Is It Ethical to Suffer?

Posted on Thursday, March 31, 2011, under , ,

The images of the Japanese calamity are overwhelming not only by revealing the vast physical damage but also by reminding us once again that humans are mere toys in the hands of mother nature. ‘Like toys’ was the often repeated phrase on people’s lips, here in Kyoto and probably elsewhere, as we watched cars, ships, houses being tossed about like children crash theirs in anger or boredom. The tectonic plates were either bored or very angry indeed on March 11th. People spared by the wrathful tremors stood silently in awe and disbelief. On television, it was as if we were watching a high-budget disaster movie from the comfort of our armchairs, largely unable to find a suitably emotive response (the reminiscences of 9/11: as one of the Twin Towers has just collapsed a woman is screaming, ‘What the hell is going on!!’).

I was glued to the screen for the first couple of days but once my ahs and oh my gods started to sound less personal and more like united voices of democratic concern, I decided enough was enough. Not quite ‘mad as hell’, but I sure couldn’t take it any more: the horrifying headlines, the nuclear explosions, the misery in the north, the scares, the confusing charts, the mixed messages, the cautious experts versus the alarming voices of the news anchors. I was weary. So on the third day I ventured out to meet a friend. I didn’t care any more that the Fukushima plant was very much touch-and-go as yet another explosion was lurking round the corner. Jerry and I decided to go to the riverside, of all safe places. The Yodogawa riverbank was a perfect antidote to the claustrophobic environs of the past days. We brought out guitars, alcohol, poems and spent that afternoon jamming, drinking, chewing the fat. Maybe we chose to be there so that if someone asked us years later, ‘Where were you when the reactor 2 blew up?’ we’d say, ‘At the riverside, drinking booze’.

Watching other people’s misery on the television for hours on end gave me a consoling, if largely false, notion that I was being compassionate and concerned (if one wants to show compassion one should donate money to charity). On the other hand, my running away to the riverside despite the potential danger to my well-being, however infinitesimal, was a potentially self-destructive act, verging on nihilism. Yet it made a perfect sense to me. Our perception is at the same time an evaluation, and every evaluation, being subjective, results in a choice, be it moral or immoral (what is ethical over here may be less so over there). What would your average ‘neo-nihilist’ have to say about this? Let’s look at what a certain philosophy student wrote on ‘Philosophy Forums’:
It is logically impossible to derive an "ought" prescription from an "is" description or a value from a fact. For example it may be a fact that we have evolved compassion to aid our survival. But from this fact it is impossible to derive the value that one "ought" to be compassionate. Such a transgression of logic is as invalid as deriving the value that one "ought" to be aggressive from the fact that we have evolved aggression. Morality then is not based on reason but on sentiment which is both biologically and culturally conditioned. As Hume stated : "It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger." (It is not contrary to reason, it is just highly unusual).

[…] We perceive what is of value to us. Nihilism per se is impossible due to human nature. But different things are valuable to different people and different creatures. Therefore this account is known as neo nihilism. Objective morality is an illusion and like religion is a means to control others.

[…] To criticize is only to establish that a concept vanishes when it is thrust into a new milieu, losing some of its components, or acquiring others that transform it. But those who criticize without creating, those who are content to defend the vanished concept without being able to give it the forces it needs to return to life, are the plague of philosophy... Philosophy has a horror of discussions. It always has something else to do.
To revert to the common suffering. In case you haven’t had enough of tsunami pictures, here is my pick of some of the most enduring ones. In the case of large-scale catastrophes, the aerial shots, the mid shots and the close-ups are all equally effective: buildings on fire, people being rescued or not rescued, people stuck in traffic, people tucked in street corners for the night, a man pondering a remoulded landscape, the elderly staring nowhere in particular. And then, the toys.

You can download hundreds of similar images in a large zip file (235 MB) here (if you can get past the uploader’s idiotic comment).

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Adieu, Dear Sleuth

Posted on Saturday, March 26, 2011, under ,


CDI Barnaby
one step ahead
of all concerned. 
There is no dead 
man’s shoe
out of his step.

A missing piece
of the puzzle
hidden in his
lady’s chamber,
in the chamber of the
missing piece.

