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Some may remember my review of Anne Carson’s book If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. Like everyone else, I adored her book and really took to her method of translation. Recently, I decided to investigate a little bit more about this talented artist and scholar. I found that If Not, Winter is hardly anomalous as a representative work.
In her essay “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,” published in a 2008 edition of A Public Space, she confronts the boundary between linguistics and literary theory, hoping to develop a kind of a theory of silence. She doesn’t need more space than what she uses in the essay to do so.
The motivation for the essay has its roots in the art of translation. According to Carson, there are two kinds of silence to be reckoned with by the translator. Physical silence occurs where something the author intended to be there is missing, as with many of Sappho’s poems, largely lost to posterity. Carson deals with this by using brackets where the author’s intended expressions are missing, but she says translators may be as justified in some cases to extrapolate expressions. The other kind of silence is “metaphysical” silence, wherein “a word… does not intend to be translatable. A word… stops itself.” Carson gives an example from the Odyssey:
In the fifth book of the Odyssey when Odysseus is about to confront a witch named Kirke whose practice is to turn men into pigs, he is given by the god Hermes a pharmaceutical plant to use against her magic:
So speaking Hermes gave him the drug
by pulling it out of the ground and he showed the nature of it:
at the root it was black but like milk was the flower.
MOLY is what the gods call it. And it is very hard to dig up
for mortal men. But gods can do such things.
MOLY is one of several occurences in Homer’s poems of what he calls “the language of gods.” There are a handful of people or things in epics that have this sort of double name. Linguists like to see in these words traces of some older layer of Indo-European preserved in Homer’s Greek. However that may be, when he invokes the language of gods Homer usually tells you the mortal translation too. Here he does not. He wants this word to fall silent. Here are four letters of the alphabet, you can pronounce them but you cannot define, possess, or make use of them. You cannot search for this plant by the roadside or Google it and find out where to buy some. The plant is sacred, the knowledge belongs to gods, the word stops itself.
These silences occur with words that are a subset of unknown size of the words that must be borrowed from other languages as opposed to translated. Translators must make several difficult decisions in their work from artistic and linguistic standpoints, but it is the latter that is the most important here because there is a “spectrum of translation” they must always employ. On one end are single words that translate with virtually 1:1 correspondence to words in the other language. ‘Book’ is ‘libro’ in Spanish without much confusion. Then there’re words like ‘nose’ in English that translate with but the slightest difference into 鼻 (hana). In Words in Context, Takao Suzuki shows that the area American English speakers consider the nose covers a different portion of the face than the Japanese word, although both of course include the most important functional parts. Likewise, as discussed on this blog, Paul Kay (Berkeley) has shown that speakers of almost all languages consider the best example or shade of the word red as the same, despite differing ranges of shades that could be considered red. Nevertheless, for all intents and purposes, a single word translation will do. Next we have compound and composite word translations. The word ‘television’ seems like it translates quite cleanly to 電視 (dian4 shi4) for Mandarin (or Taiwanese if we’re being cute). But there are a few issues here: 電視 is actually a composite word, much like the original, made from two morphemes that indicate ‘electricity’ and ‘being looked at’ respectively.
At this point, we can see that for much translation, there are words that some languages possess which will be difficult to translate with the same economy. From here until the middle of the spectrum, words are translated with progressively more and more morphemes in the destination language. But when a translator is faced with the problem of translating one word into a paragraph, that might defeat so much about the original: pacing, essence, and so on. And then, of course, there’s the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in Language, which suggests that the more words we use to describe the word to be translated in order to most closely approximate the original meaning, the more its essential meaning, in addition to other connotations, is missed. Locking down the expression so rigidly pushes out meaning. Therefore, there comes a point on the spectrum where translators must seek different methods of translation besides seeking the complete and rigid expression for it.
Carson is a master of this, as I have pointed out before. In her book of Sappho poetry, If Not, Winter, she uses words such as ‘songdelighting’ and ‘radiant-shaking.’ Instead of writing out the complete expressions, she chooses innovation. She creates novel words using standard word formation rules in the destination language that may contain more of the original meaning than an attempt at complete expression might.
