Thursday, 9 November 2017

Wandering a Psychological Ice Palace

In the northern hemisphere we are approaching the coldest part of the year so I thought I might talk about a couple of favourite novels called 'The Ice Palace' and 'The Birds' by the great Norwegian author Tarjei Vesaas:

It is winter time in Norway. At the edge of a rural village a waterfall has frozen and been transformed into an ice palace, an awesome structure of icy caves and cliffs. In a classroom at the local school, there is a new arrival, an eleven-year-old girl called Unn. She is quiet and enigmatic and so she is regarded with suspicion by her new classmates. But suddenly she forms a mysterious bond with a popular girl called Siss.

Siss invites Unn to the home where she lives with her aunt. It is almost as if there is a kind of strange telepathy between the two girls and an immediate intimacy. Unn has a secret that she wishes to share with the other girl, but Siss begins to feel uncomfortable and leaves. They will never meet again. The following day, Unn sets out to the ice palace on her own and becomes lost inside it. Then the search for her begins...

The Ice Palace, the novel published in 1963 by Tarjei Vesaas, is a work like no other. Broodingly written in a beautiful prose that demonstrates a powerful economy with words, it explores a difficult and fascinating subject: the mindset of children on the edge of puberty. The children are presented not as immature minors, but rather in their own terms, as persons not yet dulled into set patterns of behaviour, and capable of sudden impulsive acts that conform to their own sense of logic. More so than adults they are intuitive and expressive and alive to the mysteries of the world around them. We feel exactly what it must be like to be eleven-year-old girls interacting with one another, but we also explore how one person can enter into another's consciousness like an eternal presence, whose physical disappearance will haunt her for the rest of her days.

Tarjei Vesaas was born in Vinje in Telemark, Norway, in 1897. His family were farmers who had lived in the same house for over 300 years, and a strong sense of place and age-old tradition are central to the setting in many of his novels. Vesaas attended a local folk school and then in the 1920s travelled abroad, mainly in Germany, before returning to live in his native region from 1927 onwards. His wife Halldis Vesaas was also a writer.

Themes such as psychological isolation, guilt and death frequently recur in Vesaas' works. His 1957 novel The Birds, for example, tells the story of a mentally handicapped 37-year-old man called Mattis. He lives with his sister Hege who is slightly older and looks after him. Mattis is constantly aware of being a burden on his sister, who tries to make ends meet by knitting sweaters and encourages her brother to go out and find some work. He begs for work on a neighbouring farm and is asked to help thinning out turnips, but is humiliated by his inability to do the work properly.

Vesaas depicts Mattis in such a way that we see that although he is incapable of doing many basic tasks, of even forming his own thoughts into intelligent conversation, he is by no means lacking in thoughts. He has an innate feeling for the natural world – and indeed it is a great theme of Vesaas that it is those who are isolated from the ordinary adult world like Unn in The Ice Palace and Mattis in The Birds who most vividly connect to the primeval forces of nature.

It is almost as if the people in the ordinary adult world have had their senses numbed by the round of work and social interaction. When a woodcock flies over Mattis' house, it is for him an event of great significance which is entirely incomprehensible to his sister. A local boy hearing about the woodcock comes and pointlessly shoots it – yet only Mattis perceives this as a great tragedy, an affront to the majesty and beauty of the natural world.

Both The Ice Palace and The Birds are full of dark and mysterious symbols. In The Birds two wilted aspen trees are referred to by the people in the village as Mattis-and-Hege, but though both brother and sister are aware of this, they try to keep this insulting information from the other. When lightning strikes and one of the trees falls, Mattis panics that this is a sign that one of them will soon die – but which one of them will it be?

Vesaas' stories are both beautiful and deceptively simple. Reading about the ice palace, for example, almost makes one wish to head up into the north of Norway to find one. It is as if there exists in the frozen wastes something pure and powerful and wonderful, which is solid and yet appears almost as a mirage and then suddenly melts and disappears. It seems a metaphor for the very process of life itself – we wander around a psychological palace with many chambers. But perhaps we are most alive to its power and majesty, its deepest mysteries, not when we are adults but rather in the far-off days of our childhood when everything was new, when we acted on instinct and experienced everything with fresh eyes. When it made just as much sense to wander off on one's own to explore a frozen waterfall as it did to sit in a class and learn everything second-hand and written down.

Monday, 19 June 2017

12 Books to See the UK Through Brexit

Albeit that the recent UK General Election has now delivered a "strong and stable government", it's going to be a long 2 year slog through the Brexit process which formally began today.

It's going to be 1940 all over again: Britain alone, clinging on valiantly against the odds, facing the combined might of the Continent. We will fret whether we are going to survive at all, but secretly we will be rejoicing at having a chance of another long-overdue "finest hour" to triumph over the doom-sayers.

We are going to need to have some fine reads by our side to keep our peckers up and keep Britannia safe and sound. Here are my 12 essential reads to see us through.

1. "On Liberty" by John Stuart Mill. (1859)

Listen Frau Merkel and Monsieur Macron, when Mill (pictured left) wrote this eternal paean to freedom, Bismarck was cranking up his political career in Prussia and the French Second Empire was yet to collapse into the chaos of the failed revolution of the 1871 Paris Commune. Mill preferred a more gentle, quintessentially British approach to liberty - not something to be attempted in fits and starts, but something that infuses the whole culture of the land and its people. Wave a copy with pride and send one to Herr Juncker.

2. "Goodbye to All That" by Robert Graves. (1929)

We fought for European freedom on the battlefields of the Somme and Passchendaele and look what thanks we got...Robert Graves called it right in 1929. We're disillusioned with getting embroiled in the continent and we'll happily give up residency rights - just so long as we can retire on Mallorca and all the other sweet Mediterranean islands.

3. "1984" by George Orwell. (1949)

Orwell had it precisely: Britain should never have been part of "Eurasia" and always belonged to "Oceania". We were always going to get back to the open sea...Now we are out of the way, the EU can get on with a stream-lined supranational state with an unquestioned Big Brother president. Let's have a double think about sex crimes though.

4. "The Trial" by Franz Kafka. (1925)

Joseph K wakes up one morning and finds himself threatened with a gruelling legal process. He bitterly grumbles about it, and yet races obediently to the court hearing though not even summoned....Joseph, why don't you just tell them all to take a flying leap? The trial exists not so much in reality as in Joseph K's own obeisant mind...No deal better than a bad deal? You better believe it.

5. "Far from the Madding Crowd" by Thomas Hardy. (1874)

OK, so Hardy Country can be excruciatingly tedious and lead you fumbling for your passport and the next flight to the continent. But hey, there's something comforting about all those rolling green fields and timeless English ways. Grim and occasionally depressing? Sure, but in a comforting British sort of grumbling, miserable way.

6. "Whisky Galore" by Compton MacKenzie. (1947)

Who even cares if we don't get a trade deal? We've got all the stuff the French want anyway. If we can't sell them our Scottish whisky, we can drink it all ourselves. How wonderful would that be?

7. "Casino Royale" by Ian Fleming. (1953)

You think the negotiations are going to be difficult and that we are going to have to hold our nerve? Thankfully we have just the man for the job. Just make sure his martini is very cold and very strong. It's Bond against Le Chiffre: stylish courage pitted against underhand bureaucracy. Just hold on to your vital parts if they sit you down in a chair with the seat cut out...

8. "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley. (1818)

Mary Shelley could see it all coming when she jotted down this Gothic horror by a lake in Switzerland 200 years ago. Stitch together a lot of discarded limbs of European states and pump some political currents through them and this is what you get: a rampaging EU monster that is going to take some stopping. We should perhaps try and arrange the Brexit negotiations near the North Pole and lure the EU team into the icy wilderness.

