Wednesday, 11 November 2015

What are we escaping?

If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard from me in a while, it’s not the usual reason (i.e. procrastination plus Nearly Finished Syndrome) this time. It’s because I’m in Japan on the last day of my first ever overseas holiday, and I didn’t spend much of it sitting in hotel rooms typing. I have picked up enough of the language to compose a few simple sentences and say them, but I still need a lot of help understanding what other people are saying to me. So far I have not experienced anything like what people call “culture shock”. Maybe this is because, with my social disability, I have never found that my own culture makes all that much sense either.

I guess it’s the same principle as learning to pronounce other languages. People have commented with favourable surprise on how quickly I master the pronunciation of Norwegian and Finnish – my choir had a Scandinavian-themed concert recently. The secret is quite simple: English is not the centre. The sound of the Norwegian word meg (“me”), for instance, is halfway between the sound of the English words may and my. It is quite comfortable there. It is not trying to be one or the other, as if English vowels were the underlying structure and Norwegian vowels had to be propped up between them.

I’ve been here two weeks now, which obviously isn’t enough time to have gained any deep ethnographic insight into Japanese culture. Still, superficial as they are, I have found the cultural differences I’ve observed quite easy to adapt to, simply because I wasn’t assuming that the way things are done in New Zealand is the most sensible or obvious way to do them. For example, in Japan, aesthetic and artistic sensibilities aren’t felt to be unmanly. Why should they be? In New Zealand, a real man drinks crappy beer, watches rugby avidly, and is disgusted by any form of entertainment that requires more than a kindergarten education to understand. This is presented as a “low-key” or “easy-going” or, of course, “un-PC” way to live; in fact it’s aggressively policed with homophobic ridicule.

But it’s not a difference between Japanese and New Zealand culture that’s really grabbed my attention this last couple of weeks – it’s a similarity. New Zealand and Japan are both modern countries, with advertising and traffic lights and shopping malls and, in Japan’s case, public transport. And both have that quintessentially modern phenomenon: abundant fantasies about not being modern. In amongst its narrow high-rise boxes, Japan has magnificent temples and shrines and old market areas, all clearly preserved with close attention. In New Zealand, of course, an “old” building is at most Victorian, but we made the Lord of the Rings movies, and we like to go out into what little remains of our wilderness areas and pretend we’re conquering undiscovered territory.

Now the benefits of modernity are far too great and too many to name. None of us would voluntarily live long without plumbing, electricity, motor transport, or electronic communication; and while we complain every day at the doings of government and business, all attempts to do away with either one have so far only made things worse. It’s often claimed that pre-modern societies enjoy a lower risk of violence than modern ones, but this is a myth. The most peaceful traditional societies – the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa are the usual go-to example – have murder rates similar to those of the most violent American cities.

More ironically still, the pre-modern experiences we so crave would be entirely unattainable without modern technology and institutions. I could never have got to Japan without air travel or the internet. Both depend on machines which must be made in factories from materials mined out of the earth. Both require an operational global communications infrastructure to continue functioning moment by moment. That means cities and roads and power pylons and sewage disposal. And when lots of people are using the same space to communicate, they will start shouting over each other to be heard – whether it’s a crowded café or advertising spaces in the media. All the big concrete boxes and noise and frantic busyness which we hate about modern life are necessary adjuncts to our ability to escape them.

Tourism is one form of escape. But (in my present experience, at least) it is a form filled with reminders of the world you’re escaping. At Matsumoto Castle we basically spent the entire visit in a single long queue that reached from the exit door, all the way up and down the stairs and passages in the castle, out the entry door, down the path, to the gate. It is no longer either a fortress or a palace. You can get in and marvel at what a fortress and what a palace it used to be, but that means that so can everybody else, and their somewhat overwhelming presence underlines the fact that what you are marvelling at is a thing of the past. Some people’s response is to despise the tourists. Since you have to be a tourist yourself to encounter this, I call that hypocrisy.

Another major form of escape, one which avoids that particular problem, is fantasy fiction. Middle-Earth and Narnia are not full of tourists. I used to speculate that we like fantasy worlds because they remove the problems of modernity without bringing back the problems which modernity solves; but that hypothesis is falsified by the popularity of Game of Thrones, the only mediaeval fantasy franchise which is realistic about the “mediaeval” part. Westeros has all the poverty and brutality and disease and tyranny of the real Middle Ages – and we love it. (Well, nearly all. There are occasional exceptions. Ramsay Snow’s torture chamber is hidden in a dungeon, not flaunted in the public square, which means Westerosi people in general must have some kind of scruple against torture, unlike mediaeval Europeans.)

My next thought was that perhaps we feel things had more meaning when we had to put our hearts and souls into producing each one – that we find modern conveniences ugly because they’re cheap and common. But you know what else is so cheap and common it clogs gutters and indeed literally grows on trees? Autumn leaves, that’s what. And we love autumn leaves. Autumn leaves are beautiful. It’s autumn here in Japan, and the tourism branding has not failed to notice the leaves. Autumn leaves are part of the world we want to escape to. It’s the same with spring flowers, raindrops, birdsong, and stars. They’re all over the place and you can enjoy them for free. So that can’t be right either.

Spirituality is another promise of escape from the modern. I hesitate to use that word positively, because it’s so closely linked to supernatural beliefs which I consider both false and unhelpful. But at root I think we long for some assurance that our lives make some kind of sense in a large context, where by “large” I mean something bigger than human society. In the arena of human society we can make significance for ourselves, or at least some people can. And for that very reason, that sort of significance isn’t enough. It’s a put-on, a make-believe. It’s getting good marks in an exam we set for ourselves. We want to know that we have some kind of connection to something real, something beyond.

Is that why we feel modern conveniences to be shallow and ugly? Not because they are easy to get, but because we know their form was determined solely by the whim of their makers, with no deeper truth intruding and imposing constraints? That would certainly explain why, say, plastic feels more “fake” than wood. Wooden objects are constrained by the shape the tree grew in; plastic can be cast into any mould you like. (I can’t resist pointing out that, if this is what we really long for, then the existence of a creator god would be the final frustration of our desire. The entire universe would be determined by her/his whim – a plastic cosmos.)

Well, if that’s where the ugliness comes from, then it suggests a direction our civilization could take to escape it: we could acknowledge and build around the very real constraints which the Earth’s finite resources do in sober truth impose on its inhabitants. Perhaps it’s no accident that the green aesthetic is an oasis of beauty in the modern desert. Efficient vehicles are more graceful than greedy ones. Rooftop gardens bring delight amidst the dead concrete of big cities. When we save the planet, we also save our own souls.

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