Understanding Nagai Kafu

I have been reading Nagai Kafu’s diaries with the disconcerting sensation that I am reading myself:  every thought and reaction he describes I understand instantly and fully, and to most I subscribe with both hands.

Incredibly, most writings on Nagai Kafu suggest that no one else understands him — certainly no one who writes about him does.  How else to explain a dull, dull book like Snyder’s? He certainly did not read the diaries, for if he did, he would have known that Nagai read much French literature in the original and therefore did not need to “learn” French modernism from Ogai as he suggests.  But it’s hard to blame Snyder:  the diaries, unlike the novels, are written in bungo, an old sinicized form of Japanese — this can be hard to read; and they are long:  mine — an abridged version — comes to two thousand pages.  Scholars in a hurry to publish — “publish or perish” — don’t have that kind of time, do they?  So Snyder has not read the diaries — and therefore is unaware of the central fact about Nagai Kafu.

Let me try to explain what I think is the central fact about Nagai Kafu.

The central fact about Nagai Kafu is that he was a typical scion of an upper-class feudal household living in a rapidly modernizing world in which the old way of living was at first haltingly and then ever more decisively pushed aside.  He had grown up in a well-to do house, in a family with sufficient means to dedicate themselves to the task of living a beautiful life.  In modern times people rarely have the money (our middle classes are much poorer relative to the society than the middle classes of the nineteenth century were) and almost never have the time to dedicate themselves to beautiful living:  to house decoration (say, changing the house decor to correspond to changing seasons), to clothing (such as changing several times a day), to ceremonies (meaning both large and small ceremonies, including things like paying calls or receiving guests or sending new year’s post cards), to manners, to cultivating friends, to correspondence, to eating properly, to literature or music-making or art-appreciation; with their 50+ hour work-weeks plus three-hour daily commutes they find such a life not only impossible but mainly — unimaginable. 

Yet this is the kind of life Nagai was bred into.  That life is best described, in my opinion, as aesthetic; its goal is to produce a beautiful work of art which is the person living the life.  Nagai’s most important artwork — indeed, as he grew older, his only important work of art — was his character and his life.

Economic and political changes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have meant that upper class men (and women) of the old feudal system, bred to beautiful living and attempting to continue to live it, discovered that the world around them was changing in ways which they found not merely incomprehensible but downright abrasive.  Nagai discovers with shock that he no longer wishes to participate in Japan’s literary life as it becomes dominated by writers who do not know the classics (never mind actually like them!) and whose principal motivation for writing is self-promotion; he describes how his neighbors’ estates are subdivided and developed to make room for uncouth, pushy new men from the provinces and their rude children; how the old refined Floating World — staffed by classically trained geisha — gradually gives ground to grubby prostitution.  When the Great Kanto Earthquake levels the city around him, he actually rejoices that it has driven his neighbors away and sadly reflects:  “probably not for long”.  When the war with America breaks out he comments that he understand why Americans hate modern Japan because he does, too, and expresses the hope that Americans might bomb Japan’s new ugliness and vulgarity into oblivion.

I am sensitive to Nagai’s experience for two reasons:  first because it was the experience of my own grandparents to whom I was very close as I grew up. My maternal grandmother, a daughter of a very rich landowning family in the Ukraine, was driven out by the Russian Revolution, rendered penniless and forced into a social milieu in which suddenly she met as her equals people she’d never even known existed before:  the mechanical classes; yet, despite her reduced financial circumstances she strove to live the old way, to maintain the old standards of politeness and gracious living, refusing to adopt the lowlife lifestyle which she was suddenly forced to notice all around her.  I grew up watching her efforts and found them touchingly noble.

I am also sensitive to Nagai’s experience because my own experience of the reality outside my door is quite similar to his:  I have taken early retirement from my professional career because I found the people I met in its course too disagreeable to bear; I have suspended my former (“successful”) blog because I discovered that I was largely put off by the sorts of reflections great art inspired in the majority of my readers.

This sensitivity has allowed me to see people of Nagai’s sort everywhere in the world — worldwide de-feudalization means that there are Nagais everywhere if you know what to look for.  Perhaps their lot was described to me best by an elderly grand dame in New Delhi about ten years ago:  “We’re not Indians, Gauvain”, she said referring to herself and her husband, “we’re pakka sahibs” (“proper masters”).  Her new country, the one in which she had grown up and lived all her life and whose passport she was carrying no longer seemed to her like her own.  She would not admit to having any part in it.

As feudalism recedes into the past, there are ever fewer Nagais to be seen; and the younger men who grow up with the new reality do not see it — in the same manner in which fish do not see the water they swim in.  They read Nagai and miss the most important fact about him and write some excrementum bovis on sex industry as a metaphor for capitalist exploitation or sexual love as metaphor for writing.

