively by mainstream journalists and webloggers alike. What has held me back is a strong aversion to preaching to the converted, an aversion based on Lisette Model’s philosophy of photography (quoted in the Patricia Bosworth biography of Diane Arbus):

Photography is not about preaching a truth, rather it’s about discovering a truth.

The camera is an instrument of detection… when I point my camera at something I am asking a question and the photograph is sometimes an answer… In other words, I am not trying to prove anything. I am the one who is getting the lesson.

Model’s theory of photography translates easily to any form of endeavor, not just to aesthetic practice but also to how one approaches relationships or work or everyday life: with an attitude of curiosity, not certainty.

I suspect it might still be possible for me to write about George W. Bush and Pvt. Lynch but I’d need to eliminate the snarky tone that runs through what I’ve written so far. (I hasten to mention that, although I have a visceral hostility towards Bush and everything he represents, I feel only sympathy for Pvt. Lynch, who is a casualty many times over.)

All this was running through my mind when I read Jeff Ward’s post about Walter Benjamin’s May 1940 letter to Theodor Adorno, in which Benjamin outlined his hopes for starting work on a new project, despite his desperate need to stay one step ahead of the Nazis.

Within a few months Benjamin was dead. I cried when I read the letter, so full of ideas that were never completed. I thought about these fragments, and hoped that I might someday connect them. I get up each day and work, and hope that the Bush nazis will be deposed and my work will continue without interruption. There is a problem with projecting yourself onto tragic figures. It makes you no fun at parties at all.

Jeff’s final paragraph provoked in me a mixture of sadness, anger, and empathy. Sadness for Benjamin whose peerless criticism I’ve always admired, anger at the Bush cabal for their vicious assault on almost everything I value, and empathy with a kindred spirit who simply wants the nightmare to end so he can work without interruption.

Needless to say, Jeff’s characterization of the Bush clique as “nazis” provoked a response:

If there is one universal talent amoung human beings it is the talent (if you can call it that) for fooling ourselves, for believing what we want to believe. It’s not limited to only one side of the political fence. Those who refuse to look at Bush’s faults are as guilty as those who compare Bush to Hitler. Our current president, like those who came before him, is neither a saint nor a monster. He’s just an imperfect human, with his own natural biases, trying to do the world’s hardest job in the world’s biggest fish-bowl.

The great thing about America is that we are free to say whatever we think, no matter how ridiculous it is. We should criticize our leaders - when the criticism stops, then I will be worried - but the only useful criticism is that which originates in the here and now.

Well, actually, no. This is not an accusation made by the kind of idiot leftist who flings epithets like “Nazi” and “Fascist” at anyone slightly to the right of Stalin. The comparison with Hitler and the Nazis is apt, as Jeff Ward persuasively argues in a subsequent post. Your current president—admittedly neither a saint nor a monster—is however a corrupt, hypocritical imposter. And the most useful criticism is not that which “originates in the here and now” but rather that which draws on the experience of the past to better illuminate the “here and now”.

For those who doubt the similarities between the Bush administration and the totalitarian forces that came to power during the Thirties in Germany, Italy, Russia, and Japan, I can only say “Come back after you’ve read Piers Brendon’s The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 30s from cover to cover. Then we can talk some more.” A few weeks ago I sent a copy to a friend. This morning he emailed me, saying: “I’m on the penultimate chapter, “Nippon in China” — and I keep noticing echoes all around me.”

In the introduction, Brendon states the main theme of his book: the manipulation of perception and the distortion of reality.

Propaganda became part of the air people breathed during the 1930s. All the major occurrences of the day were the subject of organised deception which ranged from the big, amplified lie to a delicate economy with the truth. Moreover, many public spectacles were specifically mounted and choreographed with propagandist intent. King George V’s Silver Jubilee celebrations and his son’s coronation were a democratic riposte to Hitler’s barbaric pageants at Nuremberg. Stalin’s purge trials dramatised a new kind of tyranny. Mussolini’s aerial circuses advertised the virility of Fascism. The unveiling of countless war memorials in France not only marked the nation’s immense sacrifice but stressed its incapacity to face another blood-letting. Hollywood created celluloid myths to banish the Depression and affirm the New Deal. The machinations behind the scenes were at least as important as the performances acted out on the stage.

Of course, to lie is human and deceit has always been the element in which politicians, more than most people, live—their salamander’s fire. “Lord, lord,” said Falstaff, “how this world is given to lying!” Similarly the manufacture of illusion has invariably been part of the business of government. Rulers as remote as Rameses II, Augustus Caesar and Louis XIV have exemplified Montesquieu’s dictum that the splendour surrounding monarchs forms part of their might. Yet the Depression years witnessed the dissemination of falsehood on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Never had science and art so combined to promote earthly powers. Goebbels and others developed novel techniques of thought control. New media such as radio and talking pictures were mobilised to sway the masses. Leaders used aircraft to grab the limelight and they emblazoned their messages on the sky. Dictators imposed their version of the truth by means of dogma and terror. They created new cults and persecuted unbelievers. Russia and Germany, and to a lesser extent Italy and Japan, had their own reality. Facts were moulded like plasticine into the approved shape, whether Communist, Aryan, Fascist or imperial.

The defining characteristic of Bush and his administration is the gap between their words and their actions. Yet, despite the fact that Bush’s entire political agenda is built upon a foundation of manipulation and deceit, he manages to evade the consequences of his actions—as Ray Davis explains in his entry titled Causal Fallacy:

To a more extreme extent than we’ve ever known before (the bloated Republican puppets of the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties being more openly pulled by the strings of their puppet-masters), the United States is under the power of the 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.

To which I would add that Bush is the allegedly devout Christian who, far from driving the money-changers from the temple, has instead encouraged their rapacity whilst facilitating the relentless destruction of the natural environment that is, for Christians of his fundamentalist ilk, God’s own creation.

Louis Menand, in a New Yorker article titled The Devil’s Disciples, quotes Hannah Arendt’s belief that “totalitarian rule… is predicated on the assumption that proving that a thing is true is less effective than acting as though it were true. The Nazis did not invite a discussion of the merits of anti-Semitism; they simply acted out its consequences”.

For Bush & Co, finding evidence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction or establishing a plausible link between Saddam and Osama bin Laden or proving that Saddam was in a position to supply weapons of mass destruction to terrorists was less effective than simply acting as though all of those dubious assertions were true.

Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin’s cousin by marriage and a pupil of Martin Heidegger, established her reputation as a political theorist with her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she argued that Fascism and Communism are regimes of essentially the same type, with shared origins in 19th century anti-Semitism, imperialism, and nationalism, as well as a methodology based upon the systematic deployment of terror. Menand explains that Arendt was interested in the politics of totalitarianism,

…but she was also interested in the metaphysics, in totalitarianism as a mode of being in the world. Terror, she argued, may be experienced as arbitrary, but it is not arbitrary and it is not lawless. Every despot exercises power arbitrarily; all dictators are outside the law. The distinctive feature of totalitarian societies is that everyone, including (in theory, anyway) the dictator, can be sacrificed in the name of a superhuman law, a law of nature or a law of history. “Totalitarianism strives not toward despotic rule over men but toward a system in which men are superfluous,” she said. In Nazism, everyone is subordinate to the race war; in Bolshevism, to the class struggle. Man-made laws and political institutions are temporary shelters for vested interests, to be flattened by the winds of destiny. And the winds never cease. Hitler did not talk in terms of his own lifetime. He talked in terms of “the next thousand years.”

“In Nazism, everyone is subordinate to the race war; in Bolshevism, to the class struggle.” And, under Bush, everyone is subordinate to the war on terror. As he boasts of bringing “freedom” to the people of Iraq, a majority of Americans meekly succumb to his sustained attack on the freedoms he swore to uphold and protect.

Like Jeff Ward, I wake up hoping that the Bush nazis will be deposed so that my work can continue without interruption… but I have little optimism that this will happen. For all his rhetoric about liberating Iraq, it’s clear that Bush’s overriding concern is maintaining his grip on power. His exit strategy from Iraq will turn out to be no more principled than, in Joe Duemer’s words, “Nixon’s (non-existent) ‘secret plan’ to end the Vietnam war”. I agree with Joe that there isn’t “any realistic choice in Iraq but to stay—to stay while doing everything possible to internationalize the occupation under NATO & the UN.”

The war in Iraq was unnecessary & like the war in Vietnam was fought for domestic political purposes; the problem is that when geniuses like McNamara & Perle come to recognize their intellectual & theoretical limitations, it is already too late to avoid the debt of responsibility that genius & intellect & theory has incurred. In for a dime in for a dollar.

But that debt of responsiblility won’t be paid by Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, Perle, Wolfowitz or any other members of the consequence-free elite. The debt will be paid by all of us, Americans or not, for years to come.

