(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.
More from Conversational Reading:
- 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...
- Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt So what is The Last Samurai and why did I choose it?...
- The Last Samurai: Week 4 Notes and Annotations We’ve pulled into the nice, fat middle of The Last Samurai. Here are a few notes I found for this section–add yours in on the...
- 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...
- The Last Samurai: The Author as Woman Inevitably, we've already had a couple of references to Helen DeWitt's gender in the comments to the first week of The Last Samurai discussion, so...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.