Then say it once, briefly, to the point, or, speaking to Flavia Domitia

The strange urgency with which Flavia Domitia has sought me out suddenly, after two years of silence, has quickly explained itself: she had broken up with her live-in boyfriend; she was – so to speak — back on the market and she wanted to know what my romantic situation was: did someone share my apartment, and did I have a traveling companion?

Ten years ago, I suppose, such a discovery would have flattered me – young men are disposed to imagine that they are liked; today, it makes me sad – because, no longer young, I have been cured. Young men’s illusions of their irresistible sex-appeal are inflated by the elaborate strategies women play against them: younger males being by definition men with a future, females play them for long term gain: they invest a good deal upfront, and patiently wait for the future pay off. Younger men mistake this investment for selflessness and imagine that they make women lose control – but it isn’t them, it’s their future prospects.

Men my age, on the other hand, are at or near their peak earnings, there isn’t much upside, and the expiry date is in clearly in sight:  the pay-off, if any, must be now: people — men as well as women — play us for immediate gain; the terms of the transaction are made far too readily to leave room for romantic delusion.  Donna Flavia’s purpose was not even thinly disguised.

(I suppose, also, that older men’s experience is in part determined by the fact that they tend to encounter older women and older women have less time to play elaborate long-term games: they want to be paid in this life, and, given their age, this, too, has to mean – now).

But my three-hour conversation with Donna Flavia was not all about that; it had other elements deserving reflection.

We talked, for instance, about the way our lives have unfolded – we have known each other for the better part of forty years  – and about the way our lives were likely to unfold in the future, which is a topic rarely discussed — perhaps even rarely thought about — but which has always interested me greatly.

What will I do, Donna Flavia asked me, once I return to my new home from my travels.  I said that I would spend a great deal of time watching the sunrise from my window, sitting in the park with a book, taking walks through my beautiful city, and eating in small, hole-in-the-wall eateries, chasing pataniscas with rich Alentejo; and that I will probably also eventually engage in some sort of a larger project; that I was not yet sure what that project might be, but that I was not inclined to push it, so as not to frighten it unnecessarily: such a project should always germinate and grow on its own, all I needed to do was to nourish it well and – wait. My analogy was to Lampedusa – not that I imagine to write the best novel of my century the way he wrote the best novel of his – but the mechanism is the same: live long, experience much, observe closely, think hard; and only when you have grasped it, digested it, understood it, then say it: once, briefly, and to the point. Under 200 pages, if you can.

Will I stay in my new city for good, Donna Flavia asked me next, accustomed as she is to see my mailing address changing continents every five years.  I replied that my current apartment was going to be my home for a long time, but that it was not going to be my last home; my next home would probably be my last home, but I could not yet tell where that home would be, whether in my present city or somewhere else.

At this, Donna Flavia chuckled and suggested that it probably was pointless to take such a long view of things, given the unpredictability of fate.  As she spoke, I realized that her own, somewhat chaotic life – in which she was as often an object of life as she was its subject — might have been responsible for forming that view; but my life very much proved the efficacy of long term plans. I believe I was 18 when I developed the vision of the future which has now become now my present. I didn’t know at that time how I would get here; nor that my current city would be the place where I would live my future (at that time I imagined that the place might be Athens instead). But the life I envisioned then, the situation in life, was very much what I have now: long park-sittings with a book, in the shade of flowering trees, even longer solitary walks, sunrise watchings, endless slow reading and meandering reflection. I was 27 when I finally formulated the plan that would get me to that future, and 47 when that future arrived. Thinking in 20 year blocks has worked for me.

I was beginning to feel pretty smug about the whole thing, when then Donna Flavia told me about her present life: single again, her children gone from the house but so far un-eager to reproduce, she has now, finally, for the first time in her life, had the time to dedicate herself to the work she had chosen for herself and which she likes.  It consists is researching and writing a series of books of a kind of oral micro-history of her city. In doing this, she is experiencing flow: the satisfaction of working at a project which challenges her skills and fulfills her aspirations. I reflected that I have never had the privilege of enjoying the professional work I have done – which is, no doubt, why I prize my park-sittings-with-a-book so much. At her words, I felt a momentary pang of envy, and resolved, in the back of my mind, to listen more intently for any signs of the future project germinating within me. It would be good to experience flow for once.

