Some thoughts upon the reading of Tanizaki

Tanizaki's life doubles up on itself, in the shape of the letter U. He started out as a Westernizing Young Turk -- from Tokyo, too: through which all foreign ignorance and diseases enter -- the fish rots from the head, don't you know. But he ended up as a back-to-our-(Japanese)-roots cultural conservative -- and even moved to Kyoto -- the delicious Hana no Kyoto, the cultural capital, away from the Tokyo head-rot.

How very moving, say the critics -- a Damascus like conversion. They point to Some Prefer Nettles as the inflection point. They point to the Bunraku in it as the beginning of Tanizaki's interest in Japanese traditional arts.

Too bad about the Bunraku in it, though: I could have written those bits. Why, I could have written them better: to write them better would not have been very hard.

For instance, Tanizaki's discussion of the art form (through the father-in-law's lips) proposes that puppets are to be appreciated in proportion to their life-likeness. Thus, he argues that western marionettes are inferior to Bunraku because they are not as lifelike as Bunraku. (Tanizaki must not have seen good western marionettes).

But any seasoned puppet-theater connoisseur knows that a puppet's excellence lies precisely in its puppet-likeness; that is to say, in the ways in which it explores puppethood; in all the wonderful and surprising ways, in other words, in which puppets are unlike men. Indeed, this is puppet theater's whole -- and only -- aesthetic rationale -- to be unlike the life it depicts. It would have no business existing otherwise (since live actors will always be more lifelike than puppets). Was it Grotowski? Theater which pretends to be life is not a theater, it is a pretense.

Nettles' other traditional bit -- Tanizaki's comparisons between the Osaka and Tokyo singing styles -- is mere obfuscation, too. But let us not be harsh: it is extraordinarily difficult to think about music even for those who understand something of its structure. (It may seem to the speaker to be weighty and meaningful to say, as Tanizaki does, that a certain song sounds vulgar but, in fact, what needs to be observed is that it is unusually low-pitched, for instance).

And so, while I had hoped that Nettles might be an interesting discussion of Bunraku, set, like stones in a bracelet, in any old narrative, treated as a mere excuse for taking up Bunraku, Nettles' best bits turn out -- disappointingly -- the central love story, after all. But these bits read autobiographical, and autobiographical in the worst of all autobiographical ways: they read like the autobiography of a writer whose greatest claim to interest was that -- he was one; which isn't much interest really. (How interesting is a guy who sits all day at his desk, writing?) The autobiography is dull and the character uninteresting. Sorry.

Perhaps the problem lies in Tanizaki's productivity. Perhaps he was too busy writing to have any time left to experience, learn and digest; as a result, there is not enough content in the words. Try to do less, young man, they should teach at the school of creative writing. (Do they?) "Do not try to write thirty novels in your lifetime, young man; only God and Thomas Mann could write more than one good novel in their lifetimes, and both are dead."

Why, when one studies a foreign language, it is safe to assume that one needs to do at least four hours of homework for every hour of classwork; when one writes about art, the ratio has got to be even greater: one needs to spend a year at a minimum studying an art-form before one can hope to write an intelligent page about it; if then.

I would dearly have loved to read a good novel about some traditional art of Japan, but Tanizaki's isn't it. Kawabata's Old Capital is far more successful in this regard. Perhaps because it is Kawabata's last novel: he'd had fifty years of art appreciation behind him at the time of writing. He'd done his homework.

We should be glad of Tanizaki's U-turn, of course: he spent the last 25 years of his life rewriting Genji Monogatari into modern Japanese (the tenth century classic is too archaic for anyone to read today). This is, arguably his greatest contribution to civilization. But it does him little credit that his U-turn simply tracked state policy: Tanizaki westernized when the government policy called for westernization; and he began to go "native" just as the state propaganda turned nationalist. I am not saying he was slavishly following party-line, but he certainly wasn't going against the grain. Kawabata's (and Mishima's) Japaneseness is more convincing: they embraced it against the (again) westernizing policies of the post-war state.

To me, Nettles' only convincing section was Tanizaki's discussion of how Japanese cities rapidly uglified during modernization. This isn't a Japanese phenomenon alone: cities uglify everywhere equally, as if following some universal law of nature: all corpses rot, all cities develop. Development, it seems, necessitates ugliness. (De Soto, a Peruvian economist, explains why: they grow too fast to stay pretty. He promises hope: what are today relatively pretty parts of central London were as recently as 1840 god-awful slums. Just wait 170 years, it'll get better, it might seem. Why even Tokyo might look OK by the year 2080).

It occurs to me that the longing for the past which men like Tanizaki and Kawabata experienced was perhaps not the longing for national roots or authenticity but a flight from the ugliness of development.

Why should development be ugly? Why was the past so much prettier?

One could think up a million ad hoc theories. But -- are they? Were they? Is it possible that what survives of the past comes down to us as it were through a sieve, filtered; only the good survives, the bad having been eliminated and recycled? Has the past, so to speak, been censored for us by our ancestors?

Perhaps. If so, I wish we were censoring the present more actively.


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