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.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

All Aboard the Mishima Express

In Japan they have a variety of exotically decorated theme trains dedicated to famous writers. For example, in Iwate in north-east Japan, there is the 'Night on the Galactic Railway' train dedicated to the memory of fairytale author Miyazawa Kenji (1896-1933). Or else on the island of Shikoku, there is a 'Botchan' train, based on the famous story by Natsume Soseki, which will take you round the city of Matsuyama where 'Botchan' is set.

I was thinking however that they have surely missed a trick in not having a Yukio Mishima-themed train that will take you to the city of Mishima, near Mount Fuji. (Geekish note: Yukio Mishima's real name was Kimitake Hiraoka and he took the pen-name of 'Mishima' from this very town in 1941.)

In Japan if a train is bound for somewhere they add the suffix 'yuki', so the Mishima-bound train is known as the Mishima-yuki train. This would afford the ineffable daily pleasure to the announcer of being able to pronounce that, 'This is the Mishima yuki Mishima Yukio train' which would surely elicit a smile every time.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Both Awful and Wonderful? It must be "Yabai"...

About 15 years ago, I remember having a conversation with an Irish bartender in Osaka about the Japanese word "yabai". The word was originally used by Japanese criminals as indicating the threat of imminent capture by the police but had entered common parlance as representing something you did not like the sound of. I droned on that it was quite a difficult word to translate into English. My Dublin friend, with characteristic impatience for such pretentious blather, immediately cut me short and remarked that what "yabai" really meant then was "F*** that!" - which both made me laugh and stays in my mind as the best possible translation.

But reading a newspaper a few days ago I was shocked to discover that while I wasn't paying attention, "yabai" has completely changed its meaning. It seems that even 10 years ago, 70% of teenagers had switched to using "yabai" as meaning "terrific" or "wonderful".

It's interesting the way that words have the capacity to completely transform their meaning. In English, the word "sick" has undergone the same transformation from negative to positive meaning. And if you go back far enough, you discover that the most bland-seeming words like "nice" apparently once had the meaning of "terrifying".

What people seek from language is not necessarily clarity of meaning: language often represents the restlessness of the human condition, constantly seeking to invert and subvert that which has gone before. It's easy to become numbed to the fact that some of the words we use are a previous generation's ironical inversion of what they received from their forebears. When you attempt to adhere to fixed definitions of meaning, you alas lose sight of the way that language is in a constant state of rebellious evolution.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Why Hagakure is Japan's Strangest Book

I recently ran a three part series in The Japan Times on Bushido (the Samurai code) and referred in Part Two to the Hagakure. As it is the beginning of the Rio Olympics this weekend, I thought I might offer a closer reading of this Bushido classic: Japan's Gold Medal candidate for 'Strangest Book Ever Written'.

Around 15 years ago, Hagakure enjoyed a small vogue amongst young men in the West due to its prominent role in the dire Jim Jarmusch flick Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999). This film is set in the US and is about a hitman called Ghost Dog (played by Forest Whitaker) who receives the names of his targets from a Mafia goon by carrier pigeon landing on the rooftop where he lives. He is obsessed with the Hagakure and the portentous quotes from the book that dominate his thoughts are framed and voiced over at regular intervals throughout the film.

As a sincere believer in the 'Way of the Warrior', Ghost Dog attempts to live and die by the samurai code, requiring him to wipe a slew of Mafiosi who threaten the gangster who once saved his life. Jarmusch, like Tarantino, attempts to enfold the whole world into his films and piles into this one not only Italian Mafiosi and classics of Japanese literature such as Akutagawa’s Rashomon, but rappers, an exclusively French-speaking ice cream man, Chinese restaurants and The Wind in the Willows. It is the author of Hagakure however who tops the ironical ‘personal thanks’ in the credits.

Ghost Dog is really a very silly film, where too often ‘quirkiness’ tips into self-indulgence and cliché (particularly in its depiction of Italian Mafiosi), but it does have a few interesting aspects. One is that Ghost Dog regards Bushido as a complete value system to live his life. He even has the symbol from the front cover of the book embossed on the back of his jacket and constantly wears it as a medallion. At one point in the film, he passes another young man on the street wearing a cross as a medallion – as if two equal and complete value systems had met.

Another idea, somewhat buried in the film, and only obvious through Jarmusch’s pretentious thanks in the end titles to ‘Miguel de Cervantes’ is that Ghost Dog is a modern Quixote, attempting to live by a code of chivalry in an unchivalrous age. This is a perceptive observation about the way many Westerners relate to the code of the samurai and indeed to Japan itself.

And finally there is the pairing of gangsters with Bushido, which might seem weird, but to my mind is entirely apt, as the samurai were in fact the world’s ultimate gangsters, living by strict codes precisely because they had arisen due to the collapse of the authority of central government and were notorious for internecine conflicts and blood-letting.

But back to Hagakure…

Hagakure means ‘In the Shadow of Leaves’ indicating that the author was giving a whispering insider’s account of the subject. It is a collection of commentaries on Bushido (or, more precisely, what would later be called 'Bushido') by Yamamoto Tsunetomo who was a senior retainer of the Saga Clan in northern Kyushu in the far west of Japan. The commentaries were collected by Tsuramoto Tashiro and are based on his conversations with Tsunetomo between 1709 and 1716.

Hagakure was only published in full however in the twentieth century once the samurai themselves had long since disappeared. It was particularly prized as Japan turned to the extremes of nationalist and militaristic sentiment in the 1930s.

Hagakure divides opinion even in Japan between those who feel, like Yukio Mishima (who was a great fan of the book and wrote his own commentary on it), that Tsunetomo offered the most piercing insights into Bushido and those who feel that his opinions were completely crazy.

Yamamoto’s position is best summed up with the thought that, for the samurai, loyalty to the master is everything and that he must be prepared to instantly give up his life for his master at any time. Yamamoto even criticized the famous Forty-Seven Ronin. They took nearly two years to avenge their master’s death (before being ordered by the Shogunate to commit seppuku themselves), but according to Yamamoto they should have immediately attempted assassination on their master’s enemy even if such an attempt was doomed to failure.

A refrain throughout Hagakure is that the samurai must repress self-interest. ‘People think that they can clear up profound matters if they consider them deeply, but they exercise perverse thoughts and come to no good because they do their reflecting with only self-interest at the centre’, Yamamoto bewails.

Instead one must give obeisance every morning to one’s master, one’s ancestors, patron deities and guardian Buddhas. But amongst them the master is all-important. ‘For a warrior there is nothing other than thinking of his master.’

It is instantly obvious why this text appealed to Mishima so much and gave him such inspiration. Rather like Mishima’s tips on behaviour for so-called ‘modern samurai’, the text switches suddenly from lamenting the lack of skill at beheadings and cowardice (instead of resolve to commit suicide) to some handy tips on manners. ‘It is because a samurai has correct manners that he is admired’, Yamamoto points out, and proceeds to warn that one should not yawn or sneeze in front of other people.

Sometimes Tsunetomo reminds us of the sayings of his father Yamamoto Jinemon who said that you should look your listener in the eye, not put your hands in your pocket and throw away books after reading them. According to his father, a samurai with no group and no horse (i.e. a wandering samurai or ronin) was no samurai at all. Also, according to Yamamoto pere, a samurai should rise at four in the morning, bathe and arrange his hair daily, eat when the sun comes up and retire when it becomes dark. Mishima took none of this advice, routinely going to bed when the sun came up after writing throughout the night.

The whole book is washed with the hues of nostalgia and longing for an age before peacetime brought a general corrupting mood of idleness, luxury and triviality. ‘It is a wretched thing that the young men of today are so contriving and so proud of their material possessions...Every morning, the samurai of fifty or sixty years ago would bathe, shave their foreheads, put lotion in their hair, cut their fingernails and toenails rubbing them with pumice and then without fail pay attention to their general appearances. It goes without saying that their armor in general was kept from rust, that it was dusted, shined, and arranged.’

Yamamoto advises us to look for models of politeness, bravery, proper way of speaking, correct conduct and steadiness of mind. We are told that ‘a person who does something beyond his social standing will at some point commit mean or cowardly acts…one should be careful with menials and the like’. And yet, in a characteristic contradiction, we are told, ‘As for a person who has risen from the humble, his value should be prized and especially respected, even more than that of a person who was born into his class.’

Self pride and luxury are to be avoided; attaching cloves to your body will stop you being affected by colds; it is better to have some unhappiness when you are still young to stop you becoming giddy; drinking a decoction of the feces from a dappled horse is the best way to stop bleeding from an injury received by falling from a horse; look for the single purpose of the present moment as loyalty is also contained within single-mindedness; apply powdered rouge carried in your sleeve if your complexion is poor.

Intertwined with all of these ideas runs the constant refrain about preparing for death, dreaming of dying in battle or committing seppuku. ‘The way of the samurai is, morning after morning, the practice of death, considering whether it will be here or be there, imagining the most sightly way of dying, and putting one’s mind firmly in death.’ But there is, it seems, a silver lining. ‘With martial valor, if one becomes like a vengeful ghost and shows great determination, though his head is cut off, he should not die.’

A highlight of the book is its description of various Sicilian-style revenge killings among the samurai. Often these would start as drunken brawls in bars, or sometimes be over nothing at all, and yet end up killing lots of innocent people. For example, a boy accidentally steps on a ronin’s foot while putting on his sandals. The ronin instantly kills him and his grandmother. The boy’s uncle then kills the ronin, but is in turn killed by the ronin’s younger brother. Another uncle, a Buddhist priest, then plans to kill the ronin’s younger brother, but kills the ronin’s father instead…and all this over treading on someone’s foot.

The samurai were also pretty nasty in their tortures. This is the punishment meted out to one robber: ‘all the hairs on his body were burned off and his fingernails were pulled out. His tendons were then cut, he was bored with drills and subjected to various other tortures. Throughout, he did not flinch once, nor did his face change color. In the end his back was split, he was boiled in soy sauce and his body was bent back in two.’

Once Yamamoto gets going with his tales of revenge killings and seppuku, there is really no end to them. There are tales of adultery leading to seppuku; of fathers acting as kaishakunin (assistants who behead the person committing seppuku) for their sons; of revenge killings leading to seppuku; of retainers crucified for not finishing off a fight or banished for intervening.

