Books show people at their best; Twitter at their worst

I’ve gone off the socials lately. I got really sad for a few days and was like, the socials are just making me unhappy. Not because of envy: mostly because of how dumb and transphobic everyone is. The number of people who are overtly transphobic in my end of the literary world is just depressing. It’s like you either like old books or think trans women are women; you have to choose. Old books or trans women. I obviously can find lots of literary people who think TW are W (TWaW will be my abbreviation from now on), but they mostly don’t like old books, so while I feel affirmed by them and count many of them as my friends, there’s not as much point interacting with them as literary people, because our literary interests don’t necessarily align.

Anyway that’s why I’m not on Twitter. Facebook is much, much better, but I’m just not used to being on it as much. I used to facebook friend people as soon as I met them, to really lock in the friendship, but I got out of the habit.

Now that I’m not on the socials, when I think of something to say about something, I have to hunt down someone who actually knows about that thing, and then text it to them (or just not say the thing at all). My life is very hard

I’m still reading Kagero Nikki–Diary of a Mayfly–a book by a nameless woman known only to history as Mitsishune’s mother.1 There’s a persistent strand in literary criticism that’s about the invention of the self. I’ve never really understood the concept, but I guess the idea is that with the rise of capitalism, people felt more mechanized and more deracinated from their communities–at the same time, they were provided with a large number of ways to individualize themselves. Thus, literature became obsessed with discovering the authentic self.

The implication is that somehow people in prior times weren’t self-reflective and didn’t conceptualize themselves as individual actors. Seems a bit iffy to me. Mitsishune’s mother seems to have a healthy sense of self. She is very, very sad, because her husband ignores her. The purpose of her life is to serve as consort to this very important man–and she’s beautiful and really good at poetry–but he just doesn’t seem to come around very often.

In the part I just finished, Mitsishune’s mother retreated to the mountains, threatening to become a nun, but her husband and son force her to come home because it looks bad for their wife and mother to abandon their household. She comes back, but she’s changed–she doesn’t care as much about her husband. She concocts a scheme to adopt his illegitimate daughter and displace some of her energies that way. Somehow her time in the mountains has made her a bit otherworldly, and her husband remains suspicious–he suspects her of continuing to pray and do religious stuff.

Reading the book, it’s unbelievable that it was begun in 972 AD. The people seem so real and present. And I was thinking of everything I know about 972. It was a very active time in world history. The Byzantine empire was at a local peak, having incorporated Armenia. The Song dynasty is about to unite China. Central Asia is at the peak of its influence: the Samanid empire is at its height, and the cities of modern-day Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are probably the richest and most culturally vibrant places in the world; Ferdowsi is composing the Shah Nameh. Avicenna is about to be born. Most of our surviving Anglo Saxon manuscripts are being written or are about to be written in England. Otto II is dreaming of re-founding the Roman Empire. Vikings are establishing a state in Ukraine that will someday become Russia. The toltecs dominated the Mexican highlands. The Mississippi culture was developing: in a few years they would begin to create the largest precolumbian America. Just thinking of all these people, one wonders what it would’ve been like if they could’ve spoken. This woman, Mitsishune’s mother, was clearly capable of such feeling and was drawn to contemplation and to the higher world. What would’ve happened if she could’ve been at the court of John Tzimmiskes? Or gone to Bukhara?

Well, who knows–but that’s exactly the situation we are in today, and yet people seem so defeated by these possibilities. I think though that we can see the best of people or their worst. Twitter is people at their worst. Yeah they might like old books, but they don’t talk about the books, they just talk about how much they don’t believe TWaW.

Whereas in books (and, to a lesser extent, essays), we see people at their best. Yeah Mitsishune’s mother was a bit of a whiner: her life was better than 99 percent of people alive in 972, but she was also a sensitive soul and a great poet, and she made something beautiful.

It’s exciting! I can read a book written in Japan in 972–that’s something most people in 972 couldn’t do. Now does it mean anything? Will it change the price of butter? No! But it’s an incredible aesthetic experience, if we allow ourselves to feel it.

  1. The translation I’m reading, which is AFAIK the only easily available translation, is available for free at this address! Go, go read it, go read it and see. The explanatory notes are also really good, although it’s a bit awkward that they come before the page to which they refer, instead of after it. Oh wait, I see now there’s another translation by Edward Seidensticker. He’s a really good translator, and he did, IMHO, the best translation of Genji. Now I don’t know what to pick. It’s annoying that he translated the title so differently, or I’d have read his. This is something that happens quite frequently with East Asian literature: people use such different titles that you literally can’t tell if a book has actually been translated or not. But Sonja Arntzen’s translation (the one I’ve been reading) is quite good! 

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