Thursday, April 28, 2005

have you ever dreamed

...a dream in which the ground liquidify? I have. It was one of my staple dream when I was a child, along with the one I swim in the air. It usually is a part of a larger-scale dream, equipped with occasional "evils" and all sorts of weird thing. Without warning, I realize the firm ground I was standing until a moment ago is now soft and squishy. I know that something ominous is happening. The softness increases second by secone, as I try to balance myself. I know that the faceless people whom I love are in a grave danger imposed by the liquidifying ground, but also know that there is nothing I can do. Then I realize that my ankles are submerged in the liquid ground. I continue sinking, unable to budge. The ground is extremely clear and translucent, but it only reflects the sky, concealing the evil inside.

Well, there's a reason to this dream annecdote, which no one would appreciate in today's society where everybody is fed up with cheap Freudian interpretations of dreams. I came across an image exactly the same as what I used to see in my dreams. I was wandering in one of the forest preserves on my way back from school one day. There were several kinds of spring flowers in bloom--spring beauties, buttercups, violets, etc. Hoping that there might be one or two rare ones away from the main path, I followed one of the side pathes, which seemed to be used by both humans and their four-legged, antlered neighbors.

There was a creek further down. Apparently a branch of the larger Des Plaines River, the creek was almost still--typically middle western. Trees leans over, casting a clear reflection on the surface under the bright sky. Then something caught my eyes, something that didn't fit in the scenery. Something sharp and orange. I approached it to find out that it was an abandoned bike with an orange frame. The water suface surrounding the bike was perfectly still, and so was the reflection, creating the illusion that the bike was floating in the air. But there was an undeniable fluidness to the water surface, erasing the possibility of the bike floating in the air. It looked just like the ground has liquidified, mingled together with the sky, and the boy (in my imagination, the bike belonged to a boy in a baseball cap) was swallowed deep into the fluid ground. What was left behind was his bike, off which he tripped when he lost his balance.

This is the proof:
then the ground liquified,

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

ridiculing the post-modern: Donald Barthelme "The balloon"

Donald Barthelme's "The balloon" is a playful satire of post-modernism. The point was made clear to me by a coincidence. I happened to read the lovable short story (which made me smile all over) right after Sontag's "Against Interpretation."

Sontag's point is that interpretation is suffocating the art. She swims up the torrent of history, looking for the origin of our compulsion to interpret. Before Plato, there was no need to justify the existence of art, she says. When he divorced the world and the idea, the former as mere representation of the latter, he also gave birth to the necessity to defend art. If art is a representation of the world, which in itself a mere representation of the idea, is it worth anything? The necessity to justify the existence of art entailed interpretation. Until recently, it was better justified when its representation of the world was closer to reality. In the modern world, as the art is increasingly being seen as a personal statement, rather than an objective photocopy of the world, the judging criteria shifted from its closeness to the reality to its closeness to the artist.

The problem is, she contests, that all the justification/interpretation of art are concerned only with the content, not the form. We have so much vocabulary to talk about what it could mean, but so little to describe how it looks, how it sounds, how it feels, and how it reads. The forcible attribution of meaning to the content of art is, in today's society, a device to tame the art, which is inherently dangerous in its ability to disrupt the lukewarm convention of the world. Good art disturbs us. It often disturbs us more when we don't know what it means, nor why we feel disturbed. This, Sontag argues, is the true value of art, and attempts to interpret a piece of art within an easy, ready-made, comfortable framework is a destruction of this valuable force. What we need now is the vocabulary to talk about the form, and less selfish decyfering of the content, she concludes.

Until the very end, "The balloon" seems to be an homage to this post-modern idea of defying interpretation. The narrator mocks the people's awkward attempts to "interpret" the giant gray balloon, which, one day, suddenly appeared above the city of New York, covering the sky from the fourteen street to the Central Park.

There were reactions. Some people found the balloon "interesting." As a response this seemed inadequate to the immensity of the balloon, the suddenness of its appearance over the city [...]. There was a certain amount of initial argumentation about the "meaning" of the balloon; this subsided, because we have learned not to insist on meanings, and they are rarely even looked for now, except in cases involving the simplest, safest phenomena.

