Category Archives: literature

Finding Classics in Other Alphabets

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 81-83:

Arabic dictionaries also used nonalphabetical methods of organizing. The Mukhaṣṣaṣ, or The Categorized, by Ibn Sīda (d. 1066), was divided, as its title states, by subject or topic, beginning with human nature and continuing on to physiology, psychology, women, clothes, food, and weapons. Al-Khalīl Ibn Aḥmad (d. 791), in his Kitāb al-‘ain, The Book of [the Letter] ‘Ain, used sounds to organize his work: he listed entries in an order of his own, where each sound group was followed by subcategories based on how many consonants a word contained. …

These mainly nonalphabetical developments contrasted with the works of Hebrew scholars, who tended toward alphabetical order simultaneously with (and occasionally a little ahead of) their Christian contemporaries. At the end of the eleventh century, Nathan ben Jehiel (c. 1035–c. 1110) produced his Sefer ha’Arukh, The Set Book. Ben Jehiel, who had been born in Rome, spoke Arabic, Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Persian, and Syriac, and he drew on his knowledge of these languages to produce an alphabetically ordered book of root words occurring in rabbinic literature. It became one of the best-known dictionaries of its type—more than fifty copies survive—as well as being one of the first Hebrew books to be printed, in Rome sometime before 1472.

Many of these works, both in Arabic and Hebrew, and the scholarship that had produced them, became accessible to scholars in Western Europe for the first time as these languages began to be more widely translated into Latin. … That so many of these works returned to the West via Arabic was significant, for earlier Arab scholars had frequently added substantially to the originals, including details of their own work, which was far in advance of much of Western thought at the time.

The Western rediscovery of the classics had two results, one somewhat abstract, one concrete. More generally, the awareness of how many great works had been entirely unknown before the lifetimes of these new readers, and of how many more had been permanently lost, produced a sense that the current generation needed to ensure that this recaptured knowledge, as well as all the works produced under its influence, were preserved for future generations. Further, it created a drive to ensure that the details contained in all these new works could be found easily—in other words, readers wanted not merely to read the books, but to refer to them: they wanted search tools.

These recently translated manuscripts also brought to the West other elements that are crucial for our story. Educated European readers now became increasingly familiar with foreign alphabets. In Italy and France in particular, Hebrew had routinely been transliterated into the roman alphabet when manuscripts were copied; in the rest of Europe, the Greek alphabet had sometimes been used, but less and less as time went on. In Europe, apart from Spain, where Arabic was in common use, Arabic too had been almost always transliterated into the roman alphabet. By contrast, some in the British Isles were familiar with Old English runes, known as futhorc, or with the Irish writing system known as Ogham. Many more would have recognized, and used in conjunction with the roman alphabet, the Old English runic letters such as thorn (Þ, þ) and wynn (Ρ, ρ). For these reasons, “foreign”-looking letters were more familiar and less unnerving in the British Isles, and so Latin and Hebrew letters were both used, as they were from the ninth century in Germany, a regular destination for highly educated monks from Ireland and Britain.

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Evolution of Early Glossaries

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 55-57:

In Europe, Isidore’s innovative use of alphabetical order to organize his work on vocabulary was instead proving influential in a parallel genre: glosses. Glosses had originally appeared in the manuscripts they were glossing, where they explained the meanings of difficult words in Latin or translated foreign words. In both cases, the gloss was written either above the relevant word or beside it, in the margin. Later, sometimes for clarity, sometimes to preserve a valuable manuscript, glosses began to be written out as a separate document, initially continuing to list the words in the order in which they appeared in the primary text, so tying a gloss to a single work, or even, because of the reshaping and reordering that we have seen in copied manuscripts, to one particular copy of a work. Gradually, however, the utility of a gloss that included vocabulary from more than one work became apparent, even if it meant it was no longer practicable to list the words in order of appearance.

And so experiments began with different ordering systems. One possibility was alphabetical order. Another was subject categories, particularly for glosses of technical vocabulary, grouping together words relating to hunting, for example, or words for military fortifications or for parts of the body. Other glosses relied on organizing principles that are far more foreign to us today. The Læcboc, or Medicinale anglicum, The Leech Book, or English Remedies, written in Old English around 950, was arranged, as were many medical texts of the period, with diseases and cures situated along the human body a capite ad calcem, from head to heel. In the Byzantine Empire, texts were generally organized by subject, sometimes geographically, or by name. Only the Suda, a Byzantine encyclopedic dictionary dating from the late tenth century, was an alphabetical compilation, magisterially ordering thirty-one thousand historical, biographical, and lexicographical entries into a single alphabetical order. But it was an outlier, both in Byzantium and in Western Europe too at that date.

