Saturday, July 30, 2011

no fixed address (2)

It takes half a lifetime to learn them, those much discredited qualities – the disregard for borders and hierarchies, the lack of deference, the independence of spirit – and another half to un-learn the little comforts, the numbing routines, the dross.

Yet nothing is more urgent, especially after such a lengthy stay among the most insular, inflexible, unadventurous, heartless of people.

To become enmeshed in the world again, responsive to and responsible for an other, whatever may come.

I wish for nothing else.

*       *       *

One of the questions we need to ask, if we’re to have a future, is “Where, when, in what situations, did we cause less damage to ourselves, to our environment, and to our animal kin?” One answer is: when we were nomadic. It was when we settled that we became strangers in a strange land, and wandering took on the quality of banishment. . . .

There can be no return to previous modes of living, no retreat to the traditional as a way of shoring up identity, or denying rationality and the benefits of science. Such retrogression only lands us in kitsch. But there might be ways into previous kinds of thinking. . . .

When Adam Smith talked about the “wealth of nations”, he wasn’t referring simply to money, but to a whole ensemble of requirements to wellbeing. Perhaps, who knows, the materialist progress we have made since urbanisation, and the values existing before it, could meld into some marvellous, unprecedented syncretism. But if that is too much to expect, at least attention to nomadic modes of thinking might get us close to finding whatever solutions to the disintegrations of modern life.

So what are the qualities that nomadic cultures tend to encourage? It seems to me that they are humanistic virtues. The world is approached as a series of complex interactions, rather than simple oppositions, connecting pathways rather than obstructive walls. Nomads are comfortable with uncertainty and contradiction. They are cosmopolitan in outlook, because they have to deal with difference, negotiate difference. They do not focus on long-term goals so much as continually accommodate themselves to change. They are less concerned with the accumulation of wealth and more concerned with the accumulation of knowledge. The territorial personality – opinionated and hard-edged – is not revered. Tolerance, which accommodates itself to things human and changeable, is. Theirs are Aristotelian values of “practical wisdom” and balance. Adaptability, flexibility, mental agility, the ability to cope with flux. These traits shy away from absolutes, and strive for an equilibrium that blurs rigid boundaries.

--Robyn Davidson, ‘No Fixed Address: Nomads and the Fate of the Planet,’ in Quarterly Essay, 24 (2006), pp. 48-49.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

no fixed address (1)

[O]ne wrong turning occurred when we gave up cultures of movement for cultures of accumulation. I do not mean to say that we should (or could) return to traditional nomadic economies. I do mean to say that there are systems of knowledge, and grand poetical schemata derived from the mobile life, that it would be foolish to disregard or underrate. And mad to destroy.
The French translation of "wandering" is l'errance, the Latin root of which means to make a mistake. By our errors we see deeper into life. We learn from them.

--Robyn Davidson, 'No Fixed Address: Nomads and the Fate of the Planet,' in Quarterly Essay, 24 (2006), p. vi.

*       *       *

And how much we would gain in terms of tolerance towards difference, of adaptability, of respect for the environment, of human interconnectedness, if people yielded more often to the impulse to wander, to learn from their own mistakes and from others.

But wandering has nothing to do with this contemporary hypermobility stemming from acquisitiveness and a shallow sophistication. It goes hand in hand with the courage to trust and take risks, to reinvent oneself, to break the chains that constrict one's soul and one's movements-- to fail better.

between worlds, again

How difficult it is to remain just one person. Our home is open, there are no keys in the doors, visible ghosts come in and out at will.
--Czeslaw Milosz

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

I may not always have looked at things in this way, but the more I travel from land to land, the more I get to know others and myself (and the others in me) -- the more I envisage it thus: no keys in the doors, fewer possessions, fewer certainties, fewer irreversibilities, but always moved by the undying, ever-growing desire to observe and understand, however intolerable, however impossible.

Never comfortable anywhere, but finally beginning to begin to understand in the flesh that home is indeed a profoundly uncomfortable place to be.

Monday, July 18, 2011

departures (8)

And so it is.

Preparing to take chances again.

Plunging headlong into another culture so utterly different from my own, beyond the fear and the fatigue, beyond the heartbreak and the grief, I'm compelled by the thought that this is so because I haven't given in nor up--I have refused all alibis for immobility and cowardice, I haven't lost my sense of outrage (nor my sanity), I haven't sold out,  I haven't taken anybody's shit.

And, knowing myself, I never will.

*       *       *

One sees them everywhere--ill-groomed, self-indulgent suburbanites seated before televised football games; on city sidewalks gray-skinned, gray-eyed men in business suits whose bodies one cannot imagine in another garb. By the age of forty they have given up; they still have half their lives to live but they will never be seductive to other humans.

Giving up begins by giving in; it begins in comfort. It begins each time comfort enters as a factor in any decision. It begins when one does not go down the Grand Canyon because the trail is hot and dusty and the mule the guide is offering you lurches, when one does not even go to Italy and France because of the hassles of not understanding the language and not digesting the food, when one did not set out to escape czarist Russia by hiding in a hay wagon by night.

For how many men the press of family and professional responsibilities, economic necessities, the importance of a long-term job function as alibis! Alibis for not being set on fire by chance nakedness, alibis for not ecstatically opening one's eyes to the fierce bird of hope and risk of soaring in the skies of chance. He took on this summer job in case a buddy would roar by on a wreck of a motorcycle and shout, "Let's travel the hemisphere!" He hastily married and sired a child in case his buddies would rush off to join the insurrection. How many family and professional responsibilities were first taken on in order to function one day as an alibi for not taking chances, not plunging into passion, not fighting for justice!

One loses one's manhood [or womanhood] by selling out. One exchanges the hot passions of youth--passions for eroticism, ecstasy and justice--for the cold passions of age. . . . Indeed everything one despises in oneself turns out to be some cowardice.

-- Alphonso Lingis, Trust (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), pp. 79-80.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Longing (2)

There are intervals like this, when you go beyond your personal pain and reach some kind of grace, or something approaching peace with yourself.

Transforming affliction into affection, lingering on the irretrievable loss -- yet moving towards a future, recovering hope.

Knowing yourself in the late afternoon.

*       *       *

as longing stretches out
and begins to detach itself from
the initial object of longing
it becomes present everywhere
and can be found in everything
forming and informing everything
the weight of this stone is longing
the curve of that tree is longing
and longing makes the lightest breeze
sigh in the tall dead bracken
longing is not for this or that
but is longing for itself alone
to know itself in the late afternoon
longing is a kind of lingering.

--Thomas A. Clark, At dusk & at dawn (Nailsworth: Moscatel Press, 1988), n.p.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Longing (1)

Tell me, men of learning, what is Longing made from? What cloth was put in it, that it does not wear out with use?

Gold wears out, silver wears out, velvet wears out, silk wears out, every ample garment wears out -- yet Longing does not wear out.

Great Longing, cruel Longing is breaking my heart every day; when I sleep most sound at night Longing comes and wakes me.

Longing, Longing, back, back! do not weigh on me so heavily; move over a little to the bedside and let me sleep a while.

On the sea-shore is a smooth rock, where I talked with my love; around it grows the lily and a few sprigs of rosemary.

May the mountain which covers Merioneth be under the sea! Would that I had never seen it before my gentle heart broke.

Longing has seized on me, between my two breasts and my two brows; it weighs on my breast as if I were its nurse.

--from the Welsh; traditional folk verse; seventeenth century?, in A Celtic Miscellany, Sel. and Trans. by Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson (London: Penguin, 1971), pp. 261-62.

the murmur of the world (2)

Computer technology, driven by the pilot-industries of the military-industrial complex, places top priority on transmitting the message as effectively, efficiently, and effortlessly as possible. It is computer technology that shaped and forms contemporary communication theory. But so little of what we say to one another makes any sense! So little of it makes any pretense to be taken seriously, so much of it simple malarkey, in which we indulge ourselves with the same warm visceral pleasure that we indulge in belching and passing air. It really is, Nietzsche long ago pointed out, bad taste to make serious pronouncements and work out syllogistically valid arguments in civilized company. So much language added to industry and enterprises that are programmed by the laws of nature or rational science and that operate all by themselves, so much of language added to fumblings and breakdowns and even disasters has no other function than to provoke laughter. Laughter mixing in moans, howls, screams into the racket of the world. As much of what we say when we embrace we say to release our sighs and our sobs into the rains and the seas.

All these stammerings, exclamations, slurrings, murmurs, rumblings, cooings, and laughter, all this noise we make when we are together makes it possible to view us as struggling, together, to jam the unequivocal voice of the outsider: the facilitator of communication, the prosopopeia of maximal elimination of noise, so as to hear the distant rumble of the world and its demons in the midst of the ideal city of human communication.

--Alphonso Lingis, The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), pp. 104-05.

the murmur of the world (1)

How painfully meaningless, despite the proliferation of increasingly sophisticated means at our disposal, what passes for communication has become.

In our search for effectiveness and efficiency, how ruthlessly unforgiving, how intolerant to noise, blunders, hesitations, detours, breakdowns, stammerings, rumblings, creakings, murmurs we have become.

In our self-absorbed search for sameness, how insensitive to the otherness of the other -- his face, her voice, his body, her time and rhythm, his vulnerability, her struggles, his faults and demons, her loneliness, his difference, our irreducible uniqueness.

How deaf to the unruly, unpredictable murmur of the world.

How sadly in-humane it has all become.

*       *       *

To address someone is not simply to address a source of information; it is to address one who will answer and answer for his or her answer. The time delay, between statement and response, is the time in which the other, while fully present there before one, withdraws into the fourth dimension -- reaffirming his or her otherness, rising up behind whatever he presents of himself, and rising up ever beyond whatever I represent of her and present to her -- to contest it or to confirm it.

To enter into conversation with another is to lay down one's arms and one's defenses; to throw open the gates of one's own positions; to expose oneself to the other, the outsider; and to lay oneself open to surprises, contestation, and inculpation. It is to risk what one found or produced in common. To enter into conversation is to struggle against the noise, the indifference, and the vested interests, the big brother and little Hitlers always listening to -- in order to expose oneself to the alien, the Balinese and the Aztec, the victims and the excluded, the Palestinians and the Quechuas and the Crow Indians, the dreamers, the mystics, the mad, the tortured, and the birds and the frogs. One enters into conversation in order to become an other for the other.

--Alphonso Lingis, The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), pp. 87-88.

Friday, July 15, 2011

songs of exile (4)

Heading seawards, I am called on by memories of my own forgotten tongue and its songs of exile.

And there I linger.

Ao longe o mar / The sea in the distance
lyrics & music: Pedro Ayres de Magalhaes

Porto calmo de abrigo
     Quiet sheltering port
De um futuro maior
     Of a greater future
Ainda nao esta perdido
     Not as yet lost
No presente temor
    In the present fear
Já não faz muito sentido
     It no longer makes much sense
Não esperar o melhor
     Not to expect the best
Vem da névoa saindo
     It is coming out of the mist
A promessa anterior
     The earlier promise
Quando avistei ao longe o mar
     When I beheld the sea in the distance
Ali fiquei
     There I lingered
Parado a olhar
     Standing, looking
Sim, eu canto a vontade
     Yes, I sing the willingness
Canto o teu despertar
     I sing your awakening
E abraçando a saudade
     And embracing the longing
Canto o tempo a passar
     I sing time passing
Quando avistei ao longe o mar
     When I beheld the sea in the distance
Ali fiquei
     There I lingered
Parado a olhar
     Standing, looking
Quando avistei ao longe o mar
     When I beheld the sea in the distance
Sem querer deixei-me ali ficar
     Oblivious, I just lingered there

(translated from the Portuguese by DK)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

departures (7)

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
    --T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men.

I only wish departure did too: with a bang, with a clash, with a thud, whatever. With a clear beginning and a definite end.

It doesn't. It begins much earlier than you'd like to think and its pain never ends (even when you think it has).

Life seen from the perspective of death indeed; time put in parenthesis, coming from nowhere, going nowhere, disconnected from an-other's time.

So remote -- and yet you too enduring this never-ending, unbearable now

*       *       *

Pain breaks down the path of time I am extending; I fall back from the future I was pursuing and the past whose resources I was drawing on, to sink into a time of enduring. In the pain I have a foreboding of the time of dying. The other suffers in another interval without equivalent and in a pain in which I can nowise displace him. Pain blisters in intervals of time coming from nowhere, going nowhere, disconnected from the past and future of life, of the transpersonal enterprises, of the evolution of the planet.
Yet it is out of that other time, the time of his or her dying, that the other addresses me.

--Alphonso Lingis, Abuses (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 235.

on the wire

A strange combination, but so ironically in tune with my current mood.

Los olvidados on the wire.

Leonard Cohen, Bird on the Wire

Like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free

Like a worm on a hook
Like a knight from some old fashioned book
I have saved all my ribbons for thee

If I, if I have been unkind
I hope that you can just let it go by
If I, if I have been untrue
I hope you know it was never to you

Oh, like a baby, stillborn
Like a beast with his horn
I have torn everyone who reached out for me

But I swear by this song
And by all that I have done wrong
I will make it all up to thee

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch
He said to me, "You must not ask for so much"
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door
She cried to me, "Hey, why not ask for more?"

Oh, like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

torn between sea mists and solid land (2)

One of my favourite selkie stories, a tale of love found -- and lost.

The Goodman o' Wastness

The Goodman o' Wastness was a handsome, well-to-do young fellow.

Strong, well-liked and with a profitable farm, it will come as no surprise to learn that many of the unmarried local girls had their sights on him.

However, despite their ample attentions the Goodman was a man who was simply not interested in marriage.

Their advances spurned, the local girls soon began to treat the Goodman with contempt.

Describing him as "an old, young man" and "old before his time" in their eyes he was committing the unpardonable sin of celibacy.

The Goodman, however, paid these malicious creatures little heed and as is more often the case, the gossips soon turned their attentions elsewhere. When questioned by his friends as to the reason he would not take himself a wife, the Goodman would smile and simply explain:

"Weemin ir lik minny ither tings in dis weary wurld, only sent fur a trial tae man an' I hae trials aplenty withoot bein' tried be a wife. If yin owld fool Adam hiddno been bewitched be his wife, he might still be in the Gerdeen o' Eden the day."

[Women are like many other things in this weary world, only sent as a trial to men and I have enough trials without being tried by a wife. If that old fool Adam had not been bewitched by his wife, he might still be in the Garden of Eden to this day.]

One old woman who heard this oft-repeated speech, remarked:

"Tak thoo heed theesel, fur thou'll mibbe be yursel' bewitched wan day."

[Heed well what you say, you will maybe be bewitched yourself one day.]

"Aye," replied the Goodman, laughing. "That'll be when thou waaks dry-shod fae the Alters o' Seenie tae da Boar o' Papey"

[That will be when you walk from the Alters o' Seenie to the Boar o' Papa (Orkney placenames) without wetting your feet.]

So it came to pass that one fine day the Goodman was down on the ebb when he saw, a short distance away, a number of selkie-folk lying out on a flat rock.

Some of these selkie-folk were sunning themselves in the afternoon warmth while others jumped and played in the clear water. All were naked with unblemished skins as white as snow. Their enchanted seal-skins lay strewn carelessly on the sand and rocks around them.

The Goodman crept closer to their basking rock.

As he neared the place the selkie-folk played, the Goodman leapt to his feet and ran towards them for all he was worth. With a shriek the selkie-folk snatched up their seal skins and quickly retreated to the safety of the sea. However, swift as they were, the Goodman was quicker and he managed to seize a skin belonging to one beautiful seal-maiden.

In the hasty rush to safety this poor creature had forgotten to retrieve her skin.

The selkie-folk swam out a little distance and turned to gaze mournfully at the Goodman. He stared back and realised that all, save one, had taken the shape of seals. Grinning, he put the captured seal-skin under his arm. Whistling a merry tune he set out for home.

No sooner had he left the ebb than he heard the most sorrowful wailing and weeping coming from behind him. Turning, he saw a fair woman following him. She was a most pitiful sight. Sobbing and howling in grief, she held her arms out and pled to have her skin returned. Huge tears ran from her large dark eyes and trickled down her ivory cheeks.

Falling to her knees, she cried:

"O bonnie man! If thur's inny mercy in thee human breest, gae me back me ain selkie skin! I cinno live in da sea withoot it. I cinno bide amung me ain folk waythoot me selkie-skin."

[Oh handsome man, if there is any mercy in your human breast give me back my seal-skin. I can not live in the sea without it. I cannot live among my own people without my seal-skin.]

The Goodman was not a soft-hearted man but he could not help but pity the poor creature. Pity, however, was not the only emotion he felt. With the pity came the softer and sweeter passion of love.

The icy heart that had yet to love a mortal woman was soon melted by this seal-maiden's beauty.

Eventually the Goodman managed to wring from the Selkie Wife a reluctant consent to remain with him as his wife. She had little choice in the matter for as you all Orcadian know, she could not return to her kin in the sea without her skin.

So the sea-maiden went with the Goodman and stayed with him for many a day. She turned out to be a thrifty, frugal and kindly wife and although she was a creature of the sea the Goodman had a happy life with her.

The Selkie Wife bore the Goodman seven children.

Four boys and three girls came from their union and it was said that there were no children as beautiful as them in all the isles. And all the while the sea-wife, and her human husband, seemed content and merry.

But all was not as it seemed - there was a weight in the Selkie Wife's heart. Many was the time that she was seen to gaze longingly out to the sea. The sea that was her true home.

So to all the islanders and to the Goodman himself all seemed well with his family. But as is always the case in these tales, the bliss was not to last.

One fine day, the Goodman and his four sons were out fishing in their boat. With the menfolk out of the house, the Selkie Wife sent three of the girls down to the ebb to gather limpets and whelks for their tea. The youngest girl had to remain at home because she had hurt her foot climbing on the sharp rocks by the shore. As usual, as soon as the house emptied, the selkie wife set to looking for her long-lost seal-skin.

She searched high and she searched low. She searched "but" and she searched "ben". She searched out and she searched in but to no avail.

She could not find the skin.

The time passed and the sun swung to the west, lengthening the shadows. The peedie lass, seated in a straw-backed chair with her sore feet on the creepie, watched her mother carry out the frantic hunt.

"Mam, whit ir thoo luckin' fur?" she asked.

[Mother, what are you looking for?]

"O' bairn, dinna tell, bit ah'm luckin' fur a bonnie skin tae mak a rivlin dat wid sort thee sore fit." replied the Selkie Wife.

[Oh child, don't tell but I'm looking for a pretty skin to make a shoe that would cure your sore feet.]

"Bit Mam, " said the bairn. "I ken fine whar hid is. Wan day when ye war oot and me Fither thowt I wis sleepin' i' the bed, he teen a bonnie skin doon, gloured at hid for cheust a peedie meenit, then foldit hid an' laid hid up under dae aisins abeun da bed."

[But Mother, I know where it is. One day when you were out and my Father thought I was asleep in bed, he took a pretty skin down, glowered at it for a short time, then folded it and put it away in the aisins over the bed.]

When the Selkie Wife heard this she clapped for joy and rushed to the place where her long-concealed skin lay.

"Fare thee weel, peedie buddo," she said to her child as she ran from the house.

Rushing to the shore she threw on her skin and with a wild cry of joy plunged into the sea. Shifting again into her selkie form she swam out through the waves where a selkie man was waiting for her and greeted her with delight.

All the while, the Goodman was rowing home and happened to see these two selkies from his little boat. His wife uncovered her beautiful face and cried out to him.

"Fare thee weel. Goodman o' Wastness. Farewell tae thee. I liked thee weel enough fur thoo war geud tae me bit I love better me man o' the sea."

[Farewell Goodman of Wastness. Farewell to you. I liked you because you were good to me but I love my husband from the sea more.]

That was the last the Goodman ever saw of his sea-wife.

Often though, in the twilight of his years, he could be seen wandering on the empty sea-shore, hoping once again to meet his lost love.

But never again did he look upon her fair face.

Source and images: Sigurd Towrie at

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

torn between sea mists and solid land (1)

There have been sirens, mermaids, ondines, naiads, Loreleis -- all sorts of shape-shifting, feminine creatures of the water, whose manifold disguises and callous beauty ultimately betray their predatory and malign nature.

Driven by insatiable urges, at once aggressive and self-possessed, they pose voluptuously on rocks to lure men into their arms, or distract mariners with the haunting beauty of their songs, leading them to shipwreck on the rocky shores, or cunningly let themselves be caught in the nets of fishermen. Whatever the case, a materialistic hell awaits the man who, against what reason advises him, yields to the deceiving softness of their bodies. Nothing but stony agonies await him in the end.

These fantasies of feminine perversity never die. There is, however, one less obtrusive -- and more elusive -- watery creature who, despite her attraction for the land and its promises of sensual pleasure, remains a torn, divided being. Her name comes from the Orcadian dialect word for seal, Selkie, and, even though her origins seem to be Scandinavian (along with so many other things on the Orkneys), they later merged with existing elements of Celtic myth, making her inhabit the seas around the Orkney and Shetland Isles, as well as some parts of Ireland.

It might not always have been so, but the selkie came to be seen as a benign and kindly creature who, unlike the sly mermaid (with whom she is often wrongly conflated), does not lure men into some kind of trap. A shape-shifter, she is able to discard her seal skin and come ashore as a beautiful maiden. Yet only when a man, catching the selkie off her guard, captures her seal skin is she forced to become his wife and bear his children -- which she dutifully does, even though deep down she remains a wistful, melancholic woman longing for the sea. The yearning becomes so strong with the years that she eventually retrieves her skin, upon which she rushes to the shore and plunges into the sea again, without turning back, leaving her husband to pine on land. He will incessantly roam the sea-shore, but will never see her again.

There are myriad versions of the story, as well as songs. One theme in particular has stayed with me over the years, by the Irish singer Mary McLaughlin. Well worth listening to, despite the rather confusing homemade video that accompanies it on YouTube, criminally conflating all sorts of fishtailed creatures with the forlorn, unique selkie.

I'm all the way with her.

Words and music by Mary McLaughlin

Over the waves, you call to me
Shadow of dream, ancient mystery
Oh how I long for your sweet caress
Oh how I long for your gentleness

Torn between sea mists and solid land
Nights when I've ached for a human hand
I'll come to you while the moon shines bright
But I must go free with the first streak of light

Over the waves, you call to me
Shadow of dream, ancient mystery
Oh how I long for you sweet caress
Oh how I long for your gentleness

Sunday, July 10, 2011

'the nymph with the broken back', or: enduring misogynistic clichés...

Scene from Alban Berg's Lulu
Soloists, English National Opera, 2005

Enduring but most definitely not endearing clichés.

And wouldn't it be wonderful indeed—a sign of genuine, humane Progress—if men and women began to see, through the glossy veneer of aestheticised morbid violence, what these images really stand for and the profoundly sad truths they convey?

Again: sic transit gloria mundi...

*       *       *

The term masochism was invented by Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who, in his Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), linked the phenomenon he defined as "the wish to suffer pain and be subjected to force" (86) to the name of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, a popular author of the period whose heroes usually spent their time in enthusiastic pursuit of maltreatment. But Kraft-Ebing saw the phenomenon of masochism as being a true "perversion" only in men. "In woman," he contended, "voluntary subjection to the opposite sex is a physiological phenomenon. Owing to her passive role in procreation and long-existent social conditions, ideas of subjection are, in woman, normally connected with the idea of sexual relations. They form, so to speak, the harmonics which determine the tone-quality of feminine feeling." Nature itself, Kraft-Ebing insisted, has given woman "an instinctive inclination to voluntary subordination to man; [who] will notice that exaggeration of customary gallantry is very distasteful to women, and that a deviation from it in the direction of masterful behavior, though loudly reprehended, is often accepted with secret satisfaction. Under the veneer of polite society the instinct of feminine servitude is everywhere discernible" (130).

The late-nineteenth-century male thus had it from the very highest, most advanced "scientific" authority that women, even if they might seem to indicate otherwise, wanted to be beaten and subjected to violence. In addition to being instructed by what Kraft-Ebing was saying, men were by 1893 being reassured by such other eminent--and widely read--authorities as Lombroso and Ferrero, that the "normal woman is naturally less sensitive to pain than a man" (The Female Offender, 150), so that there was clearly absolutely no reason to be squeamish about pushing women around a bit. On the basis of the "findings" of these and other "scientific" observers, the proponents of dualistic thought thus installed another durable antifeminine myth whose ramifications still echo daily through the popular arts of our time. In the literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries an author's adherence to the theory that women just naturally liked to be beaten was a sign of extreme intellectual sophistication. It was an indication that one was truly well informed about matters of scientific interest. . . .

In France, Pierre Louys, in Woman and Puppet (1898), had the perverse heroine of that novel, Concha, respond in spasms of yelping ardor to the narrator's violent attack upon her, during which "for perhaps a quarter of an hour" he "struck her with the regularity of a peasant pounding a flail . . . and always on the same spots, the top of the head and the left shoulder" (218). In a paroxysm of masochistic ecstasy she cries, "How well you have beaten me, my heart! How sweet it was! How good it felt--" Later Concha confesses to her attacker that if she told him lies, it was specifically "to have you beat me, Mateo. When I feel your strength, I love you, I love you so; you cannot imagine how happy it makes me weep because of you." And, beguilingly, she asks, "Mateo, will you beat me again? Promise me that you will beat me hard! You will kill me! Tell me that you will kill me!" (220)

Like Louys' heroine, Frank Wedekind's Lulu, the archetypal woman at the center of his play Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box (as well as Alban Berg's opera based on Wedekind's plays) does not really become interested in a man until he becomes violent toward her. To one of her early lovers she exults, "How proud I am that you will do anything to humiliate me! You degrade me as deep as a man can degrade a woman . . ." (77). For Lulu, as for Concha, the male's violence toward her is supposed to be proof of her power over her man, and this knowledge presumably makes that violence an erotic stimulus for her. The dictum pronounced by another of the men in Lulu's life, that "beating or love-making, it's all one to a woman" (122), had become one of the most common clichés among intellectuals at the turn of the century. . . .

It is clear that few of the anti-feminine clichés which had become institutionalized by the 1890s have had a more immediately destructive influence on the daily lives of women throughout the twentieth century than this particular pair of male wishfulfilling items of late-nineteenth century "scientific" knowledge. This is the period in which recourse to scientific truth rather than "faith" became the principal justification for the brutal and widespread oppression of human beings on the basis of race and sex, and for the institutionalization of concepts which ultimately led to the blanket justification of violence done to others because one group had decided that another "had asked for it." The women-want-to-be-raped theory is an integral part of the overall self-serving pattern of the rationalization of aggression which still dominates the world today, and which was crucial to the development of the imperialist mentality at the turn of the century.

It may seem a rather bathetic mismatch of causes to point to the supinely sprawling feminine nudes favored by painters of the Paris salons as a contributing factor to the spread of the aggressive mentality in the late nineteenth-century life. But inevitably the mentality of rape, whether it be personal and physical or cultural and intellectual, requires that guilt and temptation, and hence the justification for punishment, are to be seen in the other, in this case the woman. All too often the gestures and expressions of ecstatic transport accompanying the supine posture of these nudes suggest a perverse excess of erotic abandonment as the origin of the women's forced posture, as if somehow, in the midst of an intense spasm of uncontrollable desire, they had succeeded in breaking their own backs, thereby dooming themselves to stay forever paralyzed and helpless in the distorted position in which the artist chose to paint them. The sprawling nymphs' helpless postures, joined with their obvious ecstasy, thus suggested quite deliberately to the viewer that these women were, so to speak, "asking to be raped." 

