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The Last Samurai: Fathers and Reasons

I’ve been thinking a lot about the story of Hugh Carey this week, which comprises roughly the last half of this week’s reading. I like the story a great deal, but the way it relates to the rest of The Last Samurai remains elusive.

There clearly are some links. Carey’s story of a search for a lost, silent tribe resonates quite obviously with that of Yamamoto the musician, from around page 166. As Yamamoto, Carey is a genius who is drawn far from civilization for his own obscure reasons. Also like Yamamoto, there’s a young boy to be saved, and things all turn out differently from what Carey first imagines.

Everything I’ve just described can be thought of as the story’s second part, with its first part being the story of the education of Carey and his friend, Raymond Decker, at Oxford. Quite different from the second part, this first is about the constraints that the typical structured education puts on genius: in order for Decker to pass his exams, Carey must goad him into not thinking so hard by making him play chess rapidly, thereby getting used to not looking for deep answers to questions. Decker’s problem is that he always tries to answer his exam questions as though they are serious questions, instead of tools to get him to demonstrate knowledge in a given line of inquiry.

Insomuch as its about anything, the whole of Carey’s story seems to be about a genius’s attempts to define his own reality. At one point int he story Carey reflects, “I can’t go back . . . What shall I do?” [333] This seems to be the question confronting geniuses again and again in The Last Samurai: convinced that they do not fit into the ready-made categories given by their family, school, society, etc, they seek to get outside them. You can see that in a very limited sort of example–as with Sibylla’s mother, who simply wants to leave her home situation and study music at Juilliard–or in a much more maximalist way, as with Carey, who attempts to leave human society altogether.

Carey’s story also throws young Ludo’s ambitions, or lack thereof, into relief. Immediately after finding out that Carey attended Oxford at the age of 15 (“if I get in at 15 people will always say He got into Oxford when he was 15″ [321]), Ludo wants to go at 11 (the youngest possible age for him). Similarly, both Carey’s and Decker’s stories demonstrate the essential pointlessness of learning something for any reason other than that you find it important to know. As such, it again raises the question of just why Ludo wants to be studying things like the mathematics of aerodynamics, which he does near the middle of this week’s section despite the fact that he finds it “practically impossible.” [315]

But, at any rate, I’ve gotten almost 500 words into this post without one saying the word father, so I feel like I’m burying the lede: in this section Ludo has two very unsatisfactory meetings with two potential fathers: “Liberace,” who is unmasked as the middlebrow travel writer Val Peters, and Carey. The former is identified by Sibylla as the man in question, but Ludo seems to raise the possibility that Carey might be his father, as he and Sibylla knew each other not too far from when Ludo was conceived.

I thought the meeting between Ludo and each man was very well handled–in each case Ludo gets something very different from both what he wants and what he thinks he’s going to get. I particularly liked the brief section after Ludo meets Peters: he tries to teach himself aerodynamics, but his thoughts are consistently impeded by the memory of his brief exchange with Peters, who never actually learns that Ludo is his son [314-5]. That section bespeaks of powerful emotions without ever describing them as such.

Another observation: I’ve finally accepted that, though Sibylla swears many times that it is a masterpiece of cinema, she only seems to ever watch one section of Seven Samurai. I wonder if that’s because this section (about a search for fathers and mastery of technique) makes a powerful impression on Ludo, and thus is the only part that he ever records in his journal; or rather is it in fact an exchange the Sibylla watches obsessively for her own reasons?

And lastly, since this section once again references the painting Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (image above), I thought this gloss was interesting, as it essentially turns it into a parable about genius overcoming obstacles:

He had been himself shut up by one-eyed people, in a cave ‘darkened by laurels’ (getting no good, but only evil, from all the fame of the great of long ago) — he had seen his companions eaten in the cave by the one-eyed people — (many a painter of good promise had fallen by Turner’s side in those early toils of his); at last, when his own time had like to have come, he thrust the rugged pine-trunk — all ablaze — (rough nature, and the light of it) — into the faces of the one-eyed people, left them tearing their hair in the cloud-banks . . . and got away to open sea as the dawn broke over the Enchanted Islands. [13.136-137] — Landow, Aesthetic and Critical Theories

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3 comments to The Last Samurai: Fathers and Reasons

  • tom

    First tell you about the pleasure. Then about the pain.

