Japan

Reading Soseki: a great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft

Without seeing Glenn Gould’s 37 pages of notes on Kusa Makura (Three-cornered world) — the book became something of an obsession for him — it is hard to guess what it was that he loved about it.  Did he like the reflections on the similarities and differences of poetry and painting?  (But Lessing’s Laocoon has already made it amply plain that nothing interesting can be said about the matter:  the two can not be any more usefully or meaningfully compared than recreational swimming and differential equations can).  Did he believe in the existence of moral or artistic truth?  (But what on earth is an “artistic truth”?)  Or did Gould really think the work accurately represented the process of the creation of a work of art? (I find it unconvincing, probably because Soseki was not a painter and therefore had no clue what he was writing about).  

All of Kusa makura‘s hero’s reflections on art are 19th century claptrap and can only bore and exhaust someone like me who knows that a great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft; that great art has nothing to do with moral truth, or artistic truth, or any otherwise truth, but everything to do with technique; that it need not describe or discuss or reveal human feelings at all only manipulate successfully the human cognitive system; and who, like me, does not believe that a great artist either is or needs to be spiritually different from “most people” (which the novel repeatedly claims, “as an artist I am more sensitive” etc.).  GIGO (“garbage in garbage out”) describes the meditations of Kusa makura rather well:  starting out from false first principles one can only arrive at nonsense conclusions. It describes our modern art theory, too:  what wonder we have the art we do given that we had started out with all that nonsense?

Soseki’s meditations on art aside, several sections of the novel are extraordinarily beautiful, and its last chapter is absolutely breathtaking.  In English, this beauty owes as much to the translator (Alan Turney) as it does to the original:  much of it is verbal; consider how beautifully this poem is translated:

Your obi worked loose and flutters in the breeze,
But once again ’tis for pretence and not spring’s passion it unwinds.
The maker’s name, though woven into silk,
Is, like your heart, unreadable.

But there is also that special je ne se quoi aspect of it — that it infuses the reader with a profound sadness on the one hand and on the other urges him to out the book down and reflect.  (Magic Mountain has the same effect and, not surprisingly, it was Gould’s other most favorite novel).  That the chapter portrays a universal archetype — the departure of a soldier — has more to do with its impact than one is at first inclined to believe.

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What happened to Nagai’s maki-e pipe holder

On September 1, 1939, the day Hitler invaded Poland, on the other side of the globe, in far away Tokyo, Nagai Kafu, a scion of a Japanese feudal family and a great man of letters, wrote in his diary:  “Glory to the land of Chopin and Sienkiewicz!”  On the day Paris fell, he was so depressed, he said, he could not eat nor sit at home.  He went out for a walk, wondering aimlessly through the city.  He returned home to listen to Debussy’s Oratorio of San Sebastian from an old vinyl record.  In the city, public support for the military was visible — “somehow, inexplicably, people like this garbage”, Kafu wrote in his journal.  “What nonsense, though!  In the name of serving the Japanese spirit, women must not perm their hair; and men are to have just one, government-prescribed style of haircut.  Haircuts bother them, but not the piles of garbage in the streets, not the stink of the polluted river!  What kind of brains do these people have?  It is OK for our streets to be littered with garbage because we beat the Chinese again today?”  Like the US government several years earlier, the Japanese government banned private ownership of gold.  All gold in public possession was to be reported and would eventually be bought up by the government at officially set rates.  Nagai took whatever gold he had — among the items his favorite maki-e pipe holder with a gold mouthpiece; and several tobacco pouches woven from gold-thread — “I used to really get into this silly stuff when I was a kid and had quite a few of them made” — wrapped them in paper and pitched them in the river.  “No gold of mine for these bastards”, he wrote.  “They tell us there is this thing called The Japanese Spirit which is so incredibly different from everything else that it is totally different and we must not mix it with anything else.  So why on earth are we mixing ourselves with the Germans and the Italians?”  That night he read in bed Salammbo.


Set of Maki-e Boxes, Gulbenkian

Japanese, 19th century.

The maki-e decoration technique consists in applying multiple thin layers of Japanese black lacquer, drying it in an oven, then polishing it to high gloss, then applying the next layer — usually, about 30 times or so to get the right smoothness and gloss. For decoration gold dust of various sizes, and sometimes gold leaf, is applied to a layer, then painted over, then polished until it becomes visible again.

Gulbenkian owns what is probably the world’s best collection of these marvels.

Each of the two boxes in this set is approximately 15 cm long, 12 cm tall and 8 cm wide. Each is completely covered with landscape decoration, including the sides of the miniature drawers.


In which he explains why Sei Shonagon is occasionally driven to drink

(Today at last I began reading The Pillow Book in the original — above).

The story explaining how The Pillow Book begun is this: the chancellor has gifted two bound sets of exquisite paper to the imperial couple: one to the emperor and one to the empress. Predictably, the emperor has promptly announced that he will use his to write a shiki — a historical chronicle in Chinese, which is precisely what could be expected of such a person at such a time. “What should we use ours for?”, asked the empress of her favorite lady in waiting, whose learning and pen-skills made her the go-to person in matters of literature.

“Why, let us make a pillow of it,” replied Sei Shonagon, probably laughing, and scholars have disagreed ever since about what she may have meant. A play on words, goes a typical theory, shiki being both a) a chronicle and b) a part of the saddle, makura being both a) a pillow and b) a horses head-dress; and the whole utterance thus meaning “let us do one better”; and illustrates the surprising point that scholars — Sei Shonagists, no less! — are no better at understanding Mrs Sei than the rest of the human race.

Why do scholars not understand Sei Shonagon? The claim that times change, and we change with them, and therefore no one can understand history and/ or the men of the past — seems an excuse with which to cover up some kind of severe cognitive shortcoming, a mental handicap, a congenital lack of a Sei Shonagon Decoder: surely, if I can understand Sei Shonagon, anyone should?

Let me parse this one for the scholars:  the emperor is a kind, beautiful man, whom Mrs Sei loves dearly (as we know from other passages), but, although his decision to write shiki is certainly commendable, no one will, or ever should, read what he will write, certainly not all of it.  Therefore, in order to match him, the court ladies might as well use their notebook for a pillow.

(Or a door stopper).

In short, dear scholars, Mrs Sei is poking fun at his majesty.  (As Beatrice is of Benedick when she promises to eat everything he kills).

What makes this utterance — and all of Sei Shonagon’s utterances — so delicious, is what makes it unimpeachable:  its double — even triple — entendre, none of it, in this case, sexual:  the remark is funny also because as women, and therefore, in the minds of men (i.e. on the emperor’s side of the palace) stupid — and lazy — the empress’s ladies in waiting would be expected to do precisely something like use the notebook for a pillow.  At any rate, given what they might produce if they attempted to write something, in Sei Shonagon’s opinion, they really ought to use it for a pillow.

This utterance — shall we make it into a pillow? — is typical of Sei Shonagon diction.  It is surprising how few of her readers understand it, and puzzling why this should be the case, but explains why her bitter competitor, Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the easy to understand Tale of Genji (with plenty of romance and psychology) has ever outsold Sei Shonagon about 1200:1.

And also why, on occasion, as David Stoner reports (in a drawing, below), Mrs Sei is driven to drink.


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.