Glosses, owing their existence to readers’ difficulties with Latin, were more common in countries where the local language had no etymological connection with Latin. Native English, or German, or Flemish readers had greater need of assistance with Latin vocabulary than did French or Italian or Spanish readers, and so it follows that some of the earliest glosses we know of, from the seventh and eighth centuries, were produced by English and Irish speakers. The Leiden Glossary was probably compiled in St. Gallen, but by someone who, judging from the English translations, probably came from what is now Kent, in England. He translated the Latin vocabulary into either Old English or Old High German, and arranged the entries, at least in part, in first-letter alphabetical order. By the eighth century one glossary, which defined nearly five thousand Latin words, ordered just under two thousand of them into fairly consistent first-letter alphabetical order. One extraordinary copy of another glossary, the Liber glossarum, The Book of Glosses, which may have been produced at a convent at Soissons and was based in part on Isidore’s Etymologies, was in almost absolute order, one of the very earliest examples.

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Impressions of Yale, Early 1960s

From Eat Your Heart Out, Ho Chi Minh: Or Things You Won’t Learn at Yale, by Tony Thompson (BookSurge, 2012), Kindle pp. 26-28:

The required academic work was dreary. Having to write twee little essays for English courses about John Donne’s imagery made me want to smash things. Or to puke. Raising the level of the world’s drivel barometer is demoralizing. Ruining a youthful love of poetry is worse. “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?”

Like my classmates, I wrote essays by the yard. Writing about great villains in novels or who won the Franco-Prussian War was less of a trial than writing about poetry. Also, learning to produce reams of more or less coherent written material about something totally boring and meaningless is good training for would-be lawyers or indeed for anyone who is lucky enough to land a writing job that bills by the column inch.

A few teachers inspired me. Like many ex-prep school students, I had been spoiled at Deerfield by excellent teaching and attentive teachers. At Yale, I quickly recognized that teaching undergraduates wasn’t the point of the institution and that my resentful attitude in the face of great learning and scholarship was childish. Still, I couldn’t help warming to the few professors who tried, however vaguely, to match undergraduate names to faces.

I adored Professor Gordon Haight who taught the Victorian English novel and was the world’s greatest expert on George Elliot. Professor Haight had been one of my father’s teachers, and I had known him as a small child. Academically, Professor Haight was a holdover from Yale’s former tradition of a broad historical approach to the study of literature. This appealed to me. I could never see the point of separating the life and times of John Milton from the poetry of John Milton. At least Milton’s life and times were interesting.

One escape hatch from the required courses in the embalmed world of English literature was accidentally discovering V. by Thomas Pynchon. I added Pynchon to the short list of fiction writers like Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse whose style and attitude speak loudly to me. I must have read V. five times during my first two years at Yale.

Obviously, there were courses that didn’t involve writing reams of drivel or sitting through interminable lectures. Being formally introduced to economics and philosophy was stimulating, regardless of the teaching. And the younger professors didn’t all use the droning, dismal lecture-hall approach. Some showed actual flashes of interest in teaching undergraduates.

I was fortunate to be taught introductory economics by Jan Tumlir, a Czech refugee from Communism. Doing hard labor in the Czech uranium mines after the postwar Communist takeover had wrecked the professor’s health. Without making any specific comments about his experience of Communism, he was a living argument against the collectivist policies believed in, or at least advocated, by so many of the Yale professoriate.

Instead, Professor Tumlir cherished nineteenth-century economic liberalism and ideals like free trade and free markets. He taught us about Ricardo, the great English economist who first stated the law of comparative advantage. Professor Tumlir later became head of economics at GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and predecessor to the current World Trade Organization, but died far too young.

Overall, though, Yale in the early 1960s offered the worst teaching I’ve ever experienced. The benighted, God-stuffed, over-long rambling sermons in the First Church of Deerfield were delivered better and with more conviction. Semi-literate army sergeants proved to be far better teachers, as did even the idlest Oxford dons. And Stanford Business School didn’t give tenure to anyone who received consistently poor student evaluations for teaching.


Filed under economics, education, literature, military, philosophy, scholarship, U.S.

1857: Uprising as Class Warfare

From The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple (Knopf Doubleday, 2006), Kindle pp. 154-155:

Whatever its causes, the response to the Uprising fractured along distinct class lines. From the morning of 11 May onwards, the most enthusiastic insurgents among the people of Delhi were the workmen of the lower middle class—especially the Muslim weavers and textile merchants—and the same Punjabi Muslim manufacturing and merchant class who had long supported the mujahedin movement. It was these people who immediately swelled the ranks of the initially very small number of sepoys who had arrived in the Mughal capital, creating a panic and allowing many of the poorer Delhiwallahs to set off on an orgy of looting.

In contrast, the Delhi elite, both Hindu and Muslim, remained divided on the merits of joining the Uprising, and were from the start dubious about playing host to large numbers of desperate and violent sepoys from the east of Hindustan. According to one angry eyewitness, the nobleman Abdul Latif: “The teachings of all religions were ignored and violated; even the poor women and children were not spared. The elite and the respected gentry of the city were appalled at the actions [of the insurgents] and were seen pleading with them. Ah! An entire world was destroyed, and as a result of these sins this city was struck down by the evil-eye.” Ghalib was also quite clear that he didn’t like the look of what was happening: “Swarming through the open gates of Delhi, the intoxicated horsemen and rough foot soldiers ravished the city,” he wrote. …

For Ghalib, the Uprising was more about the rise of the rabble of the lower classes than it was about the fall of the British. For him the most terrifying aspect of the revolution was the way his own courtly elite seemed to have lost control to a group of ill-educated ruffians of dubious ancestry: “Noble men and great scholars have fallen from power,” he wrote,

and nameless men with neither name nor pedigree nor jewels nor gold, now have prestige and unlimited riches. One who wandered dust-stained through the streets as if blown by an idle wind, has proclaimed the wind his slave … In its shamelessness the rabble, sword in hand, rallied to one group after another. Throughout the day the rebels looted the city, and at night they slept in silken beds … The city of Delhi was emptied of its rulers and peopled instead by creatures of the Lord who accepted no lord—as if it were a garden without a gardener, and full of fruitless trees … The Emperor was powerless to repulse them; their forces gathered around him, and he fell under their duress, engulfed by them as the moon is engulfed by the eclipse.

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Persian Poets Favored in the West

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2305-16:

Every hundred years or so, the reading public in the West discovers another of these Persian poets. In 1800 it was Hafez, in 1900 Omar Khayyam, in 2000 it is Rumi. The choice depends not so much on the merits or true nature of the poets or their poetry, but more on their capacity to be interpreted in accordance with passing Western literary and cultural fashions. So Hafez was interpreted to fit with the mood of Romanticism, Omar Khayyam with the aesthetic movement, and it has been Rumi’s misfortune to be befriended by numb-brained New Agery. Of course, an attentive and imaginative reader can avoid the solipsistic trap, especially if he or she can read even a little Persian. But the mirror of language and translation means that the reader may see only a hazy but consoling reflection of himself and his times, rather than looking into the true depths of the poetry—which might be more unsettling.

On the surface, the religion of love of these Sufi poets from eight hundred years ago might seem rather distant and archaic. That is belied less by the burgeoning popularity of Rumi and Attar than by the deeper message of these poets. Darwinists who, like Richard Dawkins, believe Darwinism ineluctably entails atheism might be upset by the idea, but what could be more appropriate to an intellectual world that has abandoned creationism for evolution theory than a religion of love? Darwinism and evolutionary theory have demonstrated the intense focus of all life on the act of reproduction, the act of love. The spirit of that act and the drive behind it are the spirit of life itself.

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Reassessing Ferdinand and Isabella’s Legacy

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 2181-2234:

The reign of Ferdinand and Isabella was called by Prescott ‘the most glorious epoch in the annals’ of Spain. Generations of Spaniards, contrasting their own times with those of the Catholic Kings, would look back upon them as the golden age of Castile. The conquest of Granada, the discovery of America, and the triumphant emergence of Spain on to the European political stage lent unparalleled lustre to the new State created by the Union of the Crowns, and set the seal of success on the political, religious, and economic reforms of the royal couple.

