Saturday, December 23, 2006

Magnets and the car park

As a child, I wanted to become a scientist, nothing else. The image of two mad-haired men standing in front of the blackboard, scribing equations all over the place, for hours and hours on end, has stayed as an icon of insanely great fun and excellence throughout my childhood. I did very well at school, and teachers advised me to become a medical doctor or a lawyer, but these career possibilities never touched my heart as an actual life's option, until much later into adulthood.

The beginning was a bit strange. I was collecting butterflies as a kid. Then, at the age of 8, magnets suddenly captured my imagination. As I walked to school, I would wonder why it was that magnets attracted metals and sticked to each other in the specific way. I still remember how at one period I went on thinking about the mystery of the magnet for about a month, every morning and afternoon, as I meandered through the small streets of the rural town I was living in at that time.

There was this particular car park, where the sun shone on the ground and you got a shimmering and white impression. As I passed by it, there was something about the scene that made me think of the magnets in a deep manner. The small child that I was associated the car park with the enigma of magnets. To this day, I don't know why.

It is impossible to go back and verify in person, as the car park is long gone.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Waley's translation of Genji

The Tale of Genji is a Japanese classic written by a noble woman (Lady Murasaki) at the beginning of the 11th century. Acclaimed as a masterpiece full of sensitivities towards the subtle and intricate ups and downs in the love and suffering of the mortal human being, it is the most highly regarded novel of all time. However, the language is not easily accessible. Without a devoted and long learning, the modern Japanese cannot hope to appreciate the original text of Genji.

As a result, translations into modern Japanese have been attempted several times, including those by famous writers and poets, notably by Junichiro Tanizaki and Akiko Yosano. It is through modern translations that the majority of Japanese get to know Genji.

In a famous anecdote, literary critic Hideo Kobayashi was discussing Genji with the writer Hakucho Masamune. Masamune mentioned that he recently came to appreciate the beauty of Genji. Koabayashi asked him if he was reading Tanizaki or Yosano. Masamune answered "no, I am actually reading the translation by Arthur Waley". In his days, Kobayashi was fond of telling this particular anectodate, as it was felt to be a bit awkward and funny that a domestic writer should get to know the essence of the great novel through a foreign translation.

Waley's translation is beautiful. I am fond of it myself. It is deeply moving. Wet and sentimental expression, normally hard to find in the English language, gives the reader's heart wobbles and waverings. It is as if a moist and poignant wind has blown into a crisp and critical landscape. The marriage of the sentimental novel and the more or less practical language has resulted in an unforgettable masterpiece.

Getting to know the essence of a work in your native tongue through a foreign translation is a wonderful demonstration of interdependency of the cultural development in various parts of the globe.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Unremembered memories.

People usually think that the whole point of memory, especially that of episodes, is in the fact that it can be explicitly recalled. Unremembered memories seems to be a contradiction in definition, or at least useless. However, it is a fact that unremembered memories are important ingredients of our life, something we cannot really do without.

Think of, for example, what explicit memories you have from your childhood, in relation to your parents. You have spent endless hours of life with your mother and father, and yet, it is not easy to explicitly remember specific incidents and occurrences, especially as you go back in life to your infancy. The sentiment towards your parents, the idea of "mother" or "father" that is conjured up within you when thinking of them, is genuinely a product of these unremembered memories. The fact that you cannot "remember" all these episodes from the time you spent with your parents does not mean that in the brain there isn't this rich layer of records of your life under the care of well meaning adults in a past now so distant.

I had a striking personal experience concerning the significance of unremembered memories myself. For a while, I heard repeatedly the name "Shigeo Miki", an anatomist who taught at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. People spoke of Miki with reverence, and I was very much interested in his idea that during fetal development the history of the evolution of live is virtually repeated. Miki's idea about "life memory" had a strong influence on many people. The eloquence of his lectures was a live and growing legend.

I, however, was under the impression that I had never been blessed by his speech or his writings. I somehow had not read any of his books, and when people spoke of Miki, it was felt as if he was somebody in the distance, glowing with intellect and wisdom but thus far not having much to do with my own life. And I felt it was too late. He had long passed away.
Then one day, I realized with a shock that I actually attended one of his lectures once. I was still early 20 something, studying Physics as an undergraduate in University of Tokyo. I was walking in the campus with my girl friend, and we accidentally noticed a poster depicting a human fetus. We were greatly interested and walked straight into the lecture room.

The room was packed with people, there were not seats available, and we stood at the very back of the auditorium. The light went out and we were enclosed in gentle darkness. The speaker showed a series of photos of the fetus in development, and discussed how the whole history of life's evolution is repeated in the organic development that kick-starts every one of our own lives.

I do not explicitly recall the details of his speech, but I faintly remember that I was very moved. When the talk was over, there was a thunder of applause.

My girl friend had been standing beside me during the lecture. When the light came back, I realized that the left part of my jacket was wet. I took a look and realized that it was the tears of my girlfriend, who had buried her face in my breast.
We went out of the lecture room into the fresh air of late spring. As we walked, I asked my girl friend what made her cry. She answered that the lecture convinced her that human life is very valuable. She then added.
"Yet, we continue to kill each other in the war. Why?".

That was then. Almost 20 years passed, my girl friend's and my own life went into different trajectories, and I somehow did not recall the incident for a long time. Then one day, I suddenly remembered the lecture on that day and realized that it must have been given by Shigeo Miki himself. I was strangely convinced the moment I remembered it.
I went around checking. I asked the art critic Hideto Fuse, who was a disciple of Miki whether Miki ever gave a lecture in University of Tokyo. Hideto answered yes. Miki talked twice. It appeared that I attended the second lecture, the last lecture Miki gave in University of Tokyo, before his death a few years later.

The whole episode shook my world view from the deep root. All these years during which I was not aware that I had attended Miki's lecture once, I was without knowing under the influence of his thoughts. Once, as I was watching the waves on a beach in the island of Bali, Indonesia, I was thinking of the long history of life forms as they evolved in the sea and slowly made it to the land. I was contemplating the significance of our own existence, and I thought I was doing it on my own. Actually, my whole thoughts were under the influence of Shigeo Miki, unaware of it though I was.

Thus, memories that are not explicitly recalled play an important role in life. Our spiritual life is made of unremembered memories.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Long life

With long life comes the merit of maturity. The brain never stops learning. The way the neural circuits are updated is very sustainable and open-ended. So it pays to aspire to live on.

Gautama Buddha came to "great enlightenment" at the age of 35. History tells that there was a prolonged aftermath of the momentous event. He went on to live until the age of 80.

Coming to an intimate understanding of the mystery of the universe, the ultimate cause of the suffering of humans and all living things, seems to be so final that it feels strange to go on living after the climax. Even if Buddha's life after the enlightenment was an anticlimax, there should have been many poignant points through the course, as he went on to breathe and communicate and expose himself to the imperfect occurrences on the earth.

It is not difficult to imagine there must have been ups and downs. Earthly events seems to be strange to follow the great enlightenment. The truth lies in that strangeness.

The greatest blessing of long life might actually be in that sweet strangeness of the gradual ailment and deterioration and alienation from the earthly joys of living.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Does Santa exit?

At the end of the year 2001, I found myself in Haneda airport which serves the metropolitan Tokyo. I just came back on an early morning flight from a southbound trip, and was eating curry and rice in a passenger restaurant. There was a family seated next to my table. A girl, about 5 years of age, was chatting with her smaller sister.

"Hey, do you think Santa Claus exists? What do you think?"

Then, the little girl went on to state her opinion.

"Well, I think in this way......"

I could not hear what she went on to say, as a sudden surge of emotion overwhelmed me. I put down my spoon on the plate.

"Does Santa Claus exist?"

It struck me that that was the most important question that a girl, or indeed any adult, could ask of the world.
As it happened, seven years had passed since I came to realize the problem of qualia, the enigma of the relation between the mind and the brain.
The heart-throbbing reality with which Santa Claus emerges for a 5 year old girl has its origin in imagination. Santa Claus has its full reality only in the domain of the imagined. The proof of the existence of Santa does not rest on the physical appearance of a fat man with a white beard dressed in red.
A five year old girl knows fully well that Santa would never emerge as a physical reality in front of her eyes. Santa Claus is never "here" and "now". We never experience Santa in a vivid phenomenality as in the case of an apple on the table. In spite of the lack of physical existence, or rather, because of it, Santa Clause has an acute reality for the 5 year old girl and the rest of us.

(Opening sentences from "Brain and Imagination" (Nou to Kasou), by Kenichiro Mogi (2004), winner of the 4th Hideo Kobayashi prize. Translation from Japanese by the author himself).