Saturday 16 February 2002

The imaginary me

Mike Sanders asks “Who is the real you?”

We all wear masks and that is a good thing. Among other things, it helps people focus on our virtues and not on our faults. There has been much stimulating discussion on personal authenticity on David Weingberger’s blog. Or as Peter Townsend of The Who put it “Can you see the real me? Can you, can you?”

Both Mike’s question and his “masks” metaphor are based upon an underlying assumption that a “real me” actually exists. I used to believe this; and I spent a considerable amount of time, money, and psychic energy trying to discover him/me. In a 1996 Wired profile Sherry Turkle talks about role-playing—what I believe Mike means by masks—in these terms:

“We need a new language for it,” she says. “Role-playing sounds as if it’s something we’re putting on, playing at. I’m saying these are all bona fide aspects of our self. Good parenting will not teach somebody how to be a One, but teaching someone how to negotiate fluidly and have access to many aspects of the self. You have access to all of them: that’s the key, that’s what makes it healthy and not pathological. You learn to negotiate, to fit them together in some way. Using language of ‘cycling through’ rather than ‘building a One’ is going to be helpful to patients clinically, and help people think about their lives. It’s accepting where we are in the culture.”

That seemed to confirm what I’d long suspected. Perhaps there is no “real me,” just a multiplicity of me’s jostling for pre-eminence.

Antonio Tabucchi, Pereira DeclaresIn Antonio Tabucchi’s Pereira Declares, the protagonist—an aging, overweight, lonely journalist—visits a thalassotherapeutic clinic south of Lisbon. Over dinner, he tells the doctor assigned to take care of him that he feels “the need to repent, just as if I were someone else entirely, and not the Pereira who’s spent all his working life as a journalist…”

Dr Cardoso beckoned the waitress and ordered two fruit salads, no sugar or ice-cream please. Then: I have a question for you, said Dr Cardoso, and that is, are you acquainted with the medécins-philosophes? No I’m not, admitted Pereira, who are they? The leaders of this school of thought are Théodule Ribot and Pierre Janet, said Dr Cardoso, it was their work I studied in Paris, they are doctors and psychologists, but also philosophers, and they hold a theory I think interesting, the theory of the confederation of souls. Tell me about it, said Pereira. Well, said Dr Cardoso, it means that to believe in a “self” as a distinct entity, quite distinct from the infinite variety of all the other “selves” that we have within us, is a fallacy, the naive illusion of the single unique soul we inherit from Christian tradition, whereas Dr Ribot and Dr Janet see the personality as a confederation of numerous souls, because within us we each have numerous souls, don’t you think, a confederation which agrees to put itself under the government of one ruling ego. Dr Cardoso made a brief pause and then continued: What we think of as ourselves, our inward being, is only an effect, not a cause, and what’s more it is subject to the control of a ruling ego which has imposed its will on the confederation of our souls, so in the case of another ego arising, one stronger and more powerful, this ego overthrows the first ruling ego, takes its place and acquires the chieftainship of the cohort of souls, or rather the confederation, and remains in power until it is in turn overthrown by yet another ruling ego, either by frontal attack or by slow nibbling away. It may be, concluded Dr Cardoso, that after slowly nibbling away in you some ruling ego is gaining the chieftainship of your confederation of souls, Dr Pereira, and there’s nothing you can do about it except perhaps give it a helping hand whenever you get the chance.

Dr Cardosa’s explanation meshes better with my lived experience even at the cost of there being no “real me.”

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Saturday 16 March 2002

The truth of experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday 20 March 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday 21 March 2002

A loss of faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Sunday 15 September 2002

Can I have Michael call you back?

Michael Barrish was looking for an apartment. When he found one, the landlord required proof that he makes and has made considerably more money than he does and has. That he can afford the apartment and is a model tenant did not impress the landlord. It occurred to Michael Barrish that:

… if you were a “bad” person, a person who is willing under certain unfortunate circumstances to do “bad” things, you might decide to create bogus tax documents, using the handy downloadable forms provided by the IRS.

If you were a Japanese person, you would contact an aribai-ya (a professional alibi service).

The day before the Oblivio post appeared, the Mainichi Daily News WaiWai page featured a Ryann Connell item about aribai-ya (or alibiya) titled Sex, lies and alibis. WaiWai, which summarizes articles from Japan’s scandal-mongering “newsmagazines,” runs an alibiya story every couple of years. In this latest one, a girl named “Naoko” comes to Tokyo from the countryside to work in the pink trade. Once she’s saved enough money to “borrow” (i.e. rent) an apartment, she finds that Tokyo landlords regard soapland employees with the same suspicion that New York landlords show towards freelance Web developers.

A coworker suggested that Naoko contact an alibiya:

I called them immediately. They told me I work for an import company located in Shibuya and gave me a phone number. Of course, all the information was a total lie. Just in case, I got them to make me some company ID and tax withholding slips. It was perfect. My landlord thought I was just an average office worker and I had no problems borrowing an apartment.

According to the original Shukan Taishu article, 80% of the alibiya’s business comes from female sex workers having difficulty renting an apartment.

For three months worth of fake pay slips, it costs only 10,000 yen a sheet. A tax withholding slip goes for 13,000 yen. Answering phone calls while pretending to be an employee of a nonexistent company where the client claims to work is only 8,000 yen for two months. Acting as a post office box service sets back the client just 5,000 yen a month.

I suspect that Michael Barrish would find these rates more than reasonable: US$82 for the fake pay slips, $107 for the tax withholding slip, and just $66 for two months of answering the phone in the name of one’s nonexistent employer. And a lot less trouble than borrowing a typewriter to fill in the downloaded 1099s or W2s and having a friend prepare a bogus accountant’s income estimate on a letterhead you’ve had to design. (Trust the Japanese to turn George Constanza’s mythical import/export company, Vanderlay Industries, into a thriving commercial reality.)

As well as imaginary receptionists and bosses, alibiya can also supply corporeal “wedding guests,” “funeral mourners,” or the “professor” who supervised your Ph.D. studies at a prestigious university. A 1996 WaiWai story, reprinted in the anthology Tokyo Confidential, told of a Setagaya alibiya with 500 part-timers on its books: “people with theatrical ambitions, or office ladies who studied drama in college, or members of amateur theatrical troupes.”

The fee depends on the kinds of guests required—office workers, corporate executives, or refined aristocrats—but generally starts at ¥30,000 (US$246) per guest. Coincidentally or not, that’s what I’ve offered as a cash gift at each of the Japanese weddings I’ve attended, ¥30,000 being the going rate for a non-relative. It’s an intriguing reversal that the bride and groom have to pay the alibiya the same fee per guest that they would normally receive from real friends and work colleagues.

Still, who’d want to put a price on a happy wedding?

“I was kicked out of home and there was no way my parents or any relatives would turn up for my wedding,” sex shop worker Ritsuko, as we’ll call her, tells Shukan Taishu. “But my boyfriend’s family is really traditional, so they’d be mad if they knew my family regarded me as a pariah. The alibiya gathered a group of people who acted as though they were my parents and relatives. The guy acting as though he were my dad gave a really moving speech. My in-laws were so delighted, they started crying tears of joy.”

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Thursday 07 November 2002

A bystander who cares must wonder…

I can’t recall any recent piece of writing that has resonated with me so much yet which has challenged my preconceptions more deeply than A Message from Andrius Kulikauskas, to which David Weinberger linked in last month’s JOHO. The dual triumphs in a single week, of Bill Gates and George W. Bush, can hardly be unrelated—they brought to mind three paragraphs from Andrius’s remarkable essay:

I know that America has a troubled past, notably slavery, the crushing of natives, the invasion of Mexico, the regime making by the CIA. Yet all these wrongs recede away from the everlasting principles to which Americans commit their country to. Around the world, these principles bring hope for the future, for Americans hold them true not only for themselves, but also for others.

But now I hear from the President that it is most important for America to enforce its values around the world, which of course, means that it is less important to worry what those values are. In other words, others should worry about their values in a way that America need not. This is the ugliness of the British Empire, or the Roman Empire, or any empire, where insiders practice on themselves very different values than they do on others.

A bystander who cares must wonder, if America can allow itself such an unremarkable President, receptive Congress, and acquiescent people, then they must be quite out of touch with those values that make America everlasting. If America succeeds here, then it will not be for having risen to any challenge. America will simply confirm itself on a path towards that violence that will ultimately dissolve it.

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Wednesday 12 March 2003

Riding easy in harness

[This long entry consists mainly of quotes from other weblogs, which I’ve assembled primarily for my own benefit, since they articulate what is perhaps my most central belief.]

In the last couple of days I’ve received—courtesy of Burningbird, Trevor Bechtel, and The Happy Tutor—a quick refresher course in How Context Shapes Meaning (a subject in which I’d mistakenly imagined I had some expertise).

In her passionately argued essay, Uncompromising Individualism, Burningbird quoted a paragraph from Trevor Bechtel’s Against Independence:

Isn’t the cultural narrative of communities much more powerful than any personal self-knowledge I, or any individual, might posess. Surely I must assent to aspects of one or more communities representations of the world and this in turn shapes the community but the articulation is at the community level first and always most strongly. I may struggle mightily with a community, even one I feel deeply committed to, but it is only in understanding my life in the context of a communal narrative that I can understand life at all. Culture moves us forward not in an inevitable march of progress but simply because it forces us to stand on others shoulders. There is no scratch from which an individual could start an articulation of self-knowledge. And even if there was, who would want to?

I’d already found myself in deep disagreement with Trevor, along the lines that Burningbird expressed when she wrote:

To make of each of us into nothing more than a puppet to the community’s whims and actions would still see me back in a small town in the middle of nowhere, married with a dozen children, racist, bigoted, and afraid of anything outside of that which is comfortably familiar. However, lest you think it was exposure to another community that changed me, think again. It was my own uncompromising individuality that started my discordant communion with my ‘community’.

The “communities” that immediately sprung to mind midway through reading Trevor’s argument were those in places like Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda—“communities” riven by long-standing religious, tribal, or racial conflict; “communities” defined by generations of bigotry, racism, hatred, violence, and killing.

It wasn’t until I read the The Happy Tutor’s defence that I realized I’d completely misunderstood what Trevor had said. Here’s the “offending” paragraph as I originally perceived it:

Isn’t the cultural narrative of communities much more powerful than any personal self-knowledge I, or any individual, might posess. Surely I must assent to aspects of one or more communities representations of the world and this in turn shapes the community but the articulation is at the community level first and always most strongly. I may struggle mightily with a community, even one I feel deeply committed to, but it is only in understanding my life in the context of a communal narrative that I can understand life at all. Culture moves us forward not in an inevitable march of progress but simply because it forces us to stand on others shoulders. There is no scratch from which an individual could start an articulation of self-knowledge. And even if there was, who would want to?

In a series of insightful posts and comments, The Happy Tutor redirected my attention to the phrases I’d missed (again the emphases are mine):

cultural narrative
understanding my life in the context of a communal narrative
stand on others shoulders
no scratch from which an individual could start an articulation of self-knowledge

The Tutor on Individualism as Moral Insanity:

Well, Crusoe thought he could succeed in isolation, so did Descartes, so do many entreprenuers - deluded souls! There is no Private Language, or if there is it is tantamount to insanity. Individualism is the most group-think concept of our American Heritage, our communal illusion, like the oxymoron, Free Market.

The Tutor On Humility of Spirit (Or, Kiss my Whip):

When AKMA speaks of his own teachers, he does it with reverence and humility. Each is taught and teacher in turn. The current passes as from a powerful magnet through a chain of iron rings, each holding the other. Original? Trevor is not original, he is different, and faithful. “Christian humility” — think of Dr. Johnson on his knees.

The Tutor on Community and the Individual Talent, if Any:

The self is a prison house. The only escape from the self is mastery of a tradition, to become through years of subordination, accepted into a succession of masters under masters going back generations within a living community of practice. Through that mastery we achieve not our own voice, but the voice of something greater that may once or twice in a lifetime speak through us. Lord I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof, but say but the word and my soul shall be healed.

Jim’s comment on Individualism as Moral Insanity

Well, I would agree with your view that individuality is largely illusive. But the view that originality is just a mirage? No.

It’s real. Elusive, rare, but real.

It is visited upon us occasionally, exclusive of will. Infuses this sorry bag of bones. Dissolves the boundaries of tissue. Steals the common breath. Leaves us gasping, instead, with HOPE.

That we might be gifted momentarily with a less limited vision. That we might *approach* God. This is a constructive and merciful illusion. Let it be.

The Tutor’s response to Jim’s comment:

Excellent, and much on point. The way you put it is exactly right, “We are visited by….” We are visited by the Muse, the Holy Spirit, the tongues of flame, the burning coal, the vernal breeze, the volcanic force, by “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” To others it appears that speaker is original. To the speaker it feels like letting go, while the voice of something greater takes over… the voice of the community, so that you are speaking not just to them, but for them, the voice of a tradition, or, in prophecy, the voice of the Holy Spirit.

Maybe Randall Jarrell, one of the best 20th century critics, and also a poet, put it best. He said a poet is distinguished from a craftsman in that in a life time of standing out in the rain, he manages to get hit by lightning once or twice.

Originality, authenticity, voice — so many blather about these, but do all they can to avoid the lightning, that would shatter the self they so cherish.

I’m not religious, though like The Tutor “I stand respectfully, and feel a kind of awe, in the presence of that faith.” So when Trevor Bechtel writes “it is only in understanding my life in the context of a communal narrative that I can understand life at all” and The Happy Tutor adds “the only escape from the self is mastery of a tradition,” I immediately recognize and acknowledge that these beliefs have always informed my attempts to understand and practice the two crafts that have imbued my life with meaning: photography and writing.

When The Tutor describes “a succession of masters under masters going back generations within a living community of practice”, I recall my nineteen year struggle to become part of a photographic tradition that starts (for me) with Carleton Watkins and Timothy O’Sullivan’s images of the 19th century American landscape and runs through the 20th century in the work of Diane Arbus, Eugene Atget, Richard Avedon, Bill Brandt, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, William Klein, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, W. Eugene Smith, and Weegee.

I know the all-too-infrequent feeling of “letting go, while the voice of something greater takes over”, of discovering on a contact sheet something beautiful and true and of having no recollection of “taking” that picture—rather the photograph had “taken” me, in the sense that the subject took possession of me, expressing itself through me, as a spirit speaks through a medium.

Jackson Browne, in the song Fountains of Sorrow (from Late for the Sky) expresses the complementary occurrence when he sings:

Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer
I was taken by a photograph of you

In this case, the same spirit takes possession of the viewer and puts him or her in touch with what captured the photographer at the instant the picture took itself.

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

Enough! I’m rambling. Allow me to finish by acknowledging the truth of The Tutor’s quote from Frost: “Freedom is riding easy in harness.” That’s because a shared cultural tradition turns out to be a considerate as well as a firm master so that the harness eventually becomes light, and soft, and comfortably worn.

Or, as the Japanese say, The further one travels along a narrow path, the wider it becomes.

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Saturday 29 March 2003

Window dressing


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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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Thursday 15 May 2003

Tattoo what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday 25 May 2003

tATu you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Word: They are teenage Russian lesbians.

Morissey: Well, aren’t we all?

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Wednesday 06 August 2003

Comment policy

I caught up on the controversy about annotating comments left on on one’s blog by reading the arguments for and against, which are canvassed thoroughly in these posts and their accompanying comments:

I've always had an extremely liberal policy regarding comments about posts on this weblog: in 16 months of blogging I've removed one off-topic comment (though I should probably have removed a few more), a couple of abusive comments, and perhaps 30 spam comments. I doubt that having a comment policy will change things significantly. So why have one at all? Because the most cogent criticism leveled against Sam Ruby--I found the accusations of "censorship" unpersuasive--was that he implemented the policy without prior warning.

Here's my comment policy, which is based (very loosely) on Mark Pilgrim's but without the strikethrough annotation pioneered by Sam Ruby:

  • Wildly off-topic comments will be removed.
  • Spam (i.e. comments containing irrelevant links to commercial sites) will be removed.
  • Abusive comments will be removed.

Although Mark Pilgrim regards trackbacks as remote comments and subjects them to the same rules, like James Snell I'm inclined to be less stringent about trackbacks (it remains to be seen whether trackback spam becomes a problem).

In the interests of openness and transparency, material that has been removed will be identified thus:

  • [Removed (off-topic)]
  • [Removed (spam)]
  • [Removed (abusive)]

Links to spammer's sites will be deleted, their email addresses changed to, and their names truncated to four letters.

(I may implement Phil Ringalda's hack for /lib/MT/App/ that rejects comments from scumbag-z*

Comments may not be enabled for some posts and might be closed for others at my discretion. TrackBacks are now listed above comments on the individual archive pages.

In essence, nothing much has changed, rather some unstated practices have been made explicit. I'll sum up by quoting the request that Tom Coates includes at the beginning of the comments section of each of his posts:

Please remember to try and keep your comments on-topic, informative and polite. Unpopular viewpoints are welcome as long as they're pertinent. Some posts may be deleted if they would have been better sent as e-mails...

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Tuesday 19 August 2003

Sen to chihiro no kamikakushi

It was probably silly and unfair to watch Richard Linklater’s Waking Life immediately after seeing Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away. I’d been looking forward to Linklater’s “animated-live-action” movie for a couple of years, ever since reading the Stephanie Zacharek’s Salon review.

The picture, which Linklater both wrote and directed, is a collagelike meditation on the nature of dreams, on the ways in which we proceed through our lives with varying levels of awareness (or a complete lack of it), and on the degree to which we’re influenced by random elements like art or physics or language.

What’s not to like? Art and language absorb most of my attention. And, it’s not just that I have intense, engrossing dreams almost every night—I’ve long been convinced that life is a yume no ukihashi (“a floating bridge of dreams”), in the words of Ivan Morris, “a flimsy, dreamlike structure which we cross in our journey from one state of existence to another”.

There’s no point in trying to explain why I didn’t persist with Waking Life; under different circumstances I might have loved it. The real surprise was the degree to which I was spirited away by Miyazaki’s film. My interest in Japanese language and culture—intense as it is—has never encompassed anime. I’ve seen and enjoyed some of the classics such as Ninja Scroll, Ghost in the Shell, The Castle of Cagliostro, Akira, Wings of Honneamise, Neon Genesis Evangelion plus a few hentai titles. Earlier in the year I even waited in line for a special screening of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, only to be turned away when they sold the last tickets to a couple just ahead of me. Still, that hardly qualifies me as a anime fan—you’d cover all the movies I’ve mentioned and more in the first week of Anime 101.

To be honest, I’d been put off by the hype surrounding Spirited Away. But on Thursday nights it’s only AU$2.95 per three-day rental so I grabbed Spirited Away, Waking Life, and a Henry Jaglom movie, Festival in Cannes, which turned out to be a disappointment too. (I’ve admired Henry Jaglom ever since his first feature, the magical A Safe Place, with Orson Welles, Jack Nicholson, and Tuesday Weld but I wrongly assumed that Anouk Aimée would more than compensate for the irksome Gretta Scacchi.)

Poster for Spirited Away (Sen to chihiro no kamikakushi)Though I expected to watch a different movie each night, on Thursday night I didn’t even get half-way through Spirited Away. I kept rewinding (do you rewind a DVD?) and watching scenes over and over again—partly to savor the dialog, mainly because the movie is so densely packed with intriguing characters, gorgeous animation, and nostalgic details of everyday Japanese life. On Friday night I managed to get to the end. At which point, even though it was late, I started to watch Spirited Away a second time.

On Saturday morning I spent some time at, where I was astonished to learn that the Japanese title is 千と千尋の神隠し (Sen to chihiro no kamikakushi) which is (literally) “Sen and Chihiro’s spiriting away” or “Sen and Chihiro’s (experience of) being spirited away”.

神隠し (kamikakushi) is derived from (kami: god) and 隠す (kakusu: hide/conceal). One of my dictionaries offers the following example sentence:

Mukashi, kodomo ga yukuefumei ni naru to kamikakushi ni atta to itta mono da.
Formerly, when children were missing, people used to say they had been spirited away (by a fairy [ghost]).

Sen and chi are alternate pronunciations for the character , meaning “one thousand”, while hiro, , means “fathom” (1.8 meters or six feet). Jim Breen’s Enamdict dictionary of Japanese names, offers the meanings “one thousand fathoms”, “great depth”, and “bottomless” for Chihiro though the second meaning, “great depth”, is probably closest.

I’m sure that 99.99% of a Western audience would think of 10 year-old Chihiro as the protagonist of Spirited Away. Chihiro and her parents wander into an invisible parallel world populated by gods and monsters, a hot spring town where “eight million gods come to rest their weary bones”. Her parents are turned into pigs and Chihiro’s only chance of surviving long enough to set them free is to work for Yubaba, the greedy witch who runs the bath house where most of the action takes place. Yubaba deprives Chihiro of her name, saying that it’s too complicated, and that from now on she’ll be known as Sen.

Thus, from a Western perspective, a timid, querulous little girl Chihiro is “turned into” Sen and discovers through the course of the story that she is resourceful, loyal, and courageous whereupon, at the end, she “turns back into herself” (Chihiro) again. Not only does the English title, Spirited Away, infer that the story is about Chihiro alone but the French and Spanish titles are completely unambiguous: Le Voyage de Chihiro and El viaje de Chihiro respectively. The Russian version is called Unesenniye prizrakami (I trust a Russian speaker will reveal the meaning in a comment) whereas the Chinese title is Shen Yin Shao Niu (The Missing Girl).

But the original Japanese title, Sen to chihiro no kamikakushi (“Sen and Chihiro’s spiriting away”) implies that Sen was always present within Chihiro and one of the story’s themes is Chihiro’s discovering a lost or unacknowledged part of her identity. I’m not suggesting that a Western audience won’t understand the story at this level; I’m simply pointing out that the Western translations of the title fail to communicate something that—from the Japanese perspective—lies at the heart of the story. Sen always understands that her “real” name is Chihiro and that if she forgets her name she has no chance of freeing herself and her parents. In that sense, another theme of the film is the need to value words, including one’s name. As Miyazaki Hayao explains:

A word has power. In the world into which Chihiro has wandered, to say a word out of one’s mouth has a grave importance. At Yuya, which is ruled by Yubaba, if Chihiro says one word like “No” or “I wanna go home,” the witch would quickly throw Chihiro out. She would have no choice but to keep aimlessly wandering until she vanishes, or is changed into a chicken to keep laying eggs until she is eaten. In turn, if Chihiro says “I will work here,” even the witch cannot ignore her. Today, words are considered very lightly, as something like bubbles. It is just a reflection of reality being empty. It is still true that a word has power. It’s just that the world is filled with empty and powerless words.