Regarding Das Lied von der Erde


(Special Christmas Issue)


Of all of the world’s musical repertoire, the one work that feels most intimate to me is — very oddly, I admit — Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.  In part it is on account of the circumstances of my discovery of it, which took place in exile, in America:  I felt deeply unhappy there and the work’s minor key suited the mood.  More:  in the alien setting of the New World, Mahler’s music seemed to me a breath of the old, familiar ways of Mittel Europa:  an unapologetic assertion of high brow culture (elitist, arbitrary) and of the fundamental tragedy of life (depressing).  To assert both simultaneously in the setting of an American liberal art’s college with a victorious football team seemed the very perfection of defiance.

The tragic — perhaps even hysterical — mood of the song cycle also had a therapeutic effect: in it, Chinese poets spoke about their sadness, despair and longing in ways which were both familiar and safe:  familiar because I could recognize their feelings; safe because, after all, they were Chinese, on the other side of the planet, ten centuries ago: like a white man listening to Alabama Blues, I was cheered to know that others had had it much worse.

Perhaps, Das Lied von der Erde also played a role in the shaping of my future:  a fin-de-siecle Viennese work became my introduction to the literature of Tang Dynasty China.  Surely, Mahler’s song cycle has played some role in eventually turning one half of me into a sinologist.

Das Lied has remained with me since.  I listen to it irregularly, in spurts: in good times never, but in bad times — a great deal.  It has been with me through most crises of my adult life and through this association it has become encrusted with memories and meanings, acquiring a depth which it perhaps lacks for other ears.

Small wonder then that this website delights me.  It sets out to trace just how the original Chinese (Tang) poetry became, through a succession of French and German translations — or rather, shall we say, manipulations — the libretto which we know today.

Chew’s paper (linked to from the site, read it here) adds an interesting discussion of this process of translation/transformation.  Though his characterization of Chinese as syntactically loose is typical of the Edenic innocence of native speakers — (not having had to learn the rules of their own language, they imagine such rules do not exist) — everything he says about classical Chinese poetry as deliberately setting out to blow up syntax — in order to introduce greater ambiguity — is correct.  The 20th century turn in western poetry towards the inscrutable — including silly things like refusal to punctuate or capitalize (as Chinese does not) — is an attempt to move in the same direction: to multiply possible interpretations of the text by intentionally confusing meanings. Empson and Reckert* seem to argue as much.  No one has as yet suggested, though, surely, someone should have, that the movement is an imitation of the Tang.

On the other hand, the fact that the European translators of Tang poetry have chosen to infuse it with a burning hysteria which it does not have — the prevalent mood of the Chinese is one of meditative sadness; or to add — Hollywood-like — love interests where there weren’t any (in the Chinese original of Von der Schoenheit, for instance, there is no girl-boy thing, only the very aesthetic pretense of girls’ sadness at their flowers having been trampled by galloping horses) isn’t necessarily an East-West thing, as Chew suggests (i.e. of being untrained in the Buddhist world-view):  it’s just the matter of insufficiently sensitive esoteric antennae of the individuals involved.  Or, perhaps, should we say, of their emotional immaturity?  Adult Europeans can and do — from time to time — reflect on the fleeting emptiness of life.  We, too, can be saddened by trampled flowers.

Recently, a series of unfortunate events has made me revisit Das Lied.  This time I chose to do it differently — and train the full power of file-sharing on the question of interpretation:  I compared different performances — most of which have been unattainable prior to internet.  Some seventy hours of of house-shaking playback later, my chief finding is that Das Lied is easy to blow — and even the great ones, by and large, blow it, Fischer-Dieskau, included.  (Unbelievable!)  I suppose that the intense hysteria of the work creates a powerful temptation to slip into mannerism, to “pull out all stops” (“to charge”, as Polish actors say, meaning, of course, cavalry charge):  which misses the mark and turns the whole thing into a caricature.  Emotional intensity is hard to do well:  good actors know that in acting, the hardest scenes to do are those that involve shouting:  one has to learn how to shout, as it were, quietly.  As a result, my very first recording of Das Lied, (Klemperer, Wunderlich, Ludwig) remains the unapproachable paragon (even if one wishes Ludwig’s voice-coach had insisted on good diction more).

Perhaps this recording constitutes an argument in favor of Apostolic Succession? (Klemperer was Mahler’s student; he conducted Das Lied‘s world premiere, which was, from Mahler’s point of view, posthumous, making Old Otto a kind of Saint Peter).

As is the case with every return to a great classic, my attention this time was drawn to a new, formerly unnoticed aspect of the work. This time the lyrics of the first song, Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, seemed to jump out at me:

Ein voller Becher Weins zur rechten Zeit
Ist mehr wert, als alle Reiche dieser Erde!

Dunkel is das Leben, ist der Tod!

