Monday 04 February 2002


Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep,
He hath awaken’d from the dream of life;
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife
Invulnerable nothings. We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.

Shelley, Adonais: an Elegy on the Death of John Keats


Wednesday 13 February 2002

Relieve that man of his shovel!

Not content with digging himself into a hole, Caleb Carr does his best to deepen it.


Friday 01 March 2002

Bozo marketing

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

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

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

What happened to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday 09 March 2002

Let Us Now Praise the Art of Digression

At Visible Darkness, Jeff Ward offers a lament:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeff adds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeff resigns himself to The Rambler’s Way:

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday 12 March 2002

Visions of Japhy

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

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

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

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

That’s not how it happened.

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

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

Gary Snyder: Cold MountainPoems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday 15 March 2002

Cold Mountain Poems

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

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

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

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

This translation is by Burton Watson:

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

This one by Gary Snyder:

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


Wednesday 20 March 2002

A Symposium on W.G. Sebald

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

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

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

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

(link via wood s lot)

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Monday 25 March 2002

The tyranny of colonization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday 31 March 2002

Ladies in Rivalry

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

The Murasaki Shikibu Diary (translated by Ivan Morris)

Murasaki Shikibu

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

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

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

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

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

Sei Shonagon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday 29 April 2002

What Makes Sammy Run

Budd Schulberg: What Makes Sammy RunIn this extraordinary novel, acclaimed screenwriter of On the Waterfront, Budd Schulberg manages to be simultaneously ruthless and sympathetic towards Sammy Glick, who represents not just the archetypal Hollywood hustler but the kind of callous go-getter we’ve probably all run into at some point in our lives. I count myself lucky to have encountered only one Sammy.

But Schulberg is also pretty sharp in depicting female psychology. In one marvellous passage, he offers a persuasive answer to the age-old question of why intelligent, attractive women are frequently attracted to assholes. The narrator, Al Manheim, has asked Kit, the woman he loves who has rejected his advances, why she sleeps with Sammy Glick:

“Okay, pal,” she said. “But don’t blame me if it makes you sore. As you probably guessed, our little corporal is pretty damn good in bed. Sex hasn’t much to do with friendship or love or any other of those virtuous relationships. Most people know that, but they don’t like to admit it. Well, the first day Sammy came into my office to save California from annexing itself to Russia, I was ready to tear him limb from limb and at the same time I had this crazy desire to know what it felt like to have all that driving ambition and frenzy and violence inside me.”

In some circles, this is known as chick logic.

Late last year Dreamworks, as part of a three-year deal with Ben Stiller, paid Warner Bros. US$2.6 million to import Stiller’s adaptation of What Makes Sammy Run, which the actor will both star in and direct. This is what’s called a delicious irony, since David Geffen — who, along with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, owns Dreamworks — is commonly regarded as the greatest Glick of all.



aphorism n. a pithy observation which contains a general truth.


It matters not whether it’s a black cat or a white cat; if it catches mice, it’s a good cat. (Deng Xiaoping)

The Democrats always want a small army, but want to send it everywhere, while the Republicans want a very big army and don’t want to use it at all. (Bruce Herschensohn) [For universal application, substitute “liberals” and “conservatives” respectively.]


Philosophy appears to concern itself only with the truth, but perhaps expresses only fantasies, while literature appears to concern itself only with fantasies, but perhaps it expresses the truth. (Antonio Tabucchi, Pereira Declares)

Somebody wants something badly and is having difficulty getting it. (Frank Daniel)

All drama is conflict. Without conflict, you have no character; without character, you have no action. Without action, you have no story, and without story, you have no screenplay. (Syd Field)

In the Gnostic gospels it says that if you reveal what’s inside you, what’s inside you will save you. If you don’t, it will destroy you. (Harvey Keitel)

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

Happy people have no stories. (Louise Bourgeois)

I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written on it. (William Faulkner)


Monday 06 May 2002

Heian women’s writing

During the entire Heian period… Chinese remained the language of scholars, priests, and officials, occupying a role analogous to that of Latin in the West. Despite the steady emancipation from foreign tutelage, Chinese characters retained their overwhelming prestige and were the exclusive medium for any serious form of writing among men.

Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince

Upper-class Heian women were actively discouraged from learning to read and write in Chinese, no doubt to ensure that they posed no threat to male political dominance (although, as Morris points out, not until a thousand years later, after the Pacific War, would the status of Japanese women improve beyond that of their Heian ancestors).

In her diary, Murasaki Shikibu recounts that she would listen as her younger brother was learning the Chinese classics and that she

became unusually proficient at understanding those passages that he found too difficult to grasp and memorize. Father, a most learned man, was always regretting the fact: “Just my luck!” he would say. “What a pity she was not born a man.” But then I gradually realized that people were saying “It’s bad enough when a man flaunts his Chinese learning; she will come to no good,” and since then I have avoided writing the simplest character.

Even so, after her husband’s death in 1001, she continued to read the Chinese books that he had left in a cupboard “crammed to bursting point,” thereby attracting the disapproval of her servants. “‘It’s because she goes on like this that she is so miserable. What kind of lady is it who reads Chinese books?’ they whisper.”

This prohibition conferred on Heian women an unintended advantage since it left them free to write in vernacular Japanese, employing an early variant of the hiragana script, called onnade (women’s writing).

For a period of about 100 years, the main genres of classical Japanese literature — nikki (diaries), kiko (travel accounts), zuihitsu (essays), and monogatari (tales or romances) — were pioneered by women writers who, using a supposedly inferior writing system, mastered the difficult process of forging (in Richard Bowring’s words) “a flexible written style out of a language that [had] only previously existed in a spoken form.”

The Tale of Genji

Their writing speaks to us across the gulf of a thousand years with passion and immediacy, in works such as Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, the Izumi Shikibu Diary, the Gossamer Years, and the Lady Sarashina’s As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams.

Heian men persisted in writing in the Chinese-Japanese hybrid language which — as it was designed for the keeping of official records — was ill-suited to recording either spoken Japanese or the sad, sweet mysteries of everyday life. With one notable exception: Ki no Tsurayuki, a distinguished poet who adopted the persona of a woman to write the beautiful Tosa Diary in the hiragana script.

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Friday 10 May 2002

Intimate relations

My brief flirtation with Flaubert ended abruptly. Whatever interest I might have had in nineteenth century France or Frédéric Moreau’s unrequited love for Madame Arnoux could not withstand the gravitational pull of Heian (794-1185) Japan. So I’ve returned to my project of reading all three translations of The Tale of Genji (Waley, Seidensticker, and Tyler—chapter by chapter).

In the introduction to the first volume of Waley’s translation, he quotes Murasaki Shikibu’s diary to illustrate the intimacy of her relationships with other ladies in the Empress Akiko’s court:

It has often been observed that whereas in her commonplace book (the Makura no Soshi [Pillow Book]) Sei Shonagon scarcely so much as mentions the existence of the other ladies-in-waiting, Murasaki refers constantly to her companions, and to one of them at least she was evidently very strongly attached. Her great friend was Lady Saisho. ‘On my way back from the Empress’s rooms I peeped in at Saisho’s door. I had forgotten that she had been on duty at night and would now be having her morning sleep. She had thrown over her couch various dresses with bright-colored linings, and on top of them had spread a covering of beaten silk, lustrous and heavily scented with perfume. Her face was hidden under the clothes; but as she lay there, her head resting on a box-shaped writing-case, she looked so pretty that I could not help thinking of the little princesses in picture-books. I raised the clothes from her face and said to her: “You are like a girl in a story.” She turned her head and said sharply: “You lunatic! Could you not see I was asleep? You are too inconsiderate….” While she was saying this she half raised herself from her couch and looked up at me. Her face was flushed. I have never seen her so handsome. So it often is; even those whom we at all times admire will, upon some occasion, suddenly seem to us ten times more lovely than ever before.’

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Thursday 16 May 2002

The Waiting Years

Eleventh century written Japanese is so different from modern Japanese that a novel like The Tale of Genji must be translated for contemporary Japanese readers, as if into a foreign language. In the twentieth century this task was undertaken by the poetess Yosano Akiko and the novelists Tanizaki Junichiro and Enchi Fumiko.

As I become more deeply immersed in my project of reading the three English translations of Genji, I’m taking various side trips by reading Genji-related books such as Edward Seidensticker’s Genji Days and Enchi Fumiko’s A Tale of False Fortunes. The latter brought back memories of discovering Japanese literature.

A long time ago I realized that it would be years before I could achieve my dream of experiencing Japanese novels in Japanese; so I resolved to read whatever was available in English translation and—having purchased J. Thomas Rimer’s A Reader’s Guide to Japanese Literature—began to work my way systematically through the authors he suggested, reading anything I could find by Ogai, Soseki, Kafu, Shiga, Tanizaki, Ibuse, Kawabata, Inoue, Dazai, Endo, Mishima, Ariyoshi, and Oé, all the acknowledged masters of modern Japanese literature. And, with the exception of Ariyoshi Sawako, all men.

I would not understand until years later that, consciously or not, Rimer was following a long tradition in Japanese literary criticism which—using terms such as “joryu sakka” (woman writer) and “joryu bungaku” (women’s literature)—places most women writers in a separate (and implicitly inferior) category.

Book cover: Enchi Fumiko, The Waiting YearsI must have picked up Enchi Fumiko’s Onnazaka whilst searching for a rare title by the one of writers on Rimer’s list. After reading just a few pages I was at a loss to understand how or why he had excluded her. (She finally rates a mention, along with Kono Taeko, Hayashi Fumiko, and Uno Chiyo, in a later edition of Rimer’s book.)

To be sure, condensing modern Japanese literature into a list of twenty classical and thirty modern works is a close-to-impossible task but I could have easily nominated three or four books that Enchi’s novel deserved to displace.

Set in the Meiji period (1868-1912), Onnazaka was published in installments between 1952 and 1957 and translated by John Bester in 1971 as The Waiting Years. Onnazaka does not mean “the waiting years.” It’s a made-up word, constructed from the characters for “woman” and “hill” or “slope.” It conjures up an image of a woman struggling up an endless incline.

In the novel’s opening scene, Tomo, comes to Tokyo from the north of Japan to find the first of the concubines she will, during the course of her married life, be forced to procure for her husband Shirakawa, a wealthy bureaucrat.

“Should she refuse to accept the task it was almost certain that her husband would simply introduce into the family a woman chosen without consulting her. His leaving the choice to her was a sign of his trust, of the importance he attached, for the family’s sake, to her position.”

Such is Tomo’s devotion to her husband and his ie, or household, that she conceals her resentment of both her husband’s cruel infidelities and the patriarchal family system which makes her an accomplice in the exploitation of other women.

Enchi FumikoBased on stories told to Enchi Fumiko by her grandmother, The Waiting Years is an extraordinary book: beautifully written, filled with wisdom and compassion, sad beyond belief in its careful delineation of Tomo’s repressed emotions.

The year after the English version was published, Enchi Fumiko commenced work on her translation of The Tale of Genji.

As it happened, my former girlfriend Natsuko was reading Enchi Fumiko’s Genji when we first started seeing each other. She’d had to study the novel in high school, much as Western children have to read Shakespeare, and her schoolgirl memory was that it was etchi (lewd or obscene).

We used to sleep late on Sunday mornings: making love, eating breakfast in bed, and reading books or newspapers.

“I must have been so naïve then,” Natsuko said one such morning, balancing Genji on her knees as she tore off a piece of croissant and dipped it in her coffee. “To think Genji was etchi just because it’s about a man who has lots of affairs.”

I thought about Hikaru Genji, the Shining Prince, with his many wives and mistresses; and about Tomo’s husband Shirakawa in The Waiting Years.

A few weeks later in the Kinokuniya bookstore, I found a copy of Onnazaka in the Women’s Literature section and bought it for Natsuko. On the train home I slowly turned the pages and scanned up and down the columns of characters, occasionally encountering a kanji I could understand, wishing with all my heart that I could read Japanese properly, that I could connect directly with Enchi Fumiko’s prose.

Natsuko loved getting presents and she responded as she always did: by wrapping her arms around me and whispering a thank-you in my ear. But the book sat on the shelf for months until one Sunday she plucked it off the shelf on her way back to bed with our coffee.

She finished Onnazaka within a matter of days and when I asked her how she’d liked it, she simply said it was omoshiroi, an adjective that like its English equivalent—interesting—can mean almost anything at all.

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Saturday 18 May 2002

Demanding certainty

A month or so ago, prompted by an article in Salon, I re-read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I’ve been intending to write about the article and its relationship to certain of Kundera’s ideas but have decided to hold back, now that Loren Webster and Diane McCormick have commenced a typically thorough and engaging explication of Kundera’s novel.

In the meantime, I’m beginning to think I’ve made a grave mistake in renting the video of Philip Kaufman’s film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, though I’ll endeavor to sit though the entire 165 minutes before offering an opinion. The only pleasure so far has been watching Juliette Binoche, who plays Tereza.

In his essay of May 17, Loren notes that Tereza, took photographs of her fellow Czech citizens defiantly confronting the Russian invaders. Initially proud that her pictures were used by the Western press to show the courage of the Czechs, Tereza is later dismayed to learn that the Russians have used them to track down those who took part in the demonstrations.

After asking “So, did she make a mistake in taking the pictures? How could one ever judge?” Loren writes:

Perhaps more importantly, we have to realize that we are inevitably going to make mistakes in our own personal lives. To err, lest we happen to forget, is human. The hardest part is to admit those mistakes and then to learn to forgive ourselves for making them. The best we can do is to trust to the best part of ourselves, our compassion, and to make the decisions that have to be made. We have no right to demand a certainty from ourselves that is impossible to attain.

Nor, might I add, do we have the right to demand a certainty from others that is impossible to bestow.

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Wednesday 12 June 2002

Identity in 11th century Japan

AKMA wrote about identity:

some (“many”? “most”?) of us know people online whom we have grown to trust and (I dare say) love—without ever having encountered them in physical space. That trust and that affection may be ill-founded, but it’s real. This surely implies something about the “reality” of physical space relative to online interaction.

A scene from Chapter Four (Utsusemi) of the Tale of GenjiIn Heian Japan it was possible to conduct a relationship in physical space which was almost as insubstantial as many online interactions, since social relations—even between equals—were not always conducted face-to-face but rather via intermediaries. Screens, curtains, and blinds were also used to establish an appropriate distance as well as to shield the ladies of the house from prying eyes. As Royall Tyler explains in the introduction to his translation of The Tale of Genji:

This is particularly striking in scenes of courtship. In many the man complains about having to talk to the woman through one of her gentlewomen. Of course, he cannot see her, and he may have no idea what she looks like. He will not normally see her even if she speaks to him in her own voice, since she will still be in another room, behind a blind and a curtain, and the curtain will remain even if she allows him into the room where she is. If he then takes it upon himself to brush her curtain aside and go straight to her, he will by that gesture alone have claimed something close to the final intimacy.

Obviously these ethereal relationships were not always brought to resolution. In the Fireflies chapter of Genji, Prince Hotaru sits outside the girl Tamakazura’s screen, making an impassioned declaration of love, “only to be informed by a lady-in-waiting that Tamakazura has long since retired to the inner room and that he has been talking into thin air.” (Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince)

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Wednesday 19 June 2002

Anger and resentment

Mark Woods posted “some quotes taken from an old, barely legible holographic commonplace book of mine dating from the early seventies.” Among them was one by Robert Musil:

One can’t be angry with one’s own time without damage to one’s self.

I couldn’t help thinking of a statement by Kamo no Chomei, author of Hojoki (An Account of My Hut):

If I had not deeply resented the society I lived in, the darkness of this fleeting world would not have become illuminated for me.

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Friday 28 June 2002

Narrative structure in The Tale of Genji

Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of GenjiThe Tale of Genji tells the story of the life and loves of Genji, the Shining Prince (so-called because he is artistically gifted, intelligent, and irresistible to women) and then of Kaoru, supposedly Genji’s son but actually the grandson of his best friend.

Written one thousand years ago by Murasaki Shikibu, an attendant to one of the imperial consorts in Heian Kyo (now Kyoto), the Genji is widely regarded as the world’s first psychological novel, with hundreds of skillfully delineated characters woven into a narrative constructed upon a series of unifying themes such as political power, ideals of feminine beauty, and the Buddhist belief in the impermanence of all things.

The Tale of Genji: The Paulownia PavilionInevitably, The Tale of Genji has been a popular subject for Japanese painters, particularly those of the Tosa school, which specialized in courtly themes and scenes from the literary classics. This painting, depicting the first chapter of Genji, is from an illustrated volume from the Tosa school containing one scene for each of the book’s 54 chapters.

It shows Genji, the emperor, the emperor’s new mistress Fujitsubo (with whom Genji will have an affair and a child), and the Princess Aoi whom Genji will marry for political reasons.

The Tale of Genji: The Broom TreeThe second chapter introduces one of the main themes of the novel: types of femininity and the qualities of an ideal woman. Genji and three companions regale each other through a night with anecdotes of women they have known and loved, describing somewhat clinically each woman’s faults and virtues.

Genji’s friend To-no-Chujo tells of a lover who bore him a daughter but who, ironically, lost his affection through being too meek and accommodating. The ideal woman, they conclude, “does not try to display her scanty knowledge in full,” nor does she “scribble off Chinese characters,” rather she shows taste and restraint and is prepared to “feign a little ignorance.”

