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Wednesday, 4 January 2017

How to Peel Off a Dead Man's Face - Information and Meaning

Within the Hagakure, sitting rather oddly amongst its spiritual and social exhortations and aphorisms, is the following passage:

"If you cut a face lengthwise, urinate on it, and trample on it with straw sandals, it is said that the skin will come off. This was heard by the priest Gyojaku when he was in Kyoto. It is information to be treasured."

A great many people have expressed serious confusion over the apparent incongruity of this passage. There's a wealth of groping and ill-informed commentary floating around in internetland, as none of the commentators seem to be aware of two important facts. The first of these facts, accessible by simply reading the introduction of the popular edition, is that this version is heavily abridged. The MS form of the Hagakure is more than 1000 pages long, and seