Monday, 20 February 2017

Natsume Soseki: Literary Revolutionary or "Ego" Maniac?


I've noticed I am sometimes cited in articles about the great Japanese author Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) - particularly in this, the 150th anniversary of his birth. Last month there was an article about the Soseki android which quoted me in connection with Soseki's experiences in London and last week Nippon.com ran a lengthy feature and I was referred to as a proponent of Soseki on the world stage.

It's always nice to get a mention in these pieces, but I have to slightly shake my head at the way, in pieces originally written in Japanese, all the tropes about Soseki being a writer obsessed with "egoism" and striving to transcend "self-centredness" in his final works are often repeated.

The article on Nippon.com about Soseki ("Japan's Foremost Modern Novelist") - translated from Japanese into English, French, Russian and Spanish (there have been 1800 shares in Spanish alone) - firmly tells you that he was an author obsessed with "egoism". What it should tell you is that the Japanese - struggling with their Confucian traditions - are fascinated with the subject of "egoism" and project their own obsessions onto their "readings" of Soseki.

What "egoism" means in this context is that Soseki is treated as the embodiment of traditional self-sacrificing Japanese values attempting to come to terms with the rampant individualism of Europe and America whose influence was sweeping across Japan in the early 20th century. Soseki in other words is meant to offer a quintessentially agonized "Japanese" response to "Western" self-centred modernity.

I used to regard this "reading" of Soseki as the hopelessly antiquated perspective of conservative, unimaginative commentators from 50 years ago, bolstered by bureaucrats at the Japanese Ministry of Education determined to foist their old-fashioned Confucian values on the populace at all costs.

In the youthful enthusiasm of my thirties, I was determined to show how banal such ideas were. Soseki was in fact, I fervently argued, a literary revolutionary and a radical - his literary genius lay in the fact that he synthesized the cutting edge psychological ideas of William James with the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and the satire of Swift and Sterne. He was fascinated by the connections between dream, memory and our perception of the present; between the ways visual art and literature interconnect; he wished to apply the latest scientific and sociological theories to literature.

I even published a couple of books in Japanese, "The Natsume Soseki the Japanese Don't Know" (pictured right) and "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" to show that the prevailing Japanese notions of Soseki being obsessed with "egoism" and "self-centredness" were nonsense. And, predictably, they sank almost without trace... At about the same time, the Korean-Japanese writer Kang Sang-jung published a book about Soseki called "The Power of Wavering". It sold over a million copies. Its theme? Soseki was a writer obsessed with egoism...

These days, older and wiser, rather than seeing the whole "Soseki and egoism" trope as a nefarious plot of the conservative establishment, I simply recognize it as something which has deep appeal in Japan.

Soseki was a highly intellectual writer, hugely well-read and channelling diverse Western influences as well as numerous Japanese and Chinese influences (rakugo comic monologues, Noh theatre, haiku and Chinese poetry among them). In Japan his career is usually described as having two movements: a "humorous" early phase (1904-1908) that encompassed comedies such as "Botchan" and "I am a Cat"; and a second "serious" phase from 1909 to 1916 which covers his supposed "egoism" obsession culminating in such works as "The Wayfarer" and "Kokoro".

In fact, looked at another way, the chief characteristic of Soseki's early phase is not so much "humour" as an obsessive contemplation of the connections between visual and literary art; and the chief characteristic of the second phase is a wrestling with German philosophical ideas. But for the general readership in Japan - largely unfamiliar with the mostly British art and German philosophy that Soseki was contemplating - it's not surprising that those works become "read" in an entirely different fashion.

"Egoism" is a subject of keen interest in Japan, particularly when they think of the Meiji era, when Japan was opening itself up to Western influences. In the previous Edo period, the age of the "samurai" (literally, "one who serves"), the ideal had been to give yourself up in devotion to your feudal lord. But in the social revolution of the Meiji era (1868-1912), completely new Westernized concepts of "self" were created. Soseki has become enshrined in Japan as the author who contemplates the perils of this modern "egoism".

Naturally, as a man of the Meiji era, Soseki does indeed, on occasion, touch upon these subjects such as in his public talk "My Individualism" (1914). But in most of his novels "egoism" is no more an accurate description of his subject than applying it pointlessly to any author would be (Is "Hamlet" a study in "egoism"? Is "Moby Dick"? Or "Don Quixote"?)

My point here is not to argue the toss about a specific interpretation of Soseki but to show how certain cultures perceive particular writers in often bizarrely fixed terms. We are I think always aware that if we read a writer in translation then we miss many of the nuances and flavour of the original, and that is surely true. But we also tend to think that the nation from which a writer has sprung is likely to have far greater insight into him or her than amateurish interlopers from overseas. Yet the reality is that when you read the critical "readings" of the Japanese on Soseki - while they are superlative on untangling Japanese influences - they often throw far more light on the nature of the Japanese themselves than they actually offer insight on Soseki.

When I published my books in Japanese on Soseki, I would be amused to read online discussions along the lines of "Can foreigners actually understand Soseki?" The acute irony is that a writer like Soseki - steeped in so many ways in Western culture and philosophical thought - is one that the Japanese themselves have the greatest difficulty in fully understanding.

But the broader point is to always bear in mind that national perceptions of authors are necessarily limited. Shakespeare has had a far more thrilling and diverse career in Germany, Japan and countries around the world than he has ever had in Britain. One of the most unfortunate tendencies of recent years (perhaps under the fear of "cultural appropriation") is that foreign authors are often introduced in stilted introductions by someone from the culture from which they sprang. Such notions - sincere in intention - are deeply mistaken.