The slightest slip could lead to your death. One retainer is scolded for daring to put gold coins before his lord: ‘To place such base things before a person of importance is the extremity of carelessness’. (Given that the samurai class were created in the first place by ambitious warlords annexing land and appropriating taxes for themselves, and hiring gangs to protect them, this absurd denial of their own covetousness is truly breathtaking).

At this point, we get more handy tips from Yamamoto pere: ‘If you cut a face lengthwise, urinate on it, and trample on it with straw sandals, it is said that the skin will come off. This was heard by the priest Gyojaku when he was in Kyoto. It is information to be treasured.’

Tsunetomo relates how a samurai was dismissed from trial for having the bravery to cut down opponents of his clan and thereby uphold the way of the samurai and Tsunetomo gives us many instances of exemplary retainer behaviour such as the samurai who rushes into a burning house to save his lord’s treasured genealogy. The samurai dies in the flames, but when his corpse is found, it is discovered that he has cut open his stomach and put the genealogy inside.

Tsunetomo was very enthusiastic about the recuperative, blood-clotting powers of horse feces, but surprisingly very down on the value of tactics. ‘On the battlefield, once discretion starts it cannot be stopped. One will not break through to the enemy with discretion. Indiscretion is most important when in front of the tiger’s den. Therefore, if one were informed of military tactics, he would have many doubts, and there would be an end to the matter...there are no military tactics for a man of great strength’.

We are shrewdly told that ‘one should not show his sleeping quarters to other people. The times of deep sleep and dawning are very important’ and that ‘underwear should be made from the skin of a badger’.

There are occasional flashes of wit between the samurai:

Matsudaira Izu no kami said to Master Mizuno Kenmotsu, ‘You’re such a useful person, it’s a shame that you’re so short.’

Kenmotsu replied, ‘That’s true. Sometimes things in this world don’t go the way we would like. Now if I were to cut off your head and attach it to the bottom of your feet, I would be taller. But that’s something that couldn’t be done.’

However the odd snippet of humour is far outweighed by general insanity, with lots of tales of heads being cut off and invocations to always think of your master.

'The warriors of old cultivated mustaches, for as proof that a man had been slain in battle, his ears and nose would be cut off and brought to the enemy’s camp. So that there would be no mistake as to whether the person was a man or a woman, the mustache was also cut off with the nose. At such a time the head was thrown away if it had no mustache, for it might be mistaken for that of a woman. Therefore, growing a mustache was one of the disciplines of a samurai so that his head would not be thrown away upon his death.'

In Yamamoto’s view, boys should be taught valour, forbearance, politeness and etiquette. For girls however, the most important thing is chastity. They should be always kept six foot from a man, never look them in the eye, or receive things from them by hand. And heaven forbid that they ever go sightseeing or on trips to a temple.

Yamamoto is firm in the belief that all identity should come from the clan. All worship and respect should be given to clan elders and ancestors rather than such things as Buddhism, Confucius or famous warriors of other clans. ‘One worships the head of whatever clan or discipline to which he belongs. Outside learning for retainers of our clan is worthless.’

One should serve the clan, even committing seppuku whenever required by the lord, is Yamamoto’s message. In this way, Yamamoto vows never to be outdone in the Way of the Samurai.

Albeit that Hagakure has found fans in such people as Yukio Mishima and Jim Jarmusch, and is undoubtedly a superb illustration of an extremist samurai mindset, there is surely no question that Yamamoto is insufferably pompous. There is no real consideration of why you should devote your life to your lord – this is merely an a priori assumption, endlessly reinforced like a Buddhist priest chanting a sutra.

A while back I was watching Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, and istening to the declarations of the Nazis at the Nuremberg rallies (‘We know of nothing but to follow the Fuhrer’s order and show our loyalty!’) and Hitler’s own declaration that the spiritual tenets of National Socialism would be like that of a religious order, you can see that the guiding principles of fascism and the more extremist samurai – the blind cult of loyalty, the yearnings for militaristic order, the nostalgia for the past, the xenophobia – had a good deal in common.

The resurgence of Bushido in the 1890s, accompanied by Nitobe Inazo's book Bushido: The Soul of Japan (1900) becoming an international bestseller, clearly created in Japan an intellectual framework in which fascism and dictatorship could quickly take root (ironically this development was not foreseen by the internationally urbane Nitobe Inazo, who was horrified by Japan storming out of the League of Nations in 1933 after the Lytton Commission’s critical assessment of Japan’s culpability in the invasion of Manchuria. Nitobe died shortly thereafter in Canada.)

I appreciate Hagakure in the same way as I appreciate Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda films – as a fascinating insight into what is now a barely comprehensible mindset. Yet while delighting in its Gothic nastiness, I can’t but help feel that if is this is the Way of the Samurai, I won't be joining Ghost Dog and his pigeons on the rooftop anytime soon.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Ryotaro Shiba, 'Gone With The Wind' and Ireland

The other week I happened to hear that the novelist Minae Mizumura and her distinguished American translator Julie Carpenter were coming to the UK to attend the Bradford Literary Festival so I invited them over to have a look round a Georgian property I am currently restoring. I recommended to them a classic book called 'Irish Journey' ('Airurando Kiko') by the prolific Japanese historical novelist and travel writer Ryotaro Shiba (1923-96, pictured above).

