Tuesday, November 22, 2016

"I'd like to eat with you and gaze into your eyes while we talk of UFOs"

As anyone who reads this blog already knows, it doesn't take much for me to make obscure connections and go off on a tangent. This week it's the juxtaposition of my reading Pico Iyer's The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto while re-reading Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" after having seen Denis Villeneuve's film, Arrival (based on Chiang's short story).

Iyer and Chiang are often mentioned by the same people (mainly writers), although I've been I've only recently managed to remember to look for Iyer during my forays into Half Price Books. I came across The Lady and the Monk twice, as it happens, not remembering the second time that I already owned an unread copy. The second was, fortunately, a nice hardcover edition and thus much easier to read out of doors, in the garden, during cat-watching time.

Many of us SF fans have only recently discovered Ted Chiang, most likely because he publishes so seldom, and because he doesn't write blockbuster trilogies that run to thousands of pages. Rather, he pens carefully crafted short works. When I found out that his story was the inspiration for Arrival (with its haunting and intriguing trailer), I looked him up online and found a rather wonderful story that reminded me of something out of Arabian Nights, called "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate," which I read while I awaited the copy of his collection, Stories of Your Life and Others.

I'm not sure I'd have thought of recommending "Story of Your Life" to my daughter, despite resonances with our life together that emerged after I'd seen the film with her and re-read the story, but she saw the film before I did and "got" it before I did.  I was more intrigued by the connections between linguistics and physics explored in the story, and actually missed the "twist" that everyone's making a fuss about. Now that I do "get" it, however, and because I'm also reading Iyer's book, I'm somewhat overwhelmed with notions about language and time.

Many years ago, when I was wallowing in what was then a hotbed of controversy over Whorfian linguistics at Penn, I attended a small conference, the focus of which I can't even remember. Since it was job-related, it might have had to do with computers in university administration, but I'm not really sure. At any rate, during a break, after I'd given a short presentation on something or other, a fellow came up to me and asked me, "How old were you when you learned Japanese?" Now, truth be told, I never learned anything more than "baby" Japanese, the language of children I picked up during my year at a classical Japanese dancing school next door to our little shack in Kunitachi--when I was five or six years old. But apparently the combination of having been introduced to basic Japanese language structure along with the pattern-recognition inherent in the dance moves did something to my brain that caused me to bring unlikely topics into odd juxtapositions.

This is apparently what happened at the conference that made that guy ask me that question.  I guess I did tell him a brief history of my acquisition of what little Japanese I had, and would imagine that the dance training may have enhanced what ever brain changing that went on.  My use of the language actually got a boost in Taiwan when I was about ten and could use what I had to get around because all the old guys who drove pedicabs, sold noodles on the street, or conducted buses spoke leftover wartime Japanese. I could well have been a walking advertisement for linguistic relativity and the idea that language (at least in part) structures our cognitive engines.

In "Story of Your Life," the linguist learns the aliens' language, which in turn restructures her experience of time.  And while I'm not sure my baby Japanese has influenced my concept of temporal movement, it most certainly has provided me some insight into how Japanese translate English, especially as Pico Iyer has recorded it in his book--as well as some understanding of why that guy made the connection between quirky associations or metaphors and early experience with Japanese language.

So when I announce (as I often do after watching a Miyazaki film) that the Japanese are quite simply nuts, I mean it lovingly.  They well and truly are--but only if one sees the particular brand of "sanity" that comes out of America as the norm. The title of this post comes from a passage in the "Spring" section of Iyer's book; it's a sign in the window of a coffee shop where he goes to enjoy some melon sorbet. The book, which is an account of four seasons spent in Kyoto where he went to learn about Zen Buddhism (among other things), is stuffed to the covers with the peculiar admixture of East and West he experienced.

As a student of intellectual history and the role language plays in telling the human story, I often find the unexpected in books.  And because my own rather peculiar understanding of time seems to require that I layer my reading so that anywhere from two to ten books overlap at any given moment, I shouldn't be too awfully surprised that the connections between books frequently burrow through those layers.

Although I do think that Denis Villeneuve made a bit of a hash of Chiang's story--especially with all the military bullshit that seems to be part of the Language Of Science Fiction according to movie makers--it's still moving and beautiful and innovative and may do a lot to stir interest in linguistics and (to a much lesser extent) physics. In a nation where citizens seem to be getting less and less knowledgeable about maths, science, and even language, it really is a pleasure to see a smart movie about smart people who solve problems without blowing stuff up.

Perhaps the fact that WWII did so much mutual damage to both countries is both the cause and the effect of the oddity we perceive about their understanding of the world. Anybody who wonders at the mania for anime and manga and Hello Kitty over here should read Pico Iyer's book for a thoughtful account of the Japanese fascination for Western--and particularly American--culture. Ambitious Japanese children learn English almost as a matter of course. If American kids who are learning Japanese today manage to reshape their brains as a result of their engagement with a radically different world view, I can only see the result as positive.

Image credit: A 1930s-era travel poster, "Come to Tokyo," from the Library of Congress's Online Prints and Photographs collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

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