Against the conventional picture of a glorious spring-time under Ferdinand and Isabella, too soon to be turned to winter by the folly of their successors, there must, however, be set some of the less happy features of their reign. They had united two Crowns, but had not even tentatively embarked on the much more arduous task of uniting two peoples. They had destroyed the political power of the great nobility, but left its economic and social influence untouched. They had reorganized the Castilian economy, but at the price of reinforcing the system of latifundios and the predominance of grazing over tillage. They had introduced into Castile certain Aragonese economic institutions, monopolistic in spirit, while failing to bring the Castilian and Aragonese economies any closer together. They had restored order in Castile, but in the process had overthrown the fragile barriers that stood in the way of absolutism. They had reformed the Church, but set up the Inquisition. And they had expelled one of the most dynamic and resourceful sections of the community – the Jews. All this must darken a picture that is often painted excessively bright.

Yet nothing can alter the fact that Ferdinand and Isabella created Spain; that in their reign it acquired both an international existence and – under the impulse given by the creative exuberance of the Castilians and the organizing capacity of the Aragonese – the beginnings of a corporate identity. Out of their long experience, the Aragonese could provide the administrative methods which would give the new monarchy an institutional form. The Castilians, for their part, were to provide the dynamism which would impel the new State forward; and it was this dynamism which gave the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella its distinguishing character. The Spain of the Catholic Kings is essentially Castile: a Castile, overflowing with creative energy, which seemed suddenly to have discovered itself.

The Court was the natural center of Castile’s cultural life; and since Spain still had no fixed capital it was a Court on the move, bringing new ideas and influences from one town to another as it travelled round the country. Since Isabella enjoyed a European reputation for her patronage of learning, she was able to attract to the Court distinguished foreign scholars like the Milanese Pietro Martire, the director of the palace school. Frequented by foreign scholars and by Spaniards who had returned from studying in Italy, the Court thus became an outpost of the new humanism, which was now beginning to establish itself in Spain.

One of the devotees of the new learning was Elio Antonio de Nebrija (1444–1522), who returned home from Italy in 1473 – the year in which printing was introduced into Spain. Nebrija, who held the post of historiographer royal, was a grammarian and lexicographer, and an editor of classical texts in the best humanist tradition. But his interests, like those of many humanists, extended also to the vernacular, and he published in 1492 a Castilian grammar – the first grammar to be compiled of a modern European language. ‘What is it for?’ asked Isabella when it was presented to her. ‘Your Majesty,’ replied the Bishop of Avila on Nebrija’s behalf, ‘language is the perfect instrument of empire.’

The Bishop’s reply was prophetic. One of the secrets of Castilian domination of the Spanish Monarchy in the sixteenth century was to be found in the triumph of its language and culture over that of other parts of the peninsula and empire. The cultural and linguistic success of the Castilians was no doubt facilitated by the decline of Catalan culture in the sixteenth century, as it was also facilitated by the advantageous position of Castilian as the language of Court and bureaucracy. But, in the last analysis, Castile’s cultural predominance derived from the innate vitality of its literature and language at the end of the fifteenth century. The language of the greatest work produced in the Castile of the Catholic Kings, the Celestina of the converso Fernando de Rojas, is at once vigorous, flexible, and authoritative: a language that was indeed ‘the perfect instrument of empire’.

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Late Demise of Classical Chinese in Vietnam

From A Story of Vietnam, by Truong Buu Lam (Outskirts, 2010), Kindle Loc. 2744-2761:

The cultural changes of the period under study [1900-1925] are dominated by one phenomenon: the replacement of classical Chinese by quoc ngu [国語 national language] as the official national writing system of Vietnam. The French, already from the beginning of their administration of Vietnam, had encouraged the use of that script to replace the Chinese characters. In their view, that was the most effective way to wean the Vietnamese from China’s multi-millenary cultural influence. Little did they anticipate that the Vietnamese were going to use the quoc ngu to mobilize the country against them.

It was, however, only toward the beginning of the 1920s that the Vietnamese warmed up to it and used it readily in their every day activities. In the early years of the twentieth century, Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chau Trinh still wrote all their works in classical Chinese. Even in 1924, in Paris, Phan Chau Trinh composed his many letters asking the French minister of Colonies to allow him to go home in the purest style of classical Chinese. The Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc [東京義塾 Eastern Capital Free School, named for Fukuzawa Yukichi’s Tokyo Gijuku (later Keio)] published their classic material in Chinese. The proclamation of the Thai Nguyen mutiny was written in Chinese. Classical Chinese survived at least to the middle of the century for two reasons. The last Confucian examinations were held only in 1918 in Hue, and the royal court of Annam will continue to use Chinese in its official documents until 1945, naturally with a great deal of translations into quoc ngu and French, for, to my knowledge, the last Vietnamese emperor had an exclusively French education.

