Wednesday, March 31, 2010


It's interesting indeed that the activity which quintessentially defines us as social beings has so often been conceived of as a quintessentially solitary, whimsical one. But perhaps it doesn't really make much sense to see both dimensions as opposed to each other. Nobody ever walks alone - or, as Thomas A. Clark put it "in the course of a walk, we usually find out something about our companion, and this is true even when we travel alone" (from "In Praise of Walking"*). Walking with someone is revealing about both our commonalities and our utter separateness. There's is no better way of getting to know someone, for sure.

Walking with a friend tonight, I realised how the act itself so shaped our conversation and simultaneously embodied it in our every pace and move. Our senses of time, what we take as choice and necessity, illusion and reality. Some overlapping lines, some diverging ones.

Our strides bifurcated for good at some point, leaving two forked paths in the labyrinth of the station, hers probably faster and more decisive than mine, or perhaps not. I wandered for a while, wishing to be lost, to prolong the sense of disorientation, savouring it to the full. All the other walkers walking forwards while I walked backwards - all the others standing still, silently suspended in time, while I moved through the white noise.

*in Thomas A. Clark, Distance & Proximity (Edinburgh: Pocketbooks, 2000), p. 17.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

feeling life in every limb

All of us, I believe, carry about in our heads places and landscapes we shall never forget because we have experienced such intensity of life there: places where, like the child that 'feels its life in every limb' in Wordsworth's poem 'We are Seven', our eyes have opened wider, and all our senses have somehow heightened. By way of returning the compliment, we accord these places that have given us such joy a special place in our memories and imaginations. They live on in us, wherever we may be, however far away from them.

Roger Deakin, Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, p. 242.

Friday, March 26, 2010

spirit level

Water provides a metaphor of space for people - of mental space, of freedom, free-floating. All water - river, sea, pond, lake - holds memory and the space to think.

Water levels the spirit too (spirit level). It is the only opportunity we have in the landscape to see a truly level flatness; the rest of the landscape, especially in Britain, is always spiky, full of virtual lines - grass, trees, hills, buildings, people themselves, like Lowry's stick-people.

Space in nature, 'wide open spaces', are important for all of us, especially people in cities - we just need to know they're there.

Roger Deakin, Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, pp. 186-87.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

dinosaurian grievance...

Invitations & reminders to become A's or B's Facebook "friend" land on my mailbox on an almost daily basis. Inconsiderate as this may seem, I never reply. How can I explain that, however much I love the people who send me these invitations, such a view of friendship is utterly alien to me - to my intense, passionate, deeply personal and bodily relationship with friends which is at the same time fiercely protective of my (and their) privacy, individuality & independence?

Isn't it already bad enough that you're treated as a disposable commodity in the public sphere of work? Why would you want to become a disposable face, a shallow, depthless profile on somebody's list in your private sphere too?

It seems that even this last sanctuary of groundedness and affection, friendship, is being assailed by the sweep of acquisitiveness and widespread distrust that has taken over the world. Total eclipse indeed.

Monday, March 22, 2010

word and deed

I suppose I cannot understand academicism. I see the Deed as the Word's shadow. If word and deed are not continuous the sun of sense has ceased to shine. I am amazed. It is night. Or it is Total Eclipse.

Ian Hamilton Finlay
, from A Model of Order: Selected Letters on Poetry and Making, ed. Thomas A. Clark (Glasgow: WAX366, 2009), p. 51.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

sight and touch

Standing there at the wheel, conscious of the pull Ella was exerting, almost as though she were hanging heavily and warmly from my skin, a heaviness which centred at the base of my spine and at the back of my thighs, and conscious at the same time of the flickering images of the afternoon, it came to me suddenly that touch was more important than sight.

