Monday, July 21, 2008

The Great Wave

The Great Wave:
Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan

by Christopher Benfey, reviewed by William P. Meyers

Random House
year of publication: 2003
hardcover 332 pages

For Americans Japan was once a land of mystery. By the time the United States separated from Great Britain, Japan had been closed to the outside world for more than a century (since 1637). The U.S. attack upon Japan by Commander Perry in 1854 started an episodic war that ended with the occupation of Japan in 1945 [See my work in progress, The United States War Against Asia].

Christopher Benfey's The Great Wave is only marginally about war and politics. It is a series of portraits of Americans who traveled to Japan after its "opening," and of Japanese who traveled to the United States. Art, culture, and philosophy are what interested these travelers. The lived during the Meiji Era, but their interest was in the culture prior to that era, that of Old Japan.

The first chapter excited my imagination. It tells of Herman Melville, the New England writer of Moby Dick, who sets the epic battle of man and whale off the shores of Japan. Even more interesting is the story of John Manjiro, a fisher boy who was blown out to sea and rescued by an American whaling ship. He was adopted into a New England family, educated as a westerner, and then eventually returned to Japan to play an important role in its rapid post-Perry development.

Many of Benfey's characters are art collectors; most were famous enough in their day and are now mostly forgotten: Edward Morse, Isabella Gardner, Henry Adams and John La Farge among others. The Boston social elite, bored with Christianity, were fascinated with Buddhism even as scientific materialism began to its steady cultural march in Japan. We learn the story of how a book about the Japanese Tea Ceremony came to be so influential in the U.S.

Generally Benfey weaves his stories skillfully, though I was bored with much of the Henry Adams material. The best part of the book is the Epilogue. Here the relationship of Existentialism to Japanese aesthetics is told not in the abstract, but in specific contacts between Japanese figures, American fans of Japanese culture, and such European luminaries as Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, Henri Matisse, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. I would love to see the ideas and events of the Epilogue developed into a full-length book.

I read The Great Wave slowly, in bits and pieces, and it cast a great deal of illumination on small things about me. The aesthetic of the house I live in, for instance: it was the residence of Haiku Jane, a Mendocino poet who was once given a prize by the Emperor of Japan for her poetry. There is a Bishop Pine log in my garden that is in the last stages of decay, a shell of its former self, riddled with insect tunnels. Some times it strikes me as the most beautiful thing in my garden. And that makes me appreciate the chapter on Lafcadio Hearn, who loved the soft decaying remains of pre-U.S. New Orleans, and who also was a seeker after Old Japan.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Anarchist Farm Published in German

Imagine my surprise when 4 copies of Die Andere Farm Der Tiere arrived in the mailbox on Monday. A III Publishing book had actually been republished outside the U.S! The publisher is Verlag Edition AV. The translator, Katja Cronauer, contacted me a couple, maybe 3 years ago. Other III Publishing books have been translated, or were supposed to be translated, but never appeared as books.

Click on this link to learn more about or buy a copy of the English edition of Anarchist Farm.

The story of the publication of Anarchist Farm by Jane Doe might be of interest. I had done reasonably well as a small press publisher (working part time jobs the whole time). About the time Anarchist Farm was ready for publication we ran out of the third printing of The Last Days of Christ the Vampire. We had the usual problems of small book publishers - limited distribution and lack of economies of scale. In addition our best clients, about 100 independent bookstores that were willing to carry our weird books, were under pressure from Borders. Every few weeks one would go out of business.

So I decided to sink or swim by trying for a higher level of sales and getting my books into Borders. My distributor agreed to push a new edition of the vampire book and Anarchist Farm. There was a moment when it looked good. Barnes and Noble, Borders, and Ingram (not my distributor, but the main distributor in the U.S.) put in orders for about 3000 copies of each book. Because books cost little to print after the first 2000 copies, I ordered 5000 each from my printer. Margins on books were terrible; III Publishing received only 35% of the cover price of books sold in stores.

And then Border and Barnes and Noble asked me to buy shelf space. You didn't think we could sell 1000 of a book not reviewed by the New York Times or backed by a big ad budget, without your buying shelf space, did you? Well, actually I thought they could. But I had spent every bit of my money on the big print runs. Even if I had been willing to bribe the sleazy chains, I could not.

A year later our distributor dropped us, then six months after that they declared bankruptcy. They too had been hurt by the killing of the independent bookstores. I decided not to publish any more books. I had plenty in my garage.

We've sold over 2000 Anarchist Farms, which used to be good for a small press. A lot of people liked the book because it showed a sense of humor about goings on in the world of radical environmentalists and anarchists.

I hope German readers enjoy the book.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Barack Obama: Will He Dick Nixon Us?

Barack Obama has promised some of his supporters to end the United States occupation of Iraq. Slowly, to be sure, but surely. Recently he has been accused of waffling on the issue, but in any case he appears to be substantially different from John McCain on this issue. Voters trapped in the two party fish net who are against the war have nowhere to go. The idea of voting for Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney - well, the press is treating her like she does not exist, so the idea cannot even occur to them.

This brings us right back to 1968. For young Obama supporters who skipped over or forgot that period of U.S. history, allow me to recapitulate. We were deep in a war with Vietnam, allied to the government of South Vietnam, which had been set up by the U.S. (and at times rearranged) after the French left in the 1950s. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower had kept us out of an active military role in Vietnam until 1960. Liberal darling (but really a Cold Warrior) President John F. Kennedy sent thousands of U.S. military "advisors," many of whom in fact were observed engaging in combat. Then after JFK was assassinated President Lyndon Johnson was worried that he would be accused by John's brother Bobby, and conservative southern Democrats, and the entire Republican Party of losing Vietnam if the communists took over South Vietnam. So he sent in hundreds of thousands of troops, carpet bombed North Vietnam, and became the U.S.'s best known international war criminal after Harry "I dropped the bomb" Truman (also a Democrat).

Lyndon Johnson decided not to run in 1968, he had become so unpopular. His vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, was the Democratic Party nominee. Richard Nixon, who had been Dwight David Eisenhower's Vice President, was the Republican Party presidential nominee.

Hubert Humphrey said he was for continuing the war. Richard Nixon said he had a plan to end the war. While there were many other issues in the 1968 election, without a doubt Nixon won because he had a reputation for being fiercely anti-communist, yet made hay on an unpopular war by having a plan for "peace with honor."

Nixon was not just deluding the American people; he was deluding himself. The North Vietnamese were not scared by his threat to use nuclear weapons. So Nixon started negotiating, and started reducing American troop levels. At the same time he tried to brush back the communist advance with ferocious military maneuvers up to and including the bombing and invasion of Cambodia, which was a sanctuary for the communists.

The Democrats, and those to the left of the Democrats (a substantial group at the time), were happy to forget Humphrey and Johnson's troop buildup. They hated Nixon with a blinding passion that made rational analysis and action impossible. Ask any 55 to 85 year old Democrat today who was responsible for the Vietnam War, and almost all will blame Richard (Dick) Nixon. By the end of his term in office we were out of Vietnam, but that did not matter. He even made nice with the Chinese Communists, something no Democratic Party president had dared to do, but got no credit for it from Democrats.

Which brings us back to Barack Obama. George W. Bush involved the U.S. in a war against Iraq followed by an occupation. John McCain, though he was not Vice-President, finds himself in the position of Hubert Humphrey in 1968: an advocate for an unpopular policy. There is no reason to think that in practice John McCain will get the troops out of Iraq any slower than Senator Obama. If McCain says the troops are coming out (after he is elected) you know he can take on the Pentagon brass and the golden calf Republicans. Obama, on the other hand, will have to watch his right flank.

Obama has already promised to transfer at least some of the troops in Iraq to the Afghan front, where the war is going badly at the moment. Don't be surprised if he sends some "advisors" to Somalia as well.

If either President Obama, or President McCain, starts withdrawing troops from Iraq, there is the real possibility that there will be a fundamentalist Islamic takeover. I don't care; that would be an internal matter for Iraq; the U.S. has no business there. But both McCain and Obama would be under heavy pressure to recommit.

The most likely scenario at this point is that Barack Obama will become President. I am capable of hope; I hope he is a good President. But I won't be surprised if he just muddles through like most of our past Presidents. I won't even be surprised if he expands the war and is a failure on domestic issues. On the other hand, maybe he'll surprise us like "Tricky Dick," did. China was not an issue in the 1968 campaign. But by getting us out of Vietnam, opening relations with China, and creating the Environmental Protection Agency, in retrospect President Nixon outshines all the Democratic presidents of that era.