Notes

Dear Reader, let me apologize for my prolonged absence. I cannot explain the implosion. I have never been terribly productive. I have always felt a little out of place in the cult of the economy. I find myself, as if I was lost, in graduate school. The dual threats of work, fulfilling, and study, less so, strains my soul. I have also found a Dear Other who I love.

As my last post hinted this Dear Other is quite Dear. Like all people, unfortunately, they will always be an Other—no matter how Dear. My energy is sent to cheery exploits of exploring and mapping and existing with Dear Other. I have no other words to describe it, and since I cannot I will not. These energies are gratefully expended but writing becomes difficult. My world has collapsed and have my usual subjects.

In equal parts fortunate and unfortunate I have received a steady supply of comments and views—more than I ever imagined. Fortunate because each encourages me to do something I enjoy like a wink or a nudge. Unfortunate because I feel unable to meet even these humble expectations.

But perhaps I put too much pride in my work. Too much ego. Is writing that difficult? I can hear the silent head shaking from here, ‘producing my drivel, surely, can’t be hard’—is it a question or a statement of fact? I cannot tell. Or perhaps it is precisely because I can’t escape my love of needless literary blandishments that makes writing so hard.

What I do know, and now accept, is that I celebrate novels when they defy those dominations and powers that enslave us. This is my house of worship, and if you would like to take an occasional peek—dear reader—then all the better. If there is pride then I cannot escape it. Prometheus somewhat cryptically observes, “Time, growing ever older, teaches all things.” Or, as Dr Johnson notes, reflecting Matthew’s Gospel, “Pride must have a fall;” thus proving I have the real thing and not merely the mock.

In my spare time, for I have many hours that I fill with trivial pursuits, I write myself notes. I write myself notes about odd things. Recently I wrote some notes while I watched, equal parts amused and bemused, an American-Japanese animated serial called Cowboy Bebop.

I do not think the show needs much introduction, mainly because the exact content I relate well as this note goes along, enough and the actual content you either know, dear reader, or do not. Without firsthand knowledge you are not missing much, and with firsthand knowledge you are not missing much. Suffice to say the series details the exploits of two guys in the far future. Their job, or at least what they occasionally do to acquire money, is odd jobs. Usually capturing or killing people—think of a Western but in space. Needless to say the lessons I drew from my viewing did not relate to the plot.

One thing I’ve noticed from the two or three episodes of Cowboy Bebop that I saw, I’m afraid it never quite caught on with me, is how it paired itself down to two general themes. The first being ‘American Western’ to the point of being a farce or satire, campy, perhaps in the same mold as the Italian spaghetti westerns like the Dollars trilogy (e.g. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). The second being the Japanese penchant for pinpoint expression bridging a vast emptiness of unspoken (here, unwritten) details. Described, once, as “the emptiness, the nothingness, of the Orient… not to be taken for the nihilism of the West.”

I’m reminded of this passage from Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler, which may (or may not) be an excerpt from a fictional Japanese book On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon.

the shower of little ginkgo leaves is characterized by the fact that in each moment each leaf that is falling is found at a different altitude from the others, whereby the empty and insensitive space in which the visual sensations are situated can be subdivided into a succession of levels in each of which we find one little leaf twirling and one alone.

Like much of Calvino’s work it is, curiously and truly, unique. Part of that uniqueness in how he grasps something that, seemingly, Cowboy Bebop grasps. A certain zeitgeist paired away of all the other influences radiating outwards from the Home Islands.

In Japanese literature what does not move, and what goes unsaid, is often as important as movement. Absence propels just as rapidly as presence. I find a reflection of this dynamic on the screen in Cowboy Bebop because there is often never more than a single animation overlaid on a static background. It’s interesting to see this habit reflected, to an almost comical degree, in the show because one can count on a single hand any frame where more than one movement is shown. Even the fight scenes are carefully choreographed routines where one arm moves through the air to connect at one point.

Bebop’s arc captures, for me, the zeitgeist of Japanese literature. Perhaps the Bebop series, much less Calvino’s slender chapter, is too campy to fully capture Japanese literature in total. Actually there is no perhaps at all. But they are useful, at least as useful as Sergio Leone when he captured the American zeitgeist in Clint Eastwood. Because Bebop’s use is that it refracts a unique quality of Japanese literature across the screen, sometimes badly but well enough.

Dear reader, a quick note. My definition of unique is, well, unique. Thus departing widely from the practice of Irving Babbitt Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard, who, if I am to believe the indulgent fourth edition of Webster’s International Dictionary, could bring himself to write at least once of the “less unique” just as the novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher could write of the “more unique” and the playwright Arthur Miller could cap it all by writing of “the most unique.” We can only look nostalgically toward that once-upon-a-time when “unique” was an exceedingly powerful and precise word. Now we observe the erosion of its meaning. No longer can we indicate the only one of its kind, having no like or equal. Another victim of sloppy semantic change for the word has deteriorated into a rough synonym of unparalleled–but not even quite. Much more closer to odd, curious, unusual or even quaint.

Japanese writers focus a tremendous amount of energy on the experience of alienation. The recent Murakami craze, which is certainly not limited to Japan, highlights the trend: South of the Border, West of the Sun. The book contains some extremely poignant explorations of coming of age, early relationships, etc. But crucially the protagonist never escapes the emotions and memories from that adolescent period in his life, the period that everyone faces as one of extreme alienation hangs over the protagonist for the rest of his life.

I think this is also why some people have such a strong reaction to his work. Even when Murakami is writing about adult protagonists he is describing adolescence’s (and adolescences’) alienation. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle the protagonist is faced with unfathomable changes in himself, his relationships with women, and the world around him. These changes bring him into a new, stranger world that he is unequipped to function but must. Everything from the wet dreams to the confusing inexplicable relationship with the girl next door evokes the creamy confusion of adolescence.

 

In Murakami’s works, the narrator is almost always somehow set apart from the world he ostensibly exists in. In the end of the world portions contained within Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World the narrator (apparently) possesses the only ego or mind in Town. This is mirrored in the hard-boiled wonderland portions of the novel, where the narrator is cut off from a portion of his own mind, and apparently unaware of the strangeness around him.

This is something Bebop captures and captures well. Perhaps it is also why the show fares so well with a particular age range and, like skateboarding, if you do not approach it at the right age you feel silly when you try. Ultimately the main protagonist in Cowboy Bebop is an adolescent. The other side-show protagonist plays a fairly conventional father figure. He is needlessly and inexplicably thrown from one situation to another where love, loss and confusion drift interchangeably—and senselessly—in a world where adults’ plans dominate.

As a passing remark, for everyone who enjoys Cowboy Bebop I hope that you would take a look at Phillip K. Dick’s novels, especially Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I find the emptiness of Japanese literature reflected in Dick’s “California spirituality,” which was at least sincere and arguably superior to Cowboy Bebop’s heavy handed effort to apply a Zen-like emptiness to wild Japanese conceptions of American westerns.

Admittedly, Dick was not intentional in the same way about the sci-fi. In Bebop I found the sci-fi to be, largely, just enough to make it politically digestible. And perhaps most noticeably in Dick’s there are no real starships flying around the galaxy. But on the other hand Bebop always seemed to be in the future just far enough so one would care about whether he is driving a Toyota or Ford, whether his father killed my dad or your’s, ect. The future, in Bebop, functioned as a mechanism to place it beyond today’s political concerns but not so far we would not worry about alienation.

Somewhat amusingly, in Bebop the date was never important beyond the first few seconds for the obligatory ‘star port’ scene. And I always found those portions of the episodes to be stylistically and thematically at odds with the rest of the episode. The scenes were a simple device to provide a fig leaf of progression to the plot for audiences antsy about the post-modernist, inconclusive endings that characterized the show. The practical effect is rather small.

So Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? has the same setting, generally, and the same Eastern nihilism. ‘Who am I? What am I about?’ The style is generally similar, if we can agree on Bebop’s culture heritage. Finally, it has a great amount of reality-based science that may seem a little old, now, but at the time was quite forward thinking.

Quod scripsi scripsi.

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4 thoughts on “Notes

  1. It’s good to see you posting again!

    In spite of my consumption of a lot of Japanese pop culture, I’m woefully under-read in their literature. For Christmas I got a collection of Medieval folk tales, which seems as decent a place to start as any.

    • If you’ll allow me the time to make a recommendation or two I would take a peek over at Yukio Mishima–likely Japan’s finest product. Ultimately ‘only’ a product, for once he ran out of purpose he committed seppuku in 1970 after joining a ‘failed’ coup attempt by the military against the then civilian government. Many believe, assuming he could arrest his declining artistic output, that he would have gotten a Nobel Prize in spite of narrowly losing out to another Japanese great–Yasunari Kawabata–in 1968 (69?). As you can imagine he is a terribly compelling figure and makes, er, made rapturous novels at the beginning of his career that can be gotten for pennies on the dollar on Amazon.

      • I have indeed heard of Mishima before, but thank you for the recommendation. My leisure reading is, at the moment, spread a bit thin by academic duties, but sometime…

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