Wednesday, March 30, 2011

transience, 'gaman' and the naked human heart

Falling cherry blossoms at Yasukuni shrine
Photo by DK

This is the unstable world and
we in it unstable and our houses
  --Basil Bunting, from Chomei at Toyama.*

Time out of mind, East and West, the aestheticisation of transience - that is, the aesthetic association of human impermanence with evanescent phenomena of nature like the mutability of seasons, snow, the changing colour of leaves, falling cherry blossoms - has been a way of coping with uncertainty, decay, suffering, loss, and all sorts of predicaments and catastrophes beyond our control.

In Japan it has been an integral part of the country's cultural tradition, shaped by the Buddhist worldview and invariably revived at times of national disaster and soul-searching, as epitomised in the opening lines of Kamo no Chomei's poignant evocation of the great earthquake of Genryaku, which in 1185 wrought havoc in the Kyoto region:

The flow of the river is ceaseless and its water is never the same. The bubbles that float in the pools, now vanishing, now forming, are not of long duration: so in the world are man and his dwellings. It might be imagined that the houses, great and small, which vie roof against proud roof in the capital remain unchanged from one generation to the next, but when we examine whether this is true, how few are the houses that were there of old. Some were burnt last year and only since rebuilt; great houses have crumbled into hovels and those who dwell in them have fallen no less. (Hojoki / An Account of My Hut; trans. by Donald Keene)

It isn't thus surprising to find articles such as this recent one anticipating the coming cherry blossom viewing season as a source of both sorrow and solace under the current devastating circumstances. I have no doubt it will be so. Yet, at the same time, I feel somewhat perplexed and uneasy when I read passages like the following, unwittingly linking cherry blossoms with national identity - with a quintessential Japaneseness:

Consider this Japanese paradox: The delicate cherry blossom was also the symbol of the samurai, the epitome of Japanese valor.

The warrior class liked the flowers because they didn't cling to life, but rather showed up for the briefest spell, and fell at the peak of their splendor. In this way, they embodied the spirit of bushido — the way of the warrior that combines stoicism, bravery, and self-sacrifice.

These days, people invoke bushido less often than the common man's down-to-earth version — "gaman." It means gritting your teeth and just getting on with life. When people refer to Japan's salarymen as modern-day samurai, it's taken not so much in a swashbuckling sense but for the way these men in suits endure crushing, monotonous toil, and display unwavering loyalty to a common cause.

And amid death, people of all stripes here are plowing ahead with life, in an orderly and cooperative way. Many are already starting to return to the sites of their devastated homes, and thinking coolheadedly about how to start over amid Japan's biggest catastrophe since World War II.

Scenes of gaman abound: the homeless family sitting around a makeshift fire as snow falls at night, their stoic faces lit up by orange flames. The old man walking his bicycle through an ankle-high lake of mud, his son's wedding picture in the basket. Drivers waiting patiently in line for hours for scarce gasoline in quake-ravaged areas.

--from 'Season of special poignancy: Earthquakes, cherry blossoms traditional reminders of mortality' by Joji Sakurai, The Associated Press, in The Japan Times (29 March 2011). 

And the reason why I feel so discomfited is because while I deeply admire these characteristics in the light of the ongoing crisis, I can't help remembering how the intimate connection between cherry blossoms and Japanese national identity, alongside the aesthetic appreciation of transience, were once utilised by the military and politicians of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century to promote nationalistic sentiment and its resultant disastrous actions. The Japanese militaristic ethos was recurrently metaphorised through the cherry blossoms' 'virtue' of 'not clinging to their blooming', and utilised for instilling perseverance in hardship, inconvenience, deprivation and self-sacrifice in the name of the Emperor.

In other words, the nationalist aesthetics of the cherry blossoms was a powerful ideological tool for sweetening the bitter pill of servitude under a totalitarian regime.

As Yuriko Saito reminds us in her wonderful book Everyday Aesthetics, the belief that cherry trees embody the Japanese spirit and soul even led the military government to plant cherry trees on those Asian soils that Japan colonised and on the ground of the infamous Yasukuni shrine, which is believed to house the souls of the war dead. And, of course, this aestheticisation of falling cherry blossoms also ultimately served 'as a potent and poignant symbol for falling Kamikaze pilots, whose death was praised and celebrated by the wartime nation' (p. 195).

In view of the radical contrast between the current catastrophe and the Second World War situation, I fully endorse Saito's remark that the aestheticisation of transience can be a lofty and worthwhile goal from a spiritual and existential point of view - as Joji Sakurai argues in reference to the present crisis - but that it can also have dire consequences when utilised for certain social and political purposes, in particular the promotion of nationalism requiring citizens’ sacrifice of their own lives.

In any case, and because history has taught us that all too often cultural-aesthetic nationalism easily and dangerously slides into political nationalism, I'd rather refrain from aestheticising suffering, loss and gaman altogether, including at the present moment.

In this respect, it's worth remembering Ango Sakaguchi (1906-1955), a writer who in the wake of Japan's defeat analysed at length the role of bushido during the Second World War, and outspokenly argued that the country's postwar decadence was more truthful than a wartime Japan built on dangerous illusions like bushido with its extolling of self-restraint and self-sacrifice as not only virtuous but also beautiful (美徳/bitoku = beauty and virtue).

Indeed, I find that Sakaguchi's passionately anticonformist questioning may contain a valuable lesson for the present time:

What is true human nature? It is simply desiring what one desires and disliking what one dislikes. One should like what one likes, love the woman one loves, and get out of the false cloak of what is said to be a just cause and social obligation, and return to the naked heart. Finding this naked human heart is the first step toward restoring humanity. (qtd. in Saito, p. 193)

Japan has already amazed the world with its dignified stiff upper lip and gaman in the face of terrible adversity. Yet wouldn't it be even more amazing if this unspeakable catastrophe acted as a catalyst for restoring the country's lost humanity and shedding some of its past illusions and masks?

Because not accepting one's lot by questioning, criticising and rebelling against injustice is, after all, an integral part of being human, whose recurrent repression entails too high a cost in the long run. As the Irish poet W. B. Yeats phrased it:

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter, seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?

--from 'Easter 1916'.

And who wants to live in such a stone-hearted society among emotionally atrophied people?

*Bunting's 1932 verse translation of the 13th-century Japanese prose work Hojoki / An Account of My Hut by Kamo no Chomei (1153-1216).

Monday, March 28, 2011

“And then we came out to see once more the stars”...?

An absolute must read by one of the few, very few Japanese intellectuals who still does his job properly: to rock the boat.

And who can blame him for conflating all these things - Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Bikini Atoll tests, Fukushima - when the nuclear trauma is so deeply seared into the national psyche?

*       *       *

by Kenzaburo Oe

The New Yorker
MARCH 28, 2011

By chance, the day before the earthquake, I wrote an article, which was published a few days later, in the morning edition of the Asahi Shimbun. The article was about a fisherman of my generation who had been exposed to radiation in 1954, during the hydrogen-bomb testing at Bikini Atoll. I first heard about him when I was nineteen. Later, he devoted his life to denouncing the myth of nuclear deterrence and the arrogance of those who advocated it. Was it a kind of sombre foreboding that led me to evoke that fisherman on the eve of the catastrophe? He has also fought against nuclear power plants and the risk that they pose. I have long contemplated the idea of looking at recent Japanese history through the prism of three groups of people: those who died in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, those who were exposed to the Bikini tests, and the victims of accidents at nuclear facilities. If you consider Japanese history through these stories, the tragedy is self-evident. Today, we can confirm that the risk of nuclear reactors has become a reality. However this unfolding disaster ends—and with all the respect I feel for the human effort deployed to contain it—its significance is not the least bit ambiguous: Japanese history has entered a new phase, and once again we must look at things through the eyes of the victims of nuclear power, of the men and the women who have proved their courage through suffering. The lesson that we learn from the current disaster will depend on whether those who survive it resolve not to repeat their mistakes.

This disaster unites, in a dramatic way, two phenomena: Japan’s vulnerability to earthquakes and the risk presented by nuclear energy. The first is a reality that this country has had to face since the dawn of time. The second, which may turn out to be even more catastrophic than the earthquake and the tsunami, is the work of man. What did Japan learn from the tragedy of Hiroshima? One of the great figures of contemporary Japanese thought, Shuichi Kato, who died in 2008, speaking of atomic bombs and nuclear reactors, recalled a line from “The Pillow Book,” written a thousand years ago by a woman, Sei Shonagon, in which the author evokes “something that seems very far away but is, in fact, very close.” Nuclear disaster seems a distant hypothesis, improbable; the prospect of it is, however, always with us. The Japanese should not be thinking of nuclear energy in terms of industrial productivity; they should not draw from the tragedy of Hiroshima a “recipe” for growth. Like earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural calamities, the experience of Hiroshima should be etched into human memory: it was even more dramatic a catastrophe than those natural disasters precisely because it was man-made. To repeat the error by exhibiting, through the construction of nuclear reactors, the same disrespect for human life is the worst possible betrayal of the memory of Hiroshima’s victims.

