Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Social

All night they talked, secretly comforting their hearts that longed always for Spain and telling themselves that such a symposium was after the manner of the high Spanish soul.  They talked about ghosts and second-sight, and about the earth before man appeared upon it and about the possibility of the planets striking against one another; about whether the soul can be seen, like a dove, fluttering away at the moment of death; they wondered whether at the second coming of Christ to Jerusalem, Peru would be long in receiving the news.  They talked until the sun rose, about wars and kings, about poets and scholars, and about strange countries.  Each one poured into the conversation his store of wise sad anecdotes and his dry regret about the race of men.

Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The word "social" is becoming utterly debased - social networking, social marketing, social media, social websites. What Thornton Wilder describes in this passage is the social that is worth having and worth demanding. Absent the sort of exchange that, no matter how light or heavy on the surface, has a serious and refined core, why bother socializing at all? I'm reminded of Robert G. Kaiser's account of the bracing late-night conversations of the Russia intelligentsia in his excellent 1976 book, Russia: The People and the Power.  The talk could be drunken, funny, morose, erudite, eccentric, or angry, but there was always something at stake. How piddling most interaction that gets counted as social today seems in comparison. For sociability of substance you need people of substance, and contemporary Americans in particular are trained for insubstantiality, right from the get-go. Signs of depth are treated with alarm.

Apart from continuing profitable exchanges in my active web-groups and with a few of my work colleagues, I feel like I am in retirement from society. I'm a bit of a lone wolf at the best of times, but I would not wish for quite so barren a social landscape. I teach the Enlightenment, after all, and with great enthusiasm; I know that what comes out of social gatherings can change the world. We all deserve our personal versions of Enlightenment salons and Bloomsbury dinner parties, but where in 2012 are they to be found?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Suicide in Korea

[The subject of suicide in Japan came up in the H-JAPAN listserv.]

Korea is also pertinent in this connection, having had one of the highest suicide rates consistently for the past several decades. Although it is important to dispel stereotypes, it is not wrong (in my opinion) to put forward the notion that there are genuine differences in attitude between these key East Asian nations and the United States with respect to the issue of suicide. I taught in Korea for a year, and was frequently taken aback by by how "normal" an act suicide seemed to be considered. Many well-known Koreans have committed suicide, and these events are understandably widely reported. In recent years the casualties have included a former president, and a rash of young actors and pop-stars; the latter events have been noticed and discussed as a trend, a concerning one because the national suicide rate often spikes for a couple of months after the suicide of a youthful celebrity. During my year in Korea, a television presenter tweeted her jump from a ledge; another presenter, who was well-known for preaching a gospel of personal happiness, ironically departed with her husband in a meticulously planned murder-suicide; an elementary school teacher who failed her examination to become an assistant principal hung herself in her classroom (fortunately without students present); etc. If I am making it sound as if these suicides also function as a macabre form of public entertainment, you are reading me correctly. I can't speak to the situation in Japan, but suicide in Korea will now forever remain a subject of enduring fascination for me. 

An exchange with an adult student that I will never forget:

Me: What does a Korean salaryman do if he wants to escape the "rat race"?
Her: He kills himself.
Me (startled): He knows that there are less extreme options than that?
Her: Yes, he does, But that is what he would do.

POSTSCRIPT: My follow-up in the same conversation:

I believe that Korea's suicide rate has not always been as high as it is today. Others could comment on this from a stronger factual/statistical basis, but anecdotally, what I often heard people say in Korea is that suicide rates skyrocketed and then remained high after the economic "miracle" that is felt to have begun in the 1970s under President Park Chung-hee. Certainly it is fair to say that few nations have gone from Third World status to First World status more quickly than South Korea, which can be considered worthy of admiration (Koreans would like you to admire it, reasonably enough), but which also created enormous pressures within the society. It stands to reason that when the Korean government began to actively promote what is known as the "hurry hurry" culture, not everyone would be well-adapted to that.

It could be that in both Korea and Japan, suicide has been generally more available as a socially acceptable option than it has in the Christian West - but also that there are periods when that option is more extensively exercised, and periods when it is less so.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Commonplace Book: Artistic Appreciation

The public for which masterpieces are intended is not on this earth.

Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey