Sleeping Mountains

Reflections on life, literature, and culture.

Dear Professor Steven Pinker,


(Raphael’s The School of Athens)

I just read an article you wrote last August, “Science is not your Enemy.” In it you address “neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians” with arguments about how they can improve their work by collaborating with scientists. You are right: The sciences and the humanities can learn much from each other when they cooperate. I know personally of a fascinating program called Forum Scientiarum at the University of Tübingen that does precisely that, and I think there should be more projects like it and in various capacities and on various scales.

However, one thing about people who study the humanities that you might want to be aware of when you address them is that they like to look at the “how” of things (how things are expressed or how things affect people). They like subtle nuances. It’s the kind of thing that the scientific focus on the “what” of things (what it is in front of me or what happens when. . .) sometimes overlooks. For example, in your paper, you addressed scholars in the humanities with all the wonderful gains they would make if they collaborated with scientists, but you didn’t say much about what the humanities might contribute in the sciences. People in the humanities are sensitive to pedantic stances like that. But humanists do converse intelligently with people who are willing to listen to their views as well.

You may say you’re not intending to be pedantic, but it seems you are addressing humanists when you say that “[i]n making sense of our world, there should be few occasions in which we are forced to concede ‘It just is’ or ‘It’s magic’ or ‘Because I said so.'” Are you accusing academic scholars of engaging in such arguments more than is absolutely necessary? If so, I agree with you that there is a terrible problem. But might you not be conflating irrational arguments with hypothetical parameters that are necessary for entering the world of a given text? No one ever read Peter Pan without suspending their disbelief that children can fly and fairies exist. The story is not about the capacity of human children for flight or the existence of fairies, but about childhood imagination and perhaps even about confronting psychological drives (appearing as fairy-like voices) that produce conflicting urges for action in a given situation. The how of reading for subtle nuances is what humanists call hermeneutics, which is an important part of philology. Close reading – and self-reflective reading – is one of the most treasured tools in the humanistic academic toolbox. I think you would agree that it is also useful for scientists when they read.

As you are aware, the humanistic academic tradition, like the scientific, comes out of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, so its practitioners do employ skepticism, open debate, formal theory, peer review, and when possible empirical tests and double-blind methods. Of course, these last two are almost always impossible to implement since the cases and populations most of us work with are dead, a conundrum you clearly are familiar with from working on projects like your most recent book. In other words, since scientific and humanistic methodological traditions come from common ancestors, the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, scientists and humanists might be able to learn their respective academic dialects sufficiently to effectively collaborate.

So if you were interested in my advice, it would be to not preach to the choir. (I found the link your article on a neuroscientist’s twitter feed. He likes it.) I’m sure scientists already know all the wonderful things they want to share with humanities scholars. But you aren’t trying to rally the scientific troops for a take-over of the humanities, right? You want to collaborate with humanists, don’t you? In that case, address your intended audience. Listen to their more rational arguments instead of choosing arguments that represent political positions with agendas. And be sensitive to how humanists express their ideas: Ask yourself (or ask them directly) if something they say is a hypothesis, a hermeneutic parameter, or if it’s a tested thesis. That might help the conversation proceed a few steps further than where it stands at the end of your article.

Kind regards,

Hanna McGaughey

On the Japanese Symbolism of Fireflies and on Telling People what They Mean


Kishibashi has a new album out called Lighght. I’ve been listening to the music over and over, because there’s a lot going on in the music that unfolds with repeated listening. NPR producers like Kishibashi, too, perhaps because their critics rightfully praise the experimental combination of classical training and pop music. But in a recent NPR interview, Steve Inskeep and producer named Lindsey tried to read too much into a lyric. Steve Inskeep insists on delving into unpacking the meaning of one word in the song “Q&A,” namely hotaru (firefly). Lindsey comes into the studio and says that he “was doing some reading” and his “research told” him that in Japan there are “poems going as far back as the 9th century AD that use fireflies as a symbol of love.”

First, what’s with this intellectual posturing to make up for a lack of knowledge? Just because Japan is so far away and so exotic, doesn’t mean people may speculate based on what little information they can get their hands on. But even if you don’t know any more about Japanese poetry, you can still tell this is still a farfetched connection. Just because a word meant something in 9th century poetry doesn’t mean it means the same thing in pop music today even if that pop music is really intelligently created.

But what does Lindsey mean when he says fireflies are a symbol of love in classical Japanese poetry? Classical Japanese poetry is all about love. Aristocrats used poetry to communicate things that were otherwise difficult to say, and most poems were precisely about love and all its challenges.

Perhaps the most prominent example of fireflies in Japanese poetry and literature is the firefly scene in the Firefly Chapter of The Tale of Genji – which all Japanese people read in high school of course. The Tale of Genji doesn’t go quite all the way back to the 9th century, because it was finished around 1000 AD and describes aristocrats in the Japanese capital (now Kyoto) in the Heian period, but it is a major literary work that influenced a lot of later poetry and literature.

You can read Seidensticker’s translation of the Firefly chapter of The Tale of Genji here.

There are a lot of characters involved in the Tale, since monogamy was not very important for Japanese aristocratic romantic relationships in the Heian period and everyone was related to each other one way or another. The two most important characters in the firefly scene are the young woman Tamakazura and the imperial Prince Hotaru. (He’s named Prince Firefly after the scene.) Prince Hotaru is Tamakazura’s caretaker’s brother. This caretaker is Genji, the main character of the whole novel, and being the main character and suitably preoccupied with his own interests, he stages a meeting between Tamakazura and his brother in early summer despite Tamakazura’s deep-seated disinterest in all men, including the handsome Genji.

Prince Firefly comes as invited to woo Tamakazura one summer evening. Tamakazura tries to avoid him, but Genji makes her go talk to him. Since aristocratic women used curtain partitions and go-between messengers to maintain their privacy when talking with strangers, Prince Firefly can’t really tell where she is sitting or if she’s really nearby or not. After Genji convinces Tamakazura to go talk to the prince, there’s a sudden flash of light that casts the shadow of her beautiful profile on the curtain. The light is produced by a large group of fireflies that Genji suddenly releases from a bag near Tamakazura. Prince Firefly sees her for a moment before the fireflies fly off and the light fades. He realizes she is more beautiful than he had thought and writes her a poem:

You put out this silent fire to no avail.
Can you extinguish the fire in the human heart?

Prince Firefly is clearly infatuated, but Tamakazura’s reply makes clear his love is unrequited:

The firefly but burns and makes no comment.
Silence sometimes tells of deeper thoughts.

Tamakazura does not want to talk to the prince and clearly feels uncomfortable in his presence. Prince Firefly leaves broken hearted in the middle of the night.

So yes, the firefly is a symbol of love, but it’s more complicated than that. In The Tale of Genji, there are two perspectives: For the prince, it’s more a fleeting, unrequited love, and for the lady it’s not love, but a aversion, shame, and pain, painful perhaps because she has had a bad experience with another man that is insinuated at the beginning of the chapter. Of course, this is just one interpretation of one instance of the the firefly being used as a poetic symbol.

But Kishibashi certainly wasn’t thinking about the subtle poetic allusions the word hotaru evokes in Classical Japanese poetry when he wrote “Q&A.” Kishibashi responds to Lindsey’s comment by saying that he doesn’t think most Japanese people know the poetic meaning of the word. Indeed, how many Japanese have read or still remember The Tale of Genji from high school classes? How much did you remember from The Great Gatsby before the recent movie? The Great Gatsby is 900 years younger and more readable than The Tale of Genji!

Why did the producer need to come into the interview to instruct Kishibashi on Japanese culture? I find Kishibashi’s own answer when asked about how he creates lyrics interesting enough. He says, “the words just form as an instrument. . . and then I connect the story.” About the Japanese lyrics to “Q&A” he says how he lets language “create an image” in his head “of a hot summer afternoon.” I think people today can identify with that image and can run with that far more easily than digging around in Japanese poetic traditions that are almost 1,000 years old for some hidden, exotic significance.

As a student of pre-modern Japanese culture I hope, of course, that this incident might make people curious about classical Japanese literature even if it doesn’t have anything to do with Kishibashi’s song. Perhaps we might get other pop music some day that draws on material from The Tale of Genji? Love, intrigue, and disappointment are certainly still important in pop today. The whole Seidensticker translation of The Tale is available for free from The University of Adelaide, and I used his translations of the poems above. The most recent English translation is by Royall Tyler.

The West’s Confucian Confusion: How More Confucianism Might Have Saved the Sewol

Traditional cultural values – those aspects that Europeans and North Americans often see as most foreign – inform Asian countries’ social contracts even today. When problems arise, it is these differences that are so often blamed by media. Bosmosis makes a good point that foreign cultures should be evaluated on their own terms. His post points out that it was not blind obedience that brought about the Sewol ferry disaster on April 16th, but the responsibility of authority figures, another integral part of Confucianism, that was lacking.

However, my concern is that problems are always pinned on those aspects of a culture that are most foreign to the observer. The idea that “I don’t understand the problem, so those things that I don’t understand about the situation must be the source of the problem,” does not seem logical to me. Is it really Confucianism that caused this accident? I hardly think so. Can’t we talk about negligence, which is all over the Japanese news here in Tokyo, and draw lessons from that very familiar cause of problems?


W henever a tragedy strikes Korea, many Western observers can’t resist the urge to attribute it to Korean culture. This tendency owes much to Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers, in which Gladwell attempted to pin a fatal 1997 Korean Air crash in Guam on Korea’s Confucian-inspired practice of showing deference to one’s guam1 seniors. Since Outliers , Confucianism is the prime suspect in just about every Korean disaster short of an earthquake, so when the Sewol ferry sank in waters off Jindo on April 16 th , taking with it over 300 young Korean souls, I braced for the wave of western cultural critique.

I wasn’t disappointed. Writing for the South China Morning Post, Andrew Salmon wondered whether the accident was made worse by Confucianism. Salmon noted that in the initial minutes of the accident, the captain ordered passengers to stay where they were, and most of them obeyed “even as the…

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Wednesday Poem – Rilke

(For Leonie Zacharias)

By Rainer Maria Rilke

O sage, Dichter, was du tust?

— Ich rühme.

Aber das Tödliche und Ungetüme,
wie hältst du’s aus, wie nimmst du’s hin?

— Ich rühme.

Aber das Namenlose, Anonyme,
wie rufst du’s, Dichter, dennoch an?

— Ich rühme.

Woher dein Recht, in jeglichem Kostüme,
in jeder Maske wahr zu sein?

— Ich rühme.

Und daß das Stille und das Ungestüme
wie Stern und Sturm dich kennen?

: — weil ich rühme.

(For Leonie Zacharias)

O say, poet, what you do?

— I  praise.

But the deadly and monstrous,
how do you endure it, how do you accept it?

— I praise.

But the nameless, anonymous,
how do you, poet, invoke it nonetheless?

— I praise.

Whence your right in any costume,
in all masks to be true?

— I praise.

And that the still and the aggressive
like star and storm know you?

: — because I praise.

(My translation)

Wednesday Poem – Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers – (314)

By Emily Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

(via The Poetry Foundation)


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