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.


  1. I also found HC's story to have a lot in common with Yamamoto’s, and I like your idea of "a postcolonial critique of the resources a certain kind of genius exploits, on whose lives it builds its glory."

    When Yamamoto was introduced, I was thoroughly expecting Sibylla to seek out a personal interaction with him in an attempt to enlist him as a male role model for Ludo. I was surprised when after the concert, the character never appeared again. Kind of interesting that now the similar HC is sought out as a possible father figure instead.

  2. Thanks, Lisa. I'm starting to get a bit ahead in the reading and the pursuit of these various father figures gets more and more interesting as far as the motivations for Ludo's selections and rejections.