British television has recently parted with two of the greatest and dearest sleuths in recent history. First it was David Jason’s Frost last year, now it’s John Nettles’ Barnaby. The latter’s departure has been coming for quite some time, in fact the first hints came as long as two years back if memory serves me well, which made me watch the later episodes with a sort of premature nostalgia. Yet Nettles hung in there, and his exit seemed to have been put off indefinitely. When Barnaby finally announced his ‘long holiday’ in ‘Fit for Murder’ (watched it last night) it came across as a shock.

I loved to watch ‘A Touch of Frost’ in the late 90s and the early noughties and always thought of it as being superior to Midsomer because of the former’s realism, grittiness, and of course Jason’s marvellous performance. He imbued Inspector Frost with such depth that it was difficult not to root for the old bugger scene after scene. It was much easier to love a maverick DI, an anti-hero with more misgivings than you and I both account for, constantly at war with everyone and most of all with himself, the truest fighter for justice and a carer for his fellow-man that you’ll ever see on the box. Frost the incorrigible romantic.

On the other hand, Barnaby’s by and large understated performances were harder to be impressed by, yet no less impressive. Tom Barnaby was everything that Jack Frost wasn’t: methodical, well-spoken, systematic, dependable and trusted all around, even by his superiors. He had a quiet appeal of a thinking man, yet taking action when the situation called for it. I particularly liked Barnaby in the later episodes as there was a twinge of sadness forming round the edges of his slowly diminishing eyes (maybe to do with those announcements of early retirement). That Nettles managed to keep his Barnaby engaged and engaging, and avoid slipping into a routine, was no mean feat.

He was certainly helped by the professional supporting cast and a host of splendid guest appearances, and perhaps most of all by the picturesque countryside setting. And then there were the village fetes, the societies and clubs of all sorts teeming with jealousy, greed and unspeakable infidelities, there were of course all those murders, 222 of them to be precise, ranging from the mundane to the grotesque to the over-imaginative (my favourite two: a man decapitated on the ghost train, and that impalement inside the iron maiden). In short, the world of Midsomer county confounded by its own idiosyncrasies, the world most of the outside viewers would have been hard pressed to identify with, be they white, black, or yellow (the programme is broadcast to 231 territories around the world). Perhaps Midsomer is supposed to represent, in its producer's words, ‘the last bastion of Englishness’. Well, be that as it may (pun intended), people will continue watching the show for what it is – a quaint piece of entertainment that celebrates and pokes fun at its own idea of 'Englishness', at times succeeding in passing off murder as serious art-form.

In John Nettles’ ultimate ‘Fit for Murder’ Tom Barnaby and wife Joyce take a mini-break at one of those spa ‘rehabilitation centres' where you pay through the nose for having hot rocks placed over your body, for being doused in mud with a pair of cucumber slices for your eyes (there’s an amusing scene in which Barnaby talks rather intently to a woman covered in mud for few minutes thinking she is his wife). At the spa one is surrounded by silence – silence being a pretty rare commodity these days. Silence is sacred in the ‘garden of contemplation’ where one is supposed to practise yoga while sitting opposite a ‘golden’ statue of Buddha across a small pond, while keeping one’s voice down to a whisper. Then there’s the ‘volcanic massage’ where a girl called Cloud will arrange the ‘Himalayan’ stones in line with you chakras. If for some reason you don’t feel up for it, she’ll read your mind instead, as an extra. Cash in hand.

Silly as this may all sound (especially to men: it's rather odd that in the industrially developed countries, it’s usually women who more readily buy into yoga and all things transcendental, as opposed to Buddhist monks who are almost exclusively male), it is nevertheless curious that we find Barnaby at the end of the episode announcing his retirement to friends, stating that ‘something happened recently… that made me take a long, hard look at…’. Yet we never find out what that something is. Well, it has to do with Barnaby’s fear of dying on his birthday like his own father did years ago, compounded by the sense of guilt for being unkind and refusing to join his old man for what turned out to be a fateful spot of fishing. Funny that Tom, being the man of logic and deductive reasoning, should leave the viewers wondering if his retirement decision had been brought on, in part at least, by the powers of the occult. His decision, after all, did come after a couple of impromptu sessions with a girl who dabbles in occultism.

Has the power of chakra penetrated Tom’s mind after all? Has he finally succumbed to the all-seeing third eye? Well, we’ll never know won’t we. I am probably reading too much into this anyway. The man had to retire from the show one way or the other. Well, retire he did. And rarely has there been a more low-key, if slightly cryptic, farewell by a long-standing television icon than Barnaby’s in Midsomer Murders. Thank you John Nettles.

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Japan Woes

Posted on Tuesday, March 22, 2011, under ,

Nicaragua, 1979. Popular uprising against the misrule of the President Somoza (of whom the U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, ‘Sure he’s sonofabitch, but he is our sonofabitch’). In the course of the next couple of years the civil war led to the deaths of some 5% of the population, and a deposition of the president after a 43-year dictatorship, the longest period of the state-sponsored terror in Latin American history. The post-revolutionary mood in the streets was one of unhinged celebration of the new-found freedom, whereby people expressed their contempt for conventions and rules at every possible opportunity. This was in particular manifested through the mass disregard for traffic rules. Here’s Norman Lewis, quoting a policeman in Managua, from the excellent travel essay ‘Beautiful Bean-Stew Faces’:

‘It happens all the time’, he said. ‘They’ve all gone crazy about freedom, so wherever there’s the chance to drive the wrong way down a street, they do. The latest crazy thing is that traffic lights are supposed to interfere with personal choice, so they are tearing them down all over the town. They are out to prove we’re really free’.

This reminds me of a Serbian idiom, ‘ko da su s lanca pušteni’, literarily means ‘as if they were unleashed from the chains’. By contrast, in Japan hardly anyone is on a mission to prove they are free or independent. This very much applies to traffic and driving. On March 11th I was watching live pictures as tsunami mercilessly wiped everything in its path. The fluid mass of debris was approaching a line of cars orderly waiting in front of the traffic lights. The drivers would be very much aware of the nearing onrush of water. Yet not a single car moved! Or not until the big wave was so close that the cars suddenly found themselves scrambling for the dry patches of land. But by then it was too late.
We think of stoicism as a very British virtue – all Blitz spirit and 'women and children first' – but would we react to a disaster with the kind of resilience the Japanese have?Ian Jack, The Guardian
Anyone who has been to Japan or met a Japanese person would have been familiar with their general distaste for personal conflict or the showing of personal initiative. Here, the name of the game is respect for privacy, team work, collaboration. These attributes are particularly apparent in smaller communities, villages, towns, companies. In the aftermath of the nuclear leaks, the sense of allegiance and self-sacrifice yielded some astonishing results in Tokyo where the previously announced power cuts never materialized due to the fact that people dropped their electricity consumption by such margin that not only the cuts proved unnecessary but there was in fact a surplus of energy! Yes, hard to imagine something like that happening in the UK.

In Tōhoku, however, the picture is much bleaker. Japanese fortitude and composure has been pushed to the limits by the multifold disaster – earthquake, tsunami, nuclear crisis, the ensuing supply difficulties, the rescue operations hampered by snow and freezing temperatures. After a week of living on the verge of starvation and with shortages of water, fuel, heating, electricity, and medical supplies, there have been first reports of angry exchanges and even punch-ups among the locals. No reports of looting as yet. No doubt in many countries these would be a norm much earlier on. And it doesn’t help that most of the afflicted are the elderly – Japan being an alarmingly aging society, with more than a quarter of population over 65 years old.

In the meantime we can only dare imagine what it feels like to live under such conditions – on a daily, hourly basis. Some would say, at least these people have been spared their lives. Then again how much of a consolation is that when no help is in sight? One middle-aged woman, who lost two members of her family together with her house, said: ‘I am alive, but I don’t know if that’s good or bad’.