By all means aspire to read authors in their native tongues and listen to what the critical consensus on them in their homeland is. But also do not forget to apply the utmost scepticism to such "readings".

In this anniversary year, there have been a variety of events, writing competitions and newspaper features which aspire to project Soseki as a "world author". Yet too often this "world-wide projection" is perceived in terms of translation into foreign languages and comparison of Soseki with other great world writers as a point of national pride. A far harder concept for the Japanese to grasp is to understand how their traditional readings of Soseki might be, well, mis-readings. The "globalization" of an author consists not just in exporting indigenous critical ideas, but in the homeland having the courage to revise their own traditions and let go of the concept of "ownership" of even their most-beloved national author.




Thursday, 16 February 2017

The Pre-Raphaelite Dreams of L S Lowry


I'm a fan of the Mancunian painter L S Lowry (1887-1976) - famous for his depiction of grim, industrial scenes inhabited by matchstalk-like, working class figures ("Going to Work" (1943) pictured above, Common Domain) - and quite often take visitors to the Lowry Art Gallery in Salford. I've consequently walked through the exhibition of Lowry's works, and sat through the film of Lowry's life, on many occasions.

Yet there are many conundrums about Lowry which continue to rattle around my mind. One of these is the fact that Lowry - who worked as a rent collector, lived with his mother and had throughout his life no sexual relationships - used to keep on his bedroom wall the luscious painting "Proserpine" (1873-77, pictured below, Common Domain), a portrait of voluptuous Jane Morris, by Rossetti. On the surface, it would seem that Lowry's art - unflinching about ugliness and unadorned - was a rejection of everything that the work of the Pre-Raphaelites - sumptuous, unworldly and romantic - stood for. Yet Lowry deeply loved that art.


It's hard to exaggerate how besotted Lowry was with the Pre-Raphaelites. When he acquired wealth in the latter part of his life in the 1950s and 1960s, Lowry began buying Rossetti originals and eventually owned twelve of them, which adorned the living room, stairs and bedroom of his home. (A version of "Pandora" he owned sold long after his death for £2.6 million.) He also founded and became president in 1966 of the exclusive Rossetti Society: members were required to own a Rossetti.

We tend to think of "influence" as meaning either a conscious imitation of another's work or an equally strong reaction to it. Yet it is hard to untangle the impact of the beautiful world of the Pre-Raphaelites in the grim visions of L S Lowry. Was it that he kept this world of beauty and longed-for sexual loveliness as a treasure in his inner heart while painting a bleak reality that was the exact opposite? Rather than seeing his treasuring of Rossetti as an inner contradiction, were these paintings talismanic props that allowed him to be so unromantic and unflinching in his own work?

But the other week by chance my 7-year-old daughter participated in a school assembly about Lowry which presented a fact which was new to me and made me sit up. Lowry had not, as I carelessly assumed, grown up in the working class areas that he later painted, but in the declining, still-beautiful suburb of Victoria Park in Manchester, filled with splendid Victorian mansions. (Lowry himself lived in modest circumstances amongst them). I was startled to discover that Lowry had grown up only about 200 metres from where my own office is located.

On this same street lived for a period (1883-87) the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown, a painter who impinged on Lowry's consciousness above all others. Lowry claimed that as a child of five he had been taken to see Brown working on the Manchester Murals in Manchester Town Hall and he always claimed Brown as the painter he most admired. (Lowry, it should be pointed out, had a wide and deep interest in art history, was very knowledgeable about French Impressionism having been tutored by Pierre Adolphe Valette, but also owned the works of contemporary artists like Lucian Freud and Jacob Epstein, and admired Magritte.)

Lowry must have walked past most days Brown's former dwelling, the once-handsome Addison Terrace (pictured above, Wikicommons), and later hung in his own home a copy of Brown's famous painting "Work" (pictured below, one of the originals is in Manchester Art Gallery).


The imaginative universe of Lowry's youth was therefore informed by these Pre-Raphaelite painters, whose works were so esteemed at the end of the Victorian period and which filled the city's art gallery. The Pre-Raphaelites would later be bitterly attacked and derided for living in an ivory tower and blinding themselves to the industrial world around them, preferring to live in a medieval idyll. But more reasonably considered, the Pre-Raphaelites wished to create a counterpoint of beauty to what the poet Blake famously described as the "dark, satanic mills".

Manchester Art Gallery was a rapturous, beautiful inner sanctum that transported you away from vistas of Dickensian bleakness and Lowry carried this influence into his later life and recreated this balance, between the beauty of the paintings on his walls and the bleakness of the canvases in his studio, within his own home.

But that does not I think quite explain the enduring influence of the Pre-Raphaelites on L S Lowry. As a young man Lowry had himself attempted to draw pretty pictures of some of Manchester's grand buildings. He must have felt considerably intimidated by the technical skill of beloved masters like Ford Madox Brown and it was only when he turned to painting industrial scenes that he finally found his own "voice".

The fact that Lowry kept within his own home Brown's painting "Work" - a rare depiction of working class labourers in the aesthetic dreams of the Pre-Raphaelites - shows that "influence" is most properly understood not so much in terms of conscious imitation or rejection, but rather in finding the seeds in something we love which will allow our own unique talent to germinate and flourish.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Walls, Guns and Gates: How the US and Japan Construct Their Different Senses of "Homeland Security"


You may have noticed that there has been an awful lot of comment of late about the coast-to-coast wall the new American president is planning on building along the Mexican border. Just about anyone who has ever had a wall has weighed in with their warnings: we have heard about how ineffective the Great Wall of China was, how painfully divisive the Berlin Wall.

If there are walls that invites meaningful comparison, then it is perhaps the walls (from England to North Africa) the emperor Hadrian constructed around the Roman empire in the 2nd century. Concerned that the empire's boundaries were ill-defined and porous and that the empire risked being dangerously over-stretched, Hadrian decided to shore up its boundary.

Most historians agree that he did a good job of helping to ensure the empire flourished for another century or so, though in end the "walls" were to sow the seeds of ultimate downfall. As I was often reminded as a child, "There is no such thing as staying still: if you are not going forward, you are going back." If the empire had committed itself to not expanding any further, it was only a matter of time until it began to contract and fall apart.

In the case of America, the country has been defined by its seemingly limitless expansion and the ability to absorb and assimilate huge numbers of immigrants. The frontier was constantly being pushed back from the Appalachians to California, and to Hawaii, Alaska and beyond. When they ran out of land, in the immortal words of Captain Kirk, they headed into space.

But now, under President Trump, America is pulling back from relentless expansion to "make itself great again". Like the Roman Empire under Hadrian, such a policy might well shore things up for decades to come, but ultimately it will sow the seeds of decline. If you are not going forward...

The point about the Mexican border wall however is not so much what the wall will practically achieve, but how it will affect the psyche both of Americans and the rest of the world. It will be a symbol of the limits of American power as well as an exclusionary snub at those placed on the other side of it, a powerful cultural divider between WASPish North America and Hispanic Central America (picture below of current border between San Diego, left, and Tijuana, right).


You will doubtless have heard many counter-arguments why the wall will not work: immigrants will arrive in the US in planes that fly over it or else the circulation of workers from Mexico back and forwards will cease causing Mexican workers to actually stay in the US - so the wall will be counter-productive.

But such arguments fail to take into consideration the psychological impact of the wall. It sends out a very clear message that the US strongly wishes to keep out illegal immigrants, indeed is less inclined to immigration at all. In that sense - regardless of whether you think that immigration is a good or bad thing - the wall will surely have an impact.

The ultimate psychological cause of the demand to build a wall however has nothing to do with Mexican immigration at all - it is part of a displaced psychological response, responding to a desire to make Americans feel safe. Ever since 9-11, Americans feel vulnerable to foreign threats on their home soil, something they had hardly felt in the previous two centuries. After thousands died in horror in New York - constantly replayed and analysed on television - a nagging fear that something like this might happen again seeped into the national psyche.

There are overwhelming statistics - including from that leading thinker Kim Kardashian - showing irrefutably that many thousands die each year from American-on-American gun crime while deaths from foreign terrorists can usually be counted on your fingers. If you wish to make America safer, so the undeniable logic runs, you reform the US's insane gun laws.

But such arguments do not address the deep-seated psychological needs of those Americans who would feel "safer" with a large wall along their southern border and a gun to protect themselves in their glove box. No amount of blathering about statistics is going to change that psychology, which is rooted in the national psyche.

In the debate in the US about gun laws, the importance of the right to bear arms as enshrined in the constitution (an embodiment of resistance to the British) is constantly repeated, but perhaps more important in the national psyche is the connection between the open frontier, an endless expanse filled with unknowable threats from native Americans, outlaws and wild animals, and the right to bear arms.


If Americans begin to feel that the "endless frontier" has been closed off will they gradually come to relinquish their dependence on guns as well? I'm not so sure. Once concepts such as these become deeply engrained in a culture, it can sometimes take centuries to remove them, no matter that the logical need for them has long since disappeared. The Americans are no more peculiar in their dependence on guns than other nations are on their own indigenous means of how to feel "safe". Let me give you an example of this: Japan.

Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, with miraculously low levels of crime and no guns whatsoever. Japan indeed is often paraded - for example by Carl Sagan back in the 1980s in his ahistorical mystic mush "Cosmos" - as a land where people actively renounced the gun in the 17th century. That's kinda right, Carl, because guns made Japan's rulers feel insecure to the threat of insurrection. But what did they bring in instead? A system of "gates". And the gate system still rules Japanese psychology to this day.

A few weeks ago I gave a lecture at a college in Tokyo and stayed for a few days. The college has a compact and very pretty campus and everybody was kind and helpful to me. But upon arriving I had to fill in a form detailing what I would be doing each day. Curfew I was told - when I had to be back inside the campus gates - was 8.30pm.

When I strolled down to the gate on the first day, a very flustered guard fretted about which gate I had entered from. Trying to shake her off I remarked I was just going for a little stroll to the train station whereupon the alarmed official enquired exactly how long I was going to be. It's impossible to imagine this kind of intrusiveness in the "Land of the Free".

An awful lot of people were involved in monitoring me from office assistants to security guards. What exactly was it all for?

But there is something quintessentially Japanese about this obsession with monitoring and observing who and what comes through gates. Power was maintained in the Edo Period (1603-1868) by keeping the family members of feudal lords hostages in the capital and ensuring that no guns could be smuggled in. The gated barriers were an important means of inspecting whether hostages were attempting to escape and arms were coming in - a sure precursor of rebellion. (Edo Period checkpoint officials depicted below).


So, for centuries in Japan, gated barriers became a crucial means of exerting political power. Take, for example, the most famous of all Kabuki plays, Kanjincho (The Subscription List), where the entire drama centres on whether a group of rebels will be able to pass through a gated barrier as they flee north. The play is set at the end of the twelfth century, but during the Edo Period when the play was actually written, such gated barriers were in place the whole length of the country as a means of monitoring people and maintaining control.

In Japan, there really is no escape from "gates" of one form or another. If you wish to turn your back on the vanities of the temporal world and enter instead the world of serenity afforded by religion, then you need to pass through, both literally and figuratively, the temple gate.

One of the great Zen classics, full of absurd riddles intended to show us the intrinsic absurdity of our existence, is called "The Gateless Gate" ("Mumonkan"), as if the book is striving towards the impossible - a world without gates - as unthinkable to the Japanese as a world without guns is unthinkable to the Americans. Indeed the Japanese obsession with gates spreads its tentacles to every aspect of Japanese culture.

The word for an introduction or primer on any subject is called a "nyumon" (literally "entering the gate") and if you know nothing about a subject then you are a "mongaikan" (literally "someone outside the gate", a layman).

So central is the word "gate" to Japanese thinking that at least 50 kanji pictograms incorporate it. Indeed there is even a film called "Gate of Flesh" ("Nikutai no Mon", 1964) implying that the world of sensuality has to be entered via a gate. The word "gate" lurks deep in the Japanese psyche.

Do you feel more comfortable living in a society where you have more personal freedom but counter-balance your sense of insecurity by carrying a gun or do you prefer no such risk but where there is far more intrusive monitoring of your daily activities, where you have to submit to the control of gate-keepers?

The real point is to understand how each society constructs its own particular sense of "safety" and to psychologically untangle it. Americans are not going to give up their guns and their wall because of statistical truths. People who constantly harp on about such things simply fail to have insight into human and national psychology.

By all means abandon the ruinously expensive plan for a wall and take the guns out of American life. But just realize that you are going to need to carefully put something back to preserve an important, albeit illogical sense of "safety" in the national psyche.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Nietzsche, Humour and the Great War


Yesterday, on the anniversary of Armistice Day, I like so many others in the UK observed two minutes of silence at precisely 11am in memory of all those who lost their lives in the wars. This coming together as a nation in a moment of intense solemnity to remember their sacrifice seems fitting, the least we could do. But is there perhaps a very different way of ‘remembering’ what happened in those wars and what meaning this should impart to our modern lives?

When I was a child, I recall casting my eyes around the volumes of my school library and there looming large and ominous before me was a series called The Causes of the Great War. I can’t remember how many volumes there were – perhaps a dozen or so – and opening them one would discover hundreds of pages on the European alliances of the nineteenth century, the imperial rivalries over Africa, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the infringement of Belgium neutrality. Unfurling in front of me in black ink and on yellowing pages were the causes of the First World War in all its bewildering complexity.

I asked my grandmother, who was born in 1898, whether she could remember the war breaking out. My grandmother had been born in Northern Ireland, left school at age 9 and by the age of 16 was working in a mill in a small border town. I asked what the local people at the time said was the cause of the war. ‘The King and the Kaiser had fallen out over land’ was her compact reply.

There was in that sentence a very Irish wisdom, as if Irish farmers had grasped the reins of world politics. Yet thinking about those ten words in comparison to all the millions upon millions of erudite words in the library, I was inclined to think that my grandmother’s answer grasped the nettle of the problem: The King and the Kaiser had fallen out over land.

These days I incline towards a more radical view. I think the war was partly caused by a lack of humour in both the Germans and the British and an acute failure to understand some profound insights into the human condition. I think, for example, that one reason the war broke out was because the peoples of Europe failed to get the jokes of that much maligned and misunderstood philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (pictured below).


It’s of course not possible that one philosopher can, on his own, move history. And yet we have all heard how Nietzsche’s ideas of the Superman were later twisted by the Nazis and turned into a doctrine of a master race. But even before the rise of the Nazis, Nietzsche was being blamed for all of Germany’s ills. At the time of the First World War, for example, a host of books in Britain declaimed him for a philosophy of maniacal selfishness that led the German people to think that they could trample on their neighbours with impunity.

All this would have been abhorrent to Nietzsche himself. He was the ultimate individualist; his whole philosophy was concerned with encouraging people to forge their own unique identity. The idea of forming people into regiments acting in complete obedience to a Kaiser was contrary to the spirit of everything Nietzsche ever wrote. And far from thinking that the Germans were superior, Nietzsche once acidly remarked that just dining next to one of his fellow countrymen was enough to give him indigestion.

So why was Nietzsche so misunderstood? And why did he keep receiving the blame for the disasters of the twentieth century, starting with the First World War?

One reason – as is reasonably well known – is that the all-pervasive nationalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century mutated with Nietzsche’s philosophy and produced a Frankenstein’s monster. Nietzsche’s philosophy of assertion of will was all about emancipation of the individual, but when those ideas were transferred to the nation itself, they became the very opposite of everything Nietzsche intended.

Nietzsche’s philosophy is essentially a sensible guide to how to live your life. Be strong, he is saying, don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed with pity or you’ll never get anything done in life. Yet when transformed to a national level it very quickly degenerated into a philosophy of hate that was totally opposed to everything that Nietzsche had preached. It was used as a convenient propaganda tool by the British against the Germans, claiming that here was a country that was trying to be stronger than its neighbours and imposing its will upon them and always expanding its borders.