I was ten years old when Japan was defeated. The following year, the new Constitution was proclaimed. For years afterward, I kept asking myself whether the pacifism written into our Constitution, which included the renunciation of the use of force, and, later, the Three Non-Nuclear Principles (don’t possess, manufacture, or introduce into Japanese territory nuclear weapons) were an accurate representation of the fundamental ideals of postwar Japan. As it happens, Japan has progressively reconstituted its military force, and secret accords made in the nineteen-sixties allowed the United States to introduce nuclear weapons into the archipelago, thereby rendering those three official principles meaningless. The ideals of postwar humanity, however, have not been entirely forgotten. The dead, watching over us, oblige us to respect those ideals, and their memory prevents us from minimizing the pernicious nature of nuclear weaponry in the name of political realism. We are opposed. Therein lies the ambiguity of contemporary Japan: it is a pacifist nation sheltering under the American nuclear umbrella. One hopes that the accident at the Fukushima facility will allow the Japanese to reconnect with the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to recognize the danger of nuclear power, and to put an end to the illusion of the efficacy of deterrence that is advocated by nuclear powers.

When I was at an age that is commonly considered mature, I wrote a novel called “Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness.” Now, in the final stage of life, I am writing a “last novel.” If I manage to outgrow this current madness, the book that I write will open with the last line of Dante’s Inferno: “And then we came out to see once more the stars.” ♦

the most beautiful place in all Japan... swept away


No matter how often it has been said, Matsushima is the most beautiful place in all Japan, and can easily hold its own against T’ung-t’ing or the Western Lake in China. The sea surges in from the southeast into a bay seven miles across, its waters brimming full like the Zhejiang River in China. There are more islands than anyone could count. Some rise up steeply, as through thrusting towards the skies; some are flat, and seem to crawl on their stomachs into the waves. Some seem piled double, or even three layers high. To the left, they appear separate; to the right, joined together. Some look as if they carried others on their backs, and some as if they held them in their arms, like a parent caring for a little child or grandchild. The pines are of the deepest green, and their branches, constantly buffeted by the winds from the sea, seem to have acquired a twisted shape quite naturally. The scene suggests the serene charm of a lovely woman’s face. Matsushima truly might have been created by Ōyamazumi [God of the Mountains] in the Great Age of the Gods. What painter or what writer could ever capture fully the wonder of this masterpiece of nature?

--Matsuo Basho, Oku no HosomichiThe Narrow Road to the Deep North.

*       *       *

I visited it ten years ago, on a journey around the Tohoku region during which I tried to retrace some of Basho's steps as immortalised in his Oku no Hosomichi. I wasn't disappointed, and will forever cherish that emotional moment when I witnessed for the first time the landscape I had till then only read about in books.

Over these past two weeks I'd searched for news about its situation after the tsunami on March 11th, in the vague hope that it had escaped unscathed. It hasn't, heartbreakingly, as the tsunami washed over the islets in the celebrated bay.

Words fail me to convey how deeply saddened I am. Basho's famous haiku has acquired a new, dark resonance:

Ah, Matsushima!
Ah-ah Matsushima! Ah!
Matsushima! Ah!

And so I've added one more heartbreak to my list, which over these past few months has become unbearably long.

Ah, Japan...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

hostage to its own hubris

And yet more disquieting questions (and some wishful thinking).

*       *       *

Spare us shoganai as we face an ominous spring
By Stephen Hesse
The Japan Times
Sunday, March 27, 2011


It is telling that in Japan we don't so much fear human malfeasance, guns in the wrong hands, thieves or murderers; the things that scare us most are the terrors of nature.

As an outsider who has been on the inside here for more than 20 years, it seems to me that the Japanese most fear the deadly power and destruction of nature when it comes without warning, without reason or recourse. Earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis and floods would undoubtedly top the list.

And there is something about earthquakes in particular that permits a sort of mass abdication of responsibility.

