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Zen Comedy in Commonwealth Literature:
Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day
Although Commonwealth literature (from the Commonwealth of Nations, hence written in English) and postcolonial literature (translated into English) are taught in many English departments, they remain problematic for at least two reasons. First, taxonomically the designations never escape their flawed origins. Thus Jayana Clerk and Ruth Siegel, editors of a recent anthology (1995), virtually apologize for their title, Modern Literatures of the Non-Western World, saying that they "faced the dilemma of using a negative term that derives from a Western perception" (xvii). Similarly, the rationale for grouping works and the related supposition for survey courses is a sense of an underlying cultural history (e.g., American literature), which also informs other courses of genres that derive from that history. Lacking any comparable unity, postcolonial literature is presented as a hodgepodge assembly and is often associated with minority studies. By definition, minority views are supplemental. Frequently, minority views arise in reaction to majority views. Since they do not voice majority experience, they must remain secondary and somewhat exotic.
Yet the views presented by Commonwealth writers are not minority views, though one would hardly know this from the scolding of critics such as Graham Parry who takes the most prominent Indian novelist, R. K. Narayan, to task for "the odd psychology of some of his characters whose emotional responses are often bizarre to a Western reader" (79). Anglo-American readers cannot understand the actions of Narayan's characters until they know something of the Hindu social psychology that defines normal behavior in Indian society. This, then, is the second problem: to understand something of a profoundly alien society requires a deeper shift in outlook than can be accomplished by an examination of an isolated text or even a collection of works.
Commonwealth writers are native to the regions and cultures they write about: the Caribbean, India, China and parts of Africa. In some measure an Anglo-American audience must appreciate the exotic element of such writing: how different the fictional characters and their situations are from what is ordinary and important in our experience. When this is ignored, critics often bluster, scorning the unfamiliar, or preach, asking for tolerance of the unfamiliar. Jayana Clerk and Ruth Siegel hope that their anthology "helps cultivate an awareness that honors different cultural perspectives," as though assuming that it was the professed intent of each author to pitch his or her culture to an audience of North American undergraduates (xviii). We do not expect great works from our own tradition to be so transparent and pandering. William Walsh illustrates the bluster approach, concluding that Narayan's Mr Sampath "doesn't quite succeed" because of "an insufficiency of 'composition.'" Exasperated because he can not explain the accomplished work, Walsh proclaims, "The novel's shape is oddly hump-backed, and repeated readings fail to convince me that I have missed some deeper and more structurally implicit unifying influence" (62-63). What Walsh could not feel was the Hindu atmosphere, which provides motives for the characters in the novel and themes for readers.
Criticism has recently become sensitive to the presumptive tone of male narrative voices, to racially white voices and to colonial voices. Critical explanations proceeding from such sensitivities, however, remain dialectically two dimensional, assuming that truth can be discovered by stretching the text between two poles: male/female, white/black, majority/minority, America/the world. Moving from one pole to the other is regarded as significant and such movement in a protagonist's understanding and his/her subsequent moral growth provides the model for many Western novels. Nonetheless, the change is measured by distance from the initial pole, which continues to broadcast paradigm assumptions that postcolonial writers do not hear, because they are tuned into the cultural programs which shaped their childhoods. The non-Western cultures, in which postcolonial and Commonwealth writers typically spend their childhoods, construe identity and motives that often lack Western counterparts. In some cases there is no second pole, either similar to or opposite from the first (Taylor v.2, 120).
To read postcolonial literature with insight, Anglo-Americans must recognize that cultures are discrete and incommensurable. Indian Hindus are not bizarre British Christians. Readers must accept that there are not Kantian categories of logic or a deep grammar that will explain everything. In principle, the notion that critical tools should emerge from the culture they seek to explain sounds unproblematic. Objections arise on two counts. First, the legacy from Plato through Kant, paralleled by theology, claims a transcendental logic capable of giving the true picture. Postmodernism opposes this belief by stressing that any specific claim to the truth is necessarily grounded in a concrete language and historic culture. Second, as Bishop Berkeley might say, we only know what we know. Most readers of postcolonial and Commonwealth literature know only English and its associated culture. The implicit assumption is not exactly that Anglo-American culture is normative, but that readers partially escape or suspend it with difficulty, inevitably smuggling along implicit assumptions. The second point tends to reinforce the first point. Knowing only one view, it would be difficult to imagine exactly where it diverges from the truth.
Two points can now be made in regard to postcolonial literature. The first point is that there is not a neutral or obvious place to begin, a place where truth is bare and universal, which consequently becomes a standard. This should not forestall critical effort, but should work recurrently to qualify judgments as cultural instead of true. The second point is that criticism must have a foot in both the culture of the reader and that of the writer. Because postcolonial novels offer exotic material, the critical enterprise is closer to anthropology, which studies alien cultures, than sociology, which studies one's own culture. A theoretical basis for anthropological criticism is provided by the prolific and readable work of the McGill philosophy professor, Charles Taylor. Midway between such theory and postcolonial literature, the studies of comparative religion and comparative philosophy provide useful critical terms. Pioneered by Huston Smith, William Cantwell Smith and Joseph Campbell, the discipline of comparative religions opposes the presumption of Christian apologetics to be the true religion. Comparative philosophy is an even younger field. The works of Roger Ames and David Hall on comparing Confucian China to ancient Greece are exemplary. Although I did not discover it until after I had explicated the Confucian dimension in two of Timothy Mo's novels, Hall and Ames's Thinking Through Confucius is perhaps the best critical tool for understanding the Anglo-Chinese novelist's work. I believe that the critical method illustrated in this paper parallels the methods they use in regard to philosophical texts. Bernard Faure's The Rhetoric of Immediacy offers a postmodern reading of Zen Buddhism. The collection, Japan in Traditional and Postmodern Perspectives (1995), offers additional critical tools for readers of Asian postcolonial literature.
