Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Literary Festival Worlds 13:
Peng Lun / Eric Abrahamsen and Masashi Matsuie / Michael Emmerich

                                              Peng Lun                                   Eric Abrahamsen

                                                       Masashi Matsuie                            Michael Emmerich

Day Three

In Peng Lun and Eric Abrahamsen's provocation we were introduced to Han Han, a teen prodigy who was not much good at school. In the 1980s China introduced a one-child-per-family policy and Han Han is one of the first of that generation of single children. His generation is the one that fully embraced the internet with all its implication of freedom. Han Han was no good at school but while at school produced teenage novels using the slang of his contemporaries and became a phenomenon by doing so.  In 2003 he set up a blog that dealt out advice and criticised the government as a result of which some of his blogs were deleted. In 2010 he established a magazine called The Party, the first issue of which sold a million and was immediately banned because of its politics. Han Han was credited with introducing the concept of irony, which, much to my surprise, was apparently missing in Chinese society. He moved into China's Twitter equivalent - then he did a lot of other stuff. The question was whether he is a bluffer, a hollow vessel.

In fact the question behind the question is whether any technology that deploys such short texts can say anything of substance at all. When everything is reduced to a tweet the whole rhythm of thought was likely to be endangered. Would it be possible to find a technology that slowed us down?

In the discussion Ruth made her point about technology defeating time. We talked about the idea of the serialisation of longer work and the way longer formats work on television. Nicky Harman mentioned some very wordy blogs. I, of course, brought up the question of poetry (Eric having said before the session that he didn't have a poetic muscle in his body) which then covered the tweet as a potential literary form. Just as the sonnet comprises 14 lines, so the tweet comprises 14 characters. Both are constraints.

It was undoubtedly the ill-educated boy with his genius for hitting on formats his own rebellious generation would instinctively understand who stole the show. He being a product of the single-child policy in China was addressing his cyber-brothers and sisters in the language of a shared yet lonely virtual adolescence, a world that was in revolt with the authority that created it and was seizing on the nature of electronic social communication as if it were discovering  and creating messages in bottles - it was only that the bottles were by their nature small so the message could not convey the full meaning of, say, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Poetry appeared here very briefly as something you might find in one of these bottles and I want to return to that bottle at the end. Poetry is the message in the bottle.


We returned to the issue of the first person novel - the 'I' novel - in Masashi Matsuie and Michael Emmerich's provocation. The complexity of the I form in Japanese involves very many different words for, as well as uses of, and implications of, the first person singular. Masashi Matsuie (as translated by Michael Emmerich) began by referring to a speech by the nationalist mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, in which he defended the use of comfort women - a form of female enslavement - during the war. Finding his opinion fiercely opposed he called on the complexity of the first person singular as a defence, suggesting that it wasn't he who had said it but some other 'I' figure.

From here we proceeded to a discussion of the various uses of I, and indeed its occasional absence in general discourse as well as in novels. One might exclude any version of the pronoun unless it were absolutely necessary to incude it.  Social relations govern use, as one would expect. The negotiation between self and others has many shades of grey. A novel might move from one form of I to another depending on contexts such as time and occasion. This makes it hard for the translator into English who has a much narrower choice. Translations, Michael E stressed, were very different from the originals. My personal thought was that subtle shades of social relationship might not be peculiar to Japan and that most languages will have ways other than the pronoun to indicate such shades. It also brought to mind my parents' early comment on the use of capital I in English as opposed to the lower case 'you', since in Hungarian I takes the fom of the lower case én, whereas 'you' in its various direct forms (Te, Maga, Ön) deploys capitals. "In England the speaker is more important than the listener."

Michael E was very careful to preface his comments with the words "Translator's Note:" and deployed as much irony as he could to point out a sense of distance between general comment and subtlety of meaning. To illustrate his point about the difficulties and subtleties involved in the artistic act, he talked of language as a solid wall (like the wall of the cathedral behind us) and the work as a piece of tissue paper thrown at the wall.

Among all the shadows and nuances of the Japanese first person singular in Matsashi Matsuie and Michael Emmerich’s presentation I wondered how that first person singular might address itself in the mirror as it was shaving or putting on its make-up, in the primal shock of the self in its own momentary nakedness, how that endlessly shifting set of communications all languages conduct with both self and other relates to say, the shifting names and forms of the internet. This was interpreted [summer-up’s note] in the light of the deadpan translator’s note, above all in the beautiful image of the tissue paper thrown against the wall, a wall I kept straining at because, as a poet, the wall seems not quite so stable as the walls of the cathedral seem to be. The wall of course is language in the metaphor and the tissue is the work of art the artist throws at it. As a poet my sense of the wall is that it i one that it constantly making and remaking itself, parts falling off, others being patched, always something new being built. You’re just another brick in the wall, as the song had it - yes but we have our tissue paper, and I as a poet will now provide my own. It is clean - I think. And even when it isn’t it may be worth throwing at James Joyce’s snot green sea.

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