Touch convinced in a way in which sight did not. I was struck by the fact that sight is hypnotised by the surface of things; more than that, it can know only surfaces, flatnesses at a distance, meagre depths at close range. But the wetness of water felt on the hand and on the wrist is more intimate and more convincing than its colour or even than any flat expanse of sea. The eye, I thought, could never get to the centre of things; there was no connection between my eye and a plant on the windowsill or between my eye and the woman to whom I was about to make love.

Alexander Trocchi, Young Adam (1954; London: Calder, 2003), pp. 35-36.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

the end of the line

Jumping to conclusions and over-generalising are always unfair, but you cannot help wondering if something is not terribly amiss when you recurrently find people who rule out emotion and the disclosure of themselves to others - and, above all, to themselves - yielding to all sorts of repressive codes, neurotic behaviour, coldness, resentment, and a general contempt for others that barely conceals a deep self-hatred.

Heartbreaking, such emotional waste, such hopelessness, such lack of self-knowledge, such lack of everything.

(And how can you possibly insulate yourself from it all and move on with any semblance of normalcy...?)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

moving past impossibilities

"Moving past one phase of one's life - transformation, and moving past impossibilities. Things seen as impossibilities at the moment"....

---Muriel Rukeyser, Interview (1972).

... and transformed into possibilities, as things begin falling into place and - or because - you decide to take care of yourself, to save yourself, and not to rely on some Prince(ss) Charming to save you. (That wouldn't be fair on the poor guy/gal, anyway.)

Were I to choose an image to illustrate the whole thing, I'd go for M.C. Escher's wonderful work (this woodcut print, for example, which I don't reproduce here for copyright reasons). Has anyone ever portrayed metamorphosis, transformation, change, impossibilities turned into possibilities, in such a playful and, at the same time, obsessive way?...

Friday, March 12, 2010

and yet another motto...

"If I can't have too many truffles, I'll do without truffles."


poetry & peace (2)


The world of this creation, and its poetry, is not yet born.

The possibility before us is that now we enter upon another time, again to choose. Its birth is tragic, but the process is ahead: we must be able to turn a time of war into a time of building.

There are the wounds: they are crying everywhere. There are the false barriers: but they are false. If we believe in the unity and multiplicity of the world, if we believe in the unity and multiplicity of man, then we believe too in the unity and multiplicity of the imagination. And we will speak across the barriers, many to many. The great ideas are always emerging, to be available to all men and women. And one hope of our lives is the communication of these truths.

Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry, p. 213.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

poetry & peace (1)

The identified spirit, man and woman identified, move toward further identifications. In a time of long war, surrounded by the images of war, we imagine peace. Among the resistances, we imagine poetry. And what city makes the welcome, in what soil do these roots flourish?

For our concern is with sources.

The sources of poetry are in the spirit seeking completeness. If we look for the definitions of peace, we will find, in history, that they are very few. The treaties never define the peace they bargain for: their premise is only the lack of war. The languages sometimes offer a choice of words: in the choice is illumination. In one long-standing language there are two meanings for peace. These two provide a present alternative. One meaning of peace is offered as "rest, security." This is comparable to our "security, adjustment, peace of mind. The other definition of peace is this: peace is completeness.

It seems to me that this belief in peace as completeness belongs to the same universe as the hope for the individual as full-valued.

In what condition does poetry live? In all conditions, sometimes with honor, sometimes underground. That history is in our poems.

Muriel Rukeyser, from The Life of Poetry (Ashfield, Mass.: Paris Press, 1996), p. 209.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

tatemae & honne (1)

I know of no European who has lived in Japan for, say, four or five consecutive years and who doesn't feel bitterly disappointed at the hardships one experiences when trying to make friends with the "natives", especially with those Japanese that haven't lived abroad for a considerable length of time in recent years and are thus like the frog in the old proverb: they don't know the great ocean. [I no naka no kawazu taikai wo shirazu. / "A frog in a well does not know the great ocean", so it goes in a tentative translation]

Most of my European pals here tell me that they've simply given up (and the most cynical don't even try. Ever.), having developed too many antibodies against what they see as appalling, simply appalling displays of disloyalty, ungratefulness, duplicity, insincerity, cold-heartedness, hypocrisy, fickleness, back-stabbing - you name it - when they least expect them. That is to say, when they think they've finally crossed "the threshold" and made a native friend-indeed.

