classical arts

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.

Bernstein on American music, or misunderstanding the high and the low art

Bernstein’s NBC/ABC series of talks on classical music contains some observations on American music: he praises Jazz and American Comedy Musical because he thinks both are truly American, not just a poor copy European music; and, he adds less convincingly that both are a future art-music in embryonic form.

What is striking about these views is how incongruous they are with the man: by the time he gave these talks Leonard Bernstein was already internationally renowned as a leading interpreter of European classical music. In other words, he was a living example that an American can become an authentic practitioner of an European art – and living disproof of the view, so frequently expressed by American nationalist theoreticians, that Americans practicing European art can only be ridiculous – poor caricatures of European artists because the art is somehow not native to them.

The thorough and complete badness of the idea that an art not only can be, but indeed must be native to a people (Fichte?) is established beyond all doubt by the horrible quality of the output of all the nationalist schools of nineteenth century opera, which were all motivated by the same (American-style) chip on the shoulder: “until we have our own opera, we are not the equals of the Italians!” The idea is profoundly philistine — “Why do we consume Italian opera? We are Czechs!” — as if what mattered in Italian opera was Italian. The truth is opposite: Italian opera is great because it is good opera. Opera lovers love it because it is good opera. Good opera travels, it knows no boundaries, Japanese and Turks listen to it, because it is good opera, not because it is Italian. (By contrast, the totality of nineteenth century nationalist opera not only does not travel — it’s not even appreciated in its own milieu!)

Likewise, Bernstein’s pious prayer that out of the American pop music a great art music might one day evolve is silly: high brow art does not grow out of pop – yes, it can borrow the pop scales, or rhythmic structures, or a pop melody sometimes (Chopin did — twice) but these are NOT the reasons why the high brow art is great. A sine-qua-non condition for a great high brow art to arise is the artist’s decision to make a departure, a break away, a secession from pop art.

Upon analysis, it seems that the reason why Bernstein defended Jazz and the American Musical Comedy (backhand: by declaring them as potential future sources of great art) is that they were – American. He thought them somehow authentically native and therefore, as a good patriot, felt that they needed defending. Somehow, in his eyes, to condemn American pop art would be to condemn America. Ergo, in order to defend America, pop art must be defended.

This attitude – a kind of national cultural insecurity – is the source of the more recent theories of pop and high brow art emanating – again – from America, which insist that there is no difference between the two kinds of art except for the concept of gate-keeping (in brief, the theory is this: a gate-keeper – a figure of authority – a Louis XIV say – says “this is high brow, this is good, everything else is bad” and thereby establishes high brow, like paper currency, by fiat). You can clearly see the thinking: if pop is American, then America must be pop, and therefore it cannot be admitted that pop is bad.

This is all nonsense, and dangerous nonsense, too. The truth is that for people like myself – for us, the practitioners of the high brow – there is only one fatherland, and it is neither America, nor the Czech Republic, but — high brow art itself. Whether it speaks in Italian or twangs in Dixie does not matter a whit. To say that it does, in the name of some local tribalism, is not just false, it is dangerous in the same way in which a misdiagnosis of health and disease is dangerous: keep misdiagnosing the patient, and you will surely kill him.

Godowsky, McPhee and Classical Musics

Godowsky’s Java Suite in a way misses the point. The pianist/ Chopinist/ composer Godowsky travelled in the 1920’s to Java – and his trip proves the adage: travel does not broaden the mind. A new, exotic environment makes it is easy for an artists to be distracted by the surface phenomena — monkeys, banana trees, white beaches, topless women — the stuff of mass tourism — and try to turn that into art; but this is facile exoticism: there is no new language, no new structure, no new sound — at most a handful of textures, which soon become hackneyed, like the sound of the shamisen in a western movie sundtrack whenever a Japanese character enters the stage: the art itself, the idiom remains unchanged.

Indeed, contact with exotic novelty misleads the traveler:  strong impressions help convince him, falsely, that he is actually learning something. It takes more time than most travelers have, and, who knows, perhaps it takes special mental powers, too, to move beyond the surface exoticism and see underneath, deeper: to see the difficult stuff, the the brainy stuff, as a Javanese would say — “the invisible kingdom”: the classical arts of the place. 

When I set out looking for Godowsky’s Java Suite I was hoping for something along the lines of McPhee’s Tabu-tabuhan at least — a truly Indonesian composition, which would have told me that Godowsky heard and understood the method; but, really, secretly — dared I hope it? — for more:  the Holy Grail: a new synthesis:  a new kind of reflection on the nature of classical music as such – now that he has seen it from a new perspective, from a new angle, in a new light. I didn’t find it: the music was essentially the same old Godowsky as always with a few gamelan accents.  As per formula:  enter the Javanese character — clang! go the gamelan.


Are different classical musics – like different religions are sometimes said to be — different routes to the same end?

Yes.  But the end is not a metaphysical entity, only a mental state.  Like relaxation is achieved through massage consisting of a set of manipulative techniques executed in a certain order, the classical rapture is achieved through a set of tricks executed in a certain combination — tricks like sonority, melody and its transformations, modulation of keys, variations, structural complexity, development and resolution.  Certain combinations of tricks have been found to produce the effect; true classical music is therefore a kind of… methodology. It is not clear that by borrowing elements from different methodologies a new one can be produced — either as effective, or — what is always the great white hope — more so. The possibility of successful fusion of different classical musics is yet to be demonstrated.

An analogy comes to mind: a sensible way for cars to get places is for all to drive on the left; or for all to drive on the right; but not for all to compromise (blend, fuse) by… driving in the middle.