--Bram Dijkstra, Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture (0xford: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 101-05. [emphases added]

Arthur Hacker (1858-1919), "Leaf Drift" (1902)

the marvels and mysteries of Japanese 'soft' fascism

A must-read on today's edition of The Japan Times:

With Japan at a crossroads, it's instructive to recall the Hidaka affair
The Japan Times

July 10, 2011

Exactly 30 years ago this month, I had an encounter with a man who became innocently involved in an international incident. That incident may be all but forgotten now, but it's worth recalling here because it highlights the struggle of an individual of conscience to have the truth revealed.

Indeed, we in Japan are currently involved with the very same issues of personal responsibility and collective falsehood.

If we remain silent in the face of injustice or criminal negligence, if we allow unelected bureaucrats and business executives to ride roughshod over our personal welfare — as we are witnessing with regard to the ongoing nuclear disaster in Fukushima — the entire nation's future could be put at risk by recklessness and prevarication.

(full text here)

*       *       *

Pulvers reproduces a comment by Rokuro Hidaka—'The Japanese don't have much of a consciousness of human rights or the rights of the individual. Even the word kenri is not really the equivalent of 'rights.' The Japanese think that insisting on your kenri is an activity associated with egoism'—that is reminiscent of an earlier study by Masao Maruyama, published in the edited book Thought and Behaviour in Modern Japanese Politics (London: Oxford UP, 1963). In it, Maruyama argues precisely that modern Japan, upon abandoning democratic institutions and disintegrating into an absolutist state, has never successfully established, as a nation, the primacy of individual rights or the subjectivity of a thinking and historically conscious people. 

This, in turn, has reminded me of Etsuko Yamashita's argument in her book on Itsue Takamura (1988), in which she argues that mother dominance, the cornerstone of Japan's patriarchal society (a topic I have been exploring), is the symbol of a leaderless, diffuse 'soft' fascism: a ruling system of interdependence (amae) in which no one takes responsibility as an individual person. It is no wonder, in this context, that the Japanese Emperor system has so often been perceived throughout history as one of maternal dominance.

What is truly astonishing is not so much the cogency and perceptiveness of these views, but their rarity in a society that has reached such a high level of economic affluence and that claims to be a democracy. Maybe, as Hidaka himself has pointed out, economic affluence has never really managed to translate itself into social prosperity in modern Japan. It is nothing but a shallow, empty form of wealth.

And something must be terribly amiss indeed when the intelligentsia of a (supposedly) democratic country aloofly chooses to turn its back on reality and the world at large to pursue instead its own self-interest and vanity publishing.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

strange portents

Marx once noted it—that in periods of transition, between the end of one hegemony and the beginning of another, strange and yet unnamed phenomena stalk the land.

They are both harbingers of what might come and uncanny throwbacks to bygone events.


But there is something in the air outside, most definitely, making it unfit to breathe.

a season in purgatory (6)

Sexual helplessness bears monsters of perversion. Symposia of Amazons, and other horrible themes. A threefold cycle: Carmen-Gretchen-Isolde. A Nana cycle, Théâtre des Femmes. Disgust: a lady, the upper part of her body lying on a table, spills a vessel filled with disgusting things.
--Paul Klee, Diaries.

Another perplexing contradiction in Kyoka's depictions of women (or of 'Woman', as he never really describes real women, but an archetypal, ghostly femininity): on the one hand, he has been regarded as a fierce critic of the then new ethics of Meiji society that pursued worldly success at all costs, to which he opposed, in the gothic tradition of Poe, love as a substitute for social and economic power. Yet, on the other hand, his fascination with women as the embodiment of evil was also unwittingly attuned to that very same emerging ethos within which the evolving male was expected to combine an attitude of socioeconomic belligerence and distrust of others with an ideal of personal sacrifice or abstinence in the service of worldly success.

Such dynamics were already at full throttle in the West, as Bram Dijkstra illustrates in his wonderfully provocative study Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture:

The symphonic incantations of ever newly curving female bodies were like the choral movements of a satanic invitation to worldly abandon. Women offered melodies of cradled melancholy to the laboring brain of sainted masculinity. Steely-browed and lean-loined Ulysses sailed past these aching calls, seeking financial self-sufficiency among the shoals of vice. The late nineteenth-century middle-class male already knew that Superman's ego was powered by gold. He feared that the Kryptonite of beauty could only weaken the essence of a transcendent power he knew to embed in his seed. Even the thought of a strong woman with a will, a mind, and wishes of her own was enough to weaken the musculature of a selfhood nourished by the bitter herb of monetary gain. The ardor of man's will to power seemed to shrivel into insignificance before the tumescent homage of his body to the wonder of a woman radiant with life and unmoved by the commands of cash. (p. 235)

(The recently) modern Japan, of course, had its own blend of native and imported traditions—Shintoism, Buddhism, Confucianism—which, combined with the newly imported Western logic of capitalism, did even more ruthlessly contribute to put women in their proper place. (And thus the 'natural order of things' has been, to this very day.)

Hence the wanderers and the 'holy men' who traverse the anxiety-ridden sexual territory of Kyoka's stories are not, ironically, that different from the men of the business world he so intensely despised for their lack of refinement and taste. What all these male 'ascetic' figures have in common is their search for some form of transcendence and their ultimate determination to keep Woman within her role as the soft, passive human clay that can be molded according to male fantasies and perceptions concerning the structures of ideal beauty and behaviour.

The idyll is shattered, lo and behold, when she slithers out of the frame of domestic bliss and motherly self-negation to reveal, in Dijkstra's words, 'the animal beneath the veneer of civilization with which the poetic spirit of man had covered her'—'a swamp, a palpitating expanse of instinctive physical greed whose primary natural function [is] to try to catch, engulf and, if possible, absorb the male and make him subservient to her simplistic physical needs' (p. 237).

And in Kyoka, as usual, the escape from such predicament is self-denial and/in death.

*       *       *

My base desires had brought me to this, to this point of indecision. As long as I could see her face and hear her voice, what did it matter if she and her idiot husband shared a bed? At least it would be better than enduring endless austerities and living out my days as a monk.

I made up my mind to go back to her, but just as I stepped back from the rock , someone tapped me on the shoulder. "Hey, Monk."

I had been caught at my weakest moment. Feeling small and ashamed, I looked up, expecting to see a messenger from Hell. What I saw instead was the old man I had met at the woman's cottage. . . .

"What are you doing here?" he asked me. "You should be used to this kind of heat, or did you stop for something else? You're only twelve miles from where you were last night. If you'd been walking hard, you'd be in the village giving thanks to Jizo by now.

"Or maybe you've been thinking about that woman. Your earthly passions are stirred, aren't they? Don't try to hide it. I may be a bleary-eyed old man, but I can still tell black from white. Anyone normal wouldn't still be human after a bath with her. Take your pick. Cow? Horse? Monkey? Toad? Bat? You're lucky you're not going to be flying or hopping around for the rest of your life. When you came up from the river and hadn't been turned into some other animal, I couldn't believe my eyes. Lucky you! I guess your faith saved you. . . .

"So now that you know her story, you probably feel sorry for her. You want to gather firewood and haul water for the woman, don't you? I'm afraid your lustful nature has been awakened, Brother. Of course, you don't call it lust. You'd rather call it mercy or sympathy. I know you're thinking of hurrying back to the mountains. But you'd better think twice. Since becoming the idiot's wife, she's forgotten how the world behaves and does only as she pleases. She takes any man she wants. And when she tires of him, she turns him into an animal, just like that. No one escapes. 

"And the river that carved out of these mountains? Since the flood, it's become a strange and mysterious stream that both seduces men and restores her beauty. Even a witch pays a price for casting spells. Her hair gets tangled. Her skin becomes pale. She turns haggard and thin. But then she bathes in the river and is restored to the way she was. That's how her youthful beauty gets replenished. She says 'Come,' and the fish swim to her. She looks at a tree, and its fruit falls into her palm. If she holds her sleeves up, it starts to rain. If she raises her eyebrows, the wind blows.

"She was born with a lustful nature, and she likes young men best of all. I wouldn't be surprised if she said something sweet to you. But even if her words were insincere, as soon as she gets tired of you, a tail will sprout, your ears will wiggle, your legs will grow longer, and suddenly you'll be changed into something else.

"I wish you could see what the witch is going to look like after she's had her fill of this fish—sitting there with her legs crossed, drinking wine.

"So curb your wayward thoughts, Good Monk, and get away as quickly as you can. You've been lucky enough as it is. She must have felt something special for you, otherwise you wouldn't be here. You've been through a miracle and you're still young, so get on with your duties like you really mean it." The old man slapped me on the back again. Dangling the carp from his hand, he started up the mountain road.

I watched him grow smaller in the distance until he disappeared behind the mass of a large mountain. From the top of that mountain, a cloud rapidly blossomed into the drought-cleared sky. Over the quiet rush of the waterfall, I could hear the rolling echoes of clapping thunder.

Standing there like a cast-off shell, I returned to my senses. Filled with gratitude for the old man, I took up my walking staff, adjusted my sedge hat, and ran down the trail. By the time I reached the village, it was already raining on the mountain. It was an impressive storm. Thanks to the rain, the carp the old man was carrying probably reached the woman's cottage alive.

This, then, was the monk's story. He didn't bother to add a moral to the tale. We went our separate ways the next morning, and I was filled with sadness as I watched him begin his ascent into the snow-covered mountains. The snow was falling lightly. As he gradually made his way up the mountain road, the holy man of Mount Koya seemed to be riding on the clouds.

--Izumi Kyoka, ‘The Holy Man of Mount Koya’ (1900), from Japanese Gothic Tales, trans. Charles Shiro Inouye (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1996), pp. 65-72.


Friday, July 8, 2011

a season in purgatory (5)

I have been focusing on 'One Day in Spring', my favourite story by Kyoka, but it is in 'The Holy Man of Mount Koya' that his recurrent themes, and, in particular, his morbid misogyny and truncated eroticism are more explicitly aestheticized. Images of a dangerous, violent, deadly nature recur and are inextricably associated with the woman who seduces and tempts the hero. She personifies throughout the regressive, atavistic, bestial element in woman's 'nature'—taking men, ensnaring them, and, once tired of them, turning the hopeless creatures into animals.

The ultimate symbol of the male's sense of fear and need for female nurturing, she is invariably encountered in the water, her privileged milieu. And it is here that the mendicant, on the verge of yielding to temptation and giving up his ascetic life, withdraws in hesitation and fear.

Once again, in the climactic scene of the tale, he does not take her into his arms but sees the woman being ravished by the dark, turbulent waters. 

Once again, violence and death prevail—and, with them, the failure of love in passivity.

*       *       *

To tell the truth, ever since I had left her earlier that morning this single idea dominated my thoughts. No snakes spanned my path, and I encountered no leech-filled forest. Still, though the way might continue to be hard, bringing tribulation to my body and soul, I realized that my pilgrimage was senseless. My dreams of someday donning a purple surplice and living in a final monastery meant nothing to me. And to be called a living Buddha by others and to be thronged with crowds of worshippers could only turn my stomach with the stench of humanity. . . .

After the woman put the idiot [husband] to sleep, she came back out to my room. She told me that rather than going back to a life of self-denial, I ought to stay by her side in the cottage by the river, there where the summer is cool and the winter mild. Had I given in to her for that reason alone, you'd probably say that I had been bewitched by her beauty. But in my own defense let me say that I truly felt sorry for her. How would it be to live in that isolated mountain cottage as the idiot's bed partner, not able to communicate, feeling you were slowly forgetting how to talk?

That morning when she said goodbye in the dawning light, I was reluctant to leaver her. She regretted never being able to see me again, spending the rest of her life in such a place. She also said that should I ever see white peach petals flowing upon a stream, however small, I would know that she had thrown herself into a river and was being torn apart bit by bit. She was dejected, but her kindness never failed. She told me to follow the river, that it would lead me to the next village. The water dancing and tumbling over a waterfall would be my sign that houses were nearby. Pointing out the road, she saw me off, walking along with me until her cottage had disappeared behind us.

Though we would never walk hand in hand as man and wife, I kept thinking I could still be her companion, there to comfort her morning and night. I would prepare the firewood and she would do the cooking. I would gather nuts and she would shell them. We would work together, I on the veranda and she inside, talking to each other, laughing together. The two of us would go to the river. She would take off her clothes and stand beside me. Her breath upon my back, delicate fragrance of her petals. For that  I would gladly lose my life!

Staring at the waterfall, I tortured myself with these thoughts. Even now when I think back on it, I break out in a cold sweat. I was totally exhausted, both physically and spiritually. I had set off at a fast pace and my legs had grown weary. Even if I was returning to the civilized world, I knew that the best I could expect was some old crone with bad breath offering me a cup of tea. I could care less about making it to the village, and so I sat down on a rock and looked over the edge at the waterfall. Afterward, I learned it was called the Husband and Wife Falls. . . .

The smaller stream was trying to leap over the rock and cling to the larger flow, but the jutting stone separated them cleanly, preventing even a single drop from making it to the other side. The waterfall, thrown about and tormented, was weary and gaunt, its sound like sobbing or someone's anguished cries.  This was the sad yet gentle wife.

