Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: June, 2015

The moving subject

These days the thoughts of the whole world are turned to Greece, that country of many islands. As Homer tells it in the Odyssey, the hero Odysseus or Ulysses came home to the island of Ithaca after twenty years’ wandering. His story has been the archetypal myth of wandering and homecoming ever since.

Having spent ten years at the siege of Troy, it took Odysseus another ten years of patience and determination to get home to his own little island on the coast of Greece. This aspect has been commented on by many modern writers. As Camus pointed out, it was a matter of choice. Odysseus could have stayed with Calypso on her island and shared in her immortality, but he chose Ithaca and home and the life of a mortal. To Camus, this is the type of the man who realizes his limitations, his mortality, and yet chooses to live life to the full.

Among modern Greek authors, Cavafy has a striking poem about Ithaca. He says that it is the journey that matters, not the destination. The hero’s desire to return to his island prompts him to travel and to have all kinds of adventures and see different places. When he gets to Ithaca, the island seems poor in comparison with foreign places and has nothing of itself to offer. Yet it did not cheat or deceive him, or hold out a false hope. The real meaning of Ithaca is the lifetime of journeying it takes to get there.

Kazantzakis wrote a modern sequel to the Odyssey in which he relates that Odysseus, now settled at home, gets bored and restless after a while. As a result of his travelling, he has grown too big for his little island, too active for a sedentary life. So he leaves after a while in his boat, and no-one stops him – they are relieved to see him go, because he no longer fits in.

The person who travels around a lot has a different perspective on things from the person who is content to stay in one place and call it home. We think of a person as a permanent subject or personality – subject of thinking, subject of their life, always identical to themselves. All things being equal, a human subject stays in the one place and looks at the world from there – that is his perspective, his viewpoint.

Yet the subject today is often a moving subject – he experiences life in a succession of different places. His life in fact is an endless journey, and he arrives at each destination slightly changed, because as he travels, he develops, and he grows older. That is the point about the moving subject. He does not stay the same. Times and places change him as he passes. As a result, the subject who arrives at the end of the journey is not the same one who set out.

This could be a metaphor for all kinds of profound changes and developments in life, such as spiritual ones. But it is enough to say that more and more people are having this experience as they move from country to country, and culture to culture. They have become moving subjects.



East meets West in Switzerland

I was just in Menzingen in rural central Switzerland, spending several days at the Lassalle House. This house is a training centre belonging to the Jesuit order; what is unusual about it is that it is devoted to East-West encounter. Here you will find people studying Zen, Yoga, Japanese Zen arts, as well as Christian meditation and other courses.

Lassalle house is a very Japanese place, with spare modern architecture and a tranquil pond with koi fish in it. At the moment the buildings are being renovated, which is why the operation has moved temporarily to the convent in nearby Menzingen.

Hugo Lassalle was a 20th-century German Jesuit who spent his working life in Japan. He went there as a Catholic missionary, but stayed to immerse himself in the study of Zen, and became a master. He was actually in Hiroshima when the atom bomb dropped, but he survived.

I talked to Lassalle’s pupil Niklaus Brantschen, another Jesuit who founded the Lassalle House in 1993. He has maintained the vision of his mentor, pursuing inter-religious dialogue and the synergy of spiritual traditions both here in Switzerland and on regular visits to Japan.

This was an inspiring few days for me, where I could draw strength from some unforgettable people devoted to bringing together the minds – and spirits – of Asia and Europe.

Sailing to Byzantium

This weekend is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Yeats. Ireland’s greatest modern poet, patriotic though he was, did not believe his country was the centre of things, as we find in his late poem “Sailing to Byzantium”. The poem begins:

“That is no country for old men.”

He is talking about Ireland. He himself is an old man by now, and all he sees around him is

“The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song…”

He wants to get out of the cycle of birth, love and death and enter the immutable sphere of the intellect. He announces the destination of his journey:

“And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.”

Byzantium is a name to conjure with, and it brings up other names. Byzantium was the New Rome, founded or re-founded by the first Christian Emperor Constantine to be the centre of his dying Empire, uniting the Roman provinces east and west. After him it was named Constantinople. Then at the end of the Middle Ages, after a few centuries of precarious survival as the bastion of the late Byzantine Emperors, it fell to the Turkish Sultan, who made it his capital. In modern times the Turkish Republic renamed it Istanbul.

Of course, Yeats calls it Byzantium, situating it in the ancient past, he doesn’t call it Constantinople, still less Istanbul. There is a whole series of contrasts here, but the basic one is between Ireland and Greece, which Yeats presents, not as two similar peripheries (which they are), but as two unalike poles. He is just being the Northern European deploying the trope of wanting to go to the South to learn. He has to get away from Ireland to experience the sources of religion, the classics, and so on – the Greeks do not, they are right there.

Yeats is looking for the centre, the holy city, yet in more than one way, the search is an ironic one. As a matter of historical fact, he never got there; the poem was inspired by Byzantine mosaics he saw in Italy. What is more, Byzantium is no longer the centre of Empire, it’s an imperilled outpost that no longer even exists, for it has fallen to a  conqueror.

As myth, Byzantium remains a mediating presence straddling Europe and Asia, uniting Greece and Rome, and uniting the Christian world with the pagan classical world – and now it belongs to the Moslem world, supposedly not a part of Europe any more. For today’s Greeks, Byzantium, or Constantinople as they call it, is a lost centre. It is a Forbidden City that should be theirs but where they do not, cannot go. It does not belong to them any more, but to Turkey.

As Yeats found, the search for the centre of things leads us from one periphery to the other. And even beyond the periphery. The search for the core of Europe ultimately leads us to Asia.





Distorting mirror

Minae Mizumura has written a book that has come out in the US with the title The Fall of Language in the Age of English. This is a Japanese author who grew up in America but now lives back in Japan and makes a point of writing in Japanese. Here she talks about the difficulty of maintaining good Japanese writing in an age of English dominance.

The original, of course, is in Japanese, and this is an English translation by two American academics. They have tried to make it about something of more international relevance than just Japan and Japanese, but obviously the Japanese-ness of the author is the whole point.

In books like this one catches the melancholy of national decline. It is striking to see the extent of Japanese pessimism in an age of Chinese optimism. But Japan does seem to be in decline, culturally as well as economically. With all the wealth the people of Japan have generated, at least they can live and die in comfort. They seem to be turning their backs on the world and choosing stasis over change, as they so often have in the past. (Sometimes it has worked, sometimes it hasn’t.)

Mizumura seems to exaggerate the dominance of English in the world. This is understandable for someone who speaks English and uses it to communicate with non-compatriots. But maybe it is also counter-phobic. There is something the Japanese fear much more than English: it is Chinese dominance. And that is a far more likely scenario.

Judging from excerpts, the writing style of Mizumura’s book is jarringly bad. Is this the fault of the author, or the translators? It is impossible to know if one can’t read the original.

Of course this book, as translation, is caught in an impossible double bind. The act of translation is an offence against what the book is all about: untranslatability. The double bind cannot be overcome. Whatever the book was like in Japanese, in translation for American readers it is only a caricature of itself.

I can’t help thinking back to Heidegger and his 1953 dialogue with the Japanese Tezuka, in which the latter bemoaned the difficulty or impossibility of explaining Japanese culture except in Japanese – and even that was endangered, due to the rapid Westernization or Americanization of his country after losing the War.

As pinpointed so long ago by Heidegger and his Japanese friend, the whole paradox of translating authentic Far-Eastern thought into Western languages is that you inevitably lose the point. What comes out at the other end is not the original or anything like it. At best it is a distorting mirror. Is a distorting mirror better than no mirror at all? Very good question. I wish I knew the answer.

Becoming intercultural

Now is the time when in many parts of the world students are preparing to go on language travel. Having learned a language at school, college or university, they go to spend study time in a country where the language is spoken. For most of them, it will be their first real experience of living in a foreign culture.

Culture is a part of language learning. When you learn a foreign language, it is almost inevitable that you will encounter a foreign culture too. The cultural component of language learning has traditionally been neglected. Yet it may turn out to be the most important part. As a learner of language and culture, you embark on a human adventure that most of the world’s people never embark on. It changes you – if you let it.

Language travel immerses you in the culture that goes with the language you learn. So take the opportunity that is presented. It will not always feel comfortable, but it will be rewarding. Before you go, read up about culture in general as well as the particular foreign culture you are going to find yourself in. This preparation will be the beginning of cultural awareness.

Culture, as I said, may turn out to be the most important part of language learning. The reason is that, in today’s world of unparalleled human mobility and international encounter, we need to form a cadre of intercultural people who will prepare for the even greater changes coming in the world of tomorrow.

The intercultural person I speak of moves between languages and cultures, and ends up knowing two or more cultures so well that they cease to be unreflectingly part of their own culture. Such people will be the mediators of tomorrow’s shifts and exchanges. Human beings were not necessarily meant to be this way. For most of human history, people have lived within their own languages and cultures like a skin, never imagining that they could or should go beyond it. But the human world is changing, and intercultural people are the sort of social mutants who will facilitate the change and hopefully avoid the disaster and conflict that might otherwise happen between cultures in contact.

When you set out on the journey to be an intercultural person, you never know in advance what awaits you. Perhaps if you did, you would not start! But once you do start, you never stop learning and growing. And when you get to the end of your journey, you will be a different person from the “you” who set out.