SHIDAI

 

     Where would the history of cinema, or for that matter, the nineteenth-century novel, be without the “chance” encounter on a train as passengers and vehicular conveyance hurtle through the darkness? Not exactly Rimbaud’s romantic trope, Le Bateau ivre, but not so far away either insofar as, like time itself, the train cannot be escaped, either in literary history or in the repositories of memory. After all, the novel itself was an especially privileged genre, subsidized by lending libraries in train stations in nineteenth-century England, which elided narrative plots and plotted train tracks both for its prospective passenger-consumer and productive distributors. Two of Japan’s popular post-war authors, Kawabata Yasunari and Matsumoto Seicho, were “train watchers” both in life and their fictions, the latter of whom used train schedules to reach a different solution, more dependent upon a conspiracy, in the death of a postwar Japanese government official on a train platform than did the “official version.” All of this in a country with the highest track mileage per square mile in the world.

The railroad carriage, environmentally, is spatially highly introverted, insofar as the passenger is assigned a space, an estimated time of arrival, and more often than not, a social class, not unlike private life. But, it is also a familiar, open public institution insofar as it attends to a regular schedule along a pre-scribed route; emits periodic announcements, as if it had a derivative public voice; is regulated by a public or quasi-public agency; allows nearly everyone entrance; and architecturally, inaugurated an exclusive domicile, the simultaneously periodic (both spatially and temporally) smoky public waiting rooms in stations that became both historical icons, and an arbitrary locus of plural intersections among other lines through a system of synaptic points. Peter Whitehead uses this systemic anomaly to construct in Girl on a Train a novel where the very notion of plot (as an incremental spacing of motion through time, and hence the vulcanizing of time and space) is a strategic misnomer insofar as no event can ever be singular in his imagination, an imagination that privileges surplus in what Bataille termed a “general economy.”

 

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All of us are terminal,

     entrapped every day by the promises of a linear narrative, of a parent’s love, a single thread of yarn, stretched between two-dimensional horizons, a train journey to death. 

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Peter Whitehead’s novel thus commences with a historically familiar metaphor of life and narrative travel, before subjecting it to a nuanced deconstruction, shaped by its setting in Japan. In this case, an invited guest to an academic conference, the hopelessly dated romantic (in life as well as in his academic interests) Dr. Michael Schlieman, carries a lot of baggage, both collectively as a character from his presence/absence in previous novels, and, individually, from his private reading in Japanese literature which he tries to assimilate unsuccessfully to his own discipline. Each of us first visitors uses a different code to try to translate (to sleep with?) an innate resistance to linguistic or sexual commerce imbedded in the language. Japan has a special alphabet/syllabary, katakana, to enable alien words to be transacted, not unlike love-making, highly dependent upon “sound” for successful intercourse.   

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Michael watched her in secret, as if through a two-way mirror. The reflection bleached of colour because of an optical illusion on the layer of opaque snow sticking to the glass behind, a trick played by the light in the double glazing of the window; no longer two parallel layers of glass, one was slightly warped. His conference paper discussing the effect of opium on nineteenth-century writers alluded to similar shifts in space induced by the drug altering the mind’s balance. 

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This reflection/destruction occurs at the commencement of a ritual ménage à trois (plus a surplus watcher, creating a fourth voyeuristic dimension) involving Miyako, a translator/facilitator; the mysterious girl on the train; a guest in the shadows; and our intermittent narrator communicating via the Nohzone, assuming he exists as more than fleeting encoded messages to an equally imaginary recipient on a journey to death, Dr. Michael Webster. To exist only in “reception” is one way of describing the novel, contemporary celebrity culture, and the prostitute, all of which share a culture of consumption-on-demand.

 

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Peter Whitehead’s work in film, photography, and fictional narrative involves an exploration of the leakage across “diaphanous membranes” (Chapter III)—more on membranes later—between our public, allegedly private, selected sacred spaces and the times in which we encounter the companionably sacred ghosts that are just across the aisle, even when they are not “there.” And, as it turns out, it is the ghosts of the past—the persistence of time as duration, making of the present, a virtual virtual—that makes every ménage à trois a ménage à quatre. Ghosts make the Nohzone (akin to, but not identical with, cyberspace) what it is: a virtual continuity, an informational cult to which all potentially have access in a plurality of venues.  

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And though Whitehead has never been physically in Japan as traveler or resident, he has travelled to the Land of Wa in his reading. Kawabata Yasunari’s Yukiguni (Snow Country), a realm simultaneously descriptive and a proper noun, even a country, like the Nohzone. Kawabata’s novel continually foregrounds Girl on Train, Whitehead’s incessantly differential plagiarism, like recurrent ghosts that frequently haunt what Henry James termed “The House of Fiction.” Its plot is thus intimately connected both with the history of Japanese literature, including the layered history of the warped mis-readings which have accompanied it’s consumption as merely “exotica” (an easily explicable “coda”) in Western markets. But ghosts also mean in other parts of Whitehead’s varied oeuvre: films, photographic diaries, pottery-making, and a series of antecedent novels, including BrontëGate. Every mis-translation or mis-reading becomes part of the textual palimpsest, which haunt it and threaten to subvert it, much as does this introductory shidai, in the same way that historically antecedent interpretations haunt every literary house of fiction as a kind of ghostly shadow. If, to differentially plagiarize Picasso, “all art is theft,” then Pelagius, the classical kidnapper who lent the vice its name, is the payee of the eye’s ransom.

 

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As Plato discovered in the Sophist, the Forms are available only in discourse. Given that reality must be systematic (because of the intrusion of non-being into our definitions of being), imitation, forgery, and sophistry proliferate. We are thus able to meaningfully say what is not true: to fantasize, speculate, gossip, and of course write stories. In such a world, the sophist or charlatan-liar would be a natural phenomenon, bearing the burden of a deeper truth: for truth to exist, falsehood must also exist. In Peter Whitehead’s work, but especially Girl on a Train, the true and the false are as bound as time present and time past are in Bergson’s durational model of time. 

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Schlieman, former lecturer in the British Romantics at Peterhouse College, Cambridge (Whitehead’s College), in his wanderings and hidden messages might well combine Mary Shelley’s protagonist of The Last Man with the critical trajectory of Graham Hough’s The Last Romantics. He is a penultimate narrator, a commentator upon the impending end of art (which he embodies in his work, given that his theories are a bit dated), living out his last days in what Whitehead imagines as a kind of fifth dimension imagined by close readers of Henri Bergson, but anticipated in the development of the Japanese Noh.

 

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A subtext of the literary conference to which Schlieman has been invited to contribute (to which Girl on a Train repeatedly alludes) is the growth of the shishosettsu novel during the Meiji Period in Japan. A belated and misunderstood application of what Keats (referring to Wordsworth) termed the “egotistical sublime,” Japanese novelists like Dazai developed a “confessional mode” in which a desiring (or at least seeker after transcendence) speaker attempted to establish a stylized first-person sincerity in a confessional genre. The so-called “I novel” was, from one perspective, an attempt to import a Western form into a country whose literary, and even grammatical, practices constitute a “native” resistance: the mirror image of Whitehead’s attempt to thematically appropriate the girl on the train.  

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The absence of any spatial distinction between unity and plurality, the (only vicariously, which means not at all), detached critic might attribute to the “holographic imagination” in Whitehead’s oeuvre. The key to the mystery of holography is precisely that the entirety of an image is present everywhere over its surface, in every divisible fragment (including dream and archaeological fragments) of it: Traherne’s “the absolute felt in the least thing” or Blake’s “universe in a grain of sand” subvert the quest for transcendence that has been the project of Western metaphysics. As time and space are joined like the two halves of the DNA molecule, the physics of holography implies that time and space must be analogously structured, albeit not strictly convertible, as Bergson warned us against assuming. We could, potentially traverse time (as in dreams) as easily as we traverse space. All time would be present and accessible in every other fragment of time, the universal in the particular and vice-versa. Our experience is thus neither presence nor absence, but a holograph: “presence-absence”, “distance-non distance.”

Though neither time nor space, to launch a feeble pun, allows a full articulation of the misunderstandings that we form of their relationship, Whitehead’s holographic imagination may well have antecedents in Bergson’s notion that intuition presupposes duration. The primary Bergsonian division, it should be recalled, is between duration and space, as opposed to most classical philosophy—or for that matter, even nineteenth-century Uniformitarianism—which would align the two as a set. 

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        The structuration of Whitehead’s novels, like the Japanese Noh and renga, is musical rather than literary insofar as they frequently “play” with the synapses that develop between keeping time and its apparent (but only apparent) disruptions which are really the spacing of continuity. When you listen to music, you are accessing vertical parallel (Klages) links, harmonics which are to the aural register what the palimpsest is to the visual register. The entire composition must be maintained vertically in the present. Hence the interpretational code is there and not there, insofar as it resists access as a totalizing coda, (a map of understanding). What appears as markers or pauses or “breaks,” as in the glazing of oriental ceramics of which Whitehead is an accomplished student, is simultaneously restorative of a previous “time” as well as “anticipatory” of a future “time” which the plot (melody) has only incompletely foregrounded. Whitehead’s oeuvre perhaps more nearly resembles that of the equally under-rated Anthony Powell’s epochal A Dance to the Music of Time.

 

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Miyako, (this name later changed to Yuki) Dr. Schlieman’s very Westernized, English-speaking guide, assigned to a foreigner who, sharing Forster’s Adela Quested’s wish in A Passage to India, to experience the “real” Japan in five days, constructs a familiar myth for her student/guest. Japan was “once upon a time”—hence a myth of divine origins—a country where sex was an art form. But the art has now entered a decadent phase in which common prostitutes, street artists as it were, “pretend” to be part of a school of performance art surrounding the movements of the geisha. The mysterious “girl on a train” with her aged and infirm companion is really a plagiarism, an art form gone to seed, with her imitation leather skirt and peculiarly western posture. As the work of Claude Levi-Strauss perpetually reminds us, every myth never merely describes, but participates in the myth it narrates. The entire thrust of Girl on a Train is the inclusion of myths within myths, a continuous re-writing that is never separate from its putative foundations. There can be no “outside” to any myth. 

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        Throughout his career, Peter Whitehead has embodied a resistance to the mimetic economy by eschewing the traditional channels of artistic production: commercial publishers, film production companies, and, until quite recently, established critics. 

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Girl on a Train ultimately reveals a relationship between opposites, only one reversed from what the plot of the novel leads us to expect. The adopted half-breed, Yoko (whose natural father is an American military “occupier”) initially appears as the professional woman (in the discourse of her real half-sister, but sexual rival) and in the stereotypes of relationships between young women and old men in the literature of Japan. She is an “adopted” daughter (the female yooshi) who maintains a contaminated family reputation (the step-father a dealer in nuclear waste, as the natural father was a representative of its original deliverer) by a reversible posture that escapes redemption or transcendence because delivery and distribution of the residue, in opposition, drive the system. In Whitehead’s imaginative faux fini, (what else is a “Coda”?) the elusive Yoko reveals herself as having a different status than what either a community’s gossip or Schlieman’s active imagination—which it informs—might lead the reader to suspect. Her narrative, generated by the needs of a rival and the desires of the tourist trade subsidized by the rival, had appeared as the “real Japan,” insofar as it corresponded with an image always-already constructed in the gestural life of the country.  

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The “Coda” surely qualifies as an instance of Hegel’s notorious “bad infinity,” or as Whitehead termed it in the outline to a screenplay, the “omni-absent,” insofar as it is infinitely regressive. It is a fake summary, like plagiarism and the “knock-off” western clothing of the novel, a last, strategic attempt to make the plural (genuine inter-corporeality), singular. The Coda satisfies the reader’s quasi-addiction to coded resolutions of plot; the arrival at the railway terminus; the blank vellum of transcendent meaning—in short an encompassing explanation that mimes the death of the text (which is what any Coda really is), to the exclusion of the contingent, trans-finite event which should escape inscription much as does Yoko and the text of her body in Girl on a Train. Her unresolved secret is a resistance to inscriptive encoding, even Peter Whitehead’s. But it resembles the supplement to Pauline Réage’s L’Histoire d’O. 

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[1] In Japanese, the shidai denotes the entrance music for the Noh performance. Depending upon the historical genre of the Noh, this music might be performed on a horizontal drum in combination with a number of reed or wooden wind instruments such as the shakuhatchi or koto. This highly evocative music typically accompanies the arrival of a pilgrim at some “sacred” shrine, the site of an imperfectly understood betrayal or often, some aged retainer or self-appointed guardian of the shrine, the waki or deuteragonist functioning as a kind of spiritus loci. If the Noh Drama is considered as a kind of lyrical/dramatic tone poem in which the text functions similarly to the libretto in a Wagner or Debussy opera, then the shidai should both settle and unsettle an audience, one definition of the “introduction” to a literary text. 

 

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Jan Gordon
Biography

 

Jan Gordon retired as an emeritus professor from Tokyo University of Foreign Studies in 2004. In 2007, he was appointed distinguished professor of Anglo-American studies at Kyoto Woman’s University, where he teaches primarily in the graduate school. He is the author of Gossip and Subversion in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction: Echo’s Economics (Macmillan and St. Martin’s Press, 1997), as well as essays and review in such journal as ELH, Crticism, Victorian Studies, Kenyon Review, Salmagundi, The Nation and Commonweal. His op-ed pieces have appeared in the International Herald Tribune and the Los Angeles Times.

 

 

 

 

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