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African-American culture has no doubt aided Western readers to appreciate the fiction of such African writers as Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o (James Ngugi) and Nadine Gordimer. The Caribbean worlds of V. S. Naipaul and Sam Selvon are also vaguely familiar, crisscrossing with reggae music and cruise holidays. Australian and Canadian literature present cultural nuances of difference to American readers. India has produced many talented novelists who write in English, among them: Salmon Rushdie, R. K. Narayan, Nayantara Sahgal, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Clearly the most foreign atmosphere is found in works by East Asian (China, Japan) novelists. Two Japanese Nobel laureates (Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe) and the translation efforts of such publishers as Charles Tuttle in Tokyo have reached few Western readers. Among those who write in English, one name stands out, Kazuo Ishiguro. Born in 1954 in Nagasaki, Japan, Ishiguro moved to England in 1960. Thanks in part to Anthony Hopkins's fame, the movie version of Ishiguro's novel, The Remains of the Day, is probably the best known single work by a Commonwealth writer. The work presents the ambivalent reflections of an English butler who recalls highlights from his service to a prominent aristocrat who was involved in formulating national policy towards Nazi Germany.
The movie was successful enough to provide a familiar world for a Pepsi Cola television ad in which an ancient butler shuffles through a cavernous English mansion to deliver a tantalizing can of the product sans a straw. Winning the Booker Prize in 1989, The Remains of the Day was preceded by two earlier novels, both set in Japan. A Pale View of Hills (1982) illustrates the ennui caused by defeat in WW2 and the subsequent American occupation. The novel ends with a character recognizing that "It's not a bad thing at all, the old Japanese way," which the war has irrecoverably destroyed (181). An Artist of the Floating World (1986) offers the postwar diary of a prominent painter who produced war propaganda for the government before and during WW2. The "floating world" refers to "the night-time world of pleasure, entertainment and drink," which Ishiguro uses to symbolize basic tenants of Buddhism (145).
I will argue that these three works need to be read as related in order to see that The Remains of the Day expresses a Buddhist criticism of Confucian ethics. This is a common theme in Japanese culture, which is largely formed by the tensional unity of Buddhism, Confucianism and Shinto, in somewhat the way that Western culture is formed by the tensional unity of Greek and Christian elements. The movie ignores this dimension and instead renders stock Western formulas of lost love and moral outrage. Somehow the emotionally dead life of Mr Stevens, the butler whose 1956 diary tells the story, promises to explain the blas� British unconcern with anti-Semitism expressed in Neville Chamberlain's appeasement to Hitler. Although these elements, contained in a glossy picture of decrepit aristocracy, are obvious, explaining how aristocratic haughtiness, and the last glimmer from the dying light of the Raj, kindles Nazism is not so easy. For example, sentiment, if not morality, dictates that Stevens should be chagrined to have neglected his father on his deathbed to arrange for a physician to treat the blistered feet of a French diplomat. Surprisingly Stevens boasts, "Why should I deny it? For all its sad associations, whenever I recall that evening today, I find I do so with a large sense of triumph" (110). Even more to the point, we expect Stevens to echo Miss Kenton's judgment -- "What a terrible mistake I've made with my life" (239) -- about both his failed romance with her and his support of Lord Darlington's Nazi sympathies. Instead Stevens talks about trying "to make the best of what remains of my day" (244). This may be no more than denial and evasion in Anthony Hopkins's performance, but there is more at work in the novel.
Mr Stevens believes that he can sum up his life in the confession, "I gave my best to Lord Darlington" (242). He hopes that his life makes a "small contribution to the creation of a better world" (116). The Japanese term for this is bushido: "it required the samurai specifically to serve his lord with the utmost loyalty and in general to put devotion to moral principle (righteousness) ahead of personal gain. The achievement of this high ideal involved a life of austerity, temperance, constant self-discipline . . . qualities long honored in the Japanese feudal tradition . . . [and which were] given a systematic form . . . in terms of Confucian ethical philosophy" (de Bary 1: 386). According to Ruth Benedict, whose 1946 book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture, remains a classic starting point for the analysis of Japanese culture, "such strength [of character] is the most admired virtue in Japan" (192). The purpose of Confucian ethics is to produce a person who exhibits grace and authority under any social circumstance. Confucian ethics are not eschatological. There is no Last Judgment nor transcendental authority to separate sheep from goats. As Hall and Ames explain: "The model [ch�n tzu: exemplary person] qualifies as model not on the basis of what he can do, but by virtue of the quality of his actions: how he does things" (Confucius 191).
In contrast to Confucian ethics, Zen Buddhism hopes to liberate a person from all (Confucian) social situations, which are inherently worrisome. In Zen Buddhism, writes T. P. Kasulis, one is enlightened "when one lets go of pre-conceived notions of the self" (122). Such pre-conceptions are not Platonically innate but are derive from memorable performances of behavior evoked by specific social contexts or special occasions, which define tradition (li). In contrast, "The Zen ideal is to act spontaneously in the situation without first objectifying it in order to define one's role" (Kasulis 132). Against this Japanese Confucian/Buddhist tension, The Remains of the Day can be seen as a Buddhist critique of Confucianism. Mr Stevens's life is stunted by the Confucian bushido code that he relies on to render identity and self-worth. The remedy is to develop a Zen Buddhist outlook.
The contrast between Eastern and Western attitudes in regard to social roles provides a door into Kazuo Ishiguro's world. In the Western view, Stevens is pathetic because his obsession with duty has arrested the development of adult autonomy. Westerners believe that something like Erik Erikson's "Eight Stages of Man" specifies objective and universal stages of human, in contrast to cultural, development. Measured by this standard, Stevens fails to grow-up; he follows a social role instead of becoming his own person. Exasperated when Stevens fails to drop the role of butler and does not romantically respond to her, Miss Kenton asks, "Why, Mr Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?" (154). Stevens's ambitions remain oedipal: to please a father figure. Especially in the movie version, Stevens remains pathetically defensive until he tragically admits, "All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can't even say I made my own mistakes. Really -- one has to ask oneself -- what dignity is there in that?" (243). Stevens poses this as a rhetorical question because every Westerner knows the answer: that one's deepest obligation is to develop a unique individuality. Christianity demands this. In Sources of the Self Charles Taylor illustrates that Romanticism/Modernism simply provided different arguments to insist on the same duty.