But I said that one cause of the First World War was a failure to understand Nietzsche’s jokes. How so? We don’t I think in the English speaking world appreciate how marvellously humorous so much of Nietzsche’s writing is. There is the image of the forbidding German philosopher with his enormous moustache and his deep, dark ponderings on the nature of existence, his mind full of Sturm und Drang and Wagnerian overtures. Yet in reality, Nietzsche was a great comic writer. Not perhaps laugh out loud funny, more along the lines of comic depths that slowly sink in. One problem is that much of the humour simply doesn’t translate into foreign languages leaving the English reader to take Nietzsche’s ideas - brilliant as many of them are – a bit too literally.

Take for example the famous concept of the Superman, the so-called higher man. In German the term is Ubermensch, but what you might not know is that this is a bit of a joke on Nietzsche’s behalf. One of the constant themes in Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra is that people should always be striving to become better, more accomplished people in life. Zarathustra was written in the 1880s and being a man of the Victorian age, Nietzsche was surrounded by lots of starch-collared professors and other dignitaries full of pompous pride about their achievements, who liked to cling to their titles and station in life. We are all too familiar with this type of person in the world today, people blowing their own little trumpet.


The ‘uber’ in ubermensch did not come from any idea of a master race controlling subjugated, weaker men and women; the ‘uber’ is wordplay, a pun on the German word for crossing over – ‘ubergehen’. The ‘ubermensch’ is the person who is always trying to cross over to the other side, evolve, improve himself. That is the higher person whom we should try and emulate. It’s a pun, a bit of amusing wordplay, not a reference to some Germanic master-race. That this little witticism should have been twisted to produce misunderstandings that would lead humanity down the road to the Somme and Auschwitz is almost too disturbing to contemplate.

Another famous phrase coined by Nietzsche is ‘The Last Men’ or in German ‘Die letzten Menschen’. When you start reading about a world populated by ‘The Last Men’ at the end of Also Sprach Zarathustra you begin to think that you are reading a sci-fi fantasy describing an apocalyptic vision of the future where the only survivors of the human race are the scary ‘Last Men’.

But what Nietzsche is really saying is that ‘The Last Men’ are the opposite of the ‘Ubermensch’. The Ubermensch is always trying to improve herself, because she knows she can and should do better. However the ‘Last Men’ think they know everything there is to know, they’ve already reached the last stage of their development, they just want to sit back on their laurels and see things tick over the way they always have. We all know people like this – people who won’t try anything new because they fear to fail, who are full of arrogance about their own achievements. They are ‘the last men’.

But where’s the joke? I didn’t get it for a long time. Then in a minor attempt at ubermensch behaviour, I went to brush up my schoolboy German at a night class. We were listening to a taped recording of one of those impossibly unrealistic conversations between a Herr and Frau Muller when I suddenly heard one of the voices say ‘Das ist das Letzte!’ Literally, ‘That is the last one!’ I asked the teacher what the phrase meant. Apparently it is an idiom meaning ‘That’s the pits! That’s as low as it gets!’ So finally I understood Nietzsche’s joke. The last men were the pits because they think they know it all and have nowhere else to go.

All of Nietzsche’s writings are littered with such wordplay and much of it is impossible to translate. But there are many other central ideas, whose humour is misunderstood even when there is no barrier of translation. Take for example the famous line ‘the Death of God’. If you were talking about any other philosopher before Nietzsche they would not be writing of the ‘Death of God’ but of the ‘non-existence of God’. Yet the ‘Death of God’ has a quite different meaning. Non-existence is a dry observation of empirical reality. The ‘Death of God’ is an intrinsically humorous, satirical comment on the death of a supposedly ‘immortal’ being. Such a being used to ‘live’ in the beliefs of the religiously minded, but now science and the Theory of Evolution has bumped him off. It’s humour, but the phrase also tells you that the exterior world is a construct of your own mind.

You might think that what I am saying here is that Nietzsche expressed his ideas in a humorous fashion, but actually I wish to say something very different: for Nietzsche, humour was intrinsic and essential to the idea itself. If you take humour away from the idea – as countless academics and intellectuals have done when discussing Nietzsche in arch solemnity – you have misunderstood the idea itself.

Many philosophers, like Bertrand Russell who suffered from the delusion that the world could be grasped through logic and rationalism, dismissed Nietzsche because he wrote in such a way. But actually Nietzsche is the greatest of all philosophers because he grasped a profound truth: the human condition is an intrinsically humorous one. To get to the heart of humanity you have to express that humour. Nietzsche here reaches the same conclusion as Zen philosophy that saw humour – expressed in riddles and comic drawings – as the best means of getting to the very heart of what it meant to be human.

Already by the time of the First World War, Nietzschean thought was perceived in Britain as being the brutal, egomaniacal engine behind German militaristic expansion. Marshalled against it was supposed to be the free alliance of the nations conjoined in the British empire, whose soldiers were, until 1916 at least, all volunteers pitted against the German conscript army.


Yet the reality is that a familiarity with Nietzsche’s writings would have immediately revealed that Nietzsche had no time at all for nationalism and militarism. The problem was that his writings were mostly being read by exactly the kind of smug ideologues that he loathed.

In their propaganda war against the Germans the British needed an ‘axis of evil’ to make as a target and with it Nietzsche and his concept of the ‘ubermensch’ was portrayed as fuelling a belief in German superiority. His talk of the ‘last men’ meanwhile was portrayed as a dark threat to wipe out existing civilization and leave it as rubble. He became known as the man who thought of the ‘master-race’. It was almost as if there was a deliberate desire on the part of the British to misunderstand individuals like Nietzsche and through him to vilify the German threat.

