Saturday, August 20, 2011

closing the parenthesis

What is another language? Not just words
and rules you don't know, but concepts too
for feelings and ideas you never knew,
or thought, to name; like a poem that floods
its lines with light, as in the fabled
origin of life, escaping paraphrase.
So living in that country always was
mysterious and never to be equalled.

--Andrew McNeillie, from 'Cynefin Glossed'.

It has been with me for four years and I made it into the main vehicle for tackling the perplexities of living in this country. I have tried, not always successfully of course, to strike a balance between my own limited perception and a desire to generalise and understand the larger patterns of life here so as to stay afloat and not be hopelessly engulfed by them.

I wrote the truth as I saw it, to paraphrase an intrepid predecessor who travelled in Japan at the end of the 19th century and soon found the country 'a study rather than a rapture'. More than a century later, so did I.

The time has come to bring this space to a close, as I will now be moving elsewhere and opening a new chapter in life. I will no longer be in Japan, but Japan will always remain in me and be joined by other equally baffling places and experiences. The writing is thus bound to continue somewhere (I'm already marinating some ideas), and, to those who might eventually be interested in following it, I will leave a note here at some point. It might still take me a while to find my feet though, so please bear with me.

Apart from a few friends who give me feedback every now and then, I don't really know the identities nor the motivations of the readers who have followed this blog regularly or occasionally, but I'm grateful for their time and interest.

And I couldn't possibly leave without also expressing my appreciation and thanks to the dear enemies, those who through their example have shown me the kind of person I most definitely do not want to become. Amazing indeed how a couple of years in this society can make empty shells of so many -- way too many -- people. That's why I'm out of here, while there is still some humanity left in me.

The journey continues -- and with it the bewilderment, the curiosity, the discovery, the desire for the new and the unexpected.

Até sempre!

departures (11)

Even the weather seems to have gently yielded to the melancholic mood -- and I would be filled with gratitude if it just snowed tomorrow.

For there is no better way to say goodbye than to evanesce in the blizzard, together with the memory of happier times.

*       *       *

My friend who loves owls
Has been with me all day
Walking at my ear
And speaking of old summers
When to speak was easy.
His eyes are almost gone
Which made him hear well.
Under our feet the great
Glacier drove its keel.
What is to read there
Scored out in the dark?
Later the north-west distance
Thickened towards us.
The blizzard grew and proved
Too filled with other voices
High and desperate
For me to hear him more.
I turned to see him go
Becoming shapeless into
The shrill swerving snow.

--W.S. Graham, from 'Malcom Mooney's Land.'

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

last things

It is strange indeed how seemingly trivial everyday activities -- having a bath, making a cup of tea, listening to the sounds outside before falling asleep in the small hours, catching a glimpse of the fist morning light through the half-opened curtain -- acquire an almost ritualistic, dreamlike quality when you know you are performing them for the last time in a particular place.

As though you were walking barefoot down a cliff path and feeling every stone beneath your feet.

As though you could taste the tears a friend struggles to hold back when waving you goodbye at the station.

As though you were sleeping one final night in your small prison cell before being set free.

The bittersweet flavour of last things.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

it is the best of times, it is the worst of times (3)

What a fine little poem to bump into in an (almost) empty house amid the rubble and the remains of an abandoned life.

Another serendipity, of course -- and it might well be the last.

Because I sail, I sail.

*       *       *

Look !

I am becalmed in a deep sea
And give signals, but they are not answered.
And yet I see ships in the distance
And give signals, but they do not answer.

Am I a pariah ship, or a leper
To be shunned reasonably?
Or did I commit a crime long ago
And have forgotten, but they remember?

Into the dark night into darker I move
And the lights of the ships are not seen now
But instead there is a phosphorescence from the water
That light shines, and now I see

Low down, as I bend my hand into the water
A fish so transparent in his inner organs
That I know he comes from the earthquake bed
Five miles below where I sail, I sail.

All his viscera are transparent, his eyes globule on stalks
Is he dead? Or alive and only languid? Now
Into my hand he comes, the travelling creature,
Not from the sea-bed only but from generations,
Faint because of the lighter pressure,
Fainting, a long fish, stretched out.

So we meet, and for a moment
I forget my solitariness.
But then I should like to show him,
And who shall I show him to?

--Stevie Smith, from Not Waving but Drowning in Collected Poems (New York: New Directions, 1983), p. 369.

Fuses, again

Donald Richie's comment on the denigration of women in pornography has reminded me of a text I posted here almost two years ago, and which I cannot resist linking once again.

And can any human being in her/his right mind wish for anything else than to inhabit a relationship in this way -- no hierarchies, no denigration or objectification of anyone? Just the sheer joy of intimacy and trust.

Monday, August 15, 2011

the future

The Western world and many of its time-honoured values, beliefs and social systems -- human rights, multiculturalism, the welfare state, democracy itself -- seem to be on the verge of collapse, and there are very few grounds for optimism about what will take their place.

And when one looks at the societies and political systems that are now emerging and rising to power in the world scene despite their total disrespect for the individual and her/his dignity, for the environment, for pluralism, for freedom of thought and speech, for history and memory, then one cannot but remember Orwell's ominous words from Nineteen Eighty-Four:

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

Yet the urge to be there and witness history unfolding is irrepressible, as well the desire to mitigate it somehow, however modestly,  however discreetly, by leaving a mark on those who will at once suffer and be held responsible for its consequences in the future.

departures (10)

Not that it brings any reassurance or comfort.

Compiling all these thoughts, musings, ruminations, is not so much to pave the way for the journey ahead as a way of suspending the physical departure by painstakingly enlarging, stone by stone, the narrow passage that leads to a door which opens to yet another passage that leads to yet another door, and so on and so on.

The thoughts are the stones on the way; the destination does not matter.

Ideally, no one should even notice the moment of departure, because there is no such thing, really. You always leave earlier or later than they realise.

No parting gifts needed. No definitive goodbyes.

Travel at once sculpts and erodes your sense of belonging by creating passages that are nothing but permeable membranes between worlds, categories, dichotomies.

I am here and not here.

I am still here and have already left.

I shall never return but will arrive again.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

through queer eyes

A fine review of Donald Richie's latest book of essays in today's edition of The Japan Times, a review which does justice to his unique insights as a long-residing, non-assimilated foreigner in Japan.

The article doesn't directly refer to this, but it is widely known that Richie's has always been the perspective of a gay man. Hence perhaps his comfort in "the distance of being a foreigner in Japan. . . . This I regard as the best seat in the house. Because from here I can compare, and comparison is the first step toward understanding. I have learned to regard freedom as more important than belonging."

Interesting, no doubt, how Japan has been such a paradise of emotional detachment for so many western... gay men, precisely. Richie's comments on the seedy but also infantilized world of Japanese sex clubs where "anything goes" may provide some suggestive clues about why this has been (and will continue to be) so.

Yet to a straight western woman who has reached her wits' end in Japan, the following remarks are much more significant -- and depressing. They certainly provide valuable clues about why stuffy old Japan is (and will continue to be) such an inhospitable place for independent, liberated women:

Richie is a sympathetic witness to the plight of women in Japan, deploring that they are "frankly regarded as chattel. The double standard is so ingrained that it is taken for granted. The manipulation of women for economic, social, and sexual purposes is openly displayed and its rightness is seldom officially questioned."

Lamentably, "women seem also to subscribe to the rightness of their own oppression. They submit and endure."

[my comment: Chizuko Ueno, one of Japan's most outspoken feminist scholars, once remarked that these Japanese women suffer from a serious form of 'moral masochism'.]

It is precisely the systematic discrimination women suffer, he argues, that makes them consummate actresses. Role-playing is second nature, a coping mechanism as, "From the earliest age she learns to mask her true feelings and to counterfeit those she does not feel."

This comes in handy in pornography where the formula insists that "women must be denigrated and she must deserve to be." He adds that in this realm women are portrayed as hysterical animals: "While she screams, kicks, and in general abandons herself, he remains thoughtful, calm, a dedicated craftsman." Curiously, the genre is "puritanical about the virgin state," while insisting that "women are evil, that sex is their instrument and that men are their prey."

Indeed. I have written on nothing else of late (here, herehere and here e.g.) -- and only wish that the self-imposed geographical distance I will be very soon acquiring will one day allow me to simply laugh at the sheer ludicrousness, backwardness and absurdity of it all.

first intimation

Manuscript upon manuscript, day upon day, consecutive separations from what we love,
winter is approaching . . . .

---Maria Gabriela Llansol, Na Casa de Julho e Agosto / In the House of July and August, trans. from the Portuguese by DK.

It is, it is, even at the height of summer. The dead cicada in the sun brings its first intimation --- and I already feel its icy paradise in the bones.

The lurking nostalgia awaiting me.

If only it stayed away a little longer. If only ---

Friday, August 12, 2011

departures (9)

What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country . . . we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits. This is the most obvious benefit of travel. At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being. . . . This is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure. There is no pleasure in travel, and I look upon it more as an occasion for spiritual testing. . . . Pleasure takes us away from ourselves in the same way that distraction, as in Pascal's use of the word, takes us away from God. Travel, which is like a greater and graver science, brings us back to ourselves.

—Albert Camus, from Notebooks 1935-1942.

*       *       *

But in the broadest sense, as a passage across significant borders -- a transformation, a transition -- travel is also a way of restoring the fabric of existence that has been torn by intrigue, heartlessness, contempt.

A way of recovering trust and kindness, because when alone among strangers you have no alternative but to be trustful and kind; you put yourself in their hands to feel less alone

And once the torn fabric is quietly and slowly restored, the beauty arising therein becomes all the more precious.

You are back to yourself.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

it is the best of times, it is the worst of times (2)

And yet another small serendipity that mitigates the exhaustion and discomfort of departure. How strangely comforting indeed to find this long-forgotten book in a corner of my messy, in-transit library and to retrieve a passage that pretty much sums up my current frame of mind.

A salutary reminder -- and a celebration -- of the absolute necessity of breaking out from the traps in which we often find ourselves caught and which can shield us from truth and emotion, from life itself: the trap of false comfort and safety, the trap of spurious alibis and reassurances, the trap of numbing habits and routines, the trap of fear.

Despite and beyond all the uncertainties, the hesitations, the despairs.

*       *       *

They walked into what you call traps because they find a lot more shelter and a bit more food in the trap than elsewhere, even though they might finish up in the trap with no room or chance to do anything but wait patiently to be pecked to hell.

--Gwyn Thomas, All Things Betray Thee (1949; London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1986).

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I want, if older, still to know

Despite all the frenzied days of packing and preparations, the stocktaking is inevitable and the thought visits you ever so often.

How, in defiance of life's endless disasters and disappointments, one goes on, even when nothing new is promised or seems possible.

The love of truth sounds way too lofty to describe this urge, because it is more simply a desire for self-knowledge, for self-respect, for the respect of others.

Most of all, it is a refusal to let anyone, under whatever circumstances, trample on your inalienable imperative of existing, of standing upright in your own shape, of growing and expressing yourself according to your own autonomy.

Thus I shall hold it close forever keenly, repeating it like a mantra, wherever I am.

Because they shall have no dominion.

*       *       *

Myself (click to listen to Creeley's reading)

What, younger, felt
was possible, now knows
is not—but still
not changed enough—

Walked by the sea,
unchanged in memory—
evening, as clouds
on the far-off rim

of water float,
pictures of time,
smoke, faintness—
still the dream.

I want, if older,
still to know
why, human, men
and women are

so torn, so lost,
why hopes cannot
find better world
than this.

