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Kokoro No Tomo (bosom friend)

Yukio Mishima and Donald KeeneEighty-five years old next week, Donald Keene is a man described as having done more for Japanese literature and culture than anybody in the world. A former wartime translator, author of 25 books in English and 30 books in Japanese, he is Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature at Columbia University and holder of eight honorary degrees. Serious credentials in anyone’s book. Yet despite eminent qualifications, I have to confess that it is only Donald Keene’s status as friend and translator of writer Yukio Mishima that piqued my interest in him. I doubt he would be offended—he is I am sure long resigned to being known for his connection to the most famous, perhaps infamous Japanese author of the twentieth century.
About midnight on the night of the incident, the telephone rang in my apartment in New York. The call was from a Yomiuri reporter in Washington. He informed me briefly what had taken place a few hours earlier in Tokyo and asked my impressions (kanso). I was too stunned to make a coherent reply. The telephone rang all night long, from many Japanese newspapers and magazines. Each asked the same question, and I gradually grew more articulate in my response, until I felt as if I were reciting lines from a play.
As is obvious from his output and recognition—the first non-Japanese to receive the Yomiuri Literary Prize and only the third non-Japanese person to be designated“an individual of distinguished cultural service” by the Japanese government—Keene is a fine writer in his own right, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading the following account of an attempt to rewrite Mishima’s modern No plays for their first ever staging outside of Japan:
The producers were unsuccessful in raising the money, with or without strings. They decided that the problem was that the three modern No plays they had chosen for a program were too similar in tone, and suggested to Mishima that he write a modern Kyogen to be played in between“Aoi no Ue” and “Sotoba Komachi.” Mishima was aware of the difficulty of preserving in a modern adaptation the humor of Kyogen, which depends so heavily on exaggerated gestures and inflexions of speech. He decided nevertheless that it might be possible to make a modern version of “Hanago,” with the daimyo of the original changed into an industrialist and Tarokaja into a butler. The Zen meditation scene could be rewritten as yoga, then popular in New York. Finally, knowing of my special interest in Kyogen, he asked me to write the“kindai kyogen.” He recognized that certain passages in the original, quite normal expression in medieval Japan, would not be tolerated in a modern play. For example, when the master threatens to kill Tarokaja if he does not obey his command, this would not seem comic to a modern audience. On the other hand, Mishima thought that when the daimyo's wife threatens to beat Tarokaja if he does not reveal why he was sitting in meditation, this was amusing and could be retained. Even today a woman carried away by anger might say the same. Mishima gave various other tips, but I was unable, even with great effort, to do what Mishima always did so easily. I tried everything, even making it a comedy in the manner of Moliere and giving the characters Greek names. Nothing worked. I confessed my failure to Mishima, who thereupon bought a notebook of the kind American junior-high school students use and wrote a modern Kyogen, based not on“Hanago” but“Busu.” He dashed off the manuscript at full speed, changing hardly a word. The producers attempted to find backers with the new combination of two modern No and a modern Kyogen, but they still had no success. This time they decided that the problem was that Americans did not like one-act plays. They asked Mishima to rewrite three of his modern No plays as a single play. I thought this was virtually impossible, even for Mishima. The plays have entirely different characters and atmosphere. How could he join them into a single play? But Mishima was so desirous of seeing the plays performed in New York that he did the impossible: he made one play of the three plays. He gave the new play an English title with a double meaning—“Long After Love.”
One of only three people to receive a personally addressed farewell letter from Mishima, Keene is frustratingly reticent in his recollections of his friend of sixteen years, and understandably defensive. He describes himself as not a“kokoro no tomo” (bosom friend) of the writer, who from the outset of their friendship made it clear that he did not desire what he called“sticky” relations—the sharing of vulnerabilities or emotions.
We did not share secrets or ask each other for advice. We enjoyed meeting and conversing, whether about literature, the state of the world, or mutual acquaintances. It was also a working friendship. I translated not only Mishima’s serious works of fiction and plays but also amusing essays he wrote for American magazines. Our relations were always rather formal. This was mainly my doing. He once asked that we drop polite language and talk in the informal manner of old friends, but I found this difficult and somehow unnatural. I did not grow up in Japan and had never talked Japanese to my family or to classmates. Calling Mishima kun instead of san would not have made me feel any closer, and might have sounded affected. Mishima, noticing that I did not respond to his request, never again asked me to speak more informally. Although we were unquestionably friends, his politeness was unfailing and extended to every aspect of our relationship. He was my only Japanese friend who always answered letters promptly. He was never late for an appointment. When he invited me to dinner, it was invariably to a fine restaurant, even though I often