Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Category: Asia

Two views of Japan

In opinion essays in the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung two views of Japan have emerged in recent years which it is interesting to contrast.

Florian Coulmas, a well-known German Japanologist, says that Japan looks good on the surface, but that under the surface people have lost faith in the system and are becoming more and more individualistic – devil take the hindmost.

He points out that Japanese politicians and the people at large do not grasp the issue of immigration at all. Everyone knows the population is declining but no-one wants to consider the obvious solution. The Japanese think they can remain isolated and not take new people on board. This is, of course, an old, old theme in Japanese history and culture: “we take the best of innovation from the rest of the world, but all those people stay at home”.

Urs Schöttli, who was long the NZZ’s Asia correspondent, finds that people in the West have been announcing the decline of Japan, whereas every time you go there you see that everything works and the Japanese have a tremendous discipline which is really showing the West how things should be done. He thinks Japan can still remain an economic powerhouse that guarantees an excellent standard of living and quality of life for its citizens.

Meanwhile the Japanese, who years ago were regarded with apprehension in the West, have now been overtaken as bugbears by the Chinese. It is at last permissible to feel sorry for them.

 

 

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Multiple solitudes

Many years ago, Hugh McLennan wrote a novel with the title “Two Solitudes”. It was about the English minority and the French majority in Montreal: they inhabited the same city, but lived in two different worlds. The phrase caught on, and it came to mean French and English Canada generally. It was a reality too. Indeed, the thing that amazed me as an immigrant in the 1970s was that the two language areas were still like two different countries, even though they had a federal political system in common. Read the newspaper or listen to radio or TV news in the two Canadas, and you seemed to be in two different countries. It is still the case, though there is now a more dutiful attempt by media on both sides of the language divide to report the major doings and preoccupations of the other.

In recent years it has become the fashion among the more progressive sections of English-Canadian society to deny the existence of English Canada at all, in the name of multiculturalism. The assumption here is that English Canada is no longer WASP but a cheerful mixture of the more familiar and the more exotic; the English language just happens to be the obligatory means of communication.

Yet this purported disappearance of English Canada does not solve the problem of the solitudes. What multiculturalism means is in fact “multiple solitudes”. Ethnic groups maintain their languages and cultures as best they can, though it gets very difficult after the first generation. The English-Canadian (or assimilated) majority remains largely unaware of the ethnic groups, and all communication is in English, and bilateral – that is, ethnic groups deal with the majority on the majority’s terms. There is really no encounter between ethnic cultures and languages and the majority, or even between ethnic cultures themselves.

Take a place like Vancouver, which is basically my home town in Canada. There are so many different ethnic groups, from every nation under heaven. But they live a shadowy existence. There are sure to be a few ethnic restaurants around, but the group does not have a tangible public profile, except in their ethnic press, which no-one else reads but them. As a new immigrant I often wondered why Vancouver, with such ethnic diversity, is not cosmopolitan in the European sense. That is because, despite the diversity of the people, the public space remains homogeneously English-Canadian.

Meanwhile Vancouver does not stand still. The successive waves of Chinese immigration, no longer just through Hong Kong, could tip the balance. The Chinese group, long established and ever new, could become such a leading culture that they would eclipse the English-Canadian majority culture. Then Vancouver would perhaps still not be cosmopolitan in the European sense, but a Chinese extra-territorial “concession”, like the European concessions in Imperial China.

Meanwhile, the Canadian solitudes continue. I am beginning to think that solitude is the country’s defining feature, and that “studiously ignoring the other fellow” is the prime Canadian virtue.

 

Movement in stillness

I was at Lassalle House, the conference and training centre of the Swiss Jesuits last Sunday for the vernissage of Sanae Sakamoto’s latest exhibition. Now in her mid-seventies, the Japanese calligrapher and ink-brush painter is still going strong. Indeed, she is experimenting and branching out with new work. One finds traditional calligraphy among the items on show, to be sure, but she often goes beyond the traditional conception of the single surface with writing on it. In these works, the two-dimensionality of writing seems about to break into the three-dimensionality of space itself.

The motto of the Lassalle House is Stille bewegt, meaning “silence moves” or “stillness moves”. This refers to the stillness of their Zen meditation plus the movement of their yoga and other such disciplines. It also means that willed stillness can bring about movement in the world, can get things moving, can move people to do things. And there can be movement in and out of stillness, as we saw when Sanae Sakamoto performed calligraphic compositions spontaneously as part of the vernissage.