The husband, by contrast, fell powerfully, pulverizing the rocks below and penetrating the earth. It pained me to see the two fall separately, divided by that rock. The brokenhearted wife was like a beautiful woman clinging to someone, sobbing and trembling. As I watched from the safety of the bank, I started to shake and my flesh began to dance. When I remember how I had bathed with the woman in the headwaters of this stream, my imagination pictured her inside the falling water, now being swept under, now rising again, her skin disintegrating and scattering like flower petals amid a thousand unruly streams of water. I gasped at the sight, and immediately she was whole again—the same face, body, breasts, arms, and legs, rising and sinking, suddenly dismembered, them appearing again. Unable to bear the sight, I felt myself plunging headlong into the fall and taking the water into my embrace. Returning to my senses, I heard the earthshaking roar of the husband, calling to the mountain spirits and roaring on its way. With such strength, why wasn't he trying to rescue her? I would save her! No matter what the cost.

--Izumi Kyoka, ‘The Holy Man of Mount Koya’ (1900), from Japanese Gothic Tales, trans. Charles Shiro Inouye (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1996), pp. 62-65.


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

a season in purgatory (4)

"In a nap at midday, I met my beloved." He returned to the poem. "Then did I begin to believe in the things called dreams." . . .

He had just seen a dream, but then—

What about dreams? he thought. He felt as though he were seeing one now. If you wake up and realize you were asleep, then you know you were dreaming. But if you never wake up, how could it be a dream? Didn't someone say that the only difference between the mad and the sane is the length of one's periods of insanity? Like waves that grow wild in a blowing wind, everyone has times of madness. But the wind soon calms, and the waves end in a soothing dance. If not, then we begin to lose our minds, we who ply the seas of this floating world. And on the day that we pray for repose yet find no reprieve from the winds, we become seasick. Becoming seasick, we quickly go mad.

How perilous!

We find ourselves in the same situation when our dreams don't stop. If we can wake up, it's a dream. If we can't, then it's our reality. And yet, if it is in our dreams that we meet the people we love, why wouldn't we dream as much as we could? If the world asks, 'What's gotten into him?' The dreamer answers, 'Here I am,' fluttering in tandem with another butterfly, enjoying his enlightenment.

--Izumi Kyoka, ‘One Day in Spring’ (1906), from Japanese Gothic Tales, trans. Charles Shiro Inouye (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1996), pp. 115-16.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

a season in purgatory (3)

"There you go again. If you doubt me that much, then I'll have to spell it out for you." [She said.] "See this glorious grass? These trees? They have blood and passion. They're hot beneath the sun's red light, and the earth is warm like skin. The light penetrates the bamboo grove, and the blossoms are without shadows. They bloom like fire, and when they flutter down unto the water, the stream becomes a red lacquered cup that slowly floats away. The ocean is blue wine, and the sky . . ."

She turned the white palm of her hand so it was facing upward.

"The sky is like a green oil. Viscous. No clouds, but still murky and full of dreams. The mountains are stuffed like velvet pillows. Here and there, the heat waves shimmer like thick coils of smoke rising fragrantly into the sleeves of a kimono. The larks are singing. In some faraway vale, the nightingale is calling, 'Isn't life a pleasure?' It has all its needs, and not a complaint to make. On a bright sunny afternoon like this, you close your eyes and right away you're drowsily dreaming. What do you think?"

"I don't know what I think." He looked away from the brightness of the spring day that her words had conjured. He focused on her.

"What are you feeling?"

He didn't answer.

"Are you having fun?"


"Are you filled with joy?"


"Do you feel alive?"

"Do you?" he countered.

"No, I feel sick, just the way I did when I saw you for the first time."

The wanderer sighed and took back his walking stick. Grabbing it with both hands, he held it near his knees, as if punting in the sea of love. Then he folded his arms and found himself staring at her.

--Izumi Kyoka, ‘One Day in Spring’ (1906), from Japanese Gothic Tales, trans. Charles Shiro Inouye (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1996), pp. 124-25.

Monday, July 4, 2011

a season in purgatory (2)

Kannon, Goddess of Mercy! The wanderer silently prayed for help. His defenses had all come to naught.

"Your stockings are all covered with mud. Why don't you take them off and let me have them cleaned? I live right over there."

He hastily pulled back from her fingers as they reached for his leg. He collapsed onto the embankment, then sat up, the nape of his neck hot because of the warm grass. He was sweating. His face was flushed. His eyes were blinded by the intense spring light.

"Forget about my stupid stockings." His words sounded like something a second-rate storyteller would say. He shuddered. When his vision finally became clear, the woman was picking up his walking stick. She held it gracefully with both hands and stood before him in a relaxed fashion.

Her sash was tied with its end hanging freely. Her lined kimono fit loosely on her shoulders. With the slight movement of her body, the crimson silk slipped down slightly over the edge of her sky-blue sash. The style of her clothing hardly matched the walking stick. She looked pitiful, crushed by love's burden, as if she was being held captive in place of her husband.

"Thank you so much." Again, she took the initiative. "I'm not sure what I should do." Her eyes were half-closed in thought. She seemed worried and weighed down with sadness, like the blind when they sigh. "I shouldn't have said that. I really didn't mean it that way. I didn't want to say I began feeling ill because I saw you. Even if that were true, how could I say such a thing? I saw you. And then I started to feel ill. . . ."

She repeated what she had just said, whispering to herself. "Please. I know you understand what I'm trying to say." She came closer and sat down. Leaning back, she spread her sleeves out on the the embankment. She parted the green spring grass with her shoulder. Their skirts spread out toward the wheat field before them.

"I didn't mean to insult you. You understand, don't you?"


"You do?"

He nodded, but he still seemed to be bothered by something.

"You're mean for getting mad at someone because of the way they talk," she said.

What a disagreeable woman! He looked at her, feeling as if he had to defend himself. "You should talk. I didn't get mad at you for the way you said it. You're the one with a bad temper. All I was doing was repeating what you said to me."

"Yes, and you lost your temper."

"No, I didn't. I was going to apologize."

"But you should have known what I really meant. It's a matter of expression, you know. Like a morning-glory leaf. From the top it looks thin and flat, but underneath it's quite full. You should listen to the underside of language."

"The underside of language? Now just wait a minute." He closed his eyes, tilted his head back, and took a breath. "You're trying to tell me you meant the opposite of getting your feelings hurt. Which is this: that after you saw me, you felt better right? So why don't you just leave me alone? It's perfectly clear that you're just playing around." He took her to task but laughed as he did.

She stared at him coolly. "You're such a complicated man. What did I say to make you talk that way to me? You shouldn't pick on people who are weaker than you. Can't you see I'm suffering?"

She put her hand on the grass and moved her knee. "Listen to what I have to say. All right?" She smiled as if enraptured. Her mouth was so seductive it seemed as though her teeth had been dyed black. "Let's suppose there's someone I dream about all the time, someone I long for. Can you imagine that?"

--Izumi Kyoka, ‘One Day in Spring’ (1906), from Japanese Gothic Tales, trans. Charles Shiro Inouye (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1996), pp. 121-23.


