Japan Journal: My Home Away from Home is Hard to Write Home About

I am once again summering in Hakodate, Japan, and you’d think I’d have plenty to blog about, but the place is so familiar to me that nothing stands out enough to qualify as blog-worthy, and I’m not sure I’d want (or am able) to write a travelogue about places I frequent. I could write about the Kantaro sushi restaurant, right on the water, with floor to ceiling plate glass windows, where the fish comes by on a conveyor belt but where we order directly with the chefs anyway, to request less rice or more wasabi or just fresher fish that hasn’t been going around on a conveyor belt. I’m still partial to engawa (fluke, or flounder, fin), especially the braised variety, although they’ve got a miso-encrusted version out now too. They also have real deal eel this year, not just anago, although I really ain’t particular. Of course, we’ve also eaten ramen and soba. The soba place we went to was a bit out of town, where the potato fields and mountains are and where the air is very fresh. My wife was wearing a white hempen gown from Taiwan, and I was wearing a Japanese samue robe, and we looked like cultists. While we waited on the porch for our table, folks coming to eat didn’t know what to make of us and asked my (Japanese) wife nervous questions in English. After we were shown to our table, I ordered wasabi soba and was given a wasabi root to grate, before the noodles arrived. I ground down almost all of it, but most of it adhered to the grater. The hostess advised me to apply the hot stuff directly to my noodles, but I could not scrape off enough of it to amount to more than a little schmeer, which seemed absurd, considering the amount of labor I had expended and the mountain of the stuff I had produced, and I began to giggle and chortle. It was like a waiter at an Italian restaurant asking if you wanted parmesan cheese on your pasta and then, instead of sprinkling it on your food, putting it on his beard, standing over your table, and shaking his head. I laughed all the way home, and we had a story (and something to blog about, but I guess you had to be there). Driving around to all these places to eat, it helps to have a little music, but the local radio DJs can’t stop talking, at least twenty minutes for every two minute fifty second song they play. I resort to the collection of CDs I’ve kept here, but most of them are good only at night (Miles Davis, Radiohead, A.A. Bondy). On a visit to the immense Tsutaya bookstore (another frequent destination for our money), I enquired about the background music playing there and ended up the proud owner of ‘B Side,’ a CD by the French jazz-soul singer Hyleen; so now everything we see sounds like the French background jazz typical of Japan. We paid early visits to breathtaking Cape Tachimachi and Motomachi (the old part of town) and the warehouse district (which sounds not like French background jazz but like music boxes). As for the establishments we have tried, there is a certain sameness about them, as they all tend to be teahouses or French patisseries; but they all have their own unique vibe, in many cases conforming to the old buildings in which they’re located. (We even enjoyed some hōjicha in a rustic teahouse set up in the old wooden quarantine building, overlooking the harbor.) Now that I think about it, Hakodate has a lot of character for this reason. It makes do with what’s already here and avoids conformity to the Starbuck’s style. While engaged in all this consumption and self-pampering, I can’t help but to reflect on how unsustainable it all seems. Maybe it’s just me – I sure don’t know how I’m going to pay for all these croissants and flounder fins – but I think it’s also Japan and maybe Western civilization in general: a 24/7 food channel and Ariana Grande concert, demographically stagnated, over-indulged, effete, and bankrupt. I might as well enjoy it while I can.

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Review of C.V. Wedgwood’s William the Silent

Given how thoroughly I was inspired by C.V. Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War, it’s odd that I waited thirty-three years to read another of her books. Perhaps I didn’t think that anything could mean so much to me again, and I suppose it’s true that my susceptibility to inspiration was much greater when I was a recent high school graduate (when I read The Thirty Years War) than it is today. Having become set in my ways and no longer in the market for inspiration, I kept Ms. Wedgwood on the shelf, as it were, like a medicine I didn’t need. All this time, though, I never forgot her, sitting up there; and so finally, desiring nothing more than the pleasant buzz of a good read, I fetched her down, twisted off her safety cap, and fished out her 1944 opus, William the Silent.  Of course, I found it very inspiring, as all great work is.

