Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

A Very Short Story

Posted in Fiction by bourdaghs on the October 26th, 2016
  • “The Day Gordon MacRae Died”

    Oh, what a beautiful morning. I’ve spilled coffee all down the front of my white shirt. It’s an enormous stain the shape of Oklahoma—tipped on its ass, panhandle up. And it’s time to step up to that microphone, expose my soiled garment, respond wittily to three unwitting panelists. Surrey, surrey with your fringe on top: get me out of here. Now.


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    Marxist Theory and Practice from Japan

    Posted in Fiction,Japanese literature by bourdaghs on the August 26th, 2016

    One welcome trend of recent years in my field is the wave of new translations that finally make available to English-language readers the history of Marxist and anarchist culture in modern Japan. With a few notable exceptions, Japan’s long and remarkable traditions of proletarian literature, leftist cultural activism, and Marxist philosophy were largely ignored by Japan Studies specialists.

    In part, this was a matter of scholars and translators’ personal preferences. But it was also a structural bias: as a Cold War form, Japan Studies arose as part of an ideological campaign to situate Japan as a poster-boy for successful modernization without revolution. The ‘Japan’ that this discourse created as its object was inherently adverse to Marxism, and any Japanese writer who partook of it was by definition inauthentic.

    This tendency generated a distorted canon of modern Japanese literature and thought that is only now being rectified. One of the most important new publications is For Dignity, Justice, and Revolution: An Anthology of Japanese Proletarian Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2015), a remarkably ambitious anthology edited by Norma Field and Heather Bowen-Struyk. It includes a wide range of pieces, including fiction, essays, and children’s literature.
    Combined with Zeljko Cipris’s recent translations of Kuroshima Denji, Kobayashi Takiji and others, the sampling of Japanese proletarian literature available in English has expanded enormously.

    On top of that, the past several years have brought new English-language versions of the work of a number of Marxist literary and social theorists. Tosaka Jun: A Critical Reader (Cornell East Asia Series, 2013), edited by Ken C. Kawashima, Fabian Schaefer, and Robert Stolz, includes a number of essays and excerpts from one of the most interesting Marxist theorists active anywhere in the first half of the twentieth century. Abe Kobo has long been familiar to Western readers as a writer of surreal existentialist fiction, but his career as a cultural theorist for the Japan Communist Party has always been underplayed–until now, with the publication of The Frontier Within: Essays by Abe Kōbō (Columbia University Press, 2013), edited and translated by Richard F. Calichman.
    Abe Kobo
    More translations are in the pipeline, too: a collection of essays from the early postwar “Politics and Literature” debate should be out from Lexington Books next year, while other scholars are working on new translations of seminal theorist Uno Kozo. I’ve made my own modest contributions to this new tendency: my translation of Karatani Kojin’s The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange (Duke University Press, 2014) presented the author’s most ambitious attempt to rethink Marxist theory in tandem with anarchism (more English translations of Karatani’s works are also forthcoming), and I tried my hand at one of Kuroshima Denji’s early proletarian literature short stories.

    The way we in the Anglophone world study Japanese literature is changing and as a result the object of our studies is acquiring new layers and angles. The exotic and apolitical Japanese literature generated during the Cold War is being supplemented with something new that is actually something old. And this something old may well end up contributing something else that is new, as we struggle around the globe to figure out what comes after the failed doctrine of neo-liberalism.

    New fiction: “When a Derelict Angel Speaks”

    Posted in Fiction,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the December 29th, 2015
  • My short story “When a Derelict Angel Speaks” has just appeared in Valparaiso Fiction Review, Vol. 5, No. 1. Enjoy!

  • When a Derelict Angel Speaks
  • Michael Bourdaghs

    It takes a second for Steve’s head to clear. He squints at the alarm clock on Cheryl’s side of the bed; 2:17 a.m., its glowing red digits proclaim. The chirping noise that woke him, he realizes, is the bedroom telephone, but Steve hesitates. Should he answer? Once upon a time, late-night phone calls promised excitement. Back then, a telephone ringing after midnight might have meant friends insisting he join them for a nightcap, or an old girlfriend feeling lonely. But now Steve has turned forty, gotten married, become a father. He’s acquired a mortgage and a cocker spaniel, and as a result the realm of possibilities fornocturnal calls has dwindled. The phone ringing now is either a wrong number or a death in the family.

    Then again, it might be Kurt. In fact, probably it’s Kurt: a ghost floating outside the gravitational field of ordinary clock time.

    (Continue reading here)

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    My Viennese Summer

    Posted in Art,Books,Classical,Fiction,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the September 28th, 2013

    I hope that you had a good summer, wherever and however you spent it. Classes at UChicago start Monday, so let me try to recap my own summer. For me, 2013 was the summer of Vienna, in imagination and reality.

    The July 31 free concert by the Grant Park Orchestra in Millennium Park helped get things started. The program consisted of a single piece: the rarely performed Symphony No. 2 by Viennese composer Antonio Bruckner. It’s a delightfully sweet composition, especially in the slow movement, and the performance on a fine summer evening captured it quite gracefully. Mentally I was already walking alongside the Danube, the Blue Danube.

    Around the same time, I began my background reading: two fine cultural histories of Vienna: Frederic Morton’s A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889 (1980) and Carl E. Schorske’s Fin–de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1980). From there, I moved onto Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday (1942), an elegiac memoir of the novelist’s life in Vienna that he completed in exile in South America, the day before he committed suicide. I also read Vienna Idylls, a collection of short stories by Arthur Schnitzler. It’s easy to understand why Freud loved Schnitzler: his fiction throbs with repressed desires and unspoken impulses. His characters say one thing, but clearly mean something entirely different. They think they desire one object, but obviously covet the exact opposite. Modernity in a nutshell.

    On the morning of August 6, we arrived at the airport in Vienna, took the express train into the city and then the subway to Graben. The moment we emerged at the top of the escalator from the Stephansplatz underground and into the ancient plaza was stunning–as was the heat. We checked into our hotel and began a dazed four-day visit. The highlights for me were visiting Berggasse 19–the apartment where Sigmund Freud lived and worked from 1891 until 1938, when he went into exile after the Nazis took over Austria–and the Prater amusement park, home of the famous Ferris wheel. I’ve always loved carnivals and fairs (a few weeks after Vienna we made our annual pilgrimage to the Minnesota State Fair), and I especially liked Prater because it was the only time during our visit to Austria that we mingled with working class, immigrants, teen-agers: ordinary folks, out like us for a good time on a pleasant summer night.

    Another highlight was the Secession museum, where we spent half an hour in the company of Klimt’s Beethoven freize.
    The Secession was also hosting an exhibit of the work of Thomas Locher, inspired by Jacques Derrida’s writings on Mauss and the gift–which have been enormously influential on my own scholarship. We had to rush through that exhibit, though, as the museum was closing. After exiting we wandered through the outdoor night market that lies just outside the museum.

    In the two months since we returned from Vienna, I find myself stumbling into references to Vienna everywhere. Summer’s gone, but I’m still walking alongside the Danube.

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    New Fiction: “In My Room (Ganz Allein)”

    Posted in Fiction,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the September 20th, 2013

    My novelette (longer than a short story, shorter than a novella) “In My Room (Ganz Allein)” has just been published by Eunoia Review. It’s an online literary journal based in Singapore that presents a new piece of creative writing every day.

    The title is a Beach Boys’ allusion made in two different languages. You’ll see why if you read on. Enjoy!

        “In My Room (Ganz Allein)”
            For Wilfred

    You need the softest touch to open the door to Ken’s apartment. If you don’t hold the key just right it jams in the lock—and then you’re screwed. This afternoon Tokyo is one colossal steam bath. Ken’s hands are greased over with sweat, and the plastic keychain, a souvenir from Thailand, keeps slipping in his fingers. After a wearied day teaching English conversation, he just wants inside. He starts to panic, like a refugee halted at a border crossing. But this little story delivers a happy ending: at last, he gets the key exactly right. He rotates it ever so gently, feels the tumblers click into place and the lock spring open. Ken should call his landlord about getting the lock fixed, but the thought of explaining it all in Japanese is more than he can handle.

    He slips off his black dress shoes in the entryway. A large cockroach buzzes past his nose; in Japan they have wings, kamikaze roaches. But Ken is beyond caring. He disregards the insect. From outside his balcony window, he can hear the cicadas chant their horny mating call: meen meen meen. Carry on, ye wingèd vermin of the East.

    He clicks on the air conditioner and flops down at his little kitchen table. Leaning forward so his sweaty shirt won’t stick to the chair, he glances at the morning’s Japan Times, wilted across the tabletop. A photo of Ronald Reagan holds down the front page. Behind the wrinkly president stand Senator Daniel Inouye and a dozen other aging Japanese-Americans. Reagan is smiling as if he were actually pleased to sign the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the official apology for the wartime internment camps.

    (Read the rest here on Eunoia Review’s website)

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    Revisiting Dodsworth

    Posted in Books,Change is Bad,Fiction,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the June 17th, 2012

    My father was raised in Minnesota during the 1940s and 50s. This predated the rediscovery of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and so Sinclair Lewis, winner of the 1930 Nobel Prize for Literature, was the celebrated hometown author. I remember visiting Lewis’s boyhood home in Sauk Centre during a family vacation in the late 1960s and I can vividly picture the squat pocket-sized editions of Lewis’s novels in Dad’s bookshelf: Babbit, Main Street, Elmer Gantry, Arrowsmith, Ann Vickers….

    I read them all as a teenager. I was particularly struck then by Dodsworth (1929). It was likely the very first rendition of the jaded-American-reawakens-in-Europe plot I ever encountered, and it seemed quite brilliant to me at the time.

    Sinclair Lewis’s stock has fallen considerably in the last few decades. It had been many years since I read him, but this summer I picked up (more precisely, downloaded) a copy of Dodsworth. I returned to it after this long absence with a sense of curiosity: would it still speak to me as powerfully as it did when I was sixteen?

    The answer: yes. The novel feels dated in places. There is a misogynistic tinge to the portrayal of Fran, Dodsworth’s narcissistic wife, and there is some gay-bashing and some discomfiting ethnic stereotypes–though not as cringe-inspiring as in many other works from the period.

    But the novel also includes much deft, sly writing–not something I usually associate with Lewis. Here is his description of Sam Dodsworth’s first encounter with the woman who will become his wife, at a party in 1903:

    If she was an angel, the girl at whom Sam was pointing, she was an angel of ice: slim, shining, ash-blonde, her self-possessed voice very cool as she parried the complimentary teasing of half a dozen admirers; a crystal candle-stick of a girl among black-and-white lumps of males.

    What really strikes me, though, is Lewis’s portrayal of his hero Dodsworth, a type of man that Lewis must have despised.

    Samuel Dodsworth was, perfectly, the American Captain of Industry, believing in the Republican Party, high tariff, and so long as they did not annoy him personally, in prohibition and the Episcopal Church. He was the president of the Revelation Motor Company; he was a millionaire, though decidedly not a multimillionaire; his large house was on Ridge Crest, the most fashionable street in Zenith; he had some taste in etchings; he did not split many infinitives; and he sometimes enjoyed Beethoven. He would certainly (so the observer assumed) produce excellent motor cars; he would make impressive speeches to the salesmen; but he would never love passionately, lose tragically, nor sit in contented idleness upon tropic shores.

    The verb “to bully” appears repeatedly in the novel, usually with Dodsworth as its subject. We follow this unpromising personality, who “was extremely well trained, from his first days in Zenith High School, in not letting himself do anything so destructive as abstract thinking,” as he loses his position after selling his company and as he confronts his own utter loss of identity: “He had no longer the dignity of a craftsman. He made nothing; he meant nothing; he was no longer Samuel Dodsworth, but merely part of a crowd vigorously pushing one another toward nowhere.”

    We plumb the depths with Dodsworth and experience the despair of his middle-age crisis. We watch his marriage disintegrate. But then we gradually float back to the surface with him, as he reawakens to the joy and possibilities of life, thanks in large measure to the “contented idleness” he enjoys during a sojourn amidst the humane culture and earthy landscape of Naples. Lewis depicts Dodsworth’s decline and rise with remarkable sympathy, complexity, and good humor. We can’t help but like this Dodsworth, for all his bullheaded dundering.

    It is a novel, finally, about a bully’s redemption. How many of those do we have?

    The Current Reading List

    Posted in Books,Fiction,Japanese literature by bourdaghs on the March 20th, 2012

    George Eliot, Silas Marner (1861). My first time to read this since ninth grade English class with Mr. Sanborn. My vague memories of the story revolved around the child Eppie and her sunny influence on the title character; I was surprised to realize she doesn’t appear until halfway through the book. The seemingly realistic depictions of daily life in small-town England before the Industrial Revolution are charming–and the brief visit to a darkened factory city near the end suitably haunting. I’d like to sneak this onto the syllabus for a seminar I’m planning to teach next year on the philosophy of money and literature. Eppie’s angelic golden locks release Silas from his evil worship of gold, leading to (quite literally, the last line tells us) the happiest of possible endings.

    Kira Morio 北杜夫, Yurei: Aru yonen to seishun no monogatari_ 『幽霊・或る幼年と青春の物語』 (1954). Kita’s debut novel, a lyrical collage of fictional childhood memories. It has highly comical moments, but at other times is quite melancholic–death always hovers in the background. With hardly any plot to speak of, the charm comes primarily from polished depictions of a child’s sensibility. A passage early on about how the spines of books on the shelves in the father’s study seemed like faces looking down at the hero brought memories of my own childhood flooding back: I’d forgotten how vividly I could recall the books that sat on my own father’s shelves.

    Greg Robinson, After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Politics and Life (2012). Most histories of Japanese-American life focus on the wartime internment camps and the developments that led to them. Robinson’s welcome new study takes up the relatively unexplored question of what happened next. He traces the process of release from the camps, one driven by an ideology of “assimilation” that sought to prevent the reappearance of concentrated pockets of Japanese-American populations on the West Coast. (with the surprising result that Chicago briefly boasted the largest population of Japanese-Americans in the continental U.S.). He also provides very interesting material on the relations between postwar Japanese-Americans and other minority ethnic groups, in particular African-Americans and Mexican-Americans. Fascinating.

    Leela Gandhi, Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-de-Siecle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship (2006). A remarkable study of late nineteenth and early twentieth century nonconformist radical movements in Britain (vegetarianism, aestheticism, spiritualism and homosexuality, among others) as experiments in alternate, explicitly anti-imperial, forms of relationship–as, in other words, experiements in “friendship.” Since writing my dissertation on, among others, Upton Sinclair, I’ve had a strong interest in such movements in the U.S., and Gandhi’s insightful analysis finally helps me make sense of their specifically geopolitical stakes. I now see why The Jungle necessarily includes condemnations of the imperialist Russo-Japanese War alongside its more famous exposé of the horrors of meat-eating.

    The Current Reading List

    Posted in Books,Fiction,Uncategorized by bourdaghs on the February 3rd, 2012

    Ivan Turgenev, On the Eve (1860). One of my current reading projects is to catch up on Turgenev, whose work was enormously influential on Meiji Japan. This novel, for example, is cited repeatedly in Tayama Katai’s “Futon” (1907), a landmark in modern Japanese fiction. I can see the attraction On the Eve held for Japanese writers: the bold and beautiful heroine Elena, the lamentations over the weakness of Russian men (the hero is a foreigner, a dashing Bulgarian nationalist eager to die for his country), and the wry social commentary that dots the narrative. The story ends rather mysteriously, though there is a suggestion of hope in the air, as the work’s title suggests. I read the classic Constance Garnett translation, first published in the 1890s: it’s probably the same version that Tayama Katai knew.

    Rabindranath Tagore, The Home and the World (1916). Tagore’s another writer I’m catching up with, in part because I’m interested in reading him alongside his contemporary, Natsume Soseki. This one contains many Soseki-like themes: multiple narrating voices, a love triangle in which two men compete for the same woman, disputes over family property accompanied by fears of treachery and theft, with all of this personal drama played out against a social field of dramatic change and discontinuity. Tagore’s understanding of the double-edged erotics of nationalist passion is prescient: here, the desire for fraternity can shift registers in an instant to become bloodthirsty rage. The translation (by the author’s nephew, with close attention from Tagore himself) feels creaky in places, but that might say more about my limitations as a reader of Bengali fiction than it does about Tagore’s talents as a novelist. If you’re interested in this book, by the way, you should catch “Last Harvest: Paintings of Rabindranath Tagore,” a fine exhibit of Tagore’s visual art from the 1920s and 30s, on now at the Art Institute of Chicago through April 15, 2012.

    Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn (2010). My father died in late 2010; this was the last book he read. Frustrated for years by a brain injury that impaired his memory and mobility, Dad had a hard time following complicated narratives, but this epic novel of the Vietnam War cut straight through the cognitive fog to reawaken the passionate reader in my father. He devoured this repeatedly in the last months of his life and it was all he wanted to talk about. Dad had a lifelong connection to the military stretching from the late 1950s, when he enlisted as a teenager in the Minnesota National Guard and then the U.S. Army, to his retirement from the Veterans Administration in the late 1990s, where he counseled ex-soldiers suffering from PTSD. In other words, he’d lived his life alongside the sort of people depicted in the novel, even though Dad never served in Vietnam. I’m about halfway through the book now. In some ways a conventional war narrative (we accompany a heterogeneous group of soldiers through a series of increasingly dangerous missions, each member of the band representing a different socioeconomic, ethnic, and regional type), it is a gripping narrative, its impact aided by the knowledge that it is based on the author’s own experiences in the war.

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    The Current Reading List

    Posted in Books,Fiction,Japanese film,Japanese literature by bourdaghs on the December 28th, 2011

    A few things I’ve been reading as of late:

    Jim Harrison, True North (Grove Press, 2004). I’m a belated convert to Harrison’s fiction: I’ve known about him since a girlfriend in high school recommended him, but only started reading his work in the last few years. I inadvertently read Returning to Earth, the 2007 sequel to this, first and found myself mesmerized. So it was with high expectations that I picked this up–but I ended up mildly disappointed. It’s quite good, yes, but not at the level of Harrison’s best. Why? I guess I felt emotionally distant from the characters and from the whole notion of taking historical responsibility for one’s familial past. It’s a fine novel, but Harrison has produced more compelling work elsewhere.

    Kirino Natsuo 桐野夏生, OUT (Kodansha, 2002; two volumes). My first foray into the land of Kirino, though I did see the fine film adaptation of this novel a few years back. The suspenseful plot (will our heroines be arrested for their heinous crimes of murder and corpse dismemberment?) works well, but most of all I like the gritty details of contemporary life that Kirino captures better than her more “Literary” peers: what it feels like day after day to endure a shitty night-shift job and a dead-end family life. Despite the, uhm, moral shortcomings of all the major characters, this reader ended up kinda liking them as people.

    Steven Ridgely, Japanese Counterculture: The Antiestablishment Art of Terayama Shuji (University of Minnesota Press, 2010). An excellent study of one of the most fascinating figures from Japan’s 1960s, covering his work in poetry, sports writing, guerrilla theater performance and experimental film. Ridgely presents a sophisticated and highly readable study of the multiple ways in which Terayama creatively redrew the boundary between fiction and reality.

    How ’bout you? Read any good books lately?

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    Revisiting Natsume Sōseki’s Theory of Literature

    Posted in Books,Fiction,Japanese literature,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the December 27th, 2011

    Last week the University of Tokyo’s Center for Philosophy hosted a symposium on “Globalizing Natsume Sōseki’s Theory of Literature,” commemorating the publication of the English translation of Bungakuron (1907), Sōseki’s remarkable attempt to construct a fully scientific theory of “literature” complete with mathematical formulas and graphs, one that was supposed to be valid at all times and in all places.

    In her talk, Noami Mariko (University of Tokyo) spoke on the role of emotion (small f) in Sōseki’s theory, in particular the indirect experience of emotion by the reader of fiction, tracing through the ways Sōseki put this theory into practice in his 1912 novel, Until the Spring Equinox and Beyond. Joseph Murphy (University of Florida) also explored the relation of Sōseki’s (F+f) formula to his fiction, especially the early story “Tower of London,” and talked about the missing, perhaps subconscious, possibility of (non-F, non-f) as an implicit possible permutation of the formula.

    In the afternoon sessions, Atsuko Ueda (Princeton University) situated Bungakuron in the context of late nineteenth century literary histories, as well as the tradition of rhetoric studies that Soseki relied on–and the implications his transcending the categories of national language and national literature holds for contemporary area studies scholarship. Saitō Mareshi (University of Tokyo) raised the question of what kagaku means in the context of Bungakuron: science or discipline? He also traced Sōseki’s use of keywords from the Chinese literati tradition of rhetoric, looking in particular at what was at stake in Sōseki’s switch from that vocabulary to the mathematical language of (F+f). I followed with a talk exploring Bungakuron as a theory of world literature, reading Sōseki against his contemporary Rabindranath Tagore, as well as Pascale Casanova’s more recent attempt to theorize a “world republic of literature.” The final speaker, Komori Yōichi (University of Tokyo), explored the specific scientific contexts on the work, noting its connections to early twentieth century atomic theory, as well as the productive gesture Sōseki made in creating a horizon in which embodied sense perception and intellectual understanding were synthesized into a single entity within the bracketed space of (F+f).

    We had lively discussions throughout the day, and the symposium was very well attended. My thanks to the organizers, my co-presenters, and to all who participated.

    In the meanwhile, the Modern Language Association has announced that the volume has won the 2011 Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Scholarly Study of Literature. From the award citation:

    Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings, by Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916), provides English language readers with major critical works by Japan’s foremost novelist of the twentieth century. Sōseki aspired to a grand and systematic explanation of literature, focusing on literature’s effects on readers. Based on the cognitive psychology of his day, his account explores how the content of the literary work generates emotional responses. Michael K. Bourdaghs, Atsuko Ueda, and Joseph A. Murphy have done a superb job of supplying the contextual information necessary for today’s non-Japanese reader to appreciate the subtlety and significance of Sōseki’s work.

    On top of that, the Japan Times newspaper has just named it one of the “Best Books of 2011.” It’s gratifying to see this project, begun with my colleagues six or seven years ago, reach fruition in this way. Our goal from the start was to get people reading and talking about this remarkable book, and it feels like we’ve accomplished that.

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