9. "Victory" by Joseph Conrad. (1915)

Let's not get carried away. Conrad meant the title of this book ironically (he was one of those Polish migrants turned British gent after all). But still we need something to give us a bit of vim and remind us of the glorious British Empire and trade routes throughout the world, before we got hung up on this whole European project. Did someone say "Robinson Crusoe"? Never heard of it.

10. "Vile Bodies" by Evelyn Waugh. (1930)

Whatever happens we have to retain our sense of humour. After all, we don't actually make anything any more. We just do the finance, make costume dramas and export comedians. We have to make sure that they don't put import tariffs on comedy or we are sunk. If all else fails we must flatter them in such a cunning, idiosyncratically British way that they don't even grasp that we are are having a hilarious joke at their expense.

11. "The Labyrinth of Solitude" by Octavio Paz. (1950)

Why is Mexico and and its people so very different to its neighbour the United States, Paz (pictured left) pondered. Hmm, because they have different cultural influences and histories, he concludes. But that's fine. Solitude is the new cool. Soon everyone will want it and Britain will be the go-to minotaur in the labyrinth.

12. "Crime and Punishment" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. (1866)

You've done the crime, now do the time. Why did you murder that kindly old lady who never listened to a word you said and bossed you about anyway? You crazy, crazy people. Get down on your knees and repent. We need the whole world to see that the EU does not take expressions of autonomy and individualism lying down.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

George Sand's Comical Evisceration of Mallorca

Over Easter I spent two weeks travelling around the Mediterranean island of Mallorca. For many British people, this is the very first place they visit when they venture overseas, but it took me a few decades to make the pilgrimage.

Unquestionably the most famous couple to have ever resided in Mallorca were the French novelist George Sand (1804-76) and her lover, the pianist Frederick Chopin (1810-49) who visited the island between November 1838 and March 1839. They eventually moved to the monastery in the beautiful mountain top town of Valldemosa, today a mecca for tourists. Sand's account of her travels, "A Winter in Mallorca" (1842), is sold throughout the island in a variety of languages.

Such vintage travel books can often be a considerable bore, but I thought I would give George Sand - whom I knew little about - a go and I am glad I did: "Winter in Mallorca" is a gem, a true travel classic. However it is considerably different to what you might expect. For one thing, Chopin (pictured right) is never actually mentioned, only obliquely referred to as Sand's sickly companion. Secondly, Sand is corruscating and often hilariously rude about the Spanish in general and the Mallorcans in particular, about whom she has scarcely a kind word to say.

In Sand's depiction, the Mallorca of 1838 is a savage, primitive place where the locals can be sniffed before they appear as they reek of olive oil and garlic and where the only thing that is cultivated properly on the island are the pigs (the only livestock allowed to be exported). There are no lodgings at all to be found in the capital Palma (population 36,000) because tenants have to provide their own windows which take six months to make.

The Mallorcans are depicted as keen to fleece foreigners of every penny they have and very reluctant to offer any hospitality, despite constantly pretending otherwise. Sand caustically writes,

"One cannot look at a picture, touch a piece of material, or lift up a chair, without being charmingly told: 'Esta a la disposicion de Usted.' [It is at your disposal'] But beware of accepting so much as a pin, for that would be an intolerable indiscretion."

Arriving at the hill-top monastery (pictured from approach road, left), Sand's most complimentary words are reserved for the housekeeper who she remarks "had once been good-looking". But the chambermaid is "the arch-witch of Valldemosa" and another young girl "a dishevelled little monster".

At the beginning of this book - which is today enthusiastically promoted in tourist outlets across the island - Sand tells us that, "The Spaniard is ignorant and superstitious; consequently he believes in infection, fears illness and death, lacks in faith and charity. Being miserable and overburdened by taxation he becomes greedy, selfish and deceitful in his dealings with foreigners."

As for Mallorca, the whole island is riven with corruption, cronyism and the psychological imprint of medieval practices. "When one asks on what a rich Majorcan spends his income in a country lacking all luxuries and temptations, the answer is to be found in a specially set aside wing of the house, filled with good-for-nothing loafers of both sexes, who after spending a year in service to their master, have the right to be lodged, clothed and boarded for the rest of their lives."