William the Silent is set about a half century before The Thirty Years War and serves as a prequel to it. It narrates the first phases of the Netherlands revolt against Spanish rule, which began in 1566 and which did in fact contribute to the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648. The conflicts that dominated the general age overlapped in their religious, political, social, and other aspects, and Ms. Wedgwood deals with the complexity equally well in both of her books. A typical passage from William the Silent includes the phrases “Whether Protestants or Catholics…controlled the French crown, the French monarchy remained the chief potential enemy of the King of Spain in Europe…. The religious issue, the fact that the Kings of France and Spain were both Catholics, was misleading.” (p. 150 of the 1960 edition) The chief overlapping conflicts, of course, were the religious and the political, and the question of which conflict would finally take precedence is, as Wedgwood shows, the key issue in the formative history of the Netherlands.

As to what determined how these conflicts would be resolved – in other words, what drives history – Ms. Wedgwood pays only lip service to materialist considerations. “At all times,” she writes, “some men will be moved by deep spiritual motives incomprehensible to the materialist, unpredictable and inexplicable in terms of politics and economics. It adds something to knowledge to know the economic thrust behind the Reformation, but it diminishes knowledge to see that and nothing else.” (p. 26) The prime movers of Ms. Wedgwood’s history are not economic forces but human beings. Elucidating their motivations is Wedgwood’s forte. She is no social scientist or statistician but a storyteller, and the story she tells is rich in drama.

The central character of William the Silent is its namesake. William of Nassau spent his childhood in the German county of that name and was educated according to the “rigid moral code, sincere, generous, and simple,” of his Lutheran mother, Juliana (pp. 10-11). As imbibed by William, this brand of morality remained a private affair and never mutated into the sectarian fanaticism that marked many of his contemporaries. At age eleven, by the unexpected death of his cousin René, he inherited the principality of Orange, in France, together with René’s more significant holdings in the Netherlands, and it was in the latter country that William grew to manhood as a rich, affable, Catholic aristocrat, ward and courtier to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (r. 1519-1556), who counted the Netherlands among his many dominions. William might have remained a courtier, had not Charles been succeeded by his intolerant son Philip, who ruled the Netherlands from Spain as King Philip II and who began scheming to purge the Netherlands of heresy. William of Nassau/Orange earned the sobriquet “The Silent” as he listened, appalled but passing no comment, to the French King Henry II’s divulging of Philip’s plans.

As Wedgwood asserts, William was temperamentally opposed to religious persecution. “He could never fully believe that God was either so cruel or so unreasonable as to damn men for their opinions.” His reaction to Philip’s policy was “not one of outraged religious feelings (he was a Catholic, so how could it have been?) but of outraged humanity. It seemed to him an unprovoked attack on a decent and trusting people.” In other words, Wedgwood concludes, it was “an immoral act politically [emphasis hers], contrary to the sworn duty of a King, whose function is to protect his people. He decided, then, not to champion the Protestants but to eliminate Spanish influence in the Netherlands, two very different things.” (p. 60) The balance of Wedgwood’s book measures William’s success at re-framing the religious conflict as a political (or national) one, as he sought to create in the Netherlands a liberal polity, tolerant of all sectarian beliefs.

It is not giving too much away to say that William largely failed in this endeavor. He was that most tragic of types: a man ahead of his time. “Even among his closest friends, even in his own family,” Wedgwood writes, “his religious position was regarded as unsound. His widely tolerant views met with no sympathy whatever.” (p. 194) In fact, despite his dream of a religiously-pluralistic Netherlands, William often found himself with little alternative but to resort to sectarian expedients in order to realize it. One wonders if Lord Acton (1834-1902) did not have William in mind when he observed that “friends of freedom have been rare” and that they are often forced to “associate themselves with auxiliaries whose objects differ from their own.” In William’s case, he came to understand “that only the narrow, intolerant, and fanatical can fight the narrow, intolerant, and fanatical” (p. 110); and he thereupon turned to the Calvinists, adopting their forms of worship personally and encouraging their militancy. As William hoped, Calvinism would become the servant and not the master of the national cause. “Holland was his fortress and the Calvinists his advance-guard, but from this base, he sought to bring once more into being the free, united Netherlands.” (pp. 127-128)

But the Calvinists, like most people, were more interested in their own power than in abstract notions of freedom and unity. They rampaged through Antwerp and other towns in 1566 and in Ghent in 1577, sacking Catholic churches and oppressing the Catholic citizenry. (pp. 85, 87-89, 183, 192) Contrary to William’s wishes, “the religious problem submerged the national” and “the Netherlands against Spain became the Calvinists against the Catholics,” as the Calvinist north and Catholic south drifted apart. (pp. 178-179, 199) William’s last desperate attempt to maintain cohesion was to place the country under the protectorship of the French (and therefore anti-Spanish) Catholic Francis of Anjou (1555-1584), but the latter proved to be as petty a man of the times as William was a great man in advance of them, and the project failed. By the time William passed from the scene, he had indeed fathered the future United Provinces (or “Holland”), but the greater Netherlands of his hopes remained unrealized. (The lost southern provinces became the separate nations of Belgium and Luxembourg.)

For having created two (or three) sectarian states, when he had wanted to create one inclusive state, William resembles Gandhi, who imagined one tolerant India but who got instead the religiously partitioned India and Pakistan. For having expended all the energy of his adult lifetime in the leadership of a disparate assemblage of self-determined peoples, William resembles Washington. Throughout her book, Wedgwood shows him constantly persuading, negotiating, compromising, and begging, usually before the proto-democratic estates of the various provinces or the Estates General. He always adhered to their forms and never abused the power they granted him. On the contrary, he worked himself half to death for them, prompting one contemporary to observe, “So charged with affairs of state, with labors and toils and troubles of all kinds from morning to night, he has no time even to breathe. (p. 158)

Even toward Philip, he upheld his loyalty for as long as possible, preferring only to remonstrate on behalf of the Netherlands’s ancient rights, until he became a reluctant rebel. However, it is his loyalty to his social inferiors in the provinces and towns that raises for us the most interesting issues. Viewing through William’s eyes his constituents, who were simultaneously his masters, Wedgwood notes that “They lacked education, vision, political experience. He did not naturally expect such gifts of the whole populace, for what sane politician does? But he could have wished for more of them among the middle and upper classes, on whose consent his authority was based.” It was of course the common people and their middle and upper class demagogues who thwarted William’s great plans for a liberal nation in which they could all peacefully live; and even in the defense of their own cities they were they uncooperative, refusing, for example, his suggestions to lay in stores of food in anticipation of sieges. (p. 149) The various representative estates were chronically slow to provision the army, its members daring not to act until subordinate assemblies gave their approval. The problem, according to Wedgwood, was that “Burghers and lesser men were in control of the Estates, a group more representative of the country’s needs and interests, but still unused to the power which circumstance had given them, seeking always to diffuse and transfer the ultimate responsibility.” And then she says it:

There is something to be said for the easy assurance of those who have been born to rule; in a time of emergency a certain fearlessness, a certain indifference to criticism, is essential. Strongly as William believed in representative government, religiously as he laid his every action open to the Estates and the cities, behind all he did was an absolute self-confidence, the natural gift of the man who, from childhood, has expected to take weighty and responsible decisions on his own authority. (pp. 208-209)

Is Dame Wedgwood advocating here for aristocratic governance? It might seem that she is, in her book about a great man whose constituents didn’t deserve him. However, despite the phrase “born to rule,” Wedgewood is referring to virtues that were not in fact shared by the titled aristocracy and that were (and are) attainable to commoners. At most, she is extoling a natural aristocracy. As we know from the rest of her book, moreover, William’s career was that of a modern politician, not a medieval lord. He disposed of no serfs and commanded no vassals but was instead forced to appeal both to representative assemblies and to popular opinion. Above all, though, Wedgwood clearly admires William for more than his decisive leadership style. She admires him, rather, for his overriding liberality. In this respect, he was exceptional, even among aristocrats.

For all William did for his people and for all people, one of his greatest and most representative acts, in Wedgwood’s telling, came after the lifting of the siege of Leyden in 1574:

It was a moment for joy-bells, for speeches and congratulations, and the striking of commemorative medals. The relief of Leyden was something which must be remembered through all the ages, and by what monument could this be achieved? In his choice William revealed the constructive genius of his mind. The erection of a column, or the striking of a coin, means little enough ten years later. He sought instead a living monument which would grow with the reborn nation, and enlarge and refresh its national life. To commemorate the liberation of Leyden, he founded her great University, offering thus in the midst of war and destruction, of change and violence, a salute to the things which are true and enduring, the freedom of mind and the intellectual liberty for which he was fighting. (148)

As brought to life by C.V. Wedgewood, William the Silent is not just an aristocrat. He is a hero, just as C.V. Wedgewood is one of mine.

Taiwan Journal: Taipei Dog and Fountain Girl

July 19, 1989 – Taipei, Taiwan, ROC

Today, I witnessed two events of the first importance. Both were viewed from public buses. The first was religious in nature, the second more artistic.

Sometime after noon, I was riding in the left rearmost seat of the 0-East. After crossing the Fudan Bridge, I noticed a medium-sized, white Taipei dog in the middle of Dunhua South Road, stealthily negotiating its way across the street by edging up on left-turning traffic. It seemed to advance with the same stamina and alertness as most human pedestrians, but alas it ignored the possibility (as we all do) of an unexpected minor pulse in the metallic river of traffic. A taxicab swung out to the left a little bit farther than the other cars. It sideswiped the dog, which shrieked as though it were going to be for the last time.

Actually, I cannot say for certain, but it seemed as though the scream of despair, coming so suddenly and unexpectedly during the course of the dog’s intrepid crossing, filled the entire amphitheater of the intersection, echoing off the steel walls of the surrounding office buildings, penetrating to me in my mobile box seat. As I remember it now, I sensed a death cry but did not necessarily hear the dog itself; either the dog cried loud enough for everyone in the intersection to hear, or everyone in the intersection cried loud enough for me to feel.

At any rate, the dog was brushed aside from its destiny by the hubcaps and body of the taxicab. So with the scream still hanging in the air, the cab had passed; the dog regained its footing and went on about its business as though absolutely nothing had happened.

 

July 20, 1989 – Neil Armstrong

Later in the day, I found myself looking out the window of the 15 as it crawled eastbound on Heping Rd. I glanced up to see a 10 year old girl throwing up in the shade of the Science Exhibition Building. A fine, consistent arc of liquid, yellow as desert sand, took an astonishingly long amount of time to span its way to the ground. The flow remained constant for at least five seconds. It was like a fountain: the stream of vomitus, if stretched into a straight line, would have been taller than the girl.

She was standing, as I said, under the eaves of the Science Exhibition Building, throwing up on the marble tile that covers that part of the ground. She might just as easily have stepped one yard out and onto the common red square brick of the Taipei sidewalk (but then again, that option might have inconvenienced pedestrian movement). Her younger brother, standing beside her, seemed indifferent to the display. He absently looked toward the entrance of the building, apparently seeking for someone (perhaps the individual charged with cleaning the abovementioned and well-chosen tile) to arrive on the scene and assume responsibility.

A few fellow spectators on the bus appeared also to be silently appreciating the vignette. They watched with a certain detachment , the realization that they weren’t embarrassed yielding a type of childlike wonder, a relief that such marvels still exist to chase away the tedium of a long day.

On the Difficulties of Translating Chinese Poetry

I once gave a talk as part of a ‘Lost in Translation’ series on rendering Chinese poems into English. I presented my translation of the Tao Yuanming poem ‘Drinking #5’ (which I posted here last week), and, although I claimed nothing for its style, related with pride how I had expanded upon Tao’s original meaning (or gone beyond earlier translations), to make it seem that he was imagining and not really observing the chrysanthemums and mountains and other phenomena described in the poem. I thought this expansive (and almost certainly incorrect) rendering would reinforce what I believe he was saying about the process of escaping bleak reality via the power of imagination.

As usual, I wasn’t sure the audience were following my abstruse argument. Some Chinese people were present, and they said nothing.

Days later, a Chinese student who had been at the talk approached me at a study abroad fair and informed me, now that it was just between us, that she didn’t like my translation at all. It was too cerebral, in her view, totally lacking the emotive element that suffused the original.

Digesting her criticism, I realized that the emotive element of Chinese poetry accounts for the bulk of its power, that this emotive aspect is the hardest quality to translate, and that the failure to capture the emotive connotation of Chinese poetry in translation was chiefly responsible for the seeming pointlessness of Chinese poetry to foreigners.

For instance: Do you know the sound of children’s swings, clanging against each other, in a deserted playground? Well, that is a Chinese poem. It’s not that non-Chinese people are insensible of the emotive potential of such a thing, but it’s doubtful that a Westerner, especially, would use poetry to convey it. He would be likelier to use more modern media. There is, of course, the sound of clanging swings in the middle of the second side of Abbey Road (before ‘Sun King,’ I think); and a similar sound and image, from a deserted playground, begins the film Midnight Cowboy. In both cases, the emotive effect is very strong.

But if you try to put it in a poem –

                The swings clang —

                ching! ching!

                Who was just playing here?

– you can’t pull it off.

I’ll speak for myself: I can’t pull it off.

25 Random Things About Me

I know this is scraping the bottom of the barrel and probably a faux pas, but I need to use every tool in the box to keep my blog going; so here is my version of the dreaded list that was going around Facebook several years ago. The final few questions in the preceding Writer’s Interview have made me think of it, and I remember my friends liking it. I hope you do too.

1. I’ve never worn braces or had any cavities.

2. I have fat and crooked fingers.

3. I once swam the length of Highland Lake, in Maine, four miles, in four hours.

7. I once drove from New Haven to Baltimore in four hours and five minutes, and the five minutes was for gas.

5. I’ve lived in Baltimore, Middletown (CT), Beijing, Nanjing, Taipei, New York, New Haven, Hakodate, Colorado Springs, and Mobile.

6. My favorite urban nightscape is Baltimore, viewed from Federal Hill (‘Who thought they were only mad when Baltimore gleamed in supernatural ecstasy’ — Allen Ginsberg, who was writing about seeing it in the daytime). Runner up: Hong Kong, viewed from the New World Plaza. Second runner up: Hakodate, from Mt. Hakodate.

4. My first dance was with ___________. The Place: Girard’s. The song: ‘Double Vision,’ by Foreigner. Whose Bar Mitzvah was it? I don’t remember.

8. I get my 4s and 7s mixed up.

9. I have a recurring dream about the decay of my body, usually involving my teeth falling out.

10. The coolest establishment I ever frequented was the Sometime Cafe, in Hualian, Taiwan. It was very dark; the music was so alternative, I’d never heard anything like it in the US; and there was a free movie around 8 PM.

11. I don’t use deodorant.

12. The biggest tragedy of my life has been the overproduced quality of Cowboy Junkies records, after ‘Lay It Down.’ In other words: I’m lucky.

13. The weirdest thing I’ve ever done for money was to read the poetry of Mao Zedong, in English, into a tape recorder, for a Taiwanese man.

14. I’m ambivalent about writing these kinds of notes for Facebook. I’m both reluctant and compelled to share them. They seem more appropriate for a diary, but a diary is like a tree falling in the forest with no one listening, and at the end of the day, I don’t want my life to be like that.

15. The most famous people I’ve ever shaken hands with are Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Zappa.

16. I’ve skinnydipped on Mt. Tai and in the Peach Blossom Spring, in China. On both occasions, I was inspired by the beauty of the natural surroundings, succumbed to the inspiration in public and in broad daylight, and somehow managed to escape deportation (as well as any real expression of disapproval). Lucky again.

17. I prefer cats to dogs and Dvorak to Brahms.

18. The weirdest thing I’ve ever eaten is lamb fries (breaded, fried sheep testicles), in Oklahoma City. Gene and I were tricked into eating them by our host, who had been going on at length about how much he enjoyed them, but actually, he’d never eaten them. After we began munching on the things, he turned around, grinned, and said, ‘You guys are sick.’ Of course, they tasted like chicken.

19. I always cry when the Blue Meanies take over Pepperland.

20. The funniest book I’ve ever read is The Sot Weed Factor, by John Barth, although the funniest passage I’ve ever read is Mark Twain’s description of a Turkish bath, in The Innocents Abroad.

21. I don’t do drugs but enjoy hallucinating while listening to music half asleep. Once I was dozing in a Freedom Services car before a pickup, and I had some kind of Bach thing for two violins going in the player. The music faded into a vision of two guys loading a truck. The films 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould and Dead Man work too.

22. I have an overactive gag reflex and a morbid fear of vomiting. As a result, it is impossible for anyone to get my throat culture without a fistfight, and I tend to postpone the inevitable, in case of a stomach bug.

23. Actually, there was this one night, I had to unload a Mexican dinner, heavy on the salsa. I was a little off target, coming to the toilet, and the remains of my meal ran in crimson rivulets down the outside of the bowl, like the ‘legs’ in a glass of fine wine. For some reason, I was naked (probably either because I’d thrown up on my clothes or because I’d removed them so as not to throw up on them). It was kind of erotic, writhing nude under the covers, discharging this blood-red liquid all night. In the morning, I felt very spiritually enriched.

24. Oh yeah, there was this other time, much earlier, in Taiwan. I was in Sun Yat-sen Memorial Park, breaking up with my girlfriend for the twelfth time. She used the expression pei he du (配合度), which I figured out meant ‘compatibility,’ and I turned it effectively against her: ‘We have no pei he du,’ I asserted. After it was over, I found myself wanting a snack, so I strode into the Burger King across Guangfu Street, for a chicken burger. That night, around two, I felt the telltale, metallic, queasiness in the pit of my stomach, a little minty, growing mintier still with all the Gelusel I popped, in the aforesaid effort to postpone the inevitable. It was no good: an hour later, I was throwing up out of my nose (a phenomenon I describe as vomiting while in the process of vomiting), leaving a moustache of spinach on my upper lip. I was at it all night. In the morning, I wasn’t able to go to work. My landlady went out and bought me some shu pao, a tasteless electrolyte replenisher for athletes, but it wasn’t an appropriate treatment, for I was still purging. I ended up cabbing it to the Taiwan Adventist Hospital, where they administered a saline IV. The Adventists give you a saline IV for almost everything, as their chief concern is to prevent dehydration. As it turned out, either because of the dehydration or the drugs I was also taking, I became unbelievably restless, to the point of being unable to stop moving. When seated, I rocked incessantly; when standing, I paced. I suffered under these conditions for two or three days, visiting the hospital repeatedly. Receiving IVs while being unable to still myself was a species of torture. I watched the solution drip, drip, drip, with excruciating slowness, wide eyed and grinding my teeth in suspense. I invited myself to my American friend’s apartment, because he had air conditioning and cable TV. One night I paced around his living room, watching Rebel Without a Cause, until I exhausted myself and fell asleep. Also, like an idiot, I called my not-quite-ex-girlfriend, thinking that I was dying and not wanting to die alone. Finally recovering my health after a few days, I took the bus into work. As the bus passed the Burger King, I saw that it was closed, sealed shut, with newspapers covering all the doors and windows.

25. I have green eyes.