Taste, Trauma & Linguistics – The Last Samurai

I was once consigned to a suicide ward against my will after having made a joke involving suicide and root canals. Following a lengthy battle of wits, the body building psychiatrist on duty said, “I know this is probably a very Kafkaesque experience for you, but I have no choice but to place you under observation for five days.” I replied by laughing, “Kafka?” I then followed more forcefully with, “That’s a pretty erudite reference for a psychiatrist. Do you use it with every one with half a brain who you want to put at ease? Listen, I have a syllabus due today and a flight to catch in just an hour, so let me out of here. If necessary, we can call Elaine so that she can verify my sanity.” Unfortunately, being a skeptic Elaine would do no such thing (don’t worry, Elaine, I don’t hold a grudge) given that I had previously attempted suicide (unsuccessfully), and because I maintained that whether I was suicidal or not was really no one’s business but my own. I remember dressing down another behavioral staff psychologist by saying, “Freudian psychoanalysis may arguably have well-documented faults, but he, at least, had room in his theory for jokes. Did you know that nothing’s funny without a sense of humor?” I was subject to an intricate test of my patience for three days, involving being compelled to ‘draw my emotions’ while a soft-spoken woman played Enya for us. The only readable book in the joint was Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day. One afternoon, I was sent to my room for alluding to my gayness in front of a young, suicidal, Christian boy when, in group therapy, I mentioned that my ex-boyfriend had dumped me on our anniversary because I didn’t ‘make enough money.’ I also mentioned how much I enjoyed the fact that while I was being dumped, his car was being towed as he’d parked illegally so he could pack his things more easily (I’d reminded him countless times never to park outside my window after 2AM, but there was no point in listening to someone who made as little money as I did at the time). I was punished for refusing to be sensitive to the Christian boy’s values. He was there because he had jumped off a bridge, which I don’t think is very consistent with Christianity either. I told the counselor that the next time the kid talked to me, “he is welcome to just close his eyes and pretend I’m straight.” Finally, Ali and Ameer discovered I was being held against my will and had me released. I mention this lengthy anecdote because the right to be suicidal — a respect for basic autonomy — is considered an enlightened value in Helen De Witt’s The Last Samurai.

Upon reading this novel, I wondered why my brother had recommended it to me. Was it because, like Sibylla, I am a vocal proponent of euthanasia and suicide (as well as abortion)? Was it because I tend to sound irrational in argument, as does Sibylla? Is it because like Ludo, I spent much of my childhood trying to sort out the hidden details of my pre-history (something about my mother being sold to our father in a land deal)? The recommendation was more likely due to a moment of clarity on Sibylla’s part that led to her decision to leave her graduate degree in Classics at the last moment. If ever you’ve spent obstinate hours everyday to learn another language so as to watch a rare and obscure argument construct itself, only to discover that said argument (declared indispensable by one’s mentors) is utterly idiotic, then Sibylla’s exhausted epiphany is familiar to you. In her case, she performs a painstaking word by word translation from German of Roemer’s exploration of Aristarchus’ notes on Homer:

Whenever someone else was said to have said something brilliant he saw instantly that it was really by Aristarchus, and if any brilliant comments happened to be lying around unclaimed he instantly spotted the unnamed mastermind behind them.

Now it is patently, blatantly obvious that this is insane. If you are going to shuffle all the names around so that one person is always the genius, this means that you have decided not to believe your source whenever it says someone else said something good or the genius said something bad — but the source is your only reason for thinking the genius was a genius in the first place. Anyone who had stopped to think for two seconds would have seen the problem, but Roemer had managed to write an entire scholarly treatise without thinking for two seconds. Having settled on stupidity as the criterion of inauthenticity he went on to discard one stupid remark after another as really by Zenodotus or Aristophanes (no, not the) or misquoted by Didymus, with many sarcastic & gleeful asides on the ineptitude of those imbeciles.

While there are many factors that can bring one to commit or attempt suicide (including trauma, the desperate need for attention, emotional blackmail or the way in which everything one does becomes a signifying practice of academic achievement), I think it’s perfectly plausible that for a gifted person repeated exposure to inanity, pedantry and wild illogic are sufficient antagonisms to foment the need to cease to exist (viz, “I am leaving you because you don’t make enough money”). Sibylla is one such person. Oversensitivity to stupidity traumatizes her and enchains her in disastrous causality, such as when she sleeps with the acclaimed travel writer, whom she appropriately dubs Liberace, in order to politely stop him from talking anymore. She explains this incident to her son in terms of the ontology of etiquette, “There is a strange taboo in our society against ending something merely because it is not pleasant–life, love, a conversation, you name it, the etiquette is that you must begin in ignorance & persevere in the face of knowledge, & though I naturally believe that this is profoundly wrong it’s not nice to go around constantly offending people.”

Her genius of a son, Ludo, is a product of that encounter, and while she’s tactically trying to reproduce J.S. Mill’s and Mr. Ma’s (Yo Yo’s father) educational programs, her real goal is to produce a child with sufficient Taste as to be able to detect what is wrong with his father so as to avoid adverse influence. The narration presents Sibylla’s family history in scattered pieces, and no scene’s motivation is ever present in the scene (which makes sense as systems cannot describe themselves), but it’s eventually, inductively, clear that she is the product of two failed geniuses, both of whom were themselves damaged and disappointed by their own parents’ failure of intellectual courage and daring. So, as all the reviews mention, Ludo begins learning Greek at the age of 4.

I don’t know why reviewers are so fascinated by this. He also learns Japanese, Inuktikut, Hebrew and Arabic. Reviewers of the novel are as gripped by this as the passengers on the Circle Line, which Sibylla and Ludo ride daily during the winter because heating the apartment is too expensive. Like reviews of the novel, passengers on the Circle Line can’t stop themselves from commenting on this precocity, bothering Sibylla with praise, critique, advice – none appreciate “Homer in the Greek” as a good unto itself. Ressentiment drives this fascination with Ludo’s precocious learning, transforming the Circle Line into Sibylla’s route through the circles of hell as she is subjected to vindictive criticism and interruption when people see Ludo highlighting his copy of The Illiad. Language attainment at an early age is not extraordinary. Ludo himself says that Greek is easy. I would confirm this and add that so is Arabic. Egyptian children learn it all the time. Nevertheless, most people are monolingual morons, as well as are some people who learn Greek at the age of three. As Ludo says of John Stuart Mill, “Mr. Mill was rather stupid and had a bad memory and he grew up 180 years ago.”

I think a more notable plot point in these rides are the incidents on the Circle Line, arguments Sibylla finds herself in with other passengers. Ludo’s journal (age 5) reveals:

One interesting thing that happened today is that we took the Tube one way and then we took it the other way and a lady got into an argument with Sibylla. Sibylla said let’s take the example of two men about to be burned at the stake, A dies at a time of heart failure while B burns to death at time t + n, I think we can all agree that B’s life would be better if it were n minutes shorter. The lady said she thought it was rather different and Sibylla said she thought it was exactly the same and the lady said there was no need to shout. Sibylla said she wasn’t shouting she just thought it was barbaric to force people to die at time t + n and she said barbaric so loud that everyone in the train looked around!

Ludo’s linguistics skills are amplified by an early study of algebraic principles, and it’s clear that Sybilla finds that her rationalizations of self-extinction find expression through mathematical formulae. The brilliance of this novel is that Ludo notices the violence of pure reason early on in life. The more advanced he becomes, the less dependant he is on Sybilla. “Sibylla said now that I was 6 I was old enough to act like a rational human being.” He realizes that once he achieves autonomy and his Taste is properly, fully, formed, Sybilla will be free to try to kill herself again. “She tried to kill herself once and was stopped. She thinks it might have been better if she had succeeded – she thinks it when people are very banal and boring. Now she can’t because of me.” Ludo has memorized Sybilla’s enraged remembrances of her conversations with the anti-suicide Samaritan hotline.

I think most of the latter half of the novel – Ludo, age 11 – is about Ludo trying to figure out a way to keep her alive. His strategy is unclear at first. All we know is that he’s confronting other geniuses, metaphorically “raising his sword” à la The Seven Samurai, and trying to “defeat” them. No need for me to give away Ludo’s final solution to the problem. It’s ingenious, though, and involves confronting Sybilla with difference, repetition and the unique.

It’s amusing to watch Ludo and Sybilla verbally spar. Sybilla refuses to reveal the name of Ludo’s father, apart from dubbing him Liberace. “I said: Well just tell me this. He didn’t rape you did he? (Everything I know about delicacy I learned at my mother’s knee.)” But she won’t give him a name until he can detect terrible writing and art regardless of received opinion:

I said: According to one reviewer this writer I am supposed to regard from a state of grace beyond pity is the greatest writer in English in the world today. Another described him as America’s answer to Flaubert. A third referred to him as the great chronicler of the American experience. Nine out of ten reviewers gave him a rating of ‘great’ or better. Five used the word genius’.
She said: Anything follows from a false premise. If you accept that American novels should be written in English then it also follows that the Pope is a Jew.
I said: Well in that case Seven Samurai can’t be any good because it’s in black and white and Japanese. You’re being completely inconsistent. I thought: This is insane. …
She said: I wish you wouldn’t say that first thing that comes into your head, Ludo. There is an obvious difference between someone who works within the technical limitations of his time which are completely beyond his control and someone who accepts without thinking limitations which are entirely within his own power to set aside.

At first it’s not apparent that De Witt actually agrees with some of Sybilla’s more idiosyncratic convictions, such as the American novel should not be in English. But the interpolation of passages from Inuktikut, Japanese, and Greek texts, as well as conversations that occur on French and Italian, indicate otherwise. By foregoing English for large swaths of the novel and moving the narrative inductively, De Witt has written the kind of novel Sybilla imagines most books will evolve into. Ludo learns to be wary of his own mastery of languages. There’s one moment when he realizes that after years of watching The Seven Samurai, even after having learned to read Japanese, Sybilla still reads the sub-titles and hasn’t learned to simply hear the meaning of the dialog. He demonstrates to her that the sub-titles actually moderate the work. She’s clearly impressed when Ludo gives her a more accurate translation of a scene. Approaching a dangerous moment, Ludo backs away from translating the entire film, as if by doing so — by so demonstrably surpassing her and making her the student — her work will have been shown to be completed and she would be free to go ahead and kill herself.

I can’t recommend this novel highly enough. Consider it a book for people who have to worry about possibly being too rational for their own good.

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4 Responses to “Taste, Trauma & Linguistics – The Last Samurai”

  1. Zed Says:

    You’d probably like the take on suicide from Not Dead Yet. I would hope that you’re opposed to assisted suicide — the idea that medical bureaucrats are the gatekeepers for end-of-life decisions should not sit well with you. As I’ve heard it, the NDY position is that, if suicide should not be an option presented in a discriminatory fashion only to disabled people. If people should have the right to suicide, then everyone has a right to it. Deregulation of opiates would solve a number of problems.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    You know, I’ve read the book a zillion times, and never did such an exhaustive approach to it ever come to mind. Wow. Time to read it again.I’ve always read it as one interesting person’s wrangling for a solution to a constraint satisfaction problem – who to live for: myself, someone else, everyone. All individually heartbreaking. But in a way, so are all novels, I guess.

  3. darknessatnoon Says:

    anonymous, I think our readings aren’t very different. Having a dependent (Ludo) is a form of constraint, no matter how much Sybilla loves him. In fact, the more she loves him, the more forced is her attachment to life. Within that claustrophobic context, she and Ludo conduct their lives. Right? I could be wrong. These posts are just thought experiments for me.

  4. darknessatnoon Says:

    oh Zed, my dear friend, I am SO not taking the bait this time. 🙂

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