Shiba is a wildly popular Japanese author whose long historical sagas such as 'Ryoma Sets Out' ('Ryoma ga Yuku') and 'Clouds Above the Hill' ('Oka no Ue no Kumo'; co-translated into English by Julie Carpenter) have sold 21 and 15 million copies respectively. I must confess that I have never read either of these best-selling books, but I am attracted to Shiba's voluminous travel writing - contained in a series called 'On the Road' ('Gaido o Yuku') - which describe both his journeys within Japan and to destinations across the world.

Despite its title, the two volume 'Irish Journey', written in the late 1980s, actually spends much of the first volume in England, as Shiba mills about London and Liverpool, before finally crossing over to Dublin. What Shiba correctly appreciated was that to understand Irish history, you first have to grasp how it stands in counterpoint to English history. Shiba discusses such things as the historical difference between the clannish nature of Celtic society and the centralised power of the English state, making the Irish susceptible to invasion and subjugation, while still retaining their distinctive identity.

One of the great interests of the book is noting the way a Japanese writer observes Britain and Ireland. For example, Shiba picked up on the way that the waiters in London always say 'sir' to him, but the waiters in Dublin never do. Many of his observations are so fresh it's sometimes hard to tell whether they are insightful or absurd. In Liverpool, Shiba speculates whether the city, situated at the basin of the river Mersey, derives its name from 'River Pool' (the Japanese language has only one sound for both 'r' and 'l' so this blurring is more obvious to a Japanese person, but I must admit it's something that never occurred to me before.)

When Shiba finally gets out to the West of Ireland and the Famine Road, he looks down at the sea and ponders why there was such a terrible famine when there were fish in the sea and such delicious seaweed to eat. Perhaps a fatuous observation, but one that highlights the profoundly different culinary heritages of two island nations like Japan (whose cuisine is based around a profusion of fish) and Ireland (where the potato was king and where fish was always considered a poor substitute for rarely eaten meat). And of course back in the 1850s the seaweed wrap had yet to be invented...

Shiba was particularly interested in the resonances Irish culture had around the world and discusses for example the Irish roots of the great Western director John Ford, who would return to depict his parents' birthplace of Galway in the 1952 film The Quiet Man (poster, pictured left).

It's of course well-known that festering grievances about dispossession of land in Ireland between Irish natives and British settlers would be exported and play out on the much bigger canvases of the new worlds of America and Australia throughout the 19th century. Since the establishment of Anglo-Scots settlement in Ulster in the 17th century, the native Irish had been pushed back to poor quality bog lands of the West of Ireland ('To Hell or Connaught') and from there suffered yet more dispossession and famine and so emigrated in their droves in the 19th century.

The bitterness about land dispossession in Ireland lingered long in the memories of Irish emigrants to the New Worlds of America and Australia. Many of the stories which we today think of as quintessentially American or Australian - such as the sagas of Billy the Kid in the Lincoln County War in the US or Ned Kelly in Victoria, Australia - are at heart the stories of Anglo-Irish rivalries. It might also be noted in passing too, the fact that many dispossessed Scots and Irish suffered brutality in their native lands sometimes led in turn to their meting out brutal treatment to the Aborigines and Afro-American slaves in the lands they moved to.

I'd never quite realised until I read Shiba's book however just how crucial the Irish dimension is to 'Gone With the Wind' (though since the heroine is called Scarlett O'Hara perhaps this should have been obvious).

As a child, I always found the much-lauded film of 'Gone With the Wind' frankly boring. I could muster no sympathy for the fiddle-dee-dee, spoil-brat heroine and had not the slightest interest whether she finally hooked up with Ashley, Rhett Butler or whoever. It seemed to me the American Civil War equivalent of a Jane Austen novel - and I don't mean that as a compliment.

More interesting than the film itself seemed to be the stories surrounding it such as the famous quest by producer David O Selznick to cast the right actress as Scarlett O'Hara (eventually given to relatively unknown English actress Vivien Leigh, pictured above, after just about every Hollywood leading lady from Lana Turner to Paulette Goddard had tried and failed to land the part). Or there was the fuss about the prissy Hayes Code censorship exerted on Rhett Butler's parting line, 'Frankly, dear, I don't give a damn', demanding that the emphasis be bizarrely placed on the word 'give' rather than 'damn'.

Once in my early twenties I made a road trip with my sister from Key West in Florida up to Atlanta, Georgia. As we approached the city I picked up a copy of 'Gone With the Wind' in a store and read the first 50 pages in the car. What has always stayed with me is the extraordinary description of blood-red earth around Atlanta. If you were reading this on your sofa in the UK or California, you might tend to think that this was a trope - that the soil is described as red because of the blood-letting in the Civil War which is about to begin. But what's worth noting is that the soil around Atlanta is literally, strikingly red.

Still, I have to admit that after I left Atlanta, the book mark went in Mitchell's novel and I never returned to it. But after reading Shiba's commentary on 'Gone With the Wind' I began to see the book and the film with entirely new eyes.