Earthquakes just happen. The newest cellphones pulse and buzz when geological sensors around the country register that a quake is imminent. But the warnings often come when the shaking has already begun — or just as often, they don't come at all.

We are able to build sturdy, steel-frame houses, but much of each day is spent in offices, schools and on public transportation — all places where safety and structural sturdiness vary from excellent to questionable.

We do what we can to prepare, and we leave the rest to the architects, civil engineers, bureaucrats — and fate. In Japan, fatalism is culturally ingrained, and one of the most commonly used expressions in all manner of circumstances is shoganai (it can't be helped). For foreigners, this can be exasperating, especially for those from nations that embrace "pulling yourself up by your own boot straps." But that's the way it is and we get used to it. It can't be helped.

As a result, when disatrous temblors strike Japan, as they do relatively often, there is minimal finger-pointing. Japanese know that no one is perfect, and nature's wrath surprises even the best of us.

This time, however, Japan has become hostage to its own hubris.

Japan depends on nuclear power for about 30 percent of its electricity, second only to the United States and France. Until now, the threat of a nuclear reactor meltdown has been an abstract gamble that most Japanese citizens, politicians and business leaders have been willing to take.

Nuclear power oversight by the government and inspections by utility giants in the Kansai (Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe) and Kanto (Tokyo and Yokohama) regions have long been suspect, and since nuclear power was first introduced in 1966, there have been cracks, leaks, injuries and deaths.

Nevertheless, most Japanese — and, in large part, the country's media, too — have turned a blind eye to these failings. After all, we all need electricity.

Ask Japanese what they like most about Japan, and many will reply, "It's safe and convenient."

"Safe" is relative, of course, but it means that we do indeed have few thieves, and no shooters or bombers.

"Convenient" means we can get just about anything we want 24/7. In most cities, electric trains run often and on time, and for as much as 20 hours a day; 24-hour convenience stores sell almost anything you might need, and vending machines save us trips to convenience stores.

We have cellphones that give us 24-hour connections to family, friends and colleagues, to train schedules and tickets, to social networks, global positioning and, of course, pizza delivery.

We have kitchen appliances that perform even the simplest of tasks on our behalf, and we have heated toilet seats with numerous functions that spray, wash and dry.

We have elevators, escalators, electric vehicles — and world-famous neon — as well as high-tech, state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities nationwide.

So as Japan rebounds and rebuilds, one multi-billion-dollar question that must be answered is this: In a society that is totally dependent on electricity and has become wedded to the notion that convenience is the backbone of modernity both now and in the future, how will Japan satisfy its energy needs in the decades to come? U ntil now, about 60 percent of Japan's electricity has been generated using fossil fuels, while about 30 percent has come from nuclear power, and about 8 percent from hydro power. Other renewable sources provide only 2 percent.

Eager to stabilize and reduce carbon emissions, and because fossil fuels, in particular oil and gas, will inevitably become less abundant and more expensive worldwide as time goes on, Japan has been aiming to raise nuclear power generation to 40 percent of its overall power-supply mix.

Worldwide, too, because of growing concern about climate change due to human-generated emissions of carbon dioxide and methane, as well as other man-made chemicals, nuclear power has been getting a second look from many governments.

Japan in particular faces a power squeeze. It is one of the top three energy consumers in the world, behind the U.S. and China, but is only 16 percent energy self-sufficient, and it has yet to make a strong commitment to developing alternative energy sources.

Japan's future prosperity depends on electricity — lots of it. More efficiency can help, but at present, oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear energy power this nation. Now, with the spectre of radiation spreading across the Kanto plain and its 40-odd million people, Japanese citizens are going to need a whole lot of convincing that nuclear reactors can be made fail-safe.

The government can no longer cow its citizens as easily as it once could. And, who knows, even the media may start to actively fulfil its duty in a democracy to seek out and share information with the public, and call for accountability when appropriate.

[my emphases]

dreaming, longing, lingering

Photo: Jim Brandenburg

... despite the distance, despite everything that went so very wrong.

*       *       *

Spoken into a mirror

"I travel to you

your warmth
To stand or lie in each other's arms

battle scars, tired of the old deceits
we come nervously to each other
yet surely (we think)

Is this the clarity
we dream of?