The Tale of Genji: The Twilight BeautyIn this scene, Genji is on his way to visit his dying nursemaid when he and his companions stop at a nearby house to admire some flowers (called yugao—evening faces). A young girl comes out of the house with a scented fan on which Genji can take a flower to his nursemaid.

Genji hears about a lady living in the Yugao house and resolves to have her. He takes her away to another house where, that night, he dreams of a jealous lover and wakes to find the Yugao lady dead beside him. It later transpires that she was, in fact, To-no-Chujo’s mistress, the mother of his daughter.

The Tale of Genji: The Cicada ShellHere we seen Genji spying on the lady Utsusemi as she plays go, a Japanese board game, with a female companion, identified later in the story as Nokiba-no-ogi. Genji has come to seduce Utsusemi but she resists his entreaties and disappears, leaving only an outer robe behind.

Genji later breaks into Nokiba-no-ogi’s room by mistake but pretends it was she he intended to visit and spends the night with her instead.

The Tale of Genji: Young MurasakiIn this chapter, called Waka Murasaki (Young Murasaki), Genji is recuperating from an illness when he glimpses a young girl, Murasaki, the author’s namesake, who reminds him of Fujitsubo, the emperor’s mistress. He resolves to adopt Murasaki and will eventually take her as his second wife.

The author deftly weaves together the strands of Genji’s oedipal relationships with Murasaki (whose likeness to Fujitsubo attracts him) and Fujitsubo (whom the emperor married because she resembled his late wife, Genji’s mother).

It is widely believed that Murasaki Shikibu commenced The Tale of Genji not long after she was widowed in 1001 and had completed it about twenty years later. The author of the Sarashina nikki writes, somewhere between 1020 and 1022:

I read Waka Murasaki [chapter 5] and a few of the other [early] books in The Tale of Genji, and I longed to see the later parts… But we were still new to the capital and it was not easy to find copies. I was burning wth impatience and curiosity, and in my prayers I used to say, “Let me see the whole!”

Richard Bowring’s translation of the Murasaki Shikibu Diary

This passage provides an insight into what—besides its many admirable literary features—makes The Tale of Genji fascinating to interactive storytellers. Murasaki Shikibu wrote Genji not as a single work for publication but in chapters (handwritten in individual notebooks) which were passed around the Heian court from one reader to the next.

In fact, the first five chapters outlined briefly above, have been presented not in the “correct” numerical order but as one of Murasaki Shikibu’s readers might have encountered them: in the order 1, 2, 4, 3, 5.

Yet having to read the chapters out of chronological order posed few problems for Murasaki Shikibu’s audience since she had so painstakingly constructed the work, using subtle indicators of time and place to ensure that—even over the fifty year span of her novel—it is always possible to determine the ages and relationships between each of the important characters.

As we struggle with the difficulties of writing non-linear and hypertext narratives, what a delicious irony that a Japanese woman confronted and resolved many of the problems that plague us a thousand years later.

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Sunday 07 July 2002

What life is like

In need of distraction I thought I’d like to read a spy novel but I’m fussy now and can only enjoy well-written spy novels, which narrows the field considerably. I recalled a Salon essay on the books of Alan Furst and managed to find Kingdom of Shadows. Early in the story, Morath (the “hero”) is telling his uncle about the death of Sandor, a family retainer:

‘Also,’ Morath went on, ‘he wanted me to tell you something.’

Polanyi raised his eyebrows.

‘It had to do with the death of his grandfather, who was ninety-five, he thought, and who had died in the same bed. The family knew the time had come, they were all gathered around. Suddenly, the old man became agitated and started to talk. Sandor had to lean close in order to hear him. “Remember,” he whispered, “life is like licking honey…” He said it three or four times, and Sandor could tell there was more. At last, he managed: “…licking honey off a thorn.”

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Tuesday 23 July 2002

An American mystery

In a Salon Premium essay titled What the world thinks of America, Executive Editor Gary Kamiya reflects on the polarization of American attitudes towards the Sept. 11 attacks and writes of his disappointment in the response of the American government:

For those Americans opposed to the administration’s arrogant unilateralism and simplistic worldview, this failure to learn from a national tragedy is immensely disappointing, and the manipulation of that tragedy feels like a cynical defilement.

Cover of Granta 77 (What we think of America)In an attempt to see America in a fresh way, Kamiya borrows 24 sets of foreign eyes, belonging to contributors to the spring issue of the quarterly literary journal Granta, titled What We Think of America.

“In this issue,” explains Ian Jack in the introduction, “twenty-four writers drawn from many countries describe the part America has played in their lives—for better or worse—and deliver their estimate of the good and the bad it has done as the world’s supreme political, military, economic and cultural power.”

Twelve of the contributions are available online, including one by British writer James Hamilton-Paterson, which Kamiya singles out for particular mention:

Again and again, the writers hammer away on the disparity between the sophistication of Americans and the crude conservatism of their leaders and their nation’s international policies. The British writer James Hamilton-Paterson, who also notes that Americans are singularly ignorant of the rest of the world (another familiar theme) writes, “Time and again I’m struck by the extraordinary disparity between the United States’ global face and the many individual Americans I know and love. Their sophistication, generosity of spirit, intellectual honesty and subversive humor seem wholly at odds with their country’s monolithic weight on the world. Why is it, I wonder, their government is never represented by people like themselves? … Are my friends in some way disenfranchised: part of a vital, intelligent, and quintessentially American constituency doomed to be forever unrepresented in their Congress and Senate? And if so, why?” For Americans who have essentially given up even dreaming that their politicians might reflect them, this question is painful.

For non-Americans, this vast discrepancy—between the individual Americans we know and love and the behavior of the American state apparatus throughout the world—is an unfathomable mystery (and a topic that arises with startling frequency in conversations about the United States). My American friends (whether it’s those I’ve met in the US and elsewhere or those I’ve come to know and value through blogging) are exactly as Hamilton-Paterson describes: sophisticated, generous of spirit, intellectually honest, and subversively humorous. How is it that in recent times, at least, such warm, intelligent, gifted people have virtually no influence on American policy and the projection of American power?

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Thursday 01 August 2002

Polishing and perfecting

Dave Winer:

When I see writing that’s too polished, where the grammar is too perfect, I am suspicious that at a deeper level it has been sanitized and dumbed-down.

Vladimir Nabokov:

I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever written. My pencils outlast their erasers.

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Sunday 04 August 2002

The things’ view of it

James Agee draws no specific connection between the photograph Walker Evans made of the Burroughs kitchen in Hale County, Alabama in 1936 and the paragraphs that open A Country Letter, Part One of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Yet it is impossible not to believe that the lamp Evans photographed through the kitchen doorway one summer’s day in 1936 is not the same lamp upon which Agee focused his attention while Evans lay sleeping.

Walker Evans: Burroughs Kitchen, Hale County, Alabama, 1936It is late in a summer night, in a room of a house set deep and solitary in the country; all in this house save myself are sleeping; I sit at a table, facing a partition wall; and I am looking at a lighted coal-oil lamp which stands on the table close to the wall, and just beyond the sleeping of my relaxed left hand; with my right hand I am from time to time writing, with a soft pencil, into a school-child’s composition book; but just now, I am entirely focused on the lamp, and light.

It is of glass, light metal colored gold, and cloth of heavy thread.

The glass was poured into a mold, I guess, that made the base and bowl, which are in one piece; the glass is thick and clean, with icy lights in it. The base is a simply fluted, hollow skirt; stands on the table; is solidified in a narrowing, a round inch of pure thick glass, then hollows again, a globe about half flattened, the globe-glass thick, too; and this holds oil, whose silver line I see, a little less than half down the globe, its level a very little — for the base is not quite true — tilted against the axis of the base.

This ‘oil’ is not at all oleaginous, but thin, brittle, rusty feeling, and sharp; taken and rubbed between forefinger and thumb, it so cleanses their grain that it sharpens their mutual touch to a new coin edge, or the russet nipple of a breast erected in cold; and the odor is clean, cheerful and humble, less alive by far than that of gasoline, even a shade watery: and a subtle sweating of this oil is on the upward surface of the globe, as if it stood through the glass, and as if the glass were a pitcher of cool water in a hot room. I do not understand nor try to deduce this, but I like it; I run my thumb upon it and smell of my thumb, and smooth away its streaked print on the glass; and I wipe my thumb and forefinger dry against my pants, and keep on looking.

In this globe, and in this oil that is clear and light as water, and reminding me of creatures and things once alive which I have seen suspended in jars in a frightening smell of alcohol—serpents, tapeworms, toads, embryons, all drained one tan pallor of absolute death; and also of the serene, scarved flowers in untroubled wombs (and pale-tanned too, flaccid, and in the stench of exhibited death, those children of fury, patience and love which stand in the dishonors of accepted fame, and of the murdering of museum staring); in this globe like a thought, a dream, the future, slumbers the stout-weft strap of wick, and up this wick is drawn the oil, toward heat; through a tight, flat tube of tin, and through a little slotted smile of golden tin, and there ends fledged with flame, in the flue; the flame, a clean, tanged fan:

Looking at Evans’s photograph (one of 61 that begin the book) then reading Agee’s prose, I thought (as I always do) of an essay by Jean-Luc Godard, called My Approach in Four Movements, in which he outlines his plan for making the film Two or Three Things I Know About Her:

If one now analyses this project for a film, one sees that my approach can be divided into four principal movements.

1. Objective Description (or at least attempt at description, Ponge would say)

    1. objective description of objects: houses, cars, cigarettes, apartments, shops, beds, TV sets, books, clothes, etc.
    2. objective description of subjects: the characters, Juliette, the American, Robert, the hairdresser, Marianne, the travellers, the motorists, the social workers, the old man, the children, the passers-by, etc.

2. Subjective Description (or at least attempt)

    1. subjective description of subjects: particularly by way of feelings, that is through scenes more or less written and acted.
    2. subjective description of objects: settings seen from the inside, where the world is outside, behind the windows, or on the other side of the walls

The poet Francis Ponge, who exerted a considerable influence on Godard when he was making A Married Woman and Two or Three Things…, published a book of prose poems called Le Parti Pris des Chose (roughly The Thing’s View of It) in which he attempted (in Tom Milne’s words) “to get back to the basic task of the poet: the naming of things, or to put it another way, the treatment of objects as subjects.”

It is clearly simplistic to suggest that Evans handles the “objective description” of objects and subjects whereas Agee takes responsibility for their “subjective description.” since a substantial part of the beauty of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men lies in the ease with which both artists move fluidly from one descriptive role to another.

Yet ever since I first saw Two or Three Things… and read Godard’s essay and some of Ponge’s poems, I’ve felt that Godard’s approach in four movements, which offers a precise yet limitless blueprint for any work that attempts to combine words and images, also acts as a lucid summary of Evans and Agee’s approach.

[Blog In Prog]

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Saturday 17 August 2002

The Rorschach reading test

Burningbird asked for some reading recommendations. Here are some of my favorites (not necessarily in order of preference):

  • Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters
  • Richard Ford, The Sportswriter
  • Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits
  • Saiichi Maruya, A Mature Woman
  • Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Alberto Moravia, Boredom
  • Fumiko Enchi, The Waiting Years
  • Soseki Natsume, Kokoro
  • Naoya Shiga, A Dark Night’s Passing
  • W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn
  • Ivan Morris, The Nobility of Failure
  • Allison Fell, The Pillow Boy of the Lady Onogoro
  • James Salter, Burning the Days
  • Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
  • Henry Fielding, Tom Jones
  • Eudora Welty, Collected Stories
  • Dorothea Brande, Becoming a Writer
  • Joseph Mitchell, Up in the Old Hotel
  • Taeko Kono, Toddler Hunting
  • Julio Cortazar, Hopscotch
  • Akira Yoshimura, On Parole

I tried to keep the list to ten but couldn’t manage it.

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Saturday 31 August 2002

La Vida es Sueno

(Este es el soliloquio más famoso del drama español; ocurre al final del primer acto, cuando Segismundo piensa en la vida y en su suerte.)

Sueña el rey que es rey, y vive
con este engaño mandando,
disponiendo y gobernando;
y este aplauso, que recibe
prestado, en el viento escribe,
y en cenizas le convierte
la muerte, ¡desdicha fuerte!
¿Que hay quien intente reinar,
viendo que ha de despertar
en el sueño de la muerte?

Sueña el rico en su riqueza,
que más cuidados le ofrece;
sueña el pobre que padece
su miseria y su pobreza;
sueña el que a medrar empieza,
sueña el que afana y pretende,
sueña el que agravia y ofende,
y en el mundo, en conclusión,
todos sueñan lo que son,
aunque ninguno lo entiende.

Yo sueño que estoy aquí
destas prisiones cargado,
y soñé que en otro estado
más lisonjero me vi.
¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí.
¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
una sombra, una ficción,
y el mayor bien es pequeño:
que toda la vida es sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son.

Pedro Calderón de la Barca

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Tuesday 01 October 2002

The fine art of translation

Via Arts & Letters Daily comes a marvellous essay by Wendy Lesser, titled The Mysteries of Translation, about how different translators mediate the voice of the original author:

This is not to say that a Margaret Jull Costa translation of the Portuguese novelist José Saramago sounds like a Margaret Jull Costa translation of the Spanish novelist Javier Marías — not at all. If it did, Costa would have failed in her primary aim, to let us hear the writer’s voice as she herself hears it in the original language. But it does mean that a Margaret Jull Costa translation of Javier Marías sounds slightly but noticeably different from an Esther Allen translation of Javier Marías… If I were pressed, I would say that Allen’s Marías sounds more like a Spaniard, Costa’s more like a native English speaker. Which is preferable? I suppose it depends on what kind of reader you are — or, more likely, on which translation you encountered first.

Ms Lesser discusses translations of W.G. Sebald by Michael Hulse, Anthea Bell, and Michael Hamburger and recommends new translations of Dostoyevsky by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky: “What I found when I read their Demons — the novel that, in earlier translations, was usually called The Possessed — was that I understood, for the very first time, the source of the unease in a Dostoyevsky novel.”

But she directs most of her attention to the replacement of Murakami Haruki’s first translator, Alfred Birnbaum, with Jay Rubin. She discovers that, in addition to translating A Wild Sheep Chase, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and Dance, Dance, Dance, Birnbaum translated an edition of Murakami’s first (1987) novel, Norwegian Wood, which was only ever published in Japan.

Murakami Haruki, Norwegian Wood, Volume IIn the Translator’s Note to the first American edition, Jay Rubin notes that the Birnbaum translation was produced to enable Japanese students “to enjoy their favorite author as they struggled with the mysteries of English” and that English speakers should not try to obtain this earlier version because “the present edition is the first English translation that Murakami has authorized for publication outside Japan.”

I came late to reading Murakami Haruki and read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (in English) four or five years ago, at the insistence of one of my Japanese teachers. I was pleasantly surprised and, following my usual custom, went back and started at the beginning. Except the beginning was Murakami’s second book, A Wild Sheep Chase, for the reasons outlined above.

Murakami Haruki, Norwegian Wood, Volume IIBut on my next trip to Japan, I bought the two small Norwegian Wood paperbacks that cost Wendy Lesser over US$100 to have sent to the US. It remains my favorite Murakami novel, though only now do I understand how much of the credit is due to the skill with which Alfred Birnbaum recreates “that weird, youthful, but never annoyingly with-it voice in which Murakami’s narrator-protagonists [speak] to themselves.”

Finally, Wendy Lesser’s essay is worth reading just for the way in which she defines the essence of a great translation—by comparing the opening paragraphs of Jay Rubin’s version of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle with that of Alfred Birnbaum.

Rubin: “Perfectly good English sentences presented by a reasonably interesting narrator.”

Birnbaum: “In this translation, the logic of cause-and-effect English sentence structure has been jettisoned in favor of some other mode, and it is that mode — the intrusion of the surprising and the foreign and the unknowable into the mundane regime — which marks the world of a Haruki Murakami novel.”

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Monday 13 January 2003

The pleasures of the past

AKMA picked up on my entry The “idealization of historical ignorance”, mentioning it in the context of Tom Matrullo’s post, the blogging subject:

The press can take any amount of media criticism; what it cannot bear is being ignored, even as it practices a most potent, directed form of ignorance in weaving its tales.

In retrospect, I realize I assembled that entry—three long quotations from essays cited in Arts & Letters Daily in the past week—not just because I admired the quality of the thought and the writing (Joan Didion remains one of my favorite writers) but also because historical ignorance has been much on my mind. A couple of weeks ago I watched a documentary about Mark Rothko, in which the critic Brian O’Doherty said:

He was a unique person, who made a unique art and who suffered for it in many ways. I fear it was a very painful business for him. What was particularly painful to him was the insensitivity, ignorance, stupidity, and superficiality of the world at large. And there is no shortage of that, as we know.

A few days later, reading W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, I came upon the following passage:

When I came back from France I bought this house for what today is the positively ridiculous sum of nine hundred and fifty pounds, and then I taught for almost thirty years until I took early retirement in 1991, partly, said Austerlitz, because of the inexorable spread of ignorance even to the universities, and partly because I hoped to set out on paper my investigations into the history of architecture and civilization, as had long been my intention.

Onko-chishin, visit the past to know the newOn the weekend, looking for a text with which I could test some newly-arrived Japanese TrueType fonts, I consulted a dictionary of Japanese idioms. Amongst examples such as “If a dog walks around enough, it is likely to get hit with a stick” and “a bee sting on a crying face” I found onko-chishin, “visit the past to know the new”. The example sentence read:

It is precisely because we find ourselves living in an age deluged with information that we must not forget the importance of a thorough grounding in the classics.

