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! 

“Long life brings many shames. At most before his fortieth year is full, it is seemly for a man to die.”

Been having a lot of self improvement energy lately. This happens to me periodically. I get amped, make a lot of plans, develop new systems and new ways of being, and oftentimes see really good results. I mean, I lost a lot of weight and kept most of it off for almost ten years now. Another time, I started waking up in the morning, even on weekends, and I've kept that up for going on 12 years now.

But oftentimes the improvements don't stick. I intended to keep losing weight and to become thin and muscular and toned. Never happened (in part because I developed knee pain due to exercising). I sometimes go gangbusters with new diets, and they always involve giving up or reducing sweets, and eventually my fervor slackens.

Thus, even at the height of my self-improvement projects, when I'm swimming in energy and anticipation, there's always the fear, "Is this the moment that I give up? Is this the moment when it becomes too hard?"

But that's part of life. I used to log everything I wrote and everything I did. For four years I wrote every single day, even if it was only fifty words. For a year, I put up a blog post every single day. I used to think, this is it, I've found it--I just need to make sure that every single day I do the things I'm supposed to, and that'll be the ticket to a good life. But eventually it started to seem silly and counterproductive and I stopped. My writing productivity didn't go down, but my blogging productivity did (or maybe I should say 'newslettering productivity' since blogs are passe but newsletters are cool?) and the traffic on this site has never recovered.

The other day I was using the 'random book' feature on my Calibre content server (the same one that served up that Otto Skorzeny memoir I blogged about yesterday) and it served up Donald Keene's <a href=" Anthology of Japanese Literature: From the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century (UNESCO Collection of Representative Works: European): 9780802150585: Keene, Donald: Books">Anthology of Japanese Literature from earliest era to the mid-19th Century. I've read a fair amount of ancient and Heian (10th-11th century) Japanese literature and a fair amount of contemporary Japanese literature, but didn't know much about the period in between, so I spent some time browsing through the book. I love anthologies like this, just because they alert me to new possibilities. At the same time, I thought, 'Shouldn't I actually be reading this book, instead of just skimming it?" And the answer is...maybe? But on the other hand, all I really wanted to know about was the development of Japanese prose. I certainly learned a lot about the intervening eras. After the Heian era, prose tended to either be historical romances (like the Tale of Heike) or short, often fantastical, stories, like the Bamboo-Cutter's Tale. Then in the 17th and 18th century, we see a resurgence of things that are closer to Genji--more focused on day-to-day life and realistic concerns. It was pretty fascinating! Anyway, while reading the book, I came across a few extracts from a 14th century manual called Essays in Idleness. According to this fellow, once you're past forty, you might as well bite the dust:

Truly the beauty of life is its uncertainty. Of all living things, none lives so long as man. Consider how the ephemera awaits the fall of evening, and the summer cicada knows neither spring nor autumn. Even a year of life lived peacefully seems long and happy beyond compare; but for such as never weary of this world and are loath to die, a thousand years would pass away like the dream of a single night.

What shall it avail a man to drag out till he becomes decrepit and unsightly a life which some day needs must end? Long life brings many shames. At most before his fortieth year is full, it is seemly for a man to die.

After that age it is pitiful to see how, unashamed of his looks, he loves to thrust himself into the society of others and, cherishing his offspring in the evening of his days, craves to live on and on that he may watch them grow and prosper. So he continues, his heart set on nought but worldliness, and hardening to the pity of things.

Japanese literature is truly special. No other literature impresses us so forcefully with both the beauty and the transience of life. Other literatures expound on the vanity of earthly things and a few other literatures manage to celebrate earthly things, but virtually every work of Japanese literature contains beautiful descriptions and hints of great sadness.

Anyway, I read this passage and was like, wow, at thirty-seven I might as well already be dead! Not one hundred percent sure how I weigh that against my fervor for self-improvement, but I do find it beautiful somehow that at thirty-seven I know that all my plans will eventually fail, and that I'll experience sorrow and failure again, and that in a year or two years or five years I'll once more be looking for new productivity systems and new ways of occupying myself and minimizing distraction. It's not that everything is futile, it's just nothing is permanent. It's like my bedside table. I cleaned it a few months ago, and then it got dirty again, and yesterday as I was cleaning it, I thought, "Wow, I just have to keep doing this. Constantly, every day or every week. There is no avoiding it. There is no system that'll allow me to escape the necessity of just continually tidying up my bedside table."

Perhaps I should've learned that long before--thirty-seven does seem an advanced age to realize one needs to continually tidy up--but it's also possible that it's a lesson I've learned and forgotten many times already in my life. Perhaps if I looked back in my blog, I'd find myself writing a dozen or two dozen times, "I realized that I need to keep tidying my bedside table." The thought is horrifying--one wants to make progress, not to be trapped in continual cycles--but not wanting to be trapped in a cycle isn't enough to change the reality, which is that things grow and fade. Nor can one embrace the idea of renewal either, because it's precisely renewal only comes from our struggle against fading away. In some proximate way, one can work within cycles--for instance by refusing to maintain habits and positions that no longer serve--but ultimately we're doomed to struggle.

