What makes things memorable?

What makes things memorable? Why is it that when you cast your mind back you can recover a memory of a walk down a dark street but not the day that preceded it? Obviously, some things are inherently memorable – most people are going to remember getting married, giving birth, surviving a plane crash – but what about all those other memories that seem to settle for no reason at all? The sign for the public library (in English and Welsh) at the top of the street in which my Nan lived for instance. Or the smell of the school changing rooms at middle school – but not the ones at high school.

What for that matter makes things special? Again, for experiences such as the first time you find yourself in love there’s no mystery. But why do we – or I at any rate – sometimes get the same feeling on a walk i’ve done a dozen or more times before through a landscape which, while interesting, is hardly breathtaking?

Sometimes i suppose there’s no real answer. The feeling of specialness is as much about where you are mentally as physically. Other times though i can at least guess part of the reason and that’s the thrill of being surprised. It happened to me last week when i went to Cafe Oto to a gig dubbed ‘dj sniff meets Evan Parker, John Edwards & Mark Sanders’, the latter three being free jazz/improv musicians. I had no idea what i was letting myself in for; i’d bought the ticket on a whim. Evan Parker, the saxophonist, was someone i’d heard before but felt i hadn’t heard the best of and the dj (in lower case) sounded vaguely interesting.

Thank God for whims: the musicians were wonderful and the dj (a young Japanese man wearing a deerstalker-like hat) was a revelation. The gig was superb – more than that, it was special. This was one of those nights when you practically float home and the next morning wake up feeling overjoyed just to be alive. All the odder, you might think, given that the music was challenging to put it mildly: jagged and intense, raging and opaque.

The first set had each of the acoustic musicians taking it turns to improvise with dj sniff, a turntable musician (as he calls himself), who showed that it really is possible to make new music* from other people’s music – and from all sorts of sounds. At one point he seemed to be playing a dog bark and part of a scream, at others he took drum fills and created new drum fills out of them! The second set brought all four musicians together and was even wilder than the first. Saxophone, drums, double bass (plucked, bowed, slapped, scraped) and that impassive whirlwind at the turntable.

Still, what i remember isn’t necessarily what i want to remember. I’d like to be able to recall in detail the contours of the improvisations that i heard; instead my most vivid memory is trying to find the train station afterwards**. Oh, well…

* And i do mean ‘new music’. This was as far from a simple remix or even a mash up, as a symphony is from a medley of songs.
** Actually, it’s more specific than that: what I remember is the zig-zagging dark street I walked along when I left the cafe.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T

There’s an interesting post over at normblog* in which he comments on the apparent controversy over whether or not the US President was correct to bow when he met the Emperor of Japan. Those who are criticising Obama are accusing him of being subservient. The Washington Times for instance accuses him of selling out

what America… is about

which is that

all men stand equal and are entitled to look even a king, maybe particularly a king, straight in the eye.

This is apparently due to Obama being

sired by a Kenyan father, born to a mother attracted to men of the Third World and reared by grandparents in Hawaii, a paradise far from the American mainstream.

No matter that, according to one blog which commented on this editorial, the author is the son of a man who defended segregation – not the most obvious example of men being allowed to stand equal, although it was for a long time a big part of what America was about for some of its citizens. After all, What kind of person judges a person according to their parents?

What i am really interested in is the unease around respect, which when talked about in the abstract is usually considered to be a good thing. From childhood on, we are urged to respect others. In fact, we are commonly told that all human beings are worthy of respect. This being the case it could be argued that Obama’s mistake is not in bowing to an emperor, but in only bowing to an emperor. He should bow to everybody. Everybody should bow to everybody. In fact, I remember reading a book about Buddhism which contained a description of a monk even bowing to an insect (or some kind of small creature anyway) that he encountered as we walked along a path.

“Well… maybe,” you might say. “But that isn’t what i have a problem with. My problem is with the idea that any human being is ‘higher’ than another – and that is what bowing says to me.” Surely however that is exactly what respect means – to hold someone in a higher regard than yourself. For example, when we say we respect our elders, we imply that they are above us in some way: wisdom, experience, endurance of hardship; hence the fact that as synonyms dictionaries offer words like: veneration, admiration, reverence. The idea that we should respect all our fellow human beings actually rests on an assumption that we can find some aspect of any other human being in which they exceed us.

By way of objection, you might mention an artist, X, who says that he respects another artist, Y, who is quite obviously his inferior; but actually what does X respect? It could be that Y achieves so much despite the fact that he is less talented than X, that he works harder, that although his work isn’t overall of the same standard as X’s it nevertheless excels his in some areas: variety, quantity, commercial success. This list would be very long indeed if i were to try and identify everything it is possible to respect in another artist, but the point is this: for X to respect Y there must be some relevant area in which he feels that Y is his superior, or else X is lying.

One question raised by Obama bowing to the Emperor Akihito is whether or not he is indicating respect for – suggesting as ‘higher’ – a social hierarchy based on birth, rather than personal achievement. This reflects the fact that emperors, indeed like most of us, are both people in their own right and representatives of the ‘system’ or ‘organisation’ in which they have a role. As the Emperor of Japan, Akihito can be perceived as representing the a hierarchical social system; but equally he can be seen as representing the Japanese nation of which he is head of state and at a state occasion that would be the more obvious way to interpret behaviour towards him. Obama of course represents the American social system – in a number of interesting ways – as well as America as a country. Are there no ways in which Japan as a nation might be thought to be worthy of respect by America?

Still, you might protest: bowing isn’t our way. The problem with this objection is that bowing is the Japanese way and politeness, which is the way we show respect to people we do not know, is culture-specific. It is as meaningless to insist on showing people respect according to the rules of your own society as it is to insist on speaking to them in your own language. When Americans were looking European ‘kings’ in the eye it was as part of a shared and understood – even if contested – story in which the Europeans are the old colonial, dominant power overcome by the new freedom-loving American underdogs. That isn’t necessarily the case when Americans go into Asian or African countries – which reminds me: an Asian perspective on Obama’s bow can be found here.

Thinking about it, much of the anxiety around Obama betraying American ideals by bowing down in front of Akihito can be seen as fear of a foreign ‘language’ – of lacking mastery over the symbols of communication and, by extension, of the story being told. If we shake hands we feel we know what the gesture means; never mind that it might have a different conotation for the person we shake hands with. In the case of some bloggers, hidden behind rhetoric about equality, there is an even keener fear – one of not having mastery in the political domain. Japan’s come a long way since those days immediately after World War II when General McArthur could feel quite confident he had no need to bow.

* normblog has an even more relevant post here, but i hadn’t seen it when i wrote this.

Under Autumn light

さまたげず
さまたげられず
秋灯下

Samatagezu
Samatagerarezu
Shuutooka

Neither hindering
Nor being hindered
Under Autumn light

(Mitsu Suzuki*)

Yes, it’s official. Today i finally surrendered and accepted the obvious: it is Autumn. Don’t expect me jump for joy however.

Friends always try to persuade me of the season’s glories. “Look at the red and gold leaves!” they say, pointing at the bits of dead tree on the ground. “Aren’t they beautiful?” Or they draw my attention to the squirrels busily burying acorns, forgetting that those lucky creatures will sleep through the rest of the wrong end of the year.

I look at the birds, flying in formation away to the south, and wish i was with them. But failing that i hope for light. The shorter the days grow the more i treasure each sunny hour, each cloudless sky. Even Autumn light is better than no light.

* See the Underwater page for a bit more information about her.