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The Last Samurai: Why Have So Many of Us Petered Out for the Moment?

(Thanks to Tom from the comments for coming through with an excellent post for this week’s chunk of Last Samurai text. I’ll be chiming in on the comments with my own thoughts, and will be back next week to bring this group read to an end.)

“We don’t do anything.” We said this to our parents, and now we hear our children saying it all over again. Ludo’s complaint is plastered in the most obvious place imaginable: chapter headings at the beginning of the novel. Think back: . . . . . . . . . .

As the novel grows, the situation gets better, for Ludo at least. He starts doing things. Not just turning around in circles on the Circle Line. He starts to be able to orient himself in London and in his budding life. We know at one moment what aspect this orientation takes on. Search for the father, a kind of speed dating thing to see how far he can go with bamboo swords. At another moment, closer to our spoiler line, we know that Ludo has opted for another aspect of the same orientation: he’s going to go out and get money in order to do his thing. Is he selfish? Has he caved in? Petered out? No, of course not. He’s as worried as he ever has been about his mother, and wonders what he shall do. “What shall I do?” The question brings all the rebellious fragments of this novel together. Everybody is on a shuttle between “we’re doing nothing” and “what shall we do?” Everyone seems concerned with the real life implications of the Japanese kanji for “DO”: the way, the path, the road.

Sib chips in her own not very gifted voice to the chorus: what shall we do? At one point, it becomes drastic and desperate. She’s tired, discouraged, fed up, and in the throes of mental disorganization. A quote perhaps, from page 440, or page 448. But no, let’s save space. Let’s segue to Ludo, who’s more interested in her plight than we could ever be. Let’s posit that the boy has an incredible gift or disposition for playing his point/counterpoint in his rendition of the two or three thngs he knows about her. (The only flight path for the critic consists in a rigorous respect for Ludo’s head start and his ledes concerning the state and status of his mother’s burden.) He’s worried, he’s distraught, he’s aggravated, but, to take a line from Jacques Brel, le pessimisme n’est pas de mise. Talking straight, with no chasers, doesn’t necessarily tip the scales toward pessimism, sadness, or despair. Tragedy is not sad. Tragic is the way the world is, for those alive enough to live it. Tragedy is as upbeat as you want, as upbeat in the swirl of existence as what you are able to sustain and endure. In this novel, people can sustain quite a bit, and quite a few of them buckle under the strain. Ludo concludes that his mother has been bent to the ground, but hasn’t snapped. Here are a few references: pages 467-468, page 527.

There are hundreds or millions of ways of trying to stand, to stay standing, on the moving web or carpet of a novel, to say nothing of the moving skein of life! One way is to go out to some corner and become a specialist, far from the madding crown. A crank, a weirdo, an eccentric, an elegant dandy, from the Meiji period to Andy Warhol’s New York, and out to B.A. Ellis. Oxford is a place seemingly teeming with eccentricity. And singularity. The world of science too. To say nothing of the worlds of letters and music, and bridge, and baseball. (Just think for a moment about the Giant’s young prodigy, Lincecum!) There’s something, not glorious, but intensely appealing, about going out on a limb, out to the limits or edges of existence, seeking radicality and refusing to compromise. Practically every character in The Last Samurai belongs to the “category” of this type of person. But the really interesting thing about the novel is how these people get drawn into the wilder side of life, how, the most often unwittingly, they must take a walk on the wild side. This may sound corny or clichéd, because it is, except that it’s keyed to a novel in which none of this is corny or clichéd. It’s one of the most important dimensions of what allows the author and the characters she creates to keep standing up to critical scrutiny, and to keep standing tout court. All these characters are elitist, but with a twist, and the twist is what is most singular and noteworthy about them. The twist takes them out into the wild. And the wild proves to be the ordinary existence of ordinary human beings. I know this will have to be substantiated, but I’m willing in the meantime to take bets with this or that person who thinks this is totally off the wall. How about dinner at the Three Sisters in New Orleans? Or lunch at the Editors in Paris? Or breakfast at Tiffany’s? You name it, I’m on. The twists of these characters have nothing to do with their genius, but with their range and aim, systematically in direction of Tom, Dick and Harry, Joe the Taxi and . . . . . But not Mr. Chips! Mr. Chips falls through the carpet. He can’t stand the pressure. He thus becomes modest and nondescript.

Let’s dwell a moment on Sorabji. What’s his secret? I mean, what’s his secret appeal to TV spectators? He’s like Kambei. Kambei is an unapparent hero, certainly not a genius. Sorabji is both. Both are men to whom a lot of people look up to. Admire and desire. Something along the lines of Robert Donat. Sorabji succeeds because of his good looks. He’s knock-down gorgeous. Very important in the flight paths of existences! (Derrida would never have been as successful as he was had he not been so good-looking.) He’s a Robert Donat lookalike. The guy who starred in Hitchcock’s 39 Steps, in which “he escaped across moors and jumped on and off moving trains.” (p. 367) Sorabji is on TV every Thursday at 9:00. The author apparently feels there no sense in specifying that this is 9 in the morning: no one would put even the good-looking Sorabji in the prime-time slot of 9 PM!

Donat is mentioned three times in the novel. This is enough to make him a candidate for novelistic and existential centrality. Donat could very easily have taken over the privileged position of the Seven Samurai. There’s no reason why he couldn’t. There are circumstances, limitations on time and trouble, but nothing essential would keep Donat from becoming Kambei. The 17 role models could not be modeled on the 39 steps, because these are spies. But a case could be made. Especially if Donat is allowed to survive in Sorabji. There we would have the entire The Last Samurai in miniature, as indeed we do!

Once and for all, let’s be clear as to the mise en abyme of this novel. You have Kurosawa’s film relating how strong and less strong men and young men come to the rescue of a village. Level One. Then you have a mother who decides that this structure is more than adequate to come to her rescue as regards the psychological and spiritual needs of her son. Level Two. Then you have the huge and for most of us impossible level three, where we have to decide if there’s anything in our lives worth rescuing, if the question means anything in a context where we have been taught that TINA–(there is no alternative). Sorabji is someone who is given to us in all the explicit detail of something very close, not to orgasm, but to libidinal satisfaction, as seen by Ludo, who narrates the following, the definitive rejoinder to Madame Thatcher:

Sorabji kept pacing up and down talking about the school. His eyes were flashing; he waved his hands; gradually he made it sound more and more attractive. It was not as exciting as going to the North Pole or galloping across the Mongolian Steppe, but it seems to be something that could definitively happen (page 403).

What is to be done? What shall I do? Here is an answer, from a very seductive televised presence. All of us are convinced that television is bad for us, but how many of us can stomach this throw-back to an age when television belonged to the likes of Rosellini and Hitchcock? This novel, published in the year 2000, gives new credit and rope to an old belief, the belief of Kurosawa’s father, that there’s an education to be had at the movies.

Sorabji gives us the bottom line on genius. “Any idiot can learn a language.” (page 413) But idiots and others have to answer the question: what is to be done? Without getting angry, and without despairing. Kambei is acted out by Takashi Shimura. His eyes burn every bit as much as those of Rikichi. But they burn even more in the film that served Kurosawa as a springboard to move back to historical fiction; Ikuru. Living, in English. Yet another story about a poor son-of-a-bitch who ends up having to answer the call to rescue a village–here to put up a playground. Shimura’s eyes, in the role of Kanji Watanabe, are mesmerizing. (That’s a verb way too close to Val Petered Out for me to be comfortable with) He becomes the peerless warrior of a cause that will brook no opposition, no objection. The way of the samurai is death, Mishima, but what will you say when it’s impending death that sets you on the way of the samurai? What will you do?

At the end of the day, what’s wrong with the elite band of specialized warriors thesis? It’s that there’s no room for the power of Kambei’s gaze, which at last can respond to Rikichi’s imploration. There’s no room either for the stupefying occurrence of his willing crafty castration. Nobody can survive or continue business as usual after being hooked by this act given in advance in Kambei’s gaze, which just happens to be a perfect, but easily overlooked, concentration of human desire. What Kambei wants is what Kambei gets. Strictly equivalent to: what you see is what you get!

So where have all the flowers gone? All those people rounded up for a read: at least 30! It’s almost a hecatomb. I’m sure there are good enough reasons, but I’ll stand up for my hunch: what kind of patterns are there that would explain why you don’t manage, don’t find the time, to write about what you’ve read? This doesn’t mean you are to become another Scott Esposito, Tom Collins, Harold Bloom or Bernard Stiegler. It just means that if you’re reading without writing, something along the way has been short-circuited. We share a novel, and are waiting, with burning eyes, to see it come alive. There are voices whispering and shouting and being retrieved from childhood saying it’s not worth the trouble. Please take the trouble. It’s incredible, when you think about it, that we have for a few days still, the insane privilege of being able to talk about the same thing, about something that so often remains private and closed up like in a cell or a clam. Come on (Red Devlin says this to carry the day, as you know): quote 15 sentences, and see if you’re still intent on remaining mute. There’s no way. I’ll bet you there’s no way.

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16 comments to The Last Samurai: Why Have So Many of Us Petered Out for the Moment?

  • I couldn’t read the book as slow as the pace for the reading, and I found it too hard to follow up with the conversation (no rss feed that worked). So I gave up (not reading the book, I finished it and loved it (again)).

  • Neil Griffin

    I finished it a few nights ago. The reason I haven’t been commenting as much as YFT is because I felt I had a grasp on that story. Here, something is getting lost, literally, in translation. I tried to rent the movie in question, but it mysteriously got stuck in my netflix que, so I feel that I would have been more engaged if I was familiar with the movie. There were definitely passages in the book that were haunting or funny or beautiful, like the concert that went on until dawn and many of the episodic stories of brilliant men, but I still didn’t feel like I had anything to contribute without understanding the story. Perhaps a re-read is in order, especially since I made this my weekend book and read other things during the week, which interrupted my flow.

  • Muzzy

    I wasn’t going to say anything, but since you asked, the reason I haven’t written much in the comments here is that I’m totally overwhelmed, Tom, by your gushing commentary. Every time I think I have a grasp of what’s going on in this book, I get drowned beneath your prose.

    If everything you wrote were clear and concise, this exuberance would be no crime. Unfortunately, most of what you’ve posted here is the opposite of clarity.

    You seem to have a thing for citation, so here goes. You write:

    “It’s that there’s no room for the power of Kambei’s gaze, which at last can respond to Rikichi’s imploration. There’s no room either for the stupefying occurrence of his willing crafty castration.”

    Whaaa? Castration? Who, Kambei or Rikichi? It’s that there’s no room for thought. There’s no room either in your stupefying, commentary. I just rewatched The Seven Samurai and I can state without a doubt that neither man gets castrated in this film. What will you do?

  • David C

    Probability & Deliberation. DeWitt begins Last Samurai with Sibylla’s father, longing to go to the best college (with the exceptions of UPENN & Yale) in his country—much like Ludo later will. When her grandfather presents the challenge of giving seminary school a try, it ends up ruining her father’s life when Harvard later takes away his scholarship. Her father reacts with probability. He gives his father a chance by playing the lottery. He gives a stranger one dollar to play it for him. One in twenty million the ticket will win. One in twenty million the man will give him back the winning ticket. One in 400 trillion he’ll get the money and his life won’t be ruined. When he meets his future wife in wonderful Philadelphia, he again wonders what the odds are of him doing poorly in seminary school, losing his scholarship and winding up in the middle of an argument in the living room of his future in-laws. For her father it is always one in something. Ludo, on the other hand, uses deliberation. As he goes from one would-be father to the next, there are no odds, no probability. It’s just a matter of searching until he finds the one who will parry the blow.

  • Thank you, Muzzy, for saying what I’ve not had the courage to say. This site made me want to read the book, I read it, had problems with it, but eventually finished it and loved it. Whenever I returned to the site to see what was being said about the book, I was overwhelmed by Tom’s commentary, which seemed like the ivory-tower equivalent of one of Glenn Beck’s chalkboards.

    It almost made me feel like if this guy Tom has any insight into this book, apparently I don’t.

    The book itself felt like both a celebration of the intellect and an admission of its limitations. Tom’s posts seemed like something out of Sibylla’s head, and I, like Ludo, just had to walk out the door.

  • cee

    Sorabji is on TV every Thursday at 9:00. The author apparently feels there no sense in specifying that this is 9 in the morning: no one would put even the good-looking Sorabji in the prime-time slot of 9 PM!

    eh? i can never tell if you’re being ironic: ‘on tv every thursday at 9:00′ means without a doubt 9pm and 9pm on a weekday is a common slot for pop-science tv shows led by fashionable tv scientists. 9am on a weekday for a science-based tv show would (in the 80s and 90s especially) indicate an Open University programme which is a different matter entirely.

  • David, thanks for bringing up Sibylla’s father and his obsession with chance. Scott wrote about the chance theme in his first week post, and it hasn’t come up much in later sections, but it appears again with Szegeti the gambler: “I can see you think that’s frivolous, but if you’d got out of as many tight spots as I have with no better protection than a diplomatic immunity you’d invented five minutes before you’d take luck a damn sight more seriously than any arguments.” (p 464)

    As you say, Ludo’s strategy is the opposite of trusting to luck. He’s attempting to choose his own destiny by ignoring the accidents of genetics and selecting his own father.

    On a broader topic, I’m still enjoying the book, but this second half of Ludo interviewing various father figures (interspersed with the stories of the men’s adventures in heroic life-saving) isn’t as appealing to me as the first half. Part of it is definitely that I’m missing Sibylla’s narration. The repetitiveness of this part of the story is also less interesting than all the different narrative styles that appeared in the first half. I continue to read eagerly, wanting to know what happens next, but I’m not as bowled over. What do others think?

  • tom

    ON THE MOST DANGEROUS MOMENTS WHEN SIB AND LUDO FALL AND GET CONFUSED:

    There is no happy ending to this novel. I don’t think adults need novels that end on a happy note. I believe, however, that adults have everything to gain when they are exposed to perfection. The last chunk of the novel is written by a perfectionist, someone interested solely in the perfection of her art.

    What’s least clear in my prose concerns this question of pessimism and optimism, happiness and romantic resolution. I stand by everything I’ve begun thinking here with you all, especially the passages most lacking in clearity. We’re in the middle of the reading in which both Sib and Ludo experience the worst moments. How these is connected to the novel as a whole is up to the reader now. To our own search for perfection. In the meantime, here are the quotes of those dark dismal despairing moments:

    “This is delightful, said Sibylla. If you were at school they wouldn’t let you read a book like this, they would keep y ou from reading it by involving you in sport. [Ludo has begun reading Rosenberg’s Solid State.) And look! It was written in 1976, so that Liberace might have read it in his intellectually malformative years and profited thereby, instead of allowing his mind to solidify, we may say, to the state where the cerebratory atoms spent their time away from their correct lattice sites. I wish I understood this, said Sibylla, and she flashed a bitter look at Carpworld 1991, but I’m glad you have come upon it so young. Approximately simple harmonic motion — it sounds so Platonic, doesn’t it? Plato says, oh what does Plato say? Or it may be the Stoics? But I think Plato says something about it in the Timaeus. And she looked even more bitterly at carpworld 1992-19994, and she said at last: Well anyway I know what Spinoza says — and she stopped. And she said: well I can’t remember the precise words but what he says is that the mind when it becmes conscious of its own weakness is saddened. Mens blankety blankety blank trisatur.
    Her face was pinched and grey. Her eyes were burning. The next day I took the heart out and put in in my backpack and left the house.” (440)

    I submit that this is Sib at her worst. In other passage, Ludo describes her, on the up and up, as jumping around going from book to book, quote to quote, but here her mind has begun to solidify and we remember that for this woman suicide is an option.

