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Interviews from Conversational Reading

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See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


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The Last Samurai: Cultural Literacy and Other Grown-Up Things

Now that we’re into the meat of this book, I think it’s time to talk about a theme I’ve been tracking for a while and that has really taken center stage in our third section. That would be cultural literacy.

You can see it in there throughout the book as a sort of correlate to Ludo’s genius–yes, yes, he can learn to track down strings of letters and to put them together into groupings of sound and meaning, but can he actually tell you what they say?

We get a couple of strong developments of this theme in week three’s chunk of text. The first that I noticed is the entry of Kurosawa’s first film, Sugata Sanshiro, into the discussion. The film is about judo and Sugata is a judo prodigy, and though I haven’t seen this film, from DeWitt’s discussion of it the film seems to tell a coming of age tale about Sugata, his judo mentor, and a villain. Sugata is very much an “unformed” man, in that he constantly keeps learning and aspiring, whereas the villain has reached an endpoint in his development, something that is implied to be an essential part of his villainy.

What struck me most was a quote from Donald Richie’s The Films of Kurosawa Akira. It’s a long quote, and I’m not going to copy it all here, but here are two very interesting statements in it:

One of the attributes of all [Kurosawa's] heroes, beginning with Sugata, is that they are all unformed in just this way. For this reason, all of his pictures are about education–the education of the hero. . . .

To suggest that peace, contentment, happiness, follows a single battle, no matter how important, is literally untrue–and it would limit Sugata precisely because of the limitations suggested in the words “happiness” or “judo champion.” [235]

Te other place I see this theme is in Sibylla’s strange little test for Ludo: she exposes him to three pieces of deficient art (notably among them, the piano music of Liberace), and challenges him to tell her why they are bad, promising to reveal his father if he can. Ludo, lacking the cultural knowledge to understand what she’s getting at, rather pathetically flails for an answer and fails.

This struck me as a little mean on Sibylla’s part and also very fable-like (pitching the form of this subplot around a quest bound up with coming of age seems very much like a knight errant tale).

More examples of this theme abound: Ludo’s failure to integrate into a classroom setting, his freaky, and very astonishing but also mechanical, abilities to calculate extremely large numbers through ingenious applications of the distributive principle.

All this is beginning to make me wonder: is Ludo a genius, or more of a savant?

So on to other things: Now that we’re a ways into this book, has anyone tried to make sense of the words, phrases, and numbers that occur at the beginnings of new sections throughout the book? There seems to be some underlying system or meaning to them, but I myself haven’t gone back to rigorously look through them and see what pops out.

And lastly, I wanted to bring up some Seven Samurai references in this section. We’ve already had some interesting discussion of this film as a surrogate father for Ludo, and now the film’s role in the book seems to be evolving into new territories. First of all, I found Sibylla’s repeated viewing of the film a little bit odd . . . she seems to resort to it in times of stress as a sort of way to distract herself and distance herself form the world, even as she avows its importance as a masterpiece of modern cinema.

And a couple of key scenes where this film comes into play. First of all, when Sibylla and Ludo’s kindergarten teacher are discussing the problems Ludo is having with school. This quote starts with the teacher talking:

“It has got to stop. Stephen [Ludo] has got to understand that there is more to life than how much you know.”

I said, “Does that mean I don’t have to go to school any more?”

Sibylla said, “I couldn’t agree with you more, we have been watching Seven Samurai on a weekly basis for about a year.”

Miss Lewis said, “I beg your pardon?”

Sibylla said, “Well, as I’m sure you know the whole issue of a skill in Kurosawa is highly– Why look, you’ve got a little book about samurai in the classroom, how marvellous!” [233]

First, note the oddness of reading this exchange (which I gather Ludo doesn’t entirely understand) via a transcription of the incident from memory in Ludo’s journal.

And now on to the quote itself. Obviously the key question is where Sibylla meant to go with that remark about skill: why exactly does she view the film as so important to Ludo’s development? And what is her definition of Kurosawa’s concept of a skill (partially explained, I would imagine, in the discussion of Sugata mentioned above)?

The second incident of Seven Samurai I want to call out is the scene toward the end of this week’s section [pp. ~ 259-65] where Ludo is translating from the Japanese for Sibylla as she watches the famous scene where Kikuchiyo makes a fool of himself while trying to “prove” his noble paternity to the other six titular samurai. (For those who haven’t seen the film, it later becomes evident (and quite central to Kikuchiyo’s character) that he is an orphan, i.e. without a father.)

