Wednesday, June 29, 2011

departures (3)

I am the most tired woman in the world. I am tired when I get up. Life requires an effort which I cannot make. Please give me that heavy book. I need to put something heavy like that on top of my head. I have to place my feet under the pillows always, so as to be able to stay on earth. Otherwise I feel myself going away, going away at a tremendous speed, on account of my lightness. I know that I am dead. As soon as I utter a phrase my sincerity dies, becomes a lie whose coldness chills me.

Don't say anything, because I see that you understand me, and I am afraid of your understanding. I have such a fear of finding another like myself, and such a desire to find one! I am so utterly lonely, but I also have such a fear that my isolation be broken through, and I no longer be the head and ruler of my universe. I am in great terror of your understanding by which you penetrate into my world; and then I stand revealed and I have to share my kingdom with you.

But Jeanne, fear of madness, only the fear of madness will drive us out of the precincts of our solitude, out of the sacredness of our solitude. The fear of madness will burn down the walls of our secret house and send us out into the world seeking warm contact. Worlds self−made and self−nourished are so full of ghosts and monsters.

--Anais Nin, House of Incest.

*       *       *

Narcissism -- its seductions and pitfalls.

To be unable to love or take any genuine interest in anyone that is not a mirror image of oneself. The utter denial of otherness, difference, patience, tolerance, generosity, distance from oneself.

The first intimation of madness. 

And here too departure offers a forked path: whether you take yourself with you on the journey and remain the same, your self-hatred and self-destructive willfulness accompanying you like the shadow of death (a pointless journey nowhere); or you get rid of yourself to find yourself.

Rimbaud: Car je est un autre...

This is to say that you give up finding 'home' to observe home from a distance.

No purge, no escapism. Just going away to think, to feel alive.

Shatter the mirror, break the rotten  (wa)!

And only then may something astonishing happen, who knows.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

departures (2)

You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.

         --Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable.

Yes, a departure can be a recapitulation of personal and cultural history, and dissipate disgust with the all-familiar, as Eric J. Leed puts it in his superb The Mind of the Traveler.

Yet each departure is also the eternal reenactment of a deep injury: the loss of home, an imaginary home, away from which no one knows you, no one recognises you, no one confirms your being in their gaze.

Because their gaze is always set beyond you.

You are invisible, banished from the others' gaze. The original meaning of 'exile', precisely: a banished person.

Thus an exile proceeds from invisibility to invisibility. Once an exile, always an exile.

Unrecognised, you are always no longer 'there' -- you belong only in the place you long for.

And where is that? Where is the land of those who have fallen from the time and the gaze of others?

Alphonso Lingis calls it 'the community of those who have nothing in common'. Nothing in common except their fallenness, their vulnerability, their mortality. The cracked people.

And it is the necessary alienation of departure that brings you to them, that compels you to communicate, to establish some form of communion, even if at the risk of causing misunderstanding, fear of disclosure.

Blunders happen.

Because they are in pain, we are in pain. And pain isolates, sets adrift.

But recognition can happen, when you see the abyss beneath the mask, the half-hidden wounds in the flesh.

The night of his eyes.

*       *       *

To see the sensibility, susceptibility, vulnerability of another is to see not the inner diagrams but the substance of the body. It is to see the opaque skin, lassitude and torpor, into which the expressions form and vanish. It is to see the night of eyes, on which the forms of the world leave no trace. It is to see the spasms of pain that agitate the substance of the flesh, the tremblings of pleasure that die away. It is to see wrinkles and wounds.
In pain the other sinks back into his or her body, into prostration that already delivers him or her to the death in the world. The flesh in pain is anything but an object; sensibility, subjectivity fill it, with a terrible evidence. This evidence is turned imperatively to me, more pressing than the evolution of the planet and the anonymous enterprises in the humanized map laid out on it, more urgent than the tasks my own death has addressed to me. It is not in elaborating a common language and reason, in collaborating in transpersonal enterprises, that the human community takes form. It is in going to rejoin those who, fallen from the time of personal and collective history, have to go on when nothing is possible or promised.

--Alphonso Lingis, Abuses (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), pp. 235-36.

Monday, June 27, 2011

departures (1)

Thus it is that every country to which you have grown accustomed holds a spell over you.
--Diodorus Siculus

In every parting there is a latent germ of madness.

And yet you cannot avoid the thought of departure, its implications, its divisions, its whirlwind of emotions.

Has it ever been otherwise?

An end and a beginning. A loss and a gain. What you leave behind, what you take with you.

What will be born.

Breaking with a past, projecting a future. Stripping off the accommodating self, redefining contours, recovering freedom, hope (even if only temporarily).

But this is only in hindsight. At the moment of departure, what weighs heavily is separation -- from once beloved others, from things that once defined you and forever changed you. Places, people.

Something breaks that will never again be joined.

A primal departure. One of those moments when you see life from the viewpoint of death, our mortality: the thought that I will never see that person again, that place again -- until I die, until you die.

That it will be too late, when you remember and regret.

No consolation for this, no hindsight.


Sunday, June 26, 2011

the marvels and mysteries of Japanese 'kokusaika' (2)

19th century, 20th century, 21st century -- and the very same attitudes persist.

As the song goes, 'after changes upon changes, [they] are more or less the same'...

*       *       *

The transformations which are being accomplished are under the direction of foreigners in Government service, and of Japanese selected for their capacities, who have studied for some years in Europe and America; and the Government has spared neither trouble nor expense in securing the most competent assistance in all departments, and it is only in comparatively few instances that it has been badly advised by interested by interested aliens for the furtherance of personal or other ends. About 500 foreigners have been at one time or other in its service, and though they have met with annoyances and exasperations, the terms of their contracts have been faithfully adhered to. Some of these gentlemen are decorated with high-sounding titles during their brief engagements; but it must be remembered that they are there as helpers only, without actual authority, as servants and not masters, and that, with a notable exception, the greater their energy, ability, and capacity for training, the sooner are their services dispensed with, and one department after another passes from foreign into native management. The retention of foreign employes forms no part of the programme of progress. "Japan for the Japanese" is the motto of Japanese patriotism; the "Barbarians" are to be used, and dispensed with as soon as possible.