Thus, people stopped inquiring the balloon's meaning and started to have fun with it. They "hung green and blue paper lanterns," "seized the occasion to write messages on the surface," and "daring children jumped" on it. The objective, scientific descriptions of the balloon and its construction process (yes, it was constructed), along with this sarcastically journalistic portrayal of people's reactions, seem to be in harmony with Sontag's call for the precise vocabulary to describe the form of art. All point to his ostensible experiment with the possibility of post-modern appreciation of art. Then comes the big flip.

"The balloon [...] is a spontaneous autobiographical disclosure, having to do with the unease I felt at [his lover's] absence, and with sexual deprivation," the narrator reveals at the end, as he embrace his love back in his arms. The balloon was nothing but a (strange) embodiment of his longing for his lover, who happened to be on trip in Bergen, of all the places. At this, all the full-blown, pseudo-scientific, big-worded descriptions of the balloon deflates. Now the artist (the narrator, who erected the giant balloon) gives away its meaning. And it is so miniscule and insignificant, compared to the speculations made about its possible meaning, yet it is so human, lovable, and convincing.

Instead of denying the meaning to the object, Barthelme gives it an indisputable meaning, which is so "insignificant" in the business of the world (Just one man's sexual frustration and longing for his love! What could be more insignificant?). We are inclined to, or even bound to, meaning and interpretation, however miniscule it may be. Thus, the story becomes a satire of the post-modern attempts to escape the meaning. As a pleasing sidenote, the narrator concludes the story: "removal of the balloon was easy; trailer trucks carried away the depleted fabric, which is now stored in West Virginia, awaiting some other time of unhappiness" with yet another excessive specificity. (Why West Virginia? Why?)

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Symptoms of "Symptoms of Literature (Bungaku no Choko)" by Tamaki Saito 書評:斎藤環『文学の徴候』

This is an English version of a review I posted on (not .com, mind you!).

Starved of Japanese novels and essays, I couldn't help checking out the Kinokuniya Japanese bookstore when I was in San Francisco. Located in a large mall of Japan-related stores called Japan Town, the bookstore was surprisingly large and boasted a decent selection of recent and classic titles. I was jealous--the Asahiya Japanese bookstore we have in Chicago is okay, but fades in the light of Kinokuniya, which is understandable, considering the scarce Japanese population here in Chicago. Anyway, I walked along the shelves after shelves of books, almost drooling, and jotted down some of the titles that caught my attention (so that I can ask my father to bring back some when he takes a business trip to Japan). One of the titles was "Symptoms of Literature." Written by a psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of social withdrawal (psychological disorder related to the difficulty with human relationship, found mostly among young Japanese male, which makes the patients impossible to leave the confinement of their own house/room), it seems to be an interesting analysis and critique of Japanese society through the channel of contemporary literature. Some of the authors mentioned in the book were my current favorite. My expectation soared.

When my father did go back to and came back from Japan, I naturally chose the book from the pile. A few chapters into the book, however, my expectation turned into burning frustration and bitter dissapointment. The most apparent symptom of the book is the arrogance of Tamaki Saito, the author, resulting in his laziness. The astronomical number of allusions to psychology, philosophy, criticism, and subculture (including criticism on subculture) were nothing more than confusing without Saito's effort to explain them, nor at least incorporating them into the context of his argument. Such arrogant dismissals as "I won't explain this here" and "I won't waste time pointing out its examples. So, only if you know what I'm talking about, read on" must have turned off most of the readers (well, I was). The fact that the essays were originally written for a literary magazine, whose readers can be expected to know a little more than the general public, does not excuse this extreme laziness on the Saito's part (and probably on the editor's part, as well). Not many people know as much as he does, and a good critic can educate the ignorant mass through his criticism, while engaging in a complicated manipulation of philosophical ideas.

The essays also suffer from the huge canon of themes disproportionate to their relatively short length. Saito attempts to show that the pathology of a given society is funneled into its literature through a device called author. In his argument, even when the author himself isn't psychologically ill, the psychological distortion and suffering of the society can materialize through the author in his works. The interaction of the society, the author, and the literary works is intrigueing. Yet, there is simply not enough room to fully explore the implications of Saito's view. (The frequent omissions of explanation mentioned above is also a result of this problem.) The limitation of the length of the essays also seems to have placed a cap on the thoroughness of the author's thought. Sometimes attacking his opponents' argument (without letting readers know exactly what was the point of controversy), other times wasting his ink and paper on some sidenotes, he never fully construct and explicate his thoughts. Enticing overview lacking in depth and elaboration is all that this book offers.

Readers are demanding. They are ignorant. They think they deserve a free, quick, concise summary of terms and ideas necessary to understand the whole essay. And they are, to some extent, entitled to it. Any author who fails to reach out for his readers, ignorant yet eager to know, is not a great author. And in this sense, Saito has a long way to go.

Monday, April 25, 2005

silence of the vaginas (oops)

Quite belatedly, I read "Vagina Monologues" by Eve Ensler. I wasn't too impressed, though--at least not as much as I thought I would be, according to the limited yet enthusiastic hail when it was translated and published in Japan.

(If you have read the book, you can skip this section. Hooray!) Ensler starts the book (thus her monologue performance) from the beginning of her interest in the word "vagina". She says that the word is burdened with so much attribution, from which "penis" is free. Most of us feel uncomfortable with the word. Yet, there is no appropriate alternative. So, she tries to free herself and the vagina from all the social and cultural attachment by simply saying the word out loud, repeatedly, obstinately. She interviews hundreds of women of all the stripes, morphs it into a monologue, and performs it in the mixture of anger and fervent welcome. There are two pieces made of one interview for each, a composite piece of several interviews, and several pieces of list of answers to a particular question she asked to many interviewees.

In general, the composite pieces are less effective than the non-composite ones. The lists of questions and answers do not seem to have any function beyond providing comic relief. (I mean, how am I supposed to answer such questions as "what would your vagina say if it could talk?" and "what would you dress your vagina with?") The two non-composite interview pieces, however, have a genuine power, less distorted by the interpretation by the author/performer. The first piece, about an elderly woman's 60-year-long sexual alienation ever since her accidental "flooding" in a brand-new Chevrolet of her date, vividly converys the image of the lady, letting us intimately connect with her sexual experience (or sexual non-experience) beyond the wall of individual experience. The second piece, a testimony of a young Bosnian woman who was brutally (very, very brutally) raped during the conflict, is striking in a different way. It lets us almost feel the physical existence of the rapist/rapists on/in our bodies, along with the visceral fear and disgust it invokes, possibly in a very similar way in which many rape victims suffers flashbacks of the victimization. The authenticity glows in these two pieces, and it trully enables us to connect with other women's sexual (vaginal, as the author might want to put it) experiences.

The pieces created by blending the accounts of the interviewees, which, according to the author, had enough in common to be simmered down to one generalized account, fade in the light of the non-composite ones. The resonance created by the voices of women is surely interesting. Nevertheless, by reducing their stories into a few lines that she found interesting or in harmony with other excerpts, the author stripped away the depth, complication, and authenticity from the sexual identity of the women interviewed. Taken out of context of each woman's life and mingled together with those of other women's to form what the author thinks is a collective voice of women, their stories became a vehicle to express the author's opinion on the matter, not the individual woman's.

The violence of generalizaition is most evident in a piece in which several women (again as one) speak of their liberating experiences in a vagina workshop. Their exhilaration at the liberation, joy of self-discovery, and the unlimited gratitude to the woman who leads the workshop are probably legitimate. Yet, the excited ferver is alienating to anyone who does not already share the almost cultish praise of the vagina as the ultimate "source of the self, spirituarity, and inspiration," which the author seems to agree to. Attaching new (and rather heated) meaning to the female sexual organs only replaces their negative connotations, and therefore doesn't grant them the freedom from any meanings, which most of the other parts of our body enjoy. (Hey, it's only an organ. Did you remember that?) Moreover, zealous march toward a single good to everyone is obsolete in principle and ineffective in practice in a society where diversity is embraced.

I probably should have seen her perform the monologue, rather than just read the script/book, to do her work justice. However, the trumpetting of the spirituality of the vagina as something universal definitely turned me off. For all its good intentions, "Vagina Monologues" functions as yet another cultural device to incarcerate the vagina in an entangled prison of meanings. Even though it is probably a valuable attempt as a compiled testimonies to counter the neglect and denial of the vaginas, its gesture of quasi-religious collectiveness of women through their vaginas (!) subjects it to suspicion and alianation.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

lack of pink-headed boys in Japanese schools

You have a disability that really shows. But you don't want your disability to be your label. What would you do?

"Dye your hair neon-pink!" was the solution an eleven-year-old boy came up with. He has some sort of born defect that keeps him in and out of hospital all the time. He didn't want his schoolmates to be refering to him as "that kid with the bone disease," so he decided to dye his hair neon-pink, so that he'll be "the kid with pink hair." When I heard this story on the Tribune radio 720 a few days ago, I couldn't help exclaiming Wow! to myself. He's so cool! And what a mature idea he has about labeling people... Apparently the radio hosts also felt the same way; one of them even said to the mother of the boy, who called in "I like him! He's cool!"

My thought then floated across time and distance, to my school days in Japan. In my middle school, there was a boy who lost all his hair to some medication he needed to take for his bad ear disease. On our first day in the middle school, after the stupid entrance ceremony, a teacher solemnly went up to the podium and said she had a special announcement to make. Then she motioned to someone who was apparently hiding behind the stage curtain. Seeing that someone not come out, she took confident strides to the slightly vacillating curtain, and almost dragged out a pudgy boy with a white cap. It was obvious that he was crying. We wondered what was wrong. She went back to the podium with the sobbing boy, let them stand beside her, made the boy take off his cap to expose his bald head, and started to explain why he didn’t have hair, which, up until then, none of us noticed. She made him turn sideways to show a big white patch plastered onto his left ear, illustrating her point. She told us to be “friendly” with him. Then she tried to make the boy talk, in front of the entire class of us. With the sight of 400 heads, black with abundant supply of healthy hair, he couldn’t help choking.

I imagine his concerned parents asked the school to introduce him to his peer students, to reduce his initial difficulty. But obviously it was not his wish. Moreover, the “introduction” eternally stigmatized him as “the hairless kid who wept on the stage” until we graduated from the middle school, if not for longer. The teacher’s benevolent, slightly histrionic performance on the stage, as if telling the boy this was a trial he needed to stand up against, further emphasized his label as a poor kid who courageously fights his scary disease and resulting discrimination, thus building a high wall of ready-made interpretation between him and his potential friends at the middle school.

His white cap was, though nobody else wore one, a part of our school uniform. It was nothing but an awkward cap with no decoration, which nobody would imagine wearing as a fashion statement. That too, added to his misery.

In most Japanese schools, especially in middle schools, expressions of personality through external appearance are very limited, in order to “create the environment most appropriate for the age group to concentrate on what they need to concentrate on,” according to the school officials. Students wear uniforms (there are uniform for physical education as well), colors of shoes and outer coats are limited to one or two, there are designated book bags, and dyed hair is strictly prohibited along with piercing, make-up, and so forth. In fact, until about a decade ago, even the length of hair was determined by the schools. In such an environment, the solution of the eleven-year-old boy that I cited at the beginning is denied from the start. The more the schools enforce the uniform appearance of their students, the more the (unavoidable, often unwanted) difference stands out, like a parsnip in a thousand carrots. (My hometown was known for its carrot production.)

I personally do not want all the thirteen-year-olds to wear make-up, have three pierce holes on their ears and one in their belly button. But these stiff regulations of expressions could be suffocating. They could crush the sprouting buds of identity and creative self-presentation. There must be problems inherent in the American-style education. But, isn’t it fun to have some cool boys like that in schools?

Monday, April 18, 2005

spring stroll

I'm not writing as much as I would like, or rather, I should be... For one thing, now that spring is here, after a long gray winter, it is hard not to go outside and wander around among the sprouting buds of the forest and through the colorful displays of stores in the city. Plus, I have a boyfriend who is very adept at finding interesting events to go and addictive sci-fi/anime shows to watch. It is quite disastrous. Yes, it is.

So here are some harvests from my stroll along the abandoned railroad behind my house and a small forest next to it.
black fireworks
It is certainly strange to start a topic of spring with a picture of a dead, dried-up hemlock from last summer. A shadow of it, to make matters worse. Yet, I was totally fascinated by the symmetrical image it casted on the rusty rail. So, so be it.

blue gazes
I didn't realize that the forest next to the railroad was literally covered with wild flowers of all sorts until I walked into it the other day. Last spring, my mother was in a hospital and I was too busy to do anything other than absolute necessity. The spring before, and all the springs before, on that matter, I was not even here. So, this spring is virtually the first one I enjoy to the full in Chicago.

Probably a child picked this blue squill, lost interest (just the way a child is supposed to be), and discarded it carelessly on the decaying crossbeam in the woods. The fading blue of the flowers and the pale yellow green of the stem and the fruits created an inadvertent beauty against the rugged, dry brown of the log.

unidentified shiny objects
A part of the ground was thickly covered with this plant, which I haven't been able to correctly identify. The yellow petals had strangely plasticky shine to them, making them look like fake flowers often found in rural bathrooms.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

editor's agony (hah)

In my creative writing class, we are attacking our third assignment--creative nonfiction. For those who aren't familiar with the term, creative nonfiction refers to the genre that includes memoir, personal essays, nature writing, biography, historic nonfiction, and so forth. We have completed our first draft, and are currently critiqueing our peers' drafts. And, oh, boy, they're bad. Their memoirs/personal essays are all worse than their poetry or their fiction: even the girl whose short story was quite a delight to read, wrote a memoir of a significantly lower quality. Many others are sheer torture to read through, much less to come up with what is called a "constructive criticism," which I didn't find too difficult (or boring) in the cases of poetry and fiction. I'm wondering why--why are the creative nonfictions by the same people are considerably lower in quality, compared to their fictious writings?

Tentatively, they seem to be suffering from two opposite problems.

a) Lack of coherence.
Some essays just meander through their authors' lives, without allocating much attention to the details or the significance of each event. Hence, they end up being a lengthy, boring resume of their lives, not a vivid snapshot of a specific period. When I discuss their works in a peer workshop today, I'll have to watch my mouth lest it say "I'm not a psychiatrist or a recruiter. I have no interest in your life unless you present it in an engaging fashion."

b) "Now I know better. I've grown up" syndrome.
The ones that have coherence tend to have too much of it, or to state it too explicitly. One essay ponders on whether a horrible accident that happened to the author's little sister was a will of God or not. The thought, however legitimate it might be, is not well integrated into the entire essay. It is as if the author felt the necessity to label her experience with an easy-to-understand meaning, and hastily attached the God question to it. Another essay reflects upon the auhor's awkward high school days. Aside from the meandering problem, her essay suffers from the author's contempt on her "older self," making her sound preachy. "I was weird and had hard time blending in, for such and such reasons, but looking back, I should have known better" keeps coming back again and again, banning the readers to sympathize with the personality described in the essay. To make matters worse, the more the writer tries to distinguish who she is now from who she used to be, the moer it becomes clear that she still is the same, at the root, as what she likes to think she has gotten over with. It is sad.

It seems that the American essay education is taking its toll here. Because of the emphasis they place on the clear and identifiable thesis statement in (non-creative) essays in high schools and colleges, student writers are feeling compelled to bluntly present one in their creative essays. Their essays are like an unfortunate chimera of a formal essay and a personal journal. I'm sorry for our teacher, who has to read about twenty of them, and has to find ways to salvage the unsalvageables.

After writing this, though, I'm still not convinced as to why the essays were so much worse. Lack of perspective, nonexistent unifying idea, excessive explication... they seem to be only a part of a larger problem. What could that be...

Thursday, April 07, 2005

somewhere in Oregon, close to the Ocean

...there is a tarn where the entire universe is reproduced and preserved...
illusory bent
A minute after I took this photo, thick gray cloud started to pour the severe rain, momentarily disturbing the tranquility of the surface. We ran to the car and drove off.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

treasure hunting in tidal pools

feather in tidal pool

While I was in Oregon two weeks ago, I fell in love with tidal pools. It's such a fun to look for small creatures with strange shape and wonderfully psychedelic colors in them! At first you might not see anything at all in tidal pools, but after a while, when your eyes know what to look for, you realize that the pools are literally filled with tiny creatures, busily moving around and dreamily bubbling. And the hunt is always rewarding. This feather, barely submerged in the retreating sea water, is my favorite finding at Yaquina Head State Park.

Monday, April 04, 2005

myth of literature--what the fugitive poet Jacob Jameson reveals to us

A couple of days ago (of course, before the dying pope started to dominate all the newsmedias, that is), there was an intriguing article on Chicago Tribune about a murderer-fugitive-poet who was recently found out and arrested. Norman Porter Jr. was involved in an armed robbery in the '60s, and was serving a life in Massachusettes when he successfully escaped after killing one of the prison guards in the '80s. He headed for Chicago, with which he had familiarized himself through the works of Nelson Algren while still in jail. He picked his pseudonym Jacob "J. J." Jameson from a random page of a phonebook. Once settled, he wrote poetry between his numerous odd jobs, and gradually became a "fixture of the city's poetry scene" (quote from the Tribune). He even had a collection of poetry published in 1999. Until his arrest some 20 years later, none of his friends, including the publisher of the aforementioned book, suspected him. David Gecic, the publisher and his close friend, expressed his shock and disbelief to the reporter. "I just need reassurance that he [Jameson/Porter] is in some way the guy I knew."

I haven't had the chance to read his works so far, which quite frustrates me, but judging from the article, his petry seemed to have been genuine in that it had the power to connect with his readers and eventually move them in some way. It casts an interesting light on the often simplified relationship between truthfulness in literature and truthfulness in life. In creative writing classes, it is often emphasized that one of the best and easiest way to bring authenticity to one's literary work is to drow from one's own experience. It is probably true, to a large extent, with notable exceptions of great writers of imagination. After all, our own life is what's closest to us, waiting for examination. It is true that the internal urge to clarify the meaning of what happened to us and what we did is quite often the strongest drive to write.

The case of Jacob Jameson gives a twist to this notion. Being a fugitive, he was deprived of the possibility to write about what probably was one of the most defining event of his life. Concealing the past inherently leads to concealing the certain aspects of the present--for instance, he couldn't write about leading a life half made of lies, except for in a very figurative or euphemistic manner. Not that it is impoossible to transform the robbery, the murder, and the fugitive life behind a false persona into something similar and still keep the authentic essence of the experience and emotion. But a mere hint could always lead to questions from his literary friends and readers, which I would imagine he wanted to avoid at all cost. It is true that these incidents shouldn't be The Only subject of his poetry, but being unable to write about them must have substantially crippled his literary exploration. Yet, he managed to produce poetry with genuine power to connect with people--or was he just a verbal entertainer?

We all hide some things when we write. But how can one be a genuine poet when practical considerations make it unable for them to draw from the most significant, most profound experience of one's life? I know how it feels to be vacillating between the urge to spit it out and the disabling sense of fear and shame that harnesses the urge. Still, I write. I write about things I can write about and share, feeling that, in a sense, these are a mere extention of my life with deception and cover-ups. I wonder if Jacob Jameson felt the same urge, if he ever wrote about his "real" past and kept it for himself, if he secretly despised his publicly appreciated works.

The only way for me to fathom is to read his poetry. I hope I will find them one of these days.