I loved this scene for the way that there are about five different things happening in parallel: 1) the film screening on TV; 2) Ludo’s discussion of Japanese grammar; 3) Ludo’s translation of the film; 4) the subtitles’ (very different) translation; 5) Sibylla’s attempts to make sense of it all at once. I don’t want to get into too big of an analysis of this exchange, but I will say that a lot of what’s going on here seems to tie together various thematic and plot/character threads that have been running through this book. It seems like a rather central scene that we’ll be thinking about again as we read.

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8 comments to The Last Samurai: Cultural Literacy and Other Grown-Up Things

  • Geoff

    I have wondered too about Sibylla’s repeated viewing of the film. Ludo after all seems more interested in discovering his father’s identity than in identifying a movie surrogate. A sad and funny passage for me in this section has been that of Ludo doggedly reading his way through the travel adventure shelves of the local library in hope of some way divining his father’s identity. What else could a genius young reader do?

    Sibylla seems isolated. The only adult male she has interacted with so far is the undesirable Liberace and I wonder if the oft repeated viewing of the movie is part of designing her reference point as a woman and not as a mother, if the two are separable, that is?

  • Muzzy

    The third paragraph of this post says ‘the entry of Kawabata’s first film, Sugata Sanshiro, into the discussion.’ I think that might be a typo, as Sugata Sanshiro is a film by Kirosawa, not Kawabata. Kawabata was a Nobel-prize winning writer, not a film director (though for all I know, the film might be based off one of Kawabata’s stories?). You probably know this already, since you mention Kirosawa further down the post.

  • Rashomon

    Under Sib’s guidance, deliberate or accidental, Ludo is boiling Seven Samurai down to a useful aphorism: a good samurai can parry the blow (or variations on it), which could be the only lesson mother wants for her son, that you learn to dodge disaster. The trouble is you need the disaster to learn what to dodge, or parry, and I think she hopes he can analyze the world enough to avoid crises, intellectualize it, rather than see him fall and learn from that. But she knows better, she knows his brilliant analytical mind can’t separate ART from KITSCH and until it can, and only experience teaches us that kind of distinction (when we fall for kitsch as children, cheesy pop music or blacklight posters, the stuff that we’re embarrassed about later) he’s at risk. A good samurai parries the blow. But he get’s whonked on the head before learning how. Good thing they play with bamboo and not steel.

  • @Geoff, you touched on something I’ve been thinking about constantly while reading this novel. Sibylla and Ludo live a very isolated existence. Sometimes I’m not sure they do little more than subsist. Sibylla is a highly-intelligent polymath who does not seem to be able to connect with other people in a meaningful way and seems to have chosen to live this way. And then she has the responsibility of educating and raising her gifted son on her own without assistance from Ludo’s biological father or her own family. She won’t return to the U.S. to get help from her family…also a choice.

    Sibylla was incapable of making the people at the grade school understand exactly how smart Ludo was. And her Rosetta Stone morning-after letter to Liberace comes off as both fascinating and crazy…to put it simply, Sibylla is not “good with people.” Whether that’s a function of her extreme talents or lack of social skills or a combination of both with the former feeding the latter, I don’t know.

    Sibylla long ago appears to have made up her mind that the world at large is not worth spending much effort with which to interact. It’s as if she feels cursed like her parents; both of whom were thwarted by their parents and circumstance to fully develop their own voluminous talents.

    I, too, wonder if neither Ludo or Sibylla are geniuses but savants. This is a big distinction because I wouldn’t say that all prodigies are geniuses. At least when I think of genius, I think of someone who discovers or gives rise to some insight or discovery which makes a fundamental change in how human beings understand or experience the world, either through science, philosophy, art, or even politics or other fields of knowledge.

    For example, Mozart was both a musical prodigy and a genius. I’d say Hemingway was a genius for building on Sherwood Anderson’s work and reducing English prose to its barest…but he was not a prodigy.

    Anyway, this is a lot of thinking out loud. I’ve really enjoyed The Last Samurai. (I actually raced ahead and finished reading the book this morning. This book is going to linger in my mind for a long while.)

  • David C

    Isolation…Sibylla and LudoStevenDavid approach language in a very isolated manner, choosing languages for reading rather than interacting. How difficult would it be for either of them to find someone in London to speak French or Hebrew with? Have they even mentioned Spanish? Why doesn’t Spanish fall within their languages worth learning?