Not magic but more powerful
in its simplicity --

Guided out beyond the ramparts
the savage boors

Touch me . . . you"

and tinkling bells in the distance
and the words flatter themselves, words on words....

--Lee Harwood, from 'Czech Dream' in Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970, eds. Richard Caddel and Peter Quartermain (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1999), p. 108.

Friday, March 25, 2011

are the Japanese different?

Not that I fully agree with all the viewpoints expressed, but this article is a must read under the current circumstances (and beyond).

The text, however, neglects a key point that is behind many of Japan's current woes and troubles: the Japanese hypersensitivity to criticism (esp. when it comes from foreigners) as well as their ingrained inability to gracefully deal with it and act accordingly.

*       *       *

Are the Japanese different?
By Kevin Voigt, CNN
March 25, 2011


The Fukushima plant problems points toward Japan's "information problem ... the unwillingness to openly discuss bad news and to play down, disguise or even lie about unfortunate or embarrassing news," said Alex Kerr, an American who has spent much of his life in Japan. "That has been absolutely endemic in the nuclear industry here, and in other domestic industries.

"There's been a lot in the international press at this point at the lack of clarity (in the Fukushima situation),"said Kerr, a cultural critic and author of Lost Japan and Dogs and Demons, the latter which focused in part on Japan's nuclear problems. "What they may not be aware is it's endemic and built into the system -- they simply know no other way."

That sentiment can even be found in Japanese art. "They talk about the shinkei of Mount Fuji," Kerr said. "This is the perfect shape that Mount Fuji should have, the truth, an ideal -- not the actual look of Mount Fuji."

[emphases and links are mine]

Thursday, March 24, 2011

where the knife is less sharp

I felt it today again, contemplating this almost unreal sunset touch a placid silvery sea I once knew so well.

Walking hand in hand with my daughter along the beach, envisioning our next move, imagining a more liveable, saner place out there.

Where shall we go next? Where shall we, when the world is going mad?

We belong, indeed, in the place we long for.

*       *       *

I live on an island
I work on that island

there is no home
(and that the hardest to admit -
that we're here naked, alone)

the island part of a continent
and that part of the world (obviously)

Fly, float, drift, from place to place,
land to land.

And where is the knife less sharp, sir?

--Lee Harwood, from 'Notes of a Post Office Clerk' in Collected Poems (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2004), p. 252.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

the tsunami, the atom, and the cherry blossoms

To those who read French, I vividly recommend this recent text by one of the leading scholars on Japan's cultural geography and landscape:

'Le tsunami, l'atome et les cerisiers', by Augustin Berque’atome-et-les-cerisiers-augustin-berque/

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

to begin to begin again

How to begin to find a shape--to begin to begin again,

turning the inside out : to find one phrase that will
lie married beside another for delight         .        ?

       --William Carlos Williams, from Paterson, Book III.

disquieting questions

... that speak volumes of Japanese politics, its lack of leadership and of democratic and transparency standards.

*       *       *

Japan Extended Reactor’s Life, Despite Warning

Just a month before a powerful earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi plant at the center of Japan’s nuclear crisis, government regulators approved a 10-year extension for the oldest of the six reactors at the power station despite warnings about its safety.

TEPCO, Credibility, and the Japanese Crisis

Since the 9.0 quake and tsunami struck Japan on March 11 and the situation at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant rapidly degenerated, Fukushima residents and politicians, those most afflicted by the current crisis, have criticized the lack of information provided by TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) and the government. Prefectures with a concentration of nuclear power plants like Fukui and diverse citizens’ groups have also sounded off, condemning the lack of information and delay in releasing critical facts to the public. A particular concern is that the government initially left far too much up to the company, was slow in establishing a headquarters to coordinate joint response, and initially accepted TEPCOs vague description of the situation and assurances, many of which have since turned out to be suspect.

Japan's Nuclear Crisis: Status of Spent Fuel at Exploded Reactor Buildings Unclear

The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) is asking an important question about Japan's nuclear crisis that seems to have been ignored by the media and in announcements from the Japanese government and Japan's nuclear power industry: What is happening with the spent fuel pools located at the top of the buildings housing the Unit 1 and Unit 3 reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant facility? Both reactor buildings have lost their upper structures due to explosions possibly caused by a hydrogen gas build-up (Unit 1 on March 12, Unit 3 on March 14).