--Isabella Bird, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: An Account of Travels in the Interior, Including Visits to the Aborigines of Yezo and the Shrines of Nikko and Ise, vol. I (1880; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 10. [emphasis mine]

How little Japanese attitudes toward foreign academics have changed over the past hundred years is suggested by the experience of one of the most illustrious of the early kyoshi, the Leipzig-trained physician Erwin Baelz, who served from 1876 to 1902 as chief adviser in developing the medical school and hospital at Tokyo University. Dr. Baelz's diary reveals a gradual devolution from his admiration in the 1870s for Japan's eagerness for Western knowledge, to his indignation in the 1880s as he watched growing numbers of foreign colleagues dismissed and repatriated without any thanks for their contributions, to his own frustration in the 1890s as he found himself bypassed in major faculty decisions and sought to leave but was repeatedly held back by unfulfilled promises to improve his situation.
At his own twenty-fifth anniversary festivities, Baelz touched on what he saw as the root of Japan's shabby treatment of foreign scholars. The Japanese, Baelz suggested, often seemed not to understand the true source and nature of Western science, mistaking it for a sort of machine that could be easily carted off to new places and made to perform the same work, rather than seeing it as an organism requiring a carefully nurturing atmosphere. Foreign scholars from many countries had worked hard to implant the spirit of modern science in Japan, but although they had come to nurture the tree itself, their mission had largely been misunderstood. The Japanese had treated them as no more than peddlers of the final fruits, and had been content to take the latest plums from them, without seeking to appropriate the spirit that had nourished the tree. Baelz concluded:

Soon there will be very few foreign teachers left in the country. Let me advise you to give those that still remain more freedom than you have done in the past, more opportunity for independent work; and let me urge you to keep in close touch with them in fields besides that of their strictly educational work . . . . In that way you will learn more of the spirit of science, the spirit with which you cannot become intimately acquainted in lecture theaters . . . but only in daily association with those engaged in research.

--Ivan P. Hall, Cartels of the Mind: Japan's Intellectual Closed Shop (New York: Norton, 1998), pp. 121-22. [emphases mine]

Saturday, June 25, 2011

the desire to return to a warmer land

In time of departures, thinking of returns.


Though I know I shouldn't, I shouldn't -- but what the hell.

(It will pass, as all things pass.)

The separation

The time came when the desire to return
grew so strong that certain songs would automatically produce
the physical pain of real longing
just because they were markers of former street-days

the restraint was hard to bear
when the cold closed for the year

when the thaw might come was a speculation
too distant to have much reality

The orchestra would come and go
and there seemed no regulation by which
one could plot or know their movements
yet at each appearance they never failed to chill
me with their blank faces and uncompromising playing
It was as though "I" wasn't there,
as though it was all a self-supporting film
The leader of the orchestra would advance
towards me yet his eyes were set beyond me
It was so unbearable that I was forced to stay -
though the pleasure of mute acceptance was denied me
- their movements settled this
Many days were passed waiting in suspense for the next appearance

When the sun shone you could see the cliffs
and seashore across
The little boats bobbed in the harbour

That the pain was doubly hard to bear since
it involved such self-restraint as to
not gulp down the remedy which was
a bottle with "answer" crudely printed out on the label -
the symbolism of this went too far

If a ticket was bought it could only mean one thing
and there waiting on the other shore
was a table loaded down with childish treats
and lots of cuddly bears romped all round the table
I had almost packed my knapsack
before I realised the spell might break

I had tooted the car-horn for almost half an hour
outside their new house before I realised
       they might not want to come out

The old photo had faded and was now very worn
It was more than a matter of recognition

Yet underneath the forest even when the glacier
threatened imminent extinction
the desire to return to a warmer land
was as fierce as ever and no dangers
even in the form of pawnshop windows that displayed
neat rows of pistols and automatics - each with its neat blue
price tag hanging down so prettily - could deter me

It was a necessity to be continually reckoned with
even at the height of ecstasies;
the ice-cold chewed deeper
It hurt when the "answer" was realised
and the whole camp stood silent for a minute

--Lee Harwood, from The White Room in Collected Poems (Exeter: Shearsman, 2004), pp. 61-62.


the marvels and mysteries of Japanese 'kokusaika' (1)

I have been re-reading a couple of books on Japan in the context of one of my current research projects – including Ivan P. Hall’s razor-sharp Cartels of the Mind: Japan's Intellectual Closed Shop.

While I generally agree, on the basis of my own experience in Japanese academia, with the line of his argument, there are certain passages which resonate more deeply with me, perhaps because I was raised in a Christian culture where a sense of humanist universalism and solidarity with the plight of others are (were?) still widely upheld moral values.

And perhaps that is why too the conspicuous absence of these values from Japanese society makes it so difficult, if not virtually impossible, for people with ‘our’ cultural roots to suppress a sense of outrage at the appalling discrepancies, aberrations, inequalities and injustices that such absence constantly breeds.

This also makes the Japanese shoddy attempts at 国際化 (internationalization) sound utterly ludicrous and insincere. Most of them seem absolutely incapable of understanding the reciprocity and openness to others that a genuine cosmopolitanism demands.

And how on earth can one take such people seriously and show any goodwill towards them?

Ivan P. Hall, spot on:

The truth of the matter is that the Japanese do not want non-Japanese physically present among them for any length of time, embedded as individuals in the working institutions of their society. As short-term feted guests or curiosities, yes; but not as fixed human furniture. Permanent intrusions are viewed by the Japanese as intolerable threats to their value system, their social relations, their way of life. . . .

What has been missing from Japan’s historical conceptualization of itself in respect to both the West and Asia is a capacity to think in terms of “horizontal” relationships among equalsa greater sensitivity to universal human traits and needs and interests, overriding the rigid verticalities of superior-inferior power relationships and the precipitous intercultural chasms that still dominate the Japanese view of the outside world. Having climbed to the top of the pile [my comment: it now seems to be slipping down towards the bottom, though!], Japan has difficulty deciding where to go next, since it cannot imagine simply going sideways – toward a relaxed collegiality.

In short, what prevents Japan’s assumption of an enlightened world leadership role is, more than anything else, its overblown particularism. Great powers in human history have all predicated their mandate (however presumptuous or self-serving) on some sort of universalism. That goes for the great imperial purveyors of political pax – be it America, Britain, ancient Rome, or even the perverted communist universalism of the old Soviet bloc – as well as for the major cultural players like France, with its self-appointed mission civilisatrice, and the Chinese with their superb self-confidence over the ages that the barbarians at the gates would eventually succumb to the overpowering charm of Chinese culture.

Indeed, one of the most striking features of contemporary, hitech Japan is the persistent Japanese fear of the adoption of their own culture by others, an attitude that contrasts most starkly with that of the French. A foreigner in France who does not know the language, or handles it poorly, has traditionally been persona non grata – precisely the reverse of Japan, where the fluent foreigner seems threatening and intrusive, and the complete linguistic and cultural ingénue is welcomed with open arms and sighs of relief. In France a reasonable mastery of the French language and culture by a resident foreign artist, scholar or journalist usually leads to professional and personal treatment no worse than that which Frenchmen accord one another. In Japan anxiety over the acculturation of others to their culture – together with the conviction that it cannot be done – leads most Japanese to view the effort less as a compliment or first step toward bonding than as an unwanted prying into their national psyche.

Unfortunately, the evidence to date suggests the difficulty of convincing the Japanese that their great influence in the world today makes reciprocal access to their society all but mandatory. Most, instead, when pressed, will elevate their exclusionism to a cultural principle requiring tolerance and acceptance by others on the basis of cultural relativism. True respect, in other words, means Japanese respect for American openness, and American respect for Japanese exclusivity. The demands for intellectual access represent Western absolutes, a new form of cultural imperialism. Heads I win, tails you lose. The economical and political implications of this insular rubric are mind-boggling, but that is the bottom line of Japan’s pledges of “internationalization.” (pp. 178-79; added emphases mine)

An intellectual -- and cultural -- closed shop, no doubt.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Bless 'em all

My friends are much more dangerous than my enemies. These latter—with infinite subtlety—spin webs to keep me out of places where I hate to go,—and tell stories of me to people whom it would be vanity and vexation to meet; and they help me so much by their unconscious aid that I almost love them. They help me to maintain the isolation indispensable to quiet regularity of work. . . . Blessed be my enemies, and forever honored all those that hate me !

--Lafcadio Hearn, Letter to Ernest Fenollosa, December 1898, cited in The Life and Letters of Lafcadio Hearn, ed. Elizabeth Bisland (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1923), vol. 3, p. 147.

And how could I possibly disagree -- there's no more productive place on earth to make enemies indeed.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

la donna è mobile...

La donna è mobile
Qual piuma al vento,
Muta d'accento — e di pensiero.
Sempre un amabile,
Leggiadro viso,
In pianto o in riso, — è menzognero.

È sempre misero
Chi a lei s'affida,
Chi le confida — mal cauto il cuore!
      --The Duke of Mantua in Verdi's Rigoletto.

(Woman is fickle
Like a feather in the wind,
She changes her voice — and her mind.
Always sweet,
Lovely face,
In tears or in laughter — a liar.
Always miserable
Is he who trusts her,
He who confides in her — his unwary heart!)

*       *      *

In time of departures, thinking of arrivals.

Anticipating, musing, imagining.

Because the moment of arrival -- home, or somewhere that creates ties between you and a place you may come to call 'home' -- is so much more heartening and full of promise, despite everything.

Yet all these comings and goings, as well as the comments from friends on my unabated willingness to keep in transit, return me to the thought ever so often. The archetypal image of Man's mobility and Woman's immobility, and how this crucially configures the sexual relations between them in departure and arrival.

Travel is eroticised through and through.

He travels far and wide -- and he arrives, conquers, penetrates a stable female ground: home, an island, a walled garden, an interior, bounded space.


He departs again -- or desires to, because she keeps him within, confines, devours him, Calypso-like, Circe-like.

Captivity, fear.

Arnold Böcklin, Odysseus und Kalypso, 1883.

"She wants you to be her prisoner,
She wishes to have your body
For herself, not even your heart
To be free."
"Surely," he answered,
I agree, I've no objections.
I want to be her prisoner."
"And so you'll be, by this hand
I lay on your shoulder"
And so she led him off,
Worrying him a bit . . . and giving him hints 
Of the prison he was going to.
What lover escapes his prison?
She was right, calling it a prison:
Whoever's in love is no longer free.

--Chretien de Troyes, Ywain: The Knight of the Lion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), pp. 59-60.

Double standards, the usual story. Bah.

But what if she is the one who travels unbounded? The established order is disrupted, reversed, moral suspicion arises -- hers is the nightflight of the witch, fantasy travel.

Danger, fear.

Wherever she arrives, she is not welcomed.

And thus the journey continues.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

the rise of the academic bully

Warfare is common and no less deadly because it is polite.
--J. Victor Baldrige (cited as epigraph to Faculty Incivility)

Dark times. I read the book a couple of years ago, shortly after it was published, in an attempt to make sense of certain behaviours whose increasing frequency seemed to me to suggest a disturbing pattern and a sea-change in human relations.

Little did I realise then that I would come full face with it as, having been forced to emigrate in search of an academic position (non-existent in my country), I struggled to survive in another culture that generally treats foreign scholars with the utmost contempt.