In response to my recent email to a colleague, a teacher in Kyoto like myself, in which I asked how worried he was about the current threat of nuclear contamination, Shaun talked about his general concern and quipped how this part of Japan [Kansai] feels like a different country, rather disconnected from the northeast. ‘Different country’ is certainly one way of describing the apparent normality to be found on the streets of the ancient capital. People go about their business. Shops, restaurants, bars, pachinko parlours are all teeming with punters and customers no more and no less than usual. The city trains and buses are running on time (compare Tokyo’s lines, either cancelled or operating with reduced service). The only thing out of the ordinary are these small bands of activists who are to be seen, and especially heard, lined up at busy street corners and outside the larger train stations, incessantly chanting so as to draw cash donations from the public. Oh, and today I noticed that in my local department store they have partially switched off lights in certain less-visited shopping sections.

Speaking of lights, I’ve been thinking how Japanese post-war hefty reliance on, and investment in, nuclear power must seem now rather ironic, also bearing in mind the Hiroshima and Nagasaki catastrophes. That Japan has decided to build so many nuclear plants is a direct result of the country’s paltry allotment of natural resources. The nuclear power has become the major source, accounting for about 29% of Japan’s energy.

Meanwhile, people living in the northeast as well as in the Kanto area (around Tokyo) remain very concerned about the imminent future, and understandably so. There is an ongoing poll in the Japan Times online, dubbed ‘Stay or go’, which looks like this:

And here is how the votes stand only a few minutes later (March 21st ):

You can check how the votes develop, and vote yourself, here. At least most foreigners have somewhere to go to. The poll would surely look different had it been conducted solely in the Kansai region, where I suppose gaijin do feel safer. Yet, should there be another major explosion at the plant, god-forbid, the worry-wrinkles would inevitably set upon the faces of my fellow Kyotoites.

A fellow poet living in Osaka presented his poem few months ago in our writing workshop. The title was ‘Post-Nuclear Pasta’. My favourite bit is this post-apocalyptic moment when the speaker explains how things were 'before':

We used to have tomato sauce for our pasta,
I tell the dull kid who lives on the other side of the scorch-marks.
He was born just a few months after the hot flashes.
He’s got weepy eyes and a cauliflower nose.

When I tell him we used to eat tomatoes and that they didn’t have
hard, crusty skins neither, he snaps, “You’re off your Geiger counter!”

Little did the author know how topical the stuff would soon turn out to be. The poem must be pulsating like a GM tube at the moment. Well, here’s a map which shows how the counters are pulsating in the north of the country. Note the useful comparisons with the radiation in daily life. Click to view larger size.

March 21st, 2011

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The Desert of the Tartars

Posted on Wednesday, March 16, 2011, under ,

Directed by Zurlini in 1976 (his ultimate film), an epic in which hardly anything happens for two and a half hours – apart from people growing old, leaving their posts or getting promoted. So why do viewers get sucked in by films of this kind? It’s the imagery, it’s the characters, it’s the plain old suffering, stupid. Highly ponderous stuff. Existentialism at its best. The absurdity of human endeavour, crashed hopes, hardline pessimism, anti-heroism, the very malignancy of life – the stuff that makes us human. Well, some of us perhaps. Ah, and that mesmerizing desert, its beauty, its restrained cruelty.

The film follows Drogo, an officer in the Austrian army, from the moment he is sent to his first assignment as a young man to a lonely fort Bastiano, nicknamed ‘dead border station’, lying at a desert’s edge where the Tartar attack is permanently imminent. The film, among other things, is a study of the ‘four stages’ of a man’s career: at first Drogo is ambitious, idealistic and inevitably bored at the outpost, desperate to leave; after a while he begins to rationalize his inactivity by the belief that he would eventually leave at some point; when the chance finally comes certain conditions do not allow it and the man faces up to the possibility he will never be able to leave; in key decision moments his sense of duty gets the better of him, as he gradually grows more passive and obedient and is rewarded for such behaviour with absurd promotions; in the end the man has become an inseparable part of the institution and is desperate to stay where he by now wholly belongs. But it's something more than just passivity and resignation. Something more sinister, something akin to a false hope, that vague feeling lurking in the depths of our being, a feeling carrying the latent, irrational, expectation that our moment is bound to arrive. Drogo seems to have spent his entire life waiting for his most personal hour to come, however ambivalent the moment was to be (possibly a show of bravery and the ensuing military glory?). But the hour never strikes. When at last Drogo’s health deteriorates, he becomes an anachronism, a walking detritus, resembling the very blasé, ineffectual officer he would once loath to become.

The ‘inevitable’ denouement, such as it stands, will in some modern viewers likely elicit their own career paths of undeserving, miserable jobs, lifelong devotion to a company, and thousands upon thousands of hours of those arduous daily routines. One of my favourite lines: Drogo (Jacques Perrin): ‘I was sent here by mistake. Doctor Rovin (Trintignant): ‘Here or elsewhere... we're all somewhere by mistake’.

Rarely in a film can one see a single edifice exerting such overwhelming, insidious power over the fate of its inhabitants, as in ‘Il Deserto dei Tartari’. This magnificent structure, the film’s setting, is Bam Citadel, located in southeastern Iran. Arg-e Bam used to be the largest adobe building in the world until it was more or less completely destroyed by an earthquake in 2003 which, incidentally, killed more than 26,000 people (!). The then president of Iran announced after the earthquake the citadel would be rebuilt. Being the World Heritage site several countries are helping its reconstruction. For its part ‘Japan has granted some US$1.3 million to Iran for the reconstruction, and has supported this project by sending equipment and creating the 3D plan of Bam Citadel to increase the accuracy of the renovation’(Wikipedia). Right now it looks like they are going to need that money back doesn’t it. 

                                              The immense Bam Citadel before the quake

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March 11, 2011

Posted on Sunday, March 13, 2011, under ,

Honshu crescent
peeled off
down to middle

metal sinks
wipers beating
eyes closed

the wave:
caught in the fishing net
a truck

the unclaimed
buried en masse
shovel by shovel

in the end:
through the pine needles
the sound of wind

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Woman in Chains

Posted on Friday, March 11, 2011, under

I have decided to start a new thing here on Kyotocacti: I'll be putting up links to various film clips, uploaded to youtube by yours truly. These will be either scenes from feature films or a short film in its entirety. The flicks I like to watch tend to be oldish, rare and thus harder to find. These films are less about narrative and more about content, be it a noirish play with lights and shadows, be it a subversive take on story-telling, be it a meditation on human condition. Or none of those, but ordinary stories about ordinary people. And then there will be silents. Animation, too.
Let's cut to the chase. Here is the first clip from Henri Clouzot's 'La Prisonniere' (1968). Saw it last night. While not Clouzot's best, the film contains some remarkable sequences marked by quick editing, the late 60's 'psychedelic' imagery and a very striking use of colour. The film successfully juxtaposes its rather bleak outlook on postmodern alienation with an almost celebratory use of colour, and in this respect evokes certain European works of the period  - Antonioni's 'Il Deserto Rosso' springs to mind.
My clip actually contains the last few minutes of the film, including the 'trippy' dream sequence (which someone on IMDB compared to Bowman's journey in Kubrick's '2001')  plus the credits with a delightful Adagio from Mahler's Symphony #4.

A breathtaking finale, a collage of striking images that somehow manages to distil the plot as well as the girl's emotional disorientation. She is hospitalized, comatose after a car suicide attempt in her brown Renault 4  - I remember the doors having a rather cute checked pattern, as if the car was wrapped in a big woollen blanket. The suicide motif is recurring in 'Woman in Chains': Clouzot seems to suggest a personal crisis stems from a loss of moral compass in postmodern art/life.
After the girl wakes she's mumbling 'Stan, Stan'. Alas it is not the erratic Stan who is by her bedside, but her rather bewildered-looking hubby. Gilbert's last lines: 'Don't worry... all will be fine'.
Or will it? 
Note: NOT for the faint-hearted.

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Kiri Sute Gomen

Posted on Thursday, March 03, 2011, under ,

is a Japanese expression, nowadays rather rarely used, which roughly translates as ‘I apologize in advance for this’ or, more loosely, ‘Mistakes were made’, indicating a sort of mock apology for something we have done which caused grievance to others, yet an expression devoid of a genuine feeling of self-reproach. The non-apology apology.

Wish I knew of this phrase a few weeks back when two traffic wardens stopped me on scooter for taking an illegal turn. Still, I did manage to talk them into letting me off the hook. Don’t ask me how. Spent almost half hour on the street talking and bullshitting, like ‘Japanese traffic rules are different from UK’ and such nonsense. If I’d known the phrase I am sure I would’ve used it. Not as effectively though as this piece of declamation by a humorist Bruce McCall, in a 2001 New York Times piece entitled "The Perfect Non-apology Apology":

‘Nobody is sorrier than me that the police officer had to spend his valuable time writing out a parking ticket on my car. Though from my personal standpoint I know for a certainty that the meter had not yet expired, please accept my expression of deep regret at this unfortunate incident.’

The above is so much in tune with Japanese, especially the overpolite Japanese used in formal situations (I don’t mean to imply Japanese are insincere though). Here is the one who indeed WAS insincere:

‘Kiri sute gomen’ actually goes back to the samurai times (literally: kiru = cut; suteru = throw  away, abandon; gomen = pardon). It would be uttered by a member of the samurai caste, in situations whereby certain harm, injury or a violation of honour had been done to him by a member of a lower caste (farmers, artisans, merchants). Such situation often called for an immediate retribution by the offended party, samurai that is, the utterance of the phrase accompanying a blow by the sword. Thus in its original connotation ‘kirisute gomen’ meant ‘authorization to cut and abandon (the victim’s body)’. A samurai had the ‘right to strike’ with his katana anyone of the lower class who compromised the code of honour or who behaved in a disrespectful manner, such as mistreating the weak or the sick.
In one of well known incident, a commoner bumped into a samurai. The samurai pointed out the disrespect but the commoner refused to apologise. Feeling merciful, the samurai offered the commoner his ‘wakizashi’ (short sword) so he had a chance to defend himself. Instead, the commoner decided to run away with his ‘wakizashi’, causing further dishonour. The incident resulted in the samurai being disowned from the clan. He later regained his honour by seeking out the commoner and killing the whole family.
                                                                                Wikipedia, ‘Kiri sute gomen’ entry
The phrase was also used, of all places, in the James Bond novel You Only Live Twice, where the villain Blofeld asks of Bond: "Have you ever heard the Japanese expression kirisute gomen?" to which Bond replies: "Spare me the Lafcadio Hearn, Blofeld."

Lafcadio Hearn a.k.a. Koizumi Yakumo, is an author of travel journals and Japanese ghost stories, largely credited with introducing Japan of the late 19th C. to the outside world. Lafcadio was a truly international writer if ever there was one. His peripatetic life began in Greece in 1850. Born to a British/Irish father (an army doctor) and a Greek mother of Maltese origin. Baptized in a Greek Orthodox church. Moved to Dublin with his mum when we was two years old (she went back to Greece soon thereafter), and subsequently lived in Wales with his aunt, who sent him off to attend Catholic colleges in Durham and France. Disenchanted by religion, Lafcadio renounces Catholicism. At the age of 19 he is sent to the U.S. where he stayed for 10 years, first in Cincinnati then New Orleans. There he wrote impassioned articles with a range of subjects, from corruption to the Creole cuisine, and is today credited with ‘inventing’ New Orleans as a place of mystery and exoticism. Apparently, more books have been written about him than any former resident of New Orleans other than Louis Armstrong.

Hearn spent two years in the French West Indies before being sent off to Japan as a newspaper correspondent. The paper’s commission broke off and Hearn spent the rest of his life in Japan, teaching and writing. His writing was so influential that not only it shaped Western perception of the country but also Japanese perceptions of Japan.

Lafcadio settled in the town of Matsue in western Japan, where he met and married Setsu Koizumi, a daughter in a high-ranking samurai family. Once a naturalized Japanese, Lafcadio changed his name to Koizumi Yakumo (wonder if he ever used kiri sute gomen phrase, now being a part of the samurai clan and all). Lafcadio died of heart failure in 1904, at the age of 54.

Lafcadio with wife and their first son. Lafcadio always preferred to be photographed from the side so that his left eye could not be seen. He lost vision in his eye during a playground accident at college.

Since 1960’s Lafcadio’s summer house has been on display at a commemorative park ‘Meiji Mura’ near Nagoya, where I hope to visit next week. Should my sojourn take place, the full report will naturally follow on these pages. Plus more on Lafcadio’s writings and influence. Stay tuned. 

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