Japan: a kind of madness?

My recent return to Japan put me into the usual fog of fatigue, through which, in horrifying glimpses, I felt my mind being drawn back to a previous passage here. Not the first time I arrived – my memories of that time, many years ago now, are the memories of a happy holiday in a strange land; warm, fresh, smiling days of bewildering fascination – but rather the second adventure; a more permanent and yet less certain migration altogether.

Two, maybe three days in, following a ridiculous row about even less than usual, Ma-chan asked her pensive husband how he was feeling. My reply, lengthy, impassioned, confused, melodramatic, tearful even, is very clear in my memory. Clear too is Ma-chan’s response. Some empathy to be sure, but little more than half a spoonful of sugar mixed in with the prescription that I climb out of my own backside, relax some, and then get on with it. As always, her honesty a real match for my self-obsession.

Honesty not enough on this occasion, though, to prevent pigheadedness from slamming the door and storming out into the fresh air in an attempt to stave off the effects of her practical drug: I was going to see Franz.

A short train ride takes me to his mansion where he meets me with a broad smile and a handful of tools – screwdriver, pliers and others. Trying to convince his partner that he actually isn’t useless around the house and can build more than just a good argument, he explains. I tell him I need a drink and, without a look back, he shoves the tools into his pocket, slips on his suede ankle boots, and guides me down to his local.

Once ensconced, beer at the ready, I pour it out. After a couple of swigs he demands to know the source of my unsettledness.
“I think I am going mad,” I tell him.
              “Definition?” He requests.

Franz, a friend from my earliest days in Japan, and a regular source of succour, is what you might call a philosopher. I don’t mean he is a pretentious, beardy, pipe-smoking, beret-wearing, reefer-jacketed freak that no one understands, although some of that is true, but rather that he is an academic; a trained thinker. As he is fond of telling me and anyone else who cares to listen, philosophy is everyone’s first subject. “What subject does not use philosophy as a starting point?” He frequently queries. He also insists that the study of philosophy must essentially start with a ‘definition of terms’. This suggests to me that the first subject is therefore language, that is semantics, but I know better than to be pedantic with a philosopher.

In a way we are both right. Semantics is concerned with the meaning of words, but even a cursory study of language will reveal the philosopher within the semanticist. Is ‘meaning’ manifest in and of itself with no intertext, no points of reference? Unlikely. Does ‘language’ spring spontaneously, randomly from the ether? Hardly, but ‘spring’ does help to create the right image for something as fluid as language is. Language is about communication; the desire, the overwhelming need to express thoughts, ideas, emotions, and so on. Semantics is about tracing, and hopefully understanding, how networks of meaning form, change and develop. Attempting to grasp without fear or awe illusive knowledge: veiled truth. Without a doubt, a philosophical act. But, erm, I digress.

            “’Definition?’ Yes, well, I’ve been back what, sixty hours, I’ve slept for about five of them, the weather is colder than I remember, I’ve given up the known for the unknown against my better judgement, again, I get here and nothing is as it was promised. The phone doesn’t work, there’s no hot water, no TV, no job, no love or respect from my wife (I can feel her eyebrows arch and hear her sigh as she reads this over my shoulder). My world has crumbled and I am mad; furious with everyone and everything, angry with myself, hysterical about my situation, I’ve lost all control of myself, my thoughts are racing panic-stricken from the fire inside my head, my normally mellow bearing has gone, I’m not calm, not measured, not rational, my heart is pounding, and the mother of all toothaches is gnawing away at the tenuous grip I have on my sanity.”

            His eyes widen a little as he stops mid-swig and fixes my gaze.
            “Is that it?” He says. “Toothache, you say?” Patient and considered, he points out that of course I’m not rational, what I have done is not rational, it is not the act of a rational man.
            “You mean I’m not rational.”
            “Not exactly,” he says, toying with his beer glass. “You’ve made your decision to return to Japan in a rational manner, even though it is not a rational decision in the sense that it is not a rational act to expose oneself in the way that you have.” He allows himself a half smile at his little innuendo before continuing. “You’ve given up your house, your job, your friends, your family, your country, your settled life, your patterns, routines and all, and exchanged them for something unknowable? Why would anyone do that to themselves? And yet millions have, and do, everyday. And deal with it. You are seizing an opportunity, but at the moment it seems to you that all you are doing is taking a huge gamble. You can see the overwhelming odds stacked against you, but through your current mist of uncertainty, you cannot see the golden chance that made you take the gamble. You can only see the horrible change, and the brilliant future has slid out of view.”

            His words were making sense. He was organising my thoughts, and I could feel my confusion ebbing somewhat, but I needed a little more. Sensing his own need as he sensed mine, he took out his cigarettes and lit one. “But it’s not as bad as you think it is,” he continued. “You’re floating in the unknown but, as mad old Rummy would say, it’s a known unknown and not an unknown unknown. You knew what you were doing when you sat down with Hana and made the decision to return. You made that decision together, right?” He didn’t wait for a response. “You made the decision and strapped it to a raft of known unknowns. Nothing’s changed, you’re just tired and edgy from the jet lag, and you’re behaving irrationally. But, under the circumstances, your irrational behaviour is perfectly rational, as is my desire now to drink more beer.”

            I turned towards the Master of the house to order more beer and when I looked back, Franz had placed his pliers on the table in front of me. I looked at him with uncertainty. “What’re they for?” I asked.

            “Well,” he said, his smile wider and wryer now. “I thought that with your madness sorted out, after a couple more beers, we might have a go at that tooth.”

Now jet lag... that is definitely a kind of madness, albeit short-lived. Someone should do a study into how many serious crimes have been committed by people who were jet lagged. I can think of at least two! 


Popular posts from this blog

Top 20...