Friday, April 29, 2011

a distance organised around the "soldier"

Driving to Oregon we passed through south-west Nevada, where the mountains were primed in their cricketing whites, and then into the city of Reno, where fumes of cloud were boiling down the cliffs toward the outer suburbs, and a woman in a petrol station was telling the man behind the counter that her hens wouldn't lay their eggs in this freezing wind, then into northern California and up from a town called Susanville, into a national forest of firs and pines -- and all of a sudden the rain drops were lifting away from the heat of the bonnet, swinging like feathers on parabolas towards our faces behind the windshield; and it was snow.

The woods were silent, supernatural, not a bird, not a rustle, the branches were stifled with snow, the trees were spread with snow, the snow had been pushed aside on both sides of the road until it was as high as the car, and the even the heads of the road signs were buried; all the side roads had been barred with chains, and at one point we were stuck behind a snow plough, which lumbered forward slowly, slowly, slowly and spewed endless material out of its side like a stabbed elephant. Finally it dragged itself into a side niche and we went past with gestures, seeing that the spew had petered out and it was as if dead.

Every now and then the trees would stand aside and passing by we would see a paddock of snow, a pure vista, cleaner than anything else in the world, and through virtue of its purity looking more removed than the moon, "that pure in-itself," as Sartre writes, a snow field.

"But," he adds, "if I approach, if I want to establish an appropriate contact with the field of snow, everything is changed. Its scale of being is modified; it exists bit by bit instead of existing in vast spaces; stains, brush and crevices come to individualise every square inch. At the same time its solidarity melts into water. I sink into the snow up to my knees, if I pick some up with my hand, it turns to liquid in my fingers, it runs off, there is nothing left of it." I pictured myself getting out of the car and wading into one of those paddocks, where I knew my footprints would destroy the effect. Like the philosopher's full glass the snow was haunted, but by the holes my feet would make. "My dream of appropriating the snow vanishes at the same moment. Moreover I do not know what to do with the snow which I have just come to see at close hand. I can not get hold of that field; I can not even reconstitute it as that substantial total which offered itself to my eyes." It was all true, and the most I could do was what I was doing already, which was to feel drawn to it, pulled and lured towards -- what? -- not frozen water -- but what? -- and, think, it would be cold, see, evening was falling, and how thick were my shoes? Not very. The snow turned grey with twilight.

Haunted in Hazel E. Barnes's translation of Being and Nothingness becomes a graceful word; it makes the automatic actions of Sartre's world seem mythical. He writes about transcendence in a plain philosophical sense, but the language is transcendent too, a fantasy language. "Desire is an attitude aiming at enchantment," he writes. "Slime is the agony of water." (It's funny to see (said M. last night) how the house blinks before the air conditioning comes on.) There is one passage in which Sartre presents a scene and then turns it inside out around a single muscular action, the instant when "he throws his gun" --

The soldier who is fleeing formerly had the Other-as-enemy at the point of his gun. The distance from him to the enemy was measured by the trajectory of his bullets, and I too could apprehend and transcend that distance as a distance organised around the "soldier" as centre. But behold now he throws his gun in the ditch and is trying to save himself. Immediately the presence of the enemy surrounds him and presses in upon him; the enemy, who had been held at a distance by the trajectory of the bullets, leaps upon him at the very instant when the trajectory collapses; at the same time that land in the background, which he was defending and against which he was leaning as against a wall, suddenly opens fan-wise and becomes the foreground, the welcoming horizon toward which he is fleeing for refuge.

The prose performs magic, everything is transformed, as handkerchieves turn into rabbits or doves, and this is an effect that Proust liked (so his English translators make it appear), this metamorphosis of an object, event, or person, making it seem to open and grow, becoming multiple (as it always was, you realise, and this is one of the things he has revealed to you, revelation being his business), so that as Lost Time goes on it becomes evident that the early Charlus was always haunted by aspects of himself that the Narrator would discover in later volumes, and the girl making Moncrieff's "indelicate gesture" in Swann's Way was always haunted by a woman in Time Regained. In Jean he hadn't found himself yet, and the effect comes and goes. He sends Jean "with his mother to a swimming-bath" where the water turns into an "icy sea", this transformation moving on a pivot, as in Nothingness, but now the action is an action of the mind: "he had felt" --

Standing on a wooden raft that rose and fell to the movement of the water with, before him, an immense and liquid cavern that bellied outwards under plunging bodies which emerged again a little farther on and, though hedged about with other cubicles, seemed fathomless -- he had felt, like those ancients who believed that in a spot not far from Pozzuoli was an entrance to the underworld, that here was the gateway to those icy seas whose limits lay within this narrow space, their angry potency surging between the piles through which they could be reached, though far below they opened into a strange and unknown world, a counterpart, perhaps, of the one with which he was familiar, but unvisited by any light of the sun.

