“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.
Today is the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death, her final suicide attempt.
Although she graduated from Smith College—to my surprise, exactly 50 years before I did!—I have never taken the time to read much of her poetry. I hope that will change in the future, for her poem “Daddy,” for example, is so brutal and beautiful at the same time. It is perhaps particularly poignant for a fellow German-American such as myself, but that contemplation will have to be left to some future post.
Instead of that poem, “Soliloquy of the Solipsist” was the first to captivate me as I searched for something suitable here. For I see in it a warning related to my most recent post, wherein I wrote that history is only truly understood through the lens of personal experience.
In any case, it’s no good to preface a poem too much, so here it is, followed by an interview recorded on October 20, 1962. The interview took place a week before her 30th birthday, only a few months before she died, and if she were alive today, she would have been eighty years old.
Soliloquy of the Solipsist
I walk alone;
The midnight street
Spins itself from under my feet;
When my eyes shut
These dreaming houses all snuff out;
Through a whim of mine
Over gables the moon’s celestial onion
Make houses shrink
And trees diminish
By going far; my look’s leash
Dangles the puppet-people
Who, unaware how they dwindle,
Laugh, kiss, get drunk,
Nor guess that if I choose to blink
When in good humor,
Give grass its green
Blazon sky blue, and endow the sun
Yet, in my wintriest moods, I hold
To boycott any color and forbid any flower
Know you appear
Vivid at my side,
Denying you sprang out of my head,
Claiming you feel
Love fiery enough to prove flesh real,
Though it’s quite clear
All your beauty, all your wit, is a gift, my dear,
(Shibuya station of the Inogashira Line on an evening in May 2011.)
One often mentioned cultural characteristic (a stereotype, plainly put) that has been so deeply impressed into theories of Japanese culture is Japan’s so-called “group mentality.” This theory might have become something of a non-issue in Japanese cultural studies of late (except perhaps for scholars of “Nihonjinron,” theories of Japanese uniqueness from a rather Japanese perspective), but it is still perpetuated by international journalism, Western expats living in Japan, and many Japanese nationals, who are also considered experts on the issue. As long as this stereotype is so widespread, I think it requires a closer look.
The standard reason given for the Japanese group mentality is Japan’s tradition of rice agriculture, where close, careful relationships among community members were necessary to ensure the fair division of water resources even when they were scarce. The community, it is said, had to set personal differences aside to survive. But, large parts of Japanese society (fishing communities and the often low-class, mobile groups of society, for example) were never really tied to rice agriculture. It might be argued that these communities were not involved in determining the dominant culture. Do any of these types of social structures actually still influence the fabric of Japanese society today after agriculture has become such an industrialized industry that fewer and fewer people are a part of it and more and more people move to urban areas?
If the memories of major natural disasters persist for no more than three generations, what about major impacts on society that have a far less traumatic impact on most members? The recent major shift from agricultural to urban lifestyles in Japan happened in large part one or two generations ago. Those who started living in urban areas were not those negatively affected by the change. They felt little to no trauma (although there was likely some trauma among those left behind in rural areas). Few people I met in Tokyo ever spoke of agricultural roots. (I met a few more people with rural ties in Kyoto, but I guess I’m focusing on Tokyo culture in this post.)
Certainly, urban, corporate culture has also been changing within the last generation, from conservative models of group structure and hierarchy and so forth to more flexible, smaller, and independent forms of business. This, of course, is only an impression I have after working in a small, newly established company for a while and from friends who are young, creative people in Tokyo. But even among this young generation, there is a kind of group mentality that has grown within the last year.
Even during the earthquake a year ago, Twitter and cell phones connected my community of friends, many students, independent young entrepreneurs, and creative types. One friend called us all “single” people, a bit of an exaggeration if understood in a purely romantic sense. A few have significant others, but these people live relatively free of regulative social institutions. Most of them live alone, have self-delegated schedules, and are critical of conservative family, business, and other social institutions. In that sense, these people are all “single,” independent, and even individualistic.
Despite their perhaps unconventional situations and world-views, these young people formed a community in the weeks following the earthquake. Over our phones, we kept tabs on one another’s whereabouts and needs, and on one another’s mental shape as the death toll rose, aftershocks continued, and more cryptic news stories came from Fukushima. Having collectively looked into the face of our own mortality, we suddenly shared something few other communities share.
And this sense of community went beyond the people represented by entries in my cell-phone address book. Another friend tweeted at that time, she now saw the people around her as she navigated Tokyo as potential teammates, people she would have to cooperate with in the next earthquake.
So, if Japanese society may be charged with having a group mentality, it is not for any historical development from rice agriculture. It is a shared awareness of our own transient nature shaped by a common experience. This is not so very different, perhaps, from the effects of natural disasters on the cultures of other communities throughout the world. But it is very different from the respective cultures of people who see death as something one meets very much alone. . .
It has been far, far too long since I wrote here! A lot has been changing and happening in the world around me. (I moved to southern Germany in March and began studying at the University of Tübingen here.) And with getting used to all the changes, I have not been able to find a perspective on things to be able to write anything interesting on the blog. But that state of affaires can’t last forever. Perspective eventually arises in the chaos, a focus will at some point be found. . . even if its interest dissipates within moments of its having been uttered. The following is about a strange sort of experience I’ve had a few times (so, repeatedly) since coming here.
In an attempt to keep some sort of continuity here, I’d like to address the issue that first comes to the minds of people here in Germany when they hear I recently moved from Japan. They all mention Fukushima. Having been directly affected by power outages and concerns about food contamination, there is certainly something of great concern that I can address in such conversations. It seems, however, that this issue hugely overshadows the destruction that the earthquake and the tsunami wrought. The 15,854 deaths and 3,155 people missing due to the latter have even been mis-attributed by some to the nuclear accident, where no deaths have occurred. Which was the greater disaster? Which still holds the greater threat?
I have no intention to make light of the 6 workers who have received doses of radiation higher than lifetime limits and more than 300 who have received significant radiation (Wikipedia). And the issue of human error (for which cronyism among government, nuclear regulation, and journalism has been rightfully blamed) is more obvious in the case of Fukushima Dai-ichi, although human error lies also with building cities in areas likely to be flooded by tsunamis.
Many seem to think that the earthquake and tsunami were a natural disaster, which makes them unavoidable, unlike the human disaster at Fukushima. But centuries-old stone markers that can be found throughout the Tohoku region warn about the dangers of building homes in low-lying areas, but few heeded those warnings. If not a faith in technology, at the very least a faith in progress – faith that the present generations knows more than those past – led to heedlessness. Certainly, the blame for this error was not as convoluted or tied to centers of political power as the error at Fukushima, but it is fascinating how the earthquake and tsunami are seen as an almost non-issue here in Germany.
Why are the earthquake and tsunami a non-issue? Is it because, being natural, it is unavoidable? Or is it because older Germans have a clear memory of Chernobyl (memories of disasters, it is said, last for three generations), and the emotional intensity of such memories evoke greater concern? Can Germans not identify with feeling the ground shake or huge waves wash over the land? Germany, particularly the Rhine Valley and the Swabian Albs in the south, has a history of seismic activity, albeit hardly comparable to that of Japan. Along the North and Baltic Seas there is little seismic activity and no great quantity of water as in the Pacific that could cause much of a tsunami. Is it because Germans have never personally felt that fear that they don’t understand the destruction? Whatever that answer, however, it is not a lack of compassion for earthquake victims that I want to address. . .
Life in Germany seems to be, for the most part, without any threat to life in general. No major disaster might suddenly kill thousands. The last great war was two generations ago and education about its horrors make memories present enough to prevent a reoccurrence. The economic crisis may have had its effects (although limited in this part of Europe), but none life-threatening that I am aware of. And so little to nothing threatens to cut the lives of the general population short. Few people here could imagine the occasional fear that rips through me when the floor shakes before my own reason reassures me that it must be a household appliance of some sort or someone bouncing their leg during class and no more. They don’t see the people around them as the people they would have to cooperate with should a natural disaster strike or as the people they might die with.
But a lack of fear is, in this and in most cases, something to be desired. (I certainly would feel less silly if I didn’t feel these phantom earthquakes.) What might be of value, though, is the reason for fear and a thorough knowledge of transience, an eventual end to everything that we know and rely on. Such a knowledge brings with it an urgency in people’s actions, a consistency and reliability in creativity (in a wider sense that includes more than just art, but rather all of human activity). Such urgency in creativity, in turn, brings meaning to life, for meaning, as I understand it, is the constant search for and creation of meaning.
(Fireworks as seen from our balcony in Tübingen.)
On my way to Germany in December, I flew through Shanghai, and a Chinese woman about my age sat next to me on the first leg of the journey from Tokyo. We found we had a lot of things in common. She has lived in Japan now a little longer than I have, she is a student in Tokyo like myself, and we were both on our way to spend the holidays with our families.
A more random commonality she and I shared was the cultural heritage of setting off fireworks at New Year’s. I remember the first night of a trip I once took to Shanghai years ago was the last night of the lunar Chinese New Year celebrations, and private citizens were setting off fireworks in the streets as I watched from our high rise hotel window. The same, my seat mate said, happens in China on the western calendrical New Year. And so, said I, at New Year’s in Germany, and she looked at me surprised.
So, here is a photo of some private fireworks I saw at midnight on January 1, 2012 from our balcony, which overlooks part of Tübingen, Germany. If it hadn’t been for the vigorously chiming bells throughout the city or the colorful stars bursting in the sky, the incessant explosions, shouts, and billowing gunpowder smoke throughout the city might have lead one to believe there were a war underway. Perhaps for the people setting of the fireworks, it was a moment of cathartic ecstasy. But I was so tired from staying up past midnight that I somehow fell asleep despite the ongoing blasts, hearing sirens through the haze of my encroaching dreams.
I wish you all a happy 2012!