The second to last point on the spectrum of translation is when a word is just borrowed without further elaboration. Carson highlights the borrowing (outright theft, I’d think) of ‘cliché’ from French. She writes:
It has been assumed into English unchanged, partly because using French words makes English-speakers feel more intelligent and partly because the word has imitative origins (it is supposed to mimic the sound of the printer’s die striking the metal) that make it untranslatable.
The latter is a good reason for borrowing a word from another language. Another reason is that a speech community possesses significant demand for a word that it does not yet have. For example, French speakers started using the word ’email’ because no word in French concisely described such a concept and its word formation rules would likely not have led to such an economical word either. (The Academie Francaise has tried to stifle the use of this word in favor of ‘courriel’ and I do not know the extent of its success.) A better example is the English borrowing of ‘schadenfreude’ from German which means “taking delight in others’ misfortune.” Although I have only really heard Dorothy Rabinowitz, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer of the Wall Street Journal, use the word, I have read it on several occasions from other writers. Just beyond these words are similar words for whom some meaning can never be discovered or reclaimed without being a native speaker of the language. Multilinguals know of many such words. Some brag about them. Some keep their knowledge locked away. Some of these words also depend crucially on shared temporal experience, as ‘truth’ and ‘authenticity’ mean so much more to many Czechs than most American English speakers can understand — though they can try if they read Havel, Seifert, Kundera, and maybe some Poles as well. This is a story worth telling in another post someday.
Finally, we arrive at the end of the spectrum, yet there is no guard rail or barrier, and we stand at a precipice beyond which we cannot see anything precisely: only the bright and ineffable, like MOLY. These words land in our language with a form bearing no relationship that we can trace back to any meaning. Morphological analysis stops because it can never start. Syntax? Phonology? Save yourself because the tracks have all been covered. Carson shows several examples of the bright, ineffable silences: they are all places that we cannot go. These silences may be uttered by our inner angels, the angels above, or from even more inexplicable origins. Our choice to explore them creates possibilities that we never before considered.
In the Wall Street Journal a few days ago, I chanced upon “His Transatlantic Progeny” by Judith H. Dobrzynski. She’s writing about an exhibition called about an exhibition highlighting Cezanne’s relationship to American Modernism taking place at the Montclair Art Museum through January. It seems like a nice enough event.
What struck me was this passage, however:
Jozef Bakos and Willard Nash… demonstrate that they too are descended from Cezanne, even though they never traveled to Europe or to American art centers where the master’s works could be seen. They heard how Cezanne, instead of producing a naturalistic representation of his subject, analyzed and rebuilt it on canvas in a flattened perspective, using fractured, sculptural forms composed of patches of color instead of conventional light-and-shade modeling. They learned about his thinking– sometimes described as a fusion of intuition and intellect– from reproductions and from teachers such as Andrew Dasburg…. Dasburg had traveled to Paris… and, upon discovering Cezanne’s work, divided his art into “before” and “after.”
In those days, painters adapted a style to their own by learning the thinking and methods of others before them. In essence, they sought to learn how to encode information the way that the other painters did. They would achieve this by learning such things. However, these days, in order to accomplish this simply on a visual basis, one need only turn to Adobe Photoshop and its many filters. The talented engineers and mathematicians at Adobe understood the essence of the story themselves, encoding many different filters and transformations by which you could turn one representation into another. It’s all very mathematical. For example, I am not sure it has been resolved yet whether or not Shepard Fairey composed his Obama Hope paper from scratch in some medium or whether he just transformed the original AP photo in Photoshop, but it would not surprise me if he pulled it off with the latter.
The interesting thing about the passage is it reflects how information used to travel. Styles could be transmitted without knowing the master, but by figuring out and learning technique. In those days techniques cost much more to develop in time and opportunity cost of style. In other words, the time spent adapting to a new style would have to be worth it from a personal and market benefit standpoint because it was a huge investment. Once you have missed a movement, you’ve missed it for good. In the old days, such profound changes could lead a transformative artist to label his prior work “before” and then “after.” I wonder if the same could be said of artists like that today. I’m tempted to put Yayoi Kusama in this category. She’s done all kinds of things, mostly thanks to the economics that make her productions and antics viable.
For a time, new content startled us in art. As time went by, the shock faded, and artists shifted to new forms with content, then new forms with none, and then old forms with none. The transformations gradually became more and more devoid of meaning. And the fate of a truly authentic and meaningful expression? Rage? Love? Passion? Jealousy? Hatred? Awe?
Shepard Fairey is the artist who created the famous Obama “HOPE” poster, ubiquitously seen in its original form or some derivative form on cars, lockers, windows, backpacks, and so on. Recently, the Associated Press sued Fairey for a violation of copyright: he based the Obama image below off a photo whose copyright is owned by the AP, also seen below.
The claim is fairly clear. The owner of copyright, according to 17 U.S.C. § 106, possesses the right to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies and to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work. The copyright code also lists various remedies that the owner of the copyright has for infringement, usually involving some measure of monetary damages depending on the extent and intent of the dastardly deed.
On the merits of this alone, given copyright law, the AP would seem to have a competitive claim, meaning that it isn’t something that would just be dismissed. There’s no doubt given the comparison that Fairey used the photo in question. The real question is: was Fairey’s infringement a fair use? It does seem difficult for Fairey to prevail here given current copyright law, but if I was a Judge, I would definitely want to try and limit the scope of copyright protection such that this would be declared a fair use because it is transformative. The colors are completely different and perhaps more important, Fairey’s Obama poster was sold in a completely different market than the photo. If anything, sales of the photo would probably pick up as a result of the association, royalties or no. This policy would foster creativity, perhaps slightly at the expense of production.
It seems as though Fairey was cognizant of copyright law and panicked upon being sued. Last week, news such as the LA Times started reporting that he had submitted evidence claiming that he used a different photo for the poster’s creation, though it was one from the same event and photographer. Despite how glaringly obvious a lie this was, he stuck to it for a while and finally relented.
The tragedy here is that this could have been a landmark copyright case, and though the fair use aspect of Fairey’s case remains in play, his effort has been tainted. In copyright cases, good faith can be a significant factor in both awarding damages and declaring judgment.
I decided that I had enough of the template that came with the blog and have therefore uploaded a new picture (Turner, you’ll pardon the fact that the boat is apparently a slaveship). I’ll probably rotate headers to keep things interesting. The new title of the blog is more important. “somewhere i have never traveled” is what I named this blog when I thought it would likely remain a private scratching board. “The Angels Within” reflects a shift to posts that relate to my book project, which was kicked off with a post of the same name on this blog. For lack of a better description, the book will dissolve and reconstruct the line between economics and art.
How will I get the title of the blog changed in RSS feeds… hopefully it happens on its own. 🙂
Introduction to the Siren Paradox
Beyonce Knowles has already become a star for the ages. She’s the most popular solo female artist of this decade, a member of the most successful female group of all-time, the wife of rap mogul Jay-Z, and is probably considered one of the most beautiful women alive. Like any such star, she is not without her critics. In this post, I will discuss what I call “the siren paradox,” which is the simultaneous societal appreciation of an ideal and the revulsion at its consequences and costs.
The term “siren paradox” alludes first to those mythical creatures encountered by Ulysses who had top halves of women and bottom halves of birds. Although it doesn’t sound entirely appetizing today, the term “siren” retains its essence: a beautiful and unavoidable, yet dangerous woman. Beyonce Knowles can be considered thus in light of her relationship with society. We perceive her radiant beauty and value it as an ideal deserving of female aspiration. But the consequences of the aspirations engendered from these perceptions may be minimized, though they are many. Generally speaking, in order for any random woman to become more like Beyonce on a superficial level (that which is mostly perceived), she must buy certain hair care products, make-up, possibly hair extensions, fake eye lashes, and fake boobs, to say nothing of short sexy dresses and four inch platform heels. No, the image of Beyonce is not a cheap one to produce, even though she is naturally endowed with extraordinary beauty.
Klein vs. Postrel
Indeed, some, like Naomi Klein, believe that the consumer culture of the West uses Beyonce for its ruthless ends: profits. That is, they hire a respected, beautiful person like Beyonce and imply that if you buy their products you can be more like her. And isn’t that what you want? The underlying thesis is that without advertisements constantly telling you that you need this hair product and that eyeliner to really be beautiful, you would be healthier, wealthier, and happier. Unfortunately for the persons who believe this, they are only looking at a very narrow part of the picture, with almost no basis in real cause and effect. As Virginia Postrel shows in her excellent book The Substance of Style, absent advertisements, the freed women and men of Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003 quickly learned to appreciate beard shaving, haircuts, less strict clothing, and beauty products. In Iran, Tehran was and remains a haven for skirts and lipstick. The best argument Postrel wields is her discussion of the marginal. In absolute terms, yes, certain people might be better off pursuing needs according to Maslow’s hierarchy. But consumers face decisions on the margin, and if someone in Afghanistan has the equivalent of $3 USD to spend, they’re well fed for the time being, the possibility of being able to get security with the $3 USD is very low, the possibility of getting insurance for this season’s crop is even lower, then that $3 USD might be better spent according to the consumer on a deeply personally satisfying beauty product.
True, at this point, we have not entirely refuted Klein. The beauty products still likely have some prestige qualities attached to them that stems from their use in the West. Even the uneducated of modern Kabul or especially Tehran are not strangers to the idea of our customs. The evidence goes deeper, though: every society has some standards of beauty as well as accoutrements that facilitate transmission of certain qualities of beauty. Whether it is some primitive type of piercing through the ear, some tattoo, a particular garment, or even a dance, there is always some thing whose purpose is to signify or augment beauty. Furthermore, beauty goes beyond even social constructions, for it is biologically rooted in us as we search for mates. It has been often claimed that we prize symmetrical faces, certain hip sizes, and other physical qualities. It should come as no surprise that many of the instruments used to improve beauty as seen in the eye of most beholders cater to those biological tastes in some way.
At this point, we can proudly proclaim that Klein’s main points have been vanquished. Beauty is an inextricable part of the human equation, and a big part of our relationship to it, for most of us, is appreciating it in the physical qualities of other human beings. Now just because something is an instinct doesn’t mean that it cannot be fought if necessary. It has been said, though it has also been recently challenged, that we humans are savages with the blood of a million years on our hands, but that we have a choice to kill and all we have to do is choose not to kill today. The same could be said about using beauty products. There’s just one little problem. Killing imposes costs on others without their choice. When someone chooses to use beauty products, that person imposes no cost on others without their choice. And the women and men who do choose to do so are not all brainwashed. They value improving their appearance by society’s standards. Absent any form of advertising, humans still have perception and will always distinguish differing degrees of beauty. We can no sooner stop doing so than we can tear a limb off our body.
Markets in Beauty
When you see someone look at a stranger from head to toe, or for a very long time, there is a significant chance that person is determining that stranger’s “price.” Assessing the stranger’s physical qualities is an excellent, though not perfect, method for determining the price. Other factors include personality, compatibility, and to some degree an independent evaluation of wealth, but the physical qualities are an easy threshold measure and proxy for overall price. What do I mean by this? A woman analyzing a man’s body, size, weight, height, hair, eyes, shirt, shoes, muscles, and posture will be able to determine the mating market demand for that man to a fairly close degree. When that woman then proceeds to analyze the girlfriend of that man, she can determine all kinds of useful information. For example, does the girlfriend represent an “underbid?” If so, the woman’s qualities might enable her to bid higher for his services. Looking at a lot of other price signals helps determine the demand for yourself, too.