As I Crossed A Bridge Of Dreams, by Sarashina

0140442820.1.zoomYears ago, I read Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book, and found it to be thoroughly delightful. It's not quite a diary, more like a series of anecdotes, lessons, and complaints by a courtly woman in Heian Japan and was written in about the 11th century AD. What came out most strongly from the book was just the personality of the writer: short-tempered, irritable, but also charming and perceptive.

Anyway, I recently realized that The Pillow Book was not an isolated document. It was part of a whole genre of Heian-era courtly memoirs. I checked a few out of the library, but the one that caught my eye immediately was the one by an unknown author who's only known as the Sarashina lady. I mean, look at the first lines of the book:

I was brought up in a part of the country so remote that it lies beyond the end of the Great East Road. What an uncouth creature I must have been in those days! Yet even shut away in the provinces I somehow came to hear that the world contained things known as Tales, and from that moment my greatest desire was to read them for myself.

This document is also not quite a diary, since it was not written as a daily chronicle. Instead, it was written towards the end of the author's life, as a sort of memoir. I say "a sort of memoir" because it's actually quite strange. The book spends pages upon pages talking about a man who she met on a rainy day and discussed trivialities with…but mentions her husband and three children for a total of maybe three sentences.

In fact, that's most of the book: a succession of pilgrimages, hotels, windy nights, and fragments of poems.

It seems random, but it's obviously not. The book isn't a traditional memoir. It's not about doings. Instead, it's more like a novel. It's about a person's emotional development. This is a woman who was obviously very sensitive. A woman who, from the very earliest part of her life, had a strong sense of what was right and beautiful. For instance, she rights of her recurring fantasy, during her teen years, that a man would come along and shut her up in a distant tower and then visit her for only one day a year, and leave her, the rest of the time, to walk alone along the windy battlements. Which is a beautiful image (partially derived from the Tale of Genji) but also a bit perverse.

And the book is about how that person--the girl who dreamed that dream--survived and changed throughout a lifetime that didn't really include very much that was beautiful or Romantic.

I find that most ancient documents (at least those that are in prose) don't have the virtues of modern literature. They don't describe sights and sounds and smells and emotions. They're about great doings or adventures or amusing incidents. Only in ancient Japanese literature, really, is there that fine-grainedness to the perceptions that strikes me as very modern. I highly recommend this book. It's also really short, maybe 80 pages long.

Started reading THE SOUND OF THE MOUNTAIN, by Yasunari Kawabata

n273757A few days ago, I posted on Twitter lamenting about how I'd never managed to get into anything by Kawabata other than Beauty and Sadness (an amazing book that you should all read). And a day later, I picked up his book The Sound of the Mountain and found myself really responding to it. The book is about 62 year old old man with a failing memory whose household includes his wife, his son, his daughter-in-law, his daughter, and his two grand-daughters.

The plot has that aimless quality that I've noticed in many Japanese novels. Much of it is about contemplating the mountain and the gardens. He attends the funerals of a few of his friends and meditates on their absence. He slowly befriends his daughter-in-law. He thinks about the distance that's grown up between him and his wife.

A lot of Japanese novels include some attempt, by the characters, to enjoy traditional Japanese art forms. In this case, the narrator buys several No masks (i.e. the masks that actors would wear in a No drama) and spends some time contemplating them. This is pretty interesting to me, because there's nothing similar in English literature. You don't often see characters in our novels seriously think about the ballet or the opera or classical music or even poetry. We Americans are extremely disconnected from our traditional art forms, but we don't seem to miss the absence.

I don't know enough about Japanese culture to be able to speculate accurately about the reason for this difference. Whenever I read a Japanese novel, I'm struck by the weight of history. All of these places have been inhabited, more or less continuously, and more or less peacefully (i.e. without major interruption by invasion or collapse of civilization) for thousands of years. To live in a town in Japan means being connected to the people who've come before you in a way that I don't think anyone in the West can really understand. Every Western civilization has suffered major upheavals--changes in government and in ethnic makeup--that far exceed anything Japan has seen.

But, at the same time, Japan (at least the Japan in these novels) doesn't feel exhausted or tired or decadent. In the west, we've been programmed, because of the fall of successive waves of empire (the Roman, the Holy Roman, the British, etc) to think of civilization as either expanding or being in decline. Whereas Japan's situation seems so different. Kawabata's novels are about a Japan that's suffered a major setback…but is still expanding. A Japan that's economically vibrant without being politically powerful. And even though the business and economic and political backdrop is submerged in these novels, you can see the tension there in the way that these characters try to reconcile their current way of life with their traditional cultural forms.


