Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Four Fours

The other day, at the supermarket, I think it was the same day Cesaria Evora died, when I was completing my transaction, I was a little taken aback to see that the change came out to exactly 4,444 yen, a number with not much significance to a typical Westerner, but fraught with peril for Japanese. Four, or shi 四, has the same pronunciation as the word for death — hence the aversion. For four fours to be stacked together like this was formidable.

Who were the four? Well, first there was Christopher Hitchens, whom I wrote about a few days ago here. Then Evora, the lovely Portuguese singer from Ivory Coast whom I remember seeing live some years back in Berkeley. Then Václev Havel, author of The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, last President of Czechoslovakia, first President of the Czech Republic. Finally Kim Jong Il.

Certainly scores of people have died around the world in the last week — these are only a few of the notables among many. But I'm a superstitious blogger. So I match each four of my change to a name.

Of these, the Korean dictator interests me the least. Frankly the threat of that depressing regime elicits mainly a yawn — even if I do happen to live within missile range of his apparently trigger-happy son.

Of the four, as a historical figure, Havel, leader of a revolution that smacked communism down, will be remembered longest.  But as a writer — I really don't know. Mainly it has to do with this nagging question: can a man of letters, of literature — any artist really — become a political figure without in the end polluting the spring of creativity from which the words flow?

I guess it depends on what type of artist you are; what you think art ultimately can or should do. For Havel, a lifelong dissident, living within a system he wanted to erase, living without the luxury, perhaps, of complete artistic freedom, the notion of pure art, or art for art's sake would have had very little meaning.

But still, for a writer entering the stink hole of politics, the danger cannot be overstated. Perhaps Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru's 2010 Nobel Laureate, summed it up best in his "Fleeting Impression of Vaclev Havel": "....almost inevitably politics degrades the language in which it is expressed, that its discourse sooner or later falls into stereotypes or clichés, that it is rarely authentic or personal since what is politic to say always takes primacy over what should be said."

Havel was certainly aware of the danger. In his play The Garden Party, Pludek, the father, keeps spouting maxims and clichés: "The middle classes are the backbone of the nation." "He who fusses about a mosquito net can never hope to dance with a goat.""Not even the Hussars of Cologne would go into the woods without a clamp." (Your guess is as good as mine as to the meaning of some of those.)

Of course, both Llosa and Havel recognized the differences between political discourse and literary language. And it was precisely because of this moral laxity or laziness of other politicians that Havel chose to write his own speeches.  Llosa speaks of Havel being aware of "the Machiavellian conflict, sometimes latent and sometimes explicit, but always inevitable, between efficacy and truth."

Havel knew that pressure, but resisted it. Or so he said. "I can guarantee that in the pursuit of government, I have never lied." Interestingly, this statement reveals nothing about his art.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Dumpster 0108

"We, too, are natural."
"When the sea and sky are cleaned up, the whole environment becomes beautiful."

Cue corny violin.

Friday, December 16, 2011

That's What Killed the Old Man

By now I'm sure anyone with half an internet connection or a TV is aware that the writer Christopher Hitchens has passed away.

Other than marking his new book Arguably as "to read" on Goodreads about a month or two ago based on an article I read in the New York Times, I can honestly say he was almost entirely off my radar. If I had read his reviews or essays in Slate or The Nation or Vanity Fair, I had never put the name to a personality, I was never conscious of "following" Christopher Hitchens.

Until last night, that is. As I was strolling here and there on the internet, I somehow meandered from a Wikipedia entry on Rudolph Steiner and anthroposophy (whatever that is) to the god-awful looking Goetheanum, to discussions on the philosophy of freedom, to trying to wrap my head around the statement "mathematics is a kind of thinking in which thought itself forms the perceptions," to the cult of Joseph Smith and the Church of the Latter Day Saints, to a video of Mitt Romney talking in his fake "I'm trying to be so sincere" way to an old gay soldier who was asking him about marital rights, to finally a critique of religion by Hitchens. All of that was followed by a couple of hours of watching him on YouTube skillfully and suavely eviscerate opponents and shibboleths.

I watched the profile on him on 60 Minutes from this March. I peeked through my fingers at the smarmy Anderson Cooper interviewing him last year ("Hitchens, God, and Cancer.") I watched pre-cancer interviews and talk show appearances. I watched him talk honestly and acerbically about his vices and beliefs.

Then I went to bed. In the middle of the night I came upon him on a desolate country road with dead yellow stalks of grass blowing in the cold wind. Hitchens, gaunt and unshaven, wearing a giant black full-length wool coat, held a tattered piece of cloth up at me — he was somehow simultaneously both threatening me and pleading for help. His anguish and my fear were both real and extreme. I'm told that I woke up shout-murmurring, which eventually trailed off into a whimper.

This morning I decided I had to buy his latest book and read it, so I downloaded it from the Apple Store and perused the Table of Contents and the Introduction. I read a little bit of it here and there. I wondered if he was still alive.

Two or three hours later, Breaking News on the front page of The New York Times: Christopher Hitchens has died.

This evening, in class, I taught the word coincidence to one of my students. But he wasn't interested, or perhaps just couldn't relate. A navel gazer turning circles around a little island. All just too much after a hard day at work.

But I'm not really convinced that my dream and Hitchens's death were a coincidence. Not really convinced that's how the world works. Not really convinced either by Hitchens's brave stand of atheism:

“The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”
— from The Portable Atheist

It is entirely possible that what you wish for is what you get. Angry and confused on the way out. I don't pretend to know what happens at the time of death, but I much more inclined to think along Tibetan Buddhist lines:

The Buddhist view is that at the time of death the subtle consciousness, which carries with it all the karmic imprints from previous lives, separates from the body. After spending up to forty-nine days in an intermediate state between lives, the consciousness enters the fertilised egg of its future mother at or near the moment of conception. New life then begins. We bring into our new life a long history of previous actions with the potential to ripen at any time or in any of a myriad ways.

The state of mind at the time of death is vitally important and can have a considerable effect on the situation into which we are reborn. Hence the need to prepare well for death and to be able to approach our death with a peaceful, calm and controlled mind. (from Healing: A Tibetan Buddhist Perspective)

If nothing else, we can leave this life in a hopeful state. We can look forward to death. It's very hard for me to agree with Hitchens that there is "nothing more."

And I'm sorry I had to run away from him on the road.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Today's Kanji Revelation

The kanji for whale

鯨 = 魚 + 京

kujira    equals      fish        plus       capitol

as in the western and eastern capitols: Kyōto 京都 and Tōkyō 東京.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Kanji Study Sunday

The kanji for house. いえ。A place to keep a roof (the top radical) over your pig's (bottom radical) head.
Thankfully houses have evolved, even if the character hasn't.
One I particularly like in Imabari.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

For Those of You Studying Japanese

Penguin has just come out with a book of contemporary short stories with English and Japanese on facing pages. Nicely, the Japanese has the furigana or ruby over the kanji so one need not spend all one's time looking up unfamiliar words in the dictionary.

Authors include Murakami Haruki, Yoshimoto Banana, Koike Masayo, Ishii Shinji, and others.

From the introduction by Editor (and translator) Michael Emmerich (with a dash of hyperbole):
So here we are. Something amazing is happening. We are standing right on the verge of it. We are, in fact, already a part of it, in its sway — and so is this floppy little book you hold in your hands: the incredible thrill of starting to read, for pleasure, in a language that seemed for so long as if it had been designed expressly to exasperate and discourage. There is a community of people, growing steadily larger, who share the excitement of knowing two very different, very rich languages, and we are joining it.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bashō Passed Through Fukushima Once

In 1689 Matuso Bashō went on a long walk, starting in Edo (present day Tokyo) and ending 2400 kilometers later in Ōgaki, Gifu Prefecture sometime in 1691.

On his way he passed through Fukushima. After bumbling around in the mountains looking fruitlessly for a purple, floppy-eared iris named katsumi — calling out "katsumi, katsumi" as he went along — Bashō poked about Kurozuka no Iwaya (the cave-house of Kurozuka, home to a she-devil) before searching for lodging in Fukushima.

Passing strange then. Passing strange now.