Nothing like this analysis can be made from a Confucian outlook. In Japan filial loyalty (hsiao) -- which is ultimately offered to the person of the Emperor (symbolized in this case by Lord Darlington) -- provides the vocabulary for self-worth. Without this loyalty, which derives from a sense of gratitude and obligation (gimu: the infinite debt owed to parents for giving life and to the emperor for giving culture; giri: the debt owed to teachers, employers and other benefactors), one is no better than a monkey or a sociopath. Benedict explains that "the hero we [Westerners] sympathize with because he is in love or cherishes some personal ambition," the Japanese "condemn as weak because he has allowed these feelings" to erode his moral worth: "Westerners are likely to feel it is a sign of strength to rebel against conventions . . . . But the strong, according to Japanese verdict, are those who disregard personal happiness and fulfill their obligations. Strength of character, they think, is shown in conforming not in rebelling" (207).
Since the time of the pre-Socratics, Western metaphysics has assumed the existence of some single underlying and presocial reality. Asian thought concedes that such a reality exists but has no confidence that reason can mirror it. Its sensitivity to the notion that reality is ultimately indiscernible and ineffable is revealed in self-consciousness about metaphor or the ways in which reality can be traced, in Derrida's sense of the term. For the Japanese, one would be a fool to die for the Truth like Socrates or Jesus. Believing that specific meaning and identity are conferred by social context, Asian concern focuses on adept shifts of identity in response to differing social situations. Hence Joseph Tobin reports that "the most crucial lesson to be learned in the Japanese preschool is not omote, not the ability to behave properly in formal situations, but instead kejime -- the knowledge needed to shift fluidly back and forth between omote and ura [literally "rear door," thus informal behavior]" (24). Because Japanese are adept at making such shifts of identity, they generally do not feel compelled to make one choice among Shinto, Confucian and Buddhist outlooks. They unselfconsciously adopt the appropriate identity when social circumstances call for a choice. Using psychological terminology, Takie Sugiyama Lebra identifies four possible Japanese selves: presentational (Confucian), inner (Shinto), empathetic (Mahayana) and boundless (Buddhist).
These shifts between various identifies are generally under social and personal control. In contrast, paradigm shifts are occasioned by historical forces, such as the shift from the feudal values of the isolated Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867) to the values of the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which committed Japan to modernization. Edwin Reischauer has compared this shift to an earthquake: "The Tokugawa system had been shaken to its foundations by the events since 1853 [caused by an American naval presence and threats of colonization], and the whole antiquated structure began to disintegrate. All policies had become subject to debate by samurai from all over Japan" (80). He explains that "the samurai in a brief nine year period were deprived of all their special privileges, and Japan was started on a great change which was to transform its society in a mere generation or two from one in which status was primarily determined by heredity to one in which it depended largely on the education and achievements of the individual" (82-83). Benedict offers a more graphic picture: "The Tokugawas . . . regulated the details of each caste's daily behavior. Every family head had to post on his doorway his class position and the required facts about his hereditary status. The clothes he could wear, the foods he could buy, and the kind of house he could legally live in were regulated according to this inherited rank" (61). In the thirty years that Reischauer mentions, all of this was erased and new scripts were written. Even the emperor had his photo taken in Prussian military regalia (see Reischauer 82).
After less than a century's involvement with the Western outlook, the Japanese world exploded in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like many Japanese novels written after the war -- one example is the brooding novel by Jiro Osaragi, The Journey (1960) -- Ishiguro's first two novels are set in the mushroom shadow of the atomic bomb, which so dramatically ended the outlook provided by state-mandated Shinto. One day it was Emperor Hirohito's portrait in every public building, the next it was Douglas MacArthur's picture in the newspaper. Overnight definitions of honor, dignity and status were redefined. In A Pale View of Hills, a retired teacher laments, "I devoted my life to the teaching of the young. And then I watched the Americans tear it all down" (66). The same teacher lectures his son, already converted to the new outlook, "Discipline, loyalty, such things held Japan together once. That may sound fanciful, but it's true. People were bound by a sense of duty. Towards one's family, towards superiors, towards the country" (65). Later the sensei (teacher) is lectured by one of his former students who bluntly tells him, "In your day, children in Japan were taught terrible things. They were taught lies of the most damaging kind. Worst of all, they were taught not to see, not to question. And that's why the country was plunged into the most evil disaster in her entire history." How can the teacher respond? Can he meekly admit that his entire world view was wrong, that his life was "spent in a misguided direction" (147)? And what value system should he adopt to assess his putative failings? The contemporary zeitgeist of his student, with its "self-evident" democratic values, simply did not exist in the old teacher's world. And who can say how long the current outlook will be fashionable? The teacher is too old to abandon his pre-war outlook; the younger man is too earnest to recognize how arbitrary his own outlook is. Yet millions of people in the 20th century have been caught trying to straddle the conflicting values of two worlds. Ishiguro offers us an example in the second plot of A Pale View of Hills, which tells a fragmentary tale of a ghost-like woman and her neglected daughter. The little girl does not attend school and is literally lost at various times in the novel. Her mother is equally lost, chasing an American serviceman in the hope of redemptive immigration to the America that destroyed Japan. Her equivocation and uncertainty are well illustrated by her inability to care for her daughter, who symbolizes the next generation. At one time she says, "I'm a mother, and my daughter's interests come first" (86). At another time she sarcastically asks, "Do you think I imagine for one moment that I'm a good mother to her?" (171).
In addition to the possibilities of exclusively living in the old world or the new world, or equivocating between them, there is a fourth possibility suggested by Zen Buddhism, which recognizes that social roles work like dramatic roles to dictate action and identity, and that the concepts of analytic language simply write more scripts rather than naming pre-existing entities. Kasulis explains that "We go through life thinking that our words and ideas mirror what we experience, but repeatedly we discover that the distinctions taken to be true are merely mental constructs" (55). Values are a matter of style, a way of seeing things. There is no ultimately true world of essential substances; in positing eternal ideas Plato was simply imagining, functioning as another artist. Human nature does not operate by following a set of formulas. The most we can know is how to act and who we are within concrete social boundaries. Who and what we are beyond these is an enigma, a subject for Zen koans, which state paradoxes that are used as a meditative focus for Zen training. "Show me your original face," a Master might demand of a disciple, thereby directing him to reflect on pre-social (non-Confucian) identity. How can this primal state by identified without recourse to an arbitrary social context? Here one must remark that language itself is such a context.