The most important line in the film is not the iconic 'frankly, dear, I don't give a damn', but the words of Scarlett's first-generation Irish father to his daughter at the beginning of the film when he teaches her the importance of their land-holdings at their farm at Tara: land is the one thing that truly matters, he says, 'because land is the only thing that lasts'. That blood-red land, even before the Civil War starts, has a blood-soaked heritage harking back to land dispossession in Ireland. In the film, Scarlett's father is depicted as a sort of cod Irishman, a twee leprechaun, but there is true cold steel in those words: we have lost everything before and we are never, ever going to let that happen again.

But spoilt American Miss Scarlett does not understand that blood-soaked legacy of the land even though her very name alludes to it: the farm name 'Tara' crucially refers to the ancient site of the Kings of Ireland.

It's only when Scarlett has lost everything - her mother, her husband, her daughter - when the war itself has been lost and Atlanta burnt to the ground, that Scarlett, seemingly without hope, begins to hear her father's words echoing inside her head. Crucially, she still possesses the land and with that, everything is indeed not lost. This final scene of 'Gone With the Wind' can have a trite 'I Will Survive!' feel to it, but it really is communicating something powerful. This is the moment that Scarlett O'Hara actually comprehends who exactly she is, she finds her true inner Irishness and where she came from. What is lauded as a 'great American novel' is also on a more profound level a contemplation of the very nature of Irishness and its enduring effects.

When I heard that Minae Mizumura was also visiting Ireland on her recent trip, I became positively insistent that she read Shiba's 'Irish Journey', and I'm pleased to say she took me up on it. There's a particular phrase that Shiba used to describe the Irish which I have never forgotten. He said that the essence of Irishness was 'Hyakuhai Fumetsu' (百敗不滅), which literally means 'To be defeated a hundred times and yet be indestructible'.

There is surely no work of art which better captures this quality of 'hyakuhai fumetsu' than 'Gone With The Wind'.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

The Death of Euro

To Brexit or not to Brexit, that is the question...

Today I was leafing through a book of myths and came across this piece called 'The Death of Euro' and was struck by how uncannily prescient it seemed to be. I felt as if it could almost have been written yesterday...

In the beginning, the universe was dark and Chaos roamed the earth. The gods grew weary of their strength and fell to fighting with one another. Marcus rushed out of a forest and slew Francus and declared his hatred for Rubus. For three long winters, he tortured Rubus and starved and bludgeoned him so that his howls reached up into the heavens and caused cataracts in the sky. Pondus hid in a corner and prayed and waited. Then on a golden chariot Dolarus descended from the clouds and swept Pondus into his embrace. The two gods charged forth at Marcus, who tired and blood-soaked with the battle against Rubus, was overwhelmed and slain. And Rubus then exacted a great punishment on the body of Marcus. And then the universe was quiet once more.

But gods may never be slain forever, and Marcus stirred once more, and now wooed Francus whom he had slain and their sister god Lira and the three gods danced in a circle and embraced and constructed a great tent around them. And all whom the gods had once slain from the northern lands and the warm southern sea came together and washed their blood-soaked hands and kissed and made love to one another in the tent. And then they made a great fire and Marcus and Francus and Lira and many other gods stepped into the fire and were consumed in a blaze of light as a new great god was born who all bowed down and worshipped. And this god of gods was called Euro.

Pondus had slipped into the tent before Euro was born, but his body had not been caught in the flames that had extinguished Marcus and Francus and many other gods, and now when he first laid eyes on the beast god Euro emerging like a dragon-phalanxed phoenix from the bodies of his fathers and mothers, Pondus ran into a corner of the tent and cowered in fearfulness. But Pondus was alone. Pondus wanted to be part of Euro and enter into his body, but he feared to do so for he still clung to his own life. And the Heavens rang with laughter as they watched Pondus shiver in the darkness.

Now outside the tent Dolarus, god of Victory, ruled supreme in the West and in all the lands of the earth and did not fear Euro for he saw the mischief which Marcus and Francus and Lira had caused to the peoples of the Earth, and when Pondus cried to him for protection, he laughed and ordered Pondus to run back and enter into the body of the beast, that Pondus might best serve Dolarus if he gave up his life and entered into the spirit of Euro. But still Pondus feared and secretly wished that Dolarus might yield him protection from Euro for such a beast god had never existed in the firmament before, a god with a hydra head and the belly of a horse and the feet of a duck. But the voices in the heavens told Pondus to wait and see what new shapes the beast god Euro would assume, and from that he might know whether he too should enter into the beast. So Pondus waited in a corner of the tent and watched the new god begin to metamorphose.

Euro first assumed the shape of a bear and roared forth in a rage. And the bear grew larger and larger until everyone in the heavens said that such an enormous bear could not grow any further, but on and on and on it grew, and Pondus quaked in fear, and felt all life draining away from him, but swore that he would never enter into the body of a bear. Then night came. And when Pondus awoke, he saw that the bear god was no longer writhing, but slowly shrinking. Then Pondus looked again and saw the features of Euro seemed more like a bull than a bear that the head was ox-shaped and the claws on the feet were slowly turning into hoofs. And of all animals Pondus loved the bull the most for he loved to ride a bull and he had heard the words of a prophet telling him that he would be swooped up in the clutches of a great bull who would entrance him and together they would sweep into the sky and take away Dolarus' golden crown and subjugate all the peoples of the world.