The most important thing one gets from such a performance is that it comes out of stillness. Without that stillness, no movement can happen, no movement of any value anyway.

The stillness or emptiness so often spoken of in the Tao and Zen philosophies is in fact not just “nothing”, but something like “empty space”. Or perhaps we might call it “room” – room for something to come into being, room for something to happen. It might be compared to the empty, darkened stage in a theatre which the audience are looking at expectantly before the play begins. Western philosophies do not name this reality, except perhaps the mysterious Platonic chora, the mother of all things, the undifferentiated matrix for generation of all sorts.

Sanae Sakamoto emphasizes that the black of the calligrapher’s ink is symbolic of the undifferentiated darkness of the nothingness whence being came. Life, form, differentiates itself out of that night of black ink.

Those of us who think of ourselves as writers have largely forgotten about the literal or physical “writing” part of the job. Instead, we think of writing as composing text, now mainly on the virtual surface of the computer. The physical action of writing or typing is merely a means to an end and receives no attention. Our writing emerges out of a swirl of ideas and arguments. But writing qua calligraphy can only come out of stillness. It is the focusing of attention on the movement that is happening in the moment. In that stillness, you get the feeling of the characters emerging and differentiating themselves in the empty space provided for them.

That stillness is absolutely essential for writing as the Chinese or Japanese calligrapher does it. Perhaps as any calligrapher or writer should do it. And that’s the insight I came away with from an afternoon in the company of Sanae Sakamoto.

Writing per se

From the 1920s on, the Surrealists in Paris cultivated écriture automatique, automatic writing. This meant that, as a poet, you just wrote whatever came into your head. You tried not to think any thoughts, much less of anything in particular to say. The idea was that thoughts can arise from the depths of your unconscious when your conscious brain is occupied at some task that still does not require your full attention. The action of writing itself, rhythmic and automatized as it is, functions as a distractor, like tapping your fingers while you speak or repeating a mantra while you perform some other action.

André Breton and the Surrealists got the idea of automatic writing from spiritualist mediums, who wrote supposedly under dictation from the Other World. But these poets thought automatic writing would tap the resources of the unconscious for poetry. They never thought that the handwriting itself could amount to Surrealistic art; that it could become not just the means of writing, but the end.

Yet just about any behaviour that can be automatic can be made voluntary, and just about anything that can be voluntary can be automatized. Writing is a case in point. Usually, when you write, you don’t think of forming the letters or words one by one – even less so when you type on a keyboard. You are just thinking of the message you want to communicate.

Is there any time we think of the physical act of writing and how it looks on the page? There is: calligraphy. It strikes me that calligraphy is écriture volontaire, voluntary writing, the polar opposite of automatic writing. This means that you forget about the meaning of what you are writing, the message you are trying to communicate, and instead focus on the action of writing itself. You express all that the handwriting can express – yourself, your mood, your energy. The means (handwriting) becomes the end, and the end (communication of content) becomes merely the means. Chinese and Japanese calligraphers have long had an exquisite awareness of these possibilities.

Christian Dotremont, who started out as a Surrealist and became interested not only in art but in Asian calligraphy, used handwriting in this way. In fact, in his later logogrammes he was standing the Surrealist programme on its head. He wrote something spontaneously, but with a brush, exaggerating the mannerisms of the handwriting so that it became illegible; but it still expressed something. It was not just the content of the writing that came from Somewhere Else, but the physical action of the writing. As a kind of footnote, he rewrote his text in tiny legible handwriting at the bottom of the page.

Dotremont was a writer who took the vocation of writing literally. Few Europeans have done this.

Journey to the edge

As I wrote last week, the Belgian poet and artist Christian Dotremont wrote a novel in the 1950s called La Pierre et l’Oreiller, a thinly-disguised autobiographical report, mainly about his travels between Paris and Copenhagen and a sanatorium in the Danish countryside.

He talks about the “catastrophe” of his tuberculosis at the age of 30. But he wonders about what the illness means. He finds that the Catholic faith of his childhood, then Communism, then tuberculosis, were all stratagems to cover up life itself, and its ultimate emptiness.

Catholicism was a given in Belgium, where it was much stronger than in France. Dotremont  went to a Jesuit school and had the usual religious education. But he grew into a teenage rebel and got expelled for punching a Jesuit. During the chaos of the German Occupation, he abandoned his faith altogether.

Then at the end of the war, with Stalin occupying the whole of Eastern Europe, it looked like Communism was a winning formula, and so young intellectuals like himself got with the program and joined the Party. Dotremont quickly became disillusioned, however, and quit. Now that he had given up God, and given up Stalin, what was next, or what was left?

Dotremont had the bizarre creative insight that the new thing to occupy his life was tuberculosis. The illness was nothing but a hole in life, admittedly, but it was there to cover the bigger hole of emptiness. It really was taking the place of God and Stalin. Everybody, he reflected, is looking for something to hide that gaping hole. Even Ulla, his Danish girlfriend, was filling up her emptiness – with him. We are all looking for a life project to keep us busy.

Dotremont never really recovered from tuberculosis, and eventually died of the complications over twenty years later. But in the meantime he became an inveterate traveller. Turning his back on Paris, the intellectual and artistic centre, he travelled constantly, through Amsterdam up to Denmark, across to Sweden and Finland, and up to his ultimate goal where he found what he needed: Lapland, the Great Frozen North of Europe. As one writer says of him, he became “the black traveller in white spaces”. In Lapland he could sharpen his sense of three-dimensionality, grasped through the two-dimensionality of abstract brush calligraphy in his logogrammes. Was this really abstract, or was it his vision of the landscape of Lapland? The small black figures of men and animals in the vastness of the snow, the black ink shapes against the white of the paper – it was all one. Lapland was the ultimate emptiness. Out in the snowy wastes, there was no “chalice to hide the emptiness”, as he had written earlier.

So often we think, like Dotremont, that we have reached the limit, the end, nothingness, when in fact it is just a borderland, and there is something else on the other side. Although his strange artwork consciously recalls Chinese calligraphy, he did not realize Lapland could be for him a borderland – the borderland not just to Russia but to Asia, to a new departure for human culture. But he had travelled far enough for one short life.

 

The codes that spell out our lives

A Japanese professor remarked that his people have Chinese writing “in their cultural DNA”, meaning that it is a part of them they are unlikely ever to give up.

DNA makes a good metaphor. It’s even better than saying “we have it in our blood”. Because our blood is indisputably part of ourselves, it courses in our veins, whereas DNA is somewhat more remote and ancient. It’s not really “us”. It comes from somewhere else, a previous stage of the game of life before it got interpreted by RNA and turned into proteins and actual organisms, and before it came down to what we think of as “us”. Yet it forms us, shapes us, determines us, so that if it wasn’t there, we wouldn’t be here – we wouldn’t be who and what we are.

So it is with China and Japan in our metaphor. The code of Japanese writing, indeed the code of Japanese culture, is largely determined by the code of Chinese culture. You can’t really understand the Japanese code unless you understand the previous code that stands behind it and determines it. Any Japanese with sense can acknowledge this, while quietly congratulating himself: “we got all this without a Chinese invasion.”

When you go to live in another country, you bring your background code along with you, and it gives you a different take on things. This is the case of a European going to live in the New World. He finds the old preoccupations and the old quarrels playing themselves out in different circumstances, like Hamlet being acted by a new troupe of actors. But this is not surprising. It is because the code of the New World culture is determined by the cultural codes of the Old World from which the discoverers and colonists set sail.

Now think of yourself as an individual. You may have figured out that there is a “code” to your life. There are certain things that are important and meaningful to you, recurring motifs, experiences that keep happening again and again. Yet you may find valuable hints about these private meanings in novels or poems you read, say. You may then realize that above and behind the code of your own life there is the code of your culture determining it. The things that happen to you, the things that you feel and value, happen to other people in your culture, and have done so from time immemorial. If you are in love, you may think “no-one has ever loved the way I do”. But of course they have. The Ancients were writing love poetry thousands of years ago, and what they felt goes to shape what you feel now – this experience that feels unique. It is unique – as you yourself are unique – but it is “spelled out” by cultural DNA.

 

 

 

Alphabet need not have the last word (2)

There is a new approach to the evolution of written language, questioning the assumption that it depends on (spoken) language and that the alphabet is its inevitable culmination. Greater awareness of Chinese writing in the Western world has prompted this kind of thinking. The late French scholar Anne-Marie Christin has been an important source of ideas here.

It seemed necessary to Christin to work against the obvious assumption that written language is just a visual version of spoken language. In her view, written language, unlike spoken language, depends on visual experience – the whole world of patterns and pictures and representation – rather than the sound world of spoken language. It has to do as much with the coding of space (the space of the inscribed surface) as with the code of the characters or letters themselves. What makes pictures into writing is, she says, the use of space itself to mean something.

Spatial arrangement means ordering: depending on the convention adopted, the characters are to be read top to bottom, left to right, or right to left. This came to correspond to the earlier and later of time we sense in spoken language. Space corresponds to time. But we now know from the technology of sound recording and analysis that, in speech, features get bundled and overlap each other. Speech is not a neat regular output of separate “segments”. The letters each standing for a sound – even the adapted letters used for phonetic transcription – are an abstraction.

Christin has said that writing began with the interpretation of the starry sky at night. This vast display, which must have enthralled early mankind, does not stand still; it keeps changing with the time of night and the seasons, and the stars seem to rise and set at particular points on the landscape. So one could say that before early man learned to write, he learned to read. He learned to read patterns that were already there in nature. And he believed that those patterns were not due to chance, but were put there by the gods.

Writing as reading had to do with interpreting the will of the gods. When Chinese shamans took omens from animal bones or tortoise-shells held over a ritual fire till they cracked, the will of the gods could be read from the cracks. That gave them the idea that they could make their own meaningful signs. The shamans set down the interpretation in their own characters as a sort of marginal gloss on the meaningful patterns they were reading. The oracle bones and tortoise-shells with early written symbols scratched into the surface represented “value added” to the omen signs themselves.

So writing – or more precisely, reading – was divination. Writing belonged to the gods. For that reason, the early Chinese shaman could put his own writing, a message for the gods, at the bottom of a ritual vessel containing sacrificial offerings – only the gods would see it. In Christin’s view, spoken language was the world of man and a world of sound, whereas written language was the world of the gods and a world of the visual.  In order to appreciate this perspective, you have to stop thinking like a writer and think like a painter instead.

To this day, Chinese writing is associated with painting. Both are done with brush and ink. The written characters are always on the verge of crossing over into representation and the representation into writing. Such an art seems to say: never forget that these two things belong together.

Alphabet need not have the last word

It is interesting to follow the evolution of computer culture in the Sinocentric world, where folks remain attached to their traditional way of writing, surely one of the great cultural achievements of humanity. To be sure, this way of writing was developed by and for the Imperial élite, not for the masses, but it is clear that it can be and is being learned in the elementary classroom.

On the eve of the computer revolution, Walter Ong declared that Chinese writing would obviously have to go, because it couldn’t be fit on a typewriter keyboard. Well, in the meantime, it turns out that there are plenty of ways you can type Chinese on a computer keyboard, including input methods based on the shape of the character. They are even developing ways to write it “calligraphically” on a touch screen. (There is obviously more incentive to work on handwriting recognition applications in the East than in the West!) Anyway, it seems unfair to condemn a writing system because it does not immediately fit in with technologies developed for the Western alphabet.

The Asian developments in fact represent an opportunity to rethink our whole Western dependence on the alphabet, and our insistence on thinking of everything under the sun in terms of alphabetic metaphors. Scholars like the late Anne-Marie Christin have been questioning whether the alphabet is really the summit of human achievement as Western writers have invariably supposed. This is a line of thinking that started with Derrida and his criticism of the “logocentric” bias of the West.

These days, young Chinese are able to read popular fiction on their cell phones precisely because the Chinese text containing one character per word is more compact. This may sound trivial, but it is an example of Chinese characters being more suitable to a particular technology than the Western alphabet is.

As regards writing on a computer, using the modern input systems Chinese speakers are able to use more characters than they would otherwise remember, though this has a downside: it seems they need to make an effort to keep up their calligraphy skills – unlike Westerners who have cheerfully abandoned handwriting although this may not be good for their brains in the long run.

To sum up: the encounter between Western technology and Eastern writing culture, far from meaning the ultimate “triumph of the alphabet”, is an opportunity to rethink the issues involved and to develop new ways for the writer and the reader to handle written language.

The Tamils who came to stay

Recently the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg found against Switzerland in a case involving one of two Tamils who had been sent back to Sri Lanka and promptly disappeared into prison.

The civil war in Sri Lanka is long over, and there are encouraging signs of a return to some kind of normality, but many Tamils still have to be careful when they go back to visit. On the other hand, in the refugee-receiving countries in Europe, like Switzerland, there is a problem with the credibility of refugees who can and do go back to their home country on holidays.

The Sri Lanka Tamils started arriving in the 1980s during the civil war. They came to Switzerland by accident rather than design: many were aiming to settle in Germany, but found that as refugees they couldn’t work there. So they moved on to Switzerland. Then the clan connections resulted in more and more people coming.

In 1986 the Swiss were getting ready to send people back to Sri Lanka if they were turned down for refugee status, but held off due to humanitarian protests. Swiss journalist Alfred A. Häsler, who had researched the Swiss policy towards refugees from Nazi rule in the Second World War, wrote an article at the time entitled “Tamils – today’s Jews?” and wrote: “Sri Lanka is not Auschwitz… But not everything that is not as bad as Auschwitz is all right.”

The Tamils have been here ever since, about a hundred thousand of them. They must have seemed so exotic at first, when Switzerland had no tradition of immigration from outside Europe. Now you would hardly notice them. They are the dark faces in every crowd in the towns and cities of German Switzerland. They may even become a part of your personal life, as they eventually did in mine.

Regarded with suspicion at first, they now have the reputation of being “well integrated”. However, as Tamil observers themselves will tell you, this is largely an illusion. A 2008 study of the group in Switzerland found that there was “selective integration”. They fit in by behaving well and not causing trouble, but they keep to themselves otherwise, the intact clan structure allowing them to do this.

In the meantime, alcoholism was becoming a major problem among the menfolk. There were many stresses on the Tamils. As a visible minority, they couldn’t just merge in. The gulf between their Asian and the European culture was just so great. They found it hard to learn German. And without a good knowledge of the language, they could only get unskilled jobs. At the same time there were pressures from the clans at home to demonstrate success in the new country, and of course to send remittances.

The Tamil refugees’ children or their grandchildren may have an easier time of it. A 2010 study in Zurich schools found that Tamils did considerably better than other immigrant groups. This also has a negative side, however: the parents may be putting pressure on the youngsters to work hard at school, because their school success reflects on the family prestige, and there may be unrealistic ideas about future career prospects.

In general, people who emigrate tend to stay abroad and not come back. They see new things, get new ideas, and the old way of life no longer seems so obvious. All those people who will stay abroad and make the best of it in places like Switzerland will be a tremendous loss to Sri Lanka. But it could also be that they can help to draw the country out of its long isolation.

Warring states (2)

In his report to the Institut Jacques Delors on identity and myth in Europe, Canadian history professor Gérard Bouchard laments the lack of any real emotional or mythic unity in the European Union. He believes that a European mythology should be consciously developed, like the mythology that presides over the patriotism of nation-states. There is one gaping hole in his discussion. He doesn’t even consider the issue of language. Yet the plethora of languages, symbolizing national identities, is what has kept Europe divided for so long.

Once Europe did have a common language: Latin. Even after the Roman Empire collapsed, the language of that empire was kept up as the language of administration, education, and indeed most writing. When the universities were founded, they too operated in Latin. When printing was invented, the vast majority of printed books were for a time in Latin. Even Martin Luther, who struck a blow for vernaculars with his German Bible, and the other Reformers wrote in Latin most of the time. Unfortunately, with the rise of the nation-states and their languages, people who should have known better, like Descartes and Galileo, could not resist the temptation to write in the vernaculars, and made it fashionable to do so. This meant that to keep up with the movement of ideas in Europe, you needed to know several languages. Still, learned books continued to be written in Latin up till the end of the 18th century, and for a Dutchman like Spinoza, or a Swede like Linnaeus, it was the only way they could be sure of reaching an international audience.

Today the struggle for a common language has been lost, for Latin is ceasing to be taught in the schools, and indeed for generations it has been little more than a fossil. Due to external factors (the power of the USA in the world), English has been making headway in Europe and is now widely used as a vehicle of communication between people who do not speak each other’s languages. Yet it really can’t be a pan-European language any more than French or German can, for in Europe it happens to be someone’s language (embarrassingly enough, the language of someone who has just announced they’re leaving). Latin throughout the millennia of its widest use, was safely “dead” and thus not a national language at all.

Consider, in contrast, China and its history. Classical Chinese with its huge, ingenious writing system became a means of nationwide communication, at least written, between people who could not understand one another’s spoken dialects. Classical Chinese has found a workable successor in the official Putonghua variety of Mandarin.

The single most decisive factor for uniting a huge area like China or Europe is having a common language. Otherwise you’re doomed to be just a bunch of Warring States – when you could have been a Middle Kingdom.