The act of depriving (a person) of one’s name is not just changing how one (person) calls the other. It is a way to rule the other (person) completely. Sen becomes horrified when she realizes that she is losing the memory of her name, Chihiro. And every time she visits her parents at the pigsty, she becomes (more) accustomed to her parents as pigs. In the world of Yubaba, you should always live in the danger of being eaten up.

In this difficult world, Chihiro becomes lively. The sullen, listless character would have a surprisingly attractive expression in the end of the film. The essence of the world has not changed a bit. This film will persuade one of the fact that a word is one’s will, oneself, and one’s power.

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Saturday 30 August 2003

You can put your god over there…

Years ago, while waiting at a bus stop outside a Hungry Jack’s hamburger outlet in downtown Sydney, I found myself standing next to a young Asian woman holding a thick Bible and wearing a badge on which was inscribed, in white letters on a black background:


I’d seen hundreds of young Mormon men over the years, in their short-sleeved white shirts and black trousers, with identical Bibles and similar badges—particularly around the entertainment district where I was waiting for the bus—but Sister Nakajima was the first Japanese Christian I’d ever encountered. I’ve often wished I had overcome my reticence and asked about her religious faith. My feeling of being in the presence of a freak (in the sense of “an eccentric, peculiar, or unorthodox person”) was nothing more than an expression of the widely-held belief in the incompatibility between Christianity and the Japanese Weltanschauung.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “worldview” as:

  1. The overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world.
  2. A collection of beliefs about life and the universe held by an individual or a group.
    In both senses also called Weltanschauung.

I chose the original German word rather than its English equivalent because its “weight” seems to better express the idea that the Japanese do see and interpret certain aspects of the world differently. (So do the Kurds and the Peruvians, you might say, and I agree—but we’re discussing religion and the Japanese willingness to accept different religious traditions is unusual, if not unique.)

I thought of Sister Nakajima of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints when I read Burningbird’s essay, Shinto Commandments, itself a response to Joi Ito’s entry, The whole “there is only one God and my God is the best” thing…, in which Joi wrote:

As we Shintos like to say, you can put your god over there next to our other gods. While you’re at it, why don’t you get off your high horse and quit defining Good and Evil as Us and Them.

Burningbird concluded her discussion of Chief Justice Roy Moore’s granite statue of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court building by saying:

All in all, I like Joi’s Shinto beliefs, with the concept of there being room for all gods. Yeah, hard to fight about that one.

I like Joi’s Shinto beliefs too, as does my friend Natsuko who, as she was eating the last of her pancake stack in my garden this morning, said: “I’m not religious, that wasn’t part of my upbringing, but I do believe in supernatural beings. And it suits me to know that there are gods everywhere—in these plants and stones, in this pancake and that unko.” (The unko in question being a lump of dried cat shit that Reimi had neglected to cover with soil.)

But it’s not just the animist belief that there are gods everywhere that I like. It’s the fact that Japanese “religious” belief encompasses Buddhism and Confucianism as well as Shinto. As Edwin O. Reischauer explains:

Since Shinto was unconcerned with the problem of the afterlife that dominated Buddhist thought, and Mahayana was no exclusive, jealous religion but throughout its spread easily accommodated itself to local faiths, Buddhism and Shinto settled into a comfortable coexistence, with Shinto shrines often becoming administratively linked with Buddhist monasteries. The Japanese never developed the idea, so prevalent in South and West Asia as well as the West, that a person had to adhere exclusively to one religion or another. Premodern Japanese were usually both Buddhists and Shintoists at the same time and often enough Confucianists as well.

“Hard to fight about that one”, said Burningbird, which is precisely the point. For me, the defining characteristic of Christian and Islamic religious belief is sectarianism, not just the bigoted conviction that “there is only one God and my God is the best” but “although we both believe in the same God, my way of expressing that belief is superior to yours.” When I was a child, this kind of partisan adherence to one Christian denomination or another was still common, although not as deeply entrenched as it was before World War II when it was impossible if you were a Catholic to get a job in certain department stores or Government departments.

Whatever the faults of the Japanese—as Charlie Whipple correctly points out in Joi Ito’s comments, “If ever anyone defined things in terms of ‘us and them,’ it’s the Japanese”—religious bigotry isn’t high on the list. (Christianity was ruthlessly suppressed by the Tokugawa shogunate in the late 16th and early 17th century only because the imported religion was seen as a grave political threat.)

When I was 14 or 15 I incurred my father’s disapproval by suggesting at the dinner table that one religion was as good as another, that the only important issue was whether or not one behaved honorably. A few years later I might have added that, since the religions of the book appear to exacerbate and alleviate human suffering in roughly equal proportions, the best idea might be to have no religions at all. But since that is unrealistic, the Japanese solution—of believing in multiple gods and allowing Buddhism and Shinto to peacefully coexist—is a fine alternative, particularly since it also subtly underscores the arbitrary nature of religious belief.

I occasionally wonder whether Sister Nakajima remained a Christian, or whether she came to accept, as literary critic Katō Shuichi says of other Japanese Christians who eventually fled the faith, “that Christianity was incompatible with the traditional Japanese sensibilty and world-view”. If so, perhaps she transferred her allegiance to one of the “new religions” that, in Reischauer’s words, “do not cater to the typical Western religious need for individual strength through the establishment of a personal bond with God, but rather to the typical Japanese need for a supportive social environment”.

(Although it’s difficult to take these religions seriously once you’ve seen Itami Juzo’s mordant satire, A Taxing Woman’s Return, in which investigator Itakura Ryoko sets out to prove that the Chief Elder of the Heaven’s Path religion is evading tax on the billions of yen he’s making from donations and land scams.)

