On lacking respect

Wit, to some purpose, is satire, and satire is a spoliation of dignity, according to D. J. Enright, the late British “mendicant professor” (as the authorities in Singapore labelled him, after he mildly criticized their “sarong culture,” in 1960). He wrote, too, about his experience of Japan, and tried to explain why Japanese humour is incomprehensible to the Western mind. It exists, to be sure; it can be very dry indeed; or alternatively crude, and unmistakably drunken. But its most sophisticated expressions are usually unintended, and immediately apologized for. This is because in the Japanese, as all Oriental cultures I have passingly adored, “face” must be preserved at all costs. The crass European might laugh at this. Too, he might be killed for laughing.

Can the Japanese do “ribald,” I once wondered, when I too briefly lived there. I could see that they could do “obscene.” But using Rabelais as my standard, I could not find Japanese examples. I could, on the other hand, find woodblock prints that might be mistaken for ribald. They were what an old-fashioned Western simpleton might describe as “dirty pictures”; but, so to say, “aestheticized.” Our Rabelais doesn’t aestheticize. I am fairly sure of that, having worked all my way through Gargantua and Pantagruel. There is a different approach and, I have suspected, even in the production of pornography, the sleaziest Japanese adopts subtle devices to preserve not the anonymity, but the dignity of his subjects. We might read satire into his “floating world,” but we read in only. The intention is not in the composition itself, any more than in, for choice example, Les Fleurs du mal, where a spiritual japanaiserie is being affected. But there, only at the surface; there is a (very Catholic) satirical undertow.

Now, everything is changing in the world today, but some things do not change. Travellers have often discovered this to their cost. We are under the impression that the “Mysterious East” is becoming less mysterious daily, as it imports and then embraces and generates the various baubles of post-modernity. Every place becomes like every other place, and the term “globalization” is meant to acknowledge not merely economic integration but cultural deracination. We mistake this for “Westernization.”

Often I think it is the opposite: that, to my point, the metastasis of “political correctness” through all the “safe spaces” it is able to sequester, represents an Easternization of our own culture. We have either imported, or are rediscovering for ourselves, a heathen outlook (as our ancestors would have called it), in which “face” is critically important, and in which stripping a man of his self-importance — “making fun of him” — can only be the prelude to destroying him, and is thus equivalent to a serious death threat. Satire, against any class or type, therefore becomes the equivalent of terrorism, and must be absolutely forbidden. It becomes “genocide,” or the equivalent by intention.

In the comparison of cultures, the Judaeo-Christian tradition has been, for lo these last several thousand years, the odd man out. Or so I am not the first to assert. Even, perhaps especially in the prophets of ancient Israel, the (non-violent) expression of contempt has been among our eccentricities. The admixture of humour may be more distinctly Hellenic, but is of great antiquity. We make fun of things because they are wrong, yet at the same time, we candidly admit their attraction. We use humour to flash moral insight, and to disarm. Where I saw this sort of thing in Asia, it was invariably among the Western-educated, and those at least unconsciously Christian. To others, it was incomprehensibly rude.

We “lack respect.” We have lacked respect for a very long time, even for ourselves, and only in the last generation or two have we begun to regain it. It marks our own embrace of “globalization,” or to put it another way, our recovery of the heathenism that is the background condition of the gentile world, prior to its invasion by Christ.