    Repetition…We see musicians repeating both to master a piece as well as to play it before an audience numerous time in order to express it they way they feel in needs expressing–include Sibylla’s mom who, through Chopin, tries to express her desire to study music to her father. Is the repeated viewing of Seven Samurai an attempt something perfect…a perfect viewing of a “Masterpiece of modern cinema”? An attempt at perfect understanding?

  • In choosing Samurai as role models for Ludo/David/Steve, Sibyl has already chosen a life which is divorced from social interaction. To her, those lone rangers with singular aims, spending all their free time in pursuit of scholaristic ideals are a symbol of all that is good in life. It is not strange then, that she seeks isolation, interacting only with Ludo, who through his genius belongs to the same class. Or interacting with the masters of the class, even if it is one-sided interaction.

  • Geoff

    Seems that repetition is so important to this novel. I think it not by chance that our characters are consigned to the Circle line, and not the Bakerloo or the Piccadily. We can go either way on repetition. A musician repeating to master a piece is undoubtedly good, and literally fine tuning could be little else but laudable, or honing a knife (or sword for that matter) reeks of worthwhile activity. But more often than not repetition gets a bum rap. And how many times will poor Ludo have to repeat his Question?

    Incidentally, is anyone else finding the absence of spellchuck in the “comment composer” ridiculously challenging.

  • tom

    It seems like a long time since we were here. On the 10th and 11th of October. I’ve given Scott’s indtroduction and the exchanges a lot of thought, and I’d like to share that with you now that most of us have finished the book. We now know how many metamorpheses Ludo has undergone, and how angry he can get at his mother, and she at him. Etc.

    Scott strikes the first note by saying that it is a bit odd that Sibylla keep watching The Seven Samurai. He suggests that it may be that she needs to distract herself and distance herself from the world and from her past. Then he brings up two key passages, in between which the question gets asked: why exactly does she view the film as so important to Ludo’s develpment.

    In the exchages, no one wants to answer this question. Everyone is into diagnostics and psyciatry. At that point, in October, this was perhaps understandable, this sudden shift completely out of the novel and into the Statistical and Diagnostic Manual. But what about now? Now that we know that all the while, all throughout that year long practice of watching The Seven Samurai once a week, that someone else was either doing the same thing or remembering scenes and dialogue from the film. The scene of repeated spectatorship between Sib and Ludo is repeated, much to our surprise, by Kenzo the musician. Now that we know that, does it make a difference? Can we at last address the question Scott throws out?

    It’s a matter of repetition. The kernel of the exchages, from this material and mechanical viewpoint, comes between David C. and Geoff. They focus on repetition. They give examples of repetition, and say things designed to last. “We see musicians repeating both to master a piece as well as to play it before an audience numereous times in order to express it the way they feel it needs expressing.” And Geoff to follow up by saying that repetition can go both ways, and that most often in the book “repetition gets a bum rap.” What about now?

    The master aesthetic of the novel is Yamamoto’s. He’s the one who keeps his audience hostage so that they can learn what it means to perceive a sound. “To express it the way he feels it needs expressing.” The way is to constantly contrast it with other sounds. It’s not to make it perfect, it’s to change its context constantly, and to see and hear and marvel at what happens to it. On a banal level, this is theme and variation. But at the level of the master aesthetic of the book, it is a practice of fragments.

    So why is so much time spent in front of this movie? It’s like asking, why is so much time spent with the rosary? Or with prayer wheels? Or with reading the Bible? Or reading/rereading poetry? Learning it by heart, like the Japanese used to do in the 11th and 12 centuries? It’s the same question. Why do we look at these people who are so evidently in the grip of a habit, and conclude that something is amiss? Why can’t we see how important it is to contract habits? I’d like to give you a great piece by Hegel on the importance of rote memory, of this kind of habit, for the development of the mind and spirit. But I’ve already overstayed my welcome, I think.

    The genius of repetition is that it is impossible. You can never repeat an act of spectorship and imagine it identical to itself, or to some original version. It is constantly changing. This is how repetition ties in with Sugato Sanshiro.

    What these people are doing is learning how to perceive detail, and how to deconstruct skills, accomplishments, and caste systems. They’re learning new habits, and getting rid of default settings. There’s nothing pathological about this. This is intense involvement with others. And a judgment on what goes for involvement with others more often than not.

    The shortest means at my disposal to communicate my comment on the proceeding this week, is to say that I have read them many times, and now believe I can request that you return to Yamamoto, on page 170-171, or the passage on the dying sound, which is perfectly equivalent to the fact that we are all to die, and that this renders us all more or less intense on how we spend the time between the emission of the sound and its death.

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