While I've had my fair share of personal disappointments over these past few years, the anthropologist-ethnographer in me tries to keep a sort of participant-observation stance in order to gain a better understanding of the above-mentioned baffling behaviours and thereby to avoid being dominated by certain... er... less positive feelings and becoming an embittered old hag way too soon.

What I mean by "the threshold" is that critical moment when you feel that the initial ice has begun to melt for good, and that you're on the verge of what we, stuffy old Westerners, associate with true friendship: intimacy, candour, sincerity, warm-heartedness, constancy, and so on. It's no doubt difficult not to expect these things when they form an integral part of your culture, even though in recent times, with the advent of professional friendship accountancy on social networking websites, the concept has become somewhat more fluid (but not for this dinosaur here, alas).

Well, the bad news is that it's a serious - though human, all too human - mistake to expect all these things in Japan, in a culture that has molded people into habits of behaviour, expectations, interpersonal relations and values that could hardly be more distinct from our own. If you're not willing and able to radically rethink and negotiate your approach to friendship (and most of the times I'm not, sorry!), then it may prove simply impossible to dwell in the threshold for too long, let alone to cross to the other side of it. When you're confident or detached enough you might opt to stay indefinitely in the twilight zone, maintaining a certain degree of wariness and scepticism, because you never really know when you're going to be given the cold shoulder or have the door slammed in your face. However, experience so far tells me that most Westerners living here for any considerable length of time burn out and end up by withdrawing altogether, becoming... embittered old hags, precisely. That's why so many, sensing the danger, decide to leave during those critical first years.

While piles and piles of books have been written on these and other Japanese peculiarities by experts from the most varied areas, explanations tend to fall short of reality, which remains as unchanging and disheartening (from our viewpoint, of course) as ever. There is, however, one interpretation that remains a classic, and for a good reason. Takeo Doi's The Anatomy of Dependence (1971), advertised in the front cover of the Kodansha translation as "the key analysis of Japanese behaviour", may have been criticised on manifold grounds over the years, but it remains an invaluable psychological study of recurrent forms of Japanese behaviour that make it so difficult for "us" to understand and come to terms with what often seem disturbing manifestations of some kind of multiple personality disorder, in comparison to which The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde doesn't sound, well, that strange...

When I was just considering how long it would take me to re-read and summarise Doi's intricate argument in a blog-friendly register, I came upon this excellent book by Michael Zielenziger, Shutting Out the Sun, that re-engages with and extends Doi's Anatomy in an attempt to make sense of another puzzling Japanese contemporary phenomenon, the hikikomori. Hence, cher lecteur, I'll leave you, without further delay, to a couple of illuminating passages from Zielenziger's book, which very much corroborate my own (fallible) perception so far.


The concept of amae ["dependency"] was first proposed by the psychoanalyst Takeo Doi . . . . Doi argues that the craving between mother and son for close contact works to partially counteract individuation, and that while Western societies suppress these urges for dependency, Japanese society actively encourages them . . . . In a Japanese household the father is often absent and chooses not to share nearly as much of the child-rearing responsibilities as in a contemporary Western home. While such close mother-son contact is by no means unknown in the West, the fact that it is encouraged, not discouraged, within Japanese culture and can be reproduced in many social relationships outside the home, as between a young employee and his boss, makes the dependency seem far more intense.

