September 28, 2012

Land of the Rising Sun

Dear Wafers,

I fly to Japan early Monday morning, and will be there for six weeks. I don't know what the Internet cafe situation is there, esp. since I'll be spending two weeks in the wilds of Northeast Honshu; plus, I'll need to concentrate on my research while I'm there. So as of Monday, things will be kind of iffy on this blog, touch and go. I'm telling you this so you know that messages might not get posted for a while. But never fear: I'll be back, and hopefully everything sent in will get preserved.

Meanwhile, I wanted to ramble a bit about how I got into this project, and what my thoughts are about it at this point in time.

One of my early books (1981) was The Reenchantment of the World--the only best-seller I ever had. I guess it hit the market at just the right time, when there was a lot of interest in holistic healing and nonscientific systems of thought. The book generated a lot of interest because of its central, radical thesis: that in their own terms, these nonscientific thought systems were true; that they described a world that did, to a great degree, exist. And that if the scientific world view was also true, it was so in its terms, i.e. the parameters of the modern world. This didn't mean that I believed (for example) that arrows fell to earth in a straight line (Aristotle) prior to the Scientific Revolution, and that they changed their trajectory to a parabola around 1600 (Galileo). (Man, wouldn't that be a hoot.) Rather, that in the rush to modernity, the baby got thrown out with the bathwater: a whole world of learning, an alternate sensibility, got lost. This, I still believe, and I believe that we are much poorer for it, despite the very real benefits of the modern world. (A theme, I should add, that is echoed in Ursula Le Guin's brilliant novel, The Telling.)

(Much to my surprise, I still get letters from folks out there saying, "That book changed my life." This not from folks who took too much acid back in the 60s, but from philsophers, therapists, and people who have their critical faculties very much intact.)

I wouldn't call it my best book, and if I were to rewrite it today, I certainly would change a lot of what I originally wrote. As Noam Chomsky once remarked, if you are a professor and are giving the same lectures 20 years on from the same yellowed notes, it might be time to start thinking about retirement. Any scholar worth his or her salt is not going to agree with everything s/he wrote 31 years ago. And yet, there are a few themes that remain more or less consistent within the body of my work, and one of these is the costs of modernity. Modernity certainly has its blessings, and these are continually celebrated both in academic works as well as in the popular press. The costs of modernity, on the other hand, the aspects of the premodern era that were really valuable (as well as true)--well, these are things that most writers are not terribly interested in; and in the US, of course, at least 99% of the population is not even aware that there is an issue here.

My interest in Japan was born many years ago out of a fascination with its craft tradition, which is one of the most breathtaking the world has ever known. I remember my high school English teacher, Harold Sliker--this around 1960, when teachers were dedicated and students paid attention in class, and were still able to read--talked about the Japanese tradition of sword making, and how the artisan would fast and meditate for three days before beginning the work, and then would forge the hot steel by repeatedly folding it over, and tempering it, until the result was a brilliant blade. I was fascinated by this, but never followed it up. Well, not as a teenager, at any rate. Years later, however, when I was writing the Reenchantment book, I found the same sort of dedication in the Western alchemical tradition. Care, dedication, tradition, craft, community, infinite patience--this was the baby that got thrown out with the bathwater.

Of course, I realize that there is a socioeconomic and political context here that makes the whole subject tricky. It is perhaps not an accident that Heidegger joined the Nazi party, and that the Nazis got involved in a weird amalgam of tradition and modernity that the historian Jeffrey Herf aptly calls Reactionary Modernism. Or that the world of the medieval alchemist was one of feudal-organic hierarchy; or that the samurai tradition, including the mingei, or folk craft tradition, got cleverly channeled into the militarism of the 1930s, culminating in the attack on Pearl Harbor. And as far as contemporary Japan goes, young people are for the most part interested in landing a job with Mitsubishi, making a ton of yen, and sticking the latest iPhone up their noses. Things like the tea ceremony, in their eyes, are for squares and tourists. Which is not all that surprising, given the impact America has had on that nation.

The first impact came in the form of Commodore Perry, who sailed into Edo Bay in 1853 and threatened to blow the place to kingdom come if the Japanese did not open themselves up to commercial trade with the US. This was the catalyst for major turmoil within Japan, culminating in the overthrow of the shogunate in 1868 and what is known as the Meiji Restoration. While England, e.g., had more than a century to adjust to capitalism, Japan had to turn itself on its head in the space of a single generation. The result is a society that is extremely neurotic, still torn apart by issues of tradition vs. modernity. I wrote this recently to a Japanese friend, an anthropologist of about 50 years of age, who wrote back: "I struggle with all of this on a daily basis."

The second impact came in the form of General MacArthur, and the Occupation of Japan during 1945-52. The Americanization was fairly relentless, and the Japanese got on the bandwagon in a hurry: Coca-Cola, jeans, American movies, the whole nine yards. "Irresistible Empire," Victoria de Grazia called it for the case of Europe being steamrolled by the US, and one can say that it was even more irresistible in the case of Japan. (Check out Oe Kenzaburo's Nobel acceptance speech, 1994.) In any case, the land of green tea and ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints) is still reeling from the double whammy delivered by the United States. (By the way, this does not mean that I think Japan should have won the war; I don't. I'm just vainly trying to head off that accusation, like the one that surfaced in the wake of Ch. 4 of Why America Failed, in which because I said that the antebellum South had certain nonhustling characteristics that were admirable, a whole bunch of readers took this to be a defense of the Confederacy and of slavery. mother told me I should be a plumber instead of a writer, but did I listen? I keep saying on this blog that Americans are not very bright, and I have no doubt that when my book on Japan appears, the same crowd will be jumping up and down and screaming that I want Japan to have been the victor in WW2. Too many people in this country with lobotomies, apparently.)

Anyway, all this by way of saying that Japan and what it represents, historically and culturally speaking, is a very complex subject, and that whenever one asserts X about it, there is always a non-X or anti-X that needs to be taken into consideration. That being said, let me return to Harold Sliker, Japanese sword makers, and the significance of the craft tradition. On craft in general, Octavio Paz wrote in 1973: "Between the timeless time of the museum and the speeded-up time of technology, craftsmanship is the heartbeat of human time." Or to quote Alan Watts (The Way of Zen), "people in a hurry cannot feel."

Here is Watts on Zen art:

"The aimless life is the constant theme of Zen art of every kind, expressing the artist’s own inner state of going nowhere in a timeless moment. All men have these moments occasionally, and it is just then that they catch those vivid glimpses of the world which cast such a glow over the intervening wastes of memory—the smell of burning leaves on a morning of autumn haze, a flight of sunlit pigeons against a thundercloud, the sound of an unseen waterfall at dusk, or the single cry of some unidentified bird in the depths of a forest. In the art of Zen every landscape, every sketch of bamboo in the wind or of lonely rocks, is an echo of such moments."

(If you want to get an idea of what Watts is talking about on film, check out Enlightenment Guaranteed and Cherry Blossoms, both by the German filmmaker and Japanophile, Doris Doerrie.)

Bernard Leach, England's greatest potter (who lived in Japan for many years), says that shibui is an aesthetic ideal in Japanese craft, referring as it does to the austere, the subdued, and the restrained. This element, he remarks (A Potter's Book), gave the work a religious and psychological basis--something quite different from the hi-tech products being turned out by Japan today. During its integrated periods, adds Donald Richie (A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics), Japan presented the spectacle of a people who made art a way of life. All of this got lost in the rush to modernize, to Americanize. Yet one wonders whether any society, be it ours or the Japanese, can sustain itself without this kind of religious or psychological foundation. In this regard, the Japanese reaction to the Tom Cruise film, The Last Samurai, when it was released in 2003, is rather instructive (I need a stronger word here). The film is not really historically accurate; it is a romanticization of the last samurai rebellion, led by Saigo Takamori in 1877 (a folk hero in Japan to this day)--a shorter equivalent of our own Civil War, and fought, perhaps, for similar reasons (see the infamous Ch. 4 of Why America Failed). On blogs, newspapers, radio programs and whatever, there was this huge outpouring of emotion in response to the film, to the effect of: "This is us; this is the real Japan." Shades of Ursula Le Guin, once again: a corporate-commercial reality had been rammed down their throats, pasted over a deep, spiritual reality, and suddenly, the Japanese came out of the closet and declared: We're not having it; modernization tried to destroy our soul, but ultimately that soul still exists, and it will have the final say.

Well, I don't know how real (i.e., lasting) that outpouring of emotion was; everybody eventually went back to Mitsubishi to put in 14-hour work days, I'm guessing. But it does seem to me that there is a kind of 'magical' substrate that simply won't go away, and that we should be grateful for that. Can human beings really live without meaning? Japan tried to do it since the Meiji Restoration, and it hasn't worked out very well. America tried to do it since the late 16th century, and it seems to me that that is why it failed. In the last analysis, meaning is not a luxury.

Still, the US, as well as Japan, are too far gone to embrace the substrate voluntarily; this much seems certain. But the modern world will pass, as I've suggested in previous writings, and as we transition to a more austere world--by necessity, not by choice--certain things may come to the surface once again. I'm thinking of my earlier post on Ernest Callenbach, and his posthumous essay, in which he wrote the following (please pardon my duplication of part of that post):

"All things 'go' somewhere: they evolve, with or without us, into new forms. So as the decades pass, we should try not always to futilely fight these transformations. As the Japanese know, there is much unnoticed beauty in wabi-sabi--the old, the worn, the tumble-down, those things beginning their transformation into something else. We can embrace this process of devolution: embellish it when strength avails, learn to love it.

"There is beauty in weathered and unpainted wood, in orchards overgrown, even in abandoned cars being incorporated into the earth. Let us put unwise or unneeded roads 'to bed,' help a little in the healing of the natural contours, the re-vegetation by native plants. Let us embrace decay, for it is the source of all new life and growth."

Mono no aware, the Japanese call it: the somewhat melancholy awareness of the impermanence of things. There will be something of great value on the other side of the Great Watershed we are facing, I'm convinced of it. Perhaps, Japan offers a clue to what it might be.

(c)Morris Berman, 2012