For most of The Remains of the Day, Stevens feels that his tragic and wasted life resulted from mistaken loyalty, so that if he had backed a different horse or had played different cards, he would have been a winner instead of a loser. Stevens ponders this, "Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one's life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had." Indeed, the very problem is that "There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable" (179). Zen advises us to cease looking for such definitive and seminal moments because they are not there. These putative moments of choice are characteristic properties of analysis rather than objectively existent or discrete entities waiting to be discovered. The recognition that consciousness is a process like painting, rather than a mirror, can instantly dissolve trust in the analytic process. Suddenly the gestalt shifts from seeing the contents of consciousness to noticing the process itself. One can then develop an esthetic taste for this voyeuristic, detached perspective, which keeps one from too quickly professing another explanation, which promises to explain what was mistaken in the former view. The Remains of the Day and An Artist of the Floating World are both rendered as diaries in which each diarist searches for (moral) points of judgment in his experience, which he thinks mistakenly committed him to a historically failed vision. The problem is that the diary, or any retrospective analysis, is an interpretation committed to some set of implicit values that the analysis will make explicit. Analysis is a performance which requires "causes" in order to produce "effects." For this reason, as Kasulis explains, "Zen Buddhism criticizes our ordinary, unenlightened existence by refusing to accept a retrospective reconstruction of reality" as uniquely or even especially true or definitive (60). Any expectation of discovering the "truth" or developing a transcendent identity in such terms is futile. People like Stevens, who cannot escape the deconstruction of beliefs they relied on to make sense of their experience -- a world view they thought was objective and universal -- have an opportunity for liberation, for not recommitting themselves to an alternative interpretation. In fact the Zen monastic experience is designed to force monks to just such a crisis.
It is Ichiro Ono, the artist in the novel, An Artist of the Floating World, who, by virtue of a heightened sensitivity to Japanese esthetics -- which were largely formulated by Zen Buddhism -- is most aware of the possibility of floating rather than diving in hopes of getting to the bottom of things. As Ishiguro depicts him, Ono rose to prominence in the 1930s as a painter. Ono is enticed to direct his art towards the production of didactic propaganda by earnest men who tell him that as a leader of "the new generation of Japanese artists, you have a great responsibility towards the culture of this nation" (151). They counsel Ono not to "hide away somewhere, perfecting pictures of courtesans" (173), but to paint inspiring pictures of "stern-faced soldiers . . . pointing the way forward" to greatness (169). Under the American occupation of 1945, Ono admits that he had been "a man of some influence, who used that influence towards a disastrous end" (192). What else could he say? Still, there is a disconcerting tone in Ono's contrition, which makes it sound insincere. He seems to disown too quickly his earlier commitment to the war effort and to equivocate in denouncing it, saying, "Indeed, I would be the first to admit that those same sentiments [expressed in didactic war art] are perhaps worthy of condemnation" (169). Ono's motive is not to defend a choice. He considers any choice to be a consequence of a process. The (moral) problem is unconditional faith in the process: "All I can say is that at the time I acted in good faith. I believed in all sincerity I was achieving good for my fellow countrymen. But as you see, I am not now afraid to admit I was mistaken" (124). People who earlier demanded that Ono support fascist values, now expect the same ardor in condemning those values. As an artist (Buddhist), Ono perceives that the performance is the same.
Art frustrates the wish to get to the bottom of things, to gain a clear and definitive picture of the way things really are. As a young artist, Ono was not ready to sacrifice his vanity, his confidence that as a man of discipline and technical mastery, he would get to the bottom of things. Even when he is middle-aged, basking in the glow of adulation from his students, he considers art a vehicle, something he can use to achieve aims which precede and remain unaffected by the vehicle. When he thinks that he has mastered enough of the instrument, Ono informs his teacher, "I have learnt much in contemplating the world of pleasure, and recognizing its fragile beauty." But he then demonstrates how little he has learned: "I now feel it is time for me to progress" because "artists must learn to value something more tangible than those pleasurable things that disappear with the morning light" (180). The Zen roshi or teacher could tell him that perceiving and thinking are processes like painting a picture. We perceive how light and language connect things, paint things. We fleetingly possess the picture but never the objects.
For the essence of the Buddhist outlook is the recognition that everything, including the values to which we are so earnestly dedicated, is a temporary perceptual amalgam fused by language and emotion. The ground for the existence of things is temporal and as insubstantial as light. Yet, like Ono and Stevens, we become "attached to our characterizations, thinking of them as absolutes, rather than as names convenient for a given purpose" (Kasulis 25). This includes our very identities, which are no more than cultural performances. Identity is a play of light and color, not something static; not a number nor an atom nor a soul. This Buddhist line of thinking gets to the bottom of things in its own way, and in Ishiguro's novel Ono's teacher, Mori-san, tries to communicate something of this view to his pupil, Ono, telling him that "the finest, most fragile beauty an artist can hope to capture drifts within those pleasure houses after dark. And on nights like these, Ono, some of that beauty drifts into our own quarters here." The master then refers to some of own his early paintings, saying, "they don't even hint at these transitory, illusory qualities" (150). If Ono were as discerning as the artist he aspires to be -- and ironically claims to be -- he would recognize this as Japanese politeness, as face-saving admonishment which avoids explicit formulation and consequent direct confrontation. Mori is suggesting that despite whatever technical mastery he achieved in his youth, he could not see with the profundity produced by a life-time of (Buddhist) dedication and practice. The point, he suggests, is for Ono not to think that he has finished the job of development; that he can see to the bottom of things and that consequently he no longer needs to strive for enlightenment. For enlightenment is also a process which needs to be repeatedly performed.