Again, it is not that Japanese universities are alone in this appalling rise of academic incivility and camouflaged aggression. However, certain cultural traits – namely the overvaluation of consensus () and the mechanisms of social control developed to suppress criticism and dissent as well as to manipulate or hide information – make it more covert, insidious, and yet no less deadly. As the authors of Faculty Incivility argue:

To keep cultural acts hidden is a subtle form of incivility; secrecy permits control, and control contributes to a culture of incivility. . . . A façade of social order and control often masks an underlying current of the general rudeness that prevails throughout society in general and the academy in particular. (p. 5)

It would take far too long to summarise the intricate argument developed by Twale and De Luca in the book, but since someone else has done it quite nicely in a review available on, I take the liberty of reproducing it here:

Some journalists . . . have ascertained that today . . . selfishness, disrespect, rudeness, and self-absorption are on the rise and incivility has become a serious societal problem. Since academy represents an image of society, the incivility amongst academics is dominantly visible. Generally, civility increases amongst individuals as they age but it rarely increases as a result of educational level. Uncivil acts occur among academics more often than one would like to admit. According to the authors, people bully and aggress others because of their personal insecurities, lack of self-confidence, envy, and inability to cope with the challenges of life. A hostile workplace often is the result of a power imbalance that leads to aggression, and workplace incivility. Further, when silent treatment, micromanagement, demotion, being given less responsibility , gossip, overloading with work, indulging in self-promotion, harboring rumors, breaking confidentiality, playing favorites, ignoring positive contributions, backstabbing, scapegoting, marginalizing, dismissing others' valid opinions and ideas, consistently interrupting, envy, and lies persist over a longtime, a bully or mob culture begins to develop and flourish in the academy. In some departments, bystanders are aware of what is going on but usually do nothing to support the target(s) for fear of retaliation. Through careful manipulation, bullies who are usually "charmers" and liars may acquire roles and responsibilities of a leader such as department chair or even dean. The way academy conducts its business, mobbing or group-bullying through committee decisions camouflages and insulates the real bully or singular instigator.
The authors point out that academic life can become competitive to the point of being dysfunctional. The individual faculty competes for space in top-tier journals, most publications per year, biggest offices with windows, grant money, and the most golden status in the administration's eyes. Further, in academy, at times, selected faculty members reach the status of urban legend. The value of their credentials is so inflated by themselves or administration that students and distant colleagues may believe that they walk on water and gain legendry reputation that is more pomposity and pretence than actual value and substance.
In sum, the book presents an insider's view of the sad tale of academy where individuals with doctorates [and sometimes even without them!] proclaim godlike status for themselves. They engage in underhanded acts of brutality towards one another usually unheard and unseen by the general public. Ironically, most outsiders to the academy think of it as a peaceful, nourishing haven where scholarly minds ardently pursue the quality life of the intellect. The authors conclude by emphasizing that incivilities and the bully culture of the academy are inconsistent with the normative expectations of civil society. They make suggestions on how the incivilities of the professorate and the bully culture of academy can be curtailed. This book is an eye opener.

In a dog-eat-dog world where self-absorption, unscrupulousness and philistinism have become the rule of the day and the privileged instruments of career advancement, there seems to be little protection or hope for those exiles who are in academia because they still believe it is a place where ideas may count and intellectual life flourish.

A belief that is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain.

Some, witnessing the gradual devaluation of humane inquiry in an academia now entirely at the service of the status quo and a ruthless managerialism, have already proclaimed ‘the death of universities’. I tend to agree, more and more. Also, from what I have observed here over the past four years, I cannot but fully agree with the view that Japanese universities in particular are 'a huge tatemae erected against the very idea of education' (a quote from Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan, if I'm not mistaken) – and of scholarship, I should add.

Once again, Japan leads the way -- in the worst possible manner.

barbarism begins at home

A recent chat with a friend on the extraordinary male chauvinism still prevalent in this society has brought back memories of an old song, I don't know why. Its original context -- corporal punishment, a recurrent theme in so many songs by The Smiths -- is wholly different, but it does make sense to me in other contemporary contexts as well.

There are indeed all sorts of ways, bodily or otherwise, to punish and put unruly girls in their proper place.

And, yes, here too barbarism begins at home...

Unruly girls
Who will not settle down
They must be taken in hand

A crack on the head
Is what you get for not asking
And a crack on the head
Is what you get for asking


A crack on the head
Is just what you get
Why? Because of who you are

And a crack on the head
Is just what you get
Why? Because of what you are

A crack on the head
Because of those things you said
Things you said
The things you did

--The Smiths, from 'Barbarism begins at home', Meat Is Murder (1985).

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

and the parting is sweet

The day is fast approaching, at last, and you can turn back no longer indeed.

Such an immense relief, as though you have just been released from jail.

A life sentence.

Yet such an immense pain too, when the first goodbyes & farewell parties begin and you find no appropriate words to say to the few good people you have made friends with over the years.

Small islands of hope and affection in this most inhospitable, hopeless of places.

Whether our paths will ever cross again I do not know, but I will cherish forever those great moments we spent together.

They alone compensate for all the disappointments, betrayals, hardships endured here.

*       *       *

for my dear Shinobazu study group friends

In my dreams I am always saying goodbye and riding away,
Whither and why I know not nor do I care.
And the parting is sweet and the parting over is sweeter,
And sweetest of all is the night and the rushing air.

In my dreams they are always waving their hands and saying goodbye,
And they give me the stirrup cup and I smile as I drink,
I am glad the journey is set, I am glad I am going,
I am glad, I am glad, that my friends don't know what I think.

 -- Stevie Smith, Tender Only to One in Collected Poems (New York: New Directions, 1983), p. 129.


Sunday, June 19, 2011

a sacred storied centuries-long procession

The recent nuclear catastrophe has compelled me to revisit this little known epic which tells an archetypal story that has ever so often populated the primitivist modern imagination: a community struck by a man-made disaster survives only by shedding its hubris and returning to elemental life-patterns.

In a world that seems to have lost any sense of cosmic scale, reading a poem cycle that features such a great sweep of time, stretching back to ancient history and to the recesses of legend and myth, is an uncanny, unfamilarising experience. One gets the rare sense of a community whole, portrayed from its early beginnings, sailing west out of Norway in the ninth century, through Reformation and annexation to Scotland, and painfully struggling for material improvement over the centuries -- until the hubris of progress and materialism, after having drained the land of its people and left only ruins and the detritus of modern commodities in its wake, ultimately leads to nuclear holocaust. The few people who survive the disaster return, ‘unchanged yet terribly changed’, to their original settlement and occupation at the dawn of time:

‘The great song must begin all over again, very far back, beyond the oxen and millstones and bronze throats of agriculture’. 

Not that I can fully endorse the view that only through ecological apocalypse and a return to some lost origin can the human race survive. Yet there are moments, like the present one, when I cannot but sympathise with this escapist metaphor that pervades Fishermen with Ploughs and all of George Mackay Brown’s work for that matter: the small island as that quintessential imaginary place one must get to in order to rebuild one’s life, to reinvent oneself -- and to forget all the sad, terrible things human beings can do to each other and to their communities.

Hoy, Orkney Islands, Scotland

A ship called Dove sails west out of Norway in the ninth century carrying a tribe of fisher people. Their god, the beautiful Balder, is dead. They are in flight from starvation, pestilence, turbulent neighbours (what the poet calls, in the shorthand of myth, the Dragon). But also they are compelled west by the promise of a new way of life: agriculture. The cargo in their hold is a jar of seed corn. Fate, blind and all-wise, has woven their myth about them. Now the same Fate sits at the helm.

That is the theme of the opening section of the poem.

The people settle in a valley called Rackwick in the Orkney island of Hoy. Their slow evolution through the centuries occupies the next four sections; how the climate of their existence changed with such things as the Reformation, annexation to Scotland, foreign wars, compulsory education. But essentially their lives were unchanged; the same people appear and reappear through many generations - the laird, the crofter fisherman, the shepherd, the tinker, the beachcomber, and the women who watch the sea with stony patience; all are caught up in 'the wheel of bread' that is at once brutal and holy.

There is a slow sure improvement in the material conditions. Why does the wheel slow down and stop (Part V)? By the middle of this century the valley was almost completely depopulated. Perhaps (the poet argues) the quality of life grows poorer as Progress multiplies its gifts on a simple community. The dwellers in islands are drawn to the new altars. The valley is drained of its people. The Rackwick croft ruins are strewn with syrup tins, medicine bottles, bicycle frames, tattered novels, rubber boots, portraits of Queen Victoria.

In Part VI the Dragon, black pentecostal fire, falls on a great city. Once again a few people escape by boat. They return to the valley. Their most precious possession is the sacred corn sack. They make themselves farmers and fishermen. The women return, unchanged yet terribly changed. But the wheel has been wrenched from the axle-tree. The great song must begin all over again, very far back, beyond the oxen and millstones and bronze throats of agriculture.

--George Mackay Brown, Fishermen with Ploughs (1971) in The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown, eds. Archie Bevan and Brian Murray (London: John Murray, 2005), pp. 89-90.

Friday, June 17, 2011

the erosion of character

The important sense of character. Until recently people had character, and you felt that very strongly. . . . Their word is a commitment and a pledge, that you don't just drop when it becomes advantageous to yourself to do so. When they pledge their word they keep it. So I began to think that when people have nothing to identify themselves with they have character. This is a way poor people have a noble character. . . . A kind of inner strength, integrity. . . . There is a sense of character in people who have no other way in which to construct an identity. It seems to me now in our consumer culture we construct our identity with things. We construct our identity with collections, with garb, you know with little things we have in our home, our jazz collection or collection of cars or whatever.

--Alphonso Lingis, 'Foreign Bodies: Interview with Alphonso Lingis' (1996) in Encounters with Alphonso Lingis, eds. Alexander E. Hooke and Wolfgang W. Fuchs (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington, 2003), pp. 94-95.

*       *       *

I  have been thinking about this at length ever since I set my feet here, in the attempt to make sense of spineless, mindless behaviours whose recurrence and pervasiveness puzzle and, increasingly, depress me. And the more I get to know, in the skin and the bone, the workings of this society, the more I become convinced that there must be something in it that is set up to systematically nip in the bud any manifestation of character or integrity.

The education -- or perhaps I should say indoctrination -- system may partly account for the phenomenon, but it does not explain everything, since foreigners who have never been exposed to it all too often develop the very same two-facedness once they acquire a stake in Japan and become intent on surviving here, at whatever cost. A cynical adaptation strategy, no doubt.

A friend who was born here but spent many years abroad once told me that this insidious spiritlessness among so many younger generations (that is, those who did not experience the War and its hardships, having grown up in an affluent Japan) may be due to the fact that acquisitiveness and mass consumerism have taken the place of once time-honoured spiritual and personal values, leaving nothing but an appalling emptiness in their wake.

While I tend to be wary of over-simplifying and nostalgic explanations, there is indeed something -- a complex array of factors -- that is eroding this society at its very core and making any meaningful, trustworthy human relationships simply impossible here.


Japan is certainly not alone in this disturbing tendency, but is well ahead of most other societies in this respect. They will catch up, for sure, but where will Japan and the Japanese be then...?

NOTE (23:30): After reading the text above, a Japanese friend, one of those rare souls who has the capacity to look at his own culture with a critical eye and who doesn't take criticism personally, warns me that I need to be careful about my moral assumptions. That is to say, I cannot take for granted concepts such as character or integrity, because, he tells me, they simply do not exist, or at least have wholly distinct connotations, in a culture that does not value (and actually represses and frowns upon) 個性individuality, the very core of Western moral philosophy (or, as Donald Richie once put it, 'Western man's pride and pain'). Even words such as 人格 (personality) and 尊厳 (dignity) are fairly recent in Japanese vocabulary, or so it seems.

And here we go again: how is it possible to find any common ground and establish long-lasting, satisfactory friendships here when what 'we', stuffy old Westerners, consider essential, integral (and therefore non-negotiable) parts of the concept of friendship -- character, trust, candour, constancy, generosity, loyalty e.g. -- just do not seem to exist in this culture?


