Reflections on London

The process of crossing over into a new year seems to put many in the mood for reminisces. This year, as in previous years, I found myself thinking about London. 2015 was the year I returned to London, after a three-year hiatus, but the journey felt very much like a dream, as if it never occurred. The London I remember is still the home I knew years ago, not the spectacle I encountered as a visitor.

In the early days of my stay in London, everything was fresh and precious. London was like nowhere else. The university seemed an interruption, and in the interstices between seminars, I rushed from museum to museum, shop to shop, with the urgency of one who was all too aware of mortality. It was impossible to stop – every day presented new opportunities and new temptations. The city was with me even in the confines of my room – first a small dorm room in Camden with a view of the ubiquitous London planetree; next an elegant Regency house in Hampstead, with a partial view of the Heath; and finally, a flat in Bloomsbury, with a view of Georgian rooftops and the BT Tower which, when seen from afar, always signaled the location of home. Those were solitary days of urban wanderings, bookshop-hopping, instant noodles and freezing winter nights. I was always conscious of my luck and privilege, as I am now conscious of the impossibility of returning to those abodes.

The London I knew was a city of words. There are scrolls of paper that run down the sides of buildings, along the columns or pinned to the doors, inscribed with the words of Londoners. On overcast, foggy days, on buildings by the Thames, we read about Dickens’s ubiquitous fog, “up the river…down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside of a great (and dirty) city.” Crossing Westminster Bridge, we read Wordsworth’s love song to the “ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples” of London, “bright and glittering in the smokeless air.” On weekdays during rush hour, pushing past the crowd, we glimpse Eliot’s “Unreal city” inscribed on the Golden Jubilee Bridge. During the daily commute, we read Heaney’s words on the walls of the Underground, describing us, the commuters – “half straggle-ravelled and half strung/ Like a human chain”. While running errands on crowded Saturdays, we see Shelley’s lament scrawled on the greyish façades of Oxford Street: “Hell is a place much like London”. On Primrose Hill, we find Blake’s words, now engraved in stone: “I have conversed with the spiritual Sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill”.

One walks through the streets wrapped in words. The walls are palimpsests and each generation adds new words by new Londoners. Layer upon layer of text, until nothing is decipherable.

For a period of time, I lived opposite Dickens’s old house; two minutes from Yeats; five minutes from the Shelleys’ temporary abode; two squares away from Virginia Woolf; three squares away from Eliot’s Faber office. For one year, I also stayed in the house that once belonged to the painter Paul Nash. True to my role as a bibliophile, I frequented bookshops new and old, and compiled my own catalogue of literary spots. That was one of the best parts about living in such a city, the cultivating of pleasant associations with spots in the metropolis. In London I understood the power of psychogeography, the ways in which places trigger something in the mind. Spots became sacred for their connection with beloved writers and artists. Visits to churches and graveyards became pseudo-pilgrimages. London was thus, for a time, a place of love.

There are places to which it is impossible to return, places barred by impenetrable walls of immigration policies, walls built higher and higher each year; places that have changed beyond recognition; places that have sunk beneath the weight of memory. I have always known that London, like some mythic destination, was a place I would lose as soon as I left. In my final months in the city, right before the London Olympics, I took in the city with a kind of frenzy or hunger, like one who did not have long to live. The photos from those months are still unsorted. It is difficult to think about London, or write about it, even though I continually attempt to do so. The city is irrepressible, even as I try to evade its control of my imagination.

After my departure from London (and after failed attempts to apply for another visa), I came to the despairing realization that not only can I not return to London, I do not belong there, have never belonged there; that this city, grand, literary and inspiring, belongs to others; that the words which have guided me for so long have never been intended for one such as I, an outsider, foreigner, alien. The city is not mine, and its narratives – contemporary or past – will never be mine. To whom does London belong? That is a question for another time.

Vestiges of London are always with me – in the hundreds of books on the shelves; in the clothes collected from the shops I frequented; the postcards on the walls; the book bags that can only be found at Daunt Books. Perhaps it is there in the words I write, or perhaps the writing is an ongoing attempt to reclaim a place that has never been there, a place to which it is impossible to return.

Paris and the World, November 2015

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer

utters itself. So, a woman will lift

her head from the sieve of her hands and stare

At the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth

enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;

then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth

in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales

console the lodger looking out across

a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls

a child’s name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –

Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

Carol Ann Duffy, “Prayer” (1992)


Saving My Library

Two and a half years ago, my library of approximately 1000 books was besieged by tiny insects. I woke up one morning to find miniscule, barely visible bugs crawling over the spines of my books, diving into the infinitesimal space in between pages like divers into the sea. Even now, the thought makes me shudder. These pests would grow into white, near transparent ant-like creatures native to the tropical island on which I then lived. I never learned their exact scientific names, but these insects brought about important changes.

I’ve always had a severe case of entomophobia – the irrational fear of insects that persists in spite of the knowledge of my ability to terminate them with ease. En masse, they are terror embodied. To tackle the invasion, I took time off work, and for 3 days and nights, with scarcely any sleep, I removed as many insects as I could, straining my eyesight to catch them in the hinges of the spines or in the crevices between pages. In Buddhist terms, this amounted to a form of massacre, and though I am not religious, the experience did prompt me to become a vegetarian – that was the first significant result of the infestation. Painstakingly, I bagged all the books individually in zip lock bags (according to book conservation websites and the local librarians, this is an effective way to limit the spread of the infestation), and sealed the bags with tape. All throughout the laborious process, I lived in fear and revulsion at the thought of these miniscule entities in close proximity to my skin. After packing all the books, I moved 300 of the most severely affected ones to the campus library of the university where I worked, and deposited them in a giant, industrial-grade freezer (apparently a necessary purchase for most major libraries in humid regions) where they stayed for 2 months in minus 40 degrees celsius – the extreme cold is the only thing that kills all insects, larva and eggs. The remaining books were frozen in my own freezer at regular intervals. For two and a half years, my books remained inside plastic bags, taken out only when needed, and frozen them in batches according to a set schedule. Now that I’m back in dry and temperate Canada, the books are gradually being taken out of their plastic shells, to breathe for the first time in so long and to be aired in the sunlight.

The memory of that frightful experience lingers. Aside from useful information about book preservation, the ordeal also made me rethink my relationship with books and reflect on what precisely they meant to me. Knowledge cannot be eaten away, of course, and I know that even if the worst had happened, I would have been able to re-purchase the majority – if not all – of the books. Yet the issue was never the recoverability of the same texts, but that my first encounter with Hardy, my signed copies with memories of Ishiguro book readings, the marginalia that bespeak fascination – these cannot be replaced. Many bibliophiles perhaps feel the same attachment to the volumes inscribed by experience. In many novels, I had the letter “M” written on the corners of pages, to indicate ideas that could be useful for a novel project. My copy of Rilke’s Letters are filled with dates and personal records in the margins, indicating instances where Rilke’s words offered solace during a time of grief. I collect books from my travels as well, and the library has several volumes inscribed with memories from visits to notable bookshops in various cities. There are also the pieces of ephemera, serendipitously discovered, or the lovingly written messages of dedication.

The infestation was a reminder of what I have and what I might lose. It also made clear that books are tactile objects even as they hold, between their covers, that which exists beyond physical form. The collecting of books also bespeaks a different kind of  growth. What I purchase at different stages in life trace shifts in intellectual inquiry and slight changes in taste. Each section in life seems to be mapped out by books, and many bibliophiles can surely draft an autobiography using books read and cherished. Claire Messud wrote that a personal library maps out one’s intellectual progress. It also maps personal growth. These particular volumes with their individual origin stories and idiosyncratic markings contribute to a more narratorial sense of self at a time when the construction of such narratives has become increasingly difficult in the age of the internet. I tried my best to save my books, but they had saved me first, from times of aloneness and distress. The trouble of dealing with the infestation, and the subsequent shipping of over 1000 volumes back home, had been worthwhile.


Summer Readings


After the long hiatus that was the academic year, it is time to revert back to a more contemplative self and engage in summer reading projects. In a recent New Yorker podcast, Kathryn Schulz and James Wood pointed out that when it comes to summer readings, most people inevitably turn to fiction. Perhaps there is something about a warm day on the beach that inspires us to lose ourselves in an engaging narrative. One summer, a few years ago, I finished Bonjour Tristesse on a beach in Nice – that remains one of my most treasured reading memories.The summer always sends me dreaming of stories set in southern France or Italy, something with the magic of Bonjour Tristesse or A Room with a View, something away from the rains of England. This year I’m opting for Tender is a Night, which has been on my list for several years, and A Pale View of Hills. But aside from the Fitzgerald and Ishiguro, almost everything else is nonfiction. With the exception of short stories in Granta, the New Yorker and the Paris Review, my reading list is dominated by a diverse range of nonfiction titles, from works of ekphrasis to travel books. One does not need a fictional narrative to lose oneself in the world of the written text.

Post-MLA Reflections

The largest gathering of scholars in the humanities took place at the Vancouver Convention Centre last week. Hours of sunshine alternated with hours of fog and rain. I learned two things at the 2015 convention of the Modern Languages Association (MLA): That there is a world in which academia could be vastly different from what it is today; and that we are far, far away from this world. Much credit must be given to those who try to politicize the professoriat, by unionizing adjuncts and addressing issues of unfairness in the academe. By now, everyone is familiar with the untenable and exploitative working conditions of many part-time faculty members. At a panel for ‘Contingent Academic Labor and Unionization’, there was an impassioned call for solidarity between the adjunct and tenured staff at post-secondary institutions. To arrive at workplace democracy, we must establish collegiality and assume social responsibility. Academics, too, are waving a banner.

According to some surveys, adjuncts make up 50% of all faculty at American institutions. We are the precariat, incessantly walking on tiptoes across an unstable bridge that stretches from one side of the bottomless chasm to the other. But perhaps the image of linear progression across a bridge is misleading, for there is very little sense of arriving on the other side. Instead, a member of the precariat engages in a circular loop of applications, teaching, rejections, more applications, until the motions become almost mechanical, and the enthusiasm once felt towards something like the MLA has dwindled to curiosity at best. Regardless of the social status that comes with being a ‘college professor’, at times I long for a stable 9-5 job, without weekend obligations or forever elusive goals. Perhaps the lifestyle of the salaried bourgeoisie brings to mind Nietzsche’s Last Men, who lack passion and commitment, whose lives are sparsely filled with ‘little pleasures’. But having been on the wobbly bridge for so long does make me envy those who are able to relax their weary limbs and set up camp for the night on secure, solid grounds.

I like the word ‘contingent’, for it brings to mind ideas about free will and fate; permanency and ephemerality; the possibility of catastrophe; it also connotes the physical touch (from the Latin tangere), or the act of bringing together. Google shows that the use of the word ‘contingent’ has increased in recent decades; we are living in the age of chance, or hazards and precariousness.

I wonder if academia itself is contingent, an accidental formation created at a particular time, under particular historical circumstances. Those circumstances changed, and another chance formation might occur, replacing the current one. Since the start of the debate on the ‘value of the humanities’, there have been countless articles extolling the benefits of deep reading and complex writing. Centres for the humanities popped up all throughout North America and the UK, and scholarship has gradually shifted towards interdisciplinarity. All this is to avert disaster. But during a panel on Romanticism (my supposed speciality), while I listened to convoluted prose that produced trailing sentences filled with too many adjectives and arguments-within-arguments too tiring to disentangle, I wondered if the effort to make ourselves unique, valuable, irreplaceable has ironically contributed to the devaluing of the humanities and the alienation of academia.

A curious event occurred on the second day of the Convention: A group of young people walked through the building holding up banners and shouting ‘From Ferguson to MLA, Black Lives Matter’. Most people looked on in bafflement and went about their business. This was curious – Did the protesters assume that scholars of the humanities would think black lives did not matter? Most scholars are probably liberals who would, at least in their research, fight for the underdogs, the disenfranchised, the oppressed. This kind of scholarship is a form of empathy, surely. Given this fact, it is curious how talks about empathy or ethics are often frowned upon in academia. I failed to get a job because I used the word ‘ethics’ in the teaching statement (not connoting a form of indoctrination, as was assumed, but a way of living and being in the Aristotelian sense); and on another occasion, I was told that a project on disaster has nothing to do with ethics or empathy. How can we approach catastrophe and its aftermath without thinking about the ethics of social response and collective responsibility? Not everything is about the sublime, or about perfectly crafted sentences.

All the talk about workplace democracy, about fairness and positive change comes down to one thing – the importance of empathy. On a panel about Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, there was much talk about the importance of compassion – I greatly respected these scholars of German literature, because such talks are rare and perhaps even unwelcome in some scholarly circles. They discussed how some texts invite the reader to respond empathically, and how scholars, as serious readers of serious literature, can mediate that response. There was a subtle call for the ‘moralization of literary criticism’, to borrow the title of one of the talks.

How can the humanities carve out a space for reflection and intellectual inquiry in the age of neoliberalism and technological advancement? By bringing out the true value of the humanities – which is the same ideal upheld by many of the writers whose works we teach and analyze. Yeats wrote that literature is the ‘principal voice of the conscience’, and that a great writer will devote many years to the study of moral issues. Even though the university has become a profit-driven corporation, and academic publishing is primarily about career advancement, there is still a chance that literary criticism can also be ‘a voice of conscience’. And unless we can practice empathy in the workplace, unionization will not yield the desired results. Until we can see that the value of what we teach and write does not reside in grants, publications, academic celebrity, or tenure, academia will remain in a state of contingency.

Paris in January

‘What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts & virtuous acts.


What precipitates acts? Belief.


Belief in both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a Colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being…one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction…


If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth and claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Torturous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.’


David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

An Account of Formosa

In 1703, a fair-skinned, golden-haired young man arrived in London, and announced himself to be a native of the island of Formosa, or modern-day Taiwan. Adopting the name of George Psalmanazar (c. 1680-1763), the man was the author of an elaborate hoax that beguiled the British public and baffled Royal Society experts. For three years, Psalmanazar was accepted as a Formosan aristocrat, an eater of twigs and raw meat from the capital city of Xternetsa, his fair skin accounted for by the fact that Formosan aristocrats lived in subterranean caves, their complexion protected from the glare of sunlight. Psalmanazar’s popular but false ethnographic study, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, An Island Subject to the Emperor of Japan (1704), described in great and fantastical detail Formosan customs such as weddings, funerals and religious rites, supplemented with maps and engravings.


On the one hand, Psalmanazar depicted the fictional Formosans as a skilful and industrious people, capable of art such as porcelain ware. On the other hand, he catered to popular conceptions of the savage Other, and described cannibalistic rituals and sacrifices of infants to an ox-shaped god. One of the most remarkable facets of Description of Formosa was the imaginary Formosan language, invented by Psalmanazar, using an elaborate system of alphabets that showcased his linguistic ingenuity (in spite of the fact that he had no knowledge of any Asian languages). Psalamanazar was eventually forced to reveal his deception in 1706. Biographical details about his life remain scarce, though scholars speculate that he was originally from France, and had previously posed as a native of Japan.

Books have been written about Psalmanazar’s exploits, and the relation between his false representation (of himself and of Formosa) and the complex mapping of Asia in the European imagination. Psalmanazar’s story demonstrates that there is a great deal of mythmaking when it comes to imagining other cultures and other languages; we are no less guilty of this in the age of globalization. I would like to jump from eighteenth-century Formosa to present-day Taiwan, which now engages – ironically – in its own practice of mythmaking.

I worked at a Taiwanese university for 1.5 years (as Assistant Professor in English), motivated mostly by the bleak state of the academic job market. A few months after my PhD was submitted, an opportunity arose in Taiwan; I took it, hesitantly at first, but later more enthusiastically, spurred on by articles exploring the benefits of working and teaching in Asia. However, my experience was far from ideal.

At a time when the academic job market in the Anglo-American world motivates new graduates to seek employment outside their usual geographic or cultural boundary, I feel it is important to present a more sobering view of working in Asia. There are always potential difficulties with working in a different culture, but what concern me here are the difficulties that result from racial politics. Upon my initial arrival in Taiwan, I was fully prepared to try my best at Chinese, while lecturing and writing mainly in English. However, during my first week at work, I was told that I would have to teach fully in Chinese, because, in short, I am ethnically Asian and therefore cannot be trusted to teach accurate English to the students (though English is my primary language, and I have always lived in English-speaking countries, not to mention the three degrees in English literature). The mixed cultural background that I had supposed to be an asset was instead a major obstacle in my professional development in Taiwan.

I failed to persuade my superiors that my reading knowledge of Chinese did not extend far beyond restaurant menus; that I am not able to write academic prose in Chinese; or that an Asian person does not automatically speak English with an Asian accent. Those statements rang hollow because they destabilized the existing ideology in Taiwan, which insists that native proficiency in English is possible only for those of Anglo-American or European descent – or to put it more crudely, those who are white-skinned. (In Taiwan, I found there is rarely acknowledgement of the fact that English is but one of the twenty-four official languages spoken in Europe, and that most people of European descent do not consider English their mother tongue).

With a mixture of shock and indignation, I lectured using Google Translate projected onto a big screen; when I accidentally used English words for which I could not find the Chinese equivalent, I would be scolded by the departmental administrator (who had asked students to report such instances of slippage to him; and the administrative staff at the university held tremendous power). I was also derided for my inability to understand much of the complex Chinese used in meetings; at one point I was publicly labelled ‘an embarrassment to the department’, and that was considered polite. I got along well with my European colleagues, and had no problems with them, though it made me uncomfortable to learn that they were given the opportunity to teach fully in English, and were not expected to complete any administrative tasks. The picture is complicated by the fact that some Taiwanese colleagues lectured partially in English, but they were educated at the National Taiwan University, the top institution in the country, and were therefore judged differently.

To equate skin color with linguistic or literary capability is to assert racist ideology. It also presents an instance of mythmaking. As Psalmanazar’s forgery proved, the boundary between fiction and truth is easily blurred at times. If Psalmanazar’s account appears shot through with eighteenth-century misconceptions about the East, then the Taiwanese construction of the ideal English speaker is equally laden with prejudice and intolerance, upholding spurious claims about authenticity.

For 1.5 years, I spoke broken Chinese from Monday to Friday, faced verbal abuse from administrative staff, and experienced Taiwan as a place that fluctuated wildly between civility and cruelty – Psalmanazar was ironically accurate in his suggestion of that binarism. My Chinese improved, though my English deteriorated and my knowledge of English language and literature was continually questioned. Eventually, I resigned. The racial issue was not the only reason for my resignation – there were plenty of other problems such as sexual politics, lack of resources, pedagogical difficulties, unfair evaluation processes etc., but I won’t go into those. It was not easy giving up a tenure-track position with good benefits, but in the end, I could not shake the sense that all the years I had spent studying English literature had boiled down to nothing – or rather, nothing but my skin color.

While this is a personal experience, it is by no means confined to the personal context. According to Annie Chen, founder of Teachers Against Discrimination in Taiwan (TADIT), non-Caucasians frequently face racial discrimination in their job hunts, particularly in the education sector. The discussion board hosted by TADIT is filled with stories of the victimization endured by non-Caucasians, who are usually offered lower pay than their Caucasian co-workers (regardless of education or experience), or turned down for jobs due to the assumption that their language ability would be below standard. The ESL (or EFL) education market in Asia is notorious for hiring based on skin color (frequently, though not always)  without checking credentials; this has resulted in many under-qualified instructors gaining steady work in the education sector (usually in tutorial schools). While Taiwanese hospitality is a commonly observed fact, it is sometimes not extended to those who do not fit into crudely formed preconceptions about race and identity. Discrimination is, of course, a complex issue, extending far beyond Taiwan, and non-Caucasians are not the only ones who face potential victimization. The equation of skin color with language proficiency is also implicated in the complex politics of Asian identity and self-representation. Moreover, discrimination raises broader questions about the limits of cross-cultural interaction, and the fight for equality is an on-going struggle in the progress towards global inhabitation.

As the job market becomes international, nomadic scholars might encounter such racial issues more and more. The fictions perpetuated by racial prejudice obfuscate certain truths – that language skills have nothing to do with skin color or ethnicity; that there are cosmopolitan citizens of the world who speak multiple languages and know multiple cultures; that racial discrimination is a corrosive form of social violence that disseminate falsehoods as outrageous as those of Psalmanazar’s Formosa. Any sense of cohesion we might hope to build as a world relies, in part, on the recognition of these truths.


On Beauty

In 1869, American writer Henry James wrote to his father describing his first meeting with the English novelist George Eliot (or Mary Ann Evans), who was 49 years old at the time:

“She is magnificently ugly,” James wrote. “She has a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth, full of uneven teeth…Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her.”

James goes on to counter his judgement of ‘magnificent ugliness’ with praise of Eliot’s ‘delightful expression’, ‘a voice soft and rich as that of a counselling angel’, her inner store of knowledge, and ‘a great feminine dignity and character in these massively plain features’. Eliot herself might be said to be the opposite of her character Hetty Sorrel, from Adam Bede, whose attractive appearance does not correspond to inner beauty. The juxtaposition between internal and external beauty has long preoccupied writers and philosophers, but in an age that is so fixated on surfaces, has the boundary between inner and outer been gradually eroded?

Beauty, a once elusive concept, has been rendered straightforward in modern media, a beauty promising health, prosperity, and success, even love. Yet beauty is meant to be multifaceted, not fixed in the image of the decorated waif. As Umberto Eco’s tome, On Beauty, shows, the idea of the beautiful is transient and fluid, shifting iridescently from one era to the next (in spite of what sociobiologists claim), from one culture to the next, so that at one point what developed cultures in the 21st century might consider to be hideous was upheld as the paragon of beauty.

But is it perhaps the case that we fail to carve out a space for differences? Anxiety surrounding women’s body image indicates the failure to move beyond one totalizing idea of what constitutes beauty. The female body has long been the battle ground of ideologies surrounding beauty. Almost every woman I know has struggled with issues of insecurity, forever shadowed by the rhetoric of ‘not enough’ – not thin enough, not sexy enough, not curvy enough, not tall enough, not pale enough, not sweet enough, not feminine enough. And the list goes on. It is bewildering that in a finite lifetime we should be exposed to such an interminable list of demands to be everything other than we are.

The problem of beauty, like the problem of wealth, is a distributive one, though unlike wealth, it cannot be accumulated – at least not without financial backing, ironically. As the National Geographic article points out, we are continually frustrated and confused by the fact that in an age that strives towards equality all are not created equal. That inequality is heightened by the insistence on homogenization, as exemplified by the culture of cosmetic surgery. Why is it that we can applaud all manner of monstrosity in popular media, praise incongruous planks of concrete as great architecture, sloppily-written pornography as literature, yet we sometimes have difficulty seeing the good in someone (which might be ourselves) who does not conform to media-saturated standards of beauty? If a woman as extraordinary as Eleanor Roosevelt could name the lack of a pretty face as her one regret in life, then we need to ask what value our world places on all the accomplishments and contributions that stem from an entirely non-physical kind of beauty?

In the world of romance, the idea of the beautiful is even more problematic. Every bookish girl has perhaps dreamed of discovering her inner Jane Eyre, and delivering Jane’s impassioned speech to a Mr. Rochester:

“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you, – and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you!”

That beauty, like wealth, is a form of capital in the market of love might make it difficult for many to see the value of a particular kind of ‘impoverishment’. And unlike Mr. Rochester, many would leave without hesitation. Beauty exists in the eye of the beholder – yes, but human affection is neither simple nor lasting. When the beholder ceases to behold our optimal selves, what are we left with aside from a husk stripped of its rose-tinted exterior? Endymion, in Keats’s revision of the myth, gives up the hunt for the goddess and embraces the Indian maid, only to discover that the maid was in fact the goddess herself; this is Keats’s attempt to reconcile internal and external beauty. But in the world outside poetry, the dangerous allure of the unattainable does not turn us into an Aeolian shepherd, but rather the dog in Aesop’s Tales, staring dreamily at its own reflection. Beauty remains that which enthralls and enchants us – we are done and undone by beauty. We can continue to tell ourselves that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that it is only skin deep, but ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’ will continue to fracture families and precipitate conflict.

If beauty is truth, and truth beauty, then in our never-ending quest for perfect beauty (exemplified by the cosmetics industry and plastic surgery), we have lost sight of what is true. In the culture of superficial judgments, we are all judges and victims. Improving one’s appearance and polishing one’s self-image on social media at times comes at the cost of neglecting or even corroding one’s internal self, that which truly needs tending to. The entanglements of visual spectacle and desire have created ‘mind-forged manacles’ with which we have shackled our true selves. But to accept that perfection cannot exist in the self in the physical sense is also to see that perfection does not exist in the form of celebrities and models and ideal loves. The cult of the celebrity, a baggage left over from the Romantic era, has done us much harm, nowadays deepened by digital technology that easily disseminates these images of seeming perfection to all corners of the world, creating the illusion that perfection exists, that it is desirable and attainable.

In the world of love, such judgements are perhaps even more evident, as online dating and problematic apps such as Tinder capitalize on the ideal of external beauty, and make it so much easier to ‘walk away’ from that which fails to meet the illusory standard. Any value beneath the surface is no longer mined, but simply left buried. A show like Mad Men has gone some way towards debunking the myth that only a typically beautiful woman, admired by many, is worthy of love, for Don Draper’s marriages to the statuesque Betty and the alluring Megan (dancing provocatively to Bisou Bisou) have hardly presented pictures of enduring love. In interpersonal relationships, we need to stop treating one another as disposable consumerist goods – the invasion of market mentality into the domain of love is, as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues, what renders love so rare in our liquid modernity. To find that which endures, we must demand of ourselves patience and sympathy, instead of giving in to the impulse to press ‘delete’. Moreover, the pursuit of the non-existent ideal, while it is a very human pursuit, is a dream from which we ought to awaken. We need to move forward to a post-Romantic world – the intrinsically and tragically Romantic pursuit of the blue flower or the chimeric spirit that forever recedes from us is no longer a sustainable activity for the mind.

Positive media have encouraged the cultivating of self-respect to counter the insidious effects of the fashion and cosmetic industries and the culture of dating. Yes, it is true that everyone could benefit from the kind of self-respect described by Joan Didion, a sense of one’s intrinsic worth that ‘free[s] us from the expectations of others, [and] give[s] us back to ourselves’. But as a society, we need to do more than that. It is all very well to encourage therapeutic or spiritual processes of arriving at a more sustained sense of self-worth. But we cannot leave individuals to pine away, hoping therapy or the occasional positive media would help, while exulting those who just happened to win the genetic lottery. For one, cases of eating disorders, depression and even suicide comport us to act humanely in the face of inequality. We need to redefine the concept of beauty – it is not simply a matter of internal vs. external. We need to accept that perfection does not exist in an imperfect world.

Much of the resistance to accept differences, to move beyond superficiality, is simply a resistance against changing one’s mentality, arguably the hardest thing to do. But just as George Eliot gave Henry James a completely new meaning of the word ‘beauty’, so, too, might our culture encounter an idea, a movement, or a system that spurs us onward to a different world. Philosopher Cora Diamond, when discussing Wittgenstein, cites James’s encounter with Eliot as an example of ‘conceptual reorientation’:

“She, that magnificently ugly woman, gives a totally transformed meaning to ‘beauty’. Beauty itself becomes something entirely new for one, as one comes to see (to one’s own amazement, perhaps) a powerful beauty residing in this woman…In such a case, she is not judged by a norm available through the concept of beauty; she shows the concept up, she moves one to use the words ‘beauty’ and ‘beautiful’ almost as new words, or as renewed words. She gives one a new vocabulary, a new way of taking the world in one’s words, and speaking about it to others”.

So we need to ‘show the concept up’, the concept constructed by ourselves through generations. Perhaps education – or art, or popular culture – is a good starting point for change, for assessing the damage already done. In any case, it is possible to see the world anew and to speak about beauty in new ways.


The Gates of Time

Of all places I have visited during my travels, Fushimi Inari in Kyoto stands out as the most unforgettable. Rebecca Solnit – in an essay written for Granta’s special on Japan – encapsulates the singular experience of strolling up the hillside covered with vermilion gates:

‘Culminations are at least lifelong, and sometimes longer when you look at the natural and social forces that shape you, the acts of the ancestors, of illness or economics, immigration and education. We are constantly arriving; the innumerable circumstances are forever culminating in this glance, this meeting, this collision, this conversation, like the pieces in a kaleidoscopic forever coming into new focus, new flowerings. But to me the gates made visible not the complicated ingredients of the journey but the triumph of arrival.

[…] I had the impression midway through the hours I spent wandering, that time itself had become visible, that every moment of my life I was passing through orange gates, always had been, always would be passing through magnificent gates that only in this one place are visible. Their uneven pacing seemed to underscore this perception; sometimes time grows dense and seems to both slow down and speed up, when you fall in love, when you are in the thick of an emergency or a discovery; other times it flows by limpid as a stream across a meadow, each day calm and like the one before, not much to remember, or time runs dry and you’re stuck, hoping for change that finally arrives in a trickle or a rush. Though all these metaphors of flow can be traded in for solid ground: time is a stroll through orange gates.

[…] All you really need to know is that there is a hillside in Japan in which time is measured in irregular intervals and every moment is an orange gate, and foxes watch over it, and people wander it, and the whole is maintained by priests and by donors, so that gates crumble and gates are erected, time passes and does not, as elsewhere nuclear products decay and cultures change and people come and go, and that the place might be one at which you will arrive some day, to go through the flickering tunnels of orange, up the mountainside, into this elegant machine not for controlling or replicating time but maybe for realizing it, or blessing it. Or maybe you have your own means of being present, your own sense for seeing that at this very minute you are passing through an orange gate.’


A Home for All

The time of reconstruction is the time to see a place anew. The post-disaster reconstruction process is the nexus where politics and society meet to reshape and build a collective future, amidst the rubble of devastation. Following the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the Marques of Pombal, with authority given by King Jose I, oversaw the complete transformation of Lisbon. In what could be regarded as the first instance of modern urban planning, Pombal redesigned Lisbon as a reflection of new commercial values, with a distinctive grid system that represents the triumph of human reason over cataclysmic nature. Streets were widened, and buildings were made shorter, in order to circumvent damage in future exogenous shocks. In an unprecedented manner, disaster gave birth to a new city – thanks largely to the unopposed power of Pombal, a power not possessed by Christopher Wren after the 1666 fire in London, nor by Goto Shinpei, who sought to rebuild Tokyo after the 1923 earthquake.

Pombaline_Baixa_Lisbon_map_1756Lisbon, 1756

The absence of a central figure and the inefficiency of the planning body have complicated the fraught – and highly politicized – reconstruction process following the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami. Despite the three years that have elapsed, the rebuilding is still ongoing. While much has been accomplished by volunteer groups, non-profits and local governments, much remains to be done. A reconstruction project is always a series of interrelated processes that disclose the undercurrents of society and deepen existing fissures that plague the nation. Complications regarding land ownership, oppositions to planning projects, and continual delays mean that many survivors are still displaced and without a permanent home. As of April this year, there were 22,095 temporary housing units in the Miyagi Prefecture, and 13,984 provisional housing unites in Iwate; almost half of these are built on private land, which might be reclaimed over the next few years, thus placing more pressure on the municipal government to build permanent housing.

Yet amidst all the difficulties, something new emerges. Of particular interest is the ‘Home-for-All’ (Minna no Ie) project, headed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, with contributions from Riken Yamamoto, Hiroshi Naito, Kengo Kuma, and Kazuyo Sejima. Unlike other building projects in the stricken area, ‘Home-for-All’ focuses on communal space, or the building of a kind of common hearth around which those afflicted by the disaster might gather to share their stories or support one another. In other words, the project is an attempt to embody in architectural form the ‘disaster utopia’. As of February 2014, nine structures have been completed, with more under way, the newest being a multi-purpose fishermen’s pavilion by Yang Zao. Subsisting on mainly private donations and charity organisations, the contributions made by the project are necessarily small and piecemeal, but the team is able to bypass the convoluted bureaucratic infrastructure, and reach out to the communities directly. A non-profit called Archi+Aid, based at the University of Tohoku, helps to mediate the interactions between the architects, the communities and the local government, and has gone some way towards facilitating the recovery process.

Home-for-All02_Worrall_lores-870x539Home-for-All in Rikuzentakata

The first structure built for the ‘Home-for-All’ project is a small timber building (showcased in the Japan Pavilion at the 13th Venice Biennale) in the city of Rikuzentakata, created using saltwater-soaked timber salvaged from the wreckage. The public space created as part of the Home-for-All project nurtures a sense of community, even as that community is united through loss. That something new can be made from detritus is significant, signalling the longed-for renewal that follows limpingly the heels of disaster. Rising above the wreckage, the structure is also a reminder of what endures catastrophe.

Crucially, the Home-for-All project is an expression of the architect’s social responsibility. For Ito, disaster calls into question the fundamental meaning of architecture. He explains:

‘In the modern period, architecture has been rated highest for its originality. As a result, the most primal themes—why a building is made and for whom—have been forgotten. A disaster zone, where everything is lost offers the opportunity for us to take a fresh look, from the ground up, at what architecture really is. ‘Home-for-all’ may consist of small buildings, but it calls to the fore the vital question of what form architecture should take in the modern era—even calling into question the most primal themes, the very meaning of architecture.’

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, known for his humanitarian project, the Cardboard Cathedral, expressed a similar sentiment when he remarked that ‘Architects’ solutions can make a huge difference in society. One area in particular – which may seem unusual given the chaos they cause – is when natural disasters occur’. Through the work of ruination, of ‘un-building’, architecture ironically finds a new meaning, or a mode of renewal.

Much of the complication in the post-3.11 rebuilding process revolved around the problems of community – distrust between neighbors; rising levels of depression; and lack of both private and social space. Ito commented on the ‘grim living conditions’ of the temporary housing units, with crammed spaces and insufficient insulation. ‘Yet’, Ito points out, ‘even under such conditions, people try to smile and make do…. They gather to share and communicate in extreme circumstances – a moving vision of community at its most basic. Likewise, what we see here are very origins of architecture, the minimal shaping of communal spaces’ (Toyo Ito – Forces of Nature published by Princeton Architectural Press). The community, and not the architect’s ambition, is thus the driving force behind the project.

Children's Home for AllChildren’s Home-for-All, in Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, designed by Ito, with Maki Onishi

The ‘Home-for-All’ project – like other similar projects such as the Tohoku Rebuilding Program of Architecture for Humanity – reiterates the humanistic claims of sociologist Lewis Mumford, whose writings on architecture and urban life deserve to be re-read, particularly in our era of disasters. Speaking of the idea of ‘architecture as a home for man’, Mumford repeatedly mentions the centrality of the human element in architecture, the primary purpose of which is to improve the human condition. Architecture has a social responsibility, above and beyond fleeting stylistic trends and the demands of the architect’s ego. In a 1968 essay, Mumford writes:

‘This, then, is the task for today and tomorrow: to restore and eventually to elevate even higher than ever before the organic and human components that are now missing in our compulsively dynamic and over-mechanized culture. The time has come for architecture to come back to earth and make a new home for man.’

19Home-for-All-TIA-6530Photos courtesy of Iwan Baan

Of course, the time of disaster is not only the time to reevaluate architecture, but also to reevaluate the community that the architecture houses. Perhaps it is only in the experience of shared loss following calamitous change that the isolated individuals of our world can gather by the hearth of humanity, to sow the seeds for an emergent, more resilient community composed of mutually-accepting selves. But let us not wait until it is too late – for loss has already occurred, and while our cities become populated by shards of glass and symbols of capitalistic prowess, somewhere in a desolate landscape by a wrecked shore, there is a reminder that rebuilding, with its infinite potential, needs to begin now.


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