A current preoccupation of mine is considering how each generation considers itself the absolute supreme, the most topical, the only one that matters. This makes a kind of sense, of course but it’s something that’s taken some time for me to develop. Take the rash of movie remakes—I used to view the latest remake of some nostalgic property with a healthy dose of skepticism and disdain. And I still do, for the most part, since they’re typically just simple cash grabs. But among the pandering can be opportunities for reassessment: are the values of the original property intact? How does this resonate now? Do we look upon its shortcomings as a place to reflect, or readjust?
(As an aside, the latter question seems to come up a lot with video game remasters—are we compromising the game’s essence by cleaning up the presentation and streamlining the controls? Or are the changes warranted because they “translate” the game to the present moment?)
Do we look upon its shortcomings as a place to reflect, or readjust?
Many creatives choose to examine inter-generational uncertainty by creating a dystopia, and thrusting characters into it. Station Eleven by Emily St. john Mandel is a good example, as are The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. In each, the world has been irreparably wrecked, and part of the joy(?!) of the reading is in uncovering the why, where, when, and how of the disaster, even if it isn’t clearly telegraphed.
Part of me has a gleefully dark sense of humor concerning our eventual doom, most characteristically a bet I made with my younger brother a few years ago. He was so convinced that the Ebola virus would have a catastrophic outbreak that he bet me something like $100 that Ebola would be responsible for at least one million deaths in the next 10 years. I was perhaps too tentative in not proffering a counter-bet on another disease, but I gleefully took his bet. (Still waiting for that payout…)
Perhaps this mentality also shows the bias of my present-ness, since in many ways our world is safer than prior generations: the threat of nuclear annihilation doesn’t loom as large, our ability to identify and cordon off dangerous viruses/epidemics is sophisticated, and we essentially live in a police state that makes it difficult to engage in terrorist activity. But that doesn’t mean that the near-future can’t be even more calamitous than our past. Which means that gleeful bet may not pan out like I thought.
‘Gleeful’ isn’t the word I would use to describe the dystopian world created in Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary, and ‘enjoyment’ sounds nearly as perverse, but it’s hard not to admire the effortless way the novel creates a sense of atmosphere and populates it with intriguing turns of language. It drops the reader right into its world, its brisk pace working in step with its surrealist candor. And all in 138 pages.
The novel centers on Mumei, a precocious young Japanese boy, and his great-grandfather Yoshiro. More accurately, it centers on a world where global catastrophe has led Japan to isolate itself from the world. Soil is irradiated, earthquakes and other disasters are common, animals are scarce, and Japan’s youth have been so wracked by the changes that they no longer develop properly (or at all). Mumei himself is described variously as bow-legged, calcium-deficient, and octopus-like in his movements. He may actually be turning into an octopus. Heightening the tragedy, Yoshiro and his generation, those responsible for not preventing this doomed world (hint hint), seem unable to die, caught in a terrible limbo while they witness future generations wither. As the novel puts it: “Mumei’s generation was equipped with natural defenses against despair. As always, it was the elderly they had to feel sorry for.”
adapted (by me) from “The Emissary”‘s cover art
In response, Japanese society loses all semblance of rationality, with facts being replaced by superstition and language being warped in a manner reminiscent of Infinite Jest‘s subsidized time. (With the old holidays no longer seeming appropriate, the public is queried and comes up with “Body Day” [to replace “Sports Day,” since children are no longer strong enough to play them], “Extinct Species Day,” and, morbidly, “Being Alive is Enough Day” to replace them.) Though never explicitly stated, Japan’s culture is seen as being in such dire straits that the language spoken may be Mandarin instead of Japanese.
There’s dissonance in this last point: many of the most inventive parts of the novel, the ones that make you stop and forget the terrible world being depicted, deal with language being forgotten, nuance being misunderstood. Labels in English (a forgotten language for the younger generation) are instead broken into constituent sounds, or used by older folks to evoke nostalgia and cosmopolitanism. Supporting the hunch of Mandarin being the official language here, Chinese characters are constantly evoked in writing (the German city of Rothenberg being translated into “Outdoor Hot Springs Heaven”). There’s humor here, though its missed more often than not.
Despite the evocative (and perhaps even accusatory) setting, not much actually happens in the novel. But that’s perhaps the point, as the glimpses we do see form a concatenation of tiny rituals, compromises, of how Yoshiro and Mumei must exist in this world. The tartness of an orange, the “scrapping of footsteps on gravel,” the feeling of the ground when one falls of of their wheelchair, all of these small moments inject some respite, some grace into this world ruined by simple indifference and neglect.
I’m the wrong person to follow up here, but the madcap ideas expressed here seem like logical extensions of current issues affecting Japan—falling birth rates, the effects of climate change, the tension between progress and tradition. There’s a very current fixation on issues which seem too large to tackle, and Tawada does a fantastic job showing how a society failing to deal with those issues can compromise itself in ways that make both perfect sense and no sense at all.
Many years apart but of the same sentiment is The Children’s Crusade, a little-known collection by French writer Marcel Schwob, recently republished by Wakefield Press. Written in 1896, it is framed as a number of stories following the actual “Children’s Crusade” that was said to have taken place in 1212. Each story in narrated by a different observer to the crusade: a cleric, a leper, two popes, a few of the children themselves.
“The Children’s Crusade” by Marcel Schwob
Each of them bear testament to the endeavor, and in doing so reflect back their own concerns and desires of the world. A disaffected goliard flits between joy and despair at the thought of “cruel men who gouge out the eyes of children, and saw off their legs . . . to put them on display and evoke pity,” and wonders if God will save them. A leper seeks to frighten the children but is instead awed by their grace. A pope, upon hearing of the fate of these children (disappearance, death, slavery), curses and then absolves the Mediterranean. Each character is able to see and, to a certain extent, predict the doom that will befall these children, but none take any action in forestalling it, whether through a belief of divine providence (“Blessed be our god who does all he does well and protects even those who do not confide in him,” chants the Sufi Qalandar) or a pleading for divine intervention (an imagined Pope Innocent III stews over the news of the crusade while contemplating his own mortality). They are as sleepwalkers in a fugue.
Schwob presents these stories as short snippets, moments of clarity and/or madness plucked out of their daily struggle. In many ways the technique is similar to that utilized by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa in his short story “In a Grove,” more popularly known as the primary influence for Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Instead of one story, one truth, one arc, we are privy to a sequence that is shrouded, guided by voices whose worldviews are incompatible with one another. We are impelled to look for understanding and connection while simultaneously being compelled towards pity at the predetermined nature of the crusade. The truths these characters espouse are by-turns bleak, fleeting, and delusional. Far from being shepherds, they are instead wallflowers. Cognizant of the past, when they are confronted in the present they are aware of the future’s awful potential, but are powerless to influence it.
In college, in an English class, a professor showed our class a picture of Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus” and asked us to interpret it. The angel—a ramshackle, ugly creation, appears as out of a fog, and its eyes are cast off both past us as the viewer and beyond, to some point we can’t yet see. The future? The hidden? The unknown? We were stumped, disarmed, by this unseemly creature.
The German critic Walter Benjamin, whose writings I greatly admire, was also transfixed by this piece. He wrote of it, describing it as:
though [the angel] were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.
The storm of the present, of circumstance, constantly throws off-course our calculations of where we currently are and where we aim to be. As our position amidst the storm changes, so too do our sign-posts, our safe harbors. If we miss a deadline, a climate goal, a child’s birthday, that’s fine. We adjust, we recalibrate, and then we move on. The danger is not in the sense of progress not being made, since we are constantly moving. It is instead in the lingering, centuries-old sensation that we are witnesses to a parade whose beginning has been forgotten and whose end, however enterprisingly aimless, is never in doubt.
Angelus Novus, by Paul Klee