Das Firmament blaut ewig und die Erde
Wird lange fest stehen und aufblühn im Lenz.
Du aber, Mensch, wie lang lebst denn du?
Nicht hundert Jahre darfst du dich ergötzen!

(See full text and translation here).

While listening, I caught myself doing the math, surreptitiously:  I am indeed not likely to ergötzen myself a hundred years; but even 75 — let us say — leaves a vast stretch of time yet ahead of me: indeed, as long again as I have lived since reaching adulthood.  Plenty of time, then, right?  Further, during the first half of my adulthood (if I am to look at it that way) I have achieved a good deal; perhaps it’s OK to hope that as much yet may await me in the future?  And, while the main achievement of the first half of my adult life was to establish myself economically — earlier and better than most, perhaps — but at the inevitable expense of a lot of deferred satisfaction; the point of this deferral was, of course, that once I arrived at a certain level of comfort, I could stop deferring and — as they say in Detroit — put the pedal to the metal.  And, in a way, this has worked:  here I am on the cusp of the second half of my adult life, ready to party, and with the means to do so.

The future towards which I have been saving, then, is here.

Yet, how miserable the future turns out now that it has arrived!  I can barely walk, so the longed-for and long-deferred mountain expeditions will not in all likelihood be possible; desired women tell me that despite my age I am still attractive and that therefore other women (get it?) will surely fall for me; a bronchial condition means I have had to quit the evil weed; and a fatty liver — wine only sporadically and in moderation.  (Hence the significance of the Trinklied excerpt above:  sporadically does indeed place a serious limitation on one’s ability to enjoy a full beaker of wine at the right time!).  I now realize with consternation that of all the pleasures of my insufficiently sinful youth, I am left with the one I have always liked least — playing the markets!

Is this why I deferred satisfaction for all these years — only to discover that, when I am ready to have it, it is too late?  That I have missed the chance?

I have once written an essay on the third age of woman — the, let us say, 40-55:  the no-longer-nursing-mother but not yet crone.  In the essay, I deplored the absence of cultural role-models for that un-recognized (and longish) age in which women find themselves trapped directionless: an age in which the old models — the pleasures and methods of their youth — no longer work; and yet an age at which they are not yet dead, not yet ready — not yet resigned — to be no more than kindly and ineffectual grandmothers.  An age like mine today: in which the decline in appetites has not yet matched the decline in abilities. I wrote that essay with deep sense of pity, from the perspective of a somewhat younger age, when I still walked, and drank, and smoked, and when desired women were not necessarily different from the available ones .  I had no idea then how quickly — barely half a decade! — my own third age would come. I guessed it would, but I figured I had time to figure out how to deal with it by the time it did.

But here it is and — like all those women whose fate I once becried — I find myself unready.

Now, surely you must agree, Dunkel ist das Leben!


*(Serendipitously, Reckert’s languages are almost all mine).

In which he reveals that he speaks six and a half languages

Monolinguals ask frequently how many languages I speak and, when I say, “Six and a half”, they marvel which is the half. But languages aren’t like pregnancies – one’s either pregnant or she isn’t – but like dollars: it is possible to own various fractions of one. Just as one can have two dozens coins in his pocket and yet all those coins may all add up to but $3.25, so it is possible to command umpteen languages which yet may only add up to six and a half whole languages between them.

I speak four languages well: one English and one Polish; seven eights Chinese and three quarters Japanese. At the other extreme is my French, which I do not speak at all, though I read it fast without dictionary and can even make sense of it when it is spoken at conferences, especially by Italians. Somewhere in between these extremes lie the languages I speak badly: Russian, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Thai. Then there are languages like Latin, Sanskrit, Persian, and Indonesian of which, due to my interest in certain art-forms, I command large vocabulary without being able to as much as make a single sentence.

Of all these languages I like speaking Polish and Chinese most: they are extrovert languages and they require their speaker to be, above all, funny. Inter-personal contact in these languages is much easier, much less burdened with formalities and tabus than in others. I miss speaking them, and I delight in the rare opportunities I have to speak them. All Poles living abroad miss the experience of speaking Polish: there is a pleasure to just wielding the language which, I suppose, must be comparable to the pleasure of wielding the tennis racket.

To my ears, the prettiest of my languages is Japanese, though is not the most beautiful spoken language I have ever heard. That honor goes to Turkish – a language to which Japanese is related – which I heard for the first time in my life spoken by two beautiful women, in candlelight. It sounded to me like a crystal stream. My God, I exclaimed, what language are you two speaking? I am not sure how I have managed so far without having studied it at all. (Chinese spoken with Beijing accent can have this effect on me sometimes).

