Saturday, April 30, 2011

the face beneath the mask

And then there is the underside, the dark, amorphous, mad one when I attempt to see beneath the mask.

The unsettling truth it conveys is unbearable to most, and that is why we so obsessively seek and stick to masks --- our safely diurnal contours and forms.

Hiding the fear of disclosure and, above all, of being disclosed.

Unveiled, blurred.

Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait (Looking Right), 1964

When I look at you across the table, I don't only see you but I see a whole emanation which has to do with personality and everything else. And to put that over in a painting, as I would like to be able to do in a portrait, means that it would appear violent in paint. We nearly always live through screens - a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.

---Francis Bacon, in David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon (London: Thames & Hudson, 1987).

Thursday, April 28, 2011

the erotics of trust (2)

How often am I aware that others are only dealing with some role I occupy 
in a society, some pantomime I am performing, some set of clothes and 
haircut I am wearing.... while I am thinking for myself and acting on my 
own, behind the image they see!
                                                                                 --Alphonso Lingis, Trust.

*       *       *

It's so rare, but it can happen, even in the least hospitable place for trust.

When someone I know nothing about and who knows nothing about me approaches, nearly touches the real me.

The core me.

Because s/he sees the face without the mask, the (inter)face between body and soul.

Before - beyond - all labels, gender, class, family, country, culture, interests, impossibilities.

Before words, beyond fear.

Evanescent, uncapturable face, but it's there - it was.

It can happen.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

arrested development...
arrested development - an abnormal state in which development has stopped; infantile fixation; regression.

Further research is needed to investigate other underlying causes for the phenomenon besides smothering, domineering mums, but I have thought it over long enough and observed enough, way enough, to put forward the hypothesis that most Japanese males constitute a serious case study of arrested development - that is, their emotional growth seems to have stopped at some point when they were twelve.

There is indeed no other plausible explanation for such widespread insecurity and lack of assertiveness, for such self-absorption and mistrust of others outside one's inner group, for such fear of intimacy and aversion to risk, for such obsession with outfits and hairdos, for such lack of curiosity about and concern with the outside world.

As the probability that one is dealing - will ever deal - with fully fledged adults is very low indeed, the advice is thus to handle delicately and take with more than a pinch of salt.

These chaps live in an eternal Galapagos of the mind, and, in view of this, it does seem reasonable to regard the country's future with grim foreboding, as a columnist has recently put it.

Monday, April 25, 2011

wading in the ocean of forgettable things

'Oblivion' is what you wish to call this indeed - and be on your way somewhere else soon.

Out of harm's way.

Another song that says it all, when your own words falter and fail.
(So much more than an opiate, though.)

lyrics & music: Thomas Feiner
from the album The Opiates - Revised

Wade, in the ocean of forgettable things
Are we just traveling in time?
We from wherever... we'd bailed out
Landed here

If I could do more than hold you
If I could do more than watch your tears
I wish we could name this place: 'Oblivion'
Then be happily on our way

Here on the outskirts of an age soon spent
With all its demons and songs of untruth
If we could travel ahead and lose this life
Crack it open and live to tell the tale

If I could do more than hold you
If I could do more than watch your tears
I wish we could name this place: 'Oblivion'
Then be happily on our way

If I could do more than hold you
If I could do more than watch your tears
I wish we could name this place: 'Oblivion'
Then be happily on our way

Into my arms
Into my arms
Out of harm's way

Into my arms
Into my arms
Out of harm's way

Into my arms
Into my arms

Sunday, April 24, 2011

aestheticization and its pitfalls, again

Image source:

The Japanese fashion everything: They twist chopsticks; they wrap the trunks of trees and rocks; they redesign the shape of ponds and waterfalls to make them look realer than real. They hold a long and carefully rippled mirror up to nature.

It is no wonder that the world has been astounded by anime, manga and all varieties of Japanese presentational design. All Japanese culture is fantasy. A fantasy that is as real as it gets.

