A Modern Asian Journey by Ian Buruma (Farrar, Straus & Giroux:
$17.95; 229 pp.) Ian Buruma explores many cultures-in-flux on this whirlwind tour through Southeast Asia--from backward Burma, “where you can leave home without an American Express card,” to Bangkok, “a sexual supermarket"--but it is around enigmatic Japan, where Buruma lived for 10 years, that his most subtle and insightful theories revolve.
Japan resists definition, Buruma admits, because it is such a chameleon culture, eagerly changing its form to fit the latest fad. What the Japanese press calls “booms,” for example, will incite millions of Japanese to slavishly follow the latest fashion, but then vanish weeks later without leaving the slightest mark on the culture. And yet, while the Japanese don’t seem to mind “running faster, ever faster, to keep up with the outside metropole,” as Buruma puts it, they appear increasingly concerned that theirs has become no more than a culture of change. “We are just economic animals,” one man tells Buruma, waiving his hands dismissively, “sex animals, economic animals, sex animals.” And so the question, “What does it mean to be Japanese?,” is increasingly being “probed, like a bad tooth,” Buruma reports, in the popular media. The currently favored theory proposes a dichotomy between the “harsh, brutal and aggressive West” (born in the dry desert and guided by a single, angry God) and the “soft, feminine, peaceful East” (born in the wet rice fields and inspired by sometimes-impish but always pacific gods).
Buruma himself is rather amused by this theory, criticizing its nostalgia for the traditional, “pristine” village (the village, he writes, was in fact “fraught with cruel social discrimination”) and questioning the Japanese people’s faithfulness to its principles. The same Japanese who are nostalgic about “the Village,” “the real Japan,” before foreign industry ruined it, Buruma writes, “will happily litter the landscape with cans, plastic bags, and bottles.” But to condemn this as hypocrisy, he argues, “is to miss the point, (for) the songs belong to a world of the imagination, where Coca-Cola bottles and beer cans do not exist.”
Buruma’s dismissal of the traditional, “earthenware culture” villages is far too pat, for their inequities pale beside those of modern Asian societies. And in his self-confessed eagerness to demonstrate that Asian societies are not paying a high price for progress, he uncritically rules out the possibility that rock music, McDonald’s and “Dynasty” might be making the Thai less Thai or the Japanese less Japanese. Overall, though, “God’s Dust” is a remarkably subtle and inspired account of cultures absorbed in a process of rediscovery and redefinition.
COMING TO OUR SENSES Body and Spirit in the
Hidden History of the West by Morris Berman (Simon & Schuster: $22.95; 425 pp.) While most university scholars have been trying to tame the rapidly expanding body of academic knowledge by making their fields more narrow and specialized, a small but vocal group of historians outside the Ivory Tower has been taking just the opposite tack: Convinced that university scholarship has become too narrow to address society’s more subtle and significant trends, these independent scholars have been interweaving psychology, anthropology and other fields to produce alternative histories. Interestingly, the underlying themes of these inquiries are often remarkably similar, as can be seen in the two most recent (and similarly subtitled) examples: “Lipstick Traces,” Greil Marcus’ “Secret History of the 20th Century,” and “Coming to Our Senses,” Morris Berman’s “Hidden History of the West.”
Both of these offbeat and difficult books affectionately chronicle artistic, cultural and political movements that have rebelled against our cooly secular age by celebrating sensuality, intuition and spirituality. And both, in their conclusions, underscore the need for “mimesis,” an emotive way of living where individuals are free to act out natural impulses. But where Marcus and his ragtag band of rebels--from severe German Jewish intellectuals to seedy, spike-haired punk rockers--laud mimesis as a way of escaping an oppressive culture, Berman celebrates it as a way of escaping culture altogether.
Berman’s problem is not with artistic, political and spiritual cultures themselves, but with the way he believes we use them: as methods of filling up the “nemo,” John Fowles’ term for the “anti-ego,” the “void” that we believe lies inside us in the absence of various faiths and convictions. We haven’t always tried to “a-void” this empty space, Berman writes, pointing to early childhood, when we all felt at one with our external environment (when “just being” was OK), and to pre-modern culture, which called attention to the body, encouraging inward reflectiveness and somatic awareness. Berman points in particular to Gregorian chants, Indian ragas and their modern incarnations (such as the minimalist music of Steve Reich), where rhythms are based in part on human breathing and heartbeats, and to medieval painting and sculpture, which encourage a similar sensation of “silence and tranquility . . . as if the body lets go and time seems to stand still.”