From the above, it might sound as if Sand simply rucked up in Mallorca and spewed out invective in all directions, but in fact there was a greater architecture of ideas at work. Sand believed passionately that France had evolved through the Revolution and the Napoleonic years into a socially advanced state that was far superior to Spain, still striving to free itself from the oppressions of the Inquisition, which had been abolished only a few years earlier. She saw France as a land of forward-looking art and industry, and Spain as a land of peasant superstition and corruption. Her greatest contempt is reserved for the unthinking or venal servants of the Catholic church in Spain, the hypocrite monks or blood-thirsty priests.

From a historical perspective, it's extremely revealing to understand what a cultural and developmental chasm divided France and Spain back in 1840. When we think today of European colonialism of the 19th century, we tend to think of the European nations as imposing themselves on other continents by virtue of industrial technology. But if you read "Winter in Mallorca", then it's plain to see that huge "development gaps" existed at the heart of Europe itself - Sand regards the large island of Mallorca, only 250 miles off the French coast as an uncivilized, savage place.

But instructive as Sand is about history, she is also insightful about so many universal constants of life. When Sand asks herself, "Why travel?", she provides this response: "Who amongst us has not, at some time, selfishly dreamed of forsaking his affairs, his habits, his acquaintances and even his friends, to settle in some enchanted island and live without worries, without responsibilities, and above all, without newspapers?"

Sand was of course a most extraordinary woman. Married and with two children, she left her husband and embarked upon some "wild" years, before hooking up with Chopin (statue of Chopin in front of the old monastery at Valldemosa, above). She sometimes wore men's clothes and smoked cigars. Her affair with Chopin came to a nasty Woody Allen-Mia Farrow style end ten years later when she accused Chopin of having long been in love with her daughter (Sand had travelled to Mallorca with her two children and Chopin). In her life she found time for affairs with a host of famous artists including Jules Sandeau, Prosper Merimee, Alfred de Musset, Pierre-Francois Bocage, Charles Didier, Felicien Mallefille, Louis Blanc...

But what would Sand (pictured left) have had to say to our current age, as we often shy away from criticizing ignorance and superstition for fear of offending sensibilities, even if the result is chronic social oppression? Sand was quite happy to have the grandest historical monuments torn down if it meant that in doing so people were eternally freed from the tortures - both of body and mind - of the Inquisition. We perhaps in the world today need more fearless free-thinking women like her.

Monday, 17 April 2017

The Man Who Came After Soseki

The wonderful Dr. Laurence Williams, who teaches English Literature at Tokyo University, posted an intriguing picture a couple of days ago of the grave at Zoshigaya Cemetery of his name-sake predecessor at Tokyo University, "Dr. John Lawrence", together with an amusing commentary. It seems that Tokyo University still lovingly tend the graves of their former professors, which is touching.

I hope Laurence won't mind if I write a few words of my own about "Dr. John Lawrence" who taught English literature at Tokyo University from 1906 until his death in 1916.

John Lawrence may today be an almost completely obscure figure, but he played a fascinating role in Japanese literary history. It's fairly well known that in early 1903 the great Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) - having been groomed for the position with two years study in London - took over as lecturer in English Literature at Tokyo University from the renowned Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). The appointment met with vociferous opposition of Hearn's students, who were hugely disappointed that the popular Irish writer was being forced out.

Despite being initially regarded with suspicion, Soseki soon turned things round and began to attract his own devotees at Tokyo University, even if his lectures were dauntingly analytical compared to Hearn's more artistic approach. Yet Soseki found his teaching burdens at the university increasingly onerous. He was also a lecturer at the First Higher School (a kind of proto-university and feed college for the super-elite Tokyo University): indeed his first wish had been to be a full professor at the First Higher College, but instead he was merely offered lectureships at The First Higher School and Tokyo University.

Soseki taught at Tokyo University alongside a foreign lecturer called Arthur Lloyd and, in a more minor capacity, a precocious literary scholar and poet called Ueda Bin, a Hearn protege brought in to quell the resentment at Hearn being released. The Japanese government's masterplan to replace Western scholars like Hearn with native talents like Soseki and Ueda Bin appeared to be working fine.

But soon everything started falling apart. For one thing, Soseki was increasingly turning against teaching and being an academic: in July 1906 he turned down a professorship at Kyoto University. Soseki wanted to be his own man and speak with his own voice and began pouring out creative works. He wanted out of Tokyo University, but since Soseki had been sent as a government paid scholar to England for two years, he felt rather guilty to just abandon his position. But if some distinguished foreign scholar on a full professorship was to come in to take his place...

At this point, the faculty decided to appoint John Lawrence, an associate of Professor Ker at University College, London, an expert on Medieval Lecture whose lectures Soseki had attended while in London in 1901 (Soseki did not think much of them). When Lawrence arrived in Tokyo in September 1906, he was 55 years old and spoke no Japanese. He had a wandering academic career that had seen him study and work in Paris, Berlin and Prague. He was taking over teaching duties from the greatest intellect of modern Japan: Soseki formally quit in February 1907.

More than that, Soseki's colleague Ueda Bin also quit in November of 1907 to go and study in Europe. The English faculty suddenly had no Japanese teachers at all and the chief responsibility for teaching lay with Japan-rookie, John Lawrence.

Just to add to the mayhem, it turned out that John Lawrence wasn't actually any good at literary criticism, indeed didn't do criticism at all. Lawrence belonged to the "old school" who believed that teaching about literary works consisted not in analyzing them with a fresh eye, but rather in drowning oneself in the minutiae of linguistic and historical details. (I think we all know a few scholars like that today...)

If you enter the world of Soseki's 1908 novel "Sanshiro" (pictured left), in which a student from Kyushu comes to Tokyo University to study English literature, there are clear references both to the fuss surrounding Soseki taking over from Hearn against student protest a few years earlier, and to the current style of classes under John Lawrence. Soseki indeed parodies Lawrence in a description of a class in which Sanshiro learns the Anglo-Saxon etymology of the word "answer".

Lawrence's speciality was such matters as Gothic (an extinct Germanic language) and Icelandic. There is a hilarious account in Nogami Toyoichiro's novel "Mina" of a character based upon him reading a Robbie Burns poem with his students and being asked what the Scots word "stroan't" meant. To his mortification, Lawrence had to explain it meant "urinated".

Unlike Hearn and Soseki, Lawrence published very little, but although he was not particularly admired by his undergraduate students, he was free of the occasionally abrasive personalities of Hearn and Soseki, whose creative impulses were at odds with the strictures of academia. Lawrence by contrast was perfectly suited to university life. He introduced seminars to the English Faculty, though students were required to pass exams to participate in them and only the most linguistically gifted students were accepted into his inner circle. But he would be treasured by a generation of top flight scholars of English literature, such as Saito Takeshi, who would go on to dominate critical studies over the following half century.

The genius short story writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke and playwright Kume Masao - two of Soseki's closest later disciples - were also graduates of the department under Lawrence. They are pictured here, Kume left and Akutagawa second right, alongside their fellow Tokyo University students future novelist Matsuoka Yuzuru second left - who went on to marry Soseki's eldest daughter - and the future writer Naruse Seiichi on the right. The four of them founded a literary magazine, "Shin-shicho" (" A New Trend of Thought") together.

The calibre of the teaching staff at the English Literature department of Tokyo University - boasting figures like Hearn, Soseki and Ueda Bin - was unsurpassed anywhere in the world. It was an extraordinary poisoned chalice for John Lawrence to be asked to take over from such huge talents.

Touching as it is that Tokyo University still tend the graves of their former professors, I can't help thinking the university should take greater pride in its exceptional literary heritage. Might I suggest it sometime run a symposium when it both celebrates and explores the story of English literature at Tokyo University and how it transformed the literature of modern Japan?

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 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 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.