Lately I have been reflecting on the demise of the humanities and of Western culture generally. I have expressed my disappointment and even my dismay. But several years ago I had already begun to note the problem and in reading a number of novels written by great Japanese writers came to realize that what we are going through is very much like what the Japanese went through after World War II. Granted, the parallel is not exact, but we are seeing the gradual replacement of Western culture by a shallow commodified culture where everything has a price. Our present situation is not unlike the experience of the older generation in Japan after the war who watched helplessly as their culture and values were replaced by Western ideas, movies, dress, baseball, and above all, materialism. They, too, were becoming a commodified culture. The problem is that this indicates the death of spirit and this is why the problem is worth exploring, though I must apologize for the rather long post as the issue is complex and I have added a bit here and there.
I have been somewhat immersed of late in the writings of such great Japanese authors as Kawabata, Tanizaki, Mishima, and, most recently, the satirist Nakae Chomin. What all of these authors have in common, despite their many differences of style and approach, is a shared concern regarding the trauma Japan suffered in leaping from a Feudal age into the modern world in a very few years. While they knew that the modern world would bring benefits to the Japanese people, they also knew that something precious might be lost in the process. The parallel with our own history struck me and seemed worth reflecting upon. This is not to say that the history of the East exactly parallels that of the West. After all, our escape from the Feudal age was gradual and we did not undergo the sudden shock of alien ideas overnight. Nor did we suffer the devastation of more than five hundred bombing raids setting our world on fire, followed by the dropping of two Atom bombs that brought our nation to its collective knees. None the less, the concerns of these remarkable authors are the same ones many of us share in this hemisphere, especially the worry that in breaking with centuries-old traditions we may be leaving our world devoid of meaning.
In this regard, the delightfully satirical book by Nakae Chomin, titled A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government, is especially interesting. Chomin lived during the Meiji era, from 1868-1912, and was witness to the rapid changes that were taking place around him. In fact, he was responsible for many of them himself, given his fascination with ideas he picked up in France, especially, where he became an expert in European philosophy and political thought. He wrote copiously about enlightenment ideas and, especially, about the necessity for Japan to embrace democracy, if not all European ideas. Japan’s despotic government was not entirely convinced that democratic ideas were palatable and Chomin’s idea of universal suffrage was especially anathema to those in power who were suspicious of liberal thinkers like Chomin. He was for a time expelled from his native city of Tokyo and was repeatedly silenced by a government that feared his keen wit and outspoken writings. His Discourse, especially, came under government scrutiny and as a result became extremely popular and quite effective in helping to bring about many of the changes that Chomin thought Japan needed to embrace.
But, at the same time, Chomin was aware that these changes were diametrically opposed to a great many ancient Japanese traditions that he himself revered and realized were essential to Japan’s national identity. He was the son of a Samari warrior and was of two minds when it came to agitating for change in Japan — as his Discourse points out. In that book two protagonists, hosted by Master Nankai, who acts as something of a referee and (more importantly) keeps filling their empty drinking cups, wage a war of words about the pros and cons of radical change in Japan. The Gentleman of Western Learning, a philosopher/idealist, embraces Western ideas and argues somewhat naively that linear progress is inevitable and of unqualified benefit to the nation as a whole. His opponent, the Champion of the East, is a conservative, hawkish character who embraces war as a manly activity and worries that Japanese culture is on the verge of annihilation at the hands of the West (especially Western materialism) and young Japanese activists. This concern is echoed in one of Mishima’s novels in which a group of young idealists plot the murder of several key Japanese capitalists. Chomin himself at times embraced both of these views, which is what makes the Discourse so compelling. It steers away from simple solutions to complex issues and reveals the heart of the dilemma that Japan faced at the time.
As hinted, many of the issues raised in Chomin’s Discourse are also raised in the novels of the other authors I mentioned above, which simply demonstrates the truth that poets see problems more clearly and sooner than the rest of us. And the fact that these thinkers wrestled so strenuously with real-world concerns that also trouble us in the West is remarkable. They saw, for example, that democracy was inevitable but that in its Western guise it was inextricably bound to free-enterprise capitalism and that the ideas of economic and political freedom would become conflated and at times impossible to separate. In fact, like Chomin’s Gentleman, there are a great many so-called “conservative” thinkers in this country today who still maintain that freedom necessarily entails free-enterprise capitalism, while the stunning example of the Scandinavian countries demonstrates the fact that political freedom can be blended nicely with a socialistic economy. Indeed, recent studies show that the people in those countries are among the happiest on earth.
Thus, the fact that a number of Japanese intellectuals wrestled with what we would like to call Western ideas and, especially, that they worried that the modern age would mark the end of traditional values such as honor and duty and replace them with the pursuit of pleasure and a preoccupation with creature comforts, while at the same time they embraced democratic ideas and worried about the dangers hidden within a materialistic world view, must give us pause. It was, after all, honor that was at the center of humanism in the West at the outset and honor that began to dissolve as capitalism gradually expanded its influence. The hints can be found in both Shakespeare’s plays, especially Julius Caesar, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote where the Don’s sense of honor is made to appear comical if not a bit mad.
But in the end we must note that many of the problems we face are also seriously pondered by people on the other side of the planet. And they seem to be caught up in the same quandaries we are. It is certain that they face the same problems of survival as we do on a planet that is under attack by greed and corruption and populated by increasing numbers of bellicose humans.