In contrast, Berman contends, our more kinetic modern culture discourages us from looking directly at the “nemo” by offering myriad distractions, such as the diverting harmony of music or the reassuring powers of science, which satisfies the primal need for security by giving us the illusion of absolute knowledge. “The shift from church Aristotelianism to modern science was not one of a shift from an age of faith to an age of reason,” writes Berman, “but from an age of one faith to an age of another faith.” While Berman, who holds a Ph.D. in the history of science from Johns Hopkins, does not deny the value of science in itself, he suggests that a belief in it, or any other dogma, that is motivated by a need to avoid some “somatic terror . . . can be the driest tinder imaginable for fascism.”
“Coming to Our Senses” displays all the weaknesses common to alternative history, from denying any validity in other histories rather than building upon them (“What if all the books are wrong?” Berman asks in his preface) to posing questions so mammoth that they dwarf the author (e.g., “What is the underlying structure of Western civilization?”).
On the whole, however, this is a thought-provoking, boldly original book, reminding us that work, politics and religion are not ends in themselves, but “tools of human needs.”
ARCHITECTS OF FORTUNE
Mies van der Rohe
and the Third Reich
by Elaine S. Hochman (Weidenfeld & Nicolson:
$22.50; 382 pp.) Eloquent testimonials to the horrors of the Holocaust abound, but relatively few books have examined the roots of the tragedy, such as a nationalism in which people proclaim their own culture as the most superior because they have been kept ignorant of all other cultures. In “Architects of Fortune,” however, Elaine Hochman undertakes just such an examination, depicting Nazism not merely as a fact of the past but as a phenomenon whose roots are still grounded in contemporary culture. Studying what permitted architect Mies van der Rohe to ignore the moral degeneracy he saw around him in Hitler’s Germany, Hochman illustrates how Nazism’s strength lay not so much in the forceful rhetoric of the few, but in the complacency of the many.
Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom of the United States in 1963 , Mies has largely been absolved of moral blame for his work under Hitler because he emigrated to America in 1937. As Hochman reveals, however, Mies, “like most Germans at the time,” did not leave his country for moral reasons: “He left because Hitler fancied himself an architect.” Hitler, who would frequently sketch buildings (as well as tanks charging menacingly over hills), eventually halted the construction of all edifices not modeled in the Hellenic style, forcing Mies, a founder of modernism and the father of the steel-and-glass skyscraper, to leave.
While Hitler favored Hellenism because he wanted to link his culture with antiquity, Hochman argues plausibly that modernism, with its imposing, uniform buildings, actually better reflected the spirit of the Hitlerian age. Less persuasive, however, is Hochman’s argument that modernism is based on the very authoritarianism that encouraged Nazism: Hochman offers little architectural criticism to support her tall claim that “the universal acceptance of the Miesian style bears witness to our complicity . . . in its moral principles,” or to counter the argument that non-modernist architecture has been used just as often to bolster established power. “Architects of Fortune” remains a powerful book, nevertheless, portraying Mies not as immoral, but as deluded for his belief that only his art mattered, that “meaningfulness lay somewhere outside empirical reality. . . . The Swastikas that hung from some of the windows were but a decorative device to Mies, like climbing ivy that covered up architect’s mistakes.”
A Life by Donald Spoto (Little, Brown: $19.95; 371 pp.) Affectionate and inspired, this is the definitive biography of the actress and singer who spent the last 30 years of her life popularizing the harshly sweet musicals of her husband Kurt Weill--proving him wrong, in the process, in his characteristically cynical conviction that music is merely a “disposable,” quickly forgotten cultural commodity. Realizing that Lenya’s art and life were inextricably intertwined, Spoto, shows how Lenya’s voice, “alternately thin with the pain of aging or thick with the hope of youth,” would convey the possibility of fatal turmoil that is central to Weill’s musicals, an emotional subtlety other actresses would usually miss.