My spoken Japanese is often disorienting to my interlocutors: Japanese is gender-specific, meaning that men and women speak differently; my work experience in Japan was in a sales division of a media company, where I acquired a rough, masculine foundation, to which I then added the influence of the people I like speaking to most – women. When I speak in Japanese, I tend to mutate, like a shape-changer, before my interlocutors’ ears (so to speak) from male to female and back.

I speak Chinese with a strong Taiwanese accent; when I was traveling in Mainland China and calling ahead to reserve a room, I sometimes heard the clerks speaking to each other: “some Taiwanese guy’s on the line”. You should not mistake this for a sign of my great expertise in Chinese: Taiwanese, like most Chinese, speak Chinese badly.

My two Germanic languages give me the greatest sense of order: I find something immensely satisfying about the German sentence structure, with all its genders and cases, and its rigid sentence order. English, which has a similarly orderly sentence structure, I find to be the best medium in which to organize my thoughts; but I might perhaps be using German, if I only commanded it better. That I do not, no doubt, has a lot to do with the fact that I find practically everything Germans say uncongenial. Not wishing to hear their nonsense, I have limited my exposure to German, and hence, any prospect of real fluency in their language. It never ceases to amaze me that it is possible to use such a perfect language to express such stupid thoughts. On the other hand, it only amuses me to think that I use as my principal working and thinking medium the language of a people whom I find, as a rule, immensely dull – the Anglo-Saxons.

The hardest language I have ever studied was Thai. This must not be my finding alone: the number of westerners who speak Thai fluently can still be counted on the fingers of two hands; the reverse – Thais speaking good idiomatic English – is somewhat more common, but still none the less very rare. It isn’t so much a matter of grammar – I found much Thai grammar intuitively similar to Chinese – but phonetics: the combination of 18 vowels – 9 long and 9 short – and 5 tones creates a phonetic nightmare almost impossible to penetrate for a virgin adult mind. It didn’t help that I made an attempt to study Thai at the age of 43: our brains begin to cannibalize our language-acquisition apparatus around the time of puberty and the process leaves us with precious little by the time we’re in our forties. Which shows you that those who say that aging is all in the mind are right, only not in the way in which they imagine.

The two languages I would like to study, but know will never master in this lifetime, are Persian and Arabic. Persian, I think, is indisputably beautiful; listening to it gives me – almost – the same pleasure that listening to Turkish does. Many people might object to my characterization of Arabic as pretty, though I find its sound pleasing; but the main attraction of it for me is its fascinating grammar; there is also an autobiographical element to the pleasure: when I was 23, I resolved to learn a non-Indo-European language perfectly and, knowing that, given my age, and the time it takes to learn a language, I only had time for one, I hesitated between two languages with ancient literary traditions – Arabic and Chinese. At length, I chose Chinese, realizing fully that this meant giving up any hope of ever acquiring native-like fluency in Arabic. Though having learned Chinese has enriched me immensely, I often think wistfully of the language I had to sacrifice for its sake.

Unlike Chinese or Japanese, which cost me a lot of work to acquire, both my Italian and Portuguese came to me practically by osmosis: I arrived and started speaking. What I was speaking was at first, of course, Spanish, but as I went on I acquired vocabulary and, somehow, the Italian became Italian-like and the Portuguese Portuguese-like, all within a few months. Don’t tell the Portuguese this, but to my ears the European Portuguese is the least pleasing of my languages: I find its sound positively nasty and am always surprised how beautiful Portuguese can be whenever I overhear some Brazilians practically singing it.

Incidentally, I never planned to learn Portuguese. Having quickly figured out that I would never make any friends there, I have decided on the B strategy for the country: to be a respected (and respectful) guest, a tolerated stranger, without attachments or obligations there. Good morning, may I have a cup of coffee, what a nice day, eh, thank you very much, see you tomorrow is a safe conversation: it never leads to a debate; nor does not encourage anyone to borrow money. The language rubbed on me unawares; and I now find myself having to lie. Fala Portugues? They ask me. “No”, I say firmly, in English and — smile.

One of the more striking things one learns as one acquires languages – and therefore spends inordinate amount of time communicating in one or another language one has not yet acquired – is how much of the language is really not necessary at all. So much of what is spoken can be understood from the context, the gesture, the grimace, the eyes, the tone of voice: there really are just a limited number of possible inquiries individuals can address to each other – and an even more limited number of possible responses. In such situations, words are little more than a pretty soundtrack. Think also of all the words which would have been better left unspoken both in your own life – and throughout history, beginning with the 66 books of the Bible; and all the books which really did not need to be written; and all the blog entries – including this one.