News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Second thoughts on The Politics, Money and Culture of Japan: after nearly demonstrating that rejection of Chinese characters was a sign of shallow partisanship, the author goes on to show that the Uncle Sammy tested the Japanese and found the literacy rate to be higher than that of the average American or European. I have no doubt this is correct, but still there's a sixth sense that somehow he's piling up proofs to prove his conjecture, rather than giving his conjecture a test run or considering alternatives that might inconvenience an objective patriot.

The author goes on to prove the prodigal flexibility of characters in the next paragraph. By the end of the paragraph he's so bursting with confidence that he explodes in a fireworks of patriotic fustian and philological codswallop. Chinese characters have unlimited powers of expression! (That's a quote) In combinations and permutations, characters have unlimited capacity to form words. (Ibid) Using just 2000 Chinese characters 4,000,000 words and sentences can be bricked together and accommodate all the incoming information that the information explosion can explode. (A quote only gently stretched)

What's interesting about this is not so much the professor getting carried away but the fact that he can do so in a competitive publishing industry. This is someone who has been a senior editor for a national newspaper, who graduated from universities in Taiwan and Japan, who has served as a researcher at a top local university, and who has under his belt several published books of analysis, short story collections, and so forth on Japan.

So he's blinkered. Well, many of us are. I plead guilty too. But what is it about his field that gives him the serene confidence to make such glorious missteps?

I turned to former Taipei City Minister for Culture Long Ying-tai's 1985 Literary Criticism Collected Essays for counsel. In the preface (translated here by me) she writes: In Taiwan, writing any sort of literary criticism is difficult. The primary reason is because the Chinese people don't separate moral comportment from professional endeavor. Highly stressing loyalty and protocol, how can one be acutely critical of someone else's work? Most people are unwilling to hurt someone's feelings by writing something critical. The opposite side of the coin is that when someone is criticized their reaction is particularly vehement and they are incapable of thinking calmly.

Over the last nearly one year critiquing fiction, I have received much encouragement and praise... but I have also been under a lot of pressure from personal attacks. One person sent me ghost money with the corners ripped off, probably because I was critical of one of his works. Thus, he hoped that I would be crushed by a truck one day. (I cherish this ghost money though, particularly because he took great care tearing off the corners thus ensuring that his curse would come to fruitiony. This thin coarse ghost money paper, which represents unbounded hatred, is yet also permeated with a highly representative aesthetic appeal.)

The Chinese people are not in the habit of promoting themselves and in their comportment they strive for humility and politeness. Myself, I have no interest in humility or politeness. When it comes to my professional affairs and my professional efficiency, however, I care a great deal.

In other words to be a critic worthy of the name, Long Ying-tai had to choose between being Chinese and being a critic worthy of the name. Betraying the national character resulted in nasty letters and voodoo. Fortunately she has a sense of humor. Unfortunately, she points out in another passage that of those who praised her courage, not one was willing to critique the work of others forthrightly, i.e. honestly.

Quite a statement. More like an indictment. Of course it's just the opinion of one person, or should I say two because I'm happy to add myself to the number. There was another wild apostate in her day, Nobel nominee Li Ao, but it will be remembered that he had to publish his work outside the country. It surely says something when the nation's top critic can't get published in his own country.

And all of this helps account for the vacuum come comfort zone that allows the author of The Politics, Money and Culture of Japan to spout well-meaning claptrap and not be held to account for it. Worse, be quite unaware of the titters outside his inner circle. Worse yet, be so shocked and insulted when some freebooting naysayer like myself breaks the bad news, that he has to work up a conspiracy theory to explain it all away.

In my experience, one voice of criticism rarely persuades anyone of anything except that the voice belongs to a crank. For reasons perhaps having to do with weak critical thinking, lack of imagination, and a general instinct for evasive maneuvers when under attack, most folks only react sensibly to criticism when they see the teeth of more than one persecutor gleaming. In other words, only when they're forced to and not because they thought their way through and saw the light, per se. In other words, being outnumbered and cornered, they don't see any possibility for evasive maneuvers anymore. Which is to say, they're still not convinced. Which is to say they were probably never convinced of their original opinion either. Which is to say they're probably incapable of figuring anything out for themselves. But I'm ranting. And off topic again.

How about this then? Why did modern American fiction authors begin to show up in numbers only in the early 20th century? What's more modern than the reality show, which first showed up in print, then film, and only then on TV? And early reality show scribblers would include Jack London, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Steinbeck, and so forth.

So what caused the extinction of the amiable hocus pocus that only occasionally took a well-deserved hiding from the latter 19th century's only honest, when it didn't threaten his pay book, American critic, Mark Twain?

Here's a clue from Edmund Wilson's collection of literary critics' works The Shock of Recognition (1943). Amy Wohl (1874-1925) opens up a book of her literary criticism with "Gentle reader, the book you're about to peruse has only one object, which is to amuse. If, as over its pages you may chance to potter, you discover its rather more pungent and hotter than this simple pretension might lead one to think, recollect, if you please, there's devil in ink..."

Killer cute dude. Well, ahem, here's the late Edmund Wilson, the New Yorker's favorite 20th century literary critic writing about the appearance of Henry Mencken (1880-1956), "The effect of Mencken's criticism was startling to the young people who had been brought up in the Howells era. Howells had tried very hard to be hospitable to new talent from everywhere, but he had himself kept quite close to the genteel tradition. Mencken had the temerity to put his foot through the genteel tradition... The cobwebs dropped away, and we were able to look out across the country and to see what was actually being produced in the way of interesting work - which seemed scarcely at any point to coincide with the kind of thing admired by her most impressive critics, such as WC Brownell."

In other words, a scathing critic who became popular and then "imitated to nausea" by many, did much to clean up the writing profession's act. Of course there are myriad other factors, but when the leading literary critic was the shock jock of his age and promoted writers indifferent to tender feeling such as Jack London, Sinclair Lewis, George Bernard Shaw and Nietzsche (ex: Mencken wrote the first English language literary biography on the man), standards went up everywhere. Taiwan, amongst other things, lacks a herd of critics on the loose and bawling for blood to sow fear into the local literati, most of whom are still snoring under their writing tableaux.

Back to the original book. The author carries along and lists a series of obscure Chinese characters disinterred from the crypt, thus proving once again the grand flexibility of characters. However, he skips over the basic problem which is that nobody ever knows the pronunciation of these damn things except for himself and his fellow grave diggers. As opposed to English, where a word's pronunciation can be accurately guessed at because of the phonetic alphabet. For example, Superbowl X (We in the farm country called it Superbowl Ex. Seriously.).

Soon, the next paragraph indeed, the pathology of the patriot emerges as it must with its implacable loony force. The author tells us that because Japan has used Chinese characters it is now a member of the Chinese language family. As such it has familial responsibilities (I'm not making this up) and has inherited the responsibility to promote Chinese characters and to defeat the communist scheme to abandon Chinese characters. This is the first I've ever heard of this scheme, one which the author believes is blasting full steam ahead at the time of writing, 1999.

In the very next paragraph the author introduces us to several Japanese enthusiasts who have developed a methodology enabling students to commit Chinese characters to memory at an incredible rate. He says that when the news got out, it spread immediately around the world. But of course, given the context we know just how big the world is to this patriot: Chinese speaking regions only.

The author, finally persuading me that he's incapable of detached judgment, bipartisan patriotism and other sundry good things, and being captain of my own fate, I regained authority over my credulity, and launched full steam ahead out of this godforsaken book.

The End.

Postscript: I read a full fourteen pages. At a quality bookstore near you.

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