Shelley is dead and gone,
who said,
"Taught them not this—
to know themselves;

their might could not repress
the mutiny within,
And for the morn
of truth they feigned,

deep night
Caught them ere evening . . ."

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

it is the best of times, it is the worst of times (1)

... when it arrives, the moment to pack these most precious of belongings into cardboard boxes and send them to a faraway place -- and I'm forced to sort through them and make some stark choices. Which ones to take with you, which ones to leave behind? And how can you possibly create such a hierarchy among your closest friends? And how can you know beforehand which ones you're not going to miss at some point later?

Some of their landscapes, memories, scents are so full of life that all too often I cannot but yield to the irresistible urge to open a parenthesis and be led on countless, unexpected journeys, oblivious to the passing of time and the surrounding chaos.

At other times I just enjoy opening one of them at random and marvelling at the significance of these chance encounters, other countless journeys -- like the following, still sitting warmly on my lap:

With lips I have prevailed
and a brain of fire
now there are ashes in my head.
I haven't heard from you in months
because I am afraid of that black sea,
not needing the bathers in its foam.
More than a tincture of infidelity
more than a tight cock gathered in salt-sweat.
Standing in the rain is like reading
an inaccurate biography of you.
An echo of a sea, raging.

--Barry MacSweeney, from 'Brother Wolf' in Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems 1965-2000 (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe), pp. 30-31.

The task never ends, suspending the closure a little longer.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

a principle of kindness

Davood Emdadian
The deep desire for beauty, which is also a desire for the new, the unexpected.

That which is most repressed because it hates the monotonous, the fixed for fixedness's sake, the safety based on fear, the imposture of language -- the hallucinated misery in which so many seem to live.

A desire for beauty that impels movement and inscribes on the living a principle of kindness, as Llansol calls it.

And there is something eroticising in this kindness, such as the kindness we stake when we love. The kindness that flows and lingers between lovers, and which they, once satiated, run the risk of never finding again.

It alone makes the splendour of bodies, inscribing their intense and attractive forms on significant and surprising relationships from which affection emerges.

And the greatest, deepest grief of every being, that which can make her/him irreversibly bitter, ugly, sick, opaque, is to have risked that kindness and lost it, as though one loses a game.

Because to be abandoned, to have the kindness one has extended to an other treated with contempt is to be buried alive under a devastation of ashes.

Yet how can one possibly resign oneself to lose it?

Better die howling in pain than shield oneself from the risk of growing -- and, above all, from the light one so sorely misses.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

lest we forget

From this the poem springs; that we live in a place
That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves
And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.

--Wallace Stevens, 'Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.'

Friday, August 5, 2011

the house

in that house from afar where she was habitually happy and well imagined, vague hours of a great sadness were formed; the days piled up in a great hierarchy to overcome. . . .

--Maria Gabriela Llansol, Na Casa de Julho e Agosto / In the House of July and August (Lisbon: Relogio D'Agua, 2003), p. 20. Translated from the Portuguese by DK.

It alone counteracted my wanderlust for two years -- its faded beauty, our complicity, the almost mediterranean light in the late afternoon.

The homespun, tucked away Tokyo.

The greatest heartbreak to leave it to such an uncertain fate, bereft of memories, the things once held dear.

However illusory it might all have been.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

'the loneliness of the long-distance foreigner'...

I have written ad nauseam on this depressing topic (hereherehere, herehere and here e.g.), but if doubts still remain about how generally unwelcoming and mistrustful of foreigners - of others, tout court - the Japanese are and how difficult (or virtually impossible) it is for westerners to establish long-lasting, reliable friendships with most of these insufferable bores, I cannot but recommend the article reproduced below.

Such things should no longer surprise me after so many years in Japan, and yet I don't cease to be appalled by the emotional atrophy, iciness, rudeness, self-absorption and utter disrespect for basic human feelings - namely trust - that most Japanese (esp. the males) display in their interactions with others. How much lower can these chaps sink?