The “troublingly belligerent idealization of historical ignorance” of which Joan Didion writes has a multiplicity of causes. Some spring immediately to mind:

  • a naive trust in what Tom Matrullo calls the “motivated simplification” of the media-constructed narrative;
  • a confusion of the difference in worth between knowledge and information;
  • an inflated sense of self (based upon an inability to recognize one’s own incompetence); and
  • an overweening belief in the inexorable march of progress.

Tom Matrullo writes:

Blogs at best bear fewer traces of media ignorance and more marks of the mind offering uncommon attention to the world we imagine we share.

True, but is it not also possible that we are writing ourselves into an existence of which only we are aware? That the “inexorable spread of ignorance” continues unabated while we entertain each other within Blogaria’s borders.

What to do? In immersing oneself in the past do you not run the risk of disengaging from the present? What happens when the old turns out to be infinitely more fascinating than the new?

In Antonioni’s Blow Up, Verushka tells the photographer she won’t be available for a shoot because she’s going to Paris. She runs into him at a party later and he says, “You’re supposed to be in Paris.”

“I am in Paris,” she replies. I know just how she felt.

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Friday 17 January 2003

The accidental socialist

Aaron’s Tips for Book Authors:

#5 Once you’ve recouped the cost of creating the book (and potentially the cost of writing your next one) please donate it to the public domain (i.e. give up your copyright). The copyright system was created only to increase the size of the public domain; please don’t cheat the public by taking more of it than you need.

It’s fascinating to observe in Rogers Cadenhead’s comments the nonchalance with which those who have never had a book published would abrogate the rights of those who have.

I can’t fathom this. People who would be outraged if employers suggested basing salaries on the cost of rent, food, clothing, and utilities, plus a small entertainment allowance, blithely demand that authors work for cost.

Is it the regular paycheck (or parental allowance) that engenders this attitude? Is it youthful idealism? Shaw was probably correct in suggesting that “if you’re not a socialist at 20, you have no heart.” But his aphorism concludes: “if you’re still a socialist at 40, you have no head.” In any case, I look forward to hearing Aaron’s views on copyright when he turns 40, or when he’s published a book or three.

This utopian idea that authors should write for love, not money, probably reflects the majority belief that writing a book is no more difficult than baking a cake. Yet I’m reminded of a New Yorker cartoon showing two people at a cocktail party. One says, “I’m writing a novel.” The other replies, “Neither am I.”

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Saturday 01 March 2003

Fire and Snow

My bookshelves are organized in order of importance, like the tables in a chic restaurant: the more important the subject, the more likely those books are to be in the workroom where I spend most of my time.

Thus one wall of my workroom is completely covered with books on Japanese language, literature, and film as well as the Pacific War. There’s a separate bookcase for computing books.

American, South American, and European novels, books about writing, psychotherapy, and art are in the hallway, along with a stack of boxes filled with books destined for the secondhand store. In the eight years I’ve lived in this house, the photography books—which once had pride of place on the workroom shelves—have been consigned to Siberia (in the bedroom and living room).

This shift in interest coincided with the opening of a Kinokuniya bookstore across the harbor in Neutral Bay in 1996. It was a long way from Newtown, where I moved a year earlier, but since my Japanese class was also over the bridge in North Sydney I could drop by regularly to check out the new arrivals.

Then, last July, Kinokuniya moved to an enormous space opposite the Town Hall in the center of the CBD. While it’s nowhere near as big as either of the Shinjuku Main or South stores in Tokyo, it’s probably the biggest bookstore in Sydney and easily my favorite: light, spacious, airy, and crammed not just with Japanese books (though that’s its main attraction for me) but books on every imaginable subject. There’s a loyalty program that offers 10-20% discounts (depending on the day of the week, or the weather, or some criterion I haven’t been able to figure out) and a coffee shop too.

Book cover: Kawabata Yasurari's Yukiguni (Snow Country)Earlier in the week I was in the city so I dropped by to browse and, as usual, left with a couple of books. I’d been meaning to buy Kawabata’s Yukiguni (Snow Country) in Japanese, even though I won’t be able to read it for quite a while yet. I was surprised it only cost AU$7.35 (US$4.45) even though that’s almost double the cover price of ¥280 converted to Australian dollars ($3.95). The English translation would be about AU$20. It’s a beautiful little book, with a lovely cover illustration. I’ve been vaguely thinking about reading the English version again but I’ll hold off until I can manage the Japanese.

Book cover: Martin Middlebrook's The Battle of HamburgMy second purchase was Martin Middlebrook’s The Battle of Hamburg: The Firestorm Raid. Late last year, wanting to deepen my understanding of the shift in American bombing tactics that led to the firebombing of Tokyo, I read two of Middlebrook’s books about the European air war. The Nuremburg Raid describes what should have been a routine RAF night attack that turned into a disaster (the target was hardly damaged and 96 of 779 bombers went missing). The Schweinfurt-Regensburg Mission tells the story of how the USAAF lost one in six bombers while trying to destroy the Messerschmitt aircraft factory in Regensburg and the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt.

The Battle of Hamburg focuses on one of the “successes” of the Allied bombing campaign against Germany: the entire city was destroyed in a terrible series of firestorms. Snow Country tells the story of a transient love affair between a geisha, Komako, and a wealthy dilettante, Shinamura, who makes three visits to the hot spring where she works.

I didn’t go into Kinokuniya to buy these two books, or any books, and yet they were the ones I walked out with. I’d handed my credit card and The Battle of Hamburg to the sales clerk and she was about to put through the transaction when I asked her if she’d mind waiting while I grabbed another book. For some reason, Snow Country had popped into my head.

Everything’s connected, I believe—that’s why I love hypertext, the Web, weblogs—yet the connection between these two books seems utterly mysterious. I guess I’ll find out eventually what that thread of association is.

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Monday 03 March 2003

The cost of things

He remembered Alejandra and the sadness he’d first seen in the slope of her shoulders which he’d presumed to understand and of which he knew nothing and he felt a loneliness he’d not known since he was a child and he felt wholly alien to the world although he loved it still. He thought that in the beauty of the world were hid a secret. He thought the world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.

Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

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Monday 10 March 2003

Political (a)morality?

My former wife believed that by marrying me she’d meet a superior class of people. When we met she was working for IMG, a leading sports management agency, in a job that brought her into contact with many of the world’s most talented and highly paid sportspeople. At that time, I was a professional photographer with a specialty in photographing art for books, catalogs, and magazines—and I exhibited my own work.

Driving home one night after an opening at the Art Gallery of NSW, Francesca suddenly confessed: “I can’t believe how naive I was. It’s been such a shock to realize that artists are even more arrogant, self-indulgent, status-conscious, paranoid, and obsessed with money than the sports stars I deal with every day.”

“Why do you think art politics is so bitterly contested?” I asked her (reworking the joke about academic politics).

“I’ve no idea,” she replied. “Tell me.”

“Because the stakes are so small.”

She let out a peal of laughter. “I can’t wait to tell Simon that,” she said, “he’ll love it.” Simon was her immensely charming (and likeable) boss, who’d have made mincemeat out of any artist, curator, or gallery owner in the Southern Hemisphere, in less time than it took him to tie a Windsor knot.

The joke relies for its impact on the widely shared belief that artists (and academics)—disconnected, as they are, from the “real world”—spend an inordinate amount of time and energy arguing about trivialities. While that may well be so, the joke neatly sidesteps a couple of truths about art: firstly, that art politics has nothing to do with actually making art; secondly, that an artist’s personal behavior has little, if anything, to do with the quality of the work they make.

Even more surprising to me than Francesca’s general observation about artists’ preoccupation with the inconsequential was my discovery—based on spending time with every important Australian artist as well as many from the US and Europe—of 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.

Richard A. Posner makes a similar point in his review of Bruce Allen Murphy’s Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas. Here is Posner’s vivid characterization of the former Supreme Court judge:

Apart from being a flagrant liar, Douglas was a compulsive womanizer, a heavy drinker, a terrible husband to each of his four wives, a terrible father to his two children, and a bored, distracted, uncollegial, irresponsible, and at times unethical Supreme Court justice who regularly left the Court for his summer vacation weeks before the term ended. Rude, ice-cold, hot-tempered, ungrateful, foul-mouthed, self-absorbed, and devoured by ambition, he was also financially reckless—at once a big spender, a tightwad, and a sponge—who, while he was serving as a justice, received a substantial salary from a foundation established and controlled by a shady Las Vegas businessman.

After another seventeen paragraphs summarizing Murphy’s account of Douglas’s career and numerous character flaws, Posner notes that the author “does not try to extenuate Douglas’s failings as a human being, or to excuse them, or even to explain them, but he greatly admires Douglas’s civil liberties decisions, and (without his actually saying so) this admiration leads him to forgive Douglas’s flaws of character.”

