Thursday, April 26, 2012

the gift of seeming

Mikamé exists so that suspicion could be released into Enchi's book. He is the devil and the reader is Faust; he is a tool disguised as a man.

I was reading a translation of Bashō's poetic travel memoir Oku no Hosomichi, when I reached the endnotes and saw that the translators were using the Japanese book to direct my attention to Samuel Johnson's Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland. Both writers had travelled north, one in Japan, one in Britain, the first in the 1680s, the other in the 1770s, and that light connection was enough to pull the attention of the prose away from Honshu to a place that was otherwise unrelated, long distance between the two nations, and the norths of the two islands are not alike. Akita Prefecture does not have lochs but it has forests, and Samuel Johnson in Scotland became irascible over trees. Where were they? "A tree might be a show in Scotland," he wrote, "as a horse in Venice." He was often scornful, the absence of a tree in Scotland brought out his scorn, he scorned the opinion of a clergyman once in the house of Mrs Thrale before dinner, and Max Beerbohm wrote a short essay many years later, A Clergyman, predicting that the clergyman "never held up his head or smiled again." "This unfortunate clergyman may have had something in him, but I judge that he lacked the gift of seeming as if he had."

And Johnson's scorn came out at these absences, the absence of something in the clergyman, the absence of trees in Scotland (Lydia Davis turned that irritation into a story so short that it's mostly a blank page), and the absence of horses in Venice, although I don't think he ever went to Venice, which was beloved of Ruskin, but they keep changing it, said the Victorian writer, anguished: the Venetians wanted to knock down their own old statues and buildings and so he sat drawing a cross carefully and quickly before it could be smashed. From all this I deduce that a person's attention can be drawn to any object or place or idea by any unexpected thing. I had to fend them off, wrote Ruskin. They had a hammer.

Ovid imagined change everywhere in the world, change is the god of Metamorphoses, he rips through the myths like a box of tissues: use one, the next pops out, use that too, the next one segues rapidly into the air; the poet's eye is fixed on transformation, no matter who into what, women into trees, Zeus into a bull, it's the one word he's after -- restlessness -- and it is in me, he tells us in the last few lines, it is inside me, change will kill me, I will die, this theme of change is my death; the poem is a poem of his death but the poem itself will not die as quickly as the poet. A poem can change for centuries and not die. Each country (state, says Hegel, in German), seems to embody certain ideas, and by executing one behaviour or another in the world it gives those ideas new features; justice in one country follows a certain set of procedures, in another country it has another course to pursue, the name of each country illustrates the difference, the name of each country is the title of an essay about that country, the essay sprouting up in every individual mind when the name is said, as the hard metallic knock of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Force (whose nickname is Metro) introduces the subject of the police to the room before the bodies themselves enter to meet their definition. Think of the word as the idea of a painting and the bodies as the painting itself. Is it a bright painting, is it a dark painting, is it a small painting, and though the brain behind the painting is thinking of its own history, the viewer sees brightness or size.

Weeks ago we received a free meal at the Spice Market Buffet in Planet Hollywood where the food has been divided into different areas, Breads in one place, Mexican at the opposite end of the room, Desserts between them, and while I was walking between the counters I saw how automatically people would name a treat as they came up to it. "Tortillas," they said, arriving at the tortillas. There was nobody with them who might have listened or responded but they felt inspired to produce the word. They named the beasts of Eden that were lamb and cake. A man came to a basin of dead prawns lying coiled with their eyes like beach balls, and "Shrimp!" was the word he said to the air as he looked for the tongs. Language had gathered the animals up for him but he could only take away a smaller amount for language is more capacious than plates. Yesterday morning when I saw a woman walk up to the psychology shelves at the library and say the words, "Psychology, ha ha ha!" I thought this was the same phenomenon displayed in the shrimp-man but she was on the phone. Attention is everywhere but gathering it is tricky.

Bashō's book has been Englished more than once with different titles. My version was translated by Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu, who named it Back Roads to Far Towns.

Beerbohm's essay is available online.

Davis' short story is six words long, plus four more words for the title, and it goes like this:


that Scotland has so few trees.

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