I apologize for doing exactly what I promised not to do: preaching to the converted. This was not the post I set out to write. Yet, as Brecht understood, “production is the unforeseeable. You never know what’s going to come out.”

I particularly apologize to Dave Rogers, for citing then ignoring what I still believe to be the best course of action when faced with the temptation to write about politics. I don’t think this post will do any particular good. I didn’t get any adrenaline rush and, even if a couple of people agree with me, I’m indifferent to whatever validation I may get. The targets of my ire and indignation will be unaffected. There will be no change of opinion, no reevaluation of position. It was all energy expended to no good end, other than perhaps to stimulate the already persuaded while irritating those who are convinced that people like Jeff Ward and myself are “fooling ourselves”.

But, as Jeff himself said, “I just had to get this out of my system”.

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Friday 21 November 2003

Which border fits best?

The other reason for my recent lull in activity is that, having started to give my house a belated spring cleaning, I then decided to give my weblog a minor makeover. I still like the overall design so I didn’t want to fuss with it too much. But a few months ago I switched to a 19-inch CRT monitor and the additional pixels meant a lot more empty white space on the right. Given that the increasing popularity of LCD displays—a standard 17-inch model has a resolution of 1280 x 1024 pixels—means more pixels for more people, I decided to replace the left-aligned page design with a centered design.

I modified my Movable Type templates and stylesheets and came up with a design that enclosed both the links and the content regions with a red border. I’ll call this the “Border on Sidebar Plus Content” design (shown below, on the left).

New site design with border on sidebar plus contentNew site design with border on sidebar only
Click on either graphic to see the actual web page

However, it worried me that this design was a little too rigidly geometrical. I’m not sure that the right-hand border is appropriate for text with a right-ragged margin. (Justifying the text might solve this problem but it creates another: I think justified web text looks terrible because HTML/CSS lacks support for the hypenation and justification controls that page layout programs use to eliminate the rivers of white space in justified but unhyphenated text.)

Something else that troubles me about the “Border on Sidebar Plus Content” design is that the empty gray sidebar extends to the bottom of the red box and, on a long page, this looks odd. (Only write short weblog entries, you might say, but if I had to do that I’d probably give up blogging.)

So I came up with an alternative that I’ll call the “Border on Sidebar Only” design (shown above, on the right), which addresses the problems I perceived in the “Border on Sidebar Plus Content” design.

Now, since I’m too close to it all, I’ve decided to follow Mark Pilgrim’s example by asking for feedback on the two designs (I’m not interested in suggestions for alternate designs since I have neither the time nor the inclination to do any more work on the templates and stylesheets).

If you’re willing to check out the two designs—make sure you scroll to the bottom of each page—perhaps you’ll leave a comment stating why you prefer one design over the other.

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Sunday 23 November 2003

Vicissitudes

Thanks to Natsuko I learned some new words yesterday, including:

  • haggler (huckster, cadger)
  • wold (formerly-wooded hilly tracts in certain regions of England)
  • lath (a thin flat strip of wood)
  • black-pot (a beer mug, a toper; though I suspect, in this context, a kind of food, perhaps leftovers; no, as Language Hat explains in his comment, it’s black pudding i.e. congealed pig’s blood in a length of intestine)
  • chitterling (fried smaller intestines of a pig)
  • vamp (to make one’s way on foot; to tramp or trudge).

Natusko comes to my place for breakfast most Saturday mornings, then borrows the car for the rest of the day. It was her idea that we should help each other with our reading—hers in English, mine in Japanese—after I asked her last week to explain a sentence construction in an Akutagawa story called Hana (Nose). I had known Akutagawa only as the author of the stories upon which Kurosawa’s film Rashomon was based. But Natsuko was, of course, familiar with Akutagawa’s story of a priest with an excessively long nose, who is delighted to have it shortened only to be then disappointed by the negative response to his good fortune.

We’d agreed to start with English, which is how, once I’d cleared away the breakfast dishes, I came to be sitting at the living room table with my own copy of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles as Natsuko, comfortably ensconced on the sofa, read from hers.

“Then what might your meaning be in calling me ‘Sir John’ these different times, when I be plain Jack Durbeyfield, the haggler.” Natsuko paused. “What’s haggler?”

“It’s normally a customer who argues to get the price of something reduced but that doesn’t make sense here.” I went to my study and came back with the dictionary, which revealed that an older meaning is ‘huckster’ or ‘cadger’.

“What’s huckster and cadger?” Natsuko asked.