In Christianity, pride is a sin because God is everything and we are merely his creatures. In Buddhism, pride is embarrassing because it so flagrantly ignores elementary principles. In the Buddhist view, one cannot possess anything, including the self that craves possessions; everything dissolves and changes. In a Zen-like tradition of relating how his master enlightened him, Mori-san talks about "a man of no standing" (someone with no conferred authority). Ono complains, saying, "I am puzzled that we artists should be devoting so much of our time enjoying the company of those like Gisaburo-san" (148). Mori explains, "The best things, he always used to say, are put together of a night and vanish with the morning" (150). The principle of change (anicca) is an axiom of Buddhism. You cannot hold on to nor control experience by retrospective interpretation, which always renders a substitute (sign) for the experience to produce propaganda. Interpretation discovers only what is latent in its own structure. It cannot get to the bottom of experience because interpretation always deals with the substitutes it paints. The artist controls only the illusion of light.
Like a Zen monk, Mori has spent much of his life trying to capture the oblique light of the floating world, which does not spotlight a specific moment or subject, like truth or dignity or even beauty, but rather encompasses all such particulars in a suffusive glow -- just as the light of life similarly contains all specific moments, none of which transcends the process. Explaining the eminent Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro's idea of satori (enlightenment), Robert Carter writes :"The deep self, which forever eludes our conceptual grasp, is yet somehow known, nevertheless, as that at the background of our experience. It is never known but is ever present as a background 'lining'" (53). Kasulis defines Zen enlightenment as "the direct recognition of what one most fundamentally is: the purity, unity, and responsiveness of pre-reflective experience" (93). The Trappist monk and student of Buddhism, Thomas Merton, explains that "the chief characteristic of Zen is that it rejects all these systematic elaborations in order to get back, as far as possible, to the pure unarticulated and unexplained ground of direct experience. The direct experience of what? Life itself" (in Wu, "Introduction" 4).
The intent of Buddhism is to achieve an esthetic appreciation rather than to employ analysis in a search for an illusory redemptive moment, a moment of truth, moral choice and justification. In Ishiguro's novel, Mori plays the part of a Zen Master, telling Ono, his disciple:
"I was very young when I prepared those prints. I suspect the reason I couldn't celebrate the floating world was that I couldn't bring myself to believe in its worth. Young men are often guilt-ridden about pleasure, and I suppose I was no different. I suppose I thought that to pass away one's time in such places, to spend one's skills celebrating things so intangible and transient, I suppose I thought it all rather wasteful, all rather decadent. It's hard to appreciate the beauty of a world when one doubts its very validity" (150).
Surprisingly this intangible and transient world of perception is the only world we ever experience.
On the last page of the novel, Ono, now an old man, reflects, "when I remember those brightly-lit bars and all those people gathered beneath the lamps, laughing a little more boisterously perhaps than those young men yesterday, but with much the same good-heartedness, I feel a certain nostalgia for the past," but he then goes on to conclude: "one can only wish these young people well" today (206). Neither Mori nor Ono offer specific advice from theology that would force life to conform to some principle; nor do they offer advice about seizing an opportune or all important moment of decision, that once lost results in tragedy. Their advice, which seems so empty to earnest young people, is to encourage them to be esthetically sensitive to the quality of light that illuminates life; to appreciate life itself. In 1949 Ono's son-in-law parrots the same rhetoric Ono heard in the thirties, which was the same rhetoric Ono's grandfather might have heard in the early days of the Meiji restoration: "We needed new leaders with a new approach appropriate to the world of today" (185). The truth is that the light of the lamps and laughter of the people beneath them and the political ardor of Ono's son-in-law are no different now than they ever were; nor will they ever be fundamentally different in the future. There is nothing to find or repudiate in the past; neither is there anything to prove or create in the future. Life is not -- except in Christian/Islamic interpretation -- moving towards some eschatological moment. A koan has it that "When an ordinary man attains knowledge he is a sage; when a sage attains understanding he is an ordinary man" (Isshu 121).
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Mr Stevens is interested in extraordinary men. As a kind of Victorian samurai, his life is dedicated to the great or at least the powerful. A life of devotion requires a worthy object, a fixed point. Thus Stevens confesses that in his youth "we tended to concern ourselves much more with the moral status of an employer." Sounding like the youthful Ono, Stevens acknowledges that "we were ambitious . . . to serve gentlemen who were, so to speak, furthering the progress of humanity." Stevens speaks not only for himself and the servant class, but for everyone in the empire when he says, "professional prestige lay most significantly in the moral worth of one's employer" (114). Extraordinary people were the measure of empire. No less than the fascist regimes of the 20th century, European aristocracies of early centuries were dedicated to providing an environment for superior people. Thus Lord Darlington's Nazi sympathies are no quirk, and Stevens could have comfortably worn a Nazi uniform.
Stevens is proud to be near the hub of the wheel of empire, where "debates are conducted, and crucial decisions arrived at, in the privacy and calm of the great houses of this country" (115). Initially Stevens is exclusively concerned with samurai values. Someone else chooses the game; the butler is content to be a skilled player: "my vocation will not be fulfilled until I have done all I can to see his lordship through the great tasks he has set himself" (173). In 1923 Stevens witnesses a confrontation between his employer and with an American Senator, Mr Lewis, who calls Lord Darlington a fool: "He [Darlington] is an amateur and international affairs today are no longer for gentlemen amateurs. The sooner you here in Europe realize that the better" (102). When Darlington rises with icy civility to correct Lewis -- "What you describe as 'amateurism', sir, is what I think most of us here still prefer to call 'honour'" -- Stevens heartily approves. Yet Lewis proves to be correct: good intentions are not enough to create a just world. Reginald Cardinal, tragically killed in WW2, represents British hopes for the post-empire period. In touch with modern politics, he is less crass than the American senator and might be characterized as a young John Majors. His observation on Darlington is discomfiting: "Over the last few years, his lordship has probably been the single most useful pawn Herr Hitler has had in this country for his propaganda tricks. All the better because he's sincere and honourable and doesn't recognize the true nature of what he's doing" (224). Stevens has himself, if only silently, objected to Darlington's sycophant behavior towards Hitler's foreign minister, Ribbentrop.