When used in taste generally accepted by large portions of the market, beauty products raise one’s price signals. One’s use of these products, whether it’s more expensive dress shirts (signaling precisely nothing to Klein, but everything to many others), cologne/perfume, nice shoes, or earrings, may be revealing about both underlying asset value and internal motivations. But there’s nothing sinister in the process, for we would not possibly begrudge someone wanting to trade up in a market that has been biologically determined to be important for us. ( On a side note: websites like eharmony and match.com reduce our search costs, making it easier for us to match based on interests as well as threshold physical qualities. It may even reduce relationship costs! )
There’s actually some rather significant evidence that we have these markets. The first important thing to understand is that markets can exist absent a formal currency issued by a bank or government. All you need to be able to do is trade one thing for another. Currencies are only useful for quantifying to a more precise level the demand for something. The subject of markets in beauty has been a popular topic lately in some corners of the economics blogosphere, notably Marginal Revolution and one of my must-reads, The Perfect Substitute. In “Theories of Beautiful Women,” Indiana University professor Justin Ross argues that there is an inverse relationship between economic freedom and success at the Miss Universe pageant, meaning that the less free a country is, all things being equal, the better it generally performs in the pageant. A quick and dirty econometric model by Ross and Auburn’s Bob Lawson shows that this inverse relationship likely exists, though it lacks significance at the ten percent confidence level, indicating a weak finding.
Much more interesting, with much more direct impact on the thesis here, is the relationship between male-to-female sex ratio and “sociosexuality.” According to GMU economist Alex Tabarrok:
Sociosexuality is a concept in social psychology that refers to how favorable people are to sex outside of commitment. It can be measured by answers to questions such as “I can imagine myself being comfortable and enjoying “casual” sex with different partners” (agree strongly to disagree strongly) or “Sex without love is ok,” as well as with objective measures such as the number of sexual partners a person has had. A low score indicates subjects who favor monogamous, long-term, high-investment relationships. […] Why might female sociosexuality scores vary? One hypothesis is that in cultures with low operational sex ratios (the number of marriageable men/number of marriageable women) female sociosexuality will be higher. The argument is that when the relative supply of males is low, competition for mates encourages females to shift towards the male ideal, i.e. when supply is scarce the demanders must pay more. (Note that this theory can also explain trends over time, e.g. Pedersen 1991).
Enter Brian Schmitt, whose “Sociosexuality from Argentina to Zimbabwe: A 48-nation study of sex, culture, and strategies of human mating” in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2005) tests this hypothesis. You can see that the relationship between a country’s sex ratio and “sociosexuality” is fairly robust:
As you can see in the chart, countries with many more females to males, such as the eastern European countries, have a much higher sociosexuality. Physical beauty matters primarily as a biological imperative, secondarily as a social imperative, and finally as a personal one. Competition and attempts to improve one’s signaling have always been present, suggesting that those who use beauty products are just as natural and authentic as those who choose not to use them. Society merely abhors excess: when one uses too much, it is indicative of an attempt to mask very weak intrinsic value. This is not the worry with Beyonce Knowles.
The Market for Beyonce
Although she can hardly be criticized for the power of her voice, or her talent, virtually anything used to excess will challenge good taste. Accordingly, she is occasionally accused of “oversinging.” She is also accused of being fake. One friend of mine laments that we have never even see her real hair. I have already addressed the “authenticity” argument. As to the content of her singing, and the authenticity there, that is for another post.
It seems to me possible that Beyonce, and some other women with a similar skin tone, be they black, white, Indian, mixes, or what have you, were simply blessed as a matter of phenotype to have physical attributes so close to her society’s ideal. There are large markets for a firm that is able to design a product catering to the so-called “least common denominator.” One can make more money from that market than by catering to small, niche markets in the absence of many substitutes. Beyonce has a skin color that may represent a composite of all U.S. skin colors averaged. As such, it is a color desired by most communities in the United States. Whites typically prefer to be darker. Blacks typically prefer to be lighter. Her body has a definite American sensibility to it: not too slight, not too large, but in many other countries she might be considered a little big in the hips. Not in the United States. The rest of the enhancements simply cater to cross-cultural biological tastes: redder lips, longer hair, higher heels, shorter skirts, suggestive dances (see: “Sweet Dreams” video at 1:30, 3:18) longer eyelashes all serve to distinguish from others while alluding to various instinctive preferences in mates thereby increasing their price. The intrinsic Beyonce is what pushes her to the top, even though she remains assiduous in maintaining all facets of her image.
Fighting against the beauty of Beyonce is akin to banning certain financial assets or derivatives. If someone wants to hedge against credit risk by purchasing credit default swaps, they should be able to, and such swaps have proved indispensable for many responsible institutions. If someone wants to dress or look more like Beyonce thereby increasing their price in social markets, not only including mating markets, they should be able to do that as well. Although it costs those persons income to do so, it is a decision that they find personally satisfying and brings them happiness. To do otherwise would cost them more in terms of anxiety, possibly lost opportunities, and certainly happiness. This is not to say that those who don’t use them suffer from those negative aspects — it is all a matter of personal preference and choice. Indeed, natural self-confidence, charisma, or legendary deeds often may account for much more, overwhelming benefits even brought by make-up.
Perhaps there is more to the siren paradox here than meets the eye. Like the mythical sirens of The Odyssey, Beyonce has a certain mystery about her. Her image was as carefully crafted as it has been maintained. Her privacy has been inviolable, even after marriage to fellow superstar Jay-Z. Sirens were not friendly to sailors, for the sailors were lured into their death by the sirens’ song. Of course, we never found out just what Ulysses heard as he was tied to the mast, that is, until Margaret Atwood revealed it in “Siren song“:
This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:
the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see beached skulls
the song nobody knows
because anyone who had heard it
is dead, and the others can’t remember.
Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?
I don’t enjoy it here
squatting on this island
looking picturesque and mythical
with these two feathery maniacs,
I don’t enjoy singing
this trio, fatal and valuable.
I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song
is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique
at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.
Possibly some women because of Beyonce, and some men because of male models, fall into this trap like the sailors did for the sirens. Led on by promises of better lives and better mates, they fatefully discover that all was for naught. The antidote to the siren paradox, unlike the siren song, is not restricting one’s free will. It’s prudent execution and healthy moderation.
When I lived in Indonesia, I purchased and devoured every Japanese classic that I could get my hands on. From Kawabata and Oe to Mishima and Tanizaki, these novels invariably featured some very odd and different themes from the books I typically read. Spring Snow by Mishima remains my favorite of that lot, which I left in trust at Universitas Gadjah Mada for a wing of the library to be called “The Douglas MacArthur Memorial Library for Peace, Tolerance, and Justice.” Eventually, I encountered a work that I had much less trouble instantly understanding and appreciating: Chiyo Uno’s The Puppet Maker.
Chiyo, herself, was a celebrity. She lived fully up until the end of her very colorful 98 year life. She penned several interesting works, most notably Ohan, according to scholars. I learned of her works through Rebecca L. Copeland’s excellent The Sound of the Wind: The Life and Works of Uno Chiyo. Copeland compiled and translated (I think) three of Chiyo’s short works and added an original biography of her. And so, it is in this book that one may find The Puppet Maker. A final note about the publication: it comes from the University of Hawai’i Press. This university press is one of my favorites, as I visited the school bookstore in February and no amount of time was enough for me to enjoy A Dictionary of Cantonese Slang, Fundamentals of Japanese Grammar, Manchu: A Textbook for Reading Documents, Modern Tagalog, and The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy amongst many, many others. They specialize in works with niche Asian subject matter that really appeal to specialists and really dorky amateurs like myself. Browse the UH Press titles some time.
The Puppet Maker itself is essentially journalistic, told from the first person perspective of Chiyo as she travels to meet Tengu Kyukichi, perhaps the last great puppetmaker. She, a young woman, and he, an 85 year old, witness and discuss the puppetmaking art form at the precipice. As the puppetmaker sees it, “If this story were a play, then I suppose you could say we’ve come to the third act. If we do the third act today, the rest of the play won’t last another week.”
Later, he continues:
“You know what I think?” he said. “I think the puppet theater has seen its last days.” Indeed, the old man believes that it is now only a matter of time before the puppet theater perishes completely. And yet he continues to devote himself all the more to this dying art. If those in my line of work ever heard that the alphabet we use—that is, the alphabet I am using now—was shortly to go out of existence, I doubt they would continue to write, hoping against hope that by doing so they could perpetuate their art. No, we would give up immediately, and that is why I sense in the old man an extraordinary depth of passion.
And so, the work is communicating on several levels. The author has something to say about the man, the art, and tradition. We are inclined to sympathize with the puppetmaker, but not pedantically so. Unlike in a movie, there is no musical score to make us dance to whatever feelings the director wishes to evoke. Chiyo lets Kyukichi’s words speak for themselves. For a modern Westerner, they are difficult to assess, but I suspect they represent a time and a way of life very different from today. Indeed, Kyukichi spares few words for the wife who has accompanied him for six decades, and fewer still for children, some of whom he can barely remember anymore. Of his wife, he says this:
“What was it she’d do for me that I appreciated most of all? Sometimes I’d work late into the night, you see, and when I did she’d always wait up so she could lay my bed out for me. Well now I suppose just about anyone would have done the same. Laying out bedding is no great task. But once I’d crawled into bed and started off to sleep, I’d sometimes feel my old wife go around behind me and pat the quilt down soft around my shoulders. That’s all. But no one else would have done it.”
From the few words he uses, it seems he has a core tenderness, just one that is hardly practiced and little noticed. It didn’t matter as much then, when there was so much less opportunity. Still, the truly compelling parts of the narrative concern art and our relationship with it. For this, puppet-making is truly a wonderful foil and Kyukichi’s words come alive. Kyukichi describes the state of puppet-making thus:
“You see, art is tradition. It’s the same for carving puppets, too. If you’re going to carve Lord Hangan, you carve him the way tradition tells you he’s got to look. And, if you’re going to carve the hero Yuranosuke, you carve him in keeping with the Yuranosuke tradition, the way he’s been carved for centuries. But what happens to art when it’s done the same way over and over for hundreds of years? Back in the old days folks did things a certain way because it seemed natural to them. But now we’ve reached the point where we’re just copying the way things were done long ago without really understanding why, and so long as we’re just copying, it doesn’t have much meaning for us. Years ago folks lived with one goal in mind, and once they reached that goal, well, they were ready to die. But now, if you don’t set your sights higher and higher and aim to get beyond whatever goal’s been set, you might as well go ahead and die, and you sure don’t have any business talking about art. But, you see, I didn’t come to figure this out till four or five years ago—and it dawned on me when I finally noticed folks weren’t coming to the puppet plays much anymore. They were turning up their noses at it. How I wish I’d realized this sooner!”
There’s always a sense that the old days were different than today. For example, people often say that politics was kinder and gentler in the United States. In some respects, yes. In some respects, no. Yes, in that there was less overall competition and fewer interests bound up with the results. A good ‘ol boys network might ably control local politics for decades with most living their lives well. But no, in that you were much more likely to end up dead, run out of town, or ruined as a result of them. Slander? Try 1800. Things were no better in the 1940s or 60s. And so, in this respect, Kyukichi may be overreaching about his conclusion that in the old days artists merely replicated the old ways. It is possible, but I am skeptical. Even by seamlessly duplicating another’s style, there may be slight, but important differences of technique. Perhaps one carves faster. Perhaps one artist develops a change seemingly as slight as the puppetmaker equivalent of the damp fold in sculpture, but it has not been consciously appreciated yet.
But it is true that without something more, an art form might become static and uninteresting to the consumer. I really like Kyukichi’s sensibility regarding the intrinsic need for growth in the arts. Certain forms may have held special meaning in the past, but if they fail to in the present, then artists ought to consider change. In this case, we see a titanic struggle between modernity and tradition, because what Kyukichi is alluding to is not the necessity for mere changes of style. Given the improvements in technology and the changes in attention span, the art form itself is obsolete as pure entertainment for anyone born after 1930. Rather, Kyukichi may be unconsciously be pushing at the reality that puppetmaking needs some kind of fusion with other art forms, lest it be relegated to museums and ceremonial performances. His lament, “How I wish I had realized this sooner!” gives us a window straight into Kyukichi’s heart. This is his fondest wish.
The narrator herself struggled with the character of the puppetmaker:
I had never thought anyone could actually sit in the same place for sixty or seventy years doing the same thing day in and day out. If the person were performing a religious austerity, like those who practice zazen, perhaps I could understand it. And yet here was this old man, doing just what I had thought impossible. “I don’t know how it looks to others,” he told me, “but I’ve a reason for sitting right here all day long, never going out. You see, if someone came on business while I was away—well, wouldn’t be anybody else here who’d know what to do. No, I decided it was for the best if I stayed in as much as possible. Look, I’ve got my tools and things all laid out around me so I can sit right where I am with everything at hand’s reach. The sort of life the old man has led may not seem all that strange in a country town like this. No, he has lived just as a tree or flower might live, completely natural.
The power of a metaphor isn’t only that it helps us to see data in a new but analogous fashion. It’s also that it amplifies selected fundamental qualities or characteristics of a thing or situation in our perception. Chiyo’s description reflects a common perception in the modern day that a man who found his way early and did that the rest of his life grew like a tree or flower — sitting in the same spot, but still full of life, untarnished by the blemishes of modernity, unconcerned. And yet, it would be just as true to take the metaphor in a negative sense. We can lament his lack of opportunity, to be stuck no matter his true desires or talent, to in effect be condemned to the same lot generation after generation as the vast majority of the world were for thousands of years. Only in the mid-20th century did social mobility take off. Kyukichi, after a certain age, and maybe even before it, would still probably have it no other way, though. By the time of the interview, he has a solid sense of what his role is in the art, and more importantly, art’s role in him:
“…but let me tell you a thing or two about art. There’re folks who set their sights on one level in art—and once they’ve reached that level, they figure they’re finished for life. Then we’ve got craftsmen like Hidari Jingoro who keep right on perfecting their skills until the day they die. You see, there are those who always push for better, who are always struggling and trying so long as they’ve got breath in their bodies. And, I wonder if this isn’t where art is said to live. Once you’ve decided that you’ve gone far enough—you can’t do better—well, then that’ll be the end for you. I don’t know how much longer I’ll live. Maybe two more years, maybe three, but this that I’m telling you is what is closest to my heart.”
Some artists are not possessed by achievement in their field. In these days, I suspect a higher portion were, though. I’m fascinated by his comment that he wonders “if this isn’t where art is said to live.” Is he saying that it’s in the focused struggle to create ever better art? We do know that by then, Tengu Kyukichi had ceased being someone much associated with the past, and as we know, this partly includes even insuperable ties to family. They remain, incidental, to his story, but they are far from the chunk of the iceberg. What lies below is the passion binding him to his passion: the art of puppet-making, its limits, its transcending moments. It is indeed of art that he wishes to speak:
“…as I’m making my puppets, I feel as if I’m praying to the gods. Don’t you see, where my skill stops—when it doesn’t go any further—that’s where you’ll find the gods. Yes, they’re there just beyond human understanding. […] But let me just say that if you don’t reach out to the gods first—make some kind of effort—then they sure aren’t going to go out of their way to help you. […] Before I start to carve a puppet I have it all clear in my mind how that puppet ought to look. But there’s always one part I just can’t get no matter how I try—yes, there’s always something missing, and it’s in that part, that missing part, where the gods reside.”
Humans do not possess perfect information. They act in a world replete with risk and full of uncertainty– yes, these are two different things. And despite Kyukichi’s mastery, he is humbled by the reality that there is something beyond his precise calculation that goes into the art. It’s not just chance, but perhaps the occasion when he initiates some carving only to see something he missed in his mental conception that he now wishes to execute — or something that might be a flaw. Kyukichi recognizes in the flaw of his imperfect conception the idea of gods. Gods are unfathomable, but generally considered to be, if not all-knowing, certainly more knowing than we and arguably non-linear in temporal perspective. This reminds me of the literary theorist Kermode who argued “the concords of past, present, and future towards which the soul extends itself are out of time… To close that great gap, we use fictions of complementarity. They may now be novels or philosophical poems, as they once were tragedies, and before that, angels.”
These angels very much resemble Kyukichi’s gods. And so there is something in the human make-up that acknowledges its own imperfection, yet stubbornly refuses to attribute individualistic, virtuoso creations (art) to pure chance. Instead, we seek out any semblance of knowing will. Perhaps there’s some beauty in Kyukichi’s gods, who do not exist independent of humanity’s imperfection, though they ably light the way for humanity’s endless drive to overcome it.