Monday, July 14, 2014

Shadows

There has been barely a day in the past few months that I haven't, for some brief moment, thought of the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki's foray into nonfiction, In Praise of Shadows, a 50-page meditation on aesthetics written in Japan's dark days of the early 1930s, as the nation stood on the verge of political and economic collapse. It haunts me especially in the early evening, as I walk home to my empty apartment and I can see the fading light of the sun through my grimy window, the tired, red sun of East Asia that bears so little in common with the sun I grew up with, regardless of whether it's the same star.

If I was to reduce Tanizaki's essay, I would say it is an ode to a traditional aesthetic system full of darkness and shade, and against the neon-ization of the country already well underfoot by then. But to say that is to suggest that it's a coherent and ascertainable aesthetic system. Rather, it's everything that Tanizaki conceived of as associated with shadows and candlelight, from gold-flecked cups in the half-light to old styles of sushi made with persimmon leaves to the blackened teeth of Meiji concubines to his own skin tone.

And while there's nothing to pinpoint-- cultures always change, old nations die as new nations are born, traditions are little more than ideological expressions-- I can see how his analogies hang together, difficult to perceive but not impossible, like a massive spiderweb in the dark. His perceptions come to the surface as I lie in bed in the summer heat, with the air conditioning off, a thin layer of sweat on my brow, as I press the fruit as I'm making a thick liqueur from ripe lychees, as indirect sun hits my writing paper, as I make a pot of black tea, thick and dark, the leaves blended with smoked camphor.

Two or three weeks ago, my power went out at about 9:00, and I lit a couple of candles. Reflected in my bedroom mirror, they produced much more light than I would have expected, and yet it was of a totally different character. The veneer on my wooden bedframe. The green bottle on my desk. It extended beyond light into all senses. The air took on a new warmth and velvety thickness, and my apartment was as still and silent as the first snowfall of the winter.

And it occurred to me that the same sensibility Tanizaki described was equally present in Flemish still lives. Never mind that the symbolism was different-- Calvinism instead of Shinto, splayed rabbits and peeled lemons instead of tea bowls and sakuras. It is the interplay of light and dark that is the same, the same focus on the odd little artifacts.


 The unnameable aesthetic forces that dance around the edges of our consciousness are by no means spiritual or universal, as a Jung would have it, but the effect of countless images, compositions, natural patterns. What I see and feel in the writings of Junichiro Tanizaki, in these paintings of the breakfast tables of long-dead Dutchmen, in the taste of the camphorous tea, is the residue of old perceptions.

It's like this. You come to an unfamiliar place, and you don't know why, but it reminds you of someplace else, someplace familiar. What is it that ties you back to your reference point? Is it the way the leaves shine silvery in the afternoon light? The leap of a cat from a roof onto a garbage heap?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial

I recently reread Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, a meditation on an archaeological site published by the sadly rarely read, but always revered Thomas Browne in 1658. I don't reread books often-- there seem to be too many things I haven't read once to get around to reading something twice-- but it's quite short, and things were slow. The clouds were gathering over the city, in more ways than one, and it seemed the perfect time to read something dark and quiet and half-remembered.

I can remember so distinctly when I first read Thomas Browne, when I was staying for a week at a couple of friends' apartment on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle. And I can remember the way the light cast down on the paper, the Italic headings in an old 19th Century copy of Browne's complete works from the library. The recurring mental image was of two men, with pointed beards and black cloaks, on a chilly autumn morning, with ravens in naked trees on the flat plains of Norfolk, standing before an open pit in the black earth, a broken ceramic jar at the bottom lying in a pool of stagnant water, maybe a workman with a rough country accent digging through the sandy soil. Browne-- or at least the face engraved on the frontispiece-- staring up at a gray English sky, watching the birds fly upwards. His melancholy, his facing the tombs of dead pagans, immediately confronting his faith in the Protestant God and the emerging scientific practice that marked the dawning Age of Reason, which he believed to be symbolized in the eternal quincunx, the latticed form that he believed marked the soul of all things.


It was about a year after that cold day in Seattle that I stood in a field on the Plain of Jars in Northern Laos, with the first burial urns I recognized as such, or rather things generally figured by the archaeologists to be burial urns-- the local people believed them to be where the gods and giants kept their lao khao, the harsh, grainy rice wine of Laos and Thailand, which I'd drank that morning, scalding hot from a still.

Did I think of my image of Thomas Browne in his field on that day? Or was the sunlight, the clang of cowbells on high mountain meadows, the high spirits of a holiday, even in a necropolis, strong enough to dissuade me?


And when I think, now, of Thomas Browne, I am not thinking of him amid ancient ruins. My thoughts wander in that direction on days when the sunset seems sickly, when there's a sourness in the pit of my stomach, when my apartment seems a sepulcher.

And was that image based on anything? For all I know, Browne could have visited his urns on a bright summer day, with skylarks instead of ravens and trees full of flowers. My image of Thomas Browne is more informed by his followers-- the morose wanderer W.G. Sebald, the blind librarian Jorge Luis Borges, the sensitive suicide Virginia Woolf. And on the whole, images of death, such as this, are probably more at home in Hollywood than in our lives.

I did feel a distinct sense of death in the jars, as I walked delicately along the margins of rice paddies. This area, a plateau in the Lao highlands was made briefly infamous by Lyndon Johnson's clandestine use of the local Hmong people as a proxy army as part of America's decade-long folly in Southeast Asia. The burial urns now share space with minefields and caved-in Pathet Lao trenches. Missile casings are turned into fenceposts, hotels keep rusty Kalashnikovs as souvenirs. The death I felt there was not cosmic, but immediate, the very real possibility that I would meet a sudden, violent end if I strayed from the marked path.

Which tells me how separate death is from its avatars. We dress up death in images, turn it into mossy churchyards and widows in black crepe. Death is irrational, unbounded by human metaphor. It is the full catheter and labored breathing of a much-loved relative in a chilly hospital room, the idiotic expression of a corpse by a roadside, half-seen through a car window.

Monday, June 23, 2014

An Overheard Conversation

When you live in Asia and suddenly hear people speaking English, it's odd, but it's not really possible to do anything other than listen in. It doesn't matter how interesting or obnoxious or even boring the conversation is. It's a bit like when you go to the doctor's office, and there's an old man with a weeping sore on his leg.

Two women have sat down at the table next to me, two nice enough seeming middle-aged Australian women who drink vodka tonics and smoke narrow cigarettes, and their conversation drowns out everything else.

You don't overhear people showing the best of themselves. They're not on a date or a job interview. They're two old friends, with all the banal shit that implies. They're talking about the lovely hotel they stayed at in Krabi, the impossibility of finding decent boyfriends as middle-aged women in Southeast Asia. And they're using the same phrases again and again, and laughing at their own jokes. And this banality, and the fact that it's been thrust into my earshot, breeds a sudden contempt. Who are these people? And why did they have to sit next to me? Which is completely irrational, never mind the ethics of it, or what it says about my relationship to the human species, or the level of comfort I have with my own place in the world.

Especially since part of the reason I sat at this sidewalk cafe was because it was on a busy corner, and I've always loved sitting there with my notepad, writing asides, making pencil sketches of fans and streetlights, watching the processions of every walk of life, locals and tourists, parents walking their children home from school, elderly street vendors, framed in a lovely sunset.

And I sit back, make their stories up, where they sleep, what they had for lunch that day, the way they look into their bathroom mirrors, the last thing they said to their dead grandparents. The Eurasian guy about my age with the goatee who looks a little like David Duchovny. The transsexual who works behind a makeup counter in a department store in a provincial town. The two blind women who help each other through invisible streets.

In other words, I liked being around other people, but only people in the abstract. People as fixed as butterflies in museum cases. And so I project my own feelings and narratives onto their lives. Which is probably why I rarely write anything nonfictional about people, because it seems impossible to actually realize their stories, to narrow their subjective experience into 1000 words.

Yet the unknowing is something that we rarely admit to ourselves. We go beyond the most superficial interactions, and find how little we understand anything at all about that person we've worked next to for over a year.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Banality of Coups

Dictatorships breed oppression, dictatorships breed servility, dictatorships breed cruelty; more loathsome still is the fact that they breed idiocy. Bellboys babbling orders, portraits of caudillos, prearranged cheers or insults, walls covered with names, unanimous ceremonies, mere discipline usurping the place of clear thinking... Fighting these sad monotonies is one of the duties of a writer” -Jorge Luis Borges

Thursday, the 22nd of May 2014 was looking to be another uneventful day. Martial law had been declared a couple of days earlier, but the effects had been minimal. A few military vehicles on the expressways, a few bored-looking soldiers, by and large 18 and 19 year old farm kids with guns and cheap cigarettes, milling around strategic points.

I got home, reheated some Indian food, turned on my computer, and discovered that the government of Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan, having been in power for a mere 15 days (and whom my 500 baht says most Westerners in Bangkok never even bothered to learn the name of), had been deposed by General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, a man who always reminds me on television of Imelda Marcos with a combover.

Media are seized. A military curfew is called in. Government and opposition ministers are called in, rather like a high school principal trying to ferret out who spraypainted a penis on the wall of the gym.

The Bangkok Post and Nation websites fall eerily silent. Banner ads move back and forth noiselessly, advertising luxury watches and condos in dull, suburban neighborhoods.

A few anti-coup editorials appear. Commenting is briefly disabled (no tragedy there, the Post's comment threads are the lowliest form of expat bottom-feeding). The head of Thai PBS, when ordered to stop broadcasting, moved over to Youtube, before being called in for a talking to as well.

The television broadcasts military music. The beautifully Orwellian phrase “National Peace and Order Maintaining Council” appears on the screen. The song they're playing sounds like the Horst Wessel Lied as sang by the Siamese cats from Lady and the Tramp.

This is all, of course, to “prevent misinformation.” And so the people of Thailand can “love each other again.” Love and honesty, are of course, best assisted by keeping people in their homes, in the dark, with opaque processes happening behind locked doors with multiple security gateways.

Matichon, it turns out, had a man in on the talks leading up to the takeover. Niwatthamrong, it turns out, refused to resign. So General Prayuth decided that power needed to be seized. Much like a child who won't hand over his milk money to the playground bully peacefully, so he gets punched in the gut.

Notice the second comparison to schoolyard behavior in less than 400 words. That should tell you something about the intellectual and ethical standards of the halls of power in Thailand at the present juncture.

On Sunday, the ruling junta released a statement to be submitted to foreign embassies and international organizations, listing its three reasons for its coup. I present them all in their delightfully oblique, unedited, really shit English below. You'd think they could at least afford a copy editor.

  1. Thailand has different situation and political environment to other countries.
  2. The military has clear evidences and reasons to seize power. The evidences and reasons will later be shown to the international community.
  3. Democratic ruling in Thailand has caused a lot of lives.

Did you see any argument there, or anything approaching reason? I'm especially fond of number 2. We have clear evidence, but we're not telling you. But we'll tell you later. Pinky swear!

Back in 1961, when covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann-- a man with a knack for bowling and vacuum cleaner sales, among other things-- for the New Yorker, Hannah Arendt deployed the wonderful German word sprachregelung. An affliction in Germany during the nation's dalliances with Bismarck, Hitler, and Honecker, this is the reliance on euphemism and talking points to cover up the truth of the situation.

Monday arrives. I can't get home. Every metro stop between Ratchathewi and Aree is shut down. “Overcrowding,” the announcer says in English. “Maintenance,” the sign says in Thai. The reality of it is a vista of riot shields and sirens below in the vicinity of the Victory Monument.

They called in journalists from the Bangkok Post and Thai Rath to stop asking “aggressive questions” and asking why they weren't showing unqualified support. The more of a rhetorical wall they build, the more insecure at heart the generals seem.

To use a phrase from Arendt again, the critical word in describing the whole coup process is banality. The banality of military officers who rely on nationalist blunderbuss. The banality of a city turning inside at 9:00 p.m. The banality of a governmental organization that shields criticism with vague notions of love and unity, as if it's writing Christmas cards. The banality of a desire to return to a previous, idealized Thailand that never existed outside a television screen. And it's a banality engendered by men whose professional lives revolve around obedience, authority, and hollow ritual. Without evidence, without program, politics becomes a simpering sentimentality made all the more repulsive by its degraded claims to masculinity.

And to that end, it is my "sad duty," as Borges would have it, to raise my middle finger.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

By the Sea

My first sight of the ocean was of a desolate stretch of coastline in Southern Mexico, just north of the Cancun costa del date rape. Where the tourists hadn't yet arrived in the early '90s, a stretch of beach towards a ferry port ran amid assorted wreckage. Where empty concrete lots, stained with the accumulated rust of a few hurricane seasons ran down to the beach.

On the beach lay the hulls of fishing boats. In retrospect, they were probably simple fishing boats or small ferries. But they seemed to me, as a small child without any experience of boats or the sea or the adult world in general, to be great ships. And here they were, laid out and tipped over, rusted, torn apart, encrusted in alien lifeforms, as if chewed apart by monsters, their skeletons laid out like a horror movie set.

And there was the smell, not only unique, but vast and pervasive, an unfamiliar range of metallic ions atop rotting marine life. There were of course similarities to the chilly lakes and streams of the Upper Midwest I was used to swimming and fishing at, but to compare the two was like porterhouse and hamburger, two things made of the same substance but one infinitely richer than the other.

Years later, I stumbled upon Kunstformen der Natur, published in 1901 by the German biologist, philosopher, and artist Ernst Haeckel, whose stony positivist outlook was counterbalanced by the wild flights of fancy of his drawings of sea creatures. In Haeckel's book, the natural world was cut apart, stylized, turned into elaborate spires and quincunxes, monstrosities of radial symmetry, creatures like nightmare genitalia. Animals that I recognize as animals, that have the evolutionary patterns of animals, that seem uncannily neither animal nor plant nor fungus, slippery and primal things.


Not long after, in college, I learned a term for such things-- abject-- those things that seem to evade our symbolic notions of what reality should look like. Things like a corpse, like a weeping sore. Things that seem to come from some deep and amorphous primal space. Lots of Lacanian psychoanalysts, thinking they were thinking, wrote about this in dense, allusive treatises, and lots of French feminists, with little basis and a lot of essentialism, somehow equated the abject and the feminine.

The depths of the sea somehow lurked at the background of everything, the formlessness that appeared in dreams, at the edges of everyday life.

I stepped into a pristine tropical cove, fringed with waving palm trees. Underneath, the rocks swarmed with a thousand olivine-black sea cucumbers.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Alone on the South China Sea

I arrived at Chungking Mansions on a cold, rainy April day, and anyone who's lived or traveled for an extensive period in Asia knows the drill. At every corner stands a skinny Bengali tout in a loud shirt, trying to grab your attention, get you to come to a guesthouse, tailor, moneychanger, or fly-by-night travel agency. The wider the smile, the greater the deception.

            -Hey mister, you looking for something?

I do my best to avoid eye contact, and get into my cramped room as quickly as I can. I drop my bags and try to explore the city. With a limited budget and knowing no one, I walked and walked, until my calves ached, until I just wanted to sit down and watch the boats cross the harbor.

On the one side, it is a city of stone steps tumbling down steep hillsides, narrow and vertiginous streets cutting between tiny restaurants and Chinese herbalist shops where calico cats bask in sunbeams atop pallets of dried cuttlefish and chrysanthemum petals, of mid-century apartment blocks in white brick and sea-green tile with old British colonial street signs in an elegant modernist font, of storybook trams and ferries and schoolchildren with bright red umbrellas, of the warm smells of Taoist temple incense in chilly weather and goose fat pressed into fresh-cooked rice-- a Wes Anderson movie waiting to be made.

On the other, Hong Kong is a banking capital as bland as any other the world over. Its CBD is a tangle of escalators connecting countless antiseptic, high-security structures, with the same piano music, the same black-and-white photos, men with Breitling watches on well-muscled arms and women with Hermès bags dangling from their avian shoulders. I walked through the nightlife sections, and can't find a bar that didn't pulse with vaguely "European" dance music, that wasn't filled with aspiring financial criminals and the braying voices of posh London and Lower Manhattan.

These two Hong Kongs exist parallel to each other, sometimes on the street, often kissing, their eyes closed to each other.

Yet they are bound together by their sheer density, the density of a narrow city wedged between the mountains and the sea. I walked up Nathan Road at night, past rows of old textile factories and towers filled with shoebox apartments, amid an infinite entanglement of glowing Chinese characters.


And on a fine sunny afternoon I took the subway to the north, to where the world's densest human habitation once rose up, a towering slum that is now a park filled with odd chunks of concrete and low-lying tumuli.


I ended my trip atop Victoria Peak, the lush, misty mountain that looms over Central Hong Kong, to see the whole thing at once.

Staring outwards, surrounded by cheery groups of tourists-- Singaporean families, Thai honeymooners, Malaysian retirees. Alone, in my shabby clothes and worn-out sneakers, stubble-faced, without a camera and politely refusing the audio tour, it was impossible not to feel out of place and vaguely suspect.

But what is travel if not dislocation. And this is something people don't talk about very often. And something that becomes all the more salient when you're in a place like Hong Kong, a city with a government predicated on a contradiction, a city that is either self-loathingly Asian or pretentiously Western, either a bastion of democracy in a totalitarian state or the same state's poodle. It is in a place like this, in a situation like this, that the entire world seems to be centered within the field of view of a telescope.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Megalopolis

When I was maybe 10 or 11, I went with my family at night up into the mountains above Santa Fe. Old enough to watch horror movies, I knew this couldn't end well. The broken, wooden National Forest Service sign was warning enough. Beyond here were murderous hitchhikers, desert death cults, Indian burial grounds.

Yet what I saw when my mother finally parked the car, high up on a mountain road, chilled me far more than anything I'd seen in a theater. Above me extended a vast expanse almost milky with stars, more than I'd ever seen, framed on all sides by icy mountains and 80 foot tall, silhouette-black pines.

Stunning, yes, but I knew I was standing at the gateway to something incomprehensibly vast and formless, so much bigger, so much emptier than anything else I'd seen in my young life. And like a chasm, t threatened to swallow me into its infinity.

I ran back into the car, into the comfortable domesticity of upholstery and blinking LEDs and familiar electronic pings and cookie crumbs.

It wasn't until I was 18, in a college classroom, that I learned that there was a term for this, the sublime, a coinage of Edmund Burke, who contrasted it to the beautiful, in much the same way it would later be contrasted with the beautiful by countless conservative thumb-twiddlers who shared Burke's enthusiasm for establishment Protestantism and the free market.

As I've grown older, I've learned to appreciate that which dwarfs me, and, 200 years on, discovered that the sublime and the beautiful are not mutually exclusive. If anything, I find that the irrational and the overwhelming interest me far more than anything that suggests a divine order to the universe.

And yet that sense of massiveness and terror of the void comes at me to this day, at times when I don't expect it. I see it when I'm walking through desolate parking lots surrounded by 40-story towers at midnight, when coming out of my office on a rainy early evening into a dimly lit alleyway, high walls around me on all sides.

Or, most profoundly, when I land in one of the great Asian megacities by night. You are surrounded by half-darkness, and then suddenly it looms before you. Lights blink in icy blue marking the runways, with the cityspace cut up by massive highways illuminated with yellow sodium-vapor lamps, dotted with cranes marking the ever-expanding skyline.

But somehow they remain obscure. How many Americans have heard of Dongguan, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Wuhan in China, or Bekasi or Medan in Indonesia?

I take a commuter train out of Bangkok into the suburbs, where the contradictions between the old Asia and the new are at their sharpest.

The megacity is without profile or shape, without boundary save arbitrary political edges, primarily erected in the past 30 years or so as part of the mass influx of rural populations. They are places of constantly pouring concrete, of dusty lots and rickety scaffoldings, farmers' fields interspersed with eight-story buildings.

The handful of fugitive slums in Bangkok line canals and railway tracks out on these peripheries, and are built of sheet metal and often old billboards, including-- with no apparent irony-- those with the smiling faces of political candidates and cheery slogans about developing the nation.

Across a cinder-block wall, a few inches and several magnitudes of income away, a new gated community rises up, with fountains and avenues of royal palms. The identical houses are built in white concrete with wedding-cake baroque ornamentation and massive reflective glass windows, the architectural answer to a Bach cantata played as elevator music.

In the old center, the city groans under its weight. Old shophouses with wooden windows abut crystalline shopping centers along traffic-clogged streets below elevated metro lines. Everything is atop everything else. I sit down at a cafe slotted into the megacity's core. The exposed pipes and butcher block are intended to mirror a loft space, an attempt at a cozy spot in Brooklyn or London on a cold winter morning rendered in a shopping zone in the sweltering tropics, one simulation in an infinite sequence.

It's hard not to read the megacity as a harbinger of doom of some sort, whether spiritual or environmental or social. It's no accident that in previous eras, Friedrich Engels visited Victorian Manchester and saw in it the breeding grounds for the communist revolution he saw erupting from the inherent contradictions of an industrial society. Émile Zola documented the overgrown Paris of the corrupt Second Empire and personified it as a contemptuous courtesan named Nana-- a name later given to a spermy neighborhood in central Bangkok-- who meets her end as "a shovelful of putrid flesh." And these days, countless journalists and scientists look at smog-choked Beijing and parched Cairo and see nothing but incipient catastrophe.

One's imagination takes flight at the elaborate corpses our current cities will leave. It's remarkably easy to see the collapse of the metropolis in the mind's eye. One imagines Dhaka washed into the rising Bay of Bengal, massive housing developments uninhabited and rusting in South China, the glass and steel skeleton of Abu Dhabi underneath shifting dunes.

The reality of it will probably be far less interesting. Given the cheapness of contemporary building materials, the ruins of megacities will probably form a mass of glass and concrete, rust stains and seeping oil. And somehow it seems fitting that the largest habitations the world ever knew, erected so fast, will dissipate equally fast. The modern city becomes entropy itself.