Pondus watched and waited and the voices of the universe were in a torment, and there were voices shouting that Euro looked most bear-like and that Pondus should 'beware!' and fly with all dispatch out of the tent and into the forest because the bear would surely eat up Pondus; and there were voices in the firmament telling Pondus that no, the features of the beast were more bull-like than bear, and that the bull was the animal on which Pondus would ride in triumph across the whole world.

Pondus thought that he would go mad and that every part of his nature would be cleft in two by the voices shouting for him to go in or out of the beast. He shivered with fear and watched and waited as the bear's claws extended towards him. And somewhere in the features of the beast, in a shape neither bull nor bear, Pondus thought he spied the features of Marcus, whom once he had slain, but who had lived to be born anew in the innards of the beast.

(My translation from Old Norse; illustration by Karen McCann)

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Mishima Returns to Tokyo

In November last year I spent 10 days in Tokyo attending a conference: that might not sound like the most exciting of opening lines but for me it represented a double revolution. Until last year, 'conferences' and 'Tokyo' were two things I simply did not do. 

Before last year, I had only been to one conference in my life when, as a hard-up post-grad student in the mid 1990s, I was encouraged to attended a two day literary conference in Nagoya. Bereft of funds, I took an achingingly slow bus from Kobe to get there and then slept through two days of excruciatingly boring papers on such exciting themes as 'Post-Lacanian Stream of Narrative Correlatives in Polysemic Discourse: A Multi-textual Consideration of the Early Poems of Obscure Japanese Poets'. 

Soon afterwards, I pulled the escape cord on my fledgling university career and consequently failed to register the blindingly obvious: that conferences - preferably in as exotic and luxurious locations as possible - are what scholars consider their reward and their raison d'etre. 

Meanwhile there was my Tokyo phobia: when I was 20, I spent a term at the International Christian University in Tokyo and lived in a little shack by a railway line under some electricity pylons, which every day I imagined falling on top of me when the long-overdue calamitous 'Big One' struck. Leaving Tokyo (or more accurately the suburb of Kichijoji) after four months, I disappeared to Kansai and thereafter for the next 25 years studiously avoided returning, believing that to do so would cause the deaths of millions of innocents. 

In truth, extreme circumstances did force me on two occasions to spend a few days in Tokyo and I had the time of my life, partying with Bacchanial excess in the bars and clubs of Roppongi and Shinjuku, giving myself over to end-of-world abandon like the guards in Hitler's bunker. 

'Would I like to appear on national television?', I was asked once or twice. No, not if it meant going to Tokyo (of course it did). Would I like to be the keynote speaker at some Tokyo university event? What? And cause a devastating earthquake! NO WAY!

What changed my thinking was coming to realize how monumentally unsafe every part of Japan is (as painfully evidenced by events in Kyushu in the last week). A double page spread in the Asahi newspaper recently showed 30 metre waves striking the entire southern seabord of central Japan when the Nankai plate moved. In the circumstances, could I really maintain a resistance to Tokyo? 

And as for conferencing, I happened to be invited last September to speak at a three day conference in Durham (see my blog: 'Celebrating the Life of Lafcadio Hearn') which I enjoyed enormously. This was conferencing at its very best with expert contributors from Ireland and Greece offering multi-faceted perspectives on the complex Irish-Greek background of Lafcadio Hearn. 

Then, an invitation to a Mishima Conference in Tokyo came in. Taking a look over the starry assemblage marshalled for the conference - including novelists, theatre directors, photographers, distinguished academics - I could only conclude that this conference was likely to be rather different to the dull affair in Nagoya I had endured 20 years earlier. 

In mid November I emerged blinking out of Tokyo Station as bewildered by my surroundings as any first time visitor to Japan. I clutched in my hand a copy of Baedeker's Tokyo circa 1990 (nothing has changed, right?) and discovered I had not a clue where I was, the Tokyo of my mind being confusingly at variance with the overwhelming vista of skyscrapers and indecipherable subway maps before my eyes. With a little difficulty - and determined come what may I would never suffer the indignity of hailing a taxi - I eventually found my way to Shibuya and on from there to the Komaba Campus of Tokyo University. 

So complete was my Tokyo alienation that until this trip I never actually knew that Tokyo University had any campus apart from its central Hongo one and was surprised to discover how wooded and leafy Komaba was despite being only a couple of stops from one of the busiest traffic centres in the world. I'd been booked into Tokyo University's guest house and somehow took it into my head that all the conference participants would all also be staying there. I imagined that when I pulled through the doors with my bags, dozens of heads would swivel on bar stools and a greeting of 'Yo, Damian! What kept ya?' would go up.

In fact the guest house was entirely deserted apart from an old man on reception who informed that there was no wifi on the campus and in 1990s fashion offered me a long ethernet cable. From that point on, for the next week, I was effectively cut off from the outside world.   

Again contrary to expectation, I discovered I had been allocatted a spacious suite with a walk-in closet and views of trees on all sides. I descended to a sleepy French bistro on the ground floor and discovered only one table occupied with some musicologists and a solitary Russian lady. 

