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.
Why I do not read contemporary literature was actually explained a few years before my birth by a Polish literatus in exile, Jerzy Stempowski:
One hot summer when I was still a very young boy I read, one after the other, all of Shakespeare’s plays. This incident had a decisive influence on all my subsequent reading, indeed, perhaps on many other later choices and decisions: “Take this rod and measure the Temple and all those who pray within it”, says the Apocalypse and the rod was now in my hands. From now I rejected without mercy all books which seemed to me worse than Troilus and Cressida. I was thus adopting, perhaps somewhat too naively, one of the oldest criteria used by those who care for their reading: something quite similar can be found in a letter of Horace to Pisones: “What does not reach for the summit, falls into the abyss”.
This is not difficult. With a bit of practice one can learn to tell almost immediately, and mostly unerringly, whether a given book can possibly contain even one page of Shakespeare’s class. For my personal needs this was entirely sufficient. I have read many books which almost no one knows, but I have to admit that — having stubbornly resisted almost all writers of my time — I remain an ignoramus in the matters of literature. (…) It is clear that my method cannot play any role in today’s literary life.
What Stempowski means is that today’s literary life — meaning authors, critics, publishers and readers — do not apply the Troilus Test and are happy to contend themselves with less. The really important standard is activity: what sells, what is read, what is discussed. Literary life is a kind of group activity wherein the activity itself is valued because it takes place, not because it is in any way good or useful or interesting or wise, but because it involves the group. It happens to concern books, but, one gets the impression that it might equally concern bum-rapping or spitting and catching or whatever else it is that everyone agreed to do at the same time: people will go over and join in simply because others already have.
This is well captured by a rejection letter from editor received some time ago by Michael Hoffman:
“[Yours] is a well-written, good novel, but unfortunately it falls into that now defunct category, mid-list.” She concluded with this advice: “Please, please write for the market, and that means you must read, read, read current successful novels.”
No wonder Michael has decided to self-publish: if my job required me to read the work of contemporary successful novels, I would have to quit because, well, there is no way in hell anyone can compel me to read more than three pages of Iris Murdoch.
What is not the absolutely best, is without value. Nagai says something similar in his diaries somewhere: by the 1930’s he’d stopped reading his contemporaries entirely, devoting himself to the rereading of the classics instead, judging justly that there isn’t much point reading a new thing by Iris Murdoch when one can re-read Troilus and Cressida.
This parallel between a Polish political exile in Switzerland and a Japanese internal exile in Tokyo should not surprise: both men belonged to a class best called dilettante erudite, who spent their lives traveling, learning, reading, thinking and debating — but debating always in ways careful to avoid academic punctiliousness. This class has not survived WW2; but already between the wars it was in serious decline. Now that they are gone for good, so are the kind of books they might write or deign to read.
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.