Most of the “new religions” are based mainly on Shinto though the biggest, Soka Gakkai, is associated with the Buddhist Nichiren sect. (I wasn’t at all surprised that Joi Ito’s entry about meeting Kenji Yoshigo, the Vice President and Executive Director of the Soka Gakkai Office of International Affairs provoked an avalanche of hostile comments.)

The third volume of Katō’s A History of Japanese Literature offers an extensive treatment of the influence of Christianity on Japanese novelists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Katō describes how, in the years following the Meiji Restoration of 1868 (which replaced the feudal system with a modern unified state), Christian missionaries at the Kumamoto Western School and the Sapporo Agricultural School were able to convert a number of their Japanese students:

Many of the converts that the American Protestant missionaries made were from samurai families, particularly ones who had served the Bakufu or pro-Bakufu domains and resisted the forces of Chōshu and Satsuma. Thus their acceptance of Episcopalianism, the doctrines of the Dutch Reformed Church or another creed was not completely unconnected with their critical feelings towards the new regime. This was not the only reason however. Protestantism must have seemed to provide ‘a window on the West’, not only on western learning and technology but on a system of values that would be effective in the destruction of the values of Tokugawa feudalism. The missionaries emphasized the significance of the allegiance of Japanese to their nation in a period when one of the main problems facing the samurai class was the transfer of allegiance from domain to nation, and thus without being fully aware of it touched upon one of the most sensitive spots of their hearers. Moreover the missionaries, or at least some of them, were dearly men of integrity, dedication and courage. The attraction that their characters had for the young warriors can only have been strengthened by the fact that some of them had experienced combat in the American Civil War.

According to Katō, many of the intellectuals who had converted to Christianity left the church without any great internal drama “quite soon after being baptized”. A few made some considerable efforts to justify their apostasy:

The doctrines of Christianity and the kind of faith it required basically could not coexist with the Japanese world-view. If potential converts did not destroy the latter they could not accept the former. If however it was simply a matter of appreciating the characters of the missionaries or being attracted by western things the ‘converts’ would not have found it necessary to deny the traditional world-view.

Apart from a minority, best represented by Uchimura Kanzō, who lived his entire life according to (his interpretation of) the Christian doctrine, most Japanese writers “converted” to Christianity as a means of furthering their literary careers. Many of these, including Shimazaki Tōson, Masamune Hakuchō, Kunikida Doppo, Tayama Katai and Iwano Hōmei, were associated with Japanese naturalism. Coming from either rural or minor samurai families, they moved to Tokyo where they were soon attracted to the Protestant church, “the organization directly connected with western language (English in their case), thought and literature.” Whereas government officials and state university graduates such as Natsume Sōseki and Mori Ōgai received scholarships to study in England and Germany for four and five years respectively, Tōson and Hakuchō spent similar periods as members of the Protestant church:

Doppo, Tōson, Hakuchō and Hōmei were all baptized before they were twenty but none of them remained in the church for more than five years. The church opened a window on the West but it is probable that the essential parts of the faith—righteousness defined through a relationship with a transcendent absolute and salvation through Christ—would not have been convincing for these young writers whose ambition it was to be true to themselves.

Katō suggests that the Christian religion, in addition to providing an introduction to English and western culture, also offered the young writers a sense of community which relieved them from the isolation of Tokyo whilst providing an alternative to the bureaucratic advancement from which they were excluded.

They had to seek their own identity either within themselves or as part of a group which was neither the family they had left nor the power structure of the state. The Protestant church, preaching as it did the salvation of the individual, must have seemed to offer them a basis for their search for identity as independent personalities.

Eventually, however, they were disappointed by “all the ceremonies and forms” of the church which expected them to carry out God’s will whereas they “had hoped that it would give them the means to express themselves”.

It did not take them long to find that their hopes were misplaced and that they could also avoid isolation by becoming members of another group, made up of writers. Thus it is not surprising that Tōson and Hakuchō began to write seriously and vigorously at the same time as they left the church and that as soon as they began to write they gathered colleagues to form literary groups.

While the samurai converts in the previous generation had seen Christianity as providing a theoretical rationale for their political objectives, the naturalist group converted (temporarily) for utilitarian reasons. As I have already noted, four of the five writers left the church within five years. The other, Masamune Hakuchō, had originally converted because of a dangerous illness, as he explained in his book Ikiru to iu koto (To Be Alive):

When people are gravely ill they are in a mood to appeal to any god or buddha; at that time I had come into contact with Christianity so I was in the mood to pray to the Christian God.

Towards the end of his life Hakuchō wrote: “I imagine that at the hour of my death I will either chant [the Buddhist invocation] Namu amida butsu or murmur the name of Christ”.

In fact, he died “with the name of Christ on his lips” but, as Katō explains:

The motivation for his return to Christianity was primarily his desire to appeal to “any god or buddha” and the choice of god was secondary.This attitude is basically the same as the Japanese of ancient times who would pray to a range of Shinto and Buddhist deities when they faced danger. From Nihon ryōiki to Shasekishū and Shingaku the ordinary Japanese has not felt any need to make a choice between Buddhism and Shinto; both were accepted. When Hakuchō returned to Christianity it was not with the expectation of being judged by a transcendent power but rather with the hope of salvation, not looking for an ultimate manifestation of righteousness but ‘a place of freedom from care’ and a Christ whose mercy would be not unlike that of Amida. Hakuchō was perhaps closer than any other author since the Restoration to the traditional world-view of the Japanese masses. Christianity did not change Hakucho; Hakucho modified Christianity.

There is nothing new in this—the Japanese willingness to absorb and modify foreign cultural influences started in the third century AD with the adoption of Korean agricultural practices and intensified in the sixth century AD when the Japanese began a sustained borrowing of Chinese technology and institutional values that lasted for nearly two hundred years. A similar process occurred after the Meiji Restoration when the Japanese government “dispatched students abroad to acquire new skills and hired Western experts at great expense to come to Japan”. The Japanese created a bicameral government with a House of Peers similar to the British House of Lords and a House of Representatives elected by a tiny group of male taxpayers. They adopted a system of medicine based on German practice as well as a court and legal system based first on French then later on German models. The Japanese Navy was modeled on the Royal Navy, the Army followed the Prussian example. In 1894-95 Japanese forces easily defeated China in a war over the control of Korea and ten years later inflicted a humiliating defeat on Russia, again over who would control Korea. In a period of only fifty years, Japan had transformed itself from a feudal backwater to a modern industrial state.

Thus, in extracting what they needed from Christianity then casting the religion aside, the Japanese naturalist writers were following long-established and successful precedents.

I once asked Natsuko why she thought that Japan, alone amongst all the countries of Asia, had been able to industrialize so quickly and with relatively little internal disruption. She thought for a while and answered, “I think it’s because we Japanese don’t really believe in anything.”

She wasn’t actually saying that the Japanese don’t have strongly held beliefs since that clearly isn’t true. Like everyone else, the Japanese believe in many things. Rather I think she was suggesting that the Japanese have a more flexible attitude towards belief, that they are the kind of people who say: “You can put your god over there next to our other gods. And if we think your god might be useful, we’ll adopt that god too—but only after we’ve transformed it into something quintessentially Japanese.”

It’s this flexibility (or pragmatism) that is, I suspect—at least for those of us who are not fundamentalists—extremely appealing.

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Monday 13 October 2003

What life is

Life is not what one has lived, but what one remembers and how one chooses to tell it.

Gabriel García Márquez, Living to Tell the Tale

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Monday 04 October 2004

Saigo Takamori and me

Darryl SomersFor much of my life people have been telling me I look like someone else. Someone famous, that is. Or semi-famous.

Like Darryl Somers, the host of Hey Hey It’s Saturday, a TV variety program that ran on Australian television from 1971 to 1999. I draw some (illusory) comfort from the fact that, according to Google, I’m more “famous” than Darryl Somers (who rates less than 300 hits against my 20,000 plus).

Separate photographs of Jonathon Delacour and Rowan Atkinson as Mr BeanSince February I’ve been meeting each week for a language exchange lesson with a young Japanese woman, Haruka. Recently, when her family came to Sydney for a brief visit and we all had dinner together, Haruka asked her younger sister whether I reminded her of someone famous.

Misutaa biin,” Chigusa replied, without a moment’s hesitation, though Haruka actually had someone else in mind. I hadn’t realized Mr Bean was popular in Japan too.

Enid Blyton's NoddyIn my final year at university, my friends called me Noddy, after the Enid Blyton character who lives in Toyland, drives a little red car, and has a friend called Big Ears.

I actually had a friend called Big Ears (his real name was Greg Gibbons), though I can’t recall whether he acquired his nickname because of mine or vice versa. The following year, when we were sharing a house in Glebe with a couple of other people, he gave me a Noddy hat for my birthday (imagine a floppy blue dunce’s cap, with a gold bell on the end). A girlfriend at the time introduced me to her mother, adding that everyone called me Noddy. “Well, now that you mention it,” her mother replied in a refined British accent, “he does look rather like Noddy.”

Separate photographs of Michael J Pollard and Jonathon DelacourBig Ears was the first person to notice a resemblance between me and Michael J Pollard. Nowadays I doubt that many people will recognize Pollard (in the top photograph) or me—with long hair—in the bottom one. Leonard Maltin describes Pollard as “inexplicably popular, though he never seemed to be playing anyone other than himself,” yet in 1967 both he and Gene Hackman were nominated for the Best Supporting Actor award for their roles in Bonnie and Clyde (George Kennedy won, for playing a brutal chain-gang boss in Cool Hand Luke.)

Pollard’s IMDB biography includes some fascinating pieces of trivia:

In 1966, at the age of 27, Michael Pollard was hired as a guest star on Star Trek, playing “Jahn” in the episode Miri. The script called for an actor 14 years of age, but Pollard got the part anyway since his agent convinced the show’s producers that he looked like a teenager even though he was close to 30.

An early career break occurred when Pollard was brought in as a replacement during the first season of TV’s “Dobie Gillis.” Co-star Bob Denver, who was stealing the show as Dobie’s beatnik buddy Maynard G. Krebs, was going to be drafted into the Army and had to exit the series. When Denver was classified “4-F” due to a longstanding neck injury and returned, Pollard’s character of weird cousin Jerome Krebs was quickly written out.

Leonard Maltin describes Michael J Pollard as “this homuncular, elfin character”. Neither of my electronic dictionaries—The New Oxford Dictionary of English and Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary—had an entry for “homuncular” but offered two (related) meanings:

  1. A diminutive human.
  2. A miniature, fully formed individual believed by adherents of the early biological theory of preformation to be present in the sperm cell.

Statue of Saigō Takamori in Ueno Park, from Ozu's Record of a Tenement GentlemanAt 5’11” (179cm), I’m hardly diminutive, but nor am I as immense as Saigō Takamori (西郷隆盛), whom Haruka had in mind when she asked her sister whether I reminded her of someone famous—and whose statue in Ueno Park features in the final sequence of Ozu’s Record of a Tenement Gentleman (長屋紳士録, Nagaya shinshiroku, 1947), which I saw again last week.

It’s about a widow, Otane (Iida Chōko), who has been tricked by her neighbours, Tashiro (Ryū Chishū) and Tamekichi (Kawamura Reikichi), into looking after a homeless boy and who spends most of the film trying to get rid of him. But when he runs away and then turns up again, she realizes she has come to love him. The boy’s father, who has been searching everywhere, finally comes to claim him so Otane decides to adopt another child. She asks Tashiro, a fortuneteller, where she should look for a boy.

“Weren’t you born in the Year of the Boar?” asks Tashiro.
“Yes,” replies Otane.
“Then you should head in the direction of Hongō or Shitaya,” he tells her.
“If it’s Shitaya, then Ueno is in the same direction,” says Otane.
“Saigō-san’s in Ueno,” adds Tamekichi.
“Look around there and see what you come up with,” advises Tashiro.
“Mmm, that bronze statue of Saigō-san,” says Otane to herself.

1946 news photograph of homeless boys climbing on Saigō's statue in Ueno ParkOzu cuts to Ueno Park, ending the film with—in David Bordwell words—“a sequence that at once pulls the film together and opens it onto a broader referentiality. In six shots, Ozu presents a crowd of homeless boys around the famous statue of Saigō… By returning the 1947 audience to the world that awaits them outside the theater, the film presents practical material to test Otane’s lesson of kindness.” (Bordwell’s book, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, includes this news photo from 1946, captioned “Homeless boys climb on statue of Saigō in Ueno Park.”)

The bronze statue of Saigō Takamori, which was erected in Ueno Park in 1898, survived the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the American firebombing in 1945, and a short-lived decision by the postwar Occupation authorities to demolish it as a symbol of Japanese nationalism and militarism. Saigō, a samurai from the Satsuma domain (now Kagoshima prefecture) in Kyūshū, was a leader in overthrowing the Tokugawa shogunate and establishing the Meiji government in 1867-68. In 1877, disillusioned by the corrupt relationships that the new political establishment had formed with business leaders, Saigō led a rebellion against the central government that ended in his defeat and suicide—events portrayed with laughable inaccuracy in the execrable Tom Cruise vehicle, The Last Samurai.

Saigō’s widow “did not like the statue”, writes Edward Seidensticker in High City, Low City, “Never, she said, had she seen him so poorly dressed”. In the Ueno Park statue Saigō, accompanied by his dog, wears hunting garb; in another statue, in Kagoshima’s Central Park, he is wearing a military uniform.

In The Last Samurai, the Saigō Takamori character, Katsumoto, is played by Watanabe Ken, who matches Saigō’s height, if not his build—for he was anything but “homuncular”. As Ivan Morris explains in The Nobility of Failure, “he would have been an imposing figure in any country, but in nineteenth-century Japan he was a veritable Gargantua”…

Takamori’s physique was inherited from several generations in the Saigō family, his father being a burly man over six feet tall and a powerful sumō wrestler. Takamori is said to have been a huge, wide-eyed baby, and at school he was known for his bulk. As an adult he was just under six feet tall and weighed over two hundred and forty pounds. He had a bull neck (his collar size was 19½ inches) and immensely broad shoulders. People who met him were invariably struck by his large, piercing eyes (the British diplomat Satow described him as having “an eye that sparkled like a big black diamond”) and by the great, bushy eyebrows. A recent biographer adds that he was endowed with huge testicles (idai naru kōgan), though the source of this particular detail is not specified.

My essay in Japanese on Saigo TakamoriI wouldn’t have bothered seeing The Last Samurai had not Haruka suggested “An Interesting Travel Experience” as one our first essay topics. (When we first discussed how to structure our language exchange lessons, I proposed that, in addition to our conversation and reading practice, we should write an essay each week—Haruka’s in English, mine in Japanese—and correct each other’s efforts during the next lesson.)

For her travel essay, Haruka wrote about waking up suddenly on a train in Thailand and, not realizing that the train had been delayed while she was sleeping, getting off at the wrong stop where she met a Thai boy with whom she then had a brief love affair. I wrote about a trip I took by train around Kyūshū in 1997, to take photographs for a web project.

Map of my trip around KyushuI flew into Fukuoka, where I stayed a night, and went to Nagasaki for a couple of days. Then it was on to Kumamoto before heading south through Minamata (where photojournalist W. Eugene Smith had documented the plight of the victims of Minamata Disease who had been poisoned by mercury dumped into the sea by the Chisso Corporation). I spent a few days in Kagoshima whose harbor so strongly resembles Pearl Harbor that it was used by the Imperial Japanese Navy to practise the low-level torpedo bombing upon which the success of the operation depended. I took a side trip to Chiran, to visit the Chiran Tokkō Heiwa Kinenkan (知覧特攻平和記念館), the Special Attack Force (Kamikaze) and Peace Memorial, before traveling down to Ibusuki, at the southern tip of Kyūshū, famed for its sunamushi (sand steam bath). You lie in a hollow scooped out on the beach and a female attendant buries you up to the neck in hot sand—the sunamushi ladies were most impressed that a foreigner lasted nearly 45 minutes! Then I headed north to photograph the hot springs at Ebino Kogen, Mount Aso, and Beppu, before returning home.

On arriving at Kagoshima Station, I’d walked to the Nakazono Ryōkan where I had a reservation. But there was no-one at the front desk.

altTextI called out “Gomen kudasai!” (Hello!/May I come in?).
I heard footsteps. A middle-aged man came down the stairs, took a close look at me, and said, “Ara! Saigō Takamori da!” (Good gracious! It’s Saigō Takamori!)
“Really?” I replied. At that time I’d heard of Saigō but had no idea what he looked like.
“Really,” he said. “There’s a statue of Saigō-san in the Central Park. If you have the time, you should go to see it.”

The next day, when I found the statue, I didn’t see much of a resemblance. But since then various Japanese friends and acquaintances have also admitted that I do look rather like Saigō and who am I to argue? Better to look like Saigō Takamori than Noddy, Darryl Somers, Mr Bean, or Michael J Pollard. Although I can’t match his two hundred and forty pounds, I am just under six feet tall. And while I lack his bull neck and immensely broad shoulders, I do share his cropped hair, large nose, piercing eyes, and bushy eyebrows. And, of course, the huge testicles.

Composite of seven images of Saigo Takamori and one of Jonathon Delacour

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