Stevens's loyalty to a single view exhibits a hair-line crack when he is involved in what he would like to dismiss as lower-class political wrangling in a village where he is stranded for a night. A garrulous barroom character expresses the opinion that "Dignity isn't just something gentlemen have. Dignity's something every man and woman in this country can strive for and get" (185-86). Stevens tries to deny this, since it strikes at the foundation of aristocratic, fascist and Confucian claims to possess exclusive authority to set the rules for social games. For example, if each individual could freely decide how to be religious, what authority would the pope retain? Stevens asks, "how can ordinary people truly be expected to have 'strong opinions' on all manner of things?" (194). He has, however, discovered that Darlington and his cronies are as uninformed as the villagers or any other "amateurs" and that their "strong opinions" are nothing more than the gullible fantasies of childhood redefined in Nazi propaganda. Calling someone like Darlington "lord" or the housemaids "Jews" does not denote some inherent property; it simply assigns a position in a social game. Not to have realized this, especially since he was himself such a skilled player -- this is Stevens's mistake from a Buddhist perspective.
Although it might appear that the end of the novel leaves Stevens a wreck, regretfully cynical of his misplaced trust, this is not the case. Stevens talks about hoping "to make the best of what remains of my day," in a tone that is not glum (244). Once again Ono provides instructive insight when earlier in the novel he says, "it is one of the enjoyments of retirement that you are able to drift through the day at your own pace, easy in the knowledge that you have put hard work and achievement behind you" (41). In retirement one is a person of no standing and hence no anxiety. Having no assigned part to play, one has no fear of giving a bad performance. In retiring from the world, as do Buddhist monks, there is an invitation to see life as art, as a performance rather than as a Zoroastrian battle. A Westerner might argue that even Zen Buddhist monks play some social role and that Stevens remains employed. Yet consider what Mr Farraday wants from Stevens. Mr Farraday, a rich American who employs Stevens after Darlington's demise, wants a purely dramatic performance. Farraday is amused by Stevens, until one day when Stevens fails to offer the performance that is expected of him for one of Mr Farraday's American guests by denying that he was Lord Darlington's butler (123). At least in part, Stevens's motive is obvious: he did not want to exhibit his part in the pretension and gullibility of drafting policies of appeasement to Hitler. The guest lets Mr Farraday know that she thinks the house and butler are imitations. Farraday is not amused when he inquires, "I mean to say, Stevens, this is a genuine grand old English house, isn't it? That's what I paid for. And you're a genuine old-fashioned English butler, not just some waiter pretending to be one. You're the real thing, aren't you?" (124). Farraday bought the house because it was a theatrical museum. Stevens is employed as the star actor in this small theme park. What angers Farraday is the quality of performance. Because Stevens's performance failed to entertain the audience, Farraday is disappointed in the way a producer would be disappointed in a stage play flop. The sole concern is esthetic. Death camps and atomic bombs do not threaten.
At the end of The Remains of the Day, two features offer opportunities to reconsider the entire novel and to see it as something more than a tour de force of style. First, we might note that the final image is almost the same as that in An Artist of the Floating World. In the earlier novel the final image is of "all those people gathered beneath the lamps, laughing" (206). In The Remains of the Day we find Stevens waiting for pier lights to come on, and when they do he studies "more closely these throngs of people laughing and chatting," discovering that "evidently, they had all paused a moment for the lights coming on." This is a moment of zazen, of disengagement from unreflective life preoccupied with details, of noticing the light instead of the objects it illuminates. Consider next how Stevens continues: "As I watch them now, they are laughing together merrily. It is curious how people can build such warmth among themselves so swiftly. It is possible these particular persons are simply united by the anticipation of the evening ahead. But, then, I rather fancy it has more to do with this skill of bantering. Listening to them now, I can hear them exchanging one bantering remark after another" (245). The topic of "bantering" provides the second opportunity to reconsider the novel. At the beginning of the novel, the banter of Mr Farraday seemed a nuisance to Stevens and seemed perhaps to provide a source of humor to readers. In either case it did not seem especially significant. How astonishing, then, to discover the centrality of bantering in Zen Buddhism and accordingly to recognize that it functions in the novel as a kind of Zen practice which liberates Stevens from his samurai role.
There are two schools of Zen Buddhism: Soto and Rinzai. Both rely on zazen (seated meditation) to produce enlightenment. Rinzai Masters additionally assign koan study to their disciples. Meditation temporarily suspends all social roles except that of zazen, which Zen Buddhism claims is not really a social role but the natural human condition, our "original face." Koans present the student with culturally insoluble problems in order to erode confidence in the assumption that Confucianism has delineated the rules for every game that can be played and in order to question the assumption that analysis can get to the bottom of things. Many Westerners are familiar with the koan which asks, "what is the sound of one hand clapping?" Yet what may be misleading in this popular example is that koans are not mildly entertaining enigmas. Koan study constitutes a formal and intense dialogue (another Confucian game) between a student and his roshi (Zen Master). When the Master demands, "Not thinking of good, not thinking of evil, just this moment, what is your original face before your mother and father were born?" he wants an answer. Alan Watts quotes a Zen master's description of koan work: the enigma causes a "'feeling of uneasiness and impatience'. After a while this feeling becomes intensified, and the Koan seems so overwhelming and impenetrable that the disciple is likened to a mosquito trying to bite a lump of iron" (73-74). The famous Chinese scholar, Wing-tsit Chan, adds that "Literally koan means an official document on the desk, connoting a sense of important decisions and the final determination of truth and falsehood" (18). The inability to provide the right answer -- like the inability of Stevens to find the key moment on which his life pivots, imagining that he could have turned it in the right direction by giving the correct response -- creates great anxiety for a Japanese schooled in Confucian etiquette. To the same effect, Kasulis recounts the story of an exasperated Buddhist monk who tried to turn the tables by asking his master, "What [sort of thing] is this person of no status?" The roshi came down from his dais like a thunderstorm. Seizing the student, "Rinzai exclaimed, 'Speak! Speak!'" When the monk hesitated, not knowing how he was expected to respond in this situation, "Rinzai released him, saying" of the student, here is "the true person of no status, what a dried-up shit-stick he is." He then left the monks to ponder the double entendre hinged between Buddhist and Confucian expectations about how the monk should have acted (Kasulis 51-52. Kasulis explains that "while the secular person must have a presupposed status in order to act, the Zen Buddhist is, in Rinzai's words, a person of no status." He has no social situation or stage on which to act, no script to follow, and yet there is an insistent demand to perform. Yes, but which part? The answer is no part, show me your original face: "the Zen ideal is to act spontaneously in the situation without first objectifying it in order to define one's role" (Kasulis 132); that is, the "message" of Zen is simply to live instead of first studying how to live as specified by Confucian texts.
In a less intense way, the bantering in The Remains of the Day produces an effect similar to koan study in zazen. Bantering will accept neither habitual nor convention response. In laughing at the proffered response, it forces one to consider how one has acted -- from a point of view without rules. On this point Faure says that "There may be a type of sudden awakening that, like humor, totally subverts all . . . categories (and as such is not itself a category)" (46). In this context, we might note that very early in the novel Stevens confesses that "bantering on my new employer's part has characterized much of our relationship over these months" (14). Like a Zen monk challenged to respond to a koan assigned to him by his master, Stevens tells us he "would smile in the correct manner whenever I detected the bantering tone in his voice. Nevertheless, I could never be sure exactly what was required of me on these occasions" (15). Zen monks also compiled lists of koans -- one might almost call them jokes -- and their "answers" in a work called the Mumonkan. Stevens sounds very much like a Zen monk when he puzzles, "how would one know for sure that at any given moment a response of the bantering sort is truly what is expected?" What one needs to appreciate here is Steven's Japanese heritage, wherein a roshi requires as much respect as an English lord. Thus Stevens worries, "One need hardly dwell on the catastrophic possibility of uttering a bantering remark only to discover it wholly inappropriate" (16). He experiments with timid and studied witticisms, but admits, "I cannot escape the feeling that Mr Farraday is not satisfied with my responses to his various banterings" (17).
The problem in regard to enlightenment is that the Zen Buddhist monk typically relates to his roshi in a manner specified by Confucian ethics, the system that seems coterminous with Japanese culture. In Japanese culture, the whole point of Confucian ethics is security: to provide safety from embarrassment by meticulously following etiquette. Benedict explains that the Japanese tend to "stake everything on ruling their lives like pedants and are deeply fearful of any spontaneous encounter with life" (291). Zen Buddhism provides alterity. It is a crazy "system" -- Faure calls it "ritual antiritualism" (284) -- dedicated to destroying, or at least suspending, the mediating system of Confucian ethics, which Zen Buddhism claims alienates one from direct experience. Consequently the roshi often employs crazy-wisdom to violate Confucian expectations. The roshi may slap the student or denigrate conventional Buddhist piety or do something strange. For example, the Mumonkan tells this shocking story. Some monks are quarreling about a cat when Nansen, their roshi, intrudes, saying, "if you can say a word of Zen, I will spare the cat." Not knowing what they are expected to say, the monks are silent and the roshi kills the cat, violating ethical principles about nonviolence and compassion. Imagine the shock among non-Buddhists as well as Buddhist, if the Dalai Lama was filmed today chopping a pet cat in two. The monks must fear that their master had gone crazy. What would they expect when Nansen reports the incident to Joshu, an even greater Zen master? They would expect Joshu to upbraid Nansen, perhaps to expel him from the monastery and proclaim that he is no Buddhist. Instead Joshu "took off his sandal, put it on his head, and walked off"! Nansen then remarked, "If you had been there, I could have saved the cat!" (Shibayama 109-15; Blyth 120-25). In a formal interview the roshi asks his disciple, "what is the meaning of Joshu's putting his shoe on his head?" (Blyth 124). The Buddhist monk is likely to be as perplexed as Mr Stevens is by Mr Farraday's bantering.
The problem with rules and scripts is that they cannot take the measure of life. Even if the code is perfectly, rather than shabbily, enacted, it produces mandarins instead of Buddhas. The perfect Nazi is still a thug. Stevens's father provides an additional illustration. In his seventies, at the end of a life of distinguished service, Stevens's father has always been a paragon of bushido, of samurai discipline and loyalty. Stevens is shocked when Miss Kenton, at the time a newcomer to the estate, sees in the old man nothing more than an under-butler. Stevens remarks, "I am surprised your powers of observation have not already made it clear to you that he is in reality more than that. A great deal more" (53). Consider Mr Stevens senior as his son finds him early one morning near the end of his life. Is he a man to be emulated? Stevens offers us the portrait of an old monk living in a "prison cell" garret at the top of the house, as though at the summit of a mountain. Although it is still dark, the old mandarin "was sitting, shaved and in full uniform" waiting for the dawn. Clearly the model of monastic discipline, he admonishes his son, "'I've been up for the past three hours,' he said, looking me up and down rather coldly." The old man also glanced "disapprovingly at the lamp I had brought to guide me up the rickety staircase." Stevens reports that "the oil lamp beside his bed had been extinguished" (64). We have already become aware of the significance of this symbol from the suffusive lamp-light in An Artist of the Floating World and the lights of the pier at the end of The Remains of the Day. There is also Gautama Buddha's dying injunction that every Buddhist knows: "be ye lamps unto yourselves." Gautama clarified at least part of his metaphor by ironically admonishing his followers, "Look not for refuge [or light] to any one besides yourselves" (Buddhist Suttas 38). Clearly the light has gone out on top of this mountain.
After the death of his father and the death and disgrace of Lord Darlington, Stevens is left with the frail reed of bantering as a discipline. He has no choice in this. Stevens admits that he was part of a "package" deal (242). He went with the house when the American bought it and Mr Farraday chooses to confront Stevens with banter. Consequently, Stevens feels forced to devote "some time and effort over recent months to improving my skill in this very area" (130). As though he was talking of koan study in zazen, Stevens says, "I have devised a simple exercise which I try to perform at least once a day; whenever an odd moment presents itself, I attempt to formulate three witticisms based on my immediate surroundings at that moment" (131). We smile at the oxymoron of such a resolute study of humor, but there is something serious to note in Ishiguro's use of Zen bantering. For if one is to avoid the end of Stevens's father, the sterility of mere discipline -- or worse, avoid following Darlington to Auschwitz -- one can perhaps only do so by laughing: laughing at the roles others are playing, not because they are badly performing their parts, but for the opposite reason, precisely because in playing their parts so determinedly they strike us as false, as performances which are forced, followed by rote. Above all, such performances are grim and joyless. One believes, not that these people are conscious fakes or interested in manipulating others, but that they are deluded and ignorant of their own identity apart from the scripts they desperately follow. Instead of living they are acting. Then one sees this about one's self. And suddenly the role of samurai or butler or even monk is transformed from a matter of humorless and grim discipline into a performance, a dance. The axis shifts from counting the minute details of duty to appreciating an esthetic performance. Life is not confined in a number of Confucian games. As many Japanese descriptions of enlightenment have it, the bottom of the bucket suddenly falls out and all the water of good karma or dutiful Confucian action is lost.
In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water! (Reps 31)
One does not need to see the "moon in the water" or one's life rationalized in a diary, if one is in contact with the living moment. Can you see the moon? Do you have a life? The roshi laughs at the anxiety that turns life into a diary of moral calculation.
Certainly Stevens is no Buddha at the end of the novel. Yet neither is he like Miss Kenton, now Mrs Benn, who writes, "I have no idea how I shall usefully fill the remainder of my life," which "stretches out as an emptiness before me" (49). It is true that Stevens is still evasive in regard to realizing how profoundly his code betrayed him: how he could have easily worn a Nazi uniform under slightly different conditions, and consequently how it is reliance on absolute moral systems, which defend the ego, that is the problem in a Buddhist view. Consider that if he had been on the "right" side, Mr Stevens would not have been a success. He merely would have been a mandarin as smug as his father and Lord Darlington. Reginald Cardinal prompts Stevens to recognize something like this when he asks if Stevens is curious about Darlington's involvement with Ribbentrop: "Tell me, Stevens, don't you care at all? Aren't you curious?" (222). He presses, "You just let all this go on before you and your never think to look at it for what it is" (223). Stevens continues to play his samurai part, ironically imagining that his "father might have been proud of" the stance he takes to bar Reginald from barging into Lord Darlington's meeting at the very moment when "his lordship's good name was destroyed for ever" (235). Equally painful, Stevens also stands watch, with "an ever-growing conviction mounting" that "Miss Kenton was at that moment crying," because his script of butler/samurai says nothing about how to act in the circumstance of proffered love. Years later he confesses that "at that moment, my heart was breaking" (239).
Regrettable as these incidences are, Stevens cannot redeem them. At best, he can see that such moments of crisis and loss were there in the scripts he was following. The way to avoid such waste and tragedy is not through redoubled dedication and discipline, but paradoxically, less. The roshi might ask if, at the time, Stevens truly felt compelled to act as he did in those two crises? If so, then why does he feel guilt-ridden, imagining later that he could have acted otherwise than the script dictated? At this point a Westerner poignantly feels the antagonism between the unique self, dedicated to principles through individual decisions, and a social role, which seems so much more superficial. This is not the case in Japan. Benedict reports that "Unforeseen situations which cannot be handled by rote are frightening" to Japanese precisely because moral principles, as such, are not available in their experience (293). Benedict turns this around somewhat, explaining "that they have been brought up to trust in a security which depends on others' recognition of the nuances of their observance of a code. When foreigners [or a Zen master] are oblivious of all these proprieties, the Japanese are at a loss. They cast about to find similar meticulous proprieties according to which Westerners live and when they do not find them, some speak . . . of how frightened they are" (225).
Zen would regard the regret that Mr Stevens feels as a sophisticated way of clinging to the ego. It is a way to inflate the ego into a transcendental state, making it somewhat like the ego of the Christian or Muslim at the Last Judgment when the individual considers all the moments of moral decision, which, being chosen, constituted what the person became. The paradox of imagining alternative lives arises because there is a notion of the self as existing prior to, and in some way remaining unaffected by, the experiences which define the self. The problem comes from an unacknowledged shift or dualism between the self as the product of experience and the self as a transcendental agent that chooses which experiences to have. Buddhism considers this second self to be an illusory product of theology or retrospection. As Stevens discovers, one does not know until one has experienced. There is only one temporal track.
In closing his diary, Stevens feels that "Perhaps it is indeed time I began to look at this whole matter of bantering more enthusiastically. After all, when one thinks about it, it is not such a foolish thing to indulge in -- particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth." In teasing and bantering we disallow a conventional response, a reply merely in character. It is something very close to the roshi who continually teases, "come on, show me your original face, not your butler's face or some other mask, show me your face." Stevens admits, "I have of course already devoted much time to developing my bantering skills, but it is possible I have never previously approached the task with the commitment I might have done" (245). We cannot predict that Stevens will become someone different than the Confucian mandarin, that he will become archly sensitive to multiple and detailed disciplines. But we can say that there is a better chance of liberation under the bantering tutelage of Mr Farraday than under the grim discipline of his father or Lord Darlington. Perhaps Mr Stevens is further on the way in this regard than we think. In his last sentence, Stevens says that he hopes to "be in a position to pleasantly surprise" his roshi, Mr Farraday. Perhaps he has already surprised us. Is his diary as flat and ironically unselfconscious and morally didactic as we think, or is it in some degree a witticism, which puts the reader in an analogous position to Mr Stevens vis-�-vis Mr Farraday?
Heinrich Dumoulin illustrates that as an ideology, in contrast to ritual, Zen Buddhism is largely defined by a tradition of crazy-wisdom, paradox and bizarre teaching methods (96-102). For example, Hui-n�ng, who "is regarded, next to Bodhidharma, as the second and actual founder" of the Zen sect of Buddhism, is depicted as an illiterate (possibly retarded) rice-pounder doing menial kitchen work before being elevated to leadership of the entire sect (Dumoulin 88). Finally, we need to remember that Kazuo Ishiguro is the master who has given us the koan of Mr Stevens to study. The reward is insight into the Japanese and Buddhism that supersedes abstract scholarly studies and illuminates a great novel that otherwise may remain closed to most readers. If this explication is convincing in revealing the theme of The Remains of the Day, it illustrates an appropriate critical technique for the analysis of many Commonwealth and postcolonial novels: using comparative religion and philosophy to provide key terms and concepts to comprehend non-Western identity, motives and values.
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