Thursday, September 25, 2014

Time's Arrow in Literary Space: Irreversibility on Three Scales

Here's a not-so-old post from The Valve (March 2010) on a topic that fascinates me. I first published it on New Savanna on June 6, 2011. I'm  bumping it to the top of the pile because it resonates with my recent work on Matt Jockers' Macroanalysis. Jockers found a  century-long pattern (one scale) in a large corpus of texts that just happens to be temporal, but wasn't defined in temporal terms. This post takes up the topic of literary temporality on two other scales: years (Osamu Tezuka) and decades (William Shakespeare). If this post interests you, you might want to go over to The Valve and read the discussion there, which is quite interesting.
Is literary time directional? In some sense the answer, obviously, is “yes.” There is no doubt that Pride and Prejudice was written before A Passage to India. The issue, however, is whether or not Pride and Prejudice must have been necessarily, in some sense, before A Passage to India and, if so, in what sense it must have been written first.

Stephen Greenblatt comes close to suggesting what I’m up to early in “The Cultivation of Anxiety: King Lear and His Heirs” (Learning to Curse, Routledge, 1990, pp. 80—98) which opens with a long passage from an early 19th century magazine article on the how the Reverend Francis Wayland broke the will of his 15-month old child. Greenblatt notes that “Wayland’s struggle is a strategy of intense familial love, and it is the sophisticated product of a long historical process whose roots lie at least partly in early modern England, in the England of Shakespeare’s King Lear.” To be sure, one need not read that as any more than a statement of historical contingency, that Shakespeare’s play just happened to have been written before Wayland’s article. But when one considers the larger institutional changes Greenblatt considers – from the public space of the king’s court (and Elizabethan stage) to the privacy of the bourgeois home – one may suspect that Greenblatt is tracking the directionality of literary time, that one text must necessarily have been earlier in the historical process in which both texts exist.

That directionality is what I want to look at, but not primarily on the scale of decades-to-centuries. My principle example involves three early texts by Osamu Tezuka, the great Japanese mangaka. He was born in Nov 1928, which puts him in his early 20s when these texts were written during the American occupation of Japan after World War II. The three texts have become known collectively as his SF trilogy: Lost World (1948), Metropolis (1949), and Next World (1951). Thus, they are early texts; in particular, they are before the Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) stories that became the centerpiece of his work for almost two-decades.

Prior to World War II Japan had an unbroken history as an independent state stretching all the way back to . . . the primordial times of Japanese mythology. The Japanese Emperor was the living embodiment of that continuity and connection. When he surrendered, that continuity was cut and with it the whole mythological and ideological apparatus that gave shape to the Japanese world, it was gone. Even for someone like Tezuka, who was not a partisan of the militarist regime that ruled Japan at the time, that must have created a profound existential problem. And so, one of the things we see Tezuka doing in this three texts is re-creating a sense of Japan. He is creating a new myth. Without that, how can there be any sense of order about the cosmos?

While there is much one could say about these texts, here I wish to raise a specific issue: Is the order in which Tezuka in fact wrote those three texts the order in which he must necessarily have written them. I don’t have a strong argument to offer. Rather, I simply want to raise the issue. Lurking behind this issue is, of course, another, for if the order IS necessary, whence the necessity?

Tezuka’s Rediscovery of Japan

The first of these texts, Lost World (1948; English translation, Darkhorse Comics, 2003), is set on two planets, Earth and Mamango, a twin of Earth that comes near to Earth every 5 million years. The geographical location of the Earth-bound events is not clear; no geographic locations are named, no cities, no countries. By default, a Japanese audience would be likely to locate these events in Japan (and some of the characters have Japanese names, e.g. Shikishima). But, when the story ends, two people, a man and a woman, remain on Mamango, and will create a new race of human beings. That is to say, in this story, the exciting new stuff of the future is going to take place somewhere else than on Earth.

The second of these texts, Metropolis (1949; English translation, Darkhorse Comics, 2003), is mostly set in some large city named Metropolis, which is explicitly not-Japan. Two of the central characters, Detective Mustachio and his nephew Kenichi, however, are identified as being from Japan and thus being Japanese. Mustachio announces himself as being from Japan (p. 46, cf. p. 53). Japan is now explicitly identified in the story, it is a named place that is differentiated from other names places, such as Metropolis and Long Boot Island. But Japan is not a site of action that is significant to the story.

The last of these texts, Next World (1951; English translation, Darkhorse Comics, two volumes, 2003), is set in locations all over the world. Much of it takes place in the capitalist Nation of Star (obviously the United States) and the socialist Federation of Uran (obviously the Soviet Union). But the story begins in Japan, has episodes there, and ends in Japan. In one plotline the Earth is being threatened by a large approaching mass of space gas. Once this phenomenon is perceived and categorized as an Earth-wide threat, there is a segment where the heads of Star and Uran say, “Let’s escape to Japan” (Vol. 2, p. 99) So Japan is an explicit destination for the most powerful politicians on Earth. Japan is on the map and it is the location of events significant to the story.

It turns out that the gas cloud somehow got neutralized before it reached Earth, so everyone survived. Star and Uran had gone to war, but that was stopped by the Fumoon, advanced humanoids that seemed to have been the product of radioactive fall-out from atomic tests done by Star and Uran. (Yeah, this is a complicated mess of a story.) The point is that Tezuka has positioned Japan outside the conflict between Star and Uran. That is its position in the world and, whatever the geographical relationships between the three nations, Tezuka has given it a political role to play in this, the last of the three books in his SF trilogy. Japan now has a differentiated identity.

On this one matter, Japan as a geographical and political entity, we see a clear progression that matches the order of publication. In the first text Japan is not mentioned at all; in the second it is named, but is peripheral to the action; in the third it is named and becomes a central locus of action on the international scene. Still, the fact that Tezuka wrote the text wrote the texts in that order does not necessarily imply that he had no choice but to write them in that order. To say that he had to write them in that order is to imply some process in his mind that takes place on the scale of months to years and that is linked to his story-telling activity in such a way as the place strong restrictions on the stories he can construct in any given period.

Let’s return to my assertion–merely assumed here, without argument–that Tezuka is using these texts as a vehicle for restoring some sense of order in the world in the wake of Japan’s defeat. We know that he found that transition to be traumatic. As Frederick Schodt has noted in The Astro Boy Essays (Stonebridge Press, 2007, pp. 29-30):
With the end of the war, new difficulties appeared. Tezuka also witnessed starvation among a once proud people, and during the wild, unstructured early days of the occupation, he suffered the humiliation and anger of being beaten by a group of drunken American GIs who could not understand his broken English. It was a brutal and direct experience in cultural misunderstanding that he never forgot. Like all young Japanese of his age, he had also seen how an authoritarian government—his own—had been able to manipulate information and public opinion, and how, after the war, the entire value system of the country was overturned and replaced by a new democratic ideology. It was horrifying, he later said, to realize that “the world could turn 180 degrees, and that the government could switch the concept of reality,” so that what had been “black” or “white” only days before was suddenly reversed.
All of that, I believe, is what Tezuka was working through while writing these three stories, Lost World, Metropolis, and Next World. I suggest that the process was comparable to mourning the death, for example, of one’s parents. As such it was a process that involved his whole psyche and not just some relatively localized notions about how the state functions and just who is in office now. And it is not just that Tezuka was working through the death of his nation during this period, but that he was using his fiction as a vehicle to work through that process and so to arrive at the beginnings of a new conception of Japan, its place in the world, and the place of individual Japanese in this emerging Japan.

We are still a long way from understanding just how and why the demands of this psycho-symbolic process influenced Tezuka’s manga so as “determine” the order in which certain themes and motifs appeared in them, but that is what I think is going on. That is the direction our investigations must take if we are to gain a deeper understanding, not only of Tezuka’s artistic work, but of artistic work in general, and of the human mind.

Longer Time Scales

Tezuka wrote these three texts over a period of three to four years. What about longer time spans? Many artists have been productive over decades and it is common to talk of early, middle, and late works, not as mere temporal markers, but as indicators of characteristic themes, concerns, and sometimes even of aesthetic quality. Some of this development may reflect technical command of the medium, but surely we are dealing with personal development and maturation as well.

Shakespeare presents an interesting case. Early in his dramatic career he tended to write comedies and histories; then he gravitated to tragedy; and he finished his career with curious tragic-comic hybrids, or romances. In a paper that looks at one play from each of these periodsMuch Ado About Nothing, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale—I relate this sequence to ideas about adult development by Erik Erikson, Daniel Levinson, and George Valliant. Thus, while we can read or see Shakespeare’s plays in whatever order we wish, and at whatever time in our lives we wish, Shakespeare himself was constrained to write certain kinds of plays during certain periods of his life. There was a certain necessary order to his artistic production. He could not have written Othello before he wrote Much Ado About Nothing, nor The Winter’s Tale before either of those others. His psyche made demands on his artistic work, and his artistic work was a vehicle for shaping his psyche.

But the life of literature is longer than the lives of any individual writers and readers. And so we are back at the time scale implied in Greenblatt’s interest in a Nineteenth Century article on childrearing and a Shakespeare tragedy, a time scale of centuries and—why not?—millennia. Is there an intrinsic ordering there as well? If so, what is that ordering about? Does the human mind develop, perhaps mature, and, dare I even suggest it? progress over the course of centuries? Are we allowed even to thing such thoughts without being struck dumb?

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Meta comment: I've made no attempt to hide my affection for the newer psychologies in the study of literature. The subject of this post, however, owes little or nothing to those psychologies nor does it owe much to various post-structuralist approaches (I don't follow them), though I'd be happy to find out that some new historicists have something to say about it. Nonetheless it seems to me a matter central to the study of literature. It arose in my thinking simply from thinking about literary texts and relations between them.

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