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.