The Birdcage Archives

Sunday, 27 February 2022

– I –

 

I don’t like the word care or caring. A deceitful word. To care or care for, is in an exercise of self-indulgence under the guise of charity. It’s a word marinated in mothering and patronizing sentiments. People who care or care for—or those semantically clever: tend to—always do so with the thought of self-service before social service. These are the people who lecture about how they know what’s best for you. Manage you. Mother you. And before you know it smother you. Such saccharine egotism.  Care is simply the saintly answer to narcissism.

Tuesday, 22 February 2022

Regarding Prescriptive Reading

 
Hello Gentle Reader,
 
In a world raging over the myopia of personal pedantic problems and perspectives, with a credulous public willing to engage in this indulgence, if only to have an excusable reason to orchestrate yet another lynching of some public figure, be they an academic or writer; I find it continually disheartening to see the cornerstone and pillars of literature being undermined and attacked, not just from external militants, but internal insurrections and mutinous peers. The flames of tyranny are always fanned by the winds of revolution. As the adage goes: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Recently, Naomi Kanakia wrote an essay in the Los Angles Review of Books, inquiring about the perceived detrimental effects of reading the classics. Specifically, the ire and chagrin young readers leverage with rage against the prescriptive literary medicine of old stuffy white books, which have zero relevance to contemporary issues or times. I recall reading Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, and Jack London in my younger years and remember finding their works to be pleasant company. Then again, I am now one of those old stuffy white things, an absolute antiquarian who could be sold at a discounted price (based on natural ware of course) at your local antique shop, if it weren’t tantamount to geriatric prostitution. Thankfully, my initial judgements and concerns of Naomi Kanakia’s essays were unfounded. Where others of a more idealistic mentality and a talent for evangelical demagoguery and populistic polemic propagation, would use the form to induce a berserker like fury; Kanakia, wrote a measured, rational, and reasonable approach to the issue of prescriptive reading and provides holistic and salient points.
 
First and foremost, the prescribed readings provided by educational institutions as mandated by curriculum are not renowned for being the most enjoyable. They are selected through a rigorous process overseen and designed by experts and bureaucrats, who are so far removed from implementation and teaching the curriculum that they are shielded from all repercussions or consequences of its shortsighted failures. A recent example of this can be seen in one Canadian province’s political rebranding of its educational curriculum, which not only patronizes students and children, but completely discredits their ability to comprehend, understand, and contextualize information accordingly. Despite the best intentions, the desire for schools to inspire a lifelong love of reading is ultimately thwarted by its authoritarian delivery, making reading more an assignment or a chore, rather than an act of leisure or enjoyment. From grade school into secondary school, all the way into post-secondary studies, students are provided required reading. None of which—that I can recall—at any rate, being remotely interesting. A recent survey and review brought up the usual suspects as required reading in school classes:
 
“The Lord of the Flies,” – William Golding
“The Grapes of Wrath,” – John Steinbeck
“All Quiet on the Western Front,” – Ernest Hemingway
“Of Mice and Men,” – John Steinbeck
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” – Mark Twain
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” – Harper Lee
“Great Expectations,” – Charles Dickens
“The Great Gatsby,” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
 
The novels listed above, are but a mere sample of the books I found listed as approved required novel studies for English courses. A quick review shows polarizing thought. “The Lord of the Flies,” is a dreadful book, as are “The Grapes of Wrath,” and “Of Mice and Men.” Hemmingway has never been my cup of tea of a writer personally, I find his work lacking lyrical luster and is unimaginatively lacquered. I do nod at the inclusion of “The Great Gatsby,” though, a telling novel of the materialistic excess of the Jazz Age of the 1920’s, which runs parallel to the current times. Other novels of equal mention I saw included was Elie Wiesel’s memoir “Night,” and because these are Canadian schools, “Windflower,” by Gabrielle Roy.
 
If students take issue with the lack of perceivable relevance some of these works have on providing commentary on matters concerning the contemporary world, then their judgement is impaired by their shortsighted misgivings. For example, Elie Wiesel’s testimonial memoir “Night,” remains paramount in its relevance, chronicling the experiences of his father and himself in the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. The horrors of the holocaust should not be casually dismissed or forgotten. “Night,” provided an intimate voice and first-person memories to the horrors of the Holocaust. Its relevance is its stalwart reminder of what evil looks like, how it starts, and where it ends. Its humanistic vision is timeless and eternal. In the case of Gabrielle Roy, its difficult to imagine a writer whose work excavated the quiet dignities of the otherwise common and downtrodden. “Windflower,” is one such novel, tracing the alienation and conflicting feelings an Inuit woman feels when she returns to her community with her blonde hair and blue-eyed son, whose father chooses not to acknowledge. The novel traces the conflicting cultures of white expectations and traditional Inuit life. With reconciliatory measures being implemented in the Canadian perspective, and further working being made to enlighten public attitudes regarding indigenous relations and history. Any attempt at arguing that “Windflower,” is irrelevant is inadequate. Contrarily, not all of these required readings are as relevant or as interesting in the contemporary frame of mind. “The Lord of the Flies,” is a boring dissertation on the inherent evil and basic barbarianism of human nature. While I can argue that “Jane Eyre,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Oliver Twist,” and “Great Expectations,” may be considerably more difficult in the contemporary context. Yet, what makes these works so enduring at the same time, regardless of the time in which they were written, is they still provide illuminating commentary on the nature and experience of the human condition.
 
The most frightening aspect of the opposition students or advocates have towards these classics of literature, is an argument reduced to censorship excused because it’s founded on the basis of progressive ideals. At this point, the arguments lose their merit. Especially when the arguers continue to push against the writer because they are white. The insistent fixation on a writer’s skin pigmentation or heritage is in itself a racist perspective. To decry a writer because they are white, is not a rationale argument. Now, once again, for the sake of argument, schools are now places full of diversity, and it is fair for students of colour or other racial minorities, to feel alienated with the prescribed reading available when they do not see their own experiences represented. Students should be able to read both the ‘classics,’ in the conventional sense, as well as the contemporary classics, which contain more diversity in themes and perceptions in relation to the contemporary world. Other advocates state the writers of the classics may hold and promote the prejudices of the time. Charles Dicken’s antisemitic attitudes riddling the depiction of Fagan in “Oliver Twist,” remains the most paramount example. Advocates believe such depictions being considered the gold standard of literature and therefore required reading in school, allows for antisemitism to continue and thrive within the current world. The same can be said regarding the racial and imperialist attitudes found in Joseph Conrad’s: “Heart of Darkness.” This once again overly simplifies students’ ability to contextualize and rationalize, but also question and critically assess the historically approved attitudes of the time from the now inappropriate. These works should be read within the context of their time, and discussions can be held from there regarding these attitudes and why they are wrong. Censoring literature and information from students is and always will be inappropriate, regardless of the good and wholesome intentions provided. Students should be provided some credibility of knowing their own minds and the ability to comprehend outdated and slanderous social perspectives.
 
Throughout her essay, Naomi Kanakia defends the classics and promotes their consumption. Denying and ignoring the classics as irrelevant, outdated, obsolete, or antiquated is a disservice any reader can do to themselves. The classics are provided this distinction for their eternal cultural importance and relevance long after the writers themselves have deceased. These works have inspired creative movements and literary imitations. Changed perspectives, challenged social conventions, and questioned ideals. They have expanded the novel further. Provided necessary commentary and contemplation of the human condition. The classics should not be dismissed or casually disregarded, as Naomi Kanakia argues, they remain important and required for a reason and the lessons they impart are valuable not just for inspiring writers but have benefits for readers. Yet unfortunately due to their prescriptive nature in which they are administered to readers in school, they are begrudgingly consumed with neither enjoyment nor pleasure. By enforcing students to subscribe to required reading the enjoyment of the classics is lost. The heavy-handed autocratic authority of the didactic academic narratives frames a tarnished experience of the reader when provided the mandated text. Reading is a lengthy investment of personal time, concentration, and devotion. Assigning the dimension of academic chore to the context of the experience of reading, will inevitably only sour any readers engagement with the work.
 
In the ongoing debate regarding the classics and their relevance and impact on students and readers, it is important to reflect on the words of John Donne:
 
“No man is and island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
 
The quote from a work of literature from 400 years ago, remains relevant today as it was then. No one in this world is an island, but individuals may choose to be shipwrecked, depriving themselves of the vastness of the human experience and condition as it has been recorded. This includes the classics. They have weathered the corrosive battery of time and achieved an eternal status. This is feat that cannot be so easily passed over. Students have my sympathies with the resentment at being forced to read, but I encourage and implore them to continue. But if I may impart any wisdom, read all the books you are interested in, and try not to be so dismissive of the classics. The only books that harm are the ones we are told not to read or denied access too. All works of literature should be consumed with earnest enjoyment, freed from the shackles and shadows of censorship.
 
Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
 
M. Mary


P.S.

Naomi Kanakia’s article with the Los Angles Review of Books:

Naomi Kanakia: Are “The Classics” Bad for You? 

Thursday, 10 February 2022

Lion Cross Point

Hello Gentle Reader,
 
There is no secret or question that Japanese Literature for the past two decades has been dominated by Haruki Murakami, who has become a global literary sensation in the same fashion as J.K Rowling and her Harry Potter Series of novels. Of course, as with everything, when one gains a certain level of success, there is less focus or interest on the literary output and production and more marketable interest in defining and establishing a brand and then producing further content, such as notebooks and a digressive nonsense dissertation on t-shirts. It should come as no surprise that Japan (and perhaps the great literary and reading world) would like to have a writer who could be considered as a new turning point or a new change for Japanese literature, one that moves away from Haruki Murakami’s shadow and influence, especially for the English-speaking world. France has already found further interest and appreciation in Yoko Ogawa (a writer significantly different then Haruki Murakami, but of the same generation), and Mieko Kawakami is gaining further appreciation outside of Japan, and has begun to establish an interested readership in the English language. This inevitability signifies that the world is showing a great interest behind the inflated ego and reputation of Haruki Murakami, whose literary output and talents are now eclipsed by marking ventures in persona. Yet, the writer who is often called the first or foremost post-Murakami writer of contemporary Japanese literature is Masatsugu Ono, who was described by Jeffrey Angles as one of the most important writers of the post-Murakami generation. What this entails is not entirely clear, as Masatsugu Ono is not a firebrand critic of Murakami. Furthermore, there is no denying that Murkami changed the direction of Japanese literature from the previously defined conventions of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Yasunari Kawabata, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, Yukio Mishima, Osamu Dazi, and to a later extent Kenzaburō Ōe, whose styles were strictly noted for their seriousness, somber appeal, high literary influence, and later postmodern introspection; whereas in turn, Haruki Murakami wrote novels and stories that were riddled with humour, whimsical fantasy, while expressing commentary on the nature of human relationships and loneliness in contemporary Japanese society. Yet, overtime Murakami became a caricature of himself, no longer supporting any serious literary ideal or merit. Yet a new group of younger writers are beginning to tackle the challenges of Japan in the new world, where globalization is now a prevalent fact of life, but also the unique sensibilities of Japanese culture and identity, which can be reviewed in the continually interconnected world at large. “Lion Cross Point,” is the second novel by Masatsugu Ono to be translated into English, with further translations forthcoming. In “Lion Cross Point,” the present and the past meld and become synthesized in the imaginative understanding of the ten-year-old boy Takeru, whose agency and ability to comprehend the world are extraordinarily limited.
 
“Lion Cross Point,” proves that Masatsugu Ono is capable of gracefully tracing the novel with a dancer’s lightness, skipping across the lily pads of Takeru’s perspective, memory, and understanding of his situation, without falling into the depths and pitfalls of divulging to much information. Critical information is provided when necessary, and only then these understated sketches provide context and an emotional resonance to the present, without digressing into sensationalism. This tight narrative control does not come across as being particularly forced or constrained, but rather a magnificent display of context and negative space. The lacking information ensures that the reader must accept certain facts as they are, without reason or previous knowledge. There is no readily available explanation as to why Takeru ends up in the care of the spritely yet elderly Mitsuko, but the change of secenary to his mother’s home village from Tokyo appears to be appreciated, despite the harsh commentary of his mother’s memory echoing in his mind:
 
“I hated it. Detested it. I just wanted to get away as soon as I could,”
 
Before fading into the husks of a swathed October field, harvested and hollow. It is here, Takeru is provided limited guidance and spectral empathetic connection with an ancient relative, Bunji, whose ghostly persona haunts the fishing village landscape. Bunji surfaces when Takeru is at his most fragile, when his world is on the verge of emotional collapse, though he is unable to understand why. He has his coping mechanisms of course, such as pulling the brim of his cap down over his eyes, which ensures he melts out of view, or not looking anyone directly in the eye. Despite their otherwise one-sided interactions, Bunji proves to be a reassuring presence for Takeru, whose directions and guidance are accepted. The fishing village, with its rural sensibilities and its blaring heat come to be the new home for Takeru. His friend Saki becomes companion; while the locals show keen interest in Takeru, who in turn shies away from their interloping invasion of his personal life, memory, and willingness to discuss his mother, as if they know her better then he.
 
Understanding the events of the present comes from examining the past. Intermittent flashbacks produce a fragmented recollection of Takeru’s life in Tokyo with his mute challenged brother and absent mother. The relation between Bunji the ghostly specter who comes forth to help Takeru adjust to his new home, and the fading memory of his older brother forgotten in Tokyo becomes poignantly clear. Mitsuko informs Takeru of Bunji being a cognitively challenged child during his time, meaning he was neglected and overlooked by society, which becomes the foreshadowing to the mistreatment that has befallen Takeru’s brother, who is mistakenly viewed as the younger of the two, which places Takeru into a custoridan and guardianship role, as he cares for his older brother, protects him, leads him, and monitors his wellbeing in public and private spaces. Through past and present Bunji and his older brother begin to merge as perhaps one being. An entity soliciting both sympathy and pity. The responsibility of ensuring his brothers wellbeing is the focal point of Takeru’s narrative in Tokyo, along with his impressionistic and naïve observations of the incomprehensible adult world; his mothers’ frequent absences noted, along with the shadows of danger that trail her when she is present, be it a man who think himself a gangster, and delights in the abuse he exercise on her, while also extending his cruel appetites to Takeru; or the ever present thought his mother may not return.
 
The juxtaposition of landscape is staunch in contrast. Tokyo is depicted as a cold, abandoned, dirty, concrete monstrosity, almost deprived of any human virtues of kindness, but shimmering sparks of hope come into being from unexpected places. The rural world by contrast is illuminated in the bleaching blinding light of summer swaddling the village that Takeru’s mother detested so much, but is riddled with welcoming warmth and genuine connections, which carry no suspicions or threats of underlying violence.
 
“Lion Cross Point,” is a masterful novel. Masatsugu Ono shows himself as a master of restraint and control, by illuminating and providing necessary details when required, while exploiting the use of negative space to ensure subtext motivates the narrative of the novel. The language of the novel is deceptively clear and simple, with some critical assessments going so far as to state its minimalist in delivery. Styling the novel as minimalist fails to describe the mastery of Masatsugu Ono in manipulating the negative space of literature, to trace the peripheral of information saturation and in lieu provide enough inclination for readers to grasp and form their own speculative conclusions without being explicitly informed. This lack of information is perhaps how the young protagonist Takeru is presented to the world. Completely unaware or left out of any conversation regarding his own fate and life. His mother’s absence provides no maternal nourishment but leaves behind the necessary resources to provide the required necessities to survive. Other’s (adults for example) provide acknowledgement that they are aware of his situation, and provide moments of relief and grace, but have no commitment or authority to resolve the situation, which may steam from the fact that they do not fully know the extent. The greatest accomplishment of “Lion Cross Point,” is Masatsugo Ono creates an authentic understanding of a ten-year-old boy. Takeru’s precise incomprehensible recollecitons of his life in Tokyo, are rendered with believable disorientation and a misunderstanding of facts. The kindness and generosity of others are accepted, often with confusion or without understanding the subtext of the situation, or the rationale behind them. Personal rituals become talismanic activities to cope with the world. All these features and limited processing abilities make Takeru believable and endearing.
 
“Lions Cross Point,” is excellently executed. Masatsugo Ono’s style carries a lightness of touch sketching out the quality of writing which gracefully glides across the surface, providing inclination to depths and shadows lurking beneath the written and confirmed text. This highly controlled style of access and denial is not a deterrent; through measured control Masatsugo Ono maintains engagement and apprehension, whereas a less skilled writer would have clouded the narrative with authoritarian control. Rather Ono, creates a believable narrative of a neglected and abandoned child, the contrast of the past in correlation with the present provides both understanding and relief. If this is the start (if not conformation) of the post-Murakami generation of Japan’s literary sensibilities, then may we rejoice to a long awaited an exhaustive sigh of relief ushering in a breeze of starch winter air to scatter the cobwebs of the whimsical and fantastically detached and isolated individuals of Haruki Murakami’s work and overarching influence, and begin to herald a new generation of writers with a contemporary gaze, an international influence and understanding, a well-read perspective, and an interest in providing cultural and social commentary.  
 
 
Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
 
M. Mary