To a Westerner, independence is, like freedom, a virtue or a moral imperative, while the word "dependence" conjures up negative images of welfare and drug use. In Japanese, however, freedom, or jiyu, is a concept laden with ambiguity . . . . [It can] denote an individual who willfully asserts the right to behave as he pleases despite the wishes of the group, of one who exhibits selfishness by putting his own needs ahead of others'. In a society that did not abandon feudalism until the mid-nineteenth century . . . and the Emperor was considered divine until 1945, the boundaries between state and divinity, state and nature, and society and self - ones that Westerners might take for granted - were never clearly differentiated. (p. 61)

Japanese simultaneously inhabit three worlds of dependence: the parent-child realm; the workplace, where dependence is an implicit element of the social contract; and the world of strangers in which mutual dependence does not exist. This construct explains why Japanese maintain a strong division between those "inside" or "outside" their specific family or group relationships. They lavish attention and deference on those inside their uchi, or house, and ignore the outside, or soto, as strangers - tanin, unrelated persons - and accord them no special treatment. The Western belief that all people should be treated equally whether uchi or soto - inside or outside the network - seems strange to most Japanese. In a deeper sense, they carry psychic double ledgers: one set for the outside world, and another held closely within . . . . Japanese acknowledge that there is a public face, or tatemae, visible when one speaks formally, officially, or to strangers. One expresses true feelings, or honne, only among the closest friends, late at night over a glass of sake or whiskey. "That a man's standard of behavior should differ within his own circle and outside it affords no food for inner conflict," Doi explains.

This separation between public and private is a reason why Westerners often feel that their Japanese contacts or business partners "don't tell the truth" during business negotiations. The Japanese are telling a truth, a contextual truth, but it is not universal truth as Westerners understand it. (p. 63)

Like one's own identity, truth in Japan can depend on the context: something is not always and universally true. Some psychiatrists believe that because the split between true feeling and public "face" is so deeply ingrained in the Japanese, they suffer far fewer cases of multiple personality disorders than do Westerners. "Because all of us Japanese grow up with multiple personalities, we almost never see this disorder in our patients," [said] the psychologist Yuichi Hattori. (p. 64)

Michael Zielenziger, Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation (New York: Vintage, 2006).


One further note. Zielenziger omits a passage from Doi's book which is vital for the point I'm trying to make:

That a man's standard of behavior should differ within his own circle and outside it affords no food for inner conflict. This only holds true, however, so long as the outer dividing line is clearly defined; should it become vague, trouble occurs . . . . The uncomfortable thing is not an inner conflict arising from different standards of attitude and action, but being forced to make a choice and being unable to presume on amae any longer. [my emphasis]

Takeo Doi, The Anatomy of Dependence, trans. John Bester (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1973), p. 42.

And this is when the long-residing or "gone native" foreigner steps into the ambiguous threshold, and feels compelled to withdraw - or to stay at her/his own peril.

And this is why friendhips with "I no naka no kawazu" Japanese are nearly always so fickle, draining, straining, strained, requiring time, persistence as well as thick skin to withstand the constant slaps in the face, the back-stabbings, the tanin treatment, and the guts to slap back and give the little bastards a dose of their own medicine, when the the thing is really worth the trouble.

A country of half-opened doors indeed. Insular and narrow-minded to the core.

[To be continued...]

Saturday, March 6, 2010


[The bottom line] is that for the past sixty years Japan has been a testing ground for an American style capitalist economy, protected in a greenhouse, nurtured and bloated to the point of explosion. The results are so bizarre, they're perfect. Whatever true intentions underlie "Little Boy," the nickname for Hiroshima's atomic bomb, we Japanese are truly, deeply. pampered children . . . We throw constant tantrums while enthralled with our own cuteness.

From social mores, to art and culture, everything is two-dimensional . . . [Japan is] a place for people unable to comprehend the moral coordinates of right and wrong as anything other than a rebus for "I feel good." Those who inhabit this vacant crucible spin in endless, inarticulate circles.

Couldn't agree more, except with the cynical opportunism of the "they're perfect." Call me stick-in-the-mud in my pitiful efforts to preserve the ability "to comprehend the moral coordinates of right and wrong," but I find it the height of cynicism and self-promotion to lambast something when at the same time shamelessly profiting from it.

