In my freshman seminar on travel literature this past Thursday, we were discussing Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. We talked about the complexity of certain phrases or images in the book, how they take on multiple, often contradictory, meanings as the narrative progresses. For example, we looked at the meanings assigned to the Mississippi River, which Sal and Dean cross several times during the course of their travels. It is positioned simultaneously as that which both links and divides East from West in the spiritual and cultural geography of the book.
Then yesterday I was on an airplane flying from Chicago to Minneapolis. For a paper I’m writing on early Cold War culture, I was re-reading Lionel Trilling’s classic 1950 study of American literature, The Liberal Imagination. In his chapter on Mark Twain, he writes about the Mississippi, about how its brown, muddy presence functioned as something god-like in Twain’s imagination, a divine and sometimes vengeful presence that embodied the pure, natural power that Twain believed ruled in America prior to the high capitalism and corrupting influence of money that held sway after the Civil War. The antebellum Mississippi, Trilling writes, was a road that moved you, one that would crush you if you weren’t properly respectful of it.
As I was reading Trilling, the pilot announced that we were beginning our descent into Minneapolis-St. Paul. I looked up from my book to glance out the window and there it was: the Mississippi River. Of course it was white, flat and immobile now, a snowy ribbon twisting its way across southern Minnesota.
I’m up in Minnesota because we’re in the process of selling my mother’s house. It’s a trip full of various emotions. I write these words in the kitchen of the place I’ve called “home” since 1969, but it’s the last time I’ll be here. When we first moved in back when I was a third grader, we discovered to our delight that we were within walking distance of the Mississippi. As a grade schooler, I used to hike down to collect fossils from the limestone banks above the water. As a high school and college student, I used to pass evenings with friends down at the river’s edge, building bonfires and watching the barges slowly drift past. More recently, I’ve taken my own children with their grandparents down to the waterfront for picnics and to skip rocks across the river surface.
Change is bad. Luckily, the Mississippi has figured out a way around all of that.
Everyone is doing it these days, it seems. Yoko Ono has reunited the Plastic Ono Band. Minnesota punk-funk-rock legends The Suburbs got back together last weekend for a show in honor of their guitarist, Bruce Allen, who passed away late last year. Stew and Heidi, late of The Negro Problem and the musical Passing Strange, have a new show up this week that’s all about breaking up. Anzen Chitai, the kings of 1980s Japanese soft-rock, have likewise announced an upcoming reunion tour.
Everybody’s doing it, it seems….except of course for The Kinks. But at least now we have a new documentary feature film that explains, after a fashion, why that isn’t happening. Do It Again: One Man’s Quest to Reunite the Kinks had its world premiere last month at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Directed by Robert Patton-Spruill, the film follows the quixotic journey of Boston reporter Geoff Edgers, who is determined to bring Ray, Dave, Pete and Mick back together again. I haven’t seen it yet, but the film has been getting good reviews (e.g. here and here) and will be playing at a series of film festivals in the coming months (details available on the film’s website).
Below is the announcement for an event we’re pretty excited about here. The Independent newspaper (London) called Oe “the world’s greatest living novelist in any language.” I’ve just started reading his Suishi (Death by drowning, 2009)、which Oe says is likely to be his last full-length novel. It’s a compelling work in the vain of Natsukashii toshi e no tegami (Letters to a Sweet Bygone Year, 1987) or Jinsei no shinseki (An Echo of Heaven, 1989): an aging novelist travels back to his birthplace in rural Shikoku to confront his own familial and literary past, in this case in particular the life and death of his own father.
Here’s the announcement:
will return to the University of Chicago to deliver this
year’s Tetsuo Najita Distinguished Lecture. Ōe’s talk, “A
Novelist Re-Reads ‘Kaitokudō,’” will take place on Thursday,
March 4 at 4:00 p.m. in the International House Assembly Hall.
Ōe will speak in Japanese, with English translation provided
by Norma Field, Robert S. Ingersoll Distinguished Service
Professor in Japanese Studies.
Born in 1935 in rural Shikoku, Ōe is one of modern Japan’s
most respected novelists and public intellectuals. He began
publishing fiction while still a university student and in
1958 was awarded the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prestigious
literary award. Since, he has published many celebrated
novels and stories, including A Personal Matter (1964), The
Silent Cry (1967), Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (1969), The
Pinch Runner Memorandum (1976), and Somersault (1999). His
most recent novel, Suishi (Death by Drowning), was published
in Japan to great acclaim in late 2009. His works have been
translated into many languages, and in 1994 he became the
second Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In addition to his fiction, Ōe has throughout his career
provided a model for the engaged intellectual. He has written
widely on the dangers of nuclear proliferation, on Japan’s
history of military aggression, and in defense of Article 9,
the peace clause of Japan’s postwar constitution. Recently,
Ōe successfully defended himself in a highly publicized libel
case brought against him by the families of two Japanese
wartime military officers who claimed that Ōe’s 1970 book
Okinawa Notes had exaggerated the role of the military in mass
civilian suicides in Okinawa during the closing months of
World War Two, with the judges in the case declaring that his
book had accurately depicted the events in question.
Ōe previously visited the University of Chicago as a visiting
scholar in the 1980s and the 1990s. During those earlier
visits, he became acquainted with Tetsuo Najita, Robert S.
Ingersoll Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History
and of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and Ōe has
written recently about the impact that Najita’s writings have
had on his own work. In his lecture, Ōe will discuss the
contemporary relevance of Najita’s approach to intellectual
history, including Najita’s Visions of Virtue in Tokugawa
Japan: The Kaitokudō Merchant Academy of Osaka (1997), a
landmark study of the rise of an independent school of
economic and moral philosophy in eighteenth-century Japan.
The Tetsuo Najita Distinguished Lecture series was launched in
2007 by the University of Chicago Committee on Japanese
Studies at the Center for East Asian Studies to honor the
legacy of Najita’s contribution to the university during his
Ōe’s lecture is free and open to the public. It is sponsored
by the Committee on Japanese Studies of the Center for East
Former yokozuna Akebono performs Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” in this commercial for the Japanese re-broadcast of the “Glee” television series. I don’t know about you, but I stopped believing about ten seconds into the thing….
It must have been 1998 or thereabouts. Walter was 7 and Sonia was 2, and we were living in Los Angeles. One winter Sunday morning, we got up early and drove down to Anaheim, timing it so we arrived at Disneyland just as the park opened. The thought, of course, was to beat the crowds.
We rush in through the entrance gate and there is no one, I mean NO ONE, there. I tell the kids, quick, let’s jump onto as many rides we can before the long waiting lines form. I don’t care what rides: just anything, while there is no waiting. Without thinking, we rush into the Peter Pan attraction. It isn’t a good choice: we end up riding through the dark with mechanical pirates popping up and threatening to attack us. Sonia breaks down into hysterical wailing. Even big brother Walter is a little shaken up. Who would have thought a Peter Pan ride could be so intense?
After that, Sonia is leery of any rides. It takes a good deal of coaxing and persuading, but we get her to ride the spinning teacups, the flying Dumbos, and one or two others. And then I think: “It’s A Small World.” What could be safer?
By now the park is pretty crowded. We have to stand in line at “It’s A Small World” for maybe twenty, thirty minutes. All the while, I’m telling Sonia how much she’s going to like this one. Finally, we get into the little boat. We start moving forward through the channel, slow and gentle. Everything’s fine. But then we enter into a dark room. Sonia tenses up. Next we turn the corner and are suddenly surrounded on all sides by hundreds of little horrific dolls, all singing in diabolic voices, “It’s a small word after all…,” all of them swiveling in this robotic jerky back-and-forth movement. Sonia screams in terror for the rest of the ride, completely inconsolable.
I’ve learned this week that Sonia isn’t the only one to get freaked out about “It’s A Small World.” Greg Kot in the Chicago Tribune interviewed rising UK singer Ebony Bones this week. He asks about her striking look, and she describes her style as being like “a dark Disney ride.” Kot pursues this issue further:
Did she ever experience a dark Disney ride?
“Absolutely! My parents took me when I was 9 and it was vile. I hated it. The ‘It’s a Small World’ ride terrified me: All these kids from strange countries staring at me. I wanted to jump off the ride.”
I don’t know if St. Vincent had any bad Disney experiences while growing up. She seems pretty well adjusted. Anyhow, I really like what she does to the Beatles’ “Dig a Pony.”
The great Monogolian yokozuna Asashoryu has announced his retirement. Just a week after his victory in the New Years tournament gave him his 25th title and third place on the career championship record list, he stepped down to take responsibility for an ugly, but still murky, incident that took place on the sixth day of the tournament, when he got into a late-night drunken brawl that is the subject of an ongoing police investigation.
It’s an incredibly sad moment for this sumo fan. Asashoryu at his prime was one of the two or three greatest sumo wrestlers ever, combining astonishing technique with a terrifying determination to win. The look in his eyes just before a match, especially a match against a difficult opponent, was something fierce. He was also, however, always daunted by internal demons and seems to have been battling depression for the last few years, though it has never been announced as such. On top of that was the extra pressures he faced as a foreign sumo wrestler: he became the sumo wrestler the tabloids loved to hate. Early on in his career, he was able to transform that hostility into a source of energy, but lately it seems only to have worn him down.
He was clearly past his peak, and yet he is only 29 and his victory in the most recent tournament demonstrated that he still had some terrific sumo left in him. It’s an awful waste. Moreover, do you know how boring sumo is going to be without him? In terms of talent, personality, and charisma, none of the other wrestlers can touch him. So long, Asashoryu, and thanks for a truly thrilling ride over the past decade.
Over at The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus this week, they have a set of excellent new translations by Roger Pulvers of tanka poems by the one and only Yosano Akiko (1878-1942). Akiko broke all the rules of decorum when she began publishing her passionate, disorderly poems in the first decade of the twentieth century, and she is still capable of astonishing readers today. Here’s a sample, but by all means check out the whole collection:
I snap off wild roses
Grasp them, put them in my hair…
I am weary of waiting in the field
According to the BBC, they fine you there if you lip-synch in concert. Besides, according to the article, you need a license to be a pop singer in China. It’s hopeless for me.