I flipped through the “H” section, from ‘haggler’ to ‘huckster’, thankful that twenty-five years ago I’d bought a copy of the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles.

“A huckster can mean someone who bargains or haggles but it can also mean a small trader… now, this is better. A cadger is a carrier who travels between town and country with butter, eggs, and shop-wares or someone who sells things in the street. That makes sense because Jack Durbeyfield is carrying an empty egg basket when he meets the parson.”

Natsuko continued reading. I explained the meanings of “whim”, “antiquary”, “direct lineal representative”, “Knights Hospitallers”, and “baronetcy”.

Cover of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles“I’m wondering why you chose this book,” I told her, as I was looking up “wold”.

“Well, you know I’m trying to save money,” she replied. “I already had a copy on my shelf and classics are cheaper than contemporary books because there’s no royalty to pay the author. The one I bought for you was only $7.95 at Kinokuniya but a modern book would cost about $20. Why do you ask that?”

“To be honest, I hadn’t thought about it until we struck all these words I’d never heard of. I suppose I was thinking that a more modern book might be easier to start with.”

(Although my ambition is to read Kafū and Tanizaki in Japanese, at the rate my Japanese reading skills are improving I’ll be thrilled if I can finish the Japanese translation of an Agatha Christie novel.)

“But I like this author,” she said. “When I was living in Seattle, I read Far from the Madding Crowd and it made me cry. Reading Thomas Hardy gives me the same feelings I used to have when I read Yamamoto Shūgorō as a teenager.”

Natsuko wasn’t surprised that I’d never heard of Yamamoto Shūgorō.

“You only know about literary writers,” she said, a trace impatiently, “like Kawabata and Tanizaki and Enchi Fumiko. Yamamoto Shūgorō was a taishū writer. He wrote all kinds of books—frequently about the common people but also detective and samurai stories as well as jidai-mono.”

Taishū (大衆) means “general public” and taishū bungaku is popular literature (though I imagine that Yamamoto Shūgorō is a cut or two above Agatha Christie). Jidai-mono are historical novels.

“In any case,” Natsuko added, “I think it’s better to read a classic novel. If you can understand the classics, then you can understand contemporary books. But not the other way round.”

She was right, of course. You won’t encounter too many “lath-like striplings” in a John Grisham novel. Natsuko started reading again.

“The clergyman explained that, as far as he was aware, it had quite died out of knowledge, and could hardly be said to be known at all. His own investigations had begun on a day in the preceding spring when, having been engaged in tracing the vicissitudes of the D’Urberville family, he had observed Durbeyfield’s name on his waggon, and had thereupon been led to make inquiries, till he had no doubt on the subject.”

I’d expected her to stumble over “vicissitudes” as she had over a number of other uncommon words; but, to my delight, she pronounced it perfectly.

“What is this ‘vicissitudes’?” she asked.

“It means that someone’s situation changes,” I explained, “often in an unexpected or unpleasant way. They might be doing well and then things turn bad… people often talk about ‘life’s vicissitudes’, meaning life’s ups and downs.”

Natsuko thought for a while, then said: “Like ‘the vicissitudes of George Bush’? He barely won the election, then after September the 11th he became very popular but now, with the problems in Iraq, his popularity is falling.”

“That’s pretty much it.”

“I like this word, ‘vicissitudes’,” she said. “If I use words like this, people will think I’m educated.”

“People can already tell you are educated,” I told her, “whether or not you use words like ‘vicissitudes’.”

How strange, I thought to myself, that I’d read almost all of the eighteenth and nineteenth century classic English novels but nothing by Thomas Hardy. I haven’t even seen Polanski’s movie, Tess.

Natsuko reached the end of the first chapter, put down the book, and picked up the photocopy I’d made of Akutagawa’s story—Kinokuniya hadn’t had any copies of Dondon yomeru: iro-iro na hanashi (Selected Stories for Steadily Improving Your Reading).

“Now it’s your turn,” she said.

“OK,” I replied, “Here we go… Ike-no-o no hitotachi wa, minna naigu no hana no koto o shitte ita. Sono hana wa, nagasa jū hachi senchi kurai de, sōsēji no yō na katachi o shite, kao no mannaka ni burasaggate ita.

(“Everyone in Ike-no-o knew about the distinguished priest’s nose. About eighteen centimeters long and shaped like a sausage, it dangled down the center of his face…”)

Natsuko interrupted, saying “Interesting that you chose this story, isn’t it? About the vicissitudes of a monk with a long nose.”

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour