November 1, 2012 Comments Off on Bluebeard

Bluebeard, on the other hand, is a play about a different kind of misunderstanding:  a younger person (Judith) nosing about the private record of an older one (her new husband’s past):  what she discovers terrifies her.  Rightly or wrongly?  It is hard to say:  some people really do have dark secrets; but often what is a secret only seems dark because the discoverer does not know all the facts, or does not have the personal experience which might allow him or her to be a good judge.  In my personal life, I have always preferred not to open closed doors:  on the theory that if what is behind is really important, my partners will eventually tell me about it, and if it is not important, then I don’t need/care to know.  But this is a kind of wisdom which only comes with age — if at all.  Perhaps also it comes more easily to the self-confident:  fear scurries in search of hidden facts, but contentment is content to let things alone.  A lesson in wisdom, perhaps, but one that cannot really be taught.


The dissatisfaction of literature

October 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

Having settled in a beautiful and convenient but boring place — with no museums, or performing arts worth mentioning — I set about reading with the intention of catching up on the backlog of literature.  I have read piles of science, philosophy, history, and art; literature, I felt, was now the major remaining mountain of knowledge needing to be conquered.

Alas, it will remain unconquered.

With very few exceptions I am finding reading literature a dull and depressing experience:  literary authors simply do not know enough about life (spending all day writing prevents them from living — they are as unknowledgeable about life as every other desk-bound full-time employee); nor do they have the theoretical foundations which stem from rigorous acquisition of facts.  Their lack of insight is glaring; their life theories naive; their psychology, for the most part, wishful thinking.  Except for some deft story telling techniques (fancy language, beautiful metaphor, a sudden narrative switcharoo) I find little reward in literature; and what I find is too weak a reward for the time spent reading.

So, I have changed my project and turned to music.  I now spend hours listening (intently) to music.

The theory of evolution predicts that different brain-mutations must exist within the human population. The pomo debate illustrates it.

October 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

Foreign languages add perspective: sometimes they let you see something that should otherwise be obvious but in your own language remains occluded by customary usage.  A Polish pomo debate (here) turns out useful in just this way, casting new light on the entire pomo debate:  not because of what the poster said (after all, what she said was the usual attack by one of us on what we perceive as nonsensical statements emanating from pomo:  nothing new in that, we already know pomo is nonsense) but because of something one of the pomo-defenders said in the discussion section:  “It is OK to be critical of pomo, but why castigate it?” (Można krytykować ale po co zaraz zjeżdżać?)

Because Polish debate usage allows this kind of friendly appeal to sense of fair-play, it also allows the appealing side to expose itself.  In this case, the defender reveals that he thinks that the the attacker’s act of holding up a pomo statement to ridicule as pure nonsense is an act of “castigation”.  He thinks that because, either:

— the defender does not think the statement in question is nonsense;


— he admits that it is nonsense but thinks nonsense is perfectly admissible in debate.

Whichever is the case, the defender does not think what we think:  that nonsense offends.

This raises an interesting question:  why does nonsense offend us and not them?  I feel that the correct explanation must be architecture of the mind.  We simply have different heads.  Our model of CPU does not allow certain kinds of computing, while theirs does.  The result is mutual incomprehension.

This is as it should be:  the theory of evolution predicts the existence of different minds: if the human mind is the result of evolution, it is the result of the rise of mutations and competition between them.  If the human mind has not somehow magically stopped evolving but continues to do what it has done for the past two million years, then different mind-mutations must exist within the population.  And they do:  the pomo debate illustrates it.

To turn out good films (or novels) one has to take time to experience and digest, i.e. stop writing (or filming)

October 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Il regista di matrimoni on the other hand, despite some beautiful eye candy, and some delightful oddities (Bellocchio’s films are placed somewhat in the direction of the the Manuel de Oliveira/Raoul Ruiz corner of the realism/surrealism spectrum), disappoints.  It seems an immutable principle of art that whenever an aging movie director makes a film about an aging movie director (or an aging novelist about an aging novelist) the resulting work must needs be dull.  The autobiographical details of the lives of productive artists, unlike the autobiographical details of mercenaries or gangsters or entrepreneurs, are just not terribly interesting:  sitting and writing all day does no more to develop an interesting character than turning out a movie a year, and precisely as much as any other job.  And if you trust pornographic websites, far less than the job of a librarian (or a nurse).  I suppose the sad truth is that no one has 40 good films in him (except perhaps Ozu); good directors (like Kubrick) know this and don’t mind producing a film every decade.  To turn out good films (or novels) one has to take time to experience and digest, i.e. stop writing (or filming).

A great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft

September 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Without seeing Glenn Gould’s 37 pages of notes on Kusa Makura (Three-cornered world) 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. (I do not believe the two can 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?  (“A great literary work can encompass a visual masterpiece only if it radiates the same moral truth” says Damian Flanagan, but does he know what that means?)  Did he think the work really accurately represented the process of the creation of a work of art?

All these ideas are tired 19th century claptrap and only bore and exhaust someone like me who believes 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 other wise truth, and everything to do with technique; that it need not describe or discuss or reveal human feelings at all; and who does not believe that a great artist either is or needs to be spiritually different from “most people” (which the novel repeatedly claims).  GIGO, say computer specialists, meaning “garbage in garbage out”, i.e. that starting out from false first principles can only lead to false conclusions:  what wonder we have the art theory — and the art — we do if we started out with all that nonsense?

