University of California, Santa Cruz
Question: What is the Question?
Answer: Why was Earl pleased that the students booed his theory of education?
Earl (who, after this sentence will continue the narrative in the first
person) recently presented to the class a compound image which he claimed
encapsulates his theory of education. The students were demonstratively
negative in response; at least one person called out that the theory „meant
The „theory“ in question is a famous fifteenth-century Zen painting,
the property of the Myoshinji Temple in Kyoto. The painting depicts a man
standing on a riverbank holding a gourd, and looking down into the water.
From the surface of the water a large catfish can be seen.There is a large
stretch of unpainted surface above the image itself, on which there is
a text in Classical Chinese, which reads [in Earl’s translation/paraphrase]:
|The best way to catch a catfish is by pressing down on it with a gourd.
Better still, one should grease the gourd first.
Best of all, one should grease the catfish.
What is teaching?
Teaching is more than gather a specific quanta of „information“ and
conveying it to those who did not have that quanta of information previously.
The value (or lack of value) of statements made in a lecture may only be
partially dependent upon the „information content.“ The most interesting
statements are not merely conveyers of data unaffected by the mode of conveyance,
but are gestures, actions, strategies deployed in their risk. Emphasizing
my peculiar reaction to the negative response to the catfish image is in
itself another gesture.
My claim to have been pleased at this reaction is a way of pointing
out one of the functions of the presentation I made. It indicates that
I made the presentation in the manner I did in order to elicit the negative
response that I got. This is only one of the functions of the catfish story.
I will now enumerate them in terms of function.
- Confronting Cultural „Sensitivity“
- The Romance of Murakami
The functions of the Catfish Story
In the weekly response papers students have expressed anxiety over writing
anything about Japan, for fear that they will be culturally inept, making
assumptions based on Western thought and value systems. Students often
paralyze themselves from this fear, or can only write about why they cannot
write about Japan.
While this is a legitimate concern, I wanted to demythologize it to
some extent, but to do it from an unexpected direction. Instead of doing
something to „reveal“ how much you already „know“ about Japan, I wanted
to uncover the cultural insensitivity that those anxieties about writing
about Japan may conceal.
While I was perfectly serious about my use of the catfish painting as
an emblem for education, I actually presented it this way to demonstrate
how quickly we might dismiss an alien tradition of expression. Those of
you booing and denouncing my „theory“ of education, felt authorized to
do so because you were reacting to what you assumed was a statement made
within our shared culture. What this overlooks is that this is a very important
painting in Chinese and Japanese Zen traditions. By rejecting my „theory,“
you were also dismissing as meaningless nearly 1,000 years of East Asian
Buddhist aesthetics, phenomenology, heuristics, and language theory. Remember,
cultural sensitivity is not something practiced at designated times and
in designated areas, like smoking in an airport.
I would like to return to the series of exchanges that I summarized
in the first „Happy Days“ page.
You will recall that I had taken to task in surgical detail, one of the
response papers on Murakami Haruki’s short story „The Second Bakery Attack.“
My critique can be found in full HERE.
The „Happy Days“ includes a summary of my major points of contention and
John Dowling’s (the writer) pertinent, and clear-eyed responses to those
points. A response, in fact, which is what made that day „Happy.“
I had read several student response papers before I had read John’s
that were also problematic. These papers prompted me to write out my
own approach to reading the Murakami story, not as the „only“ way of
reading, but as an exercise in making the process of critical reading visible.
I wrote this and posted it before I had come across John Dowling’s paper.
That approach is HERE.
To return once more to John Dowling’s
original response – you will note that the first thing that draws my
critical fire is John’s claim that Murakami’s story is a twist on „the
traditional romance.“ I enumerate, in bonecrushing detail, the reasons
I found this characterization of the story objectionable.
Now let us go back to my approach to reading the story. One of the things
I suggest, is to read „between the lines“ or „intertextually.“ When the
protogonist and his friend had originally attempted to rob a bakery, the
store owner agreed to give them all the bread they wanted if they would
listen to his Wagner recordings all the way through. The story is so fast-paced
and quirky, it would be easy to overlook or discount a detail here that
I thought worth pursuing. The narrator tells us explicitly which operas
the pair were forced to listen to: Tannhäuser
and Der Fliegende HollSnder
. I translate my off-screen „reading between the lines“ into onscreen
hypertext. I embed in my account of the story, synopsese of each of the
operas in question, which in turn, have embedded in them potential avenues
of exploration should this be of interest.
Read the synopses of the operas. Then follow the hyperlink trails to
the sources of the operas plots. Or just think about the major elements
of the operas. What do the opera’s plots/sources thereof have in common?
And what do these aspects of the two operas have in common with the Murakami
Supposing you found this avenue of inquiry to be worth exploring and
constructed your reading of the Murakami text on this. It would be plausible
and certainly interesting. But notice what else. What are those sources
of the operas? Does the word „romance“ ring a bell? Does it ring a Nibelung?
[sorry, couldn’t resist.]
Look at the details of the „romance“ genre that I cite in my
critique of John Dowling’s use of the term. The punchline here is that
this avenue of inquiry my own approach to the Murakami text supports the
same claim that I refute so vehemently.
But this punchline is a trick punchline. It will break away to reveal
better complications. The contradiction above does not indicate hypocrisy.
And my deliberate delay in pointing this out is another gesture – a means
of demonstrating something that would be either unintelligible or at least
very unconvincing if just stated theoretically, in the abstract. That point
is this: John’s claim that Murakami’s story is a
„twist on the traditional romance“ may be correct, but it could not
have been correct when John wrote it, in the context in which he wrote
it. It may be correct through a reading like the one I suggest above, but
the correctness/aptness of a reading depends upon the how it is discovered
and the contexts that enable it.
This serpentine reading and re-reading around John’s claim is an example
of greasing the catfish.
How was that?
Spot the discrepancy. In the above text Earl claims he will switch
to first person narrative after the first sentence. When in fact does the
switch occur? Is there any occurrence of a self-referential third-person
anywhere between the first sentence and whereever the first-person narrative
first occurs? Identify it for even more extra credit.
To Japan Postmodern Syllabus
Happy Days Two
Happy Days One
How to Read
Jessica Donohue’s ‚Daydreaming in Greek‘