Theater of Cruelty

At the micro level in the language

Without accent
CULTURAL CRITICISM / Yoko Tawada moves between German and Japanese words – in line with Paul Celan or Roland Barthes. But did you know that tears contain the stress hormone cortisol?


Yoko Tawada is privileged in many ways. As a poet, re-poet and author, she commutes without major problems between her mother tongue Japanese and German – and therefore also between two different writing systems, traditions and cultures. As a poet, she can move all the way down to the micro level in her two respective author languages, and in the essay book Without accent > she illustrates with concrete examples practical problems in recreating and translating both prose and poetry, and also how random phonetic similarities between German and Japanese words and concepts provide unprecedented possibilities and results. In this also lies a political project, a kind of personal attempt on the part of Tawada to overcome, outmaneuver and pass cultural and national stereotypes and masonry.

She is easily recognizable as an Asian, and although she clearly has a good grasp of both written and spoken German, she is always "revealed" by her skin color and appearance. In a poetological sense, she attacks the cultural and anthropological purity thinking among Germans who expect correct pronunciation and grammar in every convoluted sentence. It is obviously difficult to get within the fold, and complicated to be accepted as equal.

At the same time, she shows that this is an illusion in today's global world, also within Germany where nationalities and languages ​​abound.

Statues In Kyoto. Photo: Pixabay

A way out of the language

In the essay "Roland Barthes as a Stage", Tawada takes a look at how we as strangers turn to another culture, and at the same time points out the collective autism that reigns within every nation, including Japan and Germany.

In the novel The messenger, which was published in Norwegian this autumn, she also touches on the autism of the nationalist purity demand. The novel is a dystopia over Japan inspired by the Fukushima accident in 2011, in which the state turns the clock back to 1800th century isolationism and, among other things, bans the use of foreign languages.

To give grief and suffering shape, form, body, extension in time and space.

She gives us her counter-attack to this tendency in the aforementioned Barthes essay, in which she sets up language like a ship at sea, in perpetual motion and yet stable, fluctuating and at the same time a solid and reliable structure. Simply the foundation of any poet and re-poet. Tawada describes himself as a word fetishist. As a poet, she goes down to the micro level in the language to capture and study the nuances. It's a bit like etymologists studying their favorite flies. At the same time, she illustrates that this is important, that it provides insight into cultural similarities and differences. It also shows a way out of language as masonry, a general, common myth cemented in trivial and automatic obviousness, the one on which everyday language is based.

Yoko Tawada

Here she is in line with Paul Celan, and probably also with Heidegger (without mentioning him); she pulls the language away from pure communication and towards something open, indefinable, perhaps an unwillingness to be defined, to be included and captured by a closed ring.

This is in a way a classic situation for someone who moves across two languages, who neither respects nor needs the traditional border crossings, like those between German and Japanese, both with a historical leg in dictatorships that have indoctrinated the population.

One cries of joy, of happiness, because death or disaster is avoided.

Tawada mentions this in the novel The messenger, where prohibitions and taboos abound. They seem grotesque to us, but feel natural to the Japanese who live in a society that has been partially destroyed by a nuclear accident. The main point for Tawada, however, is that grief and suffering after a disaster cannot be quantified, one cannot, as with radioactivity, calculate the half-life, one can only, as Proust does, give grief and suffering shape, form, body, extension in time and space.

In the essay "Namida" (Tears), Tawada addresses the phenomenon of tears / crying in Japan. She uses a historical perspective, looks at differences between men and women, whether they exist, whether the crying is individual or follows given patterns. In medieval culture, men show an aesthetic side – a perfectly executed poem can elicit tears in them. It was also considered an acceptable reaction among the men of the time.

In samurai culture, the ideal was shifted, the warriors held back their tears, and when they arrived, it was in response to a ritual, which is also a kind of conditional delicacy – the feeling is genuine, but depending on the right context, the right setting.

Grief and suffering after a disaster cannot be quantified.

Tears do not just express grief either. One cries of joy, of happiness, because death or disaster is avoided. Anyone who has seen a number of Kurosawa films recognizes people who, in pure relief, release the flood of tears when their danger is over. Tawada also points out that crying is healthy purely neurologically. Tears contain the stress hormone cortisol, which weakens the immune system and raises blood pressure, so you also feel relief after a crying attack. People are also advised to cry once a week – it's healthy.

She laughs at the comedy in this snuff sense, and at the same time sees that people are willing to do most to maintain health, to protect and preserve their health, even if it means laughing out loud once every weekend.

Kurt Sweeney
Kurt Sweeney
Literary critic.

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