You didn't know this, but I've been trying to find an excuse to post something from that part of the book for weeks.

Monday, April 25, 2011

its living and its decaying trees

I am about to give away parts of The Man Who Loved Children, so if you haven't read it and you don't want to know what happens, stop now.

Panellists on the ABC's First Tuesday Book Club read Man earlier this month and complained that the author was "relentlessly cruel," that the characters were filled with "cruelty," and that they talked too much. "Unreadable."

It was "suffocating" said Jennifer Byrne: it was all very well reading this before I was a mother (she said) but now I'm distressed at the thought of those children left behind at the end of the book in "that house full of hate and venom" (which is a misreading of the last chapter, in which Stead describes all "hate and venom" receding from the house. Ernie finds five dollars and begins to have "heartening thoughts," while baby Chappy is "learning to punch playfully the large bosom of Hassie." Evie and Tommy occasionally "look a bit downcast" when they remember their mother, but that's all. Above them, the adults who were disagreeing with one another are reconciling and prospering. Angry Henny, lodestar of hate and venom, is sinking into the otherworld of a household myth. If Byrne is worried about the ending from the perspective of a mother, then her concern should not be, "Children are suffering," but, "Christina Stead believes that if I, a mother, died, my resiliant children would get along without me. My son would cheer up and start planning his business career, while my baby would adapt happily to life with my sister").

But we suffocated, groaned Byrne and Luke Davies and Marieke Hardy. It was too much for us! To which: Thoreau: Walden:

We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander. We are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion which disgusts and disheartens us, and deriving health and strength from the repast. There was a dead horse in the hollow by the path to my house, which compelled me sometimes to go out of my way, especially in the night when the air was heavy, but the assurance it gave me of the strong appetite and inviolable health of Nature was my compensation for this.

Christina Stead writes like a natural force, and the Book Club prinks at dead horses and calls in the council. We found a young rattlesnake decapitated in the road yesterday, a corpse that did not make the air "heavy," dessicated as it was, but you could look through a hole in the skin at its poor smashed and crosshatched ribs (each snake a pipe of ribs), and know that you would never wander in that flattened cavern from which the spirit, past pasturing, had departed, banished by one of our neighbours, possibly with the sharp end of a shovel, and then with the weight of a car. Man should be reduced to "A short story perhaps," winces Marieke Hardy, aspiring killer of mysterious snakes, and a young woman in Turgenev's Rudin shouts back at the whole idea of this Book Club: "I am not crying for the reason you think. That is not what hurts me; what hurts me is that I have been deceived in you." This woman has arrived at an assignation prepared to defy her family and run away with her lover, a man she believes is a passionate idealist. She tells him that her mother was upset when she found out about their liason, and the fraud lover quails and baulks. He won't go through with it. "And your mother was so indignant as all that?" he says. The young woman is appalled. "Whom did I meet here? A man of faint heart," unbrave, timorous, easily unsettled. "And how did you know that I am not up to enduring the parting from my family?" She is willing to endure it and he has misjudged her. And Gwen Harwood in A Quartet for Dorothy Hewitt turns her back on the man who says, "It's lovely dear."

I dreamed of soaring passion
as an egg might dream of flight,
while he read my crude sonata.
If he'd said, "That bar's not right,"

or, "Have you thought of a coda,"
or, "What that first repeat,"
or, "Modulate the dominant,"
he'd have had me at his feet

But he shuffled it all together
and said, "That's lovely dear,"
as he put it down on the washstand
in a way that made it clear

that I was no composer.
And I being young and vain
removed my lovely body
from one who'd scorned my brain

Or "you are no mate to me," as the young woman says to the wailing Book Club panellists who wish that fictional characters would be lovely, dear, and shut up a bit so as not to stir them too much. Send her a challenge, send her a muse of fire, don't send her Marieke Hardy or Jennifer Byrne. "Good-by!"