*       *       *

The loneliness of the long-distance foreigner
The Japan Times, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011

A few months ago I had beers with several old Japan-hand guys (combined we have more than a century of Japan experiences), and one of them asked an interesting question:

"After all our years here, how many close Japanese male friends do you have?" (Excluding Debito, of course.)

We glanced amongst ourselves and realized that none of us had any. Not one we would count on as a "friend." Nobody to whom we could talk openly, unreservedly, and in depth with, about what's on our minds. Or contact for a place to stay because our spouse was on the warpath. Or call at 3 a.m. to announce the birth of our latest baby. Or ring up on the spur of the moment because we didn't want to drink alone that evening. Or who would care enough to check on us in the event of a natural disaster. Not one.

This occasioned much discussion and theorizing, both at the table and on my blog later (see

(A quick note to readers already poised to strike with poison pens: None of the following theories are necessarily mine, nor do I necessarily agree with them. They are just to stimulate further discussion.)

One theory was that Japanese salarymen of our age group are generally boring people. Too busy or work-oriented to cultivate outside interests or hobbies, these one-note-Taros generally "talk shop" or resort to shaggy-dog stories about food. We contrasted them with Japanese women, who, thanks to more varied lifestyles and interests (including travel, language and culture), are more engaging and make better conversation partners (even if, my friends hastily added, the relationship had not become physical).

Another idea was that for many Japanese men, their hobby was you. By this, the speaker meant the culture vultures craving the "gaijin shiriaiexperience" or honing their language skills. This was OK in the beginning (especially when we first got here) but it got old quickly, as they realized we wanted to learn Japanese too, and when they weren't willing to reciprocate. Not to mention that we eventually got tired of hearing blanket cultural explanations for individual issues (which is how culture vultures are hard-wired to see the world, anyway).

Another theory was that after a certain age, Japanese men don't make "friends" with anyone. The few lifelong friends they would ever make were in school; once they entered the job market, all other males were treated as rivals or steps to promotion — meaning you put up a mask and didn't reveal potentially compromising personal information. Thus if Japanese men were going to make friends at all, they were going to make them permanently, spending enormous time and energy imprinting themselves on precious few people. This meant they had to choose wisely, and non-Japanese — generally seen as in Japan only temporarily and with unclear loyalties — weren't worth the emotional investment.

Related to this were issues of Japan's hierarchical society. Everyone was either subordinate or superior — kōhai or senpai — which interfered with friendships as the years marched on: Few non-Japanese (NJ) wanted to languish as kōhai, and few Japanese wanted to deal with a foreign senpai. Besides, went the theory, this relationship wasn't something we'd classify as a "friendship" anyway. Conclusion: Japanese men, as opposed to Japanese women with their lifetime coffee klatches, were some of the most lonely people on the planet.

Another suggestion was that this was just part of how life shakes down. Sure, when you're young and carefree you can hang out willy-nilly, spend money with abandon and enjoy the beer-induced bonhomie (which Japan's watering holes are very good at creating) with everyone all night. But as time goes on and people get married, have kids, take on a mortgage and a nagging spouse (who doesn't necessarily want you spending their money on your own personal fun, especially if it involves friends of the opposite sex), you prioritize, regardless of nationality.

Fine, our group countered, but we've all been married and had kids, and yet we're still meeting regularly — because NJ priorities include beers with friends from time to time. In fact, for us the older the relationship gets, the more we want to maintain it — especially given all we've been through together. "New friends are silver, but old friends are gold."

Still another, intriguing theory was the utilitarian nature of Japanese relationships, i.e. Japanese make friends not as a matter of course but with a specific purpose in mind: shared lifestyles, interests, sports-team fandom, what have you. But once that purpose had run its course — because you've exhausted all conversation or lost the commonality — you should expect to lose contact. The logic runs that in Japan it is awkward, untoward, even rude to extend a relationship beyond its "natural shelf life." This goes even just for moving to another city in Japan: Consider it normal to lose touch with everyone you leave behind. The thread of camaraderie is that thin in Japan.