--Roger Pulvers,
'Fantasy really is reality in many aspects of Japanese life and culture', in The Japan Times, 24 April 2011.

*       *       *

Many, way too many Western scholars seem to find endless pleasure in extolling and popularising the qualities of Japanese aesthetics while neglecting or altogether omitting its underside (which would no doubt alienate their audiences, at least in Japan). As far as the appreciation of nature is concerned, I wonder if these scholars would be as enthusiastic and light-hearted if they really realised some of the disturbing implications of the attitudes they so readily praise.

Pulvers overstates his case when he says that the Japanese 'fashion everything' in nature. They do fashion certain things you can put on a list - say, a limited number of scenic sites (the Nihon sankei e.g.), cherry blossom viewing in the spring, moon viewing in autumn, and so on and so on. However, the general ugliness of Japan's cities and towns, with their flat sterile surfaces and exposed power lines, their wasteful, chaotic proliferation of vending machines, convenience stores and neon signs, as well as the pitiful sight of mountains, rivers and seashores increasingly choked with concrete, belie the famed Japanese love of and 'oneness' with nature. 

What all these things show instead is an appalling aesthetic and ecological insensitivity to those parts of nature which have not been popularised in the collective consciousness and thereby subject to strict rules of seeing and experiencing that generally rule out the unpredictable. While the Japanese delight in viewing the cherry blossoms in spring and know exactly how to behave and what to say under these highly structured circumstances, seldom does such admiration extend to a broader, spontaneous appreciation of and concern for the natural world outside certain collectively favoured features. They only seem to be comfortable when touching 'nature' from a safe distance, by freezing and putting walls around things.

These risk-averse attitudes certainly stem from the harshness of living in an overcrowded land at the mercy of nature's unpredictability and prone to earthquakes, typhoons, floods, mudslides. Yet they can also be seen as an integral part of the ingrained Japanese tendency to focus on the instant or small detail, as epitomised in a haiku poem. While this ability to 'narrow the focus' has a praiseworthy dimension in its elegance and perfectionism, it also has a dark underside. As Alex Kerr, citing the architect Sei Takeyama, puts it in his Dogs and Demons, this leads the Japanese people to ignore and become desensitised to the ugliness in their environment:

You can admire a mountainside and not see the gigantic power lines marching over it, or take pleasure in a rice paddy without being disturbed by the aluminum-clad factory looming over it. 
Photographers and moviemakers in Japan must carefully calculate how to frame each shot to preserve the illusion of natural beauty. The Japanese are surrounded by books and posters that feature precisely trimmed shots of nature - mostly close-ups of such details as the walkway into an old temple grounds or a leaf swirling in a mountain pool - with accompanying slogans praising the Japanese love of nature, the seasons and so forth.
It is impossible to get through a single day in Japan without seeing some reference - in paper, plastic, chrome, celluloid, or neon - to autumn foliage, spring blossoms, flowing rivers, and seaside pines. Yet it is very possible to go for months or even years without seeing the real thing in its unspoiled form. Camouflaged by propaganda and symbols, supported by a complacent public, and directed by a bureaucracy on autopilot, the line of tanks moves on: laying concrete over rivers and seashores, reforesting the hills, and dumping industrial waste. (pp. 74-76)
And thus are some of the disquieting aesthetic and ecological implications of favouring 'fantasy' - and... er... 'narrow focus', I'd add - over the truth. Then there is also, of course, the ethical dimension of it all, but that's another long story, about which I've already written more than enough.

Perplexities, in a word.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

surfaces and beyond

Looking, and writing about looking: looking at surfaces and beyond them, at what is depicted and what is hidden in shadow, at how a transient chemistry of light may be fixed in colour and words.

*       *       *

The passage is from a poetry newsletter to which I subscribe and refers to a recently published book of poems. Yet I wonder if it couldn't be taken as a definition of all poetry - or art at large - and of the craft of those who look at things with a poetic eye.

Deep-sea fish that I am though, my interest is always in that beyond, in what is hidden in the shadows, there where the eyes become redundant and the other senses prevail.