Posner then observes:

Murphy is right to separate the personal from the judicial. One can be a bad person and a good judge, just as one can be a good person and a bad judge. With biography and reportage becoming ever more candid and penetrating, we now know that a high percentage of successful and creative people are psychologically warped and morally challenged; and anyway, as Machiavelli recognized long ago, personal morality and political morality are not the same thing.

Nor—as my experience suggests—is there an equivalence between personal morality and aesthetic worth (although the controversy over whether or not Roman Polanski should receive an Academy Award for The Pianist suggests a widely held belief that such a nexus should be established and followed).

In the case of William O. Douglas, Posner argues that it was not the Supreme Court Justice’s personal failings that made him a poor judge but rather that he didn’t like the job—or, more exactly, there was another job he wanted badly, that of Roosevelt’s running mate in the election of 1944:

If passing over Douglas was an error (which we shall never know), it was an error of statesmanship. With his intelligence, his toughness, his ambition, his leadership skills, his wide acquaintanceship in official Washington, his combination of Western homespun (a favorite trick was lighting a cigarette by striking a match on the seat of his pants) and Eastern sophistication, and his charisma, Douglas might have been a fine Cold War president.

A fascinating proposition: that a thoroughly loathsome and reprehensible person might make a worthy and capable President of the United States. To test the validity of Posner’s suggestion one need only contrast decent, ineffectual Jimmy Carter who was humiliated for the 444 days of the Iran hostage affair and the morally ambiguous Nixon/Kissinger team who extricated the United States from the Vietnam war and established diplomatic relations with China.

It was difficult not to be reminded of this paradox when I followed Stuart Langridge’s link to John Perry Barlow’s essay, Sympathy For The Devil, an astonishing portrait/analysis of Dick Cheney, whom Barlow assisted in getting elected “to his first public office as Wyoming’s lone congressman,” conspiring with Cheney to close down an environmentally dangerous copper smelter.

Barlow has the highest regard for Cheney’s intelligence:

With the possible exception of Bill Gates, Dick Cheney is the smartest man I’ve ever met. If you get into a dispute with him, he will take you on a devastatingly brief tour of all the weak points in your argument. But he is a careful listener and not at all the ideologue he appears at this distance. I believe he is personally indifferent to greed. In the final analysis, this may simply be about oil, but I doubt that Dick sees it that way. I am relatively certain that he is acting in the service of principles to which he has devoted megawatts of a kind of thought that is unimpeded by sentiment or other emotional overhead.

The rest of essay is devoted to the problem that Barlow believes Dick Cheney is trying to address: “How does one assure global stability in a world where there is only one strong power?”

He notes that prolonged periods of peace have resulted from one of two conditions—a “symmetrical balance of power” or “unequivocal domination by a single ruthless power”—and suggests that Cheney has decided “that it is in the best interests of humanity that the United States impose a fearful peace upon the world” by establishing “dominion over the Middle East through the American Protectorate of Iraq.”

In other words, it’s not about oil, it’s about power and peace. Well, alright. It is about oil, I guess, but only in the sense that the primary goal of the American Peace is to guarantee the Global Corporations reliable access to all natural resources wherever they may lie. The multinationals are Cheney’s real constituents, regardless of their stock in trade or their putative country of origin.

There are many reasons for the widespread opposition outside America to a war on Iraq. One that comes up over and again is a lack of trust in the Bush administration’s motives. In other words, there is a perceived mismatch between the US government’s actions (and those of its British and Australian lackeys) and their stated reasons for going to war.

John Perry Barlow’s essay suggests that this lack of congruence flows inevitably from a strategy that seeks to convince

every other nation on the planet that the United States is the Mother of All Rogue States, run by mad thugs in possession of 15,000 nuclear warheads they are willing to use and spending, as they already are, more on death-making capacity than all the other countries on the planet combined.

“By these terrible means…the Great American Peace will begin.”

One should not imagine, from my synopsis, that Barlow is defending Dick Cheney and his associates. It’s clear that he believes, as many of us do, that the United States has fallen into the grip of an amoral cabal. The real value of Barlow’s essay is its unsentimental gaze into the heart of darkness, through the eyes of someone who knew Dick Cheney at a time when a veteran Washington journalist described him as “the most dangerous person I’ve ever seen up here.”

“But,” Barlow admits, “if I’d been in charge back in 1983, there might still be a Soviet Union and we might all still be waiting for the world to end in fifteen nuclear minutes.”

In other words, an amoral cabal could be exactly the right team for the task at hand. Just as the morally challenged William O. Douglas “might have been a fine Cold War President.”

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Monday 07 April 2003

Things and people, charming and splendid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, later on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book

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

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

Sei Shonagon

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Tuesday 15 April 2003

Alibis and consistent lies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Truth or belief

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

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

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

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

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

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

To which Burningbird replied:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday 17 April 2003


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

Carwash, Cleveland Street, Redfern

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

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

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

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

WG Sebald's Austerlitz, page 378

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Tuesday 22 April 2003

Shishosetsu and the myth of sincerity

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

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

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

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

How strange.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The only problem is, as Jeff Ward pointed out:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday 30 April 2003

To Make Them Monumental

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

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

Speech, for Instance
                    Sidney Goldfarb

At the bottom of the right hand page she wrote:

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

And the poem itself:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“in a marble/remembrance of the gods”

“…women are beautiful/momentarily”

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

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

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

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

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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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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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Tuesday 16 September 2003

Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Sadness

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence

I don’t trust happiness. I never did; I never will.

Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies, written by Horton Foote

The exhibition catalog for Seasons: The Beauty of Transience in Japanese Art has as its epigraph an excerpt from Ki no Tsurayuki’s preface to the Kokinshū, the first imperially-sponsored collection of Japanese poetry, published around 905 AD:

Japanese poetry has the human heart at seed and myriads of words as leaves… the song of the warbler among the blossoms, the voice of the frog dwelling in the water—these teach us that every living creature sings.

It is song that moves heaven and earth without effort, stirs emotions in the invisible spirits and gods, brings harmony to the relations between men and women, and calms the hearts of fierce warriors.

As soon as I read the phrase “human heart at seed”, I realized why Donald Keene had chosen Seeds in the Heart as the title of the first book in his series on the History of Japanese Literature.

Of the 1100 poems in the Kokinshū—actually Kokin Waka Shū (Collection of Waka, Old and New)—all but ten of them are waka, the thirty-one syllable form that was written mainly in the native Japanese kana script (with some Chinese characters) rather than entirely in Chinese as was the case with poems in earlier collections such as the Manyōshū.

This use of Japanese script not only made waka easier to write but opened up the practice of writing poetry to women, who were largely excluded from the study of Chinese. As a result, the exchange of waka became an integral part of the love relationship between men and women, a typical example being this poem by the female poet Onono Komachi, cited in the first volume of Katō Shūichi’s A History of Japanese Literature:

Yearning for him I slept in sadness
And saw him in a dream.
Had I known it was a dream
I never would have woken with the dawn.

Kokinshū, Poem 552

There were two prefaces to the Kokinshū, one written in Chinese by Ki no Yoshimochi, the other in Japanese by Ki no Tsurayuki. I prefer Donald Keene’s translation of Tsurayuki’s introduction:

Japanese poetry has its seeds in the human heart and burgeons into many different kinds of leaves of words. We who live in this world are constantly affected by different experiences, and we express our thoughts in words, in terms of what we have seen and heard. When we hear the warbler that sings among the blossoms or the voice of the frog that lives in the water, we may ask ourselves, “Which of all the creatures of this world does not sing?” Poetry moves without effort heaven and earth, stirs the invisible gods and demons to pity, makes sweet the ties between men and women, and brings comfort to the fierce heart of the warrior.

Keene points out that Yoshimochi, in his Chinese preface, “expressed similar views, and these sentiments, like much else in both prefaces, have been traced back to China.” Both Tsurayuki and Yoshimochi believed, as did the Chinese, “that human feelings were the ultimate source of all poetry”.

The word that Tsurayuki used both for poetry and for song was uta, and he seems not to have made a clear distinction between the two. Whether the song was melodious like that of the springtime warbler amid the blossoms or as harsh as the croaking of an autumnal frog, it proved that every living creature has its song. Birds and beasts, and human beings, too, sing in response to stimulation, whether external—things seen and heard—or internal, like the pangs of love. The stimulus tends to be short-lived, and for this reason may be more easily turned into a brief lyric that distills the poet’s experience than developed into an extended poem.

Although Tsurayuki says in his preface that poetry can stir the gods, in the West it was more common for the poet to think of himself as the instrument of the gods, whose aid he might invoke in making his song. In Japan divine help was not necessary; the poet, unaided, could move the spheres and make even supernatural creatures feel the poignancy of aware, the touching things of this world. Poetry was also important in the relations between men and women; as we have seen, the necessity of writing love poetry in Japanese to women who could not read Chinese may have saved the Japanese language as a medium of literary expression. And, as we know from The Tale of Genji and other works of the Heian period, poetry was an indispensable element of courtship, at least among the nobility.