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

the erotics of trust (4)

To find beauty, love, joy, and reasons to care for and trust others in the most improbable places and times, in the most difficult circumstances, amidst the squalor, on the move, among people who have nothing in common -- is there a more meaningful, true-to-life basis on which to erect a whole philosophy?

And to be sensible enough not to take oneself too seriously, and to be able to laugh at life's endless absurdities, at the frailty of one's body and desires.

*       *       *

How foolish two people get when they become lovers -- how infantile their speech, how naive their sentiments, how frivolous their behavior! How awkward, how ridiculous are the gropings and thrashings of people copulating, how empty the aimless repetitions of caresses, how mindless the compulsive buildup toward orgasm! We lock the door, pull the drapes. In sex theaters, all the movements are coreographed to be graceful and synchronized; nothing is left to the directness of lustful urges. When in the force of momentary grabbings and repulsions they do show through, we are repelled and embarrassed: suddenly we see what we do in our lovemaking. We free ourselves from our embarrassment by giggling, and outside the theater guffawing over what we saw.

But when we spy on others and cannot help laughing, this laughter spreads through our body and reverberates in dissolute and wanton impulses. Telling and hearing dirty jokes do not make us superior and aloof from lustful urges; they make us sink into our sensual nature. In laughter we are transparent to one another, the peals of laughter not expressions of an I or of a you, spreading like waves about a pebble dropped into a lake, with no more individuality than waves.

The lust that disconnects the body from its tasks and its seriousness and releases it on the languorous and agitated body of another is nothing but the laughter of that body. The throbs, the convulsive repetitions, the upheaval, the absurd pleasure of the bodies in lascivious excitement are the laughter not apart from, but in those bodies. They have locked the door and pulled the drapes so that their laughter may be uninhibited, one and undivided. Orgasm is the vortex of the generalized laughter of the bodies.

--Alphonso Lingis, 'Love Junkies' in Trust (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), pp. 119-20.

Monday, June 13, 2011

home and away

Once you are compelled, for personal or professional reasons, to spend the rest of your life abroad, from place to place, land to land, you cannot help wondering. How many people are there who make you feel at home in the absence of any semblance of home?

So very few, especially here, especially now, when time-honoured forms of communicating with the other and creating community have been replaced by standardised, shallow forms of self-fashioning and ego gyms for narcissists.

Sic transit gloria mundi...

*       *       *

The home base is a pole of repose and departure. The zone of the intimate is a pole of warmth and tranquility that we keep sight of as we advance into the stretches of the alien and that our nomadic wanderings gravitate back to.

--Alphonso Lingis, 'The Intimate and the Alien' in The Imperative.

But in most cases, we have to appeal to others to make ourselves at home. We appeal to the others to help us be at home in the desert, in the rain forest, in the tropics, in the tundra, and in the ocean. And in childhood, and in the strange nocturnal regions of the erotic, and in the shadow of death that advances.

--Alphonso Lingis, 'The Elemental that Faces' in The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

the erotics of trust (3)

Hate can be cold, ingenious, devious. Love is lawless, volatile, and violent. The adoration that breaks out of us violates our integrity and breaks up our individuality. To be smitten by love is not to be simply wounded, but shattered.

In heading off to the back alleys and wastelands where our heads are exposed to the blows of chance we know in exhilaration what we have received by chance, what we are by chance. Love is abruptly ignited in impasses and traps; it is the combustion of interpenetrating dreams of bodies collapsed and dysfunctional. It is the incandescence of luck in the most squalid, the most sordid circumstances, the worst luck.

Shit happens.

Love attaches to the abyss. It is hate that circumscribes its own identity. Tell me whom you hate and I will tell you who you are. Tell me whom you love and I will know as little about you as before.

--Alphonso Lingis, 'Love Junkies' in Trust (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), pp. 109-24.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

a disease of the spirit

And yet another eminent writer
puts his finger on the chronic disorder affecting -- and gradually poisoning, destroying -- Japanese society from within, and which often seems to me, as an outsider, a sort of collective schizophrenia: a strangely generalised inability to link thought, emotion and behaviour, leading to withdrawal from reality and human relationships into fantasy and delusion.*

A disturbing inability, also, to learn from past mistakes and tragedies, as well as to really respect and feel solidarity with the suffering of others -- that is, those outside their closed little groups or tribes.

Heartbreaking, in a country that could have had it all.

*       *       *

Novelist Murakami slams nuclear policy

BARCELONA, Spain — Novelist Haruki Murakami criticized his country's pursuit of nuclear energy Thursday during his acceptance speech at the 2011 International Catalunya Prize ceremony in Barcelona, describing the ongoing crisis at the quake-crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant as "a mistake committed by our very own hands."

Murakami said Japan, as the only nation to have experienced the devastation and suffering from radiation through World War II atomic bombings, should have continued saying "no" to nuclear power.

Murakami, the first Japanese to receive the prize given annually by the autonomous Catalan government, said the €80,000 (approximately ¥9.3 million) prize money would be donated to the victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami as well as those affected by the nuclear crisis.

"The accident at the Fukushima (No. 1) nuclear power plant is the second major nuclear detriment that the Japanese people have experienced," he said in Japanese. "However, this time it was not a bomb being dropped upon us, but a mistake committed by our very own hands."

The Japanese people, having "learned through the sacrifice of the hibakusha just how badly radiation leaves scars on the world and human wellbeing," should have continued to stand firm in rejecting nuclear power, the novelist, clad in a gray blazer, said.

"Yet those who questioned (the safety of) nuclear power were marginalized as being 'unrealistic dreamers,' " while the Japanese government and utility companies put priority on "efficiency" and "convenience" and turned the quake-prone nation into the world's third-largest nuclear-powered country, he added.

Japan should have pursued on a national level the development of effective energy sources to replace nuclear power. Doing so could have been a way of taking collective responsibility for the atomic bomb victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he said.

On a more upbeat note, Murakami said he was confident Japan would rise again to rebuild after realigning its mind and spirit, just as it has survived on many occasions throughout its history.


* I'm drawing on the OED comprehensive definition of schizophrenia: a long-term mental disorder of a type involving a breakdown in the relation between thought, emotion, and behaviour, leading to faulty perception, inappropriate actions and feelings, withdrawal from reality and personal relationships into fantasy and delusion, and a sense of mental fragmention.

lament, by proxy

. . . at one of those moments when the sheer banality and shallowness of people who put on airs just become too much to bear. Way too much.

*       *       *

O love, in a world of shuffled papers
and cheap haircuts, your honeysuckle-
scented locks, your locked and gripped
tongue will always be delight to me. In
an alien world of distant characters,
you'll always be inside the dangerous
part of my forever welling willing heart.

--Barry MacSweeney, from 'Pearl Against the Barbed Wire' in Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems 1965-2000 (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe), p. 250.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Japan admits it was unprepared for nuclear disaster

Or: how the Japanese are always prepared -- painstakingly, obsessively -- for everything, except for what really matters.

It just can't be helped.

*       *       *

Japan Admits Unreadiness for Disaster

TIME, Tuesday, Jun. 07, 2011

(TOKYO) — Japan admitted Tuesday it was unprepared for a severe nuclear accident like the tsunami-caused Fukushima disaster and said damage to the reactors and radiation leakage were worse than it previously thought.

In a report being submitted to the U.N. nuclear agency, the government also acknowledged reactor design flaws and a need for greater independence for the country's nuclear regulators. (Fukushima: Twice As Bad As Thought)

The report said the nuclear fuel in three reactors likely melted through the inner containment vessels, not just the core, after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant's power and cooling systems. Fuel in the Unit 1 reactor started melting hours earlier than previously estimated.

The 750-page report, compiled by Japan's nuclear emergency taskforce, factors in a preliminary evaluation by a team from the International Atomic Energy Agency and was to be submitted to the IAEA as requested. "In light of the lessons learned from the accident, Japan has recognized that a fundamental revision of its nuclear safety preparedness and response is inevitable," the report said. It also recommended a national debate on nuclear power.

The report said the flaws in basic reactor design included the venting system for the containment vessels and the location of spent fuel cooling pools high in the buildings, which resulted in leaks of radioactive water that hampered repair work. It also said the vents lacked filtering capability, causing contamination of the air, and the vent line interferred with connecting pipes.

Desperate attempts by plant workers to vent pressure to prevent the containment vessels from bursting repeatedly failed. Experts have said the delay in venting was a primary cause of explosions that further damaged the reactors and spewed huge amounts of radiation into the air.

The melted cores and radiation leaks have irradiated workers, including two control room operators whose exposures have exceeded the government limit. Lack of protection for plant workers early in the crisis and inadequate information about radiation leaks were also a problem, nuclear crisis taskforce director Goshi Hosono said. (Lessons from Fukushima)

The report acknowledged a lack of independence for Japan's nuclear regulator, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, and pledged to improve safety oversight, as recommended in the IAEA report last week.

The report comes a day after NISA said twice as much radiation may have been released into the air as earlier estimated. That would be about one-sixth of the amount released at Chernobyl instead of the earlier estimate of one-tenth.,8599,2076171,00.html

NOTE (6/19): Also worth reading 'Fukushima: It's much worse than you think'.

Monday, June 6, 2011

is the Earth trying to tell us something?

Another volcano eruption, this time around in Chile, prompts mass evacuation. After this series of deadly natural disasters and extreme weather -- earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanoes -- in recent years, I wonder if anyone in her/his right mind can still believe this is all a coincidence and that none of these events are closely related to the Earth's disrupted ecological balance.

While I certainly do not believe in apocalyptic prophecies for a second, I do give credit to those who have been thoroughly researching such phenomena for years and warning of what climate change might have in store for us  -- and much sooner than we would like to think.

Here is one of those people worth listening to (in an article written in 2007).

I'm not so sure, however, as MacGuire seems to be, that there is really still enough time to listen to the Earth's wake-up call. What if things are already well beyond the tipping point, as some others seem to believe?

*       *       *

The Earth fights back

Never mind higher temperatures, climate change has a few nastier surprises in store. Bill McGuire says we can also expect more earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides and tsunamis

Bill McGuire, Tuesday 7 August 2007 

Unlike most apparently intractable problems, which have a tendency to go away when examined closely and analytically, the climate change predicament just seems to get bigger and scarier the more we learn about it.

Now we discover that not only are the oceans and the atmosphere conspiring against us, bringing baking temperatures, more powerful storms, floods and ever-climbing sea levels, but the crust beneath our feet seems likely to join in too.

Looking back to other periods in our planet's history when the climate was swinging about wildly, most notably during the last ice age, it appears that far more than the weather was affected. The solid earth also became restless, with an increase in volcanic activity, earthquakes, giant submarine landslides and tsunamis. At the rate climate change is accelerating, there is every prospect that we will see a similar response from the planet, heralding not just a warmer future but also a fiery one.

Several times in the past couple of million years the ice left its polar fastnesses
and headed towards the equator, covering much of the world's continents in ice sheets over a kilometre thick, and sucking water from the oceans in order to do so. As a consequence, at times when the ice was most dominant, global sea levels were as much as 130m lower than they are today; sufficient to expose land bridges between the UK and the continent and Alaska and Russia.

Each time the ice retreated, sea levels shot up again, sometimes at rates as high as several metres a century. In the mid 1990s, as part of a study funded by the European Union, we discovered that in the Mediterranean region there was a close correlation between how quickly sea levels went up and down during the last ice age and the level of explosive activity at volcanoes in Italy and Greece.

The link was most obvious following the retreat of the glaciers around 18,000 years ago, after which sea levels jumped back up to where they are today, triggering a 300% increase in explosive volcanic activity in the Mediterranean in doing so. Further evidence for a flurry of volcanic action at this time comes from cores extracted from deep within the Greenland ice sheet, which yield increased numbers of volcanic dust and sulphate layers from eruptions across the northern hemisphere, if not the entire planet.

But how can rising sea levels cause volcanoes to erupt? The answer lies in the enormous mass of the water pouring into the ocean basins from the retreating ice sheets. The addition of over a hundred metres depth of water to the continental margins and marine island chains, where over 60% of the world's active volcanoes reside, seems to be sufficient to load and bend the underlying crust.

This in turn squeezes out any magma that happens to be hanging around waiting for an excuse to erupt. It may well be that a much smaller rise can trigger an eruption if a volcano is critically poised and ready to blow.

Eruptions of Pavlof volcano in Alaska, for example, tend to occur during the winter months when, for meteorological reasons, the regional sea level is barely 30cm (12in) higher than during the summer. If other volcanic systems are similarly sensitive then we could be faced with an escalating burst of volcanic activity as anthropogenic climate change drives sea levels ever upwards.

Notwithstanding the recent prediction by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that sea levels in 2100 will be a measly 18-59cm (7-23in) higher, Jim Hansen – eminent climate scientist and director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies – warns that we could see a one to two metre rise this century and several more in the next. Other climate scientists too, forecast substantially greater rises than the IPCC, whose prediction excludes any consideration of future changes in polar ice sheet behaviour. A worst-case scenario could see a return to conditions that prevailed around 14,000 years ago, when sea levels rose 13.5 metres (44ft) - the height of a three-storey house - in the space of about 300 years.

Such a dramatic rise in coming centuries would clearly spell catastrophe for our civilisation, with low-lying regions across the planet vanishing rapidly beneath the waves. Just a one metre (3.28ft) rise would threaten one third of the world's agricultural land, two metres (6.56ft) would make the Thames flood barrier redundant and four metres (13.12ft) would drown the city of Miami, leaving it 37 miles (60km) off the US coast.

As sea levels climb higher so a response from the world's volcanoes becomes ever more likely, and perhaps not just from volcanoes. Loading of the continental margins could activate faults, triggering increased numbers of earthquakes, which in turn could spawn giant submarine landslides. Such a scenario is believed to account for the gigantic Storegga Slide, which sloughed off the Norwegian coast around 8,000 years ago, sending a tsunami more than 20 metres (66ft) high in places across the Shetland Isles and onto the east coast of Scotland. Should Greenland be released from its icy carapace, the underlying crust will start to bob back up, causing earthquakes well capable of shaking off the huge piles of glacial sediment that have accumulated around its margins and sending tsunamis across the North Atlantic.

The Earth is responding as a single, integrated system to climate change driven by human activities. Global warming is not just a matter of warmer weather, more floods or stronger hurricanes, but is also a wake-up call to Terra Firma. It may be no coincidence that one outcome of increased volcanic activity is likely to be a period of falling temperatures, as a veil of volcanic dust and gas reduces the amount of solar radiation reaching the surface. Maybe the Earth is trying to tell us something. It really would be worth listening before it is too late.

Bill McGuire is the director of the Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre. His book Surviving Armageddon: Solutions For a Threatened Planet is published by OUP. His next book, What Everyone Should Know About the Future of Our Planet: And What We Can Do About It, is published by Orion in January next year. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

Sunday, June 5, 2011

a certain slant of light

They are but fleeting, evanescent 'spots of time', yet can so overwhelm you when they happen, because the unbearable truth they contain is only made bearable in this way --

By clearing a lucent passage through the narrow and ill-lit corridors of the moment.

The truth to which poetry alone gives access -- those 'necessary and difficult things', as Italo Calvino once put it: realising the proportions of life, the place of love in it, its force and rhythm, the place of death, time, loss, sadness, irony.

Life-defining, difficult beauty.

And the musician-poets who consistently capture and give a shape to this experience are so very few in the anguished dying world we live in. Those who do not compromise and remain experimental, risk-taking, but also giving, generous to the others they help and welcome into their projects.

I guess that's what distinguishes a true artist from a self-absorbed fake or failure. This capacity for remaining obstinately open to themselves and to others, vulnerable yet ever-evolving, unfolding always in astonishing ways.

The most beautiful voice in the world indeed.

An older, shorter version of 'A certain slant of light', now part of
David Sylvian's  new album Died in the Wool (May 2011).
Music: Sylvian/Bamg/Honore   Words: Emily Dickinson


There's a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.

None may teach it anything,
’T is the seal, despair,—
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.

When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ’t is like the distance
On the look of death.

--Emily Dickinson, from The Complete Poems, Part Two: Nature, LXXXII.

Friday, June 3, 2011

I shall search through all the lands

To tell you from the start, I have lost him whose hand and eye are gentle; I shall go to seek him of the slender eyebrows, wherever the most generous and fairest of men may be.

I shall go to the midst of Gwent without delaying, to the south I shall go to search, and charge the sun and the moon to seek for him whose hand and eye are gentle.

I shall search through all the lands, in the valley and on the mountain, in the church and in the market, where is he whose hand and eye are gentle.

Mark you well, my friends, where you see a company of gentlemen, who is the finest and most loving of them; that is he whose hand and eye are gentle.

As I was walking under the vine the nightingale bade me rest, and it would get information for me where was he whose hand and eye are gentle.

The cuckoo said most kindly that she herself was quite well informed, and would send her servant to inquire without ceasing where was he whose hand and eye are gentle.

The blackbird told me she would travel to Cambridge and Oxford, and would not complete her nest till she found him whose hand and eye are gentle.

I know that he whose speech is pleasant can play the lute and play the organ; God gave the gift of every music to him whose hand and eye are gentle.

Hunting with hawks and hounds and horses, catching and calling and letting slip, none loves a slim dog or a hound like him whose hand and eye are gentle.

--from the Welsh; popular song; sixteenth century, in A Celtic Miscellany, Sel. and Trans. by Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson (London: Penguin, 1971), pp. 112-13.