However, one naturalized Japanese friend of mine (who just turned 70) pooh-poohed all these theories and took me out to meet his drinking buddies (of both genders, mostly in their 60s and 70s themselves). At this stage in their lives things were less complicated. There were no love triangles, no senpai-kōhai conceits, no "shop talk," because they were all retired. Moreover they were more outgoing and interesting, not only because they were cultivating pastimes to keep from going senile, but also because the almighty social lubricant of alcohol was omnipresent (they drank like there was no tomorrow; for some of them, after all, there might not be!). For my friend, getting Japanese to lower their masks was pretty easy.

Fine, but I asked if it weren't a bit unreasonable for us middle-aged blokes to wait for this life stage just to make some Japanese friends. These things may take time, and we may indeed have to spend years collecting shards of short interactions from the local greengrocer before we put together a more revealing relationship. But in the meantime, human interaction with at least one person of the same gender that goes beyond platitudes, and hopefully does not require libation and liver damage, is necessary now for sanity's sake, no?

There were other, less-developed theories, but the general conclusion was: Whatever expectation one had of "friends" — either between Japanese and NJ, or between Japanese themselves — there was little room over time for overlap. Ultimately NJ-NJ relationships wound up being more friendly, supportive and long-lasting.

Now it's time for disclaimers: No doubt the regular suspects will vent their spleen to our Have Your Say section and decry this essay as overgeneralizing, bashing, even discriminating against Japanese men.

Fire away, but you'd be missing the point of this column. When you have a good number of NJ long-termers saying they have few to no long-term Japanese friends, this is a very serious issue — with a direct connection to issues of immigration and assimilation of outsiders. It may be a crude barometer regarding life in Japan, but let's carry on the discussion anyway and see how sophisticated we can make it.

So let's narrow this debate down to one simple question: As a long-term NJ resident in Japan, how many Japanese friends do you have, as defined in the introduction above? (You might say that you have no relationship with anyone of any nationality with that much depth, but that's awfully lonely — I dare say even unhealthy — and I hope you can remedy that.) Respondents who can address the other sides of the question (i.e. NJ women befriending Japanese women/men, and same-sex relationships) are especially welcome, as this essay has a shortage of insight on those angles.

Be honest. And by "honest", I mean giving this question due consideration and experience: People who haven't been living in Japan for, say, about 10 years, seeing how things shake down over a significant portion of a lifetime's arc, should refrain from commentary and let their senpai speak. "I've been here one year and have oodles of Japanese friends, you twerpski!" just isn't a valid sample yet. And please come clean about your backgrounds when you write in, since age, gender, occupation, etc. all have as much bearing on the discussion as your duration of time in Japan.

Above all, remember what my job as a columnist is: to stimulate public discussion. Respondents are welcome to disagree (I actually consider agreement from readers to be an unexpected luxury), but if this column can at least get you to think, even start clacking keyboards to The Japan Times, I've done my job. Go to it. Consider yourself duly stimulated, and please offer us some friendly advice.

The Japan Times: Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011
(C) All rights reserved

Monday, August 1, 2011

writing matters (4)

The invading letter I could have written, I should have written, no matter what.

But will never write.

You are not a memory, you are a landscape; at a certain moment of your suffering, you sent me a landscape that is a dune in front of the sea; a landscape with the scent of the sea breeeze in which I lay my spirit to behold time; no being of a companion dwells therein, but I see him, and it seems to me that the dune should not always be deserted; we are sitting on the sand, marvelling at the beauty coming out of our emptiness; and I cannot efface the pain, but on the sand of the dune, amidst some trees, there is the joy we recognised as fragile and precious.

--Maria Gabriela Llansol, Na Casa de Julho e Agosto / In the House of July and August (Lisbon: Relogio D'Agua, 2003), p. 29. Translated from the Portuguese by DK.

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)