King Kanji screen showing uta, songFrequently, when I’m revising kanji on my Clié, I’ll switch from KingKanji to Dokusha to explore the words associated with a particular character.

A couple of weeks ago, when I was revising some elementary kanji, the character for song/sing—pronounced uta or ka—came up so I copied it to the clipboard, switched applications, and used Dokusha’s “Kanji Explorer” feature to access a range of compound words in which the character for song appears.

Dokusha screenshots: uta (song), aika (lament), aware  (pathos)

The list comprised:

  • 哀歌, aika, lament/elegy— (grief/sorrow) plus (song)
  • 詠歌, eika, poem/song— (recitation) plus (song)
  • 演歌, enka, modern Japanese ballad— (performance) plus (song)
  • 歌会, utakai, poetry party/competition— (song) plus (meeting)
  • 歌格, kakaku, poetry style/rules— (song) plus (status/law)
  • 歌学, kagaku, poetry/versification— (song) plus (study/learning)

Of the six compounds, two interested me in particular. The word aika—lament, elegy, dirge, sad song—contains the character (aware: pathetic, grief, sorrow, pathos, pity, sympathize), which lies at the heart of Japanese aesthetics.

And I’ve loved enka music ever since first hearing it in a tiny yakitori-ya where I ate regularly when I lived in Japan ten years ago. I’ve always seen it as the Japanese equivalent of country-and-western music but Barbara’s Enka Site provides a far better explanation:

Team up a songwriter who writes old-fashioned Gypsy music with a romantic lyricist of an American blues or country music background. Then translate the lyrics into poetic but old-fashioned Japanese and arrange the music for a band made of half Japanese musicians and half European classical musicians, plus a harmonica and electric guitar. Then find a Japanese woman to sing the song in full kimono, but choreograph her performance as if it were an operatic aria. That would give you something close to Enka music…

(Barbara provides sample MP3s from a variety of popular enka singers—this song by Sakamoto Fuyumi perfectly conveys enka’s essence.)

Barbara points out that in enka, “songs of love, separation, death and suicide abound. The subject matter of the typical lyrics involve tragic love and sweet resignation to the comfort of cherished memories of better times”. In other words, there’s an absolutely direct connection across a thousand years to the poems of the Kokinshū and The Tale of Genji, in which aware figures so largely.

Again, Onono Komachi:

My soul will go as often as I like
To my lover in a dream
Because no one will blame me there.

Kokinshū, Poem 552

The cherry flowers have faded
Here in the reign of mortality
Here in the weary rain.

Kokinshū, Poem 113

If Onono Komachi were alive today, she might augment the royalties from her published poems by moonlighting as an enka lyricist.

Dokusha screenshots: uta (song), aika (lament), aware  (pathos)

As Dokusha’s Kanji Explorer suggests, there are only two degrees of separation between uta and aware, from “song” to “pathos”.

Donald Keene points out that, in his preface to the Kokinshū, Tsurayuki “went on to describe the circumstances under which people of the past had turned to composing poetry”:

When they saw blossoms fall on a spring morning, or heard the leaves fall on an autumn evening; when they grieved over the new snow and ripples reflected with each passing year by their looking glasses; when they were startled, seeing dew on the grass or foam on the water, by the brevity of life; when they lost their positions, though yesterday they had prospered; or when, because they had fallen in the world, even those who had been most intimate treated them like strangers.

“These springs of poetry”, writes Keene, “can be resumed under a single general heading, regret over the changes brought about by the passage of time.” It’s this “aesthetic empathy of things and feelings” connected with time’s passing that the eighteenth century literary scholar, Motoori Norinaga, defined as mono no aware, which I’ve seen variously described as

  • deep impressions produced by small things
  • sympathetic sadness
  • an intense, nostalgic sadness, connected with autumn and the vanishing away of the world
  • a serene acceptance of a transient world
  • a gentle pleasure found in mundane pursuits soon to vanish.

In his popular novel, Musashi, the story of Japan’s best-known swordsman, Yoshikawa Eiji writes describes mono no aware from the warrior’s perspective:

In the case of the samurai there is such a thing as an appreciation of the poignancy of things… a real samurai, a genuine swordsman has a compassionate heart, he understands the poignancy of life.

One of the reasons for my strong interest in Japanese literature and aesthetics is this acceptance of sadness as an essential ingredient of life. And (perhaps mistakenly) I’ve always regarded Jefferson’s assertion that the pursuit of Happiness is an unalienable Right as a kind of denial of the rightful place of sadness in human experience—that in pursuing happiness we are simultaneously fleeing sadness.

Accepting sadness is not, however, the same as mistrusting happiness. One one level it is tragic that Mac Sledge, who appears to have overcome his alcoholism and learned to love a woman and her child at the end of Tender Mercies, can say “I don’t trust happiness. I never did; I never will.” That he cannot trust the happiness which is the direct fruit of his reawakened faith in God, in his wife’s love, and in his own courage and dignity.

I can’t help thinking that this mistrust of happiness springs—at least in part—from his inability to properly relate to sadness. In the movie, the Mac Sledge character has “written” unbearably poignant country-and-western songs, including the beautiful Over You (which was actually written by Austin Roberts and Bobby Hart) but he struggles to accept and to reveal the sadness that lies much deeper than is suggested by that song about unrequited love. His feelings seem to remain on the surface and it’s the genius of Robert Duvall’s portrayal that makes us aware of how far he has traveled since waking up in an alcoholic stupor at the beginning of the story and how far he—and we—have yet to go. So, in another sense, his admission that he doesn’t trust happiness indicates his willingness to be truly honest to the woman who has done so much to bring him happiness.

For Motoori Norinaga,

If one examines the depths of the true human heart there is much that is feminine and unstable; the masculine and clever things are added, when we have become conscious of ourselves, in order to keep up appearances. When we are doing such things as talk[ing] to other people we act more and more so as to show a surface which is arranged to impress rather than bringing out what is really there.

If one can forget for a moment the implied sexism of linking the feminine with the unstable—an entirely natural association for an eighteenth-century Japanese man—it’s clear that Norinaga is equally critical of the superficial cleverness of the “masculine heart”. Katō Shūichi correctly points out that this is “the first writing to point clearly to the connections between the Japanese ‘surface’ and ‘depths’, the expressed and the true feelings, conscious values and unconscious psychological tendencies…”

Yet the reluctance or inability to express one’s true feelings is not only a Japanese problem, although it was a Japanese—Ki no Tsurayuki—who 1100 years ago elegantly and succinctly portrayed this aspect of human frailty:

To the distant observer
They are chatting of the blossoms
Yet in spite of appearances
Deep in their hearts
They are thinking very different thoughts.

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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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Sunday 23 November 2003


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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Sunday 23 May 2004

Useless but entertaining

I’ve been spending too much time reading detective novels. If I didn’t believe in taking responsibility for my actions, I’d blame Shelley Powers.

Canon Wordtank G50 Japanese electronic dictionaryThree weeks ago, before I realized how sick I’d been, I wrote in an email to Shelley:

This afternoon I’m going to the doctor (woke up feeling lousy, even though I had a good night’s sleep). I think that I’m simply worn out. I could use a holiday. I might go back to bed to play with the new electronic Japanese dictionary that arrived earlier in the week.

(I’d been debating for a couple of months whether to replace my venerable Canon Wordtank IDX-9700 with the spiffy new Wordtank G50 and had finally succumbed. I placed the order with SmartImports in Japan and received it a few days later.)

Shelley replied:

You do sound worn out. I would recommend a useless but entertaining novel or mystery or something of that nature, than a Japanese dictionary, which will probably wear you out even more, but that’s just me.

Glad you’re going to doctor. She’ll probably just tell you, “go to bed with a useless but entertaining novel or mystery…”

I wouldn’t describe myself as a big fan of crime or mystery novels, even though as a kid I loved Sherlock Holmes and I’ve read most of James Ellroy’s books and all of John Le Carré’s. And I’d been greatly entertained by Alan Furst’s pre-WWII spy thrillers, until Language Hat totally undermined my confidence in their authenticity.

Cover of Takagi Akimitsu's The Tattoo Murder Case The problem with useless but entertaining novels, I thought to myself, is that they are so badly written. But Shelley’s advice made sense somehow and I did recall that I’d enjoyed a Japanese mystery novel, Takagi Akimitsu’s The Tattoo Murder Case which was, just as the Washington Post Book World described, “Clever, kinky, highly entertaining”.

So, on my way to the doctor’s surgery in Woollahra, I dropped by Kinokuniya in the city to see if they had copies of the other Takagi novels that have been translated into English: Honeymoon to Nowhere and The Informer. “Out of stock,” said the sales clerk with an apologetic shrug, as she stared at her computer, but I headed off to the Asian literature section anyway.