The conference was a three day event stretching over two consecutive weekends. The first day's gala proceedings were held in the very hall where Yukio Mishima himself had engaged in a famous debate with left wing student radicals in 1968 (picture of me above in front of the hall), which from the beginning lent the event a considerable aura of authenticity. I was slightly confused to be greeted at the entrance by all types of Japanese people who somehow seemed to know who I was, so after collecting a plethora of Mishima merchandising and goodies (posters; DVDs; a book; flyers) made my way to the front of the main hall and settled down in the 'participants enclosure' at the front, a couple of rows back from the stage. 

The whole day had a distinct air of opera about it in the sense that people-spotting in the audience was at least as fascinating as observing what was happening on the stage. I was sitting on the right, but looked over to the left of the hall and noticed some of the American scholar participants including Dennis Washburn of Dartmouth College, whom I had never met but had recently interviewed by email for the Japan Times in connection with his new translation of The Tale of Genji. I saw that I was sitting quite close to Professor Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit of Berlin's Freie Universitat and began to mentally amuse myself with the idea that we should set up a Ryder Cup of Europe vs America Mishima scholars.

The conference organizer bustling about the front was the redoubtable Takashi Inoue (pictured with me, above right) and it gave me a little frisson of pleasure to greet him. About 4 or 5 years earlier when I had commenced research on Mishima, the first thing I did was to go to a bookshop and randomly buy some Japanese books and take them home and read them. The first book I read was by the very same Takashi Inoue: it's a little bit of magic when you go from contemplating someone's work on your sofa in the UK to being invited to hook up with them in Tokyo. The other author I particularly enjoyed when researching Mishima was Naoki Inose, the former governor of Tokyo, whose biography of Mishima I read both in Japanese and twice in English (the English version is majorly expanded by Hiroaki Sato). I wondered whether I would also meet Naoki Inose at this conference. 

Things got off to a fairly unremarkable start, but then the Ryder Cup round commenced when Professor Hijiya-Kirschnereit (pictured below) took to the stage and read out in Japanese a paper discussing Mishima's modelling of his novel 'Forbidden Colours' on Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice'. At risk of invoking every Germanic stereotype, this was rather like watching a precision instrument Audi roll over the production line. 

I'd been looking forward to meeting Keith Vincent of Boston University, who has been regularly posting on Facebook a series in which he translates and contextualizes the poems of haiku master Masaoka Shiki. Keith arrived a little bit late, having only just flown in, and assumed a central position. As I strained to follow the stream of Japanese speeches on the stage, I watched him flip open a tablet and start furiously tapping away at something, as if having decided to quickly hack into the Pentagon before being distracted by anything else. 

At that moment, the doors at the right hand side of the stage opened, and the figure of the venerable Donald Keene - 93 years young and undisputed don of Japanese Literature scholars - appeared and was escorted to a place in front of the stage. Soon after he assumed the stage and made his presentation (pictured below), recalling the very first time he met Mishima back in the 1950s, in the days when Mishima used to see him off at train platforms. I've always felt that Donald has probably got a few revelations about Mishima tucked up his sleeve, but he certainly wasn't revealing them on this occasion. 

Decorum is of course important, or at least I thought so until the day's proceedings were electrified by the appearance on stage of Masahiko Akuta (pictured below), one of the erstwhile student radicals who had engaged Mishima in such heated debate back in 1968. If there is any way to grow old, this is how to do it. Akuta, now in his 60s, sported long hair, swivelled about manically on a chair on stage, ranted about how the emperor was nothing more than an ordinary man and generally displayed a refreshing take-me-as-I-am attitude. We also got to see some footage of him in debate with Mishima in 1968 and you only regretted that Mishima himself could not now be called to stage for a 47th anniversary riposte. 

At the end of Day One, with it pouring rain outside, there was food and drinks party in one of Tokyo University's restaurants, but the American contingent, clearly having the worst of the day's golf, retired to their palatial hotels in central Tokyo while the Europeans drank themselves to oblivion with the Japanese guests. It's always my policy at such functions to completely ignore etiquette and work the room, meeting everyone. This generally works successfully and I was interested to meet both the poet Mutsuo Takahashi - an intimate of Mishima from back in the 1960s - and British scholar James Raeside of Keio University. On only one occasion did I present a name card only to be told, 'But I've received yours already...'    

On Day Two proceedings moved to less operatic, though still sizeable seminar room. There were the usual spate of acdemic presentations, though easily the most memorable was a talk that was so monotone that one after another heads in the room, after resisting as long as humanly possible, dropped forwards and backwards into sleep. Entire rows were sleeping but the delivery went on and on. A distinguished academic caught my eye and gave me the giggles and I only narrowly managed to avoid breaking into unwarrantable mirth. 

In the afternoon, I was due to make my own presentation, having frantically tapped something into my tablet the night before. A couple of Japanese friends had come up specially to Tokyo University for the afternoon. Keith was up first and delivered an entertaining piece comparing Mishima with Gore Vidal. I was considerably distracted however by Kozo Kyoizumi, a company president from Osaka with whom I am friends, suddenly dropping into the seat next to me. On this occasion, having surprised me with his unexpected presence, he nonchalantly said to me, 'Damian, I'll take you anywhere in Tokyo tonight you like. Let's go to some really great restaurant. Where do you fancy?'

