January 2011

Christopher Merkel


It's Not What You Think

Anyone who knows Japan knows that we can know nothing about Japan. The popular Western wisdom  that the entire country is an inscrutable cultural quagmire is more or less correct, if only because that's often the way that the Japanese would prefer their country were perceived. The Japanese language is elliptical to an extreme, but in its use is inextricably caught up both immediate and historical social and conversational contexts. That must certainly be beyond the grasp of any outsider, right? And what hope have we of understanding the place if we can't get past the language. When it comes to Japan, non-Japanese are simply beyond the pale. So, maybe, it's not that we know nothing, but that we understand that knowing nothing is all there is to know.      

In 1970, Roland Barthes published a travelogue about his experience of Japan during the time he spent there in the late 1950s... or maybe not so much about his experience as his subjective and semiotic interpretation of a place that, for Barthes, was epitomized by an Other language which, in its written form, delighted him as a beautifully intricate system of signs. And yes, you're right, that's arguing semantics, but that's exactly how Barthes, the literary critic, theorist and semiotician, plays with his understanding of Japan. In that way, and ironically, Empire of Signs manages to capture Japan spot on, even if that seems to have been of no concern to Barthes. Ultimately, Empire of Signs is a book about Japan that's not really about Japan. Barthes wrote instead about what he wanted Japan to be, or to mean, or to signify. In Empire of Signs, Japan is a place as an idea, or, in other words, ultimately just a place to think.

The streets of this city have no names. There is of course a written address, but it has only a postal value, it refers to a plan... reminds us that the rational is merely one system among others. For there to be a mastery of the real (in this case the reality of addresses), it suffices that there be a system, even if this system is apparently illogical, uselessly complicated, curiously disparate.

That could just as well be a description of Barthes's analysis itself, but, well, those are the rules of his game. Japan becomes a circular definition both because and in spite of itself. The place was linguistically incomprehensible to Barthes, so he happily went about comprehending it on (and in) his own terms. Japan for Barthes was just a sounding board for his ideas on difference as it pertained to meaning construction. Just a place to think. Just, in the end, somewhere else. And, all theory and semantics aside, isn't that, in the end, the basic joy of travel?

Now you'll rightly be confused: hopefully not at my coarse gloss of a brilliant book by one of the twentieth century's seminal literary theorists, but because I'll insist that this column isn't about Japan. True, it debuted there, and you're guaranteed to read more here about books from Japan in the months to come. I would, however, have been remiss had I just stolen away from Natsume Sōseki without an explanation (the Japanese hate that sort of thing), and it just happens that Barthes was a convenient way away. (After all, what's more un-American than the French?)

During my November in Japan, I kept with me a copy of another of Barthes's books, Incidents, a newly translated collection of essays and fragments from the author's journals, first published in French shortly after Barthes's death in 1980. Not a critical or a theoretical text, and a good deal of it written while Barthes's himself was traveling in Morocco, Incidents was a fitting companion for my month back in the empire of signs. The book is just as easy to pick up as to put down, a perfect and charming distraction for dawdling at cafes or hopping trains between appointments. You can just as easily breeze through the atmosphere of a section as ponder over a single fragment. Some pages are completely blank outside of single sentences, and the text is thoughtfully laid out alongside photographs taken throughout Morocco by photographer Bishan Samaddar. It's a pensive read, and perfect for waxing intellectual over the strangeness of a foreign cultural and linguistic landscape. Who doesn't need to be reminded to cast a sidelong glance and question, "Would Proust have liked it?"

"Incidents" is a constant reminder to wonder, as in, "A demonstration of phonological relevance: an attractive young seller in the bazaar: ti/tu [you/ya] (not relevant); veux tapis/taper [want a rug/to fuck] (relevant)?" How many opportunities had I squandered on carelessly chosen phrases at the department store earlier that day? I may have been visiting unfamiliar environs, but Barthes encouraged me, regardless, to keep my eyes open for the unfamiliar, or rather, maybe, to discover the things I'd hidden from myself by taking familiarity for granted. In Tokyo, much of the mundane is an electric frenzy, all of it moving at a panicked pace that tends to impede wistful thinking. Incidents reminded me, if not necessarily to slow down, at least to pay attention. "A certain Ahmed, near the train station, is wearing a sky-blue sweater with a lovely orange stain on the front."

In Japan, Ahmed might instead have been an Akito, and Akito would not probably have left home in a stained sweater, but he'd nonetheless be at the train station for inspection and interpretation. He might also be looking for something himself. Incidents is replete with prowling boys, and Barthes is completely frank in describing his desires. (The book is, after all, a journal.) Even if Incidents fails to get you in a thoughtful mood, it should get you in a cruisy one. And there's always the something in between, which is the place that Barthes seems most often to be: the boys supply him a spark of provocation that spurs him to thought, but thought is something more successfully pursued alone. Samaddar's photos, though only a handful of them are overtly erotic, are a perfect accompaniment to the text on that front, stolen glances that capture the sensuality of fleeting encounters.  

While Incidents may not incorporate the critical rigor of Empire of Signs, it maintains the playfulness and excitement for encounters with which Barthes regarded encountering Japan. At Le Palace in Paris:

I admit I am incapable of being interested in the beauty of a place, if there aren't any people in it (I don't like empty museums); and, conversely, to find interest in a face, a profile, an article of clothing, to savour the encounter, I need for the place where the encounter occurs also to be of interest and to be savoured.

The space and the people at Le Palace (a French-er version of New York's Studio 54) apparently suited Barthes's sensibilities to that extent. I took the example as encouragement to similarly savor my encounters in Japan. Armed with Incidents and with Barthes's particular brand of subjective experience (and in particular his experience of the country in which I was traveling), I was able to give up completely on an "authentic" experience of the place and just let it happen. Barthes got me out of Japan even while I was still in the country, a saving grace that allowed me to get past the harried pressures of a demanding schedule amid an often frustratingly opaque culture and engage it absolutely as I wanted, even if the cruising wasn't any good.

So I left Japan satisfied, even if rather unwell physically: I'd caught an ugly stomach and intestinal virus that was making its way around Tokyo at the same time I was. Despite my discomfort, the virus did, however, give me cause to muse -- a la Incidents -- on the implications of the Japanese using the same word to describe a sickness "going around" as to describe something "being in style" (relevant?).      

This column is also not about travel writing, but traveling abroad has always meant for me an exciting opportunity to encounter new literature. I started as a student in Japan, and since then have done my best wherever possible to read native authors when I find myself in their countries. Why, then, an English translation of a book by a Frenchman in Japan? I also read a translation of The Traveler by Hungarian author Antal Szerb. Your continued confusion is well justified, but I'm about to dig up the lead, so bear with me. My foreign excursions aren't as regular as they once were (this year I'm blaming the economy), but past encounters were enough for me to develop an acute taste for world literature, which, not being able to read any languages but English and Japanese, means literature in translation.

It should be some consolation that if we can't travel we can encounter places through their literature. That's trite, but it's true of literature from anywhere, written in English or otherwise. And if you believe Roland Barthes (I've already lost everyone who's not a fan so I'm going to assume that you do), it might even be true that encountering a language and its culture without knowing them affords you the special opportunity of coming to a unique understanding of both. And in any case, no matter how experienced or talented a translator, the act of translation itself is ultimately subjective, and the final act of interpreting any book is the joy and responsibility of the reader (I'll refrain here from departing onto a discussion of Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text). By extension then, it might even be true that reading abroad (so to speak) is just as good as going there -- or so I'll fancy. And sometimes it's just fun to wander. It helps put perspective on home.

Not excited? Theory isn't for everyone, I suppose. Frankly, I'm happy to abandon it. I owe Roland Barthes for getting us off Japan for the time being, but I'm also afraid he'll expose me as a dilettante. And anyway, the point is the larger dialogue of literature, and that can't be had anywhere without a healthy supply of literature in translation. Let's talk.