Turgenev translated by Harry Stevens

Sunday, April 17, 2011

earth hath no fruitfulness without showers

Looking at the dryness outside I realise that my books have recently been full of water. "The water is more productive than the earth," says Izaak Walton's Piscator. "Nay, the earth hath no fruitfulness without showers or dews; for all the herbs, and flowers, and fruit, are produced and thrive by the water; and the very minerals are fed by streams that run under ground, whose natural course carries them to the tops of many high mountains, as we see by several springs breaking forth on the tops of the highest hills; and this is also witnessed by the daily trial and testimony of several miners." (And Oregon was wet and fruitful.)

Then there are marvellous rivers: "The river Selarus in a few hours turns a rod or wand to stone: and our Camden mentions the like in England, and the like in Lochmere in Ireland. There is also a river in Arabia, of which all the sheep that drink thereof have their wool turned into a vermilion colour. And one of no less credit than Aristotle, tells us of a merry river, the river Elusina, that dances at the noise of musick, for with musick it bubbles, dances, and grows sandy, and so continues till the musick ceases, but then it presently returns to its wonted calmness and clearness."

But here in the desert we have the dry white washes, the beds of dead streams, calm and unmusical -- inhabiting the still atmosphere of silence -- running under low trees and grasses and the delicately thin and tendrilled plants, like paths engineered by spirits for their especial use; they go nowhere that a human would go, and the branches fall too low for people to follow them, though you do see the tracks of coyotes down there, and the jackrabbits dart down those raceways when you startle them -- or else they run into cholla patches -- and two weeks ago I was walking down the bank of a wash at dusk and almost trod on a rattlesnake, which let me know that it was there, and I said, "Yoh!" and then, "Hoo," and jumped backwards, a planned jump, which sounds like a joke, but it's true, I did have time to think, "What's the fastest way away from this rattlesnake? What would an onlooker tell me to do?" and the answer came lucidly, "Jump backwards," which turned out to be good advice.

Then we scouted around in the bosky dusky darkness, trying to find another route back to the house, and vowed never to go walking after dinner again in springtime, which vow we have adhered to.

The natural dry rivers of Arizona are as beautiful as the wet ones of Oregon, but in a different way; they do not change; they are rivers without fish, like a prehistoric or Biblical withdrawing of the waters from the earth, or (in my imagination) like that moment I saw reported when the Boxing Day tsunami hit in 2004, and the sea preemptively rushed away from the beaches leaving bare sand and the people running onto the sand to gather the beached fish were swept away and killed moments later, because the sea hadn't left forever or even for an hour or a day, it was only inhaling. Jean in Jean Santeuil goes down to the unfamiliar North Sea "to the very edge of the sea, where the little waves were breaking in an infinity of sand."

Their shape, their movement, their linked and following run gave to them that general look which makes us say of certain things that they are "just the same," that we know them. And so it was that in this evening light he was oppressed by a feeling of sadness, a more melancholy feeling perhaps than that which comes to us when we fail to recognise familiar sights. It comes in part, that feeling, from our recognizing as familiar things we do not know, but chiefly from our not being recognized by things we do know, from an awareness that they have become strangers.


For places change less in appearance than do men, and waves can never change at all, but seem to say to us, "It is no longer ago than yesterday," and cry to us to resume the life that once was ours.

Proust sorts through that idea, and then, in a massive leap that lasts for about six pages, he discovers the idea that will bind and animate In Search of Lost Time, the idea that habit can be broken into by unplanned memories, triggered by similarities between different events, which transport a person outside time and space. In Lost Time he uses madeleines and flagstones, but in Jean it's the sea, and it comes almost at the end of the story, a revelation for the protagonist, and, you suspect, for the author as well -- the book, a rough draft that stayed unpublished during Proust's lifetime, moves back and forth between third-person Jean and the author's I -- he has never before seen himself describe his own intuitions so clearly, perhaps, and now his mind is racing, boiling, boiling onward to that sentence: "Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure," which, like Piscator's rivers, carried him to the top of many high mountains, himself both the mineral and the miner.

Credit for the Proust translation goes to Gerard Hopkins.

Proust's boiling mind boiled on for a number of years before it finally got to that sentence, and it boiled all the way through the pieces of unpublished critical writing that Bernard de Fallois discovered after his death and put together under the title Contre Sainte-Beauve. Fallois assembled Jean too, out of rough papers, or, as André Maurois puts it more heroically, "Bernard de Fallois took on the labour of garnering this abundant crop." Reading Sainte-Beauve after Jean I sometimes have the feeling that they're competing with one another. "I have the madeleine-prototype!" "Well I have the asparagus!"

Thursday, April 14, 2011

let someone half-turn her head and say, "A fine evening"

Spring has come to country Arizona. The sun is warm and the ground squirrels are out, undulating across the bare earth like large fast caterpillars, although they have only four legs each; half-caterpillars then. "We rambled to a pretty stream," wrote George Eliot in her journal in 1834, "and there sat watching a caterpillar. When it had been cut in two the fore-part set to work to devour the other half. In the afternoon we had a two hours' walk in the pine woods. They are sublime." There's one squirrel around the side of the house who likes to climb trees. I go out there with my human noise and mass and this ripe grey piece of fruit slides out of the branches and runs into a burrow.

Indeed, if we want to describe a summer evening, the way to do it is to set people talking in a room with their backs to the window, and then, as they talk about something else, let someone half-turn her head and say, "A fine evening" when (if they have been talking about the right things) the summer evening is visible to anyone who reads the page, and is for ever remembered as of quite exceptional beauty.

What would "the right things" be, I wondered, when I read this passage in Woolf's review of Kipling's published Notebooks. What dialogue could be so calibrated, and so perfect, that it would send you away imagining for ever an evening of quite exceptional beauty? I have an idea that if I came across line like that in a book, I would pay no attention to the appearance of the evening, in fact I would barely pay attention to the fact of there being an evening at all; I would think of the character (a continuation of the thoughts I would have been having up to that moment, as Woolf's imaginary book is a book about people), and of the conversation this character was having with other characters, and how her, "A fine evening," fitted into that conversation, and what the author might want her to imply. "A fine evening," might mean, "I am uncomfortable. We should change the subject," or, "I hate you and I'd rather look out the window than listen to you," or, "Isn't it melancholy, we're all so sad, and yet the sun shines, the leaves rustle, all of nature is satisfied," or something else, but when did an author ever put, "A fine evening," into a conversation because they wanted the reader to picture a fine evening?

But it's possible that they do, all the time, and that every time a character in a book says, "It's raining," or notices tree branches swaying, as Colm Tóibín recommended,* the author is really wanting us to do nothing more than admire the rain or the view, which we can't see, a tease, and all of this is the silent revenge of the world of authors on the world of readers, the authors back there behind the curtain, laughing: "And all this time they thought we were being subtle! They fell for it!" One author tries to break ranks and tell the rest of us about this outrageous fraud -- "No, hoi!" say the rest. "No dobbing! Shh!" And they pull that author back by the elbow.

* In an interview with John Preston

Tóibín proceeds to demonstrate what makes him such a good writer – and also, you suspect, an inspiring teacher. “For instance, you could write a sentence like: 'He hated his mother more in that moment than he had ever hated her before.’ But, alternatively, you could say: 'When his mother turned away from him, he looked out and he noticed that the branches of the tree were swaying. He held his eyes on it for a moment, and when he looked back she was staring at him.’ See? It doesn’t really matter who hates who anymore, but something has occurred. There’s something there that makes the reader shiver. All writing is a form of manipulation, of course, but you realise that a plain sentence can actually do so much."

While we were in Portland I finished Tóibín's The Master, a book with an absolute surfeit of people staring subtly at views. "He was interested in the desk and the papers and the books. He went to the window and looked at the view."

The Journals of George Eliot were edited by Margaret Harris and Judith Johnson and published in 2000 by the Cambridge University Press. Harris, if you want to know some trivia, was also the editor of Dearest Munx: the Letters of Christina Stead and William Blake. She teaches at the University of Sydney.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

the sound of an oar rhythmically striking

When a quarrel started (Henny and Sam did speak at the height of their most violent quarrels) and elementary truths were spoken, a quiet, a lull, would fall across the house. One would hear, while Henny was gasping for indignant breath and while Sam was biting his lip in stern scorn, the sparrows chipping, or the startling rattle of the kingfisher, or even an oar sedately dipping past the beach, or even the ferry's hoot. Exquisite were these moments.

Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children

But a star-spangled night, a day of sunshine, the freshness which comes at evening after a day of heat, and seems to bring to the listening ear, against a background of silence, the sound of an oar rhythmically striking the water, spoke for him a sublime language which in a very especial way sent his thoughts soaring.

Marcel Proust, Jean Santeuil, translated by Gerard Hopkins

Saturday, April 9, 2011

we love him, with a little dash of irony

Christina Stead didn't like Proust. "Dull Proust," she called him in a letter to her lover Bill Blake, who had written to her about some authors that he liked and didn't like, mentioning Joyce, Stendhal, Proust, and Balzac. "Everyone is mad about that dull Proust. Why? Old Balzac I suppose is one of my masters, I think more or less like him (at times -- though in César Birotteau there are some pages so exactly like yourself, when you are not too serious and a bit careless and this is when Balzac is rushing along -- that I open my eyes in amazement, have to laugh. Just exactly like, word for word.)"

"To love Balzac!" wrote Proust, forty years earlier (translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner). "Sainte-Beauve, who was so fond of defining what it meant to love someone, would have had his work cut out for him here. For with the other novelists, one loves them in submitting oneself to them; one receives the truth from a Tolstoi as from someone of greater scope and stature to oneself. With Balzac, we know all his vulgarities, and at first were often repelled by them; then we began to love him, then we smiled at all those sillinesses which are so typical of him; we love him, with a little dash of irony mixed in our affection; we know his aberrations, his shabby little tricks, and because they are so like him we love them."

A character in Anita Brookner's A Start in Life: "Most women are too young for Balzac."

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

terrifyingly themselves, as they set out for the Cool Room

Riding carbound through western Oregon I looked through the window at the forest and thought of Gormenghast. Peake dug his way so thoroughly into me when I was younger that it seems impossible to ever reach a state where an object that suggests castles or forests will not remind me of the books, always there, they are always ready to be accidentally summoned, like the ability to ride bicycles.

All around the road were the dark trees, black trees, clawing trees in the drizzle, "the branches interlacing so thickly that even the heaviest downpour was stayed from striking through," the moss growing on the rocks and on the concrete road-dividers, and different moss (darker) on the trunks, lighter moss on the branches like buds. By the time the new leaves need to sprout the weather has become too warm for this lighter moss so it dies and drops off, allowing the leaves to take its place, which is a beautiful symbiosis. (Another symbiosis: when we stopped in Arizona later three small birds came down to stand on the front bumper of the car and eat flattened insects off the paintwork.)

Gormenghast castle is set behind deep forests, like Portland (from the south, anyway), which you approach through trees and then through fields, but with my mind I can easily compress the fields to nothing and see only the city's downtown area inside a wall of this forest, which rises thickly on all sides of the buildings, as close as the thorn barrier around Rapunzel's tower, while the inhabitants of Portland (who, when we saw them, were either homeless or else dressed in black and standing by the counters of coffee shops, as if they'd stepped out of a stereotype of Melbourne) live inside, cultivating their eccentricities. (But we can only dream of a world as sprouting and disheveled as Peake's: the employee-hiring section of the website for Powell's Books is as sober as the white forehead of "the high-shouldered boy.")

In the north the buildings run up to the river that borders Washington. We went across quickly, ate lunch and then came back, so that we'd be able to say in future, "We've been to Washington," but all we saw of the state were some one-way streets and a one-legged man in a wheelchair, a rectangular grassy park, and a sign for the Vancouver School of Beauty printed in lavender.

Coming back days later to the low desert of Arizona, I remembered Peake in Titus Groan describing the self-contained nature of his characters, "terrifyingly themselves." How did the sentence go?

Each one with his or her particular stride. His or her particular eyes, nose, mouth, hair, thoughts and feelings. Self-contained, carrying their whole selves with them as they moved, as a vessel that holds its own distinctive wine, bitter or sweet. These seven closed their doors behind them, terrifyingly themselves, as they set out for the Cool Room.

Peake, an artist who worked as an illustrator, wrote as if his mind was going through the procedure of drawing, he wrote as a person drawing sees, paying attention to the proportions and singularities of objects, measuring the negative spaces between leaves,* or noticing the distance between one person's nose and eyes and another person's nose and eyes. He magnifies differences and reiterates them. We could guess at the lack of inner sympathy between the characters even if we only saw them standing far away in silhouette -- the physical contrasts are so strong -- fat Swelter fighting with thin Flay, or tiny shivering Nannie Slagg, "like a withered doll," attending to the hair of the monumental and still Countess Gertrude, whose "effect … was one of bulk," or Fuchsia, whose stance is untidy, talking to Steerpike, who is neat and contained, "methodical and quickly moving," and who keeps his hair slicked back.

The author plays the game a little differently when it comes to the Doctor and Irma, making them look superficially similar, giving them both "the Prunesquallors' head," and then assuring the reader that their minds are absolutely antithetic in noteworthy ways. "Her own brain was sharp and quick but unlike her brother's it was superficial." The contrary features that he makes external in a couple like Flay and Swelter, he internalises for the two Prunesquallors.

Arriving at the Twins he changes the game again and creates two characters who look, think, and behave so alike that they are virtually the same person. Now the striking thing is the likeness between the two sides of the pair, not the dissimilarity. (When he brings them together with Steerpike the threesome behaves like a twosome; the Twins are so identical that conversations with outsiders arrive at the same result no matter which one of them is speaking.) At this point you realise that Peake's technique is something like Lewis Carroll's, the author acknowleging a set of rules and then tweaking them to find out what effect these changes will have. But Peake's rules are visual and physical, where Carroll's were abstract, linguistic and mathematical.

I thought, "If you're comparing landscapes then it's Arizona that has the Gormenghast spirit, not Oregon. It doesn't look like the landscape in the book, but it has that emphasis on difference." The desert is so wide, the foliage is so low, and lit with such a brilliant crushing light, that each plant stands out distinctly, and when I see a saguaro standing up in this crouching countryside, I have the impression that I'm looking at a bare stage with a single prop. Those shapes, like poles, seem too striking and isolated to be ordinarily alive. They are supernatual, "terrifyingly themselves." But in Oregon the plants have so much rain that they never have to crouch, they grow tall, lush, and crammed, in places a weaker tree will lean sideways into the others and tangle itself in their branches, the moss runs from the earth up the trunks disguising the join between the two, and nothing is allowed the total isolation of the saguaro. In Arizona the plants are singular, in Oregon they are plural. Arizona has a tree, Oregon has trees.

* In Titus Groan, the chapter called Farewell: "Her eyes seemed to be drawn along the line of the dark trees until they rested upon a minute area of sky framed by the black and distant foliage. This fragment of sky was so small that it could never have been pointed out or even located again by Keda had she taken her eyes from it for a second."

Measurements that are even more detailed are not difficult to find. In the Blood at Midnight chapter:

Swelter's shadowy moonless body at the door was intersected by the brilliant radii and jerking perimeters of a web that hung about halfway between himself and Mr Flay. The centre of the web coincided with his left nipple. The spacial depth between the glittering threads of the web and the chef seemed abysmic and prodigious.

This is more or less the way my mind talks to itself when I'm drawing objects with a pencil -- sorting out intersections and proportions, and guessing at the effects. Peake's language works by combining exact observation ("The centre of the web coincided with his left nipple") with words that suggest largeness, vagueness, grandeur, romance, and drama -- "abysmic" "dark trees" "terrifyingly" -- the precisely known meeting the ineffable -- or the mechanical meeting the spiritual -- the same tension that we see described in Anthony Burgess' assessment of the books, "A rich wine of fancy chilled by the intellect."

I'm not totally sure if the moss story is true. M. says that a friend told him about it.

Friday, April 1, 2011

one could not find out about the history of early China

(This is the second part of a longer post. Here is the first part.)

In his introduction to the Great History of Japan, a man called Tokugawa Tsunaeda, the adopted son and heir of Tokugawa Mitsukuni (who was the second daimyō of the aristocratic family that ruled its territory in north-eastern Japan from the city that is today still known as Mito), tells the reader that, at the age of eighteen -- which means in or around the year 1630 -- his adoptive father read an account of the Chinese prince Po I in Sima Quian's history of the Chinese imperial dynasties, Shijiki, and "rose to his feet with the admiration he felt for Po I's high devotion to duty.

Fondling the book he said with a sigh, "If this book did not exist one could not find out about the history of early China. If one had no histories to rely on, one could not cause future ages to know what should be emulated." Hereupon he sighed and conceived the determination to compile a history."

Not immediately but eventually, Mitsukuni gathered a group of scholars and researchers and together they began to assemble their own History, following the format of the Shijiki, its tables, its lists, the way it traced the fortunes of the nation through chronological descriptions of its emperors, although the emperors Mitsukuni was writing about were his own, Japanese, not Chinese. The influence of Chinese thought on Japan at that time was so strong, however, that the book itself was written in Chinese. Educated Japanese used Chinese as European scholars used Latin; the language itself meant wise thoughts.

But where was the real start of this project, what rivers of thought ran through him before they emerged like this, where did those rivers come from, why those rivers and not others? Why did he love history, why did he think he knew what needed to be emulated, how did he think he could locate that knowledge, why did he like order and scholarship? Answers invisible! The adopted son chooses a moment of his father's life, at the age of eighteen, for a beginning; and the father must have told him that anecdote, he decided on that clear starting point, O there I was, he said, in love with a precedent, a book, that you can see, look, there it is, a beginning incarnate.

The moment was identifiable: he read the Shijiki and his feelings distinguished themselves. We are here, they said. He surely had, before that, a sympathy for the Confucian feelings that motivated Quian's Prince Po I, but for how long had those been percolating within him, where did they come from, and why -- who can say, but the Shijiki was a sign of them, and the most powerful thing to do was indicate the book and repeat, "Here it is, this represents the moment when I saw my feelings marshalled under a strong leadership, and they grew so strong and firm and pointed that I thought, I can explain them; they aren't vague now, look, here is a book that points to them; I will make my own book that points to them, and this pointing will be particular to me. I am confident that my feelings have a reason, a justification; here, I see the justification in front of me, a ghost in the air, I'll grab it and make it -- a book, solid, solid, solid. A project! and scholars'll travel for its sake, they'll research, as Quian did, my teacher, long dead."

The Great History was unfinished at Mitsukuni's death. Tsunaeda inherited the responsibility, and the group of scholars, which had become an established school, the Mitogaku. He didn't finish the manuscript either, but passed it on to his own heir. In 1906, after more than two hundred years, it was finally done. The Shijiki itself was a transgenerational project. Sima Quian inherited it from his father, Sima Tan, historian to the Han emperor Wu. Quian drew on records and old written accounts, he travelled, he interviewed people personally; the Shijiki was famous for the quality of its research as well as its prose and organisation.

Then the question comes back again, what made Quian decide to use those materials, and organise them in that way, as no one had done before, in spite of the written records being in existence for years? Through the various courses the book took after his death in 86 BC he passed the organisation on to Mitsukuni as unconsciously as the writers of records had passed their tools on to him, or as unconsciously as Ruskin handed himself on to Proust; and successive lords of Mito and their Mitogaku changed Quian's sensibility for their own ends, promoting and shaping the kind of Japanese imperial nationalism, that, during the mid-nineteenth century, helped to inspire a civil war, with various daimyō rebelling against the shogunate, which, they believed, was planning to depose the emperor.

The rebels were defeated, the Mito Rebellion of 1864-5 was suppressed with over a thousand soldiers dead, and the system that had supported the daimyō was disassembled, so that the countryside once owned and ruled by the Mito household was removed from its control and became part of the new prefecture named Ibaraki. The Meiji Restoration had begun, the imperial family moved from Kyoto to Edo, and Edo was rechristened Tokyo. The last shogun retired and feared assassination for the rest of his life. Mitsukuni himself became the subject of a serial prose story, then the serial became a novel, and then, in 1969, a television series. In 2003 it celebrated its one thousandth episode.

The activities of travel and research that went into the Great History are simplified for television like this: a retired civilian, who is Mitsukuni in disguise, goes on a journey through the countryside with two samurai companions, all three of them encountering and defeating oppressive bandits, thieves and bullies. At a crucial point in each episode one of them takes out the Tokugawa seal and displays it to the villains (it is a black lacquered container with a triple hollyhock crest worked in gold on one side), and at this unexpected proof of the old man's aristocratic blood kinship to the extended family of the Tokugawa shoguns the bandits cower, realising that he is not what they thought he was. They are mastered by this sign, but what, in their backgrounds, brought them to the point where they found themselves reacting to the sight of three stylised hollyhock leaves, and what made them bandits in the first place, what conducted them to this moment, staring at the old man and his black seal, and comprehending this conjunction in a certain understood way?

In old age Mitsukuni moved out of the city to a house in the country, where he died. When I visited the house I saw both ends of his existence. An indoor wall was covered with publicity shots from the television show, and nearby outside I found the grave of his placenta.*

* That's what the sign said anyway.

Tsunaeda's introduction was translated by John S. Brownlee for the book Japanese History and the National Myths, 1600-1945.

It seems worth pointing out that when people talk about Mitsukuni they usually refer to him as Mito Komōn, so if you're ever wanting to look him up that's the name to search for. Komōn is a reference to a courtly rank, gon-chūnagon, which he acquired in his sixties.