Monday, March 21, 2011

on the razor's edge

Justifiably or not, many, including yours truly, have left Tokyo - or Japan altogether - due to radiation fears. Well, the truth is that personally I'm much more concerned with this and this, and weary, way too weary of living on the razor's edge.

On borrowed time, at various levels.

Much as I sympathise with the suffering of those affected by the unfolding disaster, this has long ceased to be a land I want to live in.

In the interim, I shall get back to Jared Diamond's Collapse, a most timely reminder of how very fragile certain societies can be.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

even in the pitch dark

Despite everything - the distance, the unforgiveness, the hopelessness of it all - I can't help thinking & worrying.

I just can't.

*       *       *

All I've got is one eye and two brains
to love you with and I'm so concerned
especially at night for your peace
since the directions are uncertain
meagre and costly for two as for one
but to the tune of a progressive reluctance
we shall one day attain some kind of summit
don't you think? These are verifiable things:
that in the presence of two hundred screaming
aircraft known as 'the future' our slowly
unfolding certainties keep us upright
even in the pitch dark while the alarm clock
in my chest keeps me gentle, where
would you be about now?

--Peter Riley, 'Folded Message' in Passing Measures: A Collection of Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2000), p. 96.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

farewell, all lovely vanishing things

I knew it would happen some day soon, but never in this way. Never.

The ominous, gathering gloom over these past few months had made me want to leave as quickly as possible and find a more hospitable place to live. Yet deep down I was hoping that the transition would be somewhat smoother, though inevitably painful.

Who could have foreseen such an unspeakable tragedy?

Escapist though it may seem, I've spent these last days trying to come to terms with this country I so passionately love and hate. Listening to the trees and the birds, feeling the snow beneath my feet, bathing at the local onsen, revisiting some of the beautiful places where I once felt happy and whose memories I'll cherish forever.

Preparing to leave.

Because I don't really know when - or if - I'll ever be able to see them again, these beautiful vanishing things, now that I'm being compelled to flee disaster and leave so much behind. We're never prepared indeed.

This was thus the closest I could get to a proper farewell. Sad, but beautiful.

I shall hold you close forever keenly in my memory - and hope that some greater good may one day emerge from all this catastrophe.

I then leave by making mine George Mackay Brown's wish:

It could happen that the atom-and-planet horror at the heart of our civilisation will scatter people again to the quiet beautiful fertile places of the world.

I hope so, I hope.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


You spend your life preparing, rehearsing, putting on masks for this and that, but are never prepared for what really matters.

For being alive.

And how could it be otherwise? Because being alive is being alert and responsive to those unscripted moments, those empty spaces that can change everything and in relation to which all preparations are in vain.

How difficult to face our general unpreparedness, though; how much easier to run away and take refuge in the predictable.

How much easier to be untruthful, disloyal to ourselves.

*       *       *

Coming into the world

and being then always --
in honour of that
birth and to stay
close to it --

and driven to exhibit
over and over again

unready to be caught

--Roy Fisher, 'A Poem to be Watched' in The Dow Low Drop: New & Selected Poems (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1996), p. 144.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

'Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age'...

The snow falling faintly outside this afternoon has brought back memories of one of my favourite films ever, one that I always watch with deep emotion.

John Huston's final work, a faithful adaptation of James Joyce's short story 'The Dead', from the collection Dubliners, is an elegiac tale about the inexorable passing of time, the perception of ageing and mortality, and the ways in which the memory of loss impinges on our relationship with the present.

The backdrop of the story is a Christmas family reunion in the Dublin of the early 1900s, but its appeal is universal, beautiful, shattering, particularly the final scene in which Gabriel Conroy muses on his wife's revelation of her long-deceased lover and is overwhelmed by self-doubt, by regret at his own emotional paralysis and lack of passion, which make him suddenly aware of his own frailty, of the fading and passing of everything, as he contemplates the blank snowy landscape outside:

One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover's eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

--from 'The Dead', by James Joyce.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

writing matters (2)

The forms of communicating with the other in his/her absence have multiplied and accelerated beyond belief over the past decades. At once producers and products of our changed, anguished sense of time and of our loss of intimacy, they have brought into disrepute that once quintessential vehicle for defending ourselves against the pain of separation: a painstakingly handwritten letter.

Maybe because your bodily investment into it is so limited (or at least so automatised), maybe because the sense of distance in space & time can be so easily deluded through its apparent immediacy and its lack of physicality, an e-mail can never be a substitute for that fiction of intimate connection which a letter aims to create.

