All entries for Monday 10 July 2006

July 10, 2006

Time and the self

We have dreams moving back and forward in time, though to use the words back and forward is to make a nonsense of the dream, for it implies that time is linear, and if that were so there could be no movement, only a forward progression. But we do not move through time, time moves through us. I say this because our physical bodies have a natural decay span, they are one–use–only units that crumble around us. To everyone, this is a surprise. We see it in parents and our friends and we are always amazed to see it in ourselves. The most prosaic of us betray a belief in the inward life every time we talk about ‘my body’ rather than ‘I’. We feel it as absolutely part not at all part of who we are. Language always betrays us, tells the truth when we want to lie, and dissolves into formlessness when we would most like to be precise.

Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry (London: Vintage Press, 1990) p. 90

An Artist of the Floating World

2 out of 5 stars

Last week I finished reading Ishiguro’s novel, An Artist of the Floating World. Set in Japan in the late 1940’s, it is ostensibly about the rebuilding of a shattered city and the shift in the sensibilities of its main characters. However, what makes it powerful and emotionally affecting is the emphasis it places on the development of an individual through time and the astute meditations it offers on the political importance of art.

The story is narrated by retired artist, Masuji Ono. Once a successful and affluent painter in a prosperous city, he struggles to come to terms with the political implications of his artistic project. His tensions are heightened as he enters into marriage negotiations for his youngest daughter and attempts to offer answers about his past that satisfy his inquisitive grandson.

The complications implicit in offering a straightford narrative of a past life is acknowledged towards the start of the novel when, after recounting a conversation he’d had, Ono claims:

These, of course, may not have been the precise words I used that afternoon at the Tamagawa temple; for I have had cause to recount this particular scene many times before, and it is inevitable that with repeated telling, such accounts begin to take on a life of their own. But even if I did not express myself to the Tortoise quite so succinctly that day, I think it can be assumed these words I have just attributed to myself do represent accurately enough my attitude and resolve at that point in my life.

The idea that ‘with repeated telling’ events or conversations once experienced ‘take on a life of their own’ is a fascinating one and one Ono often comes back to as he reflects back over a life packed full of various experiences. His emphasis on the importance of his emotions at certain points in his artistic career is also something that he repeats and uses as a foundation on which to build various narratives.

As I stated earlier, many attitudes to the significance of art and artists are revealed throughout the novel. I’ve listed a few below:

'I…was a man of some influence, who used that influence towards a disastrous end. Brave young men died for stupid reasons, but the real culprits are still with us. Artists are the only ones who care now, not army officers, politicians or businessman.' (Ono)

'Artists are on the whole an astonishingly decadent crowd often with no more than a child's knowledge of the affairs of this world.' (Ono)

‘And if there’s one thing I’ve tried to encourage you all to do, it’s been to rise above the sway of things. To rise above the undesirable and decadent influences that have swamped us and have done so much to weaken the fibre of out nation.’ (Ono to his art students)

'Artists live in squalor and poverty. They inhabit a world which gives them every temptation to become weak–willed and depraved.' (Ono’s Father)

‘It is perhaps important to see things in a proper perspective. Father painted some splendid pictures, and was no doubt most influential amongst other such painters. But Father’s work had hardly to do with these larger matters of which we are speaking. Father was simply a painter.’ (Setsuko)

July 2006

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