suggested we eat in less expensive places. His conversation gave me greater pleasure than any meal. While eating, we laughed a great deal. Sometimes his laugh rang out so loudly that other diners in the restaurant turned in our direction. Yoshida Kenichi once said that Mishima laughed with his mouth, but not with his eyes. Perhaps this was true, but sincere or not, Mishima’s laughter was infectious. In the summer of 1970 Mishima invited me to Shimoda where he was accustomed to spend August with his family. He normally worked on his writings every day from midnight to six, slept from six to two, then went to kendo practice or to some gathering until it was time to return home and start writing. He spent little time with his children, but he made up for the neglect by devoting to them the month of August. I almost cancelled my trip to Shimoda because of a painful attack of gikkuri-goshi (slipped disk), but I was instinctively certain that Mishima had planned every moment of my stay in Shimoda from arrival to departure and I could not bear to upset his plans. On the train I debated whether or not to mention my gikkuri-goshi, but when I saw him on the platform, sunburned and cheerful, I decided I would act like a samurai and keep the pain to myself. We had lunch at a sushi-ya. Mishima ordered only chu toro. Afterwards, I was able to guess the reason: he had no time to waste on lesser fish. That evening we were joined by the journalist Henry Scott Stokes who later wrote a book about Mishima. Mishima took us to a restaurant where lobsters were served out of season. He ordered five dinners for the three of us. When the five dinners appeared, he ordered two more, not satisfied with the quantity. I thought this was peculiar, but no doubt he wanted to be sure we would have our fill of lobster at our last meal together. The next day Mishima and I went to the hotel pool. He did not enter the water, but he was pleased to display his muscular body. We talked about his tetralogy“The Sea of Fertility” that was approaching completion. He said he had put into the work everything he had learned as a writer, adding with a laugh that the only thing left was to die. I laughed too, but I must have sensed something was wrong. Violating our pledge not to discuss“sticky” matters, I asked, "If something is troubling you, why not tell me?" He averted his glance and said nothing. But he knew that three months later he would be dead.
I’m going through something of an extended, on again off again Mishima phase at the moment—an interest encouraged by his sensitivity, aesthetics, effortless writing ability and preference for action over ideas; utterly discouraged by his fascination come obsession with violence—if read literally. Yet in reading about Yukio Mishima I have inadvertently discovered Donald Keene—writer of some of the most lucid, insightful commentaries in existence on his tragically flawed friend, but much more than that as well. Keene’s fascinating essays on Mishima form only a small part of Chronicles of My Life in the 20th Century, a series of forty-eight, serialised installments written just last year; each well worth reading aside from their compelling insights into a most famous author.
I have often regretted that I haven't kept a diary. A diary would surely help me to recapture much of the past. But perhaps it is just as well to have forgotten so much. If I remembered everything, I would recall things that frightened me when I was a small child, teachers I disliked at school, friends who I thought had betrayed me, people I loved who did not love me. No, it is probably better not to try to remember. I hope that this chronicle, for all its deficiencies, has at least suggested how one human being spent an essentially happy life.
The following is one of my very favourite passages, admittedly from only a very small sampling of Chronicles of My Life in the 20th Century, yet more than adequate representation of the author’s life-long pacifism and love of Japan—either of which are enough to make me his kokoro no tomo, and unabashed fan:
One day I noticed a large wooden box containing captured documents. The documents gave off a faint, unpleasant odor. I was told that the little notebooks were diaries taken from the bodies of dead Japanese soldiers or found floating in the sea. The odor came from the bloodstains. I felt squeamish about touching the little books but, carefully selecting one that seemed free of bloodstains, I began to translate it. At first I had trouble reading the handwriting, but the diaries, unlike the printed or mimeographed documents I previously had translated, were at times almost unbearably moving, recording the suffering of a soldier in his last days. Members of the American armed forces were forbidden to keep diaries, lest they reveal strategic information to whoever found them; but Japanese soldiers and sailors were issued with diaries each New Year and were expected to write down their thoughts each day. They were aware that they might be required to show their diaries to a superior, to make sure the writer's sentiments were correct, so they filled their pages with patriotic slogans as long as they were still in Japan. But when the ship next to the diarist's was sunk by an enemy submarine or when the diarist, somewhere in the South Pacific, was alone and suffering from malaria, there was no element of deceit. He wrote what he really felt. Sometimes the last page of a Japanese soldier's diary contained a message in English, asking the American who found the diary to return it to his family after the war. I hid such diaries, though it was forbidden, intending to return the diaries to the diarist's family, but my desk was searched and the diaries were confiscated. This was a great disappointment. The first Japanese I ever really knew were the writers of the diaries, though they were all dead by the time I met them.

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Me me me

windowThere's something to this meme thing. Dinner from a can is so much easier than chopped, boiled and strained, and whether ready-lifted from the shelves of another or in a packet, I’ll take my inspiration where I can, especially in times when words home-made are rare. Camille of Now wrote recently of a Favourite Post 2007 meme doing the rounds, and not wanting to miss a band-wagon ripe for the jumping, I am getting on board. The meme in question is rather self-explanatory: name your favourite web diary posting of the year to date. I could nominate a number of posts by a multitude of authors, but one in particular jostles for pre-eminence in mind, a story by David Raho on his most excellent bog The First Word, which by the way I have the very small distinction of discovering before he hit the big time: Lucy the Girl in the Window. 698 points on reddit.com can’t be wrong. Actually they could be. Somewhat missing the spirit of the post, and its authors’ increasingly weary comments, several members of reddit started trying to piece together the identity of the girl. But you’ll have to read the story to know what that means. To those not nominated, no insult intended or should be taken—I actually like far too many other writers and their postings to even begin to do them justice, which leads me to wonder if a“What I have been reading, enjoying, stealing from and forgetting to thank recently” update could be in the works. Incidentally, is this the Oscars? Why are we choosing the best blog post of 2007 at the start of the year! Update: Getting over myself and with the spirit of things, I’ve joyfully embraced all things meme—Thirteen Interesting Facts About Me as a Child one of the most entertaining to write posts yet, hopefully entertaining to read as well—and even inspiring a sequel.

Thirteen Facts About Me as a Child

I checked the Thursday Thirteen meme out a while ago, and I must say that I didn't get it at first. Unlike other memes, which in the blogging sense mean being tagged by someone else to participate in a conversation which, much like the only invented in the seventies moniker, resembles an idea spreading and replicating itself, virus-like across the internet, Thursday Thirteen is very much self-participatory—i.e. you make up your own list and then go and read others—tagging and commenting being strictly optional. Because I’ve always been highly suspicious of new terms that don’t describe anything particularly new—we used to call these fads and crazes in the offline world—I’ve taken a while to catch on to this meme thing. But before I get called a wet blanket... Staying offline for a moment longer, a meme is kind of like a chain letter but better, which reminds me that I really should tell my grandmother, still new to the internet but very well meaning, to stop sending the entire family“Read this now and pass it on to ten people immediately” chain-letter spam. But as you might have guessed, I really don’t have the heart (God bless her). Right, back on topic. Thursday Thirteen, much like Wordless Wednesday is a networking and blog promotion tool. Every Thursday you post thirteen facts about, well, anything—although preferably in some way related to yourself (isn't everything when you’re blogging?). The part I didn’t get though is how exactly that is networking? Well, if you scroll, and scroll and scroll through the website you’ll find that you’re encouraged to visit other Thursday“Thirteen’ers” and leave comments on their blogs. You can also promote your site by participating in the Thursday Thirteen forum and blogroll. Ho-hum... whatever. It all sounds too hard. And did I mention that their graphics are terrible! Being a design snob from way back my first reaction was and still is,“Ew!—I’m not putting that on my site!” However, being an open and eminently flexible personality (it’s official, my Intrapersonal Intelligence is (self) rated at 96%) a.k.a. a Libran, I’m prepared to revisit my hasty decision, aided and abetted by Titania Starlight, a recent visitor here (thanks MyBlogLog) and participant in the best Thursday Thirteen I have yet seen, Thirteen Funny Facts about Me As a Child. Ok, so here goes... Thirteen Probably Self-Serving and Highly Selected Facts About Me As A Child
  1. I was born three months premature and weighed approximately 2.2 pounds. I didn’t really get much bigger...
  2. I used to be able to dream with my eyes open, although only at night time, as doing so during the day would get you committed, no matter how seriously cool it would be.
  3. I hated all fruit and many vegetables. I have improved.
  4. I never had a dog, and all my cats died or ran away.
  5. I used to dream of being a kitten
  6. I saw a ghost once. It was a young girl all in white standing at the end of my bed. I freaked out and ran into my mother’s room.
  7. I was pushed from behind as a two-year old face first into a metal plant holder, smashing many of my teeth up into my gum. My smile never really recovered.
  8. I taught myself to play the piano and would play Beethoven’s Für Elise over, and over, and over. I later took lessons and was apparently very talented, if I could only“get over my mental block” according to one teacher.
  9. I was never ever in a fight. But I did once punch a bully in the stomach and then run away.
  10. I lived in Canada for a year at age 11, hated almost every minute of it, and now think it was probably character building. And despite myself have some very good memories.
  11. I hated going to Church but would read a picture Bible over and over. I even tried to pray every night before going to bed.
  12. I would only listen to classical music until I was 10. The first tape I ever brought was by Cyndi Lauper, and I regretted it soon afterwards. The next was The Cars, with the same result, as I had only really liked one song. The third was Nik Kershaw. And I used to listen to Madonna in secret because my mother didn't approve.
  13. My father said he’d buy me a tape once, and then ignored the list I gave him and brought home Bob Marley. I was so disappointed I smashed the tape to pieces.
So there are my thirteen facts, and it’s not even Thursday! I believe at this point in the meme I am supposed to tag other people. Well, if you’re reading this, you know who you are. Leave a comment or trackback and I’ll do an update mentioning you, and will definitely read your list. But just don’t go thinking I’m going to put the Thursday Thirteen graphic on my site... Update
  • Alf of thousandeye has left a list of his childhood facts in the comments section of this post. Despite the fact he only got to number nine and forgot his number eight, I enjoyed them very much.
  • Camille of Now has also written her own Thirteen Childhood Facts, of which the following is definitely my favourite:“At ten, during recess at school one day, I saw a bunch of kids beating up my little brother. They were all bigger than me but I jumped in anyway and started pounding them away from my brother. I lost a lot of hair and when the teachers found us they blamed me. I took my brother home at lunch and refused to go back to that school ever. My mother found us a new school.” Outstanding story!
  • My favourite by Larry of Mental Blog:“My experience in public, in performance, began in Grade 2. I sang a song at a school event, like a Christmas concert or something. The first time I sang over a microphone. I knew even then there was something special about that. I literally felt the electricity. No, it wasn't a shock from the mic.”

Deserving of Comment

thousandeyethousandeye, or Alf to his friends, wins this week’s Comment of the Week Award—an all expenses paid link to and mention of his own site—the once semi-flippant and whimsical but fast becoming deep and poetic thousandeye—check out his heart-on-sleeve and words-on-leaves poetry (you’ll understand if you visit) before he becomes famous and haughty (or would that be "one-eyed?") A regular kind purveyor of comments, Alf went well beyond the call of readership, not only providing the following serendipitous link, Dog gets Purple Heart for saving kids, letting me know that George the Hero Terrier that deserved a medal actually got one (a heart-warming story in its own right as postscript to one already so), but was kind enough to leave one of his worthy poems for us all to read:
I have never been a cat person but dogs are definitely special. Reminds me of a poem I once wrote about my dog: Faith, my friend, You always come to me With new eyes. Will I one day be an old man whose major conversational gambit is,“…reminds me of a poem I once wrote…”? PS The dog was called Katie, not Faith!
Also deserving of a mention as regular commentators and—I hope this isn't an assumption too far—readers of A Sensitivity to Things are:
  • Shardul of KiwiCelt, who would have won the prize last week for some recollections of the 1970s—a time I can write about but not substantively remember—prompted by an eccentric walk down memory lane masquerading as a tour of patriotism, if I had but remembered that a weekly award needs to be awarded weekly;
  • Larry of Mental Blog, who claims to be“better on paper than in person,” and judging by the quality of his blog and comments here who am I to dispute him;
  • Camille of Now, who has been posting comments since before comments were deserving;
  • Tejvan of RichardPettinger.com, whose commenting style is faster than the cycling individual pursuit;
  • and finally, Sumangali of In the Spirit of Serendipity, whose comments are to be appreciated almost as much as her serendipitous blog.
No doubt I am missing a few worthy mentions, but in the spirit of reverse psychology, a glaring omission may just encourage your continued submission... Postscript: I installed the DoFollow WordPress plugin today on the semi-recommendation of NetWriting, which should further encourage those interested in search engine standing, if not good karma and authorial appreciation, to comment here at A Sensitivity to Things.

Comment of the Week

Larry Keiler of Mental Blog has just won my inaugural comment of the week competition. Apologies for the lack of warning but, seeing as this blog is dedicated to—and occasionally written in—the spirit of meditation, if you weren't on the same wave length, well... better luck next time. Larry’s prize? A mention—in fact a word-for-word quotation—and a link back to his well worth the read and I'm not just saying that because he was nice to me blog.
I think the main flaw of all of our youthful writings is that it tends towards the purple. The fact that it’s self-absorbed and angst-ridden is just the way it is and probably always will be. It takes a special sort of genius to be a young genius. But it also takes a special sort of genius to even attempt writing (anything) in one’s youth. I wrote similar stuff to yours when I was young. And now I think I’m blessed that I had the courage to do it, and the outlet it provided. (Because I was angst-ridden and hormone-hyped and drug-addled and generally confused…) Many of my friends did not have this. They became 100 yard hurdlers and racewalkers. We’re all writers, else we wouldn’t be blogging would we? But even now, most often I write ME. Even when I’m thinking through other characters, I’m still writing ME. And in a certain sense, I wouldn’t have it any other way. For a while I wrote Jack Kerouac. Or Kafka. Or any other writer whose name starts with K. Now I get to write Keiler, for better or worse. ...In my first year of university, I wrote a short story with a rather“Book of Revelations” ending involving snow. My professor said it reminded her of the themes raised in Margaret Atwood’s“Survival”, a particularly Canadian book. I’m not sure I still have a copy of that story, but looking back on it now, I remember it as being simply over-wrought.
Outstanding comment Larry. Which leads me on to, or more accurately, back to, my favourite topic of all. You guessed it—me. Funnily enough, as Larry relates, I also wrote Jack Kerouac for a while, and am grateful to ‘Ti Jean’ for his“first thought best thought” approach to writing. Experimenting with just pouring the words out upon the page, never looking back like Lot of The Book of Genesis—just write, write, write and don't worry what you write—all of this helped inestimably in the thousand-page journey to find my writer’s voice, and to my blessed relief, liberated me from the quagmire of over-analysis and hesitation. About the time I was writing purple-hued, post-adolescent poetry, I landed a weekly column in a university newspaper—a particularly daring move considering I had all of two completed articles to my name. With twenty-six, due by 12pm Monday at the latest ahead of me, I was soon writing come agonising over-wrought, over-thought think-pieces on topics as diverse as Walt Whitman, Martin Luther King and myself. I think you can guess which topic was the odd one out. The column—This Side of the (TV) Screen, collapsed after only twelve editions, crushed under weight of over-expectation and a nagging self-doubt. The task of six hundred worthy words a week seemed a mountain too high, and, despite knowing better, I couldn't help but compare myself—unfavourably—to a fellow columnist, who wrote the most eloquent, lyrical pieces I had then ever seen. Despite my self-perceived flaws, the editor—son of a famous New Zealand poet and an emerging playwright—was more than encouraging, and looking back now—beyond the tears of frustration and sense of failure—it was a good learning experience—a commendable first start. As an aside, I never met my columnist colleague that year—he was a secretive, mysterious scribe, and seldom ever seen. Several years later however I did, by which time I had graduated to Production Manager—he still a columnist. Would you believe it—despite his paper-eloquence and pen-in-hand wit he was in person nervous, neurotic and to the extreme meek, virtually apologising for his contributions before he even submitted them. Who would have thought...
No Failure No failure, no failure. Failure is the shadow Of success. No failure, no failure. Failure is the changing body Of success. No failure, no failure. Failure is the fast approaching train Of the greatest success. Sri Chinmoy, The Dance Of Life, Part 13, 1973
As someone once said, failure (upon failure) paves the road to success. And while I’m composing my victory speech, I should say that I couldn’t have done it without meditation.

Putting the World Write

A friend of mine has just started a new site for writing and blogging advice: www.netwriting.co.uk. A prolific writer, he turns out articles at the rate I write paragraphs, putting words on the page faster than a competitive road cyclist cycles—his main, off-line pursuit. Ok, so that last analogy was a little forced, but I'm sure I'll learn a better turn of phrase by reading his very instructive, new blog. Only a week old, NetWriting is already shaping to be invaluable resource for bloggers and online writers, possessing a wealth of tips to increase a site’s search engine ranking and readership. To the credit of this profuse writer, he is not satisfied with his current, super-human standard, and has pledged publicly to improve his own writing, as stated on his site:
“I am very interested in learning grammar and proper punctuation. I do not claim to be an expert - far from it! But quite often, to learn about something, it is helpful to write on the subject for yourself.”
Which is eminently practical, and also broad-minded, seeing as he is probably long over getting notes from me about missing commas and unwieldy sentences...

Bad, bad, so very bad…

WritingI've been avoiding doing this for a while. Almost ten years in fact. It has been a decade since I first discovered poetry—probably a little later than most in truth. No longer an angst ridden teenager but still angst ridden, I was in my early twenties and the right side of a university arts degree—not the usual or most direct route to a love of verse and crafted, written word, but then any route will do. As William S. Burroughs once said, and very much after the fact: every writer fears the amount of bad writing he will have to do before he does any good. And I really did some bad writing. Long hidden at the bottom of a box and I long hiding from it—notebook after notebook of poetry and wild-eyed, stream of consciousness writing. Best forgotten but compelling like a car-wreck, they are the rubber-neck memoirs of a tortured youth—page after anguished page of over-wrought, over-thought poems, almost poems in truth. With the benefit much bad writing written I can discern a semblance of a poetry in the output of this younger self—a single sentence or stanza attempting to take flight, but that is all. The seed or germinating idea for a poem is present, discernible just, and the formative experiences certainly are or were—the messy, moving stuff of life clamouring for poetic expression, but the ideas and emotions are never fully grown, written down in full. Aim, concentration and focus are all wanting badly in these poems, scattered in the winds of distraction, perhaps personal dis-function as well; lost before the wisps of substance and meaning could bind together and form. If my poems had been written consciously they would be great art—if the compelling, true to life back story, clearly discernible now with the benefit of time was actually present on page—but alas such is not the case. Instead they are the reflection of the artist as a young, very young man, but not a true or worthy portrait—words writ blurred and myopic, pen tripping over clumsy mind, spilled out without thought as page over page of stumbles, heart scribbled in the margins, wanting to be found. I really can't believe how bad they are—how bad I was. Melodramatic emotionalism without restraint, turgid, vapid—subtly but a dream, the shores of sensibility—and just plain sense—a long way off. Exhibits of an obsession with fruitless self-analysis, and a futile search for meaning in the mud of mental and emotional obscurity. Thank God I got over myself. Thank God I stopped writing poems about myself.
If I was perhaps different Then what would I be? Would the life I have lived Then mean nothing to me? What road would I travel And where abouts would I go My journey now falls behind me Ahead nothing I know
And another...
Whatever you know I know something better bigger, vaster, Eternal. Whatever you are, I am something more— something Infinite. You torment me, torture me rage on within me But your torrent of noise is your weakness not mine O cornered ego O delusion and distraction Your angry shouts and wounded howls invoke a death from which you can not hide. You, not I.
Update: From one brain to another, although hopefully not so tortured, check out the Monday Poetry Train at From My Brain to Yours.