Sunday, July 3, 2011

a season in purgatory (1)

“It’s almost impossible to tell you how this sunny spring makes me feel. It’s like talking about a dream. This quiet sadness. Can’t you feel it? It’s like seeing the most vivid part of a dream, don’t you think? . . . 

“I feel more vulnerable in the spring than in the fall. That’s why I’m so damp. This isn’t sweat. It’s something the sun has wrung from my heart. Not pain, not distress. More like blood being squeezed from the tips of a tree’s tender leaves, as though my bones are being extracted and my skin is being melted. Yes, that’s the perfect expression for times like this. I feel like I’ve turned into water, as though what’s being melted of me will soon disappear, and that there will be tears—though neither of sadness nor of joy. 

“Sometimes you cry when someone scolds you. Other times you cry when someone comforts you. But on a spring day like today, your tears are of this latter kind. I suppose they’re sad. Yet there are different types of sadness. If fall is the sorrow of nature, then spring is the anguish of human life. . . . 

“Invited by a warm, gentle wind, the soul becomes a dandelion blossom that suddenly turns into cotton and blows away. It’s the feeling of fading into death after seeing paradise with your own eyes. Knowing its pleasure, you also understand that heaven is vulnerable, unreliable, sad. 

--Tamawaki Mio in ‘One Day in Spring’ (1906), from Izumi Kyoka, Japanese Gothic Tales, trans. Charles Shiro Inouye (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1996), pp. 125-26. 

*       *       *

In time of departures, thinking of beginnings. Of what once brought me here, of what awoke the passion—and, later, the disappointment.

Of why the fascination never ends.

My view of Japan was always from the ground, between the country and the city, working, living among Japanese people. I was never one to seek company among groups of expats, be they struggling academic researchers or well-off Roppongi types.

Yet, at the same time, mine was always a Japan of the mind, because fundamentally mediated by literature. It was in certain Japanese writers, in their words and images, that I have found something which resonates deeply within me and with which I have played hide-and-seek ever since. Something I cannot fully explain but that is at once universal and unique, as is the hallmark of all great art.

While I did feel the initial attraction for the quaint and pretty vanishing Japan of the Western exotes—Lafcadio Hearn, Pierre Loti, Wenceslau de Moraes—it soon struck me as stereotypical, remote, outdated.

What I was looking for and have found, heartbreakingly, here is a dark and unsettling truth that, once one touches it, one cannot but recoil—in horror, in disgust, and, above all, in sadness. One cannot avoid seeing and thinking of it, though, at times judgmentally, at times sympathetically, but never with indifference.

Were I to name the writer who has struck the deepest chord with me in this respect, it would be Izumi Kyoka. His tales of madness and death sound so quintessentially Japanese, and yet so archetypal and thus universal in the human struggles, oppressions, inequities, and impossibilities they embody.

As a feminist—that is, as someone who is committed to social change in order to achieve more balanced,  fairer and thus happier relationships between women and men—what puzzles me in Kyoka is, on the one hand, his sympathetic depictions of witty and lovely female heroines, who, precisely because of their wit and loveliness, are crushed by a brutal, callous patriarchal society that values them only for their outer beauty and fertility. They are never more than coadjutants, helpers, or mere toys. Countess Kifune in ‘The Surgery Room’ (1895), Tamawaki Mio in 'One Day in Spring’ (1906), among others: their desire for love, their lives stifled and destroyed by a society that oppresses the true emotions of people. These women are invariably bright and beautiful, weak and strong, passionate and pure-hearted, but also mad and downtrodden.

And herein lies the 'on the other hand’, the all-pervasive double standard that has haunted the male images of femininity, time out of mind: Woman as maternal, nurturing, but also as dangerously alluring; Woman as the saviour of Man but as someone who must be subjected to unspeakable suffering and sacrifice to qualify for the honour of bringing the male his inner peace. There is no doubt as to who remains at the centre, shaken and embattled at times, but fundamentally immovable in the end. Woman is to be fought as a demon or altogether avoided; or, even worse: Woman is to be placed on a pedestal and lovingly revered as a being from a distant star, divinely powerful. She has no agency in this world though, no subjectivity, no reality. In a word, she is better dead—or asleep or subdued—than alive. (Some call this misogyny, but who am I to stick on labels?)

All these sexist stereotypes trammelling women have existed in the West, under different guises, since time immemorial. Yet in Japan they assume particularly disturbing sexual overtones, because Japanese masculinity is so grounded in the psychology of amae—mother-dependent sons who never really grow up—and Japanese femininity trapped in the interplay of female spoiling and male dependence. The dominance of the mother in this culture is what has, ironically, perpetuated what Chizuko Ueno coined the Japanese 'transvestite patriarchy': a patriarchy that cloaks itself in femininity, making thus women's situation more complicated and the struggle against male dominance more difficult.

Charles Shiro Inouye, in the magisterial Introduction to his selected translations, argues that Kyoka’s sexually hesitant heroes mark ‘the birth of the weak male’, the beginning of a process of male regression that is so blatantly obvious to anyone familiar with contemporary Japanese society. In Kyoka, the sexually immature, neurotic male is tempted and crazed by a desire which he rarely has the courage to test and which remains therefore unfulfilled, as in ‘The Holy Man of Mt. Koya’ (1900). To quote Inouye again: 'They make beauty, not love'… A truncated eroticism.

And this seems to happen not so much out of moral principles but because of the male’s impossible attempt to reconcile Woman as nurturer and Woman as lover. Maternal and erotic love can only meld in death, out of this world. Love’s fulfillment is thus always linked to death and lovers must die to be together, as Countess Kifune and Doctor Takamine do in 'The Surgery Room':

Although their graves are in different places—one in the hills of Aoyama, one downtown in Yanaka—the countess and Doctor Takamine died together, one after the other, on the same day.
Religious thinkers of the world, I pose this question to you. Should these two lovers be found guilty and denied entrance into heaven? (p. 20)

Or as in the drowned corpses at the end of ‘One Day in Spring’:

The boy’s head was like a jewel pressed against the woman’s breast, the red lion’s cape still wet and tangled around her white arm. Beautiful and alluring, Tamawaki Mio had finally discovered the destination of the dead.
The wanderer would never forget how they had parted at the embankment, how he had looked back and seen her, holding her purple parasol to the side, her black hair weighing down upon her as she watched him walk away. As the sand on the beach spread and drew back soundlessly, hollowing out and filling back in, he thought of how the waves must have ravished her. From the sand there appeared only beautiful bones and the color of shells—red of the sun, white of the beach, green of the waves.
(pp. 139-40)

And it is here that Kyoka’s unsettling ambivalence lies, as well as my own ambivalence towards him and the world he stands for. A world where oppression and death are viewed as beautiful and virtuous, and which has bred both images of striking beauty and the most dangerous, wrongheaded delusions and mistakes.

Not a heaven, most definitely, but a purgatory of unfulfilled love and lost souls, epitomised in Kyoka’s strangely oppressing, dark Spring.