Cover of Yokomizo Seishi's The Inugami ClanNo Takagi, but Yokomizo Seishi’s The Inugami Clan (A Gothic Tale of Murder from Japan’s Master of Crime) looked as though it might do the trick so I grabbed it, plus a copy of Maruya Sai’ichi’s Grass for My Pillow and headed for the checkout. When I got back home after seeing the doctor, I emailed Shelley about my purchases. She replied:

You make me laugh Jonathon. In a very good way. I should have known you would get a Japanese gothic murder mystery. Don’t take this in the wrong way, but you really are a charming person.

A charming person with a one-track mind, I think she meant. Paradoxically, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how so much of my behavior happens outside my awareness so I guess it says a lot about me that not for an instant did I consider getting anything other than a Japanese murder mystery. I had to settle for an English translation because my reading skills aren’t yet up to reading (say) Takagi Akimitsu in Japanese. But I’m getting there and, for when that moment arrives, there are Japanese translations of Agatha Christie, Maurice Leblanc, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sitting on the bookshelf.

Anyway, The Inugami Clan—which followed the Holmesian model of a clever detective (Kindaichi Kosuke/Sherlock Holmes) solving the mystery on behalf of a well-intentioned but inept policeman (Police Chief Tachibana/Inspector Lestrade)—was just what the doctor (or rather Doctor Shelley) ordered. I wrote back:

Well, that turned out to be a really great suggestion! Reading a “useless but entertaining novel or mystery or something”, I mean. The Japanese gothic murder mystery (which I’d never have thought of buying had it not been for your advice) is exactly what I needed to read. I’m only about half way through—I’ve spent much of the weekend in bed, reading a few pages, then having a nap. Just what I needed to do. It doesn’t even matter that the plot is preposterous, the characters stereotypical, and the writing ordinary at best. Perhaps those are precisely the qualities required for a book to read when one isn’t feeling the best. Was that the reasoning behind your suggestion?

Shelley elaborated:

I did recommend the mystery because it’s not the type of writing that will engage you too deeply. It allows your mind to just disassociate for a time, and this is, to me, as restful as sleep. You spend an inordinate amount of time ‘enriching your life’, with deep and thoughtful movies and books, and learning Japanese, and keeping up with your skills for work, and all your other reading and writing. This is a goodness, but it takes lots of brain firing and emotional and physical CPU processing—if I may use a tech metaphor—and this isn’t necessarily restful.

That was it, of course: too much brain firing and emotional and physical CPU processing. No wonder I felt worn out and in need of a holiday. It occurred to me that I used to rely on crap television shows to allow my mind to disassociate for a time. But, apart from watching The Sopranos each week, there’s no way I could go back to watching TV. Why? The ads annoy me too much.

So, given that Shelley’s theory made sense, I realized I needed to read some more useless but entertaining mystery novels. This time, I headed off to Abbey’s, which has the most extensive crime section of any Sydney bookstore. They even had a copy of Takagi Akimitsu’s The Informer, but as soon as I saw the price—AU$36/US$25 for a paperback that Amazon sells for US$10—I put it smartly back on the shelf.

I hadn’t really given any thought to how I might select a non-Japanese mystery novel and spent twenty futile minutes browsing the shelves. In desperation, I turned to a woman browsing in the same aisle and said, “Excuse me. Do you mind my asking if you’ve read many crime novels?”

“Not at all,” she replied. “And yes, I’ve read quite a few.”

“Could you recommend any well-written crime novels?”

“What do you mean by ‘well-written’?” she asked, with a faint smile.

“I suppose I mean that the prose style isn’t so offensive that it draws attention to itself. And I think I might prefer what seems to be called the ‘police procedural’, where the focus is on the nuts-and-bolts of solving the crime.”

She thought for a few moments, then said: “You might want to try Kathy Reichs, Ian Rankin, or Michael Connelly.”

It didn’t occur to me at the time that she might only have picked “Rankin” and “Reichs” because we were standing in front of the “R” author shelves. I thanked her, picked up a random Kathy Reichs paperback, read the cover blurb, and put it back on the shelf. I knew I’d never get through a book in which the main character is called Dr. Temperance Brennan. I already knew about Ian Rankin—having had to sit through an episode of the Inspector Rebus TV series at a friend’s place—so he didn’t rate a glance. I’m not sympathetic to contemporary British writing and, in any case, that “most compelling mind in modern crime fiction”, “gritty realisation of Edinburgh”, and “dark heart of contemporary Scotland which lurks behind the elegant and historic buildings of the tourist trail” sounds as though it might take too much brain-firing and emotional CPU processing.

Cover of Michael Connelly's The Harry Bosch NovelsAll my hopes were now riding on Michael Connelly who, happily, came up trumps: Harry Bosch sounded like my kind of hard-bitten maverick LAPD homicide detective. Even better, Abbey’s had the first three Harry Bosch novels—The Black Echo, The Black Ice, and The Concrete Blonde—in an omnibus edition for only AU$29.95.

(I know the crime novel cognoscenti will be crying out at the unfairness of my dismissing Dr. Temperance Brennan when Harry happens to be short for Hieronymus, but I didn’t know that until I started reading the first novel.)

Now that I’m reading the fourth in the series, The Last Coyote, I’m glad that buying the trilogy “forced” me read them in the order in which they were written (I’m obsessive enough to have wanted to do that anyway, but the trilogy made it simpler). Connolly writes reasonably well, in the sense that the prose doesn’t get in the way of the storytelling and I’ve only cringed a couple of times in each book at—what I regard as—an awkward simile or metaphor. He also seems to write with authority, in that each procedural detail appears to be authentic—a product of his three years as a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, I guess. (I use the words “seems” and “appears” because, until I read Language Hat’s post, I was also impressed by Alan Furst’s “authenticity”.) And, the nice thing about reading Connolly’s books in order is that you can see his craft steadily improving: the supporting characters becoming more nuanced, the plots more complex, and the main character Bosch grappling more realistically with his demons.

I didn’t realize how popular Michael Connelly’s books are until I saw these posters on a bookstore door and read at that his latest, The Narrows, is No. 1 on the Powell’s best seller list (it’s slipped to No. 5 on the New York Times list).

Michael Connelly detective novel posters

The store had copies of Connelly’s fifth book, The Poet, at a special promotional price of AU$9.95 (instead of the usual AU$17.95). When I asked the sales clerk why, she said: “I think the publishers want to suck you in so you’ll buy his latest one, The Narrows.”

Now—halfway through my fourth Connelly book, with another ten to go—I realize that (with Shelley’s help) I’ve learned something useful about myself. I need to lighten up, unwind more often, take things less seriously. It’s hard though, when you’ve always been a kind of “driven character”, as a lover once told me. That’s why I like Harry Bosch, he reminds me of myself in some ways. Or perhaps I should say, he reminds me of an idealized version of myself: a lone-wolf, intolerant of authority, lugging a ton of psychic baggage, unwilling or unable to sustain intimate relationships…

Even though I know I’m not supposed to overtax my emotional and intellectual CPU, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationshiop between motivation and behavior: not so much about why one criminal robbed a bank or another killed nine prostitutes but more about what motivates Bosch, someone who appears to think analytically and act methodically yet whose successes and failures are due in no small part to his emotions: the way they inform both his calculated decisions and his unreflective responses to events outside his immediate control.

Perhaps the difference between a detective in a novel and someone—like you, or me—in real life is that solving a fictional crime requires a delicate interplay between the protagonist’s analytical and intuitive states of awareness whereas much of the time we are, as Dave Rogers argues,

…not the rational, cognitive thinkers we all would like to believe we are… Most of what we do is behavior governed by non-thinking, largely emotional processes within our bodies. And for the vast majority of the time, it works exceedingly well, so we’re never inclined to think there is anything “wrong” with the way we behave. We’re blind to our own behavior. (“Jane, you ignorant slut.”)

If we’re asked “why” we did something, most of the time we’ll be able to craft what appears to be a perfectly rational explanation. That explanation will almost invariably involve making assertions that cast ourselves in the best light. That is to say, among the set of possible explanations, we will choose the ones that make us feel best about ourselves… (Why Ask Why?)

“We’re blind to our own behavior.” As I said, I’ve been mulling over the degree to which we are prisoners of our upbringing, our experiences, and our sense of mission in life. In every way—and I don’t want to articulate how this is so, for fear of spoiling the experience for those who might be interested—Bosch exemplifies how those factors control his behavior. Connolly’s books are hardly great literature, yet they’re instructive nonetheless.

But maybe, contrary to Shelley’s advice, I’m trying to turn something useless but entertaining into something useful and entertaining. In other words, taking it all a little too seriously. Hey, what do you expect from someone who has a problem with authority figures?

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Wednesday 04 August 2004

The point of writing

Blackboard outside bookshop displaying Kingsley Amis quotation: If you can't annoy somebody with what you write, I think there's little point in writing.

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour