July 16, 2008

Reflections on Ishiguro's "Floating World"

It is a perennial puzzle of mankind: how do we judge the acts of individuals and societies once the times have changed? Certain ways of thinking and patterns of accepted behavior predominate for years, for decades, even several generations, but inevitably comes the sea change. Live long enough and you see it happen. Kennedy is shot and the world goes into mourning. Iranian militants take American diplomats hostage, and the world goes paranoid. The Berlin Wall falls, and the Cold War is over. In retrospect you look back and realize that things were no longer the same afterwards. And you also realize that what you think, what you believe, and what you feel is no longer the same.

I just recently read Kazuo Ishiguro's novel An Artist of the Floating World, which deals with just such a situation. The first person narrator, a painter who was an influential pro-imperialist propagandist, tells the story of his life in the first few years after Japan's surrender to the allied armies. Here is a society that is coming to terms with what it thought, felt and believed only a few years prior, and how it must accommodate a new reality as an occupied land. It is a society going through an inevitable post-defeat process: the purge.

Purging is the act of ridding a system of undesirable elements or properties. The victor does not want to be confronted with the need to fight this enemy again. But any reflection on history will yield the conclusion that purging is a tricky thing to carry out. And it might even be argued that it can never be carried out justly, or that it doesn't actually work.

The Romans didn't fool around when they purged. When they were forced to defeat the pesky Carthagians a second time - actually having to fight them on their home soil, and nearly being defeated at one point - they killed the men, made the women and children slaves, took their capital city apart (not one stone standing on another) and sowed their fields with salt. Let that be a lesson to everyone. Don't mess with the Romans! International law frowns on such behavior nowadays. They call that genocide now. People get dragged into international court for that sort of thing.

The Counter-Reformation (and the ever-popular Inquisition) was a purge. There's another example of methods that don't quite meet public approval anymore. And, well, it didn't really work, did it? Protestantism just kept spreading anyway.

The treaties of Versailles and Trianon are another example of a purging. The idea was to make the enemy too resource poor to be a threat anymore. Well, we know how that worked out, right?

Ethnic Cleansing (a term brought to prominence by the Balkan Wars) is another type of purge. Nato finally stepped in an put a stop to that.

In Ishiguro's book, the narrator's friends and former students must deal with the Japanese world's equivalent of denazification. Through his eyes, one can see how ambiguous it all seems. One does what one feels is one's duty, and devotes one's energy and talent to a cause, then one day the tables turn, and what you and your society used to regard as a virtuous activity is now considered a crime. Although the narrator is retired and financially set, his former students and colleagues are finding it either difficult or impossible to get work in a world where everyone's political background is being screened before they can be employed in positions with any authority.

As in another well-known Ishiguro novel - The Remains of the Day - the story of an intense era with reverberations well into our own time is not told on the grand scale of historic figures and events, but on the level of less prominent people and their personal lives. One gets the sense that the grand historical and political life of the world is made up of the sum of millions of personal lives. In the same sense, each of us has to deal with the big questions and the big political realities of our day as they manifest in our own lives and in our individual choices and decisions. But what we don't always consider is how the way we choose to live our lives is our own accommodation to the predominant ideas and ideologies of our times. And we certainly don't consider that we will regard our own actions differently once the tide turns.

In the next few postings I will explore these themes further, using Ishiguro's book and particular dramatic societal shifts to find some philosophical truth underlying the phenomenon of being a human being in a constantly shifting ideological environment, with the concomitant changes in values that brings.

Some of the big shifts I want to look at:

  • The sixties and aftermath
  • The purges of the Bush II years
  • Post-Nazi Europe
  • Post-Communist Germany vs Post-Communist Hungary
  • What will happen once Bush II is gone?

Am I getting ambitious enough?


Graycrow said...

Yes, you are (ambitious), good luck, I will check back later.

anthromama said...

My my, those are some big thoughts coming :)

Funny how most of the time, people are either trying to preserve their beloved yet outdated way of life, or are trying to force people into the new, more advanced way of life.

It's like we can't just say to people, "You know, nationalism has worked OK for you for a long time now, but really it's all about globalizing now. So could you just please hand over all the uniforms and flags and just play nice?" So we carpet bomb them, torture them, demoralize them instead.

I always think about these kinds of global issues in terms of parenting. How do I work with my kids to change their behavior? Does spanking (bombing, genocide) work? Do time-outs (blacklisting) work? Does taking away privileges (sanctions) work? Maybe, sometimes.

But what else happens? Do these things foster resentment (suppressed, festering nationalism)? Do these things foster covert naughtiness (guerrilla insurrections)? Do these things encourage transference of ill-will toward siblings (civil wars)?