    It’s a pleasure and a joy to have read the H/C and R/D chapter and then to be able to read your post, Fathers and Reasons. This is as close to a perfect fit as I can imagine, and well, let me just say thankyou for these thoughts, and everything that they spur and throw back out into cyberspace!

    Now for the pain. From “The Burden of Genius” to “Fathers and Reasons” you would have us believe that this a a book about geniuses. If I could, Scott, believe me I would pretend that there are no geniuses in this novel. It’s become my trademark. But this time I’m stumped and stymied: for there are geniuses here. So where is my pain?

    I don’t think genius is a theme in this novel. When I read about “the constraints the typical structured education puts on geniuses,” I want to substitue just about anything for genius here. A whole gamut of entities, a spectrology of people and characters who feel the constraints as pain before they understand them to be enabling.
    Another sentence: “the whole of Carey’s story seems to be about a genius’s attempts to define his own reality.” The genius aspect of this task seems to pale as the reader moves into it (the task). It’s everyone’s task. Here, genius would be but the device for the motivation. Something like a pretext. Nothing essential, it seems to me, is touched with the thematic of genius.

    Another sentence, icing on the cake: “This seems to be the question confronting geniuses again and again in The Last Samurai: convinced that they do not fit into the ready-made categories given by their family, school, society, etc. they seek to get outside them.” Fair enough. But what about travel writers? What about ronin? What about imposters? Anthropologists who have Triste Tropiques in their duffel bag? Or poets who get drunk in Bordeaux and never make it back home? Or expatriates? Or Belgian literary critics? Or, linguists for that matter! “HC would never back down. He was a linguist, and therefore he had pushed the bounds of obstinancy well beyond anything that is conceivable to other men.” (p. 336)

    And of course, I won’t mention the case of the philosopher. The guy putting up a fight against sophistry.

    I’m not sure I have a case to make. Maybe it would only the necessity of preserving proper names, and not substituting classifications for them too quickly. Of course, I’ve just spent my time here defending the concept of gammatization as the process by which classifications enable people to think more clearly, against sophistic promises. It’s my Circle Line, from which I long to get away from.

    I’m OK with genius, Scott. And I marvel at the synchronicity possible on this blog. I suppose I have only laughter to share, at the end of the line. “How genius overcomes obstacles.”? I laugh, and say, slightly dumbfounded: nobody overcomes them. Nobody: a proper name. Something substantial. Like in the Odyssey. No genius, not now, not here. Nobody, or HCE: here comes everybody!

  • tom

    What sort of powerful emotions can be determined from Ludo’s struggle concentrating on Kuethe and Chow’s Foundations of Aerodynamics? He’s in the grip of sentences remaining from his encounter with his father, sentences that have now the horrible gravitational pull of obsessions. He’ll have to get out, he’ll have to cut himself a path through this new resistance he was better off without. This seems a good enough reason, fitting enough, for him to be reading about foundations for flight and escape. In additiion, he has the same instincts as his mother: “I wanted to clear my head. I wanted strangeness and coldness and precision.” (Sib in reaction to “The Drunken Medley.” p; 133)

    There is something else, bigger, better, more sublime that the above. Something utopian and romantic that crops up where you would least have expected to find it, as Ludo listens to his mother telling him the story of Hugh and Richard. It’s the idea and the occurence of shared knowledge from the highest to the lowest rung on the social ladder. We might want to recall the Maoist roots of this idea, but also the romantic ones, and pre-modern ones too: the idea that art was both to entertain and to instruct! Here characters are insribed on kites blowing in the wind (but in a perfect antithesis to the mood and feeling of Dylan’s sorrowful and ineffectual “Blowing in the Wind.”)

    “In all the terrible times they had been through they had kept their interest in aerodynamics and in what could be done with the silk.” (p. 335)

    It’s true that Ludo chose the book on aerodynamics out of the blue. The music and content of his mother’s voice, however, succeeds in silencing his father’s shrill and dangerous Siren calls. Once mother and son’s imagination are airborne, the reader is treated to one of the most beautiful passages anywhere on the high stakes of personal and collective individuation, albeit but necessarily (for the moment) at a remove from contemporary cultural and technical conditions.

  • tom

    On the cusp between one week and the next.

    It’s already Sunday over here, thus the onset on the next to last “chunk” of the novel, pages 361 to 472. Scott’s post on Hugh Carey has helped me to size up a huge mistake I’ve made from the start of this reading. This was apropos of the various modes of Sibylla’s presence in the novel. I’m afraid I wasn’t able to remain on the flight path of reasonable behavior, but instead started treating hearsay as truth. According to hearsay, Sibylla fades and declines as Ludo matures and starts to shine. Here is one of many occurences of this now foregone conclusion:

    “As Ludo grows ever more daring, competent, articulate, we watch his mother seem to shrivel, exhausted and emptied, ready to die, she thinks; and the narrative diminishes with her, speeding up and thinning out, faster and faster, thinner and thinner. It’s as if the form of the novel were miming the energy that is being transfered from the mother to the son … there is a sense throughout the novel of limitation, of a losing struggle, with time and/or funds and/or stamina running out. (Jenny Turner, LRB, May 2008: “Move Your Head and the Picture Changes”)

    Scott’ post sent me back to the narrative of Hugh’s heroics. I now hold that this was narrated by Sibylla. It’s tone and pitch differ totally from what she can spin off on Kurosawa’s film. Here the narrative closes in on her life experience, and is thus of a totally different “facture” than in those parts of the novel where she most closely resembles the mecurial Kikuchiyo. (The only tales Kikuchiyo can tell are scathing red-neck observations on the stupidity and hopelessness of farmers and peasants) Here for the first time we seem to depart from the black and white of Dorothy’s Kansas and to be in some other land. This is not someone fading, but someone coming into her own. We should, I think, take the same kind of pains with Sib as we had to take with Jackson Pollock: he was not on a straight line to suicide in the fifties. He was renewing his repertoire!

    Friends, masters, and teachers have something in common in this novel, and constitute one of Ariadne’s threads out of its frustrating complexity and darkness. The elective affinities of friends, masters and teachers can be shown, I think, to constitute a politics whose broad lines originate in friendship rather than in love. (Love would be the preserve of Val Peters, or the woman who saved Sib’s life, and these people weigh on friends, despie the utter lack of any elective affinity whatsoever. But friendship, and the relation of master and student or pupil or disciple or ronin, would be the sphere of Greek métis — spinning out resourceful, crafty solutions to dark problems of physical and spiritual survival.)

    I’m sure there will be much to say about Sorabji. And the painter of course. My favorite is, however Szegeti, so close to Sib in his reaction to The Seven Samurai film. There’s no room for an extra-territorial kiss with stellar star friends like this!

    I’m starting to wonder about a table of correspondence between the heroes of The Seven Samurai and the heroes of The Last Samurai. This may be a silly stupid exercise, or perhaps a cute one like Gauss’s little mathematical scheme for addition — for young children!

    In the left hand column, we have Kambei, Katsushiro, Schichiroji Kambei’s friend, Gorobee, Heihachi, Kyuzo the peerless swordsman, and Kikichiyo. Plus Rikichi.

    In the right hand column, we have Sib playing the role of Rikicki staring out at us with burning eyes. And Red Devlin, Szegeti, Hugh Carey, Sorabji, and the painter. That’s only five. It would be great to be able to add Yamamoto to the list, but his flight path does not cross Ludo’s. Ludo was so bored he split when he attended the Yamamoto concert. We are five, and up shit’s creek. No correspondence in the offing. No return on investment! Should there be another candidate in the final section, then I will be able to imagine Ludo shouting, at the top of his voice: “Now we are six” and almost immediately seguing into the seventh, because then he will see and know that he must include himself in the numeration, at the speed of light, instantaneously, becoming Katsushiro in the blink of an eye.

    The author will have a problem introducing the 6th samurai with so little space remaining. I frankly can’t see how she’ll be able to pull that off. But it would be ever so satisfying if she could! (Maybe it will be Glen Gould or Rilke?) It can’t be Val Peters, too drunk and too fatuous to parry any blow.

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