Pace all e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, blog, etc., enthusiasts, no other space of communication gives you so much scope for self-creation and self-discovery than a letter to a friend, a lover, a close relative. In its unabashed physicality - the handwriting, the paper, the textures, the scents - a letter assumes itself as an idealisation, a fantasy of intimacy, and, at the same time, a testimony of distance.

The response it eventually elicits (or not) is beside the point, because the wait, the anticipation itself is part of the movement of creation - that transformation of affect hunger into hallucinatory nourishment, of loneliness into an imaginary communion.

A sustaining fiction, in sum, unlike all the other seemingly more sophisticated yet impoverishing fictions we continue to invent to tackle distance and separation.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

a manifesto for sanity

In a culture where derrangement and disequilibrium are the constant and inescapable climate of a politics of bewilderment, the militant tactic is not intoxication and excess but to come to our senses and to learn to live in the space they open up.


Within the present order, new models of order can be conceived, realised, maintained and dissolved, to leave a world that will seem less intractable.

The issue is not transcendence or escape but to realise that we do not confront an objective and final reality, that the means are available, that in any situation there may be intelligence, movement, sufficient light.

Imaginative transformation should be considered as preliminary to a corresponding transformation at the level of materials and events.

--Thomas A. Clark, 'On Imaginative Space'.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

remembrance, on a starless night

The star you steer by is gone,
its tremulous thread spun in the hurricane
spider floss on my cheek.

            --Basil Bunting, from Briggflatts, Part V.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Galapagos syndrome...

... or the beginning of a new sakoku?

Credit: Eddie Gerald/Alamy 

27 January 2011
The Times Higher Education Supplement
Castigated for its timidity, a 'risk-averse' generation shuns study abroad, Michael Fitzpatrick writes

The yen has never been mightier and their country never more tied to the global economy, but Japanese students increasingly are turning their backs on studying abroad.

Figures for the UK show that the number of Japanese students has fallen by more than a third in five years, from 6,800 in 2003-04 to 4,505 in 2008-09, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

In a country with a shrinking population - the number of children under 15 has declined for 28 consecutive years - some of the fall can be attributed to demographics, but analysts in Japan see the trend as part of what has been termed "Galapagos syndrome".

Originally said of the country's highly advanced mobile phones that failed to find buyers outside the domestic market, the term is now also applied to a country said to be isolating itself from the rest of the world.

As commentator and blogger Mariko Sanchanta writes: "An official at one of Japan's leading banks recently confided that it was impossible to get young employees to study abroad - fully funded by the bank - or even to do an international stint. They feel like they'll fall behind their peers if they go overseas. 'It's so stupid,' grumbled the official, who came from a generation when Japan's best and brightest were dispatched to (the US) to learn English and gain perspective by living overseas."

The decline in the number of Japanese students in the US is even more pronounced than in the UK. According to the US-based Institute of International Education, the country had 30,000 Japanese students in 2008, approximately 60 per cent of the number studying in the US a decade earlier.

Many in Japan are worried about what the figures mean for its export-driven economy, and there is much soul-searching in the media. This has focused on what such reticence says about the country's young - particularly men, who have been variously labelled as "herbivore males", "grass-eaters" or simply Ojo-man ("girly men").

A study by university researchers for the publisher Benesse on the attitudes of children seems to support some of the speculation. It says that Japan's young are less adventurous than previous generations.

"Children fear that in a society with a widening gap between the rich and the poor, making a big mistake will prevent them from moving up in the world, which diminishes their ambition," said Kiyoshi Takeuchi, a professor of educational sociology at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Not only are young people more risk-averse, a belief that home is safe (anzen) and abroad dangerous (abunai) is gaining traction.

Meanwhile, books such as the sensationally titled Don't Let Your Daughter Study Abroad (2007), aimed as an antidote to the unrealistic expectations of young Japanese hoping to study English abroad, do little to promote overseas education.

It is one of a number of books that detail the "horrors" of studying abroad. Its author, Mitsuko Takahashi, a coordinator for overseas Japanese students, paints a dark picture of life outside Japan.

Other texts about foreign perils include the Manual for Women Students Regarding Depravity (1995), published by the Research Institute on the Delinquency Problem. It warns Japanese women to avoid men while studying abroad because "they don't have money" and "want a lot of sex".