At that point I had to hop onto my feet and make my presentation, a condensation of my argument about Mishima's lifelong obsession with time and time-keeping instruments and symbols. At the end a hand in the audience went up. It was the poet Mutsuo Takahashi. 'Here we go', I thought, half-wondering if he was about to attack everything I'd said. In fact, Takahashi told a little anecdote about how the first time Mishima had arranged to meet him on the Ginza, the appointment time was 6pm. Feeling nervous of meeting such a celebrity, Takahashi had got there early. As it got close to 6pm, a boy appeared with a message: 'Mishima-sensei says he is going to be 7 minutes late'. 'Why 7 minutes?', Takahashi thought, marvelling at the strangely precise number. Needless to say, exactly 7 minutes later Mishima appeared...

If you want to know the value of conferences, then you have it here in a nutshell. My personal theory of Mishima - dreamt up while reading books 40 years after Mishima's death - was here corroborated by someone with personal knowledge. I felt relieved, which is perhaps why I soon after acquiesced to taking early leave of the day's proceedings and departing in a taxi with Kozo Kyoizumi and my dear friend the calligrapher Misuzu Kosaka - specially up from Kobe - and heading up to a hotel in Shiba Park for a banquet meal. On a roll, I regaled my friends with my new 'killer theory' that is to be the subject of a new book.

was sorry however to have missed the after-event drinks of Day Two with the other participants (letting down the European Ryder Cup team), but had the pleasure of catching up the next day with Keith and his Boston University colleague Sarah Frederick as they ransacked a second hand bookshop in the Kanda district, looting it of scores upon scores of literary works that were to be shipped back to the US east coast.

I now had a few days at my disposal until the climactic Day Three of the conference at Aoyama Gakuin University and took pleasure in rediscovering Tokyo, embarking every day on marathon walks that sometimes took me from Ueno to Roppongi and from Asakusa to Shinjuku. I also had the pleasure of dining at an exclusive ryotei in the government district of Nagatacho with some top government officials and advisors, whom I wasted not a second of time in attempting to convince of the need of creating an Arthur Waley Foundation dispensing an annual Arthur Waley Prize for the best book in English on Japan. (This project is ongoing, watch this space.)

One morning the buzzer went in my guest house room and Takashi Inoue appeared at my door bearing hot coffee and danish pastries. He also invited me to a conference within a conference, when I attended a commemorative event for the writer Hiroshi Noma, a left wing writer who wrote a monumental work called 'Ring of Youth'. After the event I grabbed some noodles with Keio University professor James Raeside who told me about the various books he had written that he had not 'got round' to publishing. James is an extremely modest person who speaks excellent Japanese, but told me that his French was 'quite a bit better'.  

By nice timing, on the final day of the conference, I was running a double page spread in the Japan Times on Mishima featuring the iconic pictures from Eikoh Hosoe's 'Punishment by Roses' so it was nice to show the veteran photographer his work in that day's newspaper as he regaled us with the story of how the photoshoot took place. There was much interest too when the stage director Amon Miyamoto, impeccably dressed, appeared and discussed his forthcoming production of Mishima's 'Temple of the Golden Pavilion'. James Raeside gave an insightful presentation on Mishima's abilities as a playwright, in which he quietly demolished Donald Keene's argument that Mishima was in the same league as Shakespeare and Racine as a dramatist: when Mishima's 'Madame de Sade' played on the London stage, he related, it was savaged by one critic as a torrent of purple prose. 

At the very end of the conference, there was a summation of all the talks and at a question and answer session, I observed a slumped figure in a chair, self-importantly criticizing both the day's event and the organizer. 'Who on earth was this presumptious little man?', I wondered. Afterwards we all went for dinner and drinks and to my consternation I discovered that the surly fellow had tagged along and was seated at the end of the table. Whatever happens, I thought, I do NOT want to sit next to him. Instead I seated myself at the other end of the table and embarked on a conversation with Mutsuo Takahashi about Mishima's shifting sexuality which somehow morphed into Takahashi's observations of the size of Mishima's penis.

'Flanagan Sensei, have you met Inose Sensei?', I was suddenly asked. What? 
Naoki Inose was here? 'Yes, he's sitting at the end of the table.' 

To my amazement, I discovered that the person I was most studiously avoiding was the person I had actually most wanted to meet. Thinking I had probably discussed Mishima's penis enough, I lifted myself up and transferred myself to a spot in the corner directly opposite Inose, who was chain smoking and still seemed to be basking in his own self regard. 'Who are you again?' he twice asked the charming Italian scholar of Butoh next to me. In such circumstances I always think it best to give as good as you get and so interrupted him by saying, 'You really need to remember her name!' Inose's eyes widened slightly and from that point on, conversation and sake flowed...(picture below with l to r, Naoki Inose, Takashi Inoue and Mutsuo Takahashi).

It was a glorious evening in Tokyo and I continued on to a hole-in-the-wall bar in Shinjuku's Kabuki-cho, where I enagaged in a bantering debate about the future of Kabuki. Then I remembered I had a flight the next morning and disappeared in a flurry leaving a hat behind. 

I am now a proudly conference-able species. Tokyo, my nemesis, inevitably calls me back for a return gig at the University of Tokyo in September, when I will be joining a distinguished panel. If you are a lover of literature, please come along. My fear of earthquakes has not gone away, but won't stop me: besides, I need to go back and rescue my hat.