Hard as I try it, I can't possibly sense any meaning, hope or future in this all-pervasive Japanese "kawaii" shallowness - or superflatness, pardon me! - and doubt it if anyone in his/her right mind can...

Image: Superflat First Love, Takashi Murakami for Louis Vuitton.

in response...

... to a recent conversation with an old friend, I was reminded of something I posted here a while ago and which I still fully endorse. The conversation focused on the perplexities of an increasing number of impoverished, self-deluded, disembodied, dispirited lives - or shall I say 'lifestyles' instead? - spent around pseudo-anonymous social networking websites, porn, online wanking, etc. - revealing, above all, a depressing inability or fear to become emotionally committed to someone (which has nothing whatsoever to do with formal, institutional commitments such as marriage, arghh...).

While no one, virtually no one, can purport to be immune to this kind of non-existence in our difficult times so averse to risk, I personally resist it as much as I can to preserve a minimum degree of sanity & groundedness.

So, here's to you, chérie, with a toast to what's left of a lived life!


Fuses, or: inhabited bodies

Until we solve the mystery of sexuality, contemplation of kaleidoscopic genitalia - from glossy and nubile to lank and withered - will remain an interesting and important exercise in human self-discovery. . . .

Far from poisoning the mind, pornography shows the deepest truth about sexuality, stripped of its romantic veneer. No one can claim to be an expert in gender studies who is uncomfortable with pornography, which focuses on our primal identity, our rude and crude animality. Porn dreams of eternal fires of desire, without fatigue, incapacity, aging or death. What feminists denounce as woman's humiliating total accessibility in porn is actually her elevation to high priestess of a pagan paradise garden, where the body has become a bountiful fruit tree and where growth and harvest are simultaneous. "Dirt" is contamination to the Christian but fertile loam to the pagan. The most squalid images in porn are shock devices to break down bourgeois norms of decorum, reserve, and tidiness.

The Dionysian body fluids, fully released to coat every gleaming surface, return us to the full-body sensuality of the infant condition. In crowded orgy tableaux, like those on Hindu temples, matter and energy melt. In the cave spaces of porn, camera lights are torches of the Eleusinian Mysteries, giving us flashes of nature's secrets.

Camille Paglia, 'No Law in the Arena: A Pagan Theory of Sexuality', in Vamps & Tramps: New Essays (London: Viking, 1995), pp. 66-67.


While I do acknowledge the cogency of Paglia's argument - porn has no doubt a 'ritualistic' and didactic role to play and will always exist and be in great demand - there is something about it that deeply upsets me because so impoverishing. Sex seen in the crudest of lights and stripped of everything that makes it meaningful and worthwhile: intimacy, tenderness, the ambiguous play of light and shadow, the sense of an actual lived and shared life. A fully inhabited body. There is indeed a huge difference between something done to you or something that you do to someone and something you do with someone.

For a glimpse into the sheer beauty of the joyful chaos, naturalness, emotional and sensuous intensity of meaningful, inhabited sex - an inhabitedness no amount of porn or occasional intercourse between strangers will ever, ever replace - I can only vividly recommend Carolee Schneemann's Fuses (1964-67), an experimental erotic film that should figure prominently in every history of avant-garde and feminist film.

Fuses, 1964-67.
Film still.

A silent film of collaged and painted sequences of lovemaking between Schneemann and her then partner, composer James Tenney; observed by the cat, Kitch.
"...I wanted to see if the experience of what I saw would have any correspondence to what I felt-- the intimacy of the lovemaking... And I wanted to put into that materiality of film the energies of the body, so that the film itself dissolves and recombines and is transparent and dense-- as one feels during lovemaking... It is different from any pornographic work that you've ever seen-- that's why people are still looking at it! And there's no objectification or fetishization of the woman." –Carolee Schneemann

Friday, March 5, 2010


"Therefore it is said: And the deeper secret within the secret: the land that is nowhere, that is the true home."