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  • mono 7:18 pm on September 23, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Explication, , , Name, , Reputation, The Devil, The Fall into Time,   

    The Beast of Fame – E.M. Cioran: An Explication of “Fame: Hopes and Horrors” (Lesson One) 

    People talk about us and we talk about other people, too. We are, simultaneously, connected and divided by our talk with others. What remains of me after I have a conversation with you is out of my control. Who I become for you is decided by you and through those conversations you have with other people. We arise out of what we do and out of of how we are perceived by self and others. Our name, our own special flavor, slips from our tongues and onto the tongues of others. It is a virus. “Reputation” is that slippery wraith, which we must wrestle with, from which we cannot escape.

    E.M. Cioran, from his essay “Fame: Hopes and Horrors,” writes, “Just as each of us, in order to ‘make a name for himself,’ strives to outstrip the others, similarly in the beginning man must have known the vague desire to eclipse the animals, to affirm himself at their expense, to shine at any price (108).” For Cioran, this tendency toward, what could be called “personal branding” or “reputation” is not a recent phenomenon, but is rooted in our very being, in the everydayness of our “minding” of the world. That is to say, this desire toward recognition and reputation, while perpetually settled in front of our eyes as something as natural as falling snowflakes, comes from a suspect source: the Serpent’s kingdom. Nonetheless, us humans like to shine, to be in the “spotlight,” to be seen, to increase our visibility. More than “like,” we crave it.

    Cioran continues, “Man alone, in the state of nature, wanted to be important, man alone, among the animals, hated anonymity and did his utmost to escape from it. To put himself forward, such was and such remains his dream. It is difficult to believe he has sacrificed Paradise out of a simple desire to know good and evil; on the other hand, it is easy to imagine him risking everything to be Someone (108).” The shift that occurred from selflessness to selfhood, is something that we cannot know, by virtue of our ability to be knowledgeable about the world and about ourself. But, a faint glimmer of selflessness remains, can flourish if nurtured, can, at times, overcome the Beast of Fame.

    To be anonymous in a Web 2.0 world is to not exist, to fall off the map of the social media grid. Take away the technological connections from our life and we are once again in confrontation with the raw presence of ourself and those immediately present to us. Nonetheless, give us a sandbox and we will build profiles, vanity sites, products, commercials, microblogging clients and ten thousand other things. Why? Simply put, to be someone. “Personal branding” involves shifting the focus from the Other to oneself. The network that one chooses to be a part of shapes the image, helps build a sense of self and gives the Other a context from which to form an opinion about someone. Our name itself becomes more than a name, but a brand, a logo, a marketable representation of our greatness, of our strive toward fame.

    “When one cannot save one’s soul, one hopes at least to save one’s name (109).” In our everyday experience, the soul seems to flee from us as we engage in various tasks. That elusive thread follows behind us, throws itself in front of us and projects itself onto us, faint and wispy. The name, on the other hand, is ever present, it is who one is to others (and to oneself). Reputation and name are intimately connected, are two sides of the same coin. The character in the old Western film declares, “Mah good name was a slandered.” In Japan, the family name is the first name you give when introducing yourself. The family name is the larger unit from which you came, to which you are still joined: your most precious circle. In American culture, the first name is one’s skeleton key to a world of unabashed self-creation and individualization. The way of the name may differ from culture to culture, but the value of the name does not. The name is conjoined with the human world, the soul sits between this world and another, the place before birth; it arises from the place of pre-birth.

    On the “mania of reputation,” Cioran concludes, “If this mania were to seize any animal in its grips, however “retarted” that animal might be, it would press forward and catch up with man (109).” Thus far, no other animal has strived for the kind of otherworldly sense of reputation that us humans possess. We are the kings and queens of the imagined world, of the creation of our self and the responsibility to be someone. So, who are you?

    E.M. Cioran – “Fame: Hopes and Horrors” from the book “The Fall Into Time.”

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  • mono 10:01 am on March 18, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Creature, Explication, , Metamorphosis, , , Romanian Thinkers, Semblance, The Real, Tree of Life,   

    The Virtual Creature: A reading of E.M. Cioran’s “The Tree of Life” ||Part Two|| 


    The following is part two of my reading of E.M. Cioran

    The simplified formula for the human being is set up by Cioran in the following way, “If God once announced that He was ‘that which is,’ man, on the other hand, might define himself as ‘that which is not.’ And it is precisely this lack, this deficit of existence which, wakening his pride by reaction incites man to defiance or to ferocity (Cioran 41).” This is to say that for Cioran the virtual is woven into the fabric of the Real. The human creature is the creature that exists through imagining and symbolizing rather than through a direct confrontation with reality. Moreover, it is this lack of confronting the real, that defining the human, can be perceived, for Cioran, in our moments of what he has called in other words “lucidity.” That is, we exist through a semblance of reality and rarely if ever through a direct confrontation of reality. However, he points out, that we do have moments of lucidity (moments of experiencing reality), moments that we can trace back to our decision to abandon the tree of life. That is, as he urges us, “Consider his absences, those moments when he slows down or comes to a halt: do we not see in his eyes exasperation or remorse for having spoiled not only his first home but even this exile for which he was so impatient, so greedy (Cioran 42)?” This “slowing down,” for Cioran encompasses our in-between moments, the moments that we, grappling between two points find ourselves, catch ourselves, in the middle, hovering and unsure, face to face with the abysmal Void, with a crack in the virtuality of reality. One can readily see this opening of the Void in Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot.”

    To be the animal who is caught up in his own image, for Cioran, is an unnatural state of being, a state of being only known to humans. He writes, “A shadow grappling with images, a somnabulist who sees himself walking, who contemplates his movements without discerning either their direction or their cause (Cioran 42).” It is in this recognition and experience of self-reflexivity that we have become human, the creature who is here, but is nonetheless distracted by the virtual image of how we see ourself to be as reflected by those around us (the virtual creature). It is through this indirectness that we confront the world, that we have seperated ourself from the purity of vegetative existence. Moreover, it is no accident that Cioran used the word “shadow,” for the shadow represents the terrifying and haunting, nonetheless blank image of oneself, the image that one cannot get rid of no matter how hard one tries, the blank space between us and the Real.

    Despite this, Cioran writes the following: “Transcendence possesses certain curative powers: whatever disguise he assumes, a god signifies a step toward recovery. Even the Devil represents for us a more effective recourse than our own kind (Cioran 43).” That is, to escape from this as mentioned in the Claudio Fragasso film Troll 2, “kingdom of shadows,” one must seek that kernel of Being that is still apart of oneself, that point of Being and not being, that sustains one’s being. Again, for Cioran, to focus on the human, is to focus on that which is has emerged out of an error, out of a lie, therefore one must seek, as a mode of recovery, transcendence in the image of a god, that is, of a force still in direct communion with Being itself. In this way, the human should humble itself to the margin, to the cracks, seeking to regain the Void from which it came, the neglected tree of life. I quote, “Obscured by metamorphosis, by possibility, by the imminent grimace of ourselves, we accumulate unreality and dilate ourselves in the false, for once we know ourselves, once we feel ourselves to be men, we tend to gigantism, we want to seem larger than life (Cioran 44, 45).” To restate, along Cioranian lines, unreality is homologous to the human situation, “the kingdom of shadows.” Moreover, the consequences for living through this myopic falsity is gigantism, imagining oneself to be more than what one really is. Having severed ourself from the tree of life, this, for Cioran is the consequential status of our existence.

  • mono 9:32 am on March 14, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Abnormal, Depravity, , Explication, Marginality, , Sacred, The Fall, , Virtual Fear,   

    A Marginal Depravity: Unfolding E.M. Cioran ||Part One|| 

    E.M. Cioran (1911-1995)E.M. Cioran (1911-1995)
    The following is part one of an explicative look at E.M. Cioran’s piece “The Tree of Life” from his book “The Fall into Time.”

    It is written that there were two trees in the Garden of Eden, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The forbidden entrance into the knowledge of good and evil, that is to say, the entrance into human individualization did not come without consequences: the “horror of happiness,” the experience of the marginal, the pursuit of progress and the virtuality of fear, among several other Cioranian ideas haunt the human creature. In “The Tree of Life,” E.M. Cioran calls into question the strangeness of the human predicament while providing illuminations into what it means to have fallen into being the creature known as
    “human.” Moreover, Cioran suggests a return to the theological, the sacred, to a communion not with others, but with God. That is to say, he calls for a way of living in light of and toward the tree of life, that forgotten tree, which was, for him, regretfully passed up for the curse of knowing.

    The first idea presented by Cioran is the idea of humans as creatures that have deviated from the normal course of earthly life. He writes, “We perceive first the anomaly of sheer existence, and only afterward that of our specific situation: the surprise of being precedes the surprise of being human (Cioran 33).” For the creature endowed with the faculty of knowing, of being able to reflect, there comes moments of shock, moments of shock at feeling oneself to be somehow not a part of all that one perceives, to be part of and to be separate from all that one perceives. For Cioran, this unnatural state is particular to human beings. That is, for Cioran the natural processes of the environment, surprising and overwhelming to humans, are more natural than being the creature who is able to be surprised by them. That is, the human sticks out of the natural way of the environment as being more than animal, but less than a God. The human is the creature who symbolizes and deals with the world in terms of how it is not.

    Cioran recounts the blissful Garden of Eden while reminding us that even our first ancestors must have felt, what he refers to as “a certain malaise (Cioran 35).” It was that malaise that prompted Adam and Eve to follow more closely the words of the Tempter, the words which for some reason rung more clearly than the communications from God. That is to say, our Edenic roots themselves were never pure, but were already poisoned with the powerful sap of malaise. Moreover, once the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had been accessed, the realization of their choice as a personal choice changed everything. He says, “Had we fallen from a total, a true innocence, nothing could withstand the vehemence of our desire to regain it; but the poison was in us already, right from the start, vague at first, increasingly distinct until it left its mark upon us, individualizing us forever (Cioran 36).” It is this ancient curse of individualization that we suffer in times of all encompassing negativity or in times of frantic action; the need to produce is a consequence of knowledge. This is also what Cioran refers to as “the horror of happiness (Cioran 36),” that is, the inability to find happiness as something implicitly within us, but as something that we must search for, something not a part of us.

    That the human situation is marked by the condition of an individualized stance, that is, a self-reflexive, interpersonal interpretable experience, for Cioran is one that, had we concentrated our efforts on recovering a dissolving into God, would have proved successful, but having turned toward progress, resulted in the great downfall of personal and social human experience, civilization. He elucidates by saying, “Once man, separated from Creator and creation alike, became individual — in other words, fracture and fissure in Being — and once he learned, assuming his name to the point of provocation, that he was mortal, his pride was thereby magnified, no less than his confusion (Cioran 37).” For Cioran, humans are marked specifically by their weakness and need to conquer what they behold. The recognition of death is received with pride and at the same time humiliation. This means that for Cioran the vegetable and animal are much more in touch with God while the human creature weak, aware of death and time, inflicted with the primordial malaise, needs to compensate the disconnection from God by means of advancement. “The lion or the tiger, not man, should have the place he occupies in the scale of creatures. But it is never the strong, it is the weak who crave and who gain power, by the combined effect of cunning and madness (Cioran 39).”

    Similarly, the human situation is one overrun by fear, by as Cioran mentions a “virtual fear.” What this means is that human is the creature who can exist through fear even in the absence of any actual present danger. The capacity to imagine the fearful, the horrible is a unique faculty of the human situation. For Cioran it is this virtuality of fear that drives the human to produce, to escape from the prison of one’s self, to act only to distract from the presence of fear. He writes, “Fear defines us to such a degree that we no longer notice its presence, except when it withdraws or relents, those serene intervals which it nevertheless impregnates and which reduce happiness to a mild, an agreeable anxiety (Cioran 41).” That is, fear is so much a part of the human that we can sense it only when it flees from us, and then, only briefly do we get a glimpse into the eternal Void lurking in between, peeking from the margins of fear. Plunging deeper into the descent of the human creature, Cioran writes, “Having abandoned his origins, traded eternity for becoming, mistreated life by projecting his early aberration upon it, he emerges from anonymity by a series of repudiations which make him the great deserter of being (Cioran 41).” It is along these lines that Cioran continues to sketch a portrait of the completely fallen human being, the being aware of being, proud and humilated in the face of death, reliant on technology and skilled in conquering all this is beheld, the time-ridden and depraved human.


    • SophiaAM 11:10 am on March 14, 2008 Permalink

      I cannot help but adore Cioran.
      First time I read “A Short History of Decay” first of his books I ever read, I cried and laughed and said to my self “Mein Gott! He knows!” (because somehow taking the Lord’s name in vain seems less wrong when done in German).

    • Krishnanunni.P 3:03 am on June 2, 2008 Permalink

      Cioran is the Dostoevsky of the Twentieth century and Nietzsche of all generations
      Krishanan Unni.P

  • mono 6:49 pm on March 6, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Advertisement, Americanization, , Explication, imitation, , , , ,   

    An Explication of Bernard Rudofsky’s Advertisement from “The Kimono Mind: An Informal Guide to Japan and the Japanese” 

    The image of Japan when viewed through the medium of an advertisement is deceptive for their exists a gap between the seduction of the advertisement and the reality of the modern country of Japan. Moreover, approaching Japan may prove frightening for one who recognizes this difference, yet has had no way to actually test the difference by setting foot into the country. Finally, the elusiveness of Japan, its peculiarity due to its perpetual transformative state further adds to the confusion of trying to grasp it. These are the main ideas expressed by Bernard Rudofsky in Advertisement from his book “The Kimono Mind: An Informal Guide to Japan and the Japanese.” With these ideas in mind he approaches the idea of Japan with satiric wit, curiosity and solid historical grounding.

    Rudofsky sets the scene for this piece by painting Japan as being among one of the last great unexplored yet inhabitable civilizations in the world, a treasure chest of unseen possibilities. Contrasting Japan with Europe and the Americas, he writes, “The only unknown country with a tolerable climate, with a fascinating albeit incomprehensible civilization hermetically sealed against contamination from the outer world, was Japan (Rudofsky 11).” That Japan was “sealed” served to account for the abundance of produced images, strange and mystifying, which emerged in connection with the country and its inhabitants. Rudofsky notes, “The picture the West had formed of her was rather two-dimensional – a country resembling nothing so much as a stage set (Rudofsky 11).” From this advertised image of Japan came the perception of what Japan was and what it could be. However, the lack of the real, the reliance on the image taken to be real created an imaginary Japan, a mediatized Japan.

    As he goes on to note, the images depicted of Japan came in the form of mythical creatures, jaw dropping scenery, the uniqueness of their traditional dress and a curious look into the Japanese people’s quirky gestures and mannerisms, their overall demeanor. However, “The toy box has long since been pried open, the forbidden land surveyed and assessed, a census taken (Rudofsky 12).” What Rudofsky means by this is that the image when juxtaposed with the actuality of Japan, differed greatly and, by virtue of the opening of Japan in that a great Westernization descended upon and was taken up by the country and the people, but not without consequence. Moreover, the magnificent images of Japan were reduced, modernized and advertised through the lens of the West. The traditional dress had transformed into modern wear, the mythical creatures into airplanes and technology. Conversely, as written, “And yet, the mystery persists. If anything, it has deepened and darkened (Rudofsky 13).” That is to say, even with the modernization of Japan, there is still something untouchable and just out of reach, some facet of the Japanese character and landscape that escapes and eludes proper description.

    For Rudofsky, this eluding haze of what “Japan” means lies in the transitory nature of the country and its culture. “The testing ground of humanism Japan has been called, and a country in transition. Indeed, so long she has been in transition – and will probably remain so – that we ought to consider her as being in permanent transition (Rudofsky 13).” It is this perpetual state of cultural transition that has transformed Japan, as Rudofsky notes, into “one big laboratory on a nationwide scale where the elixir of life is being distilled from the latest formulas (Rudofsky 13).” For Rudofsky, this also means that if one wishes to learn about the culture of Americanism, one should visit and observe Japan for the Japanese offer the perfect spectacle of American life, although completely physically detached from its actual shores. He writes, “Although theirs is a spotty, Japanese Americanism, its fragrance is overpowering (Rudofsky 13-14).”
    He also notes the disappointment that befell those who took to Japan’s shores after its opening to the world. That is, those who imagined the country to hold countless riches were surprised to find Japan to be a relatively poor country and as certainly not as picturesque as displayed in its images. But, strikingly, even in spite of its visual poverty, Rudofsky goes on to note that, “What caught the eye and touched the heart was the spectacle of a country at perpetual peace; a harmoniousness of man and nature that had departed from the Western world with the advent of industrialization (Rudofsky 14-15).” What Rudofsky is pointing us to is the consequences of modernity as experienced through the eyes of those who may approach Japan from a Western viewpoint. Moreover, of the civilizational consequences of modernity.

    Rudofsky goes on to note two important points. First, is the impressive ability of Japan to “catch up” to the rest of the world in terms of technological advancement, cultural modernization and ultimately cultural decline. Their seeming willingness to compete with America, greatly impressed Americans in that, “Her conquerors were thrilled, for nothing appeals to an American more than a redeemed sinner. Our ultimate failure to steer them along simple lines of joyous redemption is to be blamed, however, less on abstract verbal barriers than on the real gap between two nations harboring absurd opinions about themselves and each other (Rudofsky 16).” What Rudofsky is pointing to here is the connection between the Japanese and Americans in cultural pride and in the struggle to produce and progress, which is so vehemently stressed in both cultures. He writes, “Japanese have plotted with desperation a path through the muddles of American upper and lower middle class values, of bureaucratic and academic principles, while Americans have been living doggedly in musty Buddhist convents, inhaling the odor of sanctity and seeking revelation through undernourishment and overfatigue (Rudofsky 16-17).”

    Second, and in closing the piece, he notes the elusiveness of the Japanese character and the country. He mentions the difficulty of expressing the Japanese in terms of cliches, which come much easier to him when talking about other cultures. What is unique for Rudofsky is the ease and the pride with which the Japanese transformed their country: “Although they carry a heavy burden of comparison with the past, they are nothing less than proud of having transformed a mythical jungle into a modern desert (Rudofsky 17).”
    It is on this note that Rudofsky addresses the person fascinated with Japan, yet senses some danger of metaphorical collapse upon arrival. The person who, having read about Japan, having seen the advertisements, has come to have second thoughts, worries, about the real Japan. He ends the piece with, “Indeed, if he looks for a flash of enlightenment on contact, he is disappointed for even the shores may turn out to be largely metaphorical. What he needs is a divining rod or an article of faith (Rudofsky 17).”

  • mono 6:57 am on March 4, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , English language, Explication, , , , Lafcadio Hearn, , , ,   

    An Explication of Bernard Rudofsky’s On Language from “The Kimono Mind: An Informal Guide to Japan and the Japanese” 


    Upon entering into a Japanese conversation with a native-Japanese speaker, one may find oneself at a crossroads of misunderstanding, incomprehensibility, extreme conversational nuance and tremendously polite speech. That this communicative mountain shall serve to block one’s attempts at deciphering the conversation or inspire one to imitate one’s Japanese conversant, depend on one’s capacities for minding and comprehending not just the Japanese language as such, but the character of what a conversation could be and the ways in which Japanese verbal communication may differ from one’s own mother tongue. Investigating this, architect/photographer/writer/curator and world traveler, Bernard Rudofsky, in his piece On Language, from his book “The Kimono Mind: An Informal Guide to Japan and the Japanese,” leads us through a sketch of the art of spoken Japanese with firsthand observations, linguistic insights, historical quotations and with examples from Japanese thinkers and writers.

    A thesis that Rudofsky will continue to flesh out through the remainder of this piece is: “Only unimaginative people conceive of language as a means of communication (Rudofsky 153).” From this, Rudofsky begins by analyzing the the Japanese language from viewing a direct translation of simple Japanese into English. Rudofsky points out the commonly used phrase, “Nihongo de kore ha nan tte iiudesuka?” which translates literally into English as “Japan-language in, this as-for, what that say (Rudofsky 153)?” He writes that, “By merely skimming the English columns in the pages of a Japanese phrase book, once perceives at once the mock-profundity of every utterance (Rudofsky 153).” That is, by looking at the way the language unfolds, we get a glimpse into the, what appears to Rudofsky, the poetic nature of the language (“mock profundity”) and to see its difference and grammatical uniqueness when directly contrasted with the English language. That is, not only is the grammatical flow of Japanese in sharp contrast to English, the way the language calls for one’s minding of the world, is also very different.

    Rudofsky continues by setting the backdrop of the origins of the Japanese language by using the Biblical story of the Curse of Babylon. He writes, “Yet, with the greatest of misfortunes often being a blessing in disguise, the shutdown of the enterprise led to the Babylonian separatist movement, which in turn brought about the discovery and subsequent colonization of the Japanese islands by a splinter group (Rudofsky 154).” The elucidation of this particular story in relation to the Japanese comes, as Rudofsky notes, from the German physicist Engelbertus Kaempfer. He goes on the elucidate the Babylonian movement in Kaempfer’s terms as opposed to the more mystical and mythical creation myths as presented by Japanese writers of old. In support of the Babylonian Curse story, Rudofsky notes, in addition to it being a more sound creation story, “It also would help to account for some of their peculiarities: their aloofness from all non-Japanese, their legendary endurance of incommodities, their addiction to pilgrimages and travel in general, most of all, their convoluted language (Rudofsky 155).”
    For Rudofsky, who in the larger context of his life, I assume possessed some ability to speak Japanese, the Japanese language was particularly cursed by the Tower of Babel incident, although even so, “It is their secret strength, but it also could become their undoing (Rudofsky 155).” He goes on to write about the Japanophile-writer Lafcadio Hearn, who even though he made Japan his permanent home, married and had children, refused to learn the Japanese language, because of the difficulty of being able to not only speak Japanese, but in the seeming impossibility to think like a Japanese person. Holding this position as well, Rudofsky is hesitant to compare Japanese to romance languages like French or Italian. For Rudofsky, “It simply is not a tourist’s dish. Moreover, anybody who has acquired by some gruesome brain manipulation the faculty to speak Japanese, realizes how futile were his efforts. His difficulty in communicating with the Japanese has merely grown in depth (Rudofsky 157).”

    The task of having to “think Japanese,” Rudofsky continues, presents a challenge to Western peoples in that the Japanese language relies more on strict forms of etiquette and layers of obfuscation than on lucidity and intelligibility. But, he writes, “Paradoxically, such inability to express themselves in articulate speech gives the Japanese a sense of superiority similar to that which the women of Old China derived from their bound feet (Rudofsky 157).” That is to say, it is their distinct curse of linguistic obscurity that opens up the singularity of the Japanese language. As the caption from a picture from a “Kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese writing) dictionary” featured says, “There are upwards of 80,000 ideograms. A knowledge of 3,000 is necessary to read a newspaper. Even the simplest of them permit several interpretations (Rudofsky 157).” Again, Rudofsky is returning to this idea that the obscurity Japanese language is the secret strength of the Japanese.

    As to the obscurity of the language, Rudofsky presents three examples, the first being Japanese poetry and its importance in the realm of everyday Japanese life. As Rudofsky points out, “Pronouncements that decide the lives of millions of people are sometimes couched in poetic double-talk (Rudofsky 158).” Rudofsky clarifies this by giving the example of Emperor Hirohito, who, in trying to establish a peaceful resolution before engaging in the Pacific War, recited a poem, which unfortunately wasn’t clear enough. Furthermore, Rudofsky writes, “In their endeavors to save face, the Japanese are able to climb heights of detachment ordinarily reserved for stage characters only (Rudofsky 159).” He backs this up by giving the example of the poetic recitation delivered by the builder of the Castle of Tokyo to his assassin at the moment of death.

    Continuing on his analysis of the language comes the perception that the Japanese may hold for the non-Japanese speaker and the role of the translator, Rudofsky writes, “They cleansed their language of its functional impurities and elevated it to an abstract art. They have no love for clumsy foreigners who pester them for explanations and elucidations; who dig for a meaning until it stands revealed. Hence the translator is made the whipping boy for all linguistic ills (Rudofsky 159).” For Rudofsky, the Japanese revel in verbal expression and, given the chance, are apt to spin out of control with their verbal incantations increasing the difficulty of extracting a “correct” translation into another language. In his words, “Being wordy people, they are apt to let themselves get carried away by their verbal flood and to launch into fabrications of their own. So flagrant is their license sometimes that even a person innocent of any knowledge of Japanese discovers the deceit (Rudofsky 159-160).” The example is given of Commodore Perry who, despite not being able to understand Japanese, greatly mistrusted his Japanese translator and, upon having told him so, was surprised to see his delight. For, “Accusations of this sort do not ruffle the composure of a Japanese. He may reply that his thoughts are too subtle for translation; that his rendering them into an uncongenial idiom is an approximation at best. No harm is done, he thinks, if thoughts are left unsaid, or words go untranslated (Rudofsky 160).”

    For Rudofsky, the obscurity of the Japanese language blossoms in the realm of politeness instead of, like those of us in the English-speaking world, intelligence. That is, it is more important for one to be able to speak properly, following the codes of etiquette, than it is for one to speak clearly and directly. He writes, “In sum, a Japanese interpreter seems to be under a compulsion to vaporize a thought and to make the most gripping ideas sound innocuous (Rudofsky 160).” In this way, Rudofsky is returning to the aforementioned points regarding the difficulty in being able to think in a Japanese way and the struggles which one who undertakes the Japanese language will struggle with, perhaps what Rudofsky himself, as a foreigner who lived in Japan, struggled with.

    As to some positive points regarding the obscurity of the language, Rudofsky says, “It sustains an even temperature of colloquy, discourages confidences, and preserves an all-important standoffishness. The supreme medium of communication is, not surprisingly, silence – a rather sullen silence, indistinguishable from boredom (Rudofsky 160).” From this semblance of silence, Rudofsky mentions the impressive nature that the Japanese language comes to have in the eyes of foreigners, that is, the image of a zen master contemplating a koan in temple. However, as Rudofsky almost humorously points out, “Usually silence means that their train of thought has jumped the track (Rudofsky 161).”

    Also, Rudofsky discusses the tendency of the Japanese speaker to verbally overdue conversations that could be relegated to short responses. He gives the example of how one must be careful not to be too direct even in such simple requests as a hotel wake-up call or asking for a bill at a restaurant. His method of combating the futility of direct speech is this: “The complex message has to be chopped up into tiny earfuls, patted and moistened with generous amounts of spittle and kneaded into acoustic pellets to be dispatched one by one with perfect timing (Rudofsky 161).” In this way, Rudofsky again points to the poetic and indirect nature of the Japanese language as it is intertwined with the etiquette of politeness. Finally, Rudofsky notes to the foreigner approaching the Japanese language, “Keep in mind that they are unfamiliar with our athletic regime of hardening the eardrums, snatching the thread of discourse from others, drowning words with laughter and expletives, talking fast while trying to follow the conversation of others (Rudofsky 161).” What Rudofsky provides here is a strategic approach to the language, hints from someone who has gained an inside view, so to speak.
    In closing, Rudofsky describes a huge Japanese dinner party in which many speeches were delivered and received applause and attentiveness despite the fact that the speakers’ volume was only audible to those in the first two rows. He writes, “The Japanese have a faculty of enjoying speech regardless of content (Rudofsky 162).” That is, it didn’t matter that the speeches could not be heard, for the Japanese, the murmur of the speech was enough to enjoy and, furthermore, it would have been in bad form to have requested the speaker to raise his or her voice. Rudofsky continues by giving the example of a foreign lecturer speaking about Henri Bergson (in French) and that by the end of the speech the only members remaining in the audience were Japanese, despite the fact that the Japanese in attendance could not speak or understand the French language. Rudofsky: “This makes the Japanese the world’s best listeners (Rudofsky 162).”

    “To the Japanese, the thought that a speaker, celebrated or not, casual or formal, should attach importance to being understood reveals a small mind. Incomprehension on the highest level has its own merits, even when they are not discernible to us (Rudofsky 163).” It is this recognition of incomprehension that leads Rudofsky to respect the Japanese language, despite his seeming frustration with it. He closes On Language with a message to foreigners coming to Japan: “Cultural differences or no cultural differences, if we want to get along with the rest of the world, we cannot afford to be dogmatic (Rudofsky 163).”

    What this end points to is, despite all of the barriers posed by the Japanese language when approached by an English speaker, one should learn to capacitate oneself to the unique, to the acceptance of other ways of conversing and, hence, being. It seems to me that in Rudofsky’s probing of the Japanese language, he has come to appreciate the differences and has come to lend his ear and heart to the difficulty of the Japanese language.

    In my reading of this piece, I have come to see Rudofsky, himself, as a pure Japanese enthusiast and from re-reading this piece, I would like to offer a brief summary. By engaging and reopening the ways that other travelers have approached and been befuddled by the Japanese language, Rudofsky has drawn out several points for those with interest in learning Japanese or for those who wish to gain some insight into the angle of the Japanese character. For him, Japanese, as such, is a language much different from English. The structure is completely different, which proves the first point of difficulty, and, moreover and more importantly, the way of communicating while using this language demands a wholly new way of understanding and approaching a conversation. Moreover, it seems that Rudofsky is preparing the reader for a chance encounter with a Japanese person and, at the same time, educating the reader in how to approach the conversational situation so as to put the Japanese speaker at ease. At the same time, this text also calls for the positive recognition and appreciation of the Japanese way of communicating. That is, Rudofsky is asking the reader to allow him or herself to accept this way of communicating as something uniquely Japanese and, upon encounter with Japan, to keep these points in mind and, instead of trying to “dogmatically” adjust the flow of conversation to fit the foreigner’s way of being, to be willing to be open to the Japanese way of politeness and etiquette. Furthermore, looking at this piece in relation to “The Kimono Mind: An Informal Guide to Japan and the Japanese” as a whole, I see this as being a plea, a plea to those who would be quick to dismiss the Japanese language as a hodgepodge of other Asiatic languages and instead to see the Japanese as a singular way of expression and a challenging, yet rewarding cultural experience.

    Rudofsky, Bernard. The Kimono Mind: An Informal Guide to Japan and the Japanese. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1965.

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    • Leo Wong 10:24 am on June 3, 2010 Permalink

      Am an enthusiast of both Yasujiro Ozu and of Bernard Rudofsky and so was glad to come upon this. Thank you.

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