Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Cultivating the absurd

sausage gloves
I know I've told the story a hundred times about my discovery of the importance of cultivating an appreciation of the absurd, but my friend Jason just provided a context for telling it again where it makes real sense.  He just sent me a link to two articles - one on "sausage gloves," the other on the latest Japanese fad of dressing like twins.

When I went to live in Japan for the first time in 1970 I had the rudest form of culture shock.  It wasn't a passing thing, like you get when you travel across the world as a tourist, or maybe a student.  It was huge.  Overwhelming. It went on and on.

Finally, after maybe about a year, a friend took me aside and said to me, "You know what your trouble is?  You've never cultivated your appreciation of the absurd."

It was an instant fix.  Like flipping a switch and flooding the room with light.

The next day I went out into the world looking for the absurd.   I found it all over the place.  It became a game to me, like the one we used to play as kids on long car trips, looking for out-of-state license plates.  "Look at that.  That's absurd!" I'd say to myself and give myself a little chuckle.  Now why did I ever find those things annoying, I began to ask myself.

Japan is an absurd place.  I'm convinced it's not just a question of cultural difference, or my lack of familiarity with customs and all that.  I think it is a genuinely absurd place, that people do things out of an appreciation of the absurdity of life.  There is no requirement to make sense.  

You can hop onto a cause or a practice - totally arbitrarily - and proclaim for all the world that you have decided to devote your life to collecting old bicycle seats, for example.   People all over the world collect things like dolls, things that have whimsy or cuteness and make you smile. But nobody collects oddball stuff like the Japanese.  While the rest of the world sends its kids to piano lessons, the Japanese do too.  But those same kids are likely to have an insect collection.

One of my colleagues in Japan memorized details of the world's subways and had an encyclopedic knowledge of things like track gauges in different countries, horsepower of locomotives, etc. etc. You could just say he was a little boy who never grew up, but in all other ways he was a fully mature man. Another colleague was married to an accredited artist who had a job at a major university.  He carved owls.  Only owls.  Hundreds and hundreds of little owls.

When my friend Jerry came to Japan, he was immediately struck by what he called "weird juxtapositions."  He had never seen anybody anywhere put things together that were put together in Japan, starting with the beautiful alongside the ugly.  Again, you could reduce it to simple cultural difference.  But when you look at some of these things up close you have to ask yourself, do they look like something the Italians might produce?  The Russians?  The Brazilians?
That time of learning an appreciation of absurdity was a life-changer for me.  It made it possible for me to not only come to terms with Japan, but to make it my home and love it forever.  And the cultivation of absurdity got me through hard times outside of Japan, as well.

It should not be necessary to add (but I think it is) that I’m not saying I’ve captured the essence of Japanese culture, or anything like that.  Working in academia, as I did, with language and culture, I was faced daily with a large number of students who tried to simplify complexity by lumping everybody from Nation A into one culture with a set of unique characteristics and everybody from Nation B into another – (“You Americans are individualists; we Japanese are collectivists”) and that led me to bang on about how much diversity there was in all cultural spaces, Japan’s as well as anybody else’s.  Japan, I used to say, is a civilization.  Much bigger than a single culture, and generalizations obscure as much as they clarify.

Furthermore, this love of things absurd is probably no different from a love of fads.  Japanese use the English word “boom” to mark the latest fad or fashion.  Substitute the word style and you turn it into a positive.  And this absurdist fascination with things simultaneously silly and practical - boom, or whatever you want to call it, can be traced to a single man, Kenji Kawakami, who made a name for himself in the 1980s with his book of chindogu  (珍道具), which simply means “rare (unusual) tools”.  The English version came out in 1995 as The Big Bento Box of Unuseless Japanese Inventions (W. W. Norton & Co.)  Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (not necessarily an absurd name), the editor who wrote the foreword to the English version, described chindogu as both real and surreal...
...full of stimulating contradictions.  They are at once gentle and subversive, anarchic and mundane, ingenious and stupid.  Are they art?  It probably doesn't matter.  But it definitely matters that it probably doesn't matter.
The question is how enduring is this phenomenon.  Is it just a passing fad?  Is Kawakami nothing more than an original thinker?  Or is he tapping into a cultural phenomenon on some level?  I have the impression it’s more of a long-term characteristic than a short-term fascination, but I have no evidence to back that up, outside of having lived for so long in Japan with things that make no sense to me.

And no sooner have I put this Japanese fascination with the absurd to bed, than it pops up again, like that link to sausage gloves and latest habit of dressing like twins.  (And yes, I did note in the commentary that people claim this is nothing new and can be found in the U.S. as well.) That's a point well taken.  And yet...

In digging around for counterarguments to my suggestion that Japan and absurdity have an unusually close relationship, I came up with a website offering a “fart catcher” for the low low price of $9.99.  Call now – 1-800-544-FART – for a product which disguises your farts with lemon or other pleasant flavors.  There.  See?  Americans are good at absurdity too!  But a closer look revealed that this invention was inspired by Kawakami and is the result of something called “The Chindogu Project.  

A trivial matter, all things considered.  But a whole lot easier on the nervous system, it seems to me, than focusing on the American absurdity of electing a president who takes your country to war, kills millions, wastes trillions, and gets to retire and build a presidential library instead of rotting in jail.

I’ll take the Japanese absurdities any day.

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