Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Last Samurai Week Five: Around and Around We Go

I had planned to write about risk and death this week, but I finished The Last Samurai and it now seems like it will be easier to talk about those issues next week when the group read wraps up. Briefly, that left me wondering exactly what I was going to write about this time around, simply because the current section has us in something of a holding pattern with its repetition: Ludo continues to search out and interview new potential father figures. Each one has a personal history that merges with the last at places and diverges in others. I enjoyed them all, but what to say?

Then I realized that this repetition was exactly what I should write about. One thing that strikes me about the last half of the narrative is that it highlights, simultaneously, this book’s place in a picaresque tradition that goes back to the origins of the novel and its connection to postmodernism through an emphasis on repetition and, through the overlaps and distinctions between these various men’s lives, a refusal to offer any one coherent idea of what makes a man, or father, or person (or whatever other category you want to consider here).

The role of the picaresque in the early novel is easy enough to see here: the episodic nature of the story, where each episode repeats a certain kind of plot structure, featuring a wandering narrator. The way the picaresque seeded the nineteenth-century bildungsroman likewise: each of Ludo’s encounters seems to develop his personality, or at least his sense of what would make a good father and why he might want one, a little farther, educating him in the varieties of humanity.

Nonetheless, this same repetition feels very postmodern, precisely in this last insistence on variety that perpetually undermines any settled idea about what people—or a certain type of person, like “the genius”—are like: each repetition changes our perception of the last and of the whole, destabilizing our ability to say anything with much certainty. As we go on, DeWitt refuses any easy generalizations: genius does not automatically make you crass and indifferent to other people (what people sometimes think of as the autistic model of genius), as it may seem early in this last part (I’m thinking of Yamamoto and HC, but Sibylla qualifies as well); neither does it mean you are going to do anything good for other people or even yourself (taking us back to what I discussed in my first post on risk: genius doesn’t necessarily get you anywhere). Likewise, there is not really any one thing that Ludo or anyone else could expect from a father. There are only various versions of what people might be like, versions compounded by the stories they and others tell: one of the repeated structures here is that Ludo hears/tells one version of a biography, and then hears a different version from the celebrity father figure.

These narrative recursions in Ludo’s last long chapter are not the only way repetition comes up in this novel. We have Sibylla and Ludo riding the tube endlessly on the Circle Line, and we have Yamamoto’s aesthetic theory of the necessity of repetition in order to see differently—beauty needs a background of banality. While the painter, Mr. Watkins, might seem to offer a different theory, his search for the intensity of color also draws deeply on the context in which we see color—that is the relation of specific moments of vision to many others, and the relation among the colors themselves. In the book, the various men, likewise, only mean something in relation to one another, the stories told about them, and the fictional men from the screen with whom Ludo has grown up: their differences make for meanings, but also for their startling singularities for the fascination of the reader.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

DeWitt Group Read Week Four: Genius and Ethics in The Last Samurai

I’m still continuing apace with the reading schedule for the group read of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, and the book gets more and more fascinating as we continue with Ludo’s narration of his discover of his father and attempt to find a better one once he realizes who exactly it is. I have a lot to say, but in this post I’ll try to stick to the story of HC and RD and how it moves the book’s meditation on genius and ethics forward.

The story of HC and RD (Hugh Carey and Raymond Drecker) follows the description of Yamamoto and the story in the prologue as one of these little morsels of morsels of relatively conventional narrative DeWitt feeds us throughout the novel, all perfectly delightful but interrupting the narrative for long stretches. As with the previous stories, this one tells the stories of other geniuses—but if the Yamamoto story raised the question of genius and ethics then this one raises a problem of definition. Both HC and RD are geniuses of sorts, but HC knows more about how to make people think you are a genius by jumping through all the appropriate hoops; indeed, he has to teach RD how to jump through the hoops by cutting off RD’s own form of genius that wants to refuse the temptation of ever trivializing a philosophical question by answering it in a short form that might, say, fit on an exam form. RD, following Plato (321), thinks of this kind of practical framing of genius as a scam—rhetorical dishonesty against the philosopher’s honesty. I expected RD to be favored here—a distinction of real genius rather than self-serving celebrity—and to some extent that plays out in the story Sibylla tells. However, it becomes apparent very soon that HC is completely correct that RD would never get anywhere if he didn’t make some concessions for the academic game of chess HC teaching him to negotiate, and HC turns out correct again when RD stops playing the game and winds up just working on a dictionary rather than on big philosophical questions. Indeed, the story Sibylla tells basically romanticizes HC from there as he pursues his big adventure.

When Ludo encounters HC at the latter’s home, though, he first notices the surprising glamour of someone known for a commitment to a rugged life, and by the end of his encounter seems to put HC right back into the camp of the rhetorician—someone who only wants to be a celebrity. Notably one of the things motivating his rejection of HC as a father figure echoes Yamamoto’s story: HC, like Yamamoto, has a completely crass lack of feeling about the suffering he has seen and even perhaps inflicted on the tribal group he tracked down. Ludo, walking away from the house in what comes across as a blend of anger, fear, and loss, laments, “He had not killed to learn those moodless verbs and uninflected nouns, but he had brought a slave into existence for their sake” (358). This passage, building off the Yamamoto story, really begins to suggest a postcolonial critique of the resources a certain kind of genius exploits, on whose lives it builds its glory. Yamamoto, like HC, transforms his genius into spectacle on the basis of a lack of response to brutality and his treatment of other people as a natural resource for their personal exploitation (notably, neither tribe wants to give up the private cultural knowledge, whether language or musical ceremony, that the geniuses finally obtain).

Three observations about the way this plays out. First, I was a little surprised that Sibylla had a romanticized view of HC, given that she seems more committed to RD’s perspective. Her commitment to real genius without shortcuts or showy accomplishments comes out in her watching and interpretation of Kurosawa’s films, and, indeed, when Ludo hears the story of HC and immediately wants to follow in his footsteps by becoming the youngest person admitted to Oxford in classics, Sibylla has no interest and tries to dissuade him. Second, coming out of his encounter with HC, Ludo seems to have developed a sense of humanity and decency that Sibylla doesn’t exhibit in her unreflective admiration of Yamamoto. A sense of other people’s welfare is not something Ludo has exhibited much previously. Third and finally, if HC and RD both wind up being right about the other’s limitations, DeWitt has left us wondering what a genius is to do to avoid their respective paths. Will Ludo find a different way?

Next post (hopefully with less time in between!), I’d like to return to that passage, which I referred to previously, where Sibylla looks at the security video screens and tie it to the questions of risk I began talking about in my first post. As I have read on, I have started to rethink my initial reaction in my last post that this problem of risk had disappeared as the novel continues; rather, I think it may transform into the issue of life and death that repeatedly comes up—for example, in Sibylla’s conversations with strangers.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Unfinished Thoughts for Week Two of The Last Samurai

I’ve been swamped by work and a few other things recently, but I did finish this week’s reading for the ongoing group read of The Last Samurai and would like to get down a few bullet points at least.
  • First, I also managed to finish watching Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. DeWitt offers summary of tidbits from the first part of the film (but only the first part so far) in the novel itself. Is seeing the movie essential to reading the book? That might depend on what you mean by essential. No, to the extent that as far as we’ve read, I don’t think a lack of knowledge of the film could impede an enjoyment of the book. Yes, to the extent that a viewing of the film would inevitably allow at least some connections in terms of theme, etc., that you probably couldn’t get only from Sibylla’s summary. One very broad connection I am finding between the two is the sense of humor despite serious situations.
  • I will also say, though I’m not sure yet if I agree Sibylla’s reading of the film is correct, that she is right about one thing: that woman on the tube who thinks Seven Samurai is about an elite band didn’t watch the film (p. 128 in my edition).
  • After last week’s reading, the passages emphasizing chance have dropped off some, although obviously parenting is still front and center as a focus through the end of chapter ii. Or rather: Sibylla’s increasingly apparent dislike for parenting. She extracts some promises for good behavior that Ludo finds his way around without recrimination, and then of course she doesn’t even notice for an unknown amount of time that he leaves the Yamamoto performance, and talks herself out of being upset about it. She really does not like having to say no to him. At the same time, his walk home and his turn toward self-tutoring is already making her superfluous, and she seems to feel that lack of need when she keeps looking for something to offer to his understanding of Japanese. Is her rewatching of Kurosawa at the end of this section a moment of grasping for stability?
  • What do we do with this Yamamoto business, anyway? I felt like Yamamoto’s discussion of fragmentation and repetition comes across as a sincere description of what great art should do. Partially I buy it because of what his performance does to Sibylla; also, though, it appears to fit the aesthetic of the book. For example, while I think the writing here is great, I wouldn’t call most of the prose “lyrical”; but every once in a while we get a burst of lyricism that stands out precisely because of its placement amongst the other voices in the text. My favorite so far is Sibylla’s description of looking at herself among many images on the tube security monitors (p. 117, go read the whole thing), which I take to be a reflection on our engagement with books. (Actually, maybe I’ll say more about this another time, because as a possible reflection on how or why we would read, the passage is fascinatingly morbid.) Nonetheless, the artist who expounds this style can’t be bothered to care about the genocide he has witnessed first-hand, and his exemplary viewer (Sibylla) ignores the basic needs of her own child to feel the effect of the performance. I guess at least in the book equivalent, the reader can choose when to take a break.