February 24, 2006
World Hobby Festival
The question is whether this is really, really funny, or really, really disturbing.
The first couple of pics are of the quite distinctive "Tokyo Big Site" convention center. If you've ever seen a show about otaku--Comic Party, Genshiken--they always end up here, the Mecca of otaku fandom.
The "laughing man" icon is a clever nod to Ghost in the Shell SAC (season 1). The hacker mastermind uses the icon to mask his identity.
The rest of the photos bring to mind two words I never thought belonged together: "doll cheesecake." But there's some good old mecha and even a Spaceship Yamato in there, too.
Most of the models are commercial tie-ins to anime or manga series. For example, Mizuho Kazami, a character from the Please Teacher series (an excessively silly SF sit-com) seems to be quite popular.
Certainly not the kind of trinket you'll ever get at McDonald's with your Happy Meal! (Now there's a whole new marketing angle for the fast food industry to explore.)
February 19, 2006
Part 13 (A Thousand Leagues of Wind)
In explaining the eshaku (会釈), meaning a greeting or salutation, Ono uses the kanji for folding one's arms (拱手) but then glosses it with the furigana for eshaku (えしゃく).
麦州産県支錦 [ばくしゅうさんけんしきん] Baku Province, San County, Shikin [City]
老松 [ろうしょう] Rou Shou, lit. "old pine"
乙悦 [おつえつ] Otsu Etsu
松伯 [しょうはく] Shouhaku, or Count Shou
仙伯 [せんぱく] Senpaku, a self-made wizard who is an earl or count
労蕃生 [ろうはんせい] Rou Hansei
馬面 [ばめん] bamen, lit. "horse face"; a fortification projecting outward from a castle wall or ramparts. After the deployment of heavy siege cannon, bastions were constructed as large, defensive earthworks.
飛仙 [ひせん] hisen, lit. "flying wizard" or wizard of the air
地仙 [ちせん] chisen, lit. "earth wizard" or wizard of the earth
February 15, 2006
My sister recently commented on DVD commentaries. Like Kate, I question the added value of most commentary tracks. I'm not looking for a podcast of Entertainment Tonight. Classics I think get better treatment because people have had time to think about them and if, say, Criterion is going to bother, they'll get an expert with something to say that 1) isn't obvious from reading the jacket cover, and 2) you would benefit from knowing in an intellectual way.
My nomination for a commentary that may actually be better than the movie is the 1985 anime classic Megazone 23, principally by Matt Greenfield, one of the founders of ADV Films. He essentially treats you to a history of the company and the early days of the anime importing business. And makes note of all the gaping plot holes in the story along the way (and why they're there), plus the eerie resemblances to The Matrix, fifteen years before the The Matrix was made. Fascinating.
Now that I'm on the subject of educational anime experiences, I also recommend Comic Party, Genshinken and Animation Runner Kuromi. The animation in first two is fairly average, much better in the last, but the content in all three more than makes up for any aesthetic deficiencies
Comic Party focuses on the doujinshi manga artist, and how a talented up-and-coming manga-ka begins to makes a name for himself. Like Genshiken, it features a subplot involving a girlfriend who finds herself taking a backseat to her boyfriend's new obsession, but the more important aspect of the story is about artistic integrity. (Comic Party does have a particularly annoying secondary character whose non sequitur outbursts in English must be suffered through).
Animation Runner Kuromi is about the travails of a small animation studio. Fresh out of college, her first day on the job, Mikoko finds herself promoted to production manager and charged with delivering an animated television episode on an impossibly tight schedule. She must browbeat a motley crew of freelance animators into completing their drawings on time. The story, director Akitaro Daichi tells us in another worthy commentary track, is largely autobiographical.
And then Genshiken follows the lives of those hapless but lovable geeks who voraciously consume both. Otaka, to be sure, are easy targets, but Genshiken treats them with good-natured humor and affection, even when documenting the travails of a "real" girl who falls for one of them and can't seem to get him similarly obsessed with her. The results of all three are breezy and informative forays into the nuts and bolts of the industry feeding all the many otaku subcultures.
February 12, 2006
Part 12 (A Thousand Leagues of Wind)
虎嘯 [こしょう] Koshou, lit. "tiger roar" (also a homonym for "pepper")
巌頭 [がんとう] Gantou, lit. "craggy head"
北郭 [ほっかく] Hokkaku, lit. "north district"
東郭 [とうかく] Toukaku, lit. "east district"
February 09, 2006
Dances with Samurai
The Anachronistic Splendor of The Last Samurai
But not to worry. Because that's when the ninjas show up! What Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was to back-lot Hong Kong wuxia actioners, The Last Samurai is to chambara eiga, the samurai sword fight genre Akira Kurosawa retooled from John Ford and Howard Hawks westerns, and that Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood reinvented yet again. It's a heroically self-important morality tale, so stunningly anachronistic and historically inaccurate that it qualifies more as fantasy.
Peter Jackson I'm sure would tell you, there's nothing wrong with fantasy. As long as you don't mistake it for the real thing.
The last time Hollywood made a big deal about an epic event in Japanese history (prior to 1941, that is), the aforementioned Richard Chamberlain was helping Toshiro Mifune establish the Tokugawa Shogunate and unify Japan under a single authoritarian regime. A quarter century and 250 years later, we find Tom Cruise alongside Saigo Takamori, the man largely responsible for overthrowing the Shogunate and ushering in Japan's modern age.
And following the Meiji Restoration there was only one Satsuma Rebellion. And definitely only one Saigo Takamori. It's sort of like making a movie about Valley Forge and calling General Washington General Smith, you know, lest anyone object to your ahistorical deviations. Clavell mostly avoids meddling in verifiable history, mentioning the decisive Battle of Sekigahara only in an afterword. His 16th century Englishman would have been exchanging one barely post-medieval society for another.
Thus, the expectation that men (aside from himself, naturally) should know their station in life and act accordingly would hardly have been a foreign concept to Will Adams. What is more difficult to swallow is that such an enlightened U.S. Army veteran of the Indian Wars as Cruise's Algren would find his redemption amongst the passionate followers of an unegalitarian feudal order. (And, incidentally, the Imperial army's advisers (1) were French and Prussian, not American.)
Okay, feudalism isn't slavery, but it's awfully dang close. Tokugawa-era feudalism concentrated enormous power in the hands of a few, who perpetuated their power from generation to generation through a rigidly-policed caste system. But absolute power corrupts absolutely, and by the mid 19th century the regime had rotted out at the core. The arrival of Admiral Perry's "Black Ships" in 1853 alone nearly felled it.
But, hey, if you're going to embrace feudalism you might as well start at the top, and Cruise's Captain Algren gets to cut to the head of the line. Edward Said is worth listening to here. What he terms the "Orientalist" impulse to depict the cultural grass as exotically greener elsewhere has the tendency to inure one to the faults of all other cultures but one's own. As Slate's David Edelstein observes, "Movies can manipulate you to root for just about anyone, anytime."
Thus biased by Noble Savage silliness, and the ball and chain of Occidental self-loathing, we have come to believe that any culture observably different from our own must be, ipso facto, better. The more different, the more superior. Here, Cruise is channeling another burdened white man, Kevin Costner and his Lieutenant Dunbar from Dances with Wolves (gee, also a U.S. Army veteran ready to help out the natives with his superior military training ). "Dances with Samurai," let's call it, then. So Dunbar's noble warrior, Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), becomes Algren's Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe); Dunbar's girl, Stands With A Fist (Mary McDonnell), Algren's Taka (Koyuki). And etcetera.
Okay, tell me the same story, only different. Except we're not dealing here with the latest politically-correct mythologies of the American West, but with well-documented history. The melodramatic demands of director Edward Zwick's well-intended Orientalism have instead produced a hagiographic account of the Battle of the Southwest (as it is called in Japan), that provides American audiences no good idea, other than the repeated mantra about samurai "honor," what it was really about.
What makes it doubly unfortunate is that the real Saigo Takamori was such a fascinating person. While he was a physical and intellectual giant of a man, we see nothing in Zwick's earnest screenplay or Watanabe's earnest portrayal that hints at the complexities of a person who attempted suicide once, was exiled three times, married at least three times, and carried on a long-term affair with a plump Kyoto geisha his close friends described as "comically round."
Or that in this final instance the Meiji government was right and Saigo was wrong. As Mark Ravina, author of The Last Samurai (a biography of Saigo Takamori) briefly notes in a History Channel documentary on the DVD, the soldiers mowing down Katsumoto and his troops in the end were in fact "the good guys," representing the ninety percent of the population fighting for a share of the rights and privileges that hitherto had been granted only to a small elite.
|Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.|
During the initial engagements of the war against the Shogunate (called Boshin, or "the year of the dragon"), Saigo successfully led his troops against much larger Shogunate armies, all the while bemoaning that he could only command, and not join in the front-line fighting. He did personally lead the assault on a hold-out brigade of Shogunate dead-enders at Ueno, where his statue famously stands today.
The Boshin War began with a sweep north from Satsuma, at the southern tip of Kyushu, and ended with the Battle of Hakodate, on the northernmost island of Hokkaido. However, Saigo was delayed mobilizing the troops under his command out of Tokyo, and Hakodate capitulated before he could arrive. The war was definitely over, and this bad timing Saigo regretted for the rest of his life.
But while Saigo-the-warrior represented the ideals of the traditional samurai ethos, Saigo-the-revolutionary could not ignore the vast social and political corruption Tokugawa-era feudalism had produced. Not only was Japanese society divided by caste, but the haves and have-nots within the castes had by then separated like oil and water, reducing many samurai families like his own to poverty. Yoji Yamada's Twilight Samurai well depicts the trap in which low-ranked samurai found themselves, with the impoverished protagonist longing to shed his status and become a mere farmer.
Saigo rose to prominence after internecine conflicts decimated the Satsuma leadership. Like Ito Hirobumi and Fukuzawa Yukichi and other leaders of the Meiji Restoration, the "creative destruction" of the Shogunate's fall presented opportunities for travel, education and political involvement that would have been otherwise impossible for a minor samurai from a tozama (outsider) domain to contemplate.
You'd never know it from The Last Samurai, but some of Saigo's most notable accomplishments were his diplomatic efforts. The first was the alliance with Choshu, Satsuma's bitter rival and one-time enemy. Choshu and Satsuma, together with the Tosa domain, formed the core of the Restoration movement.
The second was the surrender of the Shogunate army, including an amnesty for many in the Tokugawa leadership whom Saigo deeply despised. These negotiations prevented a reprise of the bloody power struggles that preceded the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603, and perhaps more than any other single act cemented the legitimacy of the Meiji Restoration.
After the fighting was over, Saigo helped push through radical reforms of the decrepit feudal system, including the conversion of samurai stipends to bonds, and the replacement of the domain/daimyo system with the contemporary prefecture/governor system. Both spelled the end of the samurai as protected social class, even before the edicts on carrying weapons were promulgated.
In fact, many of these reforms Saigo had already implemented in Satsuma. Moreover, the Meiji government had expressed a grudging willingness to make exceptions on Satsuma's behalf in regards to samurai privileges, and a man of Saigo's stature could easily have bargained for more. So why did he then start the Satsuma Rebellion?
The simple answer is: he didn't.
Zwick's screenplay asserts that Saigo/Katsumoto began a war over a fashion statement. It is impossible to imagine a man of his stature and political maturity carrying on in such a silly manner, especially in the presence of the Emperor. (The Meiji Emperor chiming in on substantive policy matters is also fiction.) Perhaps Zwick was thinking of The Forty-Seven Ronin ("Chushingura"), the classic story of bushido honor and revenge, an oldie-but-goodie even in 1877.
Saigo had plenty of criticisms of Meiji policies, to be sure, starting with its Korea policy. Like all good samurai, once the fighting was over in Japan, he believed it was time to invade Korea. He was rightly rebuffed. (Unfortunately, three decades later this is exactly what Japan did, aggressively moving against China, Korea and Russia with a degree of military overconfidence that eventually led to Pearl Harbor.)
After resigning from the government, Saigo spent his time hunting and running a military school devoted to the Confucian classics. Anecdotal accounts have it that when the revolt first broke out, he despaired at the pointlessness of it all, but became enraged at the government's heavy-handed treatment of the Satsuma upstarts, many of whom were his students and disciples. After provoking Tokyo governments for 300 years, Satsuma just couldn't stop itself.
Like Robert E. Lee, only after the shooting started was Saigo approached by the Satsuma rebels to lead the revolt, and Meiji officials to suppress it. And like Lee, he chose his "country" (Satsuma) over his nation. But one suspects as well that Saigo was seizing upon the opportunity for that great and glorious final battle that had escaped him at Hakodate.
|Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.|
The rebellion itself began with raids on government arsenals in Kagoshima and Iso. The rebel samurai who joined up along the way did so with any number of motives and allegiances. Military tactics were similarly confused. Soon after Saigo joined the effort his forces blundered badly at the siege of Kumamoto Castle. By the time they had regrouped and started a long retreat, a larger conscript army commanded by Aritomo Yamagata (who would become the first prime minister under the Meiji Constitution), equipped with better weapons and supported by much better logistics, had caught up with them.
It was all over except for the wasteful killing and heroic dying. Still, Saigo managed to drag the fighting out for six months. There was no charge of the "Noble six hundred," as Tennyson immortalized the similar fate of 13th Light Brigade at Balaclava. Popular accounts had Saigo committing seppuku and being beheaded by one of his retainers before their positions were overrun on Shiroyama. A subsequent autopsy concluded that he was too injured to carry through with the first part of the ritual.
Yet, paradoxically, as the movie does accurately indicate, Saigo Takamori's reputation emerged from the conflict not only intact, but enhanced. This was in large part due to his extraordinary contributions to the Restoration before the Satsuma Rebellion, but also because the poetic finality of his revolt. The goal of the rebellion leaders had been to drive north to Tokyo and present their complaints to the Meiji leadership. But they never even made it off the southern island of Kyushu. It exhausted the nascent national budget and resulted in over 30,000 killed and wounded on both sides. But the last land battle fought on the Japanese "mainland" (Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu) was resolved without a return to the devastating civil wars depicted in Kurosawa films such as Kagemusha and Ran.
Which brings us back to the appeal of The Forty-Seven Ronin. To review, a young daimyo is provoked by a haughty court official into drawing his sword within Edo Castle. As punishment, the daimyo is ordered to commit seppuku, his lands are confiscated and his samurai disenfranchised. A year later, these forty-seven ronin (masterless samurai) carry out a carefully-planned revenge, and then gave themselves up to the authorities.
At the time, Confucian scholars hotly debated the rights and wrongs of what they did. Bushido ideology itself had been largely invented to justify the existence of a warrior class with no wars to fight. They weighed the specific responsibilities of the principal actors in the affair, and whether such a well-planned revenge was really in keeping with the spirit of bushido, and whether they should have committed seppuku and not surrendered.
The Shogunate found itself in a tight spot. They couldn't openly condone such actions. Like cowboys slinging guns, it was fine for samurai to carry swords as long as they didn't use them very often, if at all. Yet, they couldn't well be seen to disparage such a spirited execution of bushido ideals. Similar political conflicts, arising out of this surfeit, not paucity, of martial "honor" did not end until the final devastation of the Second World War.
So the Forty-Seven were ordered to commit seppuku. And by complying, cut graphically through the Gordian knot. The Shogunate could celebrate the noble exceptionalism of the ruling samurai class while warning that, take that exceptionalism too seriously and you may have to nobly die for it. It provided a politically tidy conclusion to the affair, and the general public with a dramatically satisfactory ending to a great 17th century reality show.
As did the final days of Saigo Takamori. And the Meiji government did not let slip such a golden opportunity. In 1889, Saigo was posthumously pardoned and promoted. He was declared a national hero, if a tragic national hero, and those are often the best kind. According to the mythic historical account that later arose, as described by Mark Ravina,
[Yamagata Aritomo] turned to the assembled commanders and spoke of Saigo's glorious death. He called the attention to Saigo's calm countenance, unchanged even in death. Then, holding Saigo's head, Yamagata wept for his fallen comrade. This was a death befitting the last samurai.
Zwick gets the myth about half right. Unfortunately, embracing a tragic hero is no longer enough. We must be constantly reminded what lousy people our ancestors were. And so Zwick has to toss in the requisite wicked white men in black hats. The character of Omura, based on Saigo's far more pragmatic and realistic Satsuma compatriot, Okubo Toshimichi, whom historian Masakazu Iwata praises as the "architect of the modern [Japanese] state," practically twirls a vaudevillian mustache whilst carrying out his evil deeds.
The movie begins with a flashback of Kenshin standing guard at the critical meeting between Saigo Takamori and the Choshu clan's Kido Koin, and driving off an attack by the Shinsengumi, a fanatical group of Shogunate loyalists. It was this meeting that marked the beginning of the end of Shogunate rule, and the rise of Saigo as one of the great leaders of the Restoration.
The story resumes shortly after Saigo's death. It follows Kenshin's investigation of one of the many minor coup attempts that would erupt during the Meiji period. The coup plotters include a motley crew of naive idealists, honestly dismayed at the government's politics and policies, remnants of the Shogitai (the brigade Saigo wiped out at Ueno), Shinsengumi dead-enders, plus assorted carpet-baggers and opportunists.
The movie's Japanese title, "Requiem for the Meiji Revolutionaries," makes clear the director's message and intent. And along the way, Samurai X much better explores the inflamed passions that also led Satsuma to revolt against the very thing it had created. Samurai X is a cartoon, to be sure, but ultimately less cartoonish than The Last Samurai.
Following the collapse of the Tokugawa regime, the Shinsengumi were routed and killed. According to the gohatto code, a quarter of the original 200 committed seppuku. If you want to be Byronesque about it, they were band of brothers sacrificing themselves for a lost cause. Or you could conclude, as John Dougill quips in his review of the NHK television series, "They were a bunch of hit-men hired by a repressive regime."
Saigo deployed similar insurgency forces in Tokyo prior to the surrender of the capital. But the Shinsengumi came far closer to Cruise's and Zwick's romanticized notions of the "old" samurai ways. They even eschewed firearms and fought with swords and bows and arrows! In the forward to his manga, Rurouni Kenshin creator Nobuhiro Watsuki admits to a sneaking admiration for the Shinsengumi, his protagonist's sworn enemy.
The same year as The Last Samurai also saw the release of When the Last Sword Is Drawn, a romanticized account of the downfall of the Shinsengumi. Not to be outdone by Hollywood in the "dying for your self-destructive but admirable beliefs" genre, NHK made the Shinsengumi the subject of its 2004 historical drama series. NHK hired writer Mitani Koki (who penned the hilarious Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald) to do the screenplay, cast pop idol Katori Shingo in the lead, tossed its heralded devotion to historical accuracy out the window, and has been pulling in buffo ratings all year.
1. Cruise's Algren does have a historical precedent, and in an unexpected quarter. Japan had, for the time, a highly literate population, but nothing like a national or even state education system. Japanese diplomats traveling abroad were impressed by what they saw in the United States.
Our prototype in this case was also a Civil War veteran, one Captain L. L. Janes, hired to set up a school for "western learning" in Kumamoto. But as Marius B. Jansen wryly notes in The Making of Modern Japan, Janes's employers got more in the bargain than they had counted on:
Under [his] influence, the first class produced the "Kumamoto band," or fellowship, of earnest young Christians who dedicated their lives to spiritual rather than martial modernization.
Spiritual "enlightenment," apparently, goes both ways. [return]
February 08, 2006
Dogs, demons, and construction companies
Written during Second World War on behalf of the Office of War Information, Benedict's work continues to be one of the most influential, if not the most inaccurate, studies of Japanese society ever published.
Even if the Japanese immigrants Benedict interviewed during her field research did more or less represented the greater Japanese population at the time (the war foreclosed any access to the latter), lacking in the data she gathered was the context of Japanese political history since Meiji (or even Sekigahara). She limited the scope of her research to such narrow and predetermined objectives that in order to justify her conclusions she found it necessary to integrate the substance of a civilization reaching back two thousand years into the product of a man-made ideology less than a century old.
Benedict's work was undoubtedly a major reason why SCAP bought so completely into the emperor system that in fact had only existed since 1868. The whitewashing of imperial involvement in the war continues to this day to be at the root of diplomatic tensions between Japan and her Asian neighbors.
According to Douglas Lummis, professor of political philosophy at Tsuda University, Benedict's underlying error was that of recognizing among her Japanese subjects a set of publicly acknowledged and condoned behaviors and relationships, and then concluding, in a gross fallacy of generalization, that the repression endemic in Japan both before and during the Second World War was "voluntarily embraced." (1)
In Benedict's eyes, "to be totalitarian and to be Japanese [were] the same thing."
Machiavelli argued that the founder of a political state could create institutions that allowed the founder to instill fundamental changes in society while at the same time "mak[ing] [the] new prince seem ancient, and render[ing] him at one more secure and firmer in the state than if he had been established there of old." Likewise, the much heralded Meiji Restoration that thrust a 17th century agrarian society into the 20th century in less that fifty years did not occur without careful planning--few "restorations" or "revolutions" ever do. (2)
In this case, along with the resurrection of bushido and the imperial emperor was the introduction of the pseudo-theology of the kokutai, or the polity of a singular, unified, genetic "family-state" (an essentialist approach that came to typify the entire Nihonjinron school of thought). And where, asks Daikichi Irokawa, professor of Japanese history at Tokyo University, did it come from? "It appeared to have been created by the Meiji idealogues for the purpose of solidifying the Emperor system." (3) Agrees Gluck, "From the time Japan began its deliberate pursuit of civilization in the mid-nineteenth century, ideology appeared as a conscious enterprise, a perpetual civic concern, an affair, indeed, of state." (4)
Lummis puts it more bluntly: Benedict's interviewees all reflected the totalitarian patterns she anticipated because those patterns "had been pounded into them by a modern, highly organized, state-controlled school system, and by all the other 20th century techniques of indoctrination which the government had available to it." (5)
The revisionist school of Japanese studies, exemplified most recently by Kerr and Patrick Smith (Japan: A Reinterpretation), similarly portrays the common man as the oppressed tool of a fascistic state. Except that the modern Japanese aren't oppressed and don't live in a fascistic state. The neo-Marxist indictments of the admittedly imperfect institutions of democratic capitalism as in some way analogous to 20th totalitarianism are as miguided and tired as Benedict's attempts to conflate a political behavior of the moment with the cultural heritage of the past.
But another striking, and forgiving, difference between Kerr and Benedict is the unapologetically subjective nature of the commentary. Kerr's less-than-academic tone often reminds you of a disappointed parent scolding a stubbornly misbehaving child that refuses to heed his wisdom and follow his advise. The hurt here is personally felt. And the corresponding absence of the typical set of academic imprimaturs allows to you take his rhetoric at face value, without the sense of having your arm intellectually twisted behind your back.
Besides, I can understand where the author is coming from. Kerr grew up in Japan, has lived there for three decades--in a suburb of Kyoto, not Tokyo--and is fluent enough in the language to have edited the translation of his book. A rare thing for a westerner. It's easy to imagine him perusing the work of popular "experts" such as James Fallows, who spend the entirety of their two or three-year tenure "inside the Yamanote" (the rail line that encircles Tokyo), and just seething.
Even T. R. Reid, a veteran of the Tokyo Press Corps, produced as his last book on the subject (before he up and transferred to London) an embarrassingly fawning account that spoke more to a comfortable life schmoozing among the internationalized upper middle-class than anything relevant to the lives of the average Japanese.
So Mr. Kerr feels it incumbent upon himself to set the record straight, and relates his account in the tone of taken insult. He's particularly pissed off at the destruction of "old" Kyoto, and devotes a chapter and copious anecdotes to the subject. But the bulk of the book concerns itself with corruption, á la Upton Sinclair (á la Junzo Itami). The first couple of chapters--about graft, corruption and Keynesian economics-gone-mad in the construction industry--pretty much sums it all up (it gets a little redundant after that). Another reason why van Wolferen's remains the more relevant analysis: it is a story of political institutions sinning against culture and society, not the other way around.
(And more relevant to China, as well. By blaming culture and not politics, Benedict's approach only confirms comforting ethnic stereotypes, and does not illuminate the true source of the current conflicts between China and Japan in the grubby, prosaic world of diplomatic gamesmanship and manipulation of public opinion.)
Working through an inbred and unaudited system of "government" and "public" corporations (with no open bidding), the Japanese construction industry, spending twice the percent of GDP as the U.S. in a country not much larger than California, manufacturing more raw tonnage of cement than the entire United States, and laying thirty times as much concrete per square foot, has locked sixty percent of the shoreline behind artificial breakwaters, built 2800 dams with five hundred in planning, completely diked all but three of Japan's rivers, and drained every costal wetland in the process. Along the way it replanted almost half of all native woodlands with industrial cedar and carved out 280,000 kilometers of mountain roads in order to access the lumber, most of which, it turns out, is not economical to even harvest.
This is make-work on a scale the administrators of the WPA never dreamed of: ten percent of the workforce directly employed by the construction industry, and another ten percent in supporting and peripheral industries; entire rural communities that do nothing but pour concrete.
This is all paid for by massive off-budget borrowing from Japan's Postal Savings Accounts, essentially a trillion-dollar national bank run by the postal service. It's a bad habit that has spread to the private sector, and now seventy percent of corporations can't cover their pension obligations; 800,000 companies have simply stopped paying the equivalent of social security taxes. Banks have resorted to an accounting trick called tobashi to write off bad debts: the non-performing asset is sold to a subsidiary; the bank then lends the subsidiary funds sufficient to cover the interest payments. The debt is thus considered "retired."
Combined with another trick, called "latent value"--a property is kept on the books at its purchase price, not at its market value--and this, combined with zero percent effective interest rates, means that banks have no incentive to write off their real debts. The total real debt could amount to as much as twenty-five percent of GDP. Brokerages play this game, too, listing a company's capitalization based on the stock's IPO value, rather than on its market value. (Not a few dot-coms would go for that kind of accounting.)
And Kerr is just getting warmed up. His account is grim, to be sure, but he not a nihilist. Japan is simply too big to fail, he admits, and at some point it will have to go through the equivalent of a massive S&L bailout. Indeed, Japan should provide an interesting test case of what happens when a country borrows past the limits of its ability to lend. He concludes, "Tobashi is a form of make-believe in which Japan's banks pretend to having hundreds of billions of dollars they don't have. But, after all, money is a sort of fiction. If the world banking community agrees to believe that Japan has these billions, then it essentially does."
A more dangerous experiment taking place on a national scale is the lack of enforcement of environmental protection directives. Japan provides for a test case of industry--almost without oversight--setting the agenda, from dioxin levels to zoning to logging on public lands. And as frightening as Kerr's account is--frightening even for an environmental agnostic such as myself--even taking into account such notable disasters such as the Minamata mercury poisoning incident and the occasional nuclear plant malfunction, the Japanese just keep living longer and longer.
I remain divided on Kerr's analysis of the why, that is, his analysis of the problem on a cultural/psychic level. I agree with his dismissal of the "occidental contamination" theory, that Japan was "true to itself" until the arrival of Perry's "black ships" in 1853. The problem, Kerr argues, is that Japan is being true to itself. He offers as a metaphor the bonsai tree, nature bound and manipulated so as to conform to the artist's sense of what nature should be, rather than what it is. He cleverly identifies the post-modern, post-apocalyptic world depicted in much of anime as an honest artistic rendering of the popularly perceived state of affairs.
But then he contradicts himself with a poetic conclusion embracing the "traditional" and what he terms jitsu, the Platonic ideal that a country represents, what it should be "true to." Mom, baseball, and apple pie, that sort of thing. The problem is, to identify a set of "traditional values" one must pick an equally artificial point in history from which those traditions are imagined to have sprung. Speaking of the "traditional" one more often communicates instead a sentimentality for a certain era, in the case of Japan the late 17th century "Genroku" period, during which all the unemployed samurai, with nothing else better to do, began busily inventing the modern image of the samurai--much in the way that modern conception of the medieval knight and the western cowboy have long been the products of Hollywood producers.
This is not to say that society should automatically yield to the modern and the new without caution and reflection. This is Kerr's biggest cultural complaint: Japanese simply are not sentimental enough for his tastes. And I suspect later generations will prove him right, just as so many city planners in the U.S. came to regret the destruction, in the name of "urban renewal," of their traditional and historic city centers during the 1960s and 1970s. True, being old is not a value in and of itself: great art and architecture should stand on their own merits; but I can empathize with Kerr's anguish at runaway urban planning doing to Kyoto exactly what the WWII didn't.
But Japan will come around. I've come to believe that all societies must go through the same stages of evolution, in periodic, sinusoidal iterations. Having arrived at the top of the post-industrial, navel-gazing, tree-hugging ladder first, Americans too impatiently fret that the rest of the developing world isn't scampering up into the branches with us. It's a lot like the notion that with cloning you'll be able to hatch a complete and socially acclimated adult out of the shell. None of that fussy toilet training and adolescence to struggle through.
Actually, the more worrisome topic Kerr covers is the rise of ethnocentrism in an almost ethnocentrically-pure country. It's reminiscent of know-nothing and isolationist attitudes the U.S. suffered during recent and historical recessions, and is no doubt spurred on by the same forces (and Japan's disturbingly Huxleyan government). But I believe it too shall pass, once people are given more appropriate targets for their frustrations--namely, politicians.
In terms of environmentalism, for example, you start out with the industrial revolution and the exploitations of nature, then people notice how ugly and unhealthy it is and you move into the subduing nature stage (the Colorado River and Tennessee Valley Authority being prime examples), and then you start to figure out that just leaving nature alone is not such a bad thing. Japan is still in the process of seeing every example of imperfect or threatening nature as a candidate for another TVA project. And unlike the U.S. during the 1930s, Japan has a whole lot more money to get carried away with.
But the process takes about a century, and Japan has been a functioning free-market democracy for only fifty years, while the United States, in 1776, had been hard at work at both capitalism and democracy for two centuries already, and had the legacy of the transcendentalists and naturalists and politicians like Teddy Roosevelt to draw on when the movement did get underway.
Similarly, it doesn't surprise me that the current generation in China is so much more nationalistic and less reactionary--life, for them and their parents, is better than they could have ever possibly imagined. (The same was said of the baby boom generation in Japan.) But let the alloy of capitalism and democracy slowly work its magic. Call it the Consumer Reports syndrome. Once you have come to expect a certain quality and satisfaction in the goods and services you consume on a regular basis, and to expect an inevitable increase in the standard of living, it's a small step to cast about and begin to expect the same of political and social institutions as well.
You eventually get to point we have reached in U.S. politics, when every generation is convinced that the environment is more polluted, the politics more corrupt, than the last. When, in fact, the truth is the opposite. The result, though, is an incessant pressure to "save the Earth" for each upcoming crop of children, which, while generating unappetizing streams of hand-wringing and angst in the process, does serve to motivate the society as a whole in the direction of constant improvement. So, paradoxically, the less we believe that things are getting better, the more likely they will. Japan, I believe, is proving itself no exception to this rule.
1. C. Douglas Lummis, A New Look at the Chrysanthemum and the Sword (Tokyo: Shohakusha, 1982), p. 76; Roger W. Bowen, Rebellion and Democracy in Meiji Japan, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), p. 312: "The farmers of the 1880s had learned that imperial absolutism was absolute and that they were not going to change the political system by armed rebellion. But that does not mean they ceased rebelling." [return]
2. Carol Gluck, Japan's Modern Myths: Ideology in the late Meiji Period (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 39-41; Edwin O. Reischauer, The Japanese, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), pp. 81-86. [return]
3. Daikichi Irokawa, The Culture of the Meiji Period, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 280. [return]
4. Gluck, p. 3. [return]
5. Lummis, p. 75; Gluck, p. 3. [return]
February 07, 2006
Japan's "Protestant Reformation"
Consider the parallels between doctrinal changes introduced into the practice of Buddhism in Japan and concordant changes in 16th century Christianity, and specifically the compelling similarities between both the theological and political substance of the Protestant Reformation in the mid-1500s and the emergence of a reformed Pure Land Buddhism two centuries before, along with its counter-reformation counterpart, Nichiren.
According to the theory, the approximate 200 year head start that Japanese Buddhism enjoys is simply the result of chronology. The Emperor Asoka converted to Buddhism and established the first Buddhist State in the 3rd century BC. However, analogous in some ways to Christianity, Buddhism faltered in the land of its birth and was overtaken by Hinduism. Mahayana, the "Greater Vehicle" of Buddhism, emerged in the 1st century BC and eventually spread to China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, Central Asia, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
When Saichou (767-822) and Kuukai (774-835), the two great patriarchs of Japanese Buddhism, returned to Japan from China in the early 9th century, they brought with them a fully-developed Mahayana Buddhism as then widely practiced in China. The Tendai and Shingon sects they founded are categorized as "Esoteric" Buddhism, and in outward appearance bear no small resemblance to Catholicism. Esoteric Buddhism relies on ritual and temple observances, on the tutelage of priests, on a tradition of monasticism.
During the first millennium the imperial court embraced the new religion as had Constantine, for reasons of both spiritual and political expediency. The Confucian philosophies that had become entwined with Buddhism during its maturation in China provided an essential rationalization of imperial rule. Moreover, the religion was ideally suited to the aristocracy. At the end of their careers, emperors and warriors could retire to a temple or monastery and work out their salvation before death.
In the early years of the second millennium, the Fujiwara regents were displaced and then their military overseers--the Taira--were overthrown. When the capital shifted to Kamakura in 1192 the resultant political upheaval triggered a rich outburst of religious diversification that saw the emergence of the three great, enduring sects of Japanese Buddhism and what could be called a Buddhist "Protestant Reformation."
The most familiar to western observers is Zen, especially the Rinzai sect established by Eisai (1141-1215). Eisai began his studies at the Tendai temple on Mt. Hiei. During the second of his pilgrimages to China he was ordained into the Rinzai Zen sect. (Eisai is also credited for introducing tea agriculture to Japan.) His proselytizing was not kindly received by Kyoto's Tendai and Shingon communities, but with the founding of the Kamakura government Eisai found a patron in the shogun himself.
Shogun Minamoto Yoriie subsequently appointed Eisei Chief Priest of Kennin Temple in Kyoto. At Kennin-ji Eisei went out of his way to accommodate Tendai and Shingon rituals and practices, thus diffusing some of the animosity directed towards the upstart religion.
Dougen (1200-1253) studied at Kennin-ji under Eisei's disciple, Myouzen, and went onto found the Soutou school, which today is immediately (and perhaps stereotypically) recognizable for its focus on Zazen meditation, exemplified by the circular dialectic of the koan and the concept of "the Way" (Dou) to perfection as rooted in "no-mind" or unconscious action and satori. Zen became the Buddhist sect most closely associated with the psychology and the purely aesthetic sense of "being Japanese."
Zen's adoption by the secular powers-that-be paradoxically precluded it from the entanglements of king-making. With its protected status, its infusion over ten centuries into all aspects of Japanese culture transmuted Zen into as much an ethos as a religion, akin to the "Protestant work ethic" and code of "rugged individualism" that Americans claim as defining of their character. Zen's almost transparent absorption into the "collective unconsciousness" makes it a less significant factor in this discussion.
The Tendai and Shingon sects and their powerful monasteries, however, struggled hard to bolster their failing influence. The patronage of the movers and shakers of the Nara and Kyoto courts had indeed established Buddhism as the de facto state religion. But power corrupts, and petty differences among Shingon and Tendai adherents vying for say over the affairs of state often degraded into pitched battles.
Hounen (1133-1212) was a Tendai priest at Enryaku-ji, the temple headquarters of the sect. Disillusioned with the decadence and corruption he saw around him, he turned to the Pure Land sect. Pure Land Buddhism was defined in its modern form by the 5th century Chinese monk Hui-yuan (334-417), who presaged Luther by promulgating a doctrine of salvation based not on effort and ritual, but on faith in the grace of the Amida Buddha and his infinite power and compassion.
The Pure Land Sutras (scriptures) were brought to China from India in the second century AD. According to these sutras, Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, had in a previous life rejected Buddhahood. In this prior incarnation, as the transcendent Amida Buddha, he vowed to forestall his own enlightenment until it became possible to bestow eternal happiness in the Pure Land up all beings (including, importantly, women) who with faith would call upon his name.
In his reinterpretation of Joudo (Japanese for Pure Land), Hounen further simplified the nenbutsu, essentially the Buddhism version of a crossing oneself and saying the Lord's Prayer. By de-emphasizing karma and rejecting the "works" associated with traditional Buddhist practice--asceticism, meditation and study--Hounen created a religion that could be comprehended and practiced by the laity, that held out a hope of salvation to the common man in his own lifetime.
Hounen's disciple, Shinran (1173-1262), simplified Joudo further. Joudoshin, or New Pure Land Buddhism, held that reciting the nenbutsu just once would suffice, much in the same way that Christian evangelical preachers call on their listeners to "confess Christ." Shinran, like Luther, also rejected monasticism and a celibate priesthood. Today, the majority of Buddhist priests in Japan follow Pure Land traditions, marry and participate actively in their local communities.
In his biographical sketch of Shinran, Pier Del Campana describes these evolved Pure Land doctrines in terms that with the barest of alterations could be attributed to Billy Graham or Jerry Falwell:
Amida vowed that after his enlightenment all his followers would be saved provided they had faith in him and recited his name. The fact that he has attained supreme enlightenment is proof that men can be saved through faith in him. On the other hand, men are so corrupt that they cannot merit salvation and rebirth in the Pure Land through their own efforts. No matter how much a person practices austerities and performs good deeds, he cannot save himself; salvation comes only through faith in Amida (Great Historical Figures of Japan, p. 105).
True to his Tendai roots, Nichiren based his theology on a new reading of the Lotus Sutra. But Nichiren rejected the Esoteric path offered by Kuukai and the "easy" path offered by the Pure Land disciples. He lashed out at Hounen for slighting the historical Shakyamuni Buddha (Gautama) in favor of the abstract Amida Buddha, accusing him of being a "sworn enemy of the Law," meaning, the law of causality, the universal principle underlying all phenomena and events in daily life.
Nichiren, to be sure, was no Pelagian (an adjective perhaps more appropriate to Zen). He might actually have agreed with Hounen's strikingly similar restatement of James 2:14: "Without deeds, faith is dead, and without faith, deeds are dead." Wrote Nichiren in On Attaining Buddhahood:
Whether you chant the Buddha's name, recite the sutra or merely offer flowers and incense, all your virtuous acts will implant benefits in your life. With this conviction you should put your faith into practice . . . . Even a tarnished mirror will shine like a jewel if it is polished. A mind which presently is clouded by illusions originating from the innate darkness of life is like a tarnished mirror, but once it is polished it will become clear, reflecting the enlightenment of immutable truth.
And what is the polishing tool? Soka Gakkai's famed Namu-myou-houren-gekyou nenbutsu, a ritual, prayer, and sacrament rolled into one. This nenbutsu Nichiren derived from the Lotus Sutra, but unlike Shinran he further defined the nenbutsu as part and parcel of an "assiduous practice" to be exercised morning and night, and supplemented by additional acts of faith, study and missionary work.
I don't think it too far a reach here to compare Nichiren's Buddhist counter-reformation to Joseph Smith's efforts at bridging the Catholic/Protestant chasm between works and grace. Like Smith, in contrast to the prevailing grace-centered faith, Nichiren essentially preached that salvation comes by grace only "after all we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23). And as with Mormons, to followers of Nichiren "all we can do" means much effort. No free ride to heaven here.
Also paralleling Smith, Nichiren separated himself from the mainstream religions by declaring his to be the one true Buddhism. All others were false, misguided and heretical. In tones that would sound familiar to observers of modern, politically-active religious movements, Nichiren proclaimed that things were going to hell in a handbasket precisely because the people were following after the wrong Gods and the nation's leaders weren't hearkening to his message.
The government begged to differ and sent him into exile. It might have been for his own good, for on several occasions he was set upon by mobs and almost killed. He was pardoned three years later, but stirred up trouble again and was exiled a second time. This time he escaped on his own accord and consequently avoided re-arrest precisely because things were going to hell in a handbasket.
Nichiren had proved uncannily prescient in prophesying the Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274 and the government thought it best not to tempt fate. It was not only his confrontational character that made him so many enemies ("I am certainty the most intractable person of all Japan," he wrote shortly before his death), it was his redefinition of the relationship between church and state.
Unlike the Shinran, Saichou and Kuukai, Nichiren had no familial connections to the aristocracy. This fact he took advantage of, rejecting the hierarchal leanings of Tendai and Shingon and styling himself a low-born commoner, a "man of the people." He couched his arguments in terms of national exceptionalism while proclaiming the imminent threat of apocalyptic doom and a utopian vision of a perfectible society to be established in the here and now.
This populist appeal served and was strengthened by the more pragmatic elements of his religious philosophy. A primary purpose of the church, he insisted, was not to secure happiness in some future life, but in the here and now. Writes Pier Del Campana,
For [Nichiren] religious ideals were inseparable from society and had to be realized in society. Salvation could not be achieved only at the level of individual meditation, because, first, no individual exists by himself, and secondly, because a living being can only realize itself through action and not by mere spiritual activity (Great Historical Figures of Japan, p. 112).
But while all the same ingredients were there, this 13th century Buddhist "reformation" did not directly threaten the existing political order. To be sure, Nichiren's stridency inflamed passions and raised the hackles of secular and religious leaders. And half a century earlier, in 1207, Hounen and Shinran had been defrocked and exiled and the Pure Land sect banned. However, only four years later the ban was repealed and they were both pardoned.
Ever since the founding of the Japanese state in Nara there had certainly been no separation of church and state, but the upper hand had always been held firmly by the state. The only ceremonial imprimatur a warlord ever sought was that of the emperor, and emperors were easily replaced. Add to this the fractioning of Buddhist belief into competing sects from before the time of Kuukai and Saichou and it was simple politics to play one side off against the other.
As a result, with the exception of the Tokugawa anti-Christian purges (confined mostly to Kyushu but lasting a quarter-century) and the post-Meiji anti-Buddhist purges (lasting less than a decade but nationwide), the notable incidents of religious conflict in Japanese history were short-lived and regional in scope, in no way comparable to Europe's continental-wide Thirty Years' War. Which is not to say that they were not at times extremely bloody.
The most horrific examples of religious violence arose when a shogun or military leader perceived that a particular sect was giving aid and comfort to a secular enemy. In the mid-12th century, Taira no Kiyomori ordered a military assault on the monks of Nara, whom he felt were showing undue partiality to his implacable foe, the Minamoto. What followed was the infamous "Burning of Nara," a conflagration that killed 3000 and destroyed most of the city's temples and monasteries.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, during the Warring States period, the collapse of central authority again allowed a number of prominent Buddhist sects to enter the political arena, in some cases governing entire provinces, as did a Ikkou (Pure Land) sect in Kaga prefecture, from 1488 to 1531.
For four years during the 1530s, in what is known as the Hokke Ikki (Lotus Uprising), followers of Nichiren took over the city of Kyoto. The uprising ended in 1536 when Enryaku-ji Tendai warrior monks descended from Mt. Hiei and leveled all 21 Nichiren temples, burning a good portion of Kyoto in the process.
Oda Nobunaga's Napoleonic campaign to unify the country. In retaliation Nobunaga razed the temple complex to the ground. The death toll at Enryaku-ji alone is estimated at 20,000. Then in 1579, in a demonstration of his brutal ecclesiastical neutrality, Nobunaga had three prominent Nichiren clerics executed and forbid Nichiren Buddhism from being proselyted in Kyoto.
In ironic contrast to the Nobunaga's merciless battles against the Tendai temple on Mt. Hiei and the Pure Land temple at Ishiyama Hongan was his partiality to the recently-arrived Jesuit monks. This was in part motivated by a sincere curiosity in things foreign. But he also saw Christianity as a check on the militant Buddhism, and Nobunaga learned to deploy the modern weaponry supplied by Portuguese traders with devastating effectiveness.
His sympathies toward Christianity was in no way shared by his successors. Of Nobunaga's religious pogroms Billy J. Cody notes that, "His purpose was not the extermination of their religion, but only [their] political and military role" (Great Historical Figures of Japan, p. 165). But beginning with Hideyoshi and culminating with the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate the goal of the government was the literal extermination of Christianity from Japanese soil.
However, again, it is difficult to tease out of this extreme antipathy towards Christianity any kind of interest in or dispute over doctrine. It was a simple matter of geopolitics. The Jesuits had had their greatest success in the provinces of Kyushu and southern Honshu, claiming among their passionate converts a number of prominent daimyo, or military governors. After the turning-point battle of Sekigahara, many of these Christian samurai ended up on the wrong side of history.
One fear familiar to European politics was that Catholics were ultimately beholding to Rome, that they could call upon Spain and Portugal for arms and material support in resisting the unification of the country under a "pagan" banner. For the increasingly xenophobic Tokugawa, after a century of civil war the mere possibility was an intolerable one. That Ieyasu's principal foreign advisor was Will Adams, a Protestant Englishman, surely did not help.
The brutal campaign against the Catholic community ended at the siege of Hara Castle, 40 miles east of Nagasaki on the Shimabara peninsula (during which a Dutch warship offered token support to the shogunate). When, in 1638, the castle fell after a three month siege, some 37,000 Christians, along with their allies and sympathizers, were killed or executed.
The Tokugawa government restricted all foreign trade to a single port in Nagasaki manned by a single Dutch envoy, and then embarked on the most successful gun control program in history. The last thing a feudal regime desires is the "great equalizer" in the hands of an overtaxed peasantry. It was not all misplaced paranoia. Two-and-a-half centuries later the Tokugawa government would be overthrown by Nagasaki's neighbors, the Satsuma and Choshu clans, well-armed with western military hardware.
A small Christian diaspora survived Shimabara, practicing in secret, not to emerge until the 1868 Meiji Restoration. The Meiji Restoration also saw the last incidence of state-condoned religion-on-religion violence, this time between Shinto and Buddhism.
The Tokugawa regime had adopted Neo-Confucianism as its governing ideology, which itself drew on a philosophical foundation of Buddhist metaphysics. Following Kuukai's original formulation the native Shinto religion, upon which Japan's imperial system was founded, was subsumed into the Buddhist ecclesiastical order. In Confucian terms, this was necessary to compensate for the fact that, unlike in China, the emperor reigned but did not rule, an oversight the Meiji Restoration intended to rectify.
But with the de jure restoration of the Chrysanthemum Throne Buddhism was disestablished, the two religions were disentangled, and Shinto was elevated in its place. Not only had "outsider" provinces such as Satsuma and Choshu chafed under the long "dictatorial peace" of Tokugawa rule, followers of Shinto had also deeply resented their subordinated status. With the acquiesce and often the cooperation of the nascent government they took revenge.
During the rampage that followed (the Haibutsu Kishaku), thousands of Buddhist temples and monasteries were looted, vandalized and burned. Over 18,000 temples were closed, their lands confiscated. Shinto shrines were removed from Buddhist temple grounds. "Blue laws" prohibiting the eating of meat by Buddhist clerics and marriage among monks and nuns were overturned. Clergy supported by the state were forcibly laicized. Unlike previous anti-Buddhist purges the violence was mostly limited to property damage and it had spent itself by the mid-1870s.
The role of state Shinto was strengthened during the first half of the 20th century and became closely entwined with Japan's war effort. In 1945 it was Shinto's turn to be disestablished. Today, aside from controversial state visits to Yasukuni, the Shinto shrine where Japan's war dead are interred, and the very occasional coronation ceremony, the relationship between church and state in Japan resembles that between the Church of England and the British throne--symbolic, not theological, in execution.
In sectarian terms, 1945 marked for Japan what Francis Fukuyama has termed the "end of history," the end of social evolution rising out of marked ideological conflict. At this point, "genetic drift" (or perhaps "meme drift") takes over and a regression to the mean begins. With a vengeance.
An international survey conducted in 2002 found that in the United States, 59 percent of poll respondents claimed that religion was "very important" in their lives. For Japan it was 12 percent. More revealing was a 1996 Japan Agency for Cultural Affairs survey that reported declared church membership as 194 million, 54 percent higher than the total population, meaning that a significant proportion were claiming simultaneous membership in two or three quite different religions.
Shinto and Buddhism have achieved a balance of practice and belief that almost suggests careful negotiation by a higher power. Coming-of-age ceremonies from birth until marriage are oriented in Shinto rites, while Buddhism continues until death and the hereafter. This can be seen in the two biggest national holidays: Hatsumode, the New Year's visit to the local Shinto shrine, and the August Obon, the Festival for the Dead, with its roots in the Urabon Sutra.
Christianity has brought widespread (commercial) recognition to holidays such as Valentine's Day and Christmas. Wedding ceremonies are often conducted according to Shinto rites, with a generic "Christian" reception following. This laissez-faire approach can cause spiritual dilemmas, leading Dean Gilliland of the Fuller Theological Seminary to ponder whether Christians who participate in Hatsumode are possibly "flirting with spiritual danger" and committing idolatry.
Dean Gilliland suggests a compromise, that the celebrant "participates with his family in the act of going to the shrine and enjoying in the festival atmosphere, but does not participate in anything with more religious connotations." A nice solution, though I must confess that, as Mormon missionaries, my companions and I attended Hatsumode, pitched a few coins into the box, took lots of pictures of the cute girls in gorgeous kimono, and didn't give it a second thought. We found a cultural mean to regress to purely by reflex.
Consider what was once the radical religious fringe, Nichiren Buddhism. Soka Gakkai's political arm, the Koumeito, or Clean Government Party, holds 34 seats in Japan's lower house, third behind the Liberal Democratic Party and Democratic Party of Japan (who together hold 368 seats). Though it generally stands in opposition to the LDP, it is considered "centrist" in political orientation. Not a wild-eyed bunch of intolerant, religious fanatics.
Likewise, the Mormon church, America's one, new, "native" religion, has of late steered toward middle waters, stashing its historical baggage deep in the hold (except when it can play up its status as a historical victim), while insisting on its exceptionality. It still suffers slings and arrows from the mainstream. But Christianity has at least two hundred more years to evolve. Due to the pace and interconnectedness of things we will likely get there sooner than later.
The same could be said of Islam, arriving on the world stage five hundred years after Christianity, a thousand years after Buddhism. The model places Islam in the turbulent midst of its own reformation, with all the confusion between church and state and faith and violence. Yet social evolution averages the collective behavior of individuals over spans of time, making it difficult to point to statistical outliers as harbingers of change when one is immersed in the stream of history.
The question remains whether this or that socio-cultural mutation has set a trend or is a self-correcting error. Two contemporaneous examples of religious belief in extremis in Japan and the United States, the Branch Davidians and Aum Shinri Kyou, suggest not a widespread return to religious conflict, but rather exemplify the efficient social centrifuges that post-modern societies have become, spinning the heavy radicals off into extinction.
So perhaps Yeats was wrong after all. Things fall apart, and as a consequence the center holds all the stronger. Though one is left to wonder, when all is spun away, what of a passionate, sectarian nature will be left behind.
February 06, 2006
Three visions of a distant shore
With the publication of The Amber Spyglass and the completion of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, Philip Pullman has produced a first-rate adventure that dares for the first time since C.S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" to place the entire sweep of Christian eschatology at the heart of a young adult fantasy series.
Having set the stage for the apocalyptic showdown in the The Golden Compass, and then filling out the cast of characters in The Subtle Knife, Pullman goes on in The Amber Spyglass to question the existence of God, the nature of good and evil, the nature of thought and matter. The structure of his argument holds so well over 1000 pages because the author has set his foundation firmly in the classics, a good place to begin any discussion of the meaning of life. Borrowing from Dante and Vergil, he sends Will Parry and Lyra Silvertongue on the mythic heroic journey: literally from the top of the world, to the depths of hell, and back to Eden.
The title of the trilogy comes Book II of Milton's Paradise Lost, which itself foreshadows the theological challenge Pullman has laid out for himself:
But all these in thir pregnant causes mixt
Confus'dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th' Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds
And considering how well he rises to the challenge, I think it only appropriate that Andrew Marvell's summation of Milton's work, found in the introduction to the Second Edition (1674), so well applies here as well.
In slender Book his vast Design unfold,
Messiah Crown'd, Gods Reconcil'd Decree,
Rebelling Angels, the Forbidden Tree,
Heav'n, Hell, Earth, Chaos, All; the argument
Held me a while misdoubting his Intent
"Yet as I read," Marvell records, "I lik'd his project." An understatement, to say the least. Displaying a breathtaking reach of imagination (his conceptualization of the "daemon," alone, surpasses expectations, and strikes deep chords of affirmation), Pullman pulls off his equivalent epic with a sagacity and a depth of feeling that stirs the soul.
To a sufficient extent that "His Dark Materials" constitutes some of the most important writing in the genre in the last half-century. It is a work of serious literary weight, and works of serious literary weight beg comparison, or at least a vigorous shoving match.
At first glance Lewis's "Narnia" seems the prime candidate. As in Pullman's trilogy, Lewis's protagonists cross the boundaries of adulthood as they cross the boundaries between worlds. The decisive element perhaps in all successful juvenile fantasy is this transitional period between childhood and adulthood, where the characters possess the qualities of both simultaneously.
This is difficult--if not impossible--to depict in real life (which is perhaps why I so dislike all the video renditions of Narnia I've ever seen. Though I think that Hayao Miyazaki could carry it off--note the relationship between Nausicaa and Asbel, and Lyra and Will.) But as a literary device it works wonderfully when done right. Harry Potter, for example.
And it's not a matter of portraying children as small grownups. Though Lyra and Will and Harry Potter (and Miyazaki's Nausicaa) are often called on to behave as no child could or would--no matter how brave or precocious--they are not behaving as adults could or would, either. They act, rather, even when yielding to their darker impulses, with a purity of intent that adults never achieve. They thus represent a state of transcendence: in the world, but not beholding to the distracting and prosaic and cynical concerns that become the inevitable burden of growing old.
So these are easy associations to make. Even easier to make when you consider that both Lewis and Pullman studied at Oxford and went on to teach literature (Pullman at Westminster College, Lewis at Oxford and Cambridge).
In terms of theological surmise, although both works similarly circumnavigate the continents that separate Genesis and the Ends of the Earth, the more appropriate mirror to hold up to Pullman's work is the lesser known "Space Trilogy." To begin with, both Pullman's "His Dark Materials" and Lewis's "Space Trilogy" are informed by an intimate knowledge of the academic environment. Out of the Silent Planet sets forth from Cambridge; The Golden Compass originates at Oxford, and both are ultimately concerned with the triumph of good over evil.
But these are also correlations that can distract more than they inform, and hide the more important similarities hidden deep within the stories the two authors tell.
Their styles, to begin with, differ considerably. Pullman sweeps his landscape with a spyglass, pulling his characters into focus with the long lense; Lewis writes with a microscope, focused on the small, sharp, human foibles that make his human (and no so human) actors human. His comminatory narrative shines above all else, proving the old writer's adage wrong: you can show by telling. (1)
It is, to be sure, a strange talent. Heroes and villains of Shakespearean magnitude only peripherally step onto his stage: Aslan is the Lion, and the White Witch is, well, a wicked one. But if Lewis doesn't have much to say about the melodramatics of evil, he has plenty to say about ordinary meanness (both the unpleasant and the small). (2) Enough to constitute two notable volumes: The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters. He has Screwtape, in fact, complain of the task that he, the author, has been reduced to: sinners "so muddled in mind, so passively responsive to environment," as to render them "hardly worth damning."
And not so pleasant to have around, either. Many of his child actors seem refugees from some hellish school playground, gripped by a kind of nascent nastiness that occasionally infects the narrator; though, as in The Screwtape Letters, Lewis's slings and arrows more often than not puncture his protagonists.
In That Hideous Strength, Lewis diverts the point-of-view of the first two books away from the now Jeremianic Ransom and focuses instead on Mark and Jane Studdock. Two very ordinary people--indistinguishable even today from any middle-class professional couple--with very ordinary problems, contemplating ending a marriage that has ceased to inspire either of them. "He was an excellent sleeper," Jane Studdock observes of her husband. "Only one thing ever seem able to keep him awake after he had gone to bed, and even that did not keep him awake for long."
And poor Mark Studdock, whose soul is up for sale in That Hideous Strength, hardly comprehends the Faustian bargain he is negotiating.
Like the rest of us, he's after a good job, better pay, an enhanced reputation. His weakness is a quiet insecurity, a wanting to be liked: "If he were ever cruel it would be downwards, to inferiors and outsiders who solicited his regard, not upwards to those who rejected him. There was a good deal of the spaniel in him."
Yet nobody shouts or weeps or carries on, no lawyers are retained, no divorce papers filed. The apocalypse waits upon the fate of a mundane marriage that shows every sign of dying with a whimper. Yet the import of this lost cause is never lost. Lewis's eschatology can be as subtle as his sense of the fine divide--that moment of zero slope along the curve--between what makes right and wrong:
There may have been a time in the world's history when such moments fully revealed their gravity, with witches prophesying on a blasted heath or visible Rubicons to be crossed. But . . . it all slipped past in a chatter of laughter, of that intimate laughter between fellow professionals, which of all earthly powers is strongest to make men do very bad thing before they are yet, individually, very bad men.
Lewis's attention to such subtleties of human frailty, his acuity of observation, makes for a rhetorical weapon with a dangerous edge. Lewis is too easily able to reduce his enemies with ad hominem appraisals that possess the veneer of rational discourse. And in combination with his sometimes reactionary Victorianism, it turns into a kind of blunderbuss, and you hear the sound of the white Englishman's burden falling to the floor with a hollow clunk. Equating quality of character with the wearing of corsets, for example; and a remark about Eustace Scrubb's parents at the beginning of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader being "vegetarians, nonsmokers, and teetotalers" and wearing a "special kind of underclothes" that is so far out of left field I cannot pretend to understand what he meant by it. (3)
And then there's Lewis's theology, outside the context of which nothing he wrote can be intelligently discussed. Lewis is carrying on in Narnia the job he began in Mere Christianity, laying on top of his stories a thick layer of apologetics, answering his academic critics (The Silver Chair being a case in point) with children's voices. And when it's your world and your rules, it's not hard to win all the arguments. It's not exactly fighting fair, and Lewis, making the most of his education, with a rich command of allegory at his fingertips, knows how not to show his hand all at once.
Lewis risks, nevertheless, what may be called the Socrates Syndrome. George Bernard Shaw describes it well in the introduction to Saint Joan: the intelligent, rhetorically-gifted individual, convinced of his own rightness, who never quite understands that his brilliant arguments, although transfixing to the choir, only piss off those who disagree with him. Having been weaned on Lewis, I have developed something of an immunity to his faults. He comes across to me now almost as one of his characters, a frumpy Edwardian, the eccentric relation who pops up every Thanksgiving grumbling about the slipshod state of the modern world. You put up with him because when you settle him down the old guy tells such good stories.
Nevertheless, extreme annoyance is exactly my reaction to Plato. His mentor's fate may have been unjust, but it doesn't surprise me one bit.
But C.S. Lewis is read primarily by children to whom these machinations are mostly transparent, or by adults who have already claimed discipleship. It is the surprising strength of Lewis's ecumenicism that demands study by any serious propagandist, as the whole Christian world wants to claim him as their own, even those sects whose theological differences are sufficient to bring them to evangelical knife points. (4) I suspect Lewis has achieved such a mythic status because what he stands for eclipses what he says. Few of his fans, I'm convinced, have read carefully what the man actually wrote (true of Holy Scripture in general).
Notwithstanding all this, the enormous popularity of the series proves yet again the power of raw story to overcome deficiencies in the prose (J.K. Rowling, being another prime example). Which is why I praise "The Chronicles of Narnia" as one of the most subversive works of young adult fiction ever written.
Subversiveness, you see, is not necessarily a bad thing. To good or bad ends, it depends on which side you agree with. (We don't really mind the cheap shots when we wish we thought of them first.) And I'm not sure that what you can't see can hurt you, else the world would be full of many more Anglicans than it is. There is a quality of cluelessness--call it innocence--that protects children from ulterior motives, just as it protects them from the Specters of Cittàgazze.
Philip Pullman has also been branded with the label, not because he is, but because people don't agree with him. And because people liked to be shocked and offended, and thereby reassured that we'd all be better off if everybody else saw the world exactly the way we see it. Taking the label at face value, "His Dark Materials" is, yes, an exercise in not seeing the world the way most Americans see it. (Not that I believe that Pullman had Americans particularly in mind, but we rise always to the occasion.) But there is a difference. You can't exactly be subversive when you lay all your cards on the table. Pullman does.
And quite a lot of cards Pullman does put on the table, embracing Really Big Ideas in not-so-acceptable ways. In this reworking of Paradise Lost, he asks a compelling hypothetical. Given that Milton's version gives the devil all the good lines, what if--because it's the winner's version that's always the accepted version--what if those rebellious angels were on the side of right all along? For our bad guy, Pullman posits that Metatron (5) has pulled a coup d'etat on God, thrown out the good guys, and decided that it's time to tighten the screws--using the Church as his instrument--the human race having gotten a bit too carried away with this free agency stuff.
Frankly, not an unreasonable surmise, considering the way organized religions (and governments) have behaved throughout great swathes of human history. Personally, I like the idea that if we were in fact that unruly third of the host of heaven cast down to Earth, it would go a long way in explaining why human beings can be so awful to each other, and why power and agency are so coveted yet so abused.
In the larger view, though, Pullman has adopted a more Olympian than Christian architecture. The Gods meddling with the humans. (Compare Vergil.) But it's an unfortunate commentary about our jaded times that heresy--by which I mean nontraditional ways of looking at the relationship between God and man, not blasphemy, with which it is often confused--doesn't get much of a rise out of anybody but the Fundamentalist fringe, and then them for all the wrong reasons.
It's somewhat reassuring to see that J.K. Rowling has managed to ruffle the feathers of a few Muggles. But very few.
Outrage is typically reserved for shocking! (always include the exclamation point) discoveries of hints of teenage sexuality, implicit (as in The Goats by Brock Cole), or explicit (as in The Wind Blows Backward by Mary Downing Hahn). In any case, for the easily offended sex is suggested--though never stated explicitly, you can read into it what you will--in, of course, the Garden of Eden scenes, foreshadowed throughout the series.
The real shocker, though, is Pullman's exegesis. This retelling of man's fall "upwards" into grace positions Pullman as a modern Pelagius to C.S. Lewis's Augustine. And here, finally, there emerges the possibility of a philosophical nexus between these two authors, and one more, that great, grossly underestimated, early 19th century transcendentalist neo-Pelagian, Joseph Smith. (6)
Pelagius was a contemporary of Augustine, well educated and fluent in Latin, most probably a native of Ireland. (7) He resided in Rome during the late 4th century and there developed a theology of salvation and personal perfection that two decades later, at the Council of Carthage in 418 would be declared heresy. Augustine's view of the Fall of Adam, Original Sin, the necessity of child baptism and the necessity of the Grace of Christ, would become the unquestioned orthodoxy of the Catholic church.
In the spring of 1820, in western New York State, Pelagius found himself a champion in the person of Joseph Smith. A Yankee (born in Vermont), and a Methodist by upbringing, Smith saw visions of God as a fourteen year old boy, was instructed by an angel to dig out of a nearby hill the ancient record of the ancient Americas, which he published as the Book of Mormon. He went on to define a theology both outrageously unique and brazenly syncretic; it would be received by the greater Christian community about as graciously then (and today) as Pelagius's preachings were fourteen centuries before.
Joseph Smith's effort was not simply to reject Original Sin and child baptism (his second Article of Faith reads, "We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam's transgression"; from the Book of Mormon: "little children need no repentance, neither baptism"), and knit together Protestant grace and the Catholic sacraments. His boldest step was to portray the human race as gods in embryo, not the offspring but the siblings of Christ.
The kernel at the core of this theology is found in Psalms 82:6, "I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High," which Christ later quotes in John 10:34, and which Joseph Smith chose to take literally, overthrowing the old Nicene gods as surely as does Pullman.
Compare Joseph Smith's writings with Balthamos's assertion (in The Amber Spyglass) that Dust itself is matter made self-aware, that the Angels "condensed out of Dust" and are co-eternal with God, and not the original creations of God. "Man was also in the beginning with God," reads the Doctrine & Covenants. "Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be." The most definite pronouncement of this doctrine was made in a funeral address now known as the King Follett sermon, first published in the Times and Seasons, August 15, 1844:
There never was a time when there were not spirits; for they are co-equal with our Father in heaven. . . . [I] proclaim from the house-tops that God never had the power to create the spirit of man at all. God himself could not create himself. Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle.
Ask an informed Christian what disqualifies Mormonism from Christian fellowship, and this is the doctrine he will site. More unfortunate is that the leadership of the Mormon Church has taken the criticism to heart, and has for decades been steadily covering up and backing away from what Joseph Smith preached. (8) Ever since rejecting polygamy in order to gain Utah statehood at the turn of the century, the church has turned ever more sharply towards an aspect of Pelagianism that Joseph Smith never fully embraced. Call it the revenge of the Augustinians.
Pelagius was an ascetic, out of the Stoical tradition, and Joseph Smith definitely was not. Although the modern church has tried hard to turn him into one (it makes for a nice fit with the poor, illiterate, farm boy, Horatio Alger image). Smith loved life, loved women enough to reinvent polygamy at the same time he was inventing a brand-new religion, was at home in the physical and often gave as good as he got (which, in part, eventually got him killed).
"The great principle of happiness," he wrote, "consists in having a body. The devil has no body, and herein is his punishment."
On this point all three authors converge. "Dust loves matter," observes Mary Malone. Lewis uses almost the same language: "God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. . . . He likes matter. He invented it." God, pouts Screwtape, is "a hedonist at heart." In That Hideous Strength Lewis creates the opposite of Dust, the macrobe. Like the microbe ubiquitous, but situated "above the animal level of animal life." And while communication between humans and macrobes has been "spasmodic, and . . . opposed by numerous prejudices," it has had a "profound influence," which if known would rewrite all of history. But the macrobes are the stuff of dark angels, inimical to human freedom, with a Manichaean loathing for matter and emotion.
So much like the councils of Pullman's Church (in which Lewis's Reverend Straik would certainly find welcome tenure), the ultimate goal of the macrobes is to compromise the intellect and crush the will. Keep the context in mind when Rita Skadi contends that "[this] is what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling." Lewis wouldn't necessarily disagree:
I know some muddle-headed Christians have talked as if Christianity thought that sex, or the body, or pleasure were bad in themselves. But they [are] wrong. Christianity . . . thoroughly approves of the body [and] believes that matter is good.
In the conclusion to his chapter on sexual morality in Mere Christianity (that surely places him at odds with the conservative--and surprisingly gnostic--Protestant view that presently eclipses the American religious landscape), Lewis unapologetically states that the "sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins." He provides us with this vivid comparison: "A cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute."
To which he adds, "Of course, it is better to be neither."
This distorted emphasis on "sins of the flesh" reflects that incessant human need to judge and evaluate and categorize, which arises partly out of necessity, mostly out of prejudice. The great sins, Lewis argues, are spiritual in nature, or rather, metaphysical. And the greatest of all, he insists, is pride. There is much irony in the fact, Lewis admits: "Other vices may sometimes bring people together: you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people or unchaste people. But Pride always means enmity."
The problem is, it's a lot easier to tell if a man smokes, or is a drunk, or sleeps around, and the strictures of organized religion are readily amenable to the human need to define tribal allegiances, to say who's on our side, and who's not. Even when it comes to outright war, religious wars are rarely about religion. It'd be almost reassuring to believe that what really divides Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland is the question of Papal infallibility and salvation by grace vs. works. But at the core of most "religious" conflict are battles over property and power and the right to rule. Religion supplies each side with the flags, the uniforms, and a convenient, existential grievance, if one happens to be lacking.
And the choicest piece of real estate in any religious conflict is heaven.
Regardless of the strength of sincere belief, heaven is still a hypothetical. But that hasn't kept anyone from staking a claim. Sort of like selling the naming rights to craters on the moon. It'd be hard to come up with a better example of this pretension in action than the "Rapture," according to which all the good, God-fearing folk (Christian God-fearing folk, that is) will be "caught up into heaven" right before the apocalypse counts down to zero. The rest of us sad sacks will get "left behind." (9)
Compared with this, Pullman's vision of the afterlife, pursuing Dante and Vergil, is almost refreshing. We all go into the dark, as Eliot phrased it, and it sucks big time.
Lewis's hell in The Great Divorce is equally dark, though its occupants there are tormented by the banalities of evil. Hell is both small and infinite. Infinitely small. Heaven can't join hell simply because it can't fit. Even Minos, as it turns out, would rather rule the dead than judge them. It is a hard reality for those looking forward to an afterlife in which they will lord their righteousness over their neighbors. But like C.S. Lewis's dwarves, who make it into heaven fine, but are blind to its gifts, the dead in Pullman's Hades can't see the hell they carry inside them. The Harpies tell Lyra and Will and the Gallivespians,
Thousands of years ago, when the first ghosts came down here, [God] gave us the power to see the worst in every one, and we have fed on the worst ever since, till our blood is rank with it and our very hearts are sickened.
Lewis takes an opposite, but not opposing, tack. It is not even the name of the god that matters, Aslan tells Prince Emeth, but how we behave in the name of that god that instructs the better "angels of our nature":
Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.
Joseph Smith also preached judgement relative to all possible factors. He considered it "preposterous" that anybody would be damned "because they did not believe the gospel." God, he declared,
will award judgment or mercy to all nations according to their several desserts, their means of obtaining intelligence, the laws by which they are governed, the facilities afforded them of obtaining correct information, and His inscrutable designs in relation to the human family.
In an echo of Vergil, Smith envisioned that these "several desserts" would require a heaven with three rings, the innermost, or highest, divided into three more. It is one of his oddest creations, and one that Mormons (proving themselves equally susceptible to human nature) have gravitated towards with particular enthusiasm. So much so that it's given rise to the joke about St. Peter giving the newly deceased a tour of Heaven. They pass by a heavily secured door, behind which a great congregation seems to be in assembly. And what is behind that impressive door? St. Peter is asked. "Ah," he says, taking the group aside and speaking in the strictest of confidences, "That's where we keep the Mormons. They think they're the only ones here."
In the end, Smith concludes, "we shall all of us eventually have to confess that the Judge of all the earth has done right, [for] a man is his own tormenter and his own condemner."
The essential statement of man's relationship to his own salvation is found in the Book of Mormon: "by grace we are saved, after all we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23). That comma is much debated: whether we are saved only after exerting all, or saved despite our best efforts. Drawing on the Stoical tradition, Pelagius would have aligned himself with the former, believing that "the moral strength of man's will" was sufficient to bring a man to salvation. Justification itself depends on faith alone (anticipating Luther by a millennium), though it does not automatically sanctify the soul.
Even for Lewis, our attending Augustinian, the physical must follow upon the existential, and action upon reason. But must follow. It should come as no surprise that the preeminent explainer of the Christian religion should prove a master of the dialectic. This is most apparent in That Hideous Strength, described by Lewis as a "fairy tale for adults."
And a grim tale it is. Lewis is fighting with the gloves off, but at least here he stays inside the ropes. Throughout the "Space Trilogy," thought and meaning, discovered in dialogue, resolve to action: Ransom kills Weston only when other means of reason have been exhausted, after lengthy discussion; Merlin is summoned only at the climax of the conflict, with a full knowledge of what must be done.
Pullman's only similarly-informed counterpart, his man with a very big plan, Lord Asriel, is kept mostly off-stage. And he never really explains himself; he just is. At the opposite extreme, Asriel's lover and Lyra's mother, the inscrutable Mrs. Coulter, propels herself from moment to brutal moment, the grasp of meaning hovering always beyond her fingertips, while Will and Lyra and Mary Malone leap continually into the Kierkegaardian dark. As with the Studdocks, they "see through a glass, darkly"; it is action that precipitates knowledge and leads to belief, the product of which might be called trust or obedience.
Obedience to this faith is not blind; obedience for Lewis requires the clearest of all vision: to see the self through the eyes of God, and then to acknowledge the humility necessary to act upon that raw and white-hot knowledge. When Mark Studdock discovers heaven, "all the lout and clown and clod-hopper in him was revealed to his reluctant inspection." Lyra likewise learns the difference--between doing what she wants, and doing what she knows is right--when she disobeys the advice of the Alethiometer:
I done something very bad [she tells Will]. Because the Alethiometer told me I had to stop looking for Dust--at least I thought that's what it said--and I had to help you. I had to help you find your father. And I could, I could take you to wherever he is, if I had it. But I wouldn't listen. I just done what I wanted to do, and I shouldn't . . . .
Lyra's obedience to the Alethiometer is the opposite of that "obedience" rejected by Rita Skadi, when the good witch (not all witches are good in Pullman's universe, but the ones we know are) observes that "every increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit." That is that same viral strain of "obedience" preached to Mark Studdock in the "Objective Room": a bowing down to men who on one hand embrace iconoclasm as the right of those "more equal" than the rest, and at the same time preach acquiescence as the mark of the pure and the faithful.
As with these elements of story, narrative, and character, there are issues of substance between Lewis and Pullman that seem more diametrical at first glance, but which, I believe, dissolve under the light of closer examination. At the heart of it, Lewis is a monarchist. Pullman is a republican, and so the monarchal Church is the enemy. The witch Rite Skadi thus sums her centuries of observation: "Every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling." Mary Malone later calls Christianity a "well-meaning mistake."
Considering my own measured antipathy toward the "organized" part of organized religion, I can sympathize with the sentiment. The problem is, religions sprout like crabgrass even in the most desolate of landscapes. Any examination of human civilization, I believe, drives towards one or both of two conclusions: there is either an ecclesiastical god, or there is such an inclination in the human animal bred deeply in the bone. (10) The Church is the way it is because people are the way they are.
And therefore suffused with human weakness: the idea that the contemporary church would even qualify as some sort of blueprint for a Kingdom of Heaven is one Lewis rejects over and over again. "You are to imagine us," Ransom lectures Mrs. Studdock, "living on a world where the criminal classes of the [angels] have established their headquarters." It is a theme that permeates all of Lewis's writing. Facing the final showdown with evil, Ransom reminds Merlin, "We are four men, some women, and a bear (11) . . . . The Faith itself is torn to pieces . . . . The Hideous Strength holds all this Earth in its fist to squeeze as it wishes."
A situation not so different from that faced by the desperate heroes battling the Church in The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Yet battle they must, against desperate odds. Because Lewis, while a monarchist, is a democrat, suspicious of the collective, holding out great hope in the wisdom and resources of ordinary men. Lewis may not be a deist, but his God is forced to play the role.
Consider angels. Like Pullman's, Lewis's good angels stand mostly apart from human activity. Lewis's Gods are forbidden to "send down the Powers to mend or mar in this Earth until the end of all things." In the meantime, the Oyeresu communicate through Ransom, who seeks out Merlin (as John Parry seeks out his son), while the dark forces at the Institute gather about a disembodied head, their "new man" (Lyra, like Jane Studdock, dreams of a severed head), a gateway to the gods.
It is the revolt against nature which both emboldens evil and destroys it. The means become the ends. The subtle knife looses upon the world the Specters, destroyers of souls. Yet it is the "one weapon in all the universes that could defeat the tyrant," Will's father tells him. Ransom crosses the dimensions of heaven by means of a "subtle engine," devised by his archenemy Weston to breach the wall of heaven and undo Eden. (12) Weston dead, the Institute on brink of destruction, Ransom reflects,
If of their own evil will they had not broken the frontier and let in the celestial Powers, this would be their moment of victory. Their own strength has betrayed them. They have gone to the gods who would not have come to them, and pulled down Deep Heaven on their heads.
The same fate awaits Metatron (and Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter) in the climactic battle in The Amber Spyglass, "Deep Heaven" literally pulled down upon their shoulders, tumbling them into the same Abyss that swallows up Bracton and the Reverend Straik, who dreamed of the Kingdom of God established by "the powers of science" as its "irresistible instrument." Like Father Gomez and the Constitorial Court, men building kingdoms on Earth and rendering unto God that which is Caesar's, The National Institute of Coordinated Experiments, Lewis informs us, "was the first-fruits of that constructive fusion between the state and the laboratory on which so many thoughtful people base their hopes of a better world." But its heart belonged to hell.
There is no institutional solution to righteousness. Human beings build cities on a hill, but they can never found a kingdom of heaven on Earth without first building a Gulag Archipelago. So when Will's father tells him, "It's time we started again, but properly this time," he is not proposing yet another utopian dream soon to degrade into self-righteous totalitarianism. As Will remembers later,
[My father] said we have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are. . . . I thought he just meant Lord Asriel and his new world, but he meant us, he meant you and me. . . . No one could [build Heaven] if they put themselves first. We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and patient, and we've got to study and think and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds. . . .
"We shouldn't live as if it mattered more than this life in this world," says Lyra, "because where we are is always the most important place." (13)
Instructive in this regard is a comparison of Edens. In each lines can be drawn between Weston and Mary Malone, and between Ransom and Father Gomez, between those who fear truth and knowledge, and those who trust it implicitly. One hears echoes of Lewis's Malacandra and Perelandra in the land of Pullman's Mulefa, in Will and Lyra's return there from Hades and Armageddon (compare the final chapter of The Last Battle).
But a return to the Garden is not a return to paradise; it is a graduation from innocence into knowledge. In his acknowledgments, Pullman credits an essay by Heinrich von Kleist titled "The Marionette Theater." (14) The themes of this essay--drawing out the essential contrast between experience and innocence, and pointing to the deliberate labor that any return to Eden must require--play out with Lyra and her mastery of the Alethiometer, in an extension on the mustard seed allegory, delivered by the most unlikely of characters, and in a wonderful concluding discourse upon grace and works. As the angel Xaphania instructs Lyra,
You read [the Alethiometer] by grace, and you can regain it by work. But your reading will be even better then, after a lifetime of thought and effort, because it will come from conscious understanding. Grace attained like that is deeper and fuller than grace that comes freely, and furthermore, once you've gained it, it will never leave you.
This is the whole point of Eden. The problem with archetypes (and with such laden words as "grace") is that it's easy to remember the mythology and forget the original point. In the Biblical story God's greatest act is to permit Eve to be tempted, to allow the knowledge to flow to hearts and minds capable of accepting it. Again, Joseph Smith got this one right, portraying the "Fall" as a necessary step upwards in the evolution of the human race:
And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. . . . wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy. (2 Nephi 2:22-25) (15)
A similar sentiment is echoed in the anime series Scrapped Princess. Finding humankind trapped inside a Rousseauian bell jar, Pacifica (the Eve character) must choose between the guaranteed safety of enforced innocence, and the perils of freedom and self-determination. She must destroy a cruelly anticeptic Eden, its gods and its church--where "Satan's rebellion had been successful"--to make humankind fit for salvation. This is the unique message of Mormonism, and one that Philip Pullman stands squarely behind.
"This is good doctrine," Joseph Smith boasted. "It tastes good." In other words, this is the way the story should be told. "We all need stories," Pullman points out, "but children are more frank about it." Indeed, the admonition to "become as little children" is, if anything, an admonition to treat the structure of story seriously, to recognize that even if you don't believe in Santa Clause, you should still believe in the story. Because some subjects are "too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children's book." Or perhaps, as Lewis prefaced That Hideous Strength, in a fairy tale.
All religious--all political, nationalistic, ideological--belief resolves to story, because the essence of faith and feeling cannot be reduced to objective fact, and story is the only way experience can be effectively transmitted from one mind to another. Mormonism (as an example) is known today for its staid, business-suited veneer, for its proscriptive moral code. A far cry from the infinite expanse of imagination that Joseph Smith suffused into a green and vibrant theology. Smith began his ministry at the age of fourteen, and began a religion with the epic story of two teenagers (Nephi and Mormon).
These are the stories that persevere, that still reach out from beneath the layers of propriety, earnestness, and bureaucracy. Said Philip Pullman at the conclusion of his Carnegie Medal acceptance speech, "We don't need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do's and don'ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever."
The telling moment, for me, occurs in the third chapter of The Subtle Knife. Will finds himself in a situation where he must hide his identity. The alias he provides is "Ransom," as indicated above the eponymic name of C.S. Lewis's hero of the "Space Trilogy." What the two authors have created, then, are not parallel universes, but rather alternate worlds. The view from the one to the other is polarized; the symmetries align; light becomes brighter and contrasts turn dark. Because, regardless of what universe you are in, truth persists, in an eternal center, even when approached from opposite directions.
Even in the midst of darkness the awful, punishing Harpies recognize truth. To the Gallivespian Tialys they explain why they did not attack Lyra when they had wounded her earlier, under similar circumstances,
Because she spoke the truth. Because it was nourishing. Because it was feeding us. Because we couldn't help it. Because it was true. Because we had no idea that there was anything but wickedness. Because it brought us news of the world and the sun and the wind and the rain. Because it was true.
What the Harpies read as truth is the story of a life honestly told. Not lives good or bad, but recounted for what they were; the goodness is in the honesty of the telling. (Also the moral of The Great Divorce.) The stories these authors tell, in turn, are true to their characters, and true to themselves. As Daniel Moloney insightfully argues in First Things, Pullman's story "is not subversive of Christianity, it is almost Christian, even if only implicitly and imperfectly. But implicit and imperfect Christianity is often our lot in life[.]" (16)
There is ultimately more lost than won in searching for two sides of an argument buried somewhere in the rhetoric. There are three sides here, and many more beyond. And each of these authors reinforces a face of the pyramid, and braces the glittering crystal against the gathering dark.
1. Lewis's reportedly awful boarding school childhood would have provided him more ammunition, I think, than motivation. His academic training I consider a more likely contributor in this regard.
Namely, that pedagogical approach popular in institutions of higher learning that confuses the Socratic dialogue with actual instruction. As exemplified by John Houseman's portrayal of Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase, the goal apparently is to goad students into learning by insulting them, the excuse being, I suppose, that all aspects of character are somehow related to the intellectual task at hand, and the professor's task is to beat the undesirable ones out of them with a verbal cane.
Granted, Houseman's Kingsfield is taken to be a caricature of the generic "great professor," a Mr. Chips in extremis. And this attitude is more likely revealed, in the real world, not between teacher and student, but between dueling scholars of elevated and equal status. Commentators on the political scene have long observed (as any loyal C-SPAN follower can attest) that the intensity of debate rises in inverse proportion to the political distance separating the two sides. The rancor between creationists and evolutionary biologists, for example, is only exceeded by the bar fights that break out among the more vocal proponents of the accepted (pro-evolution) schools of thought. Robert Wright's chapter-long evisceration of Stephen Jay Gould in Nonzero, for example.
There is something of a dark art thus fostered in the halls of learning: that ability to dismantle the opponent's position with high-minded logic over the academic table, while weakening his foundation with skewering jabs beneath it, showing all the time the white, kindly smile of objective reason. It demands a sharp mind and sharper wit, and its practitioners hone their blades in the Darwinist crucible of the peer review and high-brow popular press.
Contrary to the popular facade which paints science as an ascetic realm where cool heads and the scientific method prevails, "truth" is often brought to the fore by sheer will and persistence, or by simply waiting long enough for the old guard to die off: Alfred Wegener's theories of continental drift, not accepted until decades after his death; Michael Coe's fascinating account of a single "great" scholar holding back an entire field of study in Breaking the Maya Code.
Such predilections are only exacerbated in the social sciences and the humanities, where experimental data cannot be readily produced to test contrary assertions. And Christian conviction can only compound it. I don't mean the truly contrarian convictions--such as believing the world was created in a literal week--that place the believer completely outside the mainstream, but the scholar who imagines that his work is, in the eyes of the secular world, "tainted" by his faith. This leads the Christian of evangelical spirit to perceive himself as a besieged minority--true to some extent--and worse, one whose opinions are not taken seriously. That is the lowest blow of all.
And hardly unexpected, then, that he should strike back with the weapons his secular education so generously provided him. At my alma mater, Brigham Young University, you can see this dynamic in action at the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), a think tank devoted to Biblical and Book of Mormon archeology and Mormon apologetics. Their peer-reviewed, scholastic work I find readable, worthy of honest debate, and often convincing.
In the arena of polemics (acknowledged as such in their publications), not only do they often choose obscure and deliberately provocative targets, but works by authors embarrassingly less educated than themselves. The FARMS fellows sport degrees from the country's most respected secular institutions, and have no trouble slicing and dicing their enemies to small pieces. It can make for mean satire--think Don Rickles with a Ph.D.--but I'm less than convinced that it serves any useful purpose.
They claim to be following the admonition to be "wise as serpents," but having grown the fangs, they seem to awfully enjoy piercing the flesh. [return]
2. Which isn't to say that great insights are only to be had from the travails of the Lears, Hamlets, and MacBeths. Lewis's point is that we at one extreme pride ourselves on sinful natures that are prosaic at best, and at the other claim a holiness we do not deserve. [return]
3. Here, Lewis is just being snide, and the aspersions fall flat:
He didn't call his father and mother "Father" and "Mother," but Harold and Alberta. They were up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, nonsmokers, and teetotalers and wore a special kind of underclothes. In their house there was very little furniture and very few clothes on the beds and the windows were always open.
It'd be clever to think Lewis was referring to Mormons, except that I doubt that he ever met a Mormon in his life. And Mormons certainly aren't vegetarians, they stuff their houses with as much junk as the next person, and no Mormon child I know refers to his parents by their first names. He only gets three out of six. [return]
4. I have even heard Lewis referred to as "the Mormon theologian, C.S. Lewis." [return]
5. According to the Doors of Peace web site, "Metatron was said to have once been the prophet Enoch (the seventh Patriarch after Adam), who had been taken up by God and given a coronet, 72 wings and innumerable eyes. His flesh was transformed into flame, his sinews into fire, his bones into embers, and he was surrounded by storm, whirlwinds, thunder and lightning. Enoch had been a scribe, and as Metatron he continued his functions, becoming the heavenly scribe who resides in the 7th Heaven and transcribes all heavenly and earthly events." [return]
6. Which is not to say that the average Mormon would accept this particular interpretation. For a discussion of the transition in Mormon theology away from Joseph Smith and towards a more mainstream (though rather half-hearted), Augustinian belief system, see Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy by O. Kendall White, Jr.
While I essentially agree with White's plot of the evolution of accepted Mormon belief, I reject the global finitism inherent in what he calls "metaphysical materialism." I propose another branch of Mormon theology that I would describe as "Non-finite." That is, the universe as we perceive it, and all matter, space, and time is God's unique creation. Or, more precisely, this finite universe, and everything in it--except our souls--constitutes a small subset of God's greater infinite existence. However, the nature of our (finite) universe, and the heavy and far-reaching demands of agency, imposes upon God finite characteristics when dealing with human beings. According to Eugene England,
God is [thus] not absolutely omnipotent in the traditional Christian sense; he has limits imposed by the co-eternal nature of other components of the universe which he did not create, such as matter, and eternal laws, and especially human intelligences. As modern revelation teaches us, God is bound when we do what he says, that is, he is limited to some extent, required to respond in certain ways by our obedience to the eternal laws he teaches us. In other words, besides being infinite in many important ways (such as providing an Atonement infinitely able to save those who will accept it), he could in some ways be thought of as finite. [return]
7. See "Pelagius and Pelagianism" in the Catholic Encyclopedia. [return]
8. As Eugene England puts it, "There seems to be at present a bad case of loss of nerve, of preferring negative, safe religion to the positive, adventuresome kind championed by the founders of Mormonism." [return]
9. Okay, I'm not being very nice. But then the devout Baptist considers Joseph Smith just as wacky and heretical. All's fair. [return]
10. "When the philosophers of the eighteenth century made religion out to be an enormous error conceived by priests, at least they were able to explain its persistence by the interest of the sacerdotal caste had in deceiving the masses. But if the peoples themselves have been the artisans of these systems of erroneous ideas, at the same time that they were the dupes, how has this extraordinary hoax been able to perpetuate itself throughout the course of history?" (Émile Durkheim, quoted in Nonzero by Robert Wright.) [return]
11. Mr. MacPhee (in That Hideous Strength) speaks of a bear that "would do the best deed that any bear had done in Britain except some other bear that none of us had ever heard of." He is of course referring to Mr. Bultitude, though the description apply well to Iorek Byrnison. [return]
12. Another interesting (and I'm sure coincidental) parallel between Pullman's Golden Compass and Joseph Smith's Liahona can be found in the Book of Mormon:
And it came to pass that as my father arose in the morning, and went forth to the tent door, to his great astonishment he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness. (1 Ne. 16:10)
And now, my son, I have somewhat to say concerning the thing which our fathers call a ball, or director--or our fathers called it Liahona, which is, being interpreted, a compass; and the Lord prepared it. (Alma 37:38) [return]
13. Paraphrasing Seneca, "When shall we live, if not now?" [return]
14. You can reference the article at the Magellan's Log web site. [return]
15. Compare also Moses 5:10-12, and Paradise Lost, 12: 470-474. Here Adam contemplates being cast out of Eden:
O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness! [return]
16. A review of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass by Daniel P. Moloney (May 2001). [return]