What's inside counts indeed.

Friday, April 22, 2011

why read? why listen? why write?

They are so much part of the same movement of re-creation and transformation.

Certainly for this reason too, but not to gratify desire through some form of vicarious experience as you sleepwalk through life.

On the contrary, to keep you wide awake by shaping, re-inventing desire, by making you desire change - and to give you the courage to enact it when the moment of turning comes.

An antidote to the prevailing zombism and self-absorption.

Yes, above all to keep the ice from forming.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

the erotics of trust

It's inevitable. You dwell on and long for those things that are so pitifully missing here, amidst the general iciness and spiritlessness, along the barbed wire fences erected everywhere, everywhere.

And how to avoid yielding to anguish and disappointment?

By hoping there are better people and a better world out there, where the miracle of trust and courage may still happen.

There must be.

*       *       *

Once one determines to trust someone, there is not simply a calm that enters into one's soul; there is excitement and exhilaration. Trust is the most joyous kind of bond with another living being. But isn't it true that whenever we enjoy being with someone, there is a factor of risk there, and also a factor of trust, which gives our enjoyment an edge of rapture?


Courage and trust have this in common: they are not attitudes with regard to images and representations. Courage is a force that can arise and hold steadfast as one's projections, expectations, and hopes dissipate. Courage rises up and takes hold and builds on itself. Trust is a force that can arise and hold on to someone whose motivations are as unknown as those of death. It takes courage to trust someone you do not know. There is an exhilaration in trusting that builds on itself. One really cannot separate in this exhilaration the force of trust and the force of courage.

Sexual attraction [is] also [a force] that [breaks] through images and representations. [...] Erotic impulses are excited by all the artifices of adornment and masquerade. Sensuality is aroused by the intense colours of sumptuous garments and by jewellry whose metal and crystal glitter across naked flesh; it is ensnared by the suggestive shiftings of someone's eyes, his or her pirouetting fingers, provocative poses and gamy words. But the fascination with these seductive appearances and accoutrements unleashes lustful drives that crave to break through the images to take hold of and penetrate the anonymous animal body behind them. The sexual craving that torments us shuts us off to the projects and solicitations of the common and practical world, but it is also anonymous and spreads by contagion, making us transparent to one another.


In the way that sexual craving [breaks] through the images and representations and labelling of things and [makes] contact with the singular reality, [it has] a kinship with courage and with trust. Indeed, just as there is courage in trust, so there is pleasure and exhilaration in trust: trust laughs at dangers. And sexual attraction is so like trust: it careens toward sexual surrender to another as into an unconditional trust. Conversely, there is something erotic in trust, for trust is not a bare thrust of will holding on to the unintelligible core of another; it holds on to the sensibility and forces of another. There is something erotic in the trust that a skydiver extends to his buddy plummeting after him bringing him his parachute, as there is in the trust that an individual lost in the jungle extends to a native youth. Trust is courageous, giddy, and lustful.

--Alphonso Lingis, Trust, Theory Out of Bounds 25 (2004), pp. x-xii.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

darkly summoning

Rain, alone in the rain,

rain and the train and
the river darkly summoning
towards its source my heart.

--Barry MacSweeney, from The Book of Demons (1997), in Wolf Tongue (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe, 2003), p. 246.

Monday, April 18, 2011

the lovely grossness of the camellias

Natsume Soseki once described their life as 'flaring into bloom and falling to earth with equal suddenness'. Unlike the ethereal cherry blossoms, whose petals dance gently in the wind before reaching the ground, camellias 'never drift down petal by petal but drop from the branch intact. Although this in itself is not particularly unpleasant [...], the way in which they remain whole even when they have landed is both gross and offensive to the eye'.*

And that's precisely why I love them far more than the over-aestheticised, stereotypical sakura.

Because they cling to their blooming.

Because while wilfully assertive in their singularity, they are also enticingly secretive.

You either love them or hate them.

Whatever the case, they won't impose themselves on you --- they are their own flowers. When the end comes, they fall whole and remain whole, unashamed of their derelict and tainted beauty.

They continue to shine even when neglected or trampled upon.

They cling to life, to fullness in every weather.

They do not submit gently.

They won't compromise.

That's why this Spring I didn't go out of my way to see the spectacular cherry blossoms, but sought the lovely, lurid camellias in sympathy and complicity.

*Natsume Soseki, Kusamakura (1906) / The Three Cornered World, trans. Alan Turney (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1967), p. 136.

Photos by DK

Saturday, April 16, 2011

feels like an ending

Thank goodness there are songs like this, sustaining you when you're at a loss for words.

Because they just say everything, everything.

All files deleted. Nearly done.

music: Takagi Masakatsu
lyrics & vocals: David Sylvian

Feels like an ending
She's winding her way towards a conclusion
That never comes
Caroline feels uncomfortably numb

She's in deep
Surrendering to the promise of sleep
Almost done
Caroline plays an audience of one

And it isn't polite
She won't even try
A problem to no one
A problem to none

How can it be as quiet as this
This close to the edge?
Caroline says she's nobody's friend

How can you breathe
Embarrassed to be this far left of alone?
Caroline knows there's nobody home

It's ending
Winding its way towards a conclusion
Nearly done
Caroline knows there's nothing to come

When in doubt
She wanted to get it all down in writing
Didn't count
Better if someone else works it out

The files are deleted
No resisting at all
Already defeated

© 2004 by David Sylvian/ Opium (Arts) Ltd.


Thursday, April 14, 2011

a parenthesis in need of a transfusion

It's hardly begun and I'm already up to here with it.

Sapped, drained, on the verge of inarticulacy. Barely staying afloat.

As the night falls there's little more to do than read this poem, that poem, snuffling for the last vestiges of meaning.

Holding the line.

(When, when will I be able to close this deadly, unbearable parenthesis?...

*       *       *


The blue bite from the apple. Broken days
arrive like ships in the garden,
invested with date-line amnesia
they are a part of disinformation,
they happened, but they flew black flags
from rusty funnels. I pat their fat hulls
and watch foliage fill their empty decks.
They'll push off deeper into the forest

and be a scaffolding for birds, squirrels.
Solitude's like searching in old pockets
for a dead letter. When I touch the air
I'm startled by myself. This blue, that blue

are seamless and in harmony.
If I go backwards, there's another place,
a room inside this room inside this room.
I'm no one sitting in that space.
A black coat hanging from a chair.
A parenthesis in need of a transfusion.

I listen to the silence fall
like snow. It's white on white, clear abstract stuff.
I'll walk out later, try the street
for faces, leave the garden piled with ships
and three small children sitting on the wall.

--Jeremy Reed, in Conductors of Chaos, ed. Iain Sinclair (London: Picador, 1996), p. 363.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

in praise of shadows

This regained dimness in Tokyo, to which my eyes are slowly and gladly getting used, has brought back memories of a book I always re-read with mixed feelings, Junichiro Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows. *

Published for the first time in the early 1930s, the essay can be read as an interesting example of nihonjinron, a constellation of discourses revolving around Japanese cultural identity which, in an ethnocentric, essentialist and a-historical manner, stresses the uniqueness, exceptionality and 'mystery' of the national psyche and customs on the basis of simplistic binary oppositions like Japan / the West, traditional / modern, inner / outer.

In Praise of Shadows discusses Japanese aesthetics in its various dimensions - from architecture to food, from ideals of beauty to ghosts - by contrasting it with Western thought. In Tanizaki's view, Japan differs from the West in the distinct relationship it establishes with light and shadow. While the West, in its obsessive quest for Progress, privileges the clarity and assertiveness of light, Japanese sensibility delights in the subtle play of shadows, in ambiguity and understatement:

But what produces such differences in taste? In my opinion it is this: we Orientals tend to seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are; and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty. But the progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light—his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow. **

Shadows appear in Tanizaki as the ultimate symbol of a Japanese authenticity on the verge of extinction, and he entertains no illusions about the survival of a sensibility fostered by ways of life and material conditions which have altogether disappeared. Such pessimism, which also pervades his novels, makes Tanizaki an unorthodox figure who does not easily square with the artistic establishment and its commodities - commodities that have shaped Japan's official imagery for Western consumption: the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, calligraphy, traditional dance and theatre.