But there is an extraordinary beauty to several sections of the novel, and the 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 us with profound sadness on the one hand and the urge to reflect on absolutely everything, the way Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus do.  That it represents a universal scene — the departure of a soldier — has more to do with its impact than one is at first inclined to believe.

Nastume Soseki, Kusamakura: matter of a single image, a very few words

September 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

“She had tied the red obi around her waist with a simplicity which suggested a young girl’s indifference as to whether or not it enhanced her charms. Carrying an old fashioned taper in her hand, she had led me to the bathhouse now this way now that, around the bend after bend along what appeared to be passageways, and down flights of stairs. In front of me all the time were that same obi and that same taper, and it seemed as though we were going along the same passage and down the same staircase again and again. Already I had the feeling of being a painted figure moving along on a canvass.”

Natsume Soseki, Kusa Makura (The three-cornered world), III, 40-41

Kusamakura is an introspective novel. The first chapter is indicative of the rest: it starts with the sentence: “Going up a mountain track, I feel to thinking” and the rest are the hero’s thoughts. This is a very attractive structure for someone like me – more interested in the internal life of men than in what actually happened (the action is always the same – she wants him, but she does not want her back, or the other way around).

The thoughts themselves are rather disappointing: they illustrate the disappointing effects of the lack of training in rigorous thinking in all humanist curriculae; and even if the total lack of familiarity with recent advances in psychology and cognitive science are forgivable (after tall the book was written in 1906), the most serious problem with all these introspections is that the novel describes the internal life of a man of around 30. Think about it:  when is the last time someone aged 30 has had anything interesting to say to you?

Yet, to me, reading Kusa Makura has been a remarkable experience — and this entirely on the strength of the passage I quote above. The hero arrives at a remote guesthouse in the mountains; it is night-time; and the maid – the sole person in the whole house as far as he can tell – is taking him to the mineral bath somewhere deep in the bowels of the house. This image – the red obi, the taper, the going down and down endless narrow passages and stairways in the moving globe of flickering light and the altered state of mind of having entered a painting. There is much reflection on painting in the book, but this is the only one that matters: yes, there is that state of mind one enters into when looking at paintings, a moment of endlessly suspended time.

It is almost as if the entire novel – all those pages, all those chapters – were needed only to provide the setting for that single image, like all that twisty metal which holds the one object of any worth, the jewel.  Much art is that way: the slow, repetitive, mesmerizing overture is needed to put the audience in the mood, to sensitize them, so that they may be ready to receive what you have to tell them.

Which may well be a matter of a single image, a very few words.

Tanizaki — a man transformed by his wife

September 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Not liking Tanizaki is not difficult if you read what is available in English.  I didn’t like him myself until I began to read him in Japanese.  The good stuff simply is not being translated.

Tanizaki’s biography in great abbreviation is this:  he came from a very poor, very humble, very uncultured background in Tokyo, and, having received at home no cultural values worth holding onto [scraping for a living leaves little time for cultural pursuits], began his literary career as westernizing, iconoclastic, somewhat pornographic — a typical directionless youth getting his rocks off on the notions of “modernity” and being up to date”.  Some prefer nettles gives us a picture of what young Tanizaki was like:  the hero — devoid if internal life as far as we can tell — divorces largely because to do so is “modern”.  (i.e. He does his bit for the modernization country). (A kind of combed and manicured Henry Miller/Jack Kerouac).

But his third wife — who came from an old, moneyed, cultured Osaka family — changed all that.  She introduced him to a new world, a world he had never suspected existed:  to the beautiful (and sometimes infuriating) ritual complexities of the life of the Osaka merchant upper-class, their elaborate language and customs, and their passion for classical Japanese arts.  Under her tutelage, Tanizaki moved to Kyoto, learned to speak with Western dialect, and to understand and appreciate classical arts.  From his second wife he learned to be a different Japanese, the sort of traditional cultivated man-of-letters he otherwise would never have stood a chance of becoming.  In a sense, he wrote Makioka sisters to celebrate this transformation:  the book is not only about his wife’s family, but also about one branch of it moving (temporarily) to Tokyo — which gives him a way to look back at and comment on his earlier life.

The Tanizaki writings I treasure most are his late essays [he calls them novels] — Yoshinokuzu, Ashikari — many of which are kind of travelogues with an antiquary interest, somewhat standoffishly contain untranslated quotations from the classics, and are full of insightful, often wittily encoded, comments on art, history, culture, and — life.  Reading them is deeply satisfying…  work.  Critics generally consider them a sign of declining literary powers — perhaps because they prefer action, or because they are generally uninterested in the internal life of cultured men (dumbest action beats wisest thought any time of day), or because they themselves find them hard going (who reads bungo well these days?).

Translators follow the critics and give us mostly the youthful Tanizaki, the rather uninteresting, somewhat confused man inclined to titillate or provoke in order to disguise the fact that he has nothing to say. And this is the man you read.

PS.  I’m wrong:  Ashikari at least has been translated into English (and published in 1932).  So don’t fault translators.  Publishers?  Or whoever else is responsible for deciding what stays in print/discussed/public eye?

PPS.  A witness to the profound change brought about in him by his third wife: Tanizaki says somewhere that, were there to be a “complete works” edition of his works, he would not include his early novels in it, since he no longer considered them as “his own”.

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