The Best Way to Catfish is with a Torpedo Fish

Japan Postmoderne

Jackson, Jr.

Spring 1999

University of California, Santa Cruz

Mondo – 

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.

    The functions of the Catfish Story

  • Confronting Cultural „Sensitivity“
  • 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.


  • The Romance of Murakami
  • 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
    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?

For Extra Credit
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‘


Earl Jackson, Jr.“

Another Scene

Lets Deviant!