    Here is Ludo falling through the weave of his carpet:

    “I put down my book on aerodynamics. sorabji looked out from the screen with falshing eyes. I thought suddenly that it was too stupid to be sentimental. what we needed was not a hero to worship, but money. … And I suddenly thought of somewho who had made a lot of money out of reading this paragraph in Half Mile Down. I thought of someone who had never pretended to be a hero. He was a painter.” (414-415)

    Ludo’s growing up fast. Has he finally seen the light? Is he starting to chime with TINA? Finally growing up and putting all childish things aside having understood that the only worthwhile pursuit is in a money-making scheme? This is Ludo on his way to see Watkins the painter. This is no longer Shakespeare’s and Pollock’s “Full Fathom Five” but a new schem between Calvin and Yves Klein. (The world of the latest Houellegecq as well) A world of market relations, calculatability and cynicism.
    There’s nothing invevitable about becoming cynical. It’s not in our DNA, but it comes up all around the carpet on which we’re trying to stride without falling, and without staying too long in any one position. Ludo has just been cuffed. Usually he’s the guy he throws the others around. The cynicism, which hasn’t taken hold yet, comes in the wake of the two blows by Sorabji that he couldn’t parry. It’s not a blow to the soul (that would be enabling) but a blow to his ego. Watkins will show the boy previously unexplored territory on the carpet, with his counsel that he must be washed in the blood of the lamb.

    I have one and only one question. No doubt this is a good book. But what makes it so good? What convinces us, page after page, section after section, that the author was on a role while writing this? I hope Scott will leave the comments section upon for at least two or three more months, to give people time to pick themselves up, dust off the various types of dirt that have accrued at various points, and start out again. As for myself, I promise, in that period, should it be accorded, to limit myself to Twitter like participation.

  • tom

    A challenge, an idea, a grande finale!

    For the last week of this reading group, I dreamnt last night that we all finally started to emulate the characters in the novel, close to their innermost springs. These are people who get things done on a daily basis, a litle bit every day, day in and day out. This is one of the cultic aspects of their behavior. The cult has always provided outstanding results, and I see no reason why it wouldn’t come through once again.

    Let’s say we are 11. And that we let ourselves be convinced that this business of emulation is not a trap but an opportunity, one that we are familiar with and guilty about not having honored all that much in our pasts. In this case, the reading group would end up like any sports final. A huge celebration, with unexpected participants and players rising to the occasion, like Marvin Gaye did when it was his turn to sing the Star Spangles Banner at the NBA final.

    Let’s count, let’s dream that counting might embody a dream. 7 days multiplied by 11 “players, singers, writers, or farmers,” that’s 77 posts. Wouldn’t that be one hell of an offering to Helen DeWitt? Come on! Starting Sunday, October 24th. The shortest section of them all, for a final fireworks display of digital democracy and democratic elitism.

    This proposal has the statistical chances of an icecube in hell. Even one from Alaska. Please don’t allow yourself to jump off the bandwagon and the hook by saying you’re too busy. Be meaner than that. Bring out your swords, and cut this down with a real reason!

  • tom

    Spolier alert: don’t read this if you haven’t finished the book, if you believe spoilers respect your rights as a reader!

    We discover at the end of the line that the master aesthetic of this novel is Yamamoto’s. So there is something fitting, becoming, in discovering with gentle surprise that he has finally concluded a pact with Ludo, thus putting an end to his search for a father. Yamamoto will not be his father (Ludo is 11, Kenzo 25: there isn’t enough time here for a father-son relationship which would be as unlikely and laughable as Kikichiyo pretending to be 13!) but a friend, a partner, a sponsor. Perhaps something like an adopted brother.

    I suppose there will be some who find this ending unconvincing or disappointing, too convenient, too easy. Too much of a burden on our willing suspension of disbelief: having to imagine Ludo stopped in his tracks by piano notes wafting out of an apartment into the uncaring city. How silly, how romantic! I prefer for the moment to hold on to my original reaction. I was surprised, and pleased, to see this move made. And signed with a “DONE”! Endgames are difficult to pull off. Much depends on the outcome of the endgame! Violence surfaces in comments about endgames! Two summers ago there was a group discussion and reading group centered on Infinite Jest. when the general lines of Wallace’s endgame started to emerge, some of the best readers and best bloggers in the group entered into a state of catatonic anger. Wallace had played them for suckers. The whole thing suddenly felt bogus, and disappointing. Too much was left hanging. The emphasis had shifted from likeable Hal to the very unlikeable James, the father. This is just to say that endgames are expressive of readers’ expectations and criteria, perhaps more than that of writers’ who are confronted with a finite set of options. She’s trying to get out of the spot she’s in, and more often than not would actually be content with a draw!

    It’s a surprise for the reader to suddenly realise that we don’t know, have not been made privy to th extent of Ludo’s education. We now have to add yet another skill to his panoply. We knew he could play straight no chaser, but we more or less consdiered that on the level with his mother’s renditions of Brahms. Yet here he is, picking up the theme and variations of Alkan’s reading of Aesop! This is truly a surprise, because it is in so many ways an interruption of the habits we have grown into by reading this novel in one way or direction. Up to now, Ludo has revealed himself as someone who prepares for his job interviews (I’m your son, and I’m screening you to see if you deserve the honor), like you’d prepare for A-levels or entrance exams to college. He’s thorough, tense, and intent on giving himself a maximum amount of protection. (Target now means your aim or intent, but it used to mean the shield protecting you). None of this enters into the configuration shaping the author’s endgame. We have to change the way we have been reading. We have to go back to that concert! Because this time Ludo is passive, distracted, thinking dire thoughts of renunciation of his quest, when all of a sudden he gets news from home from outside the home, which, without ever really formulating it like that, is what he’s always desired! And he knows already that entire sections of the library of knowledge he has amassed and mastered will be useless this time.

    This reader had pretty much forgotten about Yamamoto. He was just someone who gave Sibylla an opportunity to gush in admiration and to leave her son to the powers of chance and random alea. I remembered Yamamoto, vaguely, as the guy who refused to compromise, and who had once again alienated his public of limited polite enthusiasm for musical interpretation and training. That’s all I remembered. I had forgotten all about his aesthetics.

    It’s surprising and satisfying to see how fast Ludo turns his stash into an offering. Into a gift like the Jamanese model that Yamamoto remembers from his youth. Ludo was out looking now to strike it rich, but he will be able to parry this blow too, having hitched up once again with everything he once thought excluded by money. Nobody knows if the CD will sell. The thought is daunting, but secondary to the act imposed on the event of this general repetition of past events. The author of the novel had no way of predicting the cult status her novel would obtain, but has spent time insisting on how little difference it made in the arena of sheer survival and the task of remaining on focus as a professional writer. Like Yamamoto, she keeps hearing about those writers who are true professionals, and who wonder why she is so cranky! There’s nothing in the novel to indicate that the surprise of the reader is a sign of a happy ending. It’s too soon to tell, and there is no happiness of this sort anywhere to be had.

    Here’s a brief reminder of Yamamoto’s aesthetic. “What I thought at the time was that music was not about sound but about the perception of sound which means in a sense that to perceive what it isyou need also wome sense of what it could be but is not which includes other types of sounds and also silence.” (170) One might dwell for a moment on the time indicator “at the time.” Perhaps he is describing the aesthetic born and confirmed by his journey into African dangers, and is not at one remove from it, preferring instead to condentrate on pure sound with Boulez and most of the other serialists. (except Barraqué, the closest real-life model to Yamamoto) We don’t know for sure. What we do know is that the concert with Ludo bored to tears and Sib entranced with lovely fragments (as before the fragments of Seven Samurai), will offer an opportunity to repeat what happened in Chad, musically at least. With no remorse, and no respect for train schedules or busy professionals who have to return home.

    “Yamamoto begins to talk about the idea of a fragment, he said for instance when you were working on a piece you might take a section in one direction, let’s say you might keep scaling it down and down until it was barely there and then that barely there section would sometimes be enchantingly beautiful but you would realize when hyou came to relate it to the next section that you could only get from that to the next section by means of something crass and stupid, some stupid violent crescendo that wasn’t right or even an adrupt transition that wasn’t right or it might be that you could get from one to the other but still you wanted the next part to be hard and bright and you didn’t want something quite so bare before.
    Once you saw that you saw that you could potentially have dozens of fragments that could not be part of a finished work, and what you saw was that it was perceiving these fragments as fragments that made it possible to have a real conception of what wholeness might be in a work — and once you saw this you naturally wanted the audience to see it too.”

    This is the solution to what for many of us has been the enigma and the objection to staying so long in front of The Seven Samurai. If Yamamoto is right, and he is, then repetition is impossible. “Repetition gets a bum rap” as was said here on October 11th, only through those people and those institutions who have a vested interest in keeping you excited by crass and stupid things. A vested interest in dumbing you down and turning you into a consumer, and music into mashes. This is becoming a rant, so I’ll stop.

    Sibylla stays in front of her movie because every time it’s different. Because she is different at every viewing, and thus can participate in this marvelous manifold of change and mutation which indicates a matirx of creative potential for the moment inaccessible to her, but there in vivid black and white, and in her son’s newfound gifts as transcriber and translator. This indicates a matrix of creative potential, and not some psychological shortcoming or escape from reality tactics.

    “I agree with Gould that what you can do physically is not the thing that’s interesting.” This is a leitmotif which keeps resounding throughout the book until its great resolution in Yamamoto’s reprise of Alkan. We tend to forget how constant this being unphysical and unformed and unheroic is in what we’re reading. Our default settings are cases of blindness, or rather, of short-sightedness. “The more you study any martial art the less likely you are to actually get in a fight and the less likely you are to put yourself in the type of situation where you have to fight. A beginner might do that type of thing but the more you progress the more you realize that skill is not something to be used lightly. He said Also the more you progress the more you realize that there is more to it than trying to progress. (page 378, the teachings of Sorabji, just before he belts Ludo twice, in the face, slipping downward from the heights he has just evoked.)

    why doe Sib make the cultic move to The Seven Samurai? Because she considers the movie potentially perfect. Like the music she heard at the concert. There were, at that concert, pieces she felt she would never hear again. She knows that there will never again be samurai the likes of which dance and float through the fields of this film. Truly and essentially, the last samurai. The film like the music never disappoints. It’s constantly new, in its stubborn proud repetition. Both theme and variation and the theory of the fragment become clearer and more convincing with the two or three things we come to know about Sibylla, with the ebb and flow of her consciousness given to us like an exquisitely packaged Japanese gift.

  • David C

    77 posts for DeWitt…Let’s Do It!
    Japanese art and the white page–Somewhere along the line (I couldn’t find the quote)Ludo mentions the great amount of empty space in Japanese paintings. I found that to be similar to the pages in this book. Perhaps not to the degree of some Japanese paintings but there was a lot of white space. An interesting choice, I thought, and nice nod to the Japanese tradition.

  • tom

    Suggestions for further reading:

    There’s an Adorno passage in DeWitt’s and Gridneff’s tapestry “Your Name Here.” (This document is available on line) It’s a YouTube of Adorno talking about Beckett:

    “always from Beckett is a technical reduction to the extreme but this reduction is always what the world makes of us … that is the world [has] made out of us these stumps of men so these men who have actually lost their .. their I who are merely the products of the world in which we live.”

    STUMPS OF MEN. With the concentric circles of birthdays that become visible when the tree is cut down. But a stump is dead, or dying. It cannot talk. Has stopped its exchanges with its ecosphere.

    Here’s another related passage in Adorno, one the catch phrases of his authorship, akin to “the samurai will parry the blow”:

    “[both high and low art, art for geniuses and art for stumps] bear the stigmata of capitalism, both contain elements of change. BOTH ARE TORN HALVES OF AN INTEGRAL FREEDOM, TO WHICH, HOWEVER, THEY DO NOT ADD UP.”

    This is why the heroes in this novel cannot remain in the ivory towers. They have to do something. Sail the seven seas, sail the sea of stories. Elite and popular: torn halves that won’t add up. Except with a wink from the author. Except from within the excitement people have felt upon discovering the cool then cold rigor of mathematics.

    A section of “Your Name Here” begins on page 108. It’s entitled: “But We Once Sailed the Sea of Stories.” It’s not very long, and is as readable as anything you can imagine. It’s a fragment out of a fragmented whole. The fictional daughter says that her father was a carpet salesman. So here are further “links” for further reading, which hopefully will bring us back to Helen and Ilya, to Helen and whoever crosses her path, especially in the guise of a sumurai editor and a loyal agent.

    “Does your foot not stride on the true as upon carpets?” [Geht auf Wahren dein Fuss nicht, wie auf Teppichen?] Hölderlin. This is as gnomic as they get. But it can be unraveled, and indeed unfolds itself by readers. This is where I got all the business about keeping one’s upright posture. The sentence has been read by Walter Benjamin, and keeps being read today by people like Sam Weber. (“The Net and the Carpet” in TARGETS OF OPPORTUNITY, On the Militarization of Thinking.) This reading is difficult, but far easier than setting out on the sea of the most difficult language of the world.

    Here’s Benjamin, shocked, angered, mute and out for revenge, because he’s just lost his best friend who has preferred suicide to engagement in the German War Effort of WWI: “Capitalism must be seen as a religion, i.e., catialism serves essentially to allay the same cares, torments, troubles to which in the past the so-called religions offered answers. WE CANNOT DRAW CLOSED THE NET IN WHICH WE STAND.” [Später wird dies jedoch überblickt werden] This is Weber’s translation of a sentence usually translated: ” … the net in which we are caught.”

    We’re caught in the net of capitalism, and we have to make a stand there. I don’t see anything missing from The Last Samurai. I have found nothing to criticize,nothing outside the novel that might give me traction, or respite. The novel is written as if everything Adorno ever wrote was absoltuely correct, and not the musings of an old German crank who failed to understand how great you feel after a good fuck. It’s written from the perspective of “cares, torments, and troubles.” And it’s also written on the cusp between great art and popular art, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

    “Bat-Mitzvah” is mentioned, better, considered, in “But We Once Sailed The Sea of Stories.” It’s abominably bad. But it reminds the narrator of “the unbearable poignancy of those old clips of the Jackson Five. Those sharp, tight routines still work; the sheer professionalism is a joy.” She goes on to say, and here we hook up with the unforgettable scene of Ludo with his arm around Red Devlin: “But now we know the price … its Picture of Dorian Gray stares out at us.”

    7 times 11: 77. Here we go. Thanks David for jumping on this bandwagon. It’s a little silly, a little too pious, but I’ll stand by it — a way of saying: this novel counts.

  • David C

    Where have you gone Mrs. Sibylla? DeWitt introduces Ludo’s voice in the first person through his journal entries. Eventually he takes over and Sibylla’s voice disappears, at least as a narrator. It is interesting that as the boy searches for his father, the mother (at least through her voice) disappears.

    Earlier, despite Ludo’s constant inquiries about his father, Sib chooses to remain silent. Now Ludo’s quest to find his father silences Sib.

  • tom

    More suggested reading in the wake of The Last Samurai:

    In 1978, Bernard Stiegler was indicted, convicted and sentenced to five years emprisonment on four counts of armed robbery. This is how he describes the “Acting Out” of these events:

    “My incarcertation in Saint Michel Prison [in Toulouse], result of a passage to the act, will have the been the suspension of my acts and the interruption of my actions: such is the function of prison. But INTERRUPTION and SUSPENSION, which are also the beginning of philosophy (Socrates’ DAIMON is the one who interrupts), were for myself the occasion of a reflection on what the passage to the act in general — and a recollection of all the acts that brought me there.” (ACTING OUT, translated by DAvid Barison, Daniel Ross, and Patrick Crogan, Stanford University Press)

    This is extracted from the short introduction to ACTING OUT, entitled HOW I BECAME A PHILOSOPHER. The author devotes time to insisting that it was an accidental becoming, to the strange way he began to feel like a fish out of water (how exhilerating, exciting, mentally stimulating that could be) and of course how dangerous it could have been had he not been taken care of by philosophers and by the voices of friends in books, people like Aristotle, Hegel, Wittgenstein and Saussure.

    I suggest this slight investment of your time because it sheds light on the trajectory of Sibylla. Unlike David, I hear her voice out to the end of the line, culminating in her soothing comments on how creative putting up motels can actually be: money making schemes indeed, but schemes of genius! I agree with David, however, that we cannot hear very much of Sibylla, that “she chooses to remain silent,” but not in the novel. Before the novel commences, she has chosen silence. The equivalent of Stiegler’s armed robberies is not the birth of Ludo (an accident) but her attempted acting out of suicide, prior to the time and spaces of the novel. This has to be the essential characteristic of this character. Ludo hears THAT voice on his repeated trips about London, and talks extensively of that with Yamamoto, the expert of percussion.

    How long does it take to find one’s voice in philosophy? How long does a period of mourning last? How long before you recover from such a radical passage to the act as suicide? I think it’s safe to say that, in the most discrete and Japanese fashion, we are shown hints and small traces that Sib is moving back to the place of her original acting out. She moves out of her fixated fascination with Kurosawa when she informs Ludo of her life at Oxford, and about the figures she met there and heard about there. (It’s a repetition of her fascination with the samurai) And she finally works her way back to the motels. Ready to bridge the gap between the two halves of her life that don’t add up.

    “From then on, philosophy consisted of considering the milieu while being able to extract oneself from it, in the same way as a flying fish can leave the water: intermittently. In this extraction or abstraction, the milieu is brought into view … as the condition of passage from the potential of the intellective soul to its act …From then on, I could not claim that I was in my cell like a fish in water, but, in that cell, where I had been rendered radically deficient in the vital milieu of the intellective soul,… I had perhaps a chance to consider this world as does a fish flying, above its element …”

    I’ll have to assume the comparison. Giving birth to Ludo was akin to a prison sentence, but one which, as for Stiegler, was far more revealing and life-giving than any other personal relationships that so many of us here have felt Sib in lack of. Their default is the condition of possibility of the panorama Sib and her squirt offer us in this novel. We’re free to prefer more conventional scenario.

  • tom

    AN APOLOGY TO MUZZY:

    I’m sorry to have mislead you into searching for someone with his wanker cut off! I wanted only to suggest that just as a girl may be seen as “castrated” not because she’s missing a penis, but at a moment she has been dispossessed of an ideal maternal form giving shape and structure to her life, and making her attractive to herself and others, so too Kambei is seen by the villagers and especially by Kikuchiyo (who is simply flabbergasted), as “castrated” in being so willing to renounce the pretigious exterior attributes of his station and of his seduction on all the other ronin and passersby: they believe these things vital to his survival and to his aura. He knows that this is a logical fallacy,and thus goes ahead with his symbolic beheading.

    This may come as a surprise to you, but I feel that I’ve only scratched the surface of what this novel calls for. In this sense, I feel I’ve written only short telegraphic posts! A series of signs and sounds sent out over the Atlantic Ocean for further, later action! (That may be one source of their lack of clarity) While I don’t expect anyone to follow suit, I would submit that if there is not a book somewhere that makes you behave like Tom has here, then there’s something rotten in our state. Cultic behavior is not a thing of the past, nor necessarily psycho-pathological. Cultic behavior is also the expression of strong desire. Normally there is always a book that reminds us of the existence of such uncompromising desire. Or maybe a musical score. Or a chapel filled with paintings. Or a night out watching Irish kids tap dance for all they’re worth. Not just anything will fit the bill, because it starts with you feeling overpowered, jealous, stupid, and flat-footed. Or caught up short by something as preposterous as “castration.”

  • tom

    SHORTS CIRCUITED LIVES AND THE LONG CIRCUITS OF INTER-GENERATIONAL DESIRE

    The Yamamoto story, spread-eagled between the opening sections of the novel, where one of his concerts is a reply of a mother to her son’s “we never do anything,” and its surprising end-game, is an example and a fashioning of the long circuit of desire. Telegraphically, there are drives and there is desire. Our drives function on short circuits: they “drive” us to seek out and repeat scenarios of immediate satisfaction. The shorter the path from hand to mouth the better. Sesame Street is a code word in The Last Samurai for the art and technique of program industries providing people with what they want (distractions, peace and quiet, fun!) but not what they need. Parents and their children need, and actually desire, sustained, ambitious, inventive and reliable introductions and initiations into, let’s say by way of a preliminary syllabus, the art of the brush, the art of the warrior, the art of musical composition, the art of motorcycle maintenance, etc. These long-circuited needs threading through the generations now take second place to sophisticated niche strategies setting the generations at a remove from one another. And we assist, ironic and skeptical, at the circus of inept shadow-boxers in our nations’ schools. Sib knows this, Ludo discovers it almost immediately, and the rest is now history. The Little Prince in the supermarket is the icon of the resulting mess. Sib will not resist the siren call to educate the Little Pauper. (We’ve gone from prince to pauper in the space of two or three generations)

    Novelists, ambitious ones, modest, careful, meticulous ones, wager that the long circuits of desire can be rescued and re-instated. This is what subtends Yamamoto’s work and passion for pure percussion. He met up with a form of his desire, a primitive form of the long circuit, in a ceremony, a ritual, a cult in Chad. We know how to describe it (no one has, but that’s OK): the blows on the drum do not accompany a dour funeral scene (nor more so than the drums in The Seven Samurai); they venture out over a body of water, collide with the flanks of a mountain, and the people on the shore expect and desire that these sounds, modified, weakened, already dying, return. Desire here is a command, a wish, a situation requiring a specific grammatical turn: THEY SHALL RETURN! And they do. Yamamoto has to pass over to the act; he cannot help but venture out on a search for this figure of accomplishment. And we remember that the venture was a miserable toe curling failure, ending in the tragic loss of a young life that he had placed under his wing in a gesture of protection, perhaps even of adoption. Now we read, at the end of the reading, of the repetition and retrieval of this paradigm of desire coming full circle once again.

    What we’ve just read is itself the fashioning of such a long circuit of desire, over the seven seas and threading through at least three generations.. Both actors now meet in New York in the flimsiest of circumstances — a free concert of sounds over the city — share the mourning and melancholy of having given up on the early primitive state of their desire by consigning it to the past, to a past that is not supposed to return, not expected to return, not commanded to return, because it’s dead and gone. The fictional fashioning of the resurrection or revolution of this long circuit is a sign held out for reading into ourselves. Do we have the equivalent of such a desire in our memory-banks? What kinds of desire were suscitated by the accidental or intentional births of our children? Do we still stand by them (the desires, not the children)?

    We are free to imagine just how deep the waters of regret and remembrance are for these two characters, exposed at critical moments of their lives to the brute naked fact of the death or extinction of desire. Were they not both hard-headed warriors, with practice in their respective paths, they might have shed a tear or two. People in Helen DeWitt’s universe do not cry, at least not in Opus 101.

    It’s also a sign of the author’s surviving desire throughout the writing of the the novel. The intentional fallacy is no fallacy at all, but an invitation to write oneself. Helen DeWitt intended to fashion this ending for her book. And people like us either live more or deeper thanks to this invention, or give it the ironic once-over. This is why the story-teller returns again and again in the second part of the novel. (The boring part, according to Lisa) Ludo returns to the Circle Line, and the repetition of his former bored, aimless childhood self finally generates the rite of passage we’ve just been reading about in so many far away cultures. (Red Devlin talks about these cults) Ludo could have died several times; his mother felt an urge, a drive, to kill him. (somehow it’s not scandalous in the reading: gods do things like that) He could have died, but he survived for a chance meeting of infinite potential. Something with slim odds. Something you wouldn’t wager on. He could have stayed on the Circle Line in Red Devlin’s red jacket with the blood of the lamb stowed away in a safety deposit box, but they got off (his heart and the spirit of art) and their stories come full circle. The sounds of his youth return, as they should but seldom do. Ludo is a lucky dog: sheer luck is perhaps the only form of primitive belief still out there!

    Very little of the above is explicit in the narration. It’s there, I think, but it has to be enunciated by the reader. You have to take a stand on this carpet which is not at all a magic one: it’s full of rabbit holes and booby traps. People die in this novel. And yet the author seems to have woven a voice into the narrative, a voice whispering SARINAGARA. This is a strong and dangerous pharmacy in the hands of guilty, fucked-up people like us. No, only people like me, who have laid their desire to rest.

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