Although sponsored by the French Security Services, the magazine Nam Phong [南風 South Wind] contributed in an important measure to the vernacularization and to the enrichment of the national script. To some extent, Nam Phong did almost exactly what the Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc dreamt of doing a decade earlier. It translated a vast variety of books or articles in philosophy, in natural and human sciences written mostly in French into quoc ngu. Thus, it introduced foreign cultures and sciences to the Vietnamese people while encouraging them to use a medium which is scientific and rich enough to express their ideas. From the 1920s, newspapers, publishing houses mushroomed and put out an impressive number of books in literature, poetry, sociology, political, social, and natural sciences, all written in the national script. A definite break with the Chinese or nom tradition has been imperceptibly effected and new generations will only deal with the alphabetical writing system.

Here are some examples of Vietnamese renditions of Classical Chinese.

Tien hoc le, hau hoc van
(先学理後学文 xian xue li, hou xue wen)
‘First learn rites, then learn culture’

Thien Tu Van (千字文) ‘Thousand Character Classic
Tam Tu Kinh (三字经) ‘Three Character Classic

Four Books and Five Classics (of Confucius)
Đại Học (大學 Dà Xué) Great Learning
Trung Dung (中庸 Zhōng Yóng) Doctrine of the Mean
Luận Ngữ (論語 Lùn Yǔ) Analects
Mạnh Tử (孟子 Mèng Zǐ) Mencius

Kinh Thi (詩經 Shī Jīng) Classic of Poetry
Kinh Thư (書經 Shū Jīng) Classic of History
Kinh Lễ (禮記 Lǐ Jì) Book of Rites
Kinh Dịch (易經 Yì Jīng) Classic of Changes
Xuân Thu (春秋 Chūnqiū) Spring and Autumn Annals


Filed under China, democracy, education, France, language, literature, nationalism, Vietnam

Edo-period Sinophilia & Hollandophilia

From Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600–1868, by Nishiyama Matsunosuke, trans. and ed. by Gerald Groemer (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), pp. 13-14:

There is yet another reason why Edo-period culture has not been properly appreciated: the influence of Chinese culture has not yet been properly understood. During the Edo period Chinese culture was highly venerated. Its deep and lasting influence was important, not just for Japanese Confucianism and Confucian scholarship, but for a whole range of other pursuits as well. The effect of Chinese poetry and literature, or of Ming and Qing dynasty art and scholarship, can hardly be overestimated. For example, the book Tianxia yitong zhi (Records of All the World) greatly influenced the fudoki (gazetteers) produced throughout Japan. This volume was published as Dai Min ittō-shi (Records of the Ming Dynasty) at the beginning of the Genroku era (1688–1704) by a warrior from the Wakayama domain. Similarly, the volumes Gai yu congkao (Gaiyō sōkō in Japanese) by ZhaoYi (1727–1814) were also profoundly influential. The respect for things Chinese lasted until the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), but thereafter the fact that Chinese culture had once been of great importance faded from memory.

Similarly, “Dutch learning” (that is, Western learning, rangaku) was also highly important during the Edo period. Over one hundred times throughout the Edo period, the chief of the Dutch settlement at Dejima in Nagasaki came to Edo to receive an audience and present gifts to the shogun. For some twenty or thirty days during the spring, the chief and his retinue stayed at the Nagasaki-ya, a lodge at Hongoku-chō. From around the middle of the Edo period, a number of cultured individuals made use of these few weeks to engage in unfettered cultural exchange widi the Dutch. Japanese were strictly forbidden to enter the Dutch outpost of Dejima in Nagasaki, but within Edo much free activity was possible. After the Meiji Restoration, however, the diplomatic relations maintained by the Tokugawa bakufu with the Dutch were overshadowed by the Meiji government’s policy of strengthening ties with England, France, Germany, and the United States. In turn, much that concerned rangaku was forgotten. Although cultural exchange with the Dutch was once of great significance, its conditions and historical role have only recently begun to receive scholarly attention. Such examples show that Edo-period culture demands reevaluation. The type of historical perspective suggested here should begin to make a correct appraisal possible.

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The Strength of Edo-period Culture

From Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600–1868, by Nishiyama Matsunosuke, trans. and ed. by Gerald Groemer (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), pp. 8-9:

The strength of Edo-period culture is not to be found in extant artifacts of the era. Rather, its strength lies chiefly in its spectacular breadth and diversity. This was a period of unprecedented cultural prosperity. Even the general public took part in leisure pursuits and played an active role in the creation of new cultural forms. The average commoner read books or visited the theater; some even wrote haiku verses and senryū (seventeen-syllable comic verse) or performed musical genres such as gidayū, kato bushi, shinnai, or nagauta. Others went on pilgrimages sponsored by religious associations (kō) and toured distant places. The Edo period saw a rise in the quality of culinary fare that commoners consumed; clothing and housing too showed marked improvement. Even the poor managed occasionally to indulge in the luxury of purchasing a “custom-made” comb or an ornamental hairpin. The demand for such cultural items fostered the development of a highly refined handicraft industry. Never before had there been such an extraordinary variety of hand-made cultural artifacts in Japan.

Even in remote areas in the countryside or on distant, isolated islands, inhabitants cultivated rare varieties of flowers and trees and marketed unusual rocks or curiosities. As Suzuki Bokushi (1770-1842) noted in his Akiyama kikō (Autumn Mountain Travelogue, 1831), people in every corner of the land were busy manufacturing local specialties. Such articles were being produced, one by one, by thirty million people. By the late Edo period this activity had stimulated an unprecedented development of the transportation network. Mountain roads, waterways, and sea routes were extended in all directions to every nook and cranny of the country. Indeed, the construction of footpaths during the late Edo period can be seen as a kind of symbol of this golden age of handicraft culture.

No doubt, Japan today boasts a high level of culture. But the price has been high as well: severe environmental pollution and the wholesale destruction of nature. Until the end of the Edo period, red-crested cranes could still be seen soaring through the skies over the city; swans and geese flocked to Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park. Foxes and badgers were found everywhere, and cuckoos (hototogisu) flourished in such numbers that their song was considered a nuisance. Even during the late Meiji period the water of the Sumida River was clean enough to be used for brewing tea while boating. Human activity imparted only minimal damage to nature. Viewed in this way, Edo-period culture seems almost ideal.

Certain elements of the Edo-period cultural heritage were vulgar, no doubt, but a more comprehensive view of the period reveals an almost infinite number of admirable qualities. Nevertheless, after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, governmental policies of modernization and westernization dictated a wholesale rejection of the preceding feudal era. Even the best elements of Edo-period culture were deemed outdated and vulgar and were thought to require prompt and thorough extirpation. That the true value of Edo-period culture could not yet be properly assessed had much to do with the lack of any inquiry into its origins and actual conditions. Recent research, however, has shown that Edo-period culture was outstanding in its own way and not at all inferior to the culture of earlier or later periods.

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Herta Müller on Securitate Spies and Friends

On 31 August 2008, before the announcement of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature, published an excerpt from Herta Müller‘s latest novel, “Everything I Own I Carry With Me” (“Atemschaukel”). Here’s an excerpt from the excerpt that captures the ambiguities of close friendships in police states, at least judging from our own experience in Romania in 1983-84.

The three years at the tractor factory Tehnometal where I was a translator are missing [from my Securitate file]. I translated the manuals for machines imported from the GDR, Austria and Switzerland. For two years I sat with four bookkeepers in the office. They worked out the wages of the workers, I turned the pages of my fat technical dictionaries. I didn’t understand the first thing about hydraulic or non-hydraulic presses, levers or gauges. When the dictionary offered three, four, or even seven terms, I went out onto the factory floor and asked the workers. They told me the correct Romanian word without any knowledge of German – they knew their machines. In the third year a “protocol office” was established. The company director moved me there to work alongside two newly employed translators, one from French, the other from English. One was the wife of a university professor who, even in my student days, was said to be a Securitate informant. The other was the daughter-in-law of the second most senior secret service officer in town. Only those two had the key to the file cupboard. When foreign professionals visited, I had to leave the office. Then, apparently, I was to be put through two recruitment tests with the secret police officer Stana, to be made suitable for the office. After my second refusal, his goodbye was: “You’ll be sorry, we’ll drown you in the river.”

One morning when I turned up for work, my dictionaries were lying on the floor outside the office door. My place had been taken by an engineer, and I was no longer allowed into the office. I couldn’t go home, they would have sacked me there and then. Now I had no table, no chair. For two days, I defiantly sat my eight hours with the dictionaries on a concrete staircase that joined the ground and first floors, trying to translate so that no one could say I wasn’t working. The office staff walked past me in silence. My friend Jenny, an engineer, knew about what was happening to me. Every day on our way home I explained it to her in detail. She came to me in the lunch break and sat down on the stairs. We ate together as we had done before in my office. Over the loudspeaker in the yard we could always hear the workers’ choruses about the happiness of the people. She ate and cried for me, I didn’t. I had to be strong.

On the third day I installed myself at Jenny’s desk, she cleared a corner for me. On the fourth day too. It was a large office. On the fifth morning she was waiting for me outside the door. “I am no longer allowed to let you in the office. Just think, my colleagues say you are a spy. ” “How’s that possible,” I asked. “But you know where we’re living,” she reasoned. I took my dictionaries and sat down on the stairs again. This time I cried too. When I went out onto the factory floor to ask about a word, the workers whistled after me and shouted: “Informer”. It was a witches’ cauldron. How many spies were there in Jenny’s office and on the shop floor. They were acting on instructions. There were orders from above to attack me, the slander was meant to force me to resign. At the beginning of these turbulent times my father died. I no longer had a grip on things, I had to reassure myself that I really existed in the world, and began to write down the story of my – these writings formed the basis of the short stories in “Nadirs”.

The fact that I was now considered a spy because I had refused to become one was worse than the attempt to recruit me and the death threat. I was being slandered by precisely the people that I was protecting by refusing to spy on them. Jenny and a handful of colleagues could see the games that were being played with me. But those who knew me less well could not. How could I have explained to them what was going on, how could I have proved the opposite. It was completely impossible, as the Securitate knew only too well, and that is exactly why they did it to me. They knew, too, that such perfidy would be far more destructive than any blackmail. You can even get used to death threats. They are part and parcel of this one life we have. You can defy anxiety to the depths of your soul. But slander steals your soul. You just feel surrounded by horror.

How long this situation lasted, I no longer know. It seemed endless to me. It was probably just weeks. Finally, I was sacked….

My file at least answered one painful question. A year after my departure from Romania, Jenny came to visit in Berlin. Since the time of the harassment in the factory she had been my closest friend. Even after I was sacked we saw each other almost daily. But when I saw her passport in our Berlin kitchen, and the additional visas for France and Greece, I confronted her directly: “You don’t get a passport like that for nothing, what did you do to get it?” Her answer: “The secret service has sent me, and I was desperate to see you again.” Jenny had cancer – she is long dead now. She told me that her task was to investigate our flat and our daily habits. When we get up and go to bed, where we do our shopping and what we buy. On her return, she promised, she would only pass on what had been agreed between us. She lived with us, wanted to stay for a month. With each day my distrust grew. After just a couple of days I rummaged through her suitcase and found the telephone number of the Romanian consulate and a copy of our door key. After that I lived with the suspicion that in all probability she had been spying on me from the outset, her friendship just part of the job. After her return, I see from the file, she delivered a detailed description of the flat and of our habits, as “SURSA (source) SANDA”.

But in a bugging protocol from 21 December, 1984, a note in the margin, next to Jenny’s name, reads: “We must identify JENI, apparently there is great trust between them.” This friendship, which meant so much to me, was ruined by her visit to Berlin, a terminally ill cancer patient lured into betrayal after chemotherapy. The copied key made it clear that Jenny had fulfilled her task behind our backs. I had to ask her to leave our Berlin flat at once. I had to chase my closest friend out in order to protect myself and Richard Wagner from her assignment. This tangle of love and betrayal was unavoidable. A thousand times I have turned her visit over in my mind, mourned our friendship, discovering to my disbelief that after my emigration, Jenny had a relationship with a Securitate officer. Today I am glad, for the file shows that our intimacy had grown naturally and had not been arranged by the secret service, and that Jenny didn’t spy on me until after my emigration. You become grateful for small mercies, trawling through all the poison for a part that isn’t contaminated, however small. That my file proves that the feelings between us were real, almost makes me happy now.

via Arts & Letters Daily

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