And the ultimately irony is that by misrepresenting Nietzsche’s ideas in this way and using it as a propaganda tool against the Germans, the Nazis eventually started believing the twisted misrepresentation of Nietzsche’s ideas and believing that they truly were the ‘master-race’.

The disastrous twinning of nationalism with Nietzsche’s individualistic philosophy is generally understood, but equally important was the way in which humour was stripped from Nietzsche’s ideas and imported into the zeitgeist in grim seriousness. A widespread belief in the solemn destiny of the nation was a crucial part of the cocktail of ideas that fuelled the outbreak of war. Ironically today, when we ‘remember’ the wars, we abide by this obeisance to seriousness, solemnity and the nation: the very things that caused the wars in the first place.

But I think that if we wish to avoid war, we should remember what Nietzsche really had to say and recall his celebration of the individual, his advocating of permanent self-improvement, his love of life and belief in embracing danger and dangerous thought. But above all, we need to ‘remember’ his focus on the profoundly humorous heart of the human condition and never lose our own ability to perceive the intrinsic humour in the world around us.

I like Nietzsche’s jokes. And I find many of Nietzsche's ideas liberating. But had Nietzsche lived a little longer and seen the way his philosophy was twisted by nationalism and grim ‘seriousness’ – the very things he most despised - into the horrors of the twentieth century, I suspect he would have probably thought that the joke was very much on us.


Sunday, 30 October 2016

The Finest Hour of Lady Smith of Badajoz



For the last week I've been travelling in southern Spain on the trail of Harry Smith (1787-1860), a famous soldier statesman of the British Empire who was the most famous resident - marked by a blue plaque - of a property in the UK I am currently restoring. 

Smith had a quite incredible life that took him on a breathless odyssey from campaigns in Uruguay and Spain to America, France, Canada, Jamaica, South Africa and India. He somehow managed to be the man offering a truce at the Battle of New Orleans to being a brigade commander at Waterloo, and distinguished himself in the Sikh Wars before ruling Cape Colony. He even seems to have been one of only 40 men who broke into the White House during 1814 and ate President Madison's dinner (roasted meats and the finest madeira wine on an elegantly laid table) before burning down - on his general's orders - the White House (an act Smith referred to as 'barbaric').

I thought the best place to start my research on Smith was by reading his autobiography, written intermittently over many years so that one chapter starts 'written in Glasgow in 1824' and the next, 'Commenced at Simla, Himalayas, 11th Aug. 1844'. 


In only the first 40 pages, Harry is involved in the Battles of Montevideo and Colonia (1806) and imprisoned in Buenos Aires; he is nearly wrecked at sea on the return home, then is shipped to Gothenburg in Sweden, then sent to fight in the Peninsular War in Spain against the Napoleonic forces. He rounds up 20 bandits in the interior of Spain, campaigns in one bloody siege after another, is sent home to England and back to Spain again. He has a shrapnel ball lodged in his foot, which makes him lame, and is sent to Lisbon to convalesce and finally endures excruciating surgery to have it taken out.

From that point on however, Smith led a charmed life...As the Peninsular War dragged on in endless tactical manoeuvres, of offensives and retreats across a dizzying array of landscapes, Smith's fellow officers are killed one after the other, introduced on one page as a 'fine fellow' and mortally wounded on the next (sometimes while they are actually talking to Smith). In one instance, one of his injured comrades gets angry at the insolent remarks of a landlord, whereupon 'the carotid artery must have been wounded, for it burst out in a torrent of blood, and he was dead in a few seconds, to our horror, for he was a most excellent fellow'. Smith meanwhile sails through the action unhurt, while others fall like flies around him. 

Smith was extraordinarily lucky not just in war, but in love. The war narrative spills into one of the most famous romances of the early 19th century when at the bloody fourth siege of Badajoz in 1812 he meets the love of his life, a young Spanish girl called Juana (pictured top). 

Left orphaned at the age of barely 14 with only an elder sister at her side when Badajoz is stormed by blood-thirsty and lustful British troops (image below), she is placed under the protection of the elite 95th Rifles Brigade and immediately captures the heart of Brigadier-Major Smith, aged 24, who married her several days after meeting her. 


The couple would become virtually inseparable and she would travel with the Brigade for the rest of the war and - highly unusually for the era - travel with Smith on his adventures throughout the world over the next 50 years, eventually lending her married name of 'Lady Smith' to three towns in Canada and South Africa. 

It's historically curious though that Smith's fascinating autobiography was first published in 1901. Why would the memoirs of a man who died in 1860 be first published 41 years after his death? 

By the mid-19th century, Smith was a figure famous throughout the British Empire, lauded by the Duke of Wellington in the House of Commons and fondly known to Queen Victoria. But by the beginning of the twentieth century, he was fading into obscurity. Then something happened which made him of great interest round the world once again...

In 1899, the Anglo-Boer War broke out in southern Africa and the British suffered the humiliation of seeing the towns of Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley besieged by Boer forces. The fate of these three towns dominated the news in Britain as the country every day waited and prayed for the news that they had been relieved. 


As Ladysmith became a focus of international attention, people began to ask, 'Who exactly was this "Lady Smith"? And why was there a town in southern Africa named after her?" To answer this upsurge in public curiosity, the long-forgotten autobiography of her once famous husband, Sir Harry Smith - formerly the governor of Cape Colony (1847-52) - was rushed into publication. 