Reading a pretty fantastic short novel: The Setting Sun, by Osamu Dazai

The_Setting_Sun_300_445Not yet that far into this book, but I am thoroughly engrossed by it. The novel is about a family (well, a mother and a daughter) of Japanese aristocrats who are struggling to survive in post-war Japan. It's a fairly stately novel, but the writing and the voice are so sharp. For instance, the novel begins with an extended riff on how the protagonist's mother is a true aristocrat because she eats her soup in a bizarre manner that's very different from what is prescribed by etiquette:

Mother, on the other hand, lightly rests the fingers of her left hand on the edge of the table and sits perfectly erect, with her head held high and scarcely so much as a glance at the plate. She darts the spoon into the soup and like a swallow — so gracefully and cleanly one can really use the simile — brings the spoon to her mouth at a right angle, and pours the soup between her lips from the point. Then, with innocent glances around her, she flutters the spoon exactly like a little wing, never spilling a drop of soup or making the least sound of sipping or clinking the plate. This may not be the way of eating soup that etiquette dictates, but to me it is most appealing and somehow really genuine. As a matter of fact, it is amazing how much better soup tastes when you eat it as Mother does, sitting serenely erect, than when you look down into it. But being, in Naoji's words, a high-class beggar and unable to eat with Mother's effortless ease, I bend over the plate in the gloomy fashion prescribed by proper etiquette.

From the moment I read that, I knew that this was the book for me.

You know, it's interesting to contemplate the Japanese novel. From what I can tell, Japanese novelists are very much in conversation with western ones: Junichiro Tanizaki and Natsume Soeseki had both read tons of western novels. But Japan also has its own independent novel tradition: Tale of Genji is considered (by some) to be the first novel. And both Japan and China were producing high-quality works of prose fiction long before the West (okay fine, the West did have Petronius and those ancient Greek novelists, but whatever. No one reads them).

And one can certainly detect some significant structural differences between the Japanese novels that I have read and what I would consider the standard Western novel. Japanese novels tend to be a slower and to have conflicts that are less pronounced. Tension doesn't rise in as straightforward a manner. And while they often end on images, those images don't usually feel like epiphanic moments. Of course that's by no means true for all (or perhaps even most) of them. Tanizaki's Quicksand, which I read a week or two ago, has a fairly straightforward crime novel structure: it's full of plotting and reversals and ends in a stunning twist.

Anyway, I suppose this'll all become clearer to me as I read more of them.

Finished reading The Makioka Sisters

the_makioka_sisters.largeIt's a very oddly structured novel. The whole thing centers around these four sisters attempts to get their spinsterish third sister, Yukiko, married off. They continually come close to arranging a marriage, only to have something go wrong at the last minute. In the meantime, the fourth sister, Taeko, becomes more independent and willful.

All the portraits are very nuanced, though. There's a tendency to see Yukiko as something of a sap and Taek as an enlightened, modern woman. But that's not quite right. Yukiko doesn't want to marry someone that she doesn't want to marry, and she's fully willing to bear the consequences of that--she's okay with being a spinster. And Taeko wants to get her own way, but she often comes off as somewhat selfish.

I think part of the lesson of the novel is that there is no way to break with societal mores without coming off as a selfish person, because it is fundamentally pretty selfish to care more about what you want than about what other people think. In modern America, we try to ignore that, by appealing to some universal human right to self-determination. When someone in an American novel chooses freedom, they're really doing everyone else a favor, by creating a world where it is more possible to be free.

But...that's not really why they're doing it. They're doing it because that's what they want to do. Like, in America, it's an accepted point of fact that if you're unhappy and trapped in a loveless marriage, then you should leave. And I agree. You should leave. But we're very uncomfortable with the implications of this belief, which is that a person should prioritize their own happiness over the happiness of their spouse and their children. We're so uncomfortable with it, in fact, that we often pretend like this isn't the real choice: we pretend that unhappy marriages lead to unhappy children. I'm not sure that's the case, though. Look at all the situations in which people divorce after their kids have gone to college: they were obviously only staying together for the sake of the children. And often seems less traumatic for the kids than if their parents had divorced during their childhood. And, on a purely financial level, it's certainly much harder to care for and provide for the children when you have two single parents.

Which is not to say that I find anything unethical about divorce or about refusing (as Taeko does) to break off relations with men that your family matriarchs don't approve of. And neither does The Makioka Sisters. It's just that the novel is honest enough to take an honest look at the selfishness that human beings need to have if they're going to lead honest lives.

The novel was an interesting one. While reading it, I wasn't sure if I was enjoying it. But I can tell that it's one that's going to stay with me for awhile. I usually claim that I only read books that I enjoy, but this both true and untrue. What's true is that there's a minimum level of enjoyment that I need to be getting from a book if I'm going to read it. But what's untrue about it is that sometimes the books that give me the most white-hot pleasure are not the ones that I am happiest to have read. I've rarely had a reading experience that was as purely pleasurable as Lev Grossman's The Magicians, but I do not think that book added as much to my life as The Makioka Sisters did.