Since for Tanizaki beauty is not a substance in itself but a mere configuration of shadows -- 

Such is our way of thinking—we find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.

-- what truly begets his nostalgia is not so much the physical disappearance of certain practices and objects - the Noh costumes, the wooden toilets, the lacquerware, the decorative metals - as the removal of all these things from their vital source of beauty in the shadows of a dimly lit theatre, a temple, or a home, and their conversion into inert museum pieces (because) exposed to an excess of light.

In comparison with Lafcadio Hearn/Yakumo Koizumi, another nostalgic of vanishing Japan, Tanizaki seems to be more acutely aware of the sheer impossibility of bringing back a whole way of life whose very existence the import of western ideas, institutions, technology, and, above all, notions of Progress, has relentlessly eroded. Yet both converge in the identification of the one and only place where the shadows, memories and phantasmagorias of this agonising culture may still be rescued from the inevitability of oblivion. It is thus with the following words that Tanizaki closes his Praise:

I am aware of and am most grateful for the benefits of the age. No matter what complaints we may have, Japan has chosen to follow the West, and there is nothing for her to do but move bravely ahead and leave us old ones behind. But we must be resigned to the fact that as long as our skin is the color it is the loss we have suffered cannot be remedied. I have written all this because I have thought that there might still be somewhere, possibly in literature or the arts, where something could be saved. I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.

Well, I couldn't agree more - and that's why I'll go on reading Tanizaki (and Hearn), despite all the mixed feelings.


*This text draws heavily on another one I wrote in Portuguese a few years ago, and which was posted here.
**All excerpts from In Praise of Shadows are taken from this English translation available on line.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

what is the language using us for?

What is the language using us for?
I don't know. Have the words ever
Made anything of you, near a kind
Of truth you thought you were? Me
neither. The words like albatrosses
Are only a doubtful touch towards
My going and you lifting your hand

To speak to illustrate an observed
Catastrophe. What is the weather
Using us for where we are ready
With all our language lines aboard?
The beginning wind slaps the canvas.
Are you ready? Are you ready?

--W. S. Graham, from Implements in Their Places in Collected Poems 1942-1977 (London: Faber, 1979), pp. 195-96.

failing better

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.

Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
--Samuel Beckett

I often wonder if instead of this increasing obsession with techniques of learning oriented towards spurious notions of success educators wouldn't do a much better job by also opening up a space for learning from failure.

It's amazing how, in these hard times of widespread unemployment and grim future prospects among the young, mainstream education can remain so aloof from and unresponsive to real life.

And a responsiveness to real life has nothing to do with preparing students to become mere cannon fodder at the service of fickle economic interests, market forces and political regimes.

It means, on the contrary, fostering character through an active tolerance of risk, uncertainty, ambiguity outside the pressures of professional utilitarianism and social conformism.

And isn't the study of literature and the arts the space where this negative capability can be more fully and actively cultivated?

Yet mainstream education continues along its suicidal path towards the marginalisation of the humanities in favour of S&T, as if they were mutually exclusive.

Sad indeed how certain civilisations choose to die a slow but inexorable death.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

first days

Despite the franticness, the first days of teaching at the beginning of a new academic year are always so full of promise and hope. Like so many other things in life: trust, friendship, love.

As I walk among the sunny effervescence of the new students, I repeat to myself this long-standing aspiration and motto of mine, in the hope that some of them may listen and remember:

"If one of my students should one day rear children in a better way....
 --Allen Fisher, from Brixton Fractals in Gravity.

... it will have been worth it.

This, and this alone,  is what makes being here less insufferable. Sticking to the essentials, beyond all the disappointments and wrongs suffered.

First days, first things.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

back in limbo (2)

We had the experience but missed the meaning...
--T. S. Eliot, 'The Dry Salvages', l. 93.

Such a relief to be back, as usual. Yet impossible at the same time to avoid a sense of desolation and heartbreak.

As usual.

The feeling overhelmed me once again this morning as the plane was making its slow descent over the bay, and the drifting ships, the neat configuration of the land, the general drabness of the houses gradually took shape. All so orderly, predictable, depthless.


Japan is the strangest of non-places indeed, giving you a numbing sense of security, which the recent catastrophe has proved to be fragile, way too fragile after all.

Over the years, this amorphous existence benumbs you to a point when you no longer feel the ground beneath your feet, while constantly reminding you that groundedness and depth are the things you most long for - and will never find here.


You long to leave, but something holds you back, somehow.

And thus you long and linger, year after year - and life goes by.

Even though the moment of truth eventually arrives when you are compelled to break the impasse and leave for good, you remain clueless as to why this impasse should have ever existed from the outset.

And not even the song you listen to like a mantra in these trying times provides an answer. It just adds to the mystery.

Which is fine.

*       *       *

Can't let it be
When least expected there she is
Gone the time and space that separates us

And I'm not safe
I think I need a second skin
No, I'm not safe

World citizen
World citizen

I want to travel by night
Across the steppes and over seas
I want to understand the cost
Of everything that's lost
I want to pronounce all their names correctly

World citizen
World citizen
I won't be disappointed
I won't be

She doesn't laugh
We've gone from comedy to commerce
And she doesn't feel the ground she walks upon

I turn away
And I'm not sleeping well at night
And while I know this isn't right
What can you do?

--David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto, World Citizen - I Won't Be Disappointed.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

back in limbo (1)

It's certainly not for pleasure, but because I've got no alternative at the moment: to dispatch work commitments and some unfinished personal business, which I'll try to do as swiftly as possible.

I'm, however, bracing myself for some painfully long, slow-moving months ahead. And how could it be otherwise when you're waiting, longing and waiting, on the edge of a momentous decision?

In a sense, I'm glad to have already bid farewell to those things that really matter. And yet it's still heartbreaking in so many ways.

To help me get through this season of fatigue, the comfort of friends (those who haven't as yet left... So many have though) and the heartwarming memories of these past two weeks of sanctuary among the best pals I could have wished for. I can't thank them enough for the peace of mind they've so generously brought me.

Moreira, Maia
March-April 2011
Photos by EK & DK

unhomely thoughts upon leaving 'home'

The concept of home is needed (and in fact it can only be thought) only after the home has already been left behind. In a strict sense, then, one has always already left home, since home can only exist as such at the price of it being lost.
-- Van den Abbeele, Travel as Metaphor: From Montaigne to Rousseau (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), pp. xviii-xix.

*       *       *


And to travel is a way of mitigating the pain, a way of coping with the loss of home by making the best of disorientation.

That is to say, I never leave any home behind: I merely travel from place to place, land to land. Everything, everywhere, everyone becomes thereby comfortably unfamiliar.

And I'm not afraid to face the truth -- which others call danger -- that, having become a foreigner in what I once called my own homeland, home will always be the place that I have lost, the place where I'm not.

The only space I can thus fully inhabit is the in-betweeness of displacement: 'between domains, between forms, between homes, between languages', as that quintessential traveller-theorist, Edward Said, phrased it.

There is no home and away, only something in between.

Yet I'm so immensely revitalised by these exilic energies, so energised by this border existence (which others call destitution).

I just can't live otherwise.

The journey continues, then.

Friday, April 1, 2011

the love of truth

Truth means seeing what exceeds the possibility of seeing, what is intolerable to see, and what exceeds the possibility of thinking.

--Alphonso Lingis, 'Reticence' in

*       *       *

That's why one cannot but love and seek it incessantly, in all its multiplicity, unpredictability, pain and exhilaration, however high the cost.

No evasions, no lies, no masks.