Yet if the British public expected to find in 'Lady Smith' a quintessential English heroine, they were in for a surprise. For 'Lady Smith' was not English at all, but a Spanish girl whose original name was Juana Maria de los Dolores de Leon. 

There is considerable irony in the fact that the Spanish woman who lent her name to this famous siege town in southern Africa was herself the most notable survivor of the terrible siege at Badajoz in Spain 90 years earlier. 

While the life of Harry Smith has partly inspired Bernard Cornwell's 'Sharpe' novels and TV series, his wife has had more unexpected historical echoes. Juana's memory lives on for example in the name of the group, 'Ladysmith Black Mambazo', who have become an iconic representative of South African music and who sang with Paul Simon on his 1986 Graceland album and accompanied Nelson Mandela to Oslo in 1993 to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

When in 1940, the historical novelist Georgette Heyer told the story of Juana Smith in her romance, 'The Spanish Bride' (still in print today), she published at a time when Britain itself was under siege. Juana became part of the zeitgeist of 'The Finest Hour' and readers found in her grit and determination, resonances of the determination of the British to stand up to the Nazi onslaught. 

It's a remarkable, unpredictable worldwide imprint for a 13-year-old Spanish girl escaping the chaos of war back in Badajoz, Spain in 1812. As I walk the streets of Badajoz today I'll be curious to find out whether this unassuming Spanish town (picture of alcazar below) remembers the legacy of one of its most famous daughters, with a strange capacity to reemerge into historical focus whenever the age requires her. 


Saturday, 15 October 2016

The Laying of Odds on Murakami, Critics and the Nobel Prize


The announcement on Friday of the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan has led to much opining about the connections between literature and pop music. I'd like to discuss that intriguing subject on another occasion, but just for the moment I've been thinking more about the connection between literary stallions and bookmakers...

Haruki Murakami (pictured above) - the perennial bookies' favourite in the UK - failed yet again to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Whatever the literary merits of this, there is an interesting linkage to be made between the betting on the Remain camp (favourite with the bookies while failing at the polls) in Brexit and Murakami constantly being the bookies' favourite while not winning.

As with Brexit, being the favourite leads to the impression that the bookmakers are making a judgement call, whereas in fact they are just reflecting the 'weight of money'. Which leads to the fascinating question: who is it that bets on winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature? At first sight, it seems a very odd mix of literature and betting.


Murakami being the year-in-year-out favourite (4-1, this year) represents not an assessment by any informed pundits, but presumably a desire by the millions of Murakami's fans in the West to have their reading tastes sanctioned by their author winning the ultimate accolade.

If Murakami did win, it then raises the question of whether the constant pressure of this 'weight of money' made an impact (conscious or unconscious) on the judges - so far it seems to have not the slightest impact.

Rather than reveal the tastes of the Nobel Committee however, Murakami constantly being favourite and yet not winning tells us a percentage of his fans 1. Like to have an online bet (I can't see them going to a high street bookies); 2. Have disposable wealth (We knew that already...); 3. Are not very streetwise (given that they keep on losing).

Surely this demonstrates the dangers of the ill-experienced wagering through sentiment rather than market insight? Well, you can look at it that way, but I would like to offer a different insight.

Literature and betting might appear at first to be two totally incongruous activities. Reading literature is a profoundly internalized, ultimately vague and lingering activity: you are never entirely sure how it affects your thought processes both now and into the future. Betting, by contrast, is entirely externalized, with a short thrill of uncertainty followed by complete clarity, win or lose. It seems to me to be entirely natural to wish to offset your internal literary musings with a punt on a bit of external reality.

The Nobel Prize indeed offers a potential opportunity for a flutter to those millions of people who have no interest in sport or the naming of royal babies. The Nobel Committee should perhaps be applauded for offering a gambling outlet for all those who fill red wine and book clubs up and down the country.

But even without betting on the big prizes, there is another means of externalizing your internal literary musings in a risk-laden endeavour: it's called 'criticism'. Whenever I put down my feelings on a subject and publish an article or upload a blog, I always feel like I am taking a risky punt: there's a certain mix of thrilling unease and anticipation as you wait to see what reaction your critique will garner. It's a highly unpredictable endeavour. Some of your bets will come romping home garlanded with praise; others will sink without trace or be the butt of ridicule and scorn.

I know a few people who are habitual (if not compulsive) gamblers, who can not get through a week without laying a bet. But I've rather come to recognize the same quality in myself, just transferred to a compulsive need to keep sending into the world little essays of criticism. Many people erroneously think I indulge in journalism, talks and blogs for the fabulous riches and worldwide fame they afford, but I assure you that it is the compulsive intellectual gambler inside me that whips me onward.

Once, back in my Cambridge days, my English supervisor - like me, a devotee of Nietzsche - gave me a gem of wisdom I've never forgotten: 'all great essays take risks'. Many people think that to write critically on a subject involves rational analysis and a summation of what has gone before. But what's truly essential is the ability to think creatively and to offer new insight.

If criticism does not challenge consensus, then it is pointless. Great criticism takes risks and flies in the face of convention. When it succeeds it manages to build a new consensus around its new tracks of interpretation.

The Nobel Prize is in many ways the ultimate statement of critical appreciation. Yet, paradoxically, when it merely represents a 'critical consensus' on a writer, it ceases to function as 'criticism'. In this sense, although I do not necessarily agree with the appraisal of Bob Dylan, at least the Nobel Committee are actually functioning in a critical capacity by advancing a new appreciation of Dylan's work. They have taken a punt, even as they have frustrated the bets of the legions of Murakami fans.

