Wednesday, October 05, 2016


My box sorting has turned up a tear-out of a review of a book called “Netsuke,” which I saved because it looked good but was new and therefore expensive.  I thought I’d just wait until the publicity wore off, so I could buy used.  Since the libraries bought new and their readers have exhausted the potential circulation, the library copies are on Amazon for one penny.  I ordered it.

Hazel Scriver was the wife of Harold Scriver who was the brother of Bob Scriver.  Hazel collected netsuke.  (I don’t know how to properly form the plural of Japanese words.)  She didn’t have a lot of them because they’re very expensive, though very small.  The value is in the skill of the carving from ivory, both animal and vegetable “ivory” which is a seed about the size of an avocado seed but very dense.  The objects tend to be round and compact, for use as a toggle on kimonos.  Many are of mice or curled up cats or Buddha-like figures, but many are “naughty,” depicting sex in ways forbidden in the Western world.

A little shop in Portland, across the street from Pioneer Square, used to carry many kinds of miniature collectables, netsuke among them.  On my lunch break I looked at them so often and for such long intervals that the owner of the shop got nervous and moved them to a more private location one had to ask about.  Some were cast in polymer, thus less expensive.  I bought one for Bob — a bear and a nude woman hugging.  She had a traditional Japanese hairdo.  He loved it, not least because he could carry it secretly in his pocket.

When Hazel died, her collection disappeared, undoubtedly stolen out of jealousy and greed.  Small valuable objects become invested with an aura of power and, thus, evil.  The book called “Netsuke” is about a psychoanalyst interested in the dark twisted secrets of his clients and the carvings become symbols of these people.  His strategy is predatory intercourse, meant to hurt them, even destroy them.  His skill as a psychoanalyst lets him do this, both because he has the skills and because psychoanalysis has privileged secrecy, a cover for evil.  It’s a short book: 127 pages.  

The wife of this shrink is perfect in that controlled and minimal way that some associate with enlightenment and perfection, like exquisite contemporary houses with little furniture and no clutter.  Lucky that I don’t aspire to that style, because I would never achieve it, though it can be adapted to poverty or extreme disciplines of meditation.  Sometimes I tear out magazine photos of such places.

In the way ideas have of intersecting each other, Evil turned up yesterday in a discussion with Robert McKee  He’s one of a handful of analysts of writing from the writers’ point of view, intended to help them ponder their approach and results.  He philosophizes about the future of writing and the impact of the various modes and accesses in the computer age.

“I realized there is one aspect of human nature that really hasn't been exploited and explored: evil. You have dark characters like Iago, great villains who are diabolical and evil, but it's a pure evil. Human beings are very rarely pure evil, and storytelling hadn't truly explored the complexity of realistic evil.

“And then, a few years later, came all these great long-form series, which opened an exploration of evil. There was The Wire and The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, even Mad Men. With all these great series, you get complex, good/evil characters.

“It's interesting because it's always a chicken and egg question: Does content create form, or does form generate content? They're always going on side-by-side, simultaneously.”

The epigram for his website is “A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling.  When society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories, it degenerates.  We need true satires and tragedies and comedies that shine a clean light into the dingy corners of the human psyche and society.  If not, as Yeats warned, “the centre cannot hold.”

The motto of his website is “Write the truth.”  What he says here and in an interview sounds very impressive.  Until one starts examining it as closely as one might turn over and scrutinize a miniature netsuke carving. 

First of all, it is impossible to write the truth.  As soon as a point of view is taken, the truth is being edited to fit.  The whole point of much writing is either to reduce reality to something one can grasp or writing to create a virtual world — one that is whole and convincing but fabricated.  We’ve just gone past a period I see as deluded if not destructive in which “truth” — meaning a kind of legalistic proof through evidence and testimony — was taken as an indicator of value in books.  It was partly so persuasive because taboos had eroded that had been obscuring lives most people knew nothing about, particularly those of the underworld and “evil” sexual practices.  Housewives hurried to find out about all those shades of gray.

Part of the allure was our curiosity about minority peoples who were assumed to live in startling systems that only anthropologists knew about, which were so shocking that accounts of them had to be written in Latin.

And part was in the new privacy of reading through handheld glass screens, which of course created an industry devoted to finding out cyber secrets of all sorts, mostly banal.  

For all his high-flown humanities rhetoric, McKee offers seminars for high profile corporations, suggesting that learning the basics of story-telling will increase their profit margin.  That might be true, but I find it also a theory that is a bit glossy and hollowed-out.

Lately our most tragic figures have been clowns, and also they have been our most terrifying figures of predatory evil.  “The Joker” with his red lips smeared across his face, John Gacey in his birthday party clown get-up, and rumors of evil clowns terrorizing one banal location or another.  That’s quite apart from Trump, who needs no rubber ball nose or paint to distort his face, and who may conceivably be elected the President of the United States where he could do Evil beyond anything Caligula ever thought of.

American cultural Evil is always depicted as sexual, but that’s nothing compared to starvation, drowned children, shoddy buildings that collapse, cynical laws that cater to the extremely wealthy.  Miss Universe getting fat doesn’t even register and yet here it is, an election issue.  A joke.

In an interview, McKee says:  “There are four classic endings to a story: purely positive, purely tragic, positive with irony where the character gets what he wants but pays a big price, and tragic with irony where he loses everything but he learns something. Those are the classic tonalities of endings.

“I thought about the ending with them (Sopranos) sitting in this restaurant, and I realized there was a fifth possible ending, which is what I came to call "exhaustion." That means that the characters have been emptied out completely, and the writer has exhausted their humanity. There's nothing you don't know about them. Everything is known, including their dreams. That was it.”

Doesn’t that sound like an honest and accurate description of our American politics?  All the ingenious developments after WWII have become paralyzed by complexity and subterfuge.  The veterans themselves are dying or dead, shrunken into netsuke of great poignancy.  Psychoanalysis has reduced the Great Satans of Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini into "pocket monsters", pokemans.

1 comment:

Lin Bentley Keeling said...

Beautifully eloquent, Mary. Found you through Steven Pressfield's blog and have added you to my blog favorites.