September 26, 2006

The Sound of the Mountain

Part of the misfortune of politics is its energy, its ceaseless passing on from one thing to the next, its ceaseless questioning and crisis making and solving. Often historians looking at the past are stunned, as I have been on occasion, by the realisation that our narratives shaped by crisis and chaos skip the main contours of human life. The seventeenth century in England seems a very discontinuous century- filled with changes of monarch, political regime and civil war- and yet for us as historians we miss some of the more important contemporary happenings. We miss marriages, deaths, births, first loves, regrets, memories and experiences. For most if not all of the denizens of that century the events I described above- the antisceptic glory of documentaries- happened only as they effected them and not as the events that we describe. The seige of Drogheda was important to them because their son died in the town- not because it was one of the most horrific seiges of the Irish part of the English Civil War. (Though of course that is our way as historians of saying that it was important in the same way to thousands of families- through the deaths of family members).

If history fails therefore to capture the subjectivity of our experiences of the world- then literature can and at its peak does. Take for example the Japanese novel by Yasunari Kawabata The Sound of the Mountain. Kawabata's novel concerns an old man who has lived through the tempestuous history of Japan in the twentieth century. The novel is to use an overused expression elegiac- it chronicles the fading memories and impressions of a sixty year old man about his family and his friends. It talks about all the substance of a real life- he struggles as his children's marriages crumble before his eyes, he is filled with feelings about his own marriage and the choices he made in life and meditates upon his relationships with his favoured daughter in law and his dieing friends. Shingo, the man in question, is a product of Japan's long history and refers to the Russo Japaneese war, there are also frequent references to how war and conflict changed the people in his social circle- particularly how war deformed his son Shuichi. But war and conflict, the stuff of history, are in this novel integrated into the lives of human beings and the culture of a traditional Japaneese family.

Shingo's vision therefore is wider than the political- and teaches us to be aware of the fact that there is much more than politics involved in life. Politics effects but does not fill life and to understand life one has to understand the substance of Shingo's reflections on the relationships between people. So much probably strikes many readers as a harmless truism- but it must be restated again and again and again. There are fantastic details in the writing by Kawabata- the vision of Shingo attempting to consciously tie his tie and failing to do so and then on a train later being able to retie it because he does it unconsciously. The way that Shingo draws upon his surroundings, the sound of the mountain that only he hears, the pregnant dog, the cry of the Kites and the intimation of mortality that he derives from it, the pines which remind him of abortion, the flowers in a Tokyo garden, the masks of a theatrical performer are wonderful indications of the way that human beings give meaning to the landscapes around them. What Kawabata gives us is a momentary glimpse of how life looks through a subjective lense- what he reminds us of is the fact that every fact we see and perceive takes its only meaning from the act of interpretation that a human performs upon it- from the dream that a dreamer dreams about it- and through the telling of a tale that is about memory as much as it is about anything else, he reminds us that this insight is as true of history and politics as it is of kites and pines.