Anyone who is a critic is at heart a gambler. When Natsume Soseki published in 1907 his revolutionary 'Theory of Literature', he was criticized in some quarters for offering a profoundly scientific analysis of literature. But literature is not science came the critique. That's true, Soseki responded, literature is not science, but that's not to say literary criticism can't be scientific.

Soseki too was gambling big time on his radical criticism, but despite the fact that 'logic', 'emotion' and 'will' form the cornerstone of all his cultural analysis, he curiously neglected to see how 'wilfulness' - the desire to assert oneself, embrace danger and challenge convention - is just as essential a part of being a critic as 'rationality'.

So, in short, I have every sympathy for the Harukists laying their bets on the Nobel Prize. Because although literature and gambling might seem far apart ('The Nobel Prize is not a horse race', Murakami himself is supposed to have sniffily remarked), literary criticism and gambling are actually profoundly connected.

When it comes to your intellectual life at least, I think you should live dangerously and bet the house. Over the coming weeks, I'll be advancing new literary theories to challenge the consensus. It will be interesting to see whether my horses get over the line first or I am left seriously out of pocket...

Monday, 10 October 2016

Of Love and Letters


When it comes to the pictures of the Floating World (Ukiyo-e), I've discovered through bitter experience that I am a man of firm likes and dislikes. Throughout my late twenties and early thirties, this picture above, 'The Love Letter' by Suzuki Harunobu (c.1725 - 1770), hung on the wall of the modest 'one room mansion' I used to rent in Kansai in central Japan.

I can't quite remember where I first came upon it, but in classic student fashion, I had no funds to frame it and hang it gracefully, but rather attached it directly to the wall with blue tack at the corners. It would periodically fall off and I would have to re-press it firmly to a slightly different section of wall, leaving brown thumb marks on the corners of the poster and bluish, frayed marks on the wall.

When I finally came to move home in my mid thirties, the poster alas did not survive the move: it was far too grimy for the pristine walls of my new palace and into the bin it went. Having now entered the 'Harunobu-less' years of my life, I began to pang for ukiyo-e and would periodically find myself excitedly visiting exhibitions and leafing through books. My mind being confused however, I would forget that it was Harunobu whose poster I used to gaze on every day and I would misremember that it was by another famous ukiyo-e artist, Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) instead. But whenever I looked at Utamaro's pictures, I would be disappointed - they appeared to me to have less finesse, beauty and warmth - until I finally recalled that it was never him that I liked in the first place, but rather Harunobu.

Harunobu, Harunobu, Harunobu. I had to remember it was him that I liked, but then I forgot again and sat through Mizoguchi's film "Utamaro and His Five Women" (1946, thought by some to be a masterpiece - not in my opinion) and wondered once again what I had ever seen in Utamaro, until I finally recalled that I had misremembered it once again. Damn Utamaro!

Clearly I needed Harunobu back in my life. As recipients of my Facebook feed will be aware, I have been engaged in a restoration project of late on a 19th century mansion in the UK. One of its rooms I am naming the 'Arthur Waley Room' in honour of the great scholar, translator and popularizer of East Asian literature. This room will contain a writing desk and so it was a no-brainer what picture I would wish to have hanging over it: 'The Love Letter' by Suzuki Harunobu (in an even larger, framed version this time round).

In the ten years I spent looking at this picture while I was researching literature in Japan, a particular set of interpretations fixed themselves in my mind. As I will explain in a moment, this view was partly based on a misinterpretation of the picture, but I'll tell you first what particular meaning this picture of two people simultaneously reading a letter had for me and why I would wish to have it hanging over a writing desk.

Firstly, it reminded me that what you write should be capable of being read and re-read. It should be composed to last and to be mulled over. Second, it reminds me that the perspective of each person reading what you have written is different (which doesn't necessarily stop me winding up people of every possible stripe with ill-considered remarks).

Thirdly, it reminds me that if you communicate your passion on a subject, it will be of interest not just to your 'intended' audience, but to all kinds of other readers as well. In fact, it is this unintended 'secondary' readership that always provide me with the greatest thrill as a writer - those people in the farthest reaches of the world, or people with no particular interest in the subject, who somehow or other come upon what you have written and find their own interest sparked by it.

During the ten years I gazed at this picture in my room in Japan, I mostly spent my time at a Japanese university, preparing for a standard academic career. I contemplated the life of publishing articles in academic journals, producing books of academic research, tutoring graduate students - all very worthy and noble - but not, I concluded, one for me. I wanted to write things that would find not just the pre-ordained, 'intended' audience but reach out for that secondary, unintended readership. I wanted the scroll of scholarship to unfurl and land in unexpected, fascinated hands.

But when I came to order the half-remembered print after a 10 year gap, I suddenly discovered that it had a quite different meaning to what I had always assumed it to have. Knowing it only by its English title of 'The Love Letter', I had carelessly assumed it to be a picture of two female courtesans reading the same love letter, intended for the girl at the top, but also being read with interest by her friend under the blanket.

When I looked up its Japanese title however, I was startled to see it was 'A Man and a Woman Reading a Letter by a Kotatsu [A blanketed table])' The figure under the blanket is a man - you can also tell this from the hairstyle, which often reveals much information in ukiyo-e prints. This rather changes the dynamic of the picture and adds a sharp satirical edge.

But now, more than ever, I'm feeling this is a suitable picture to have hanging over a writing desk: reminding me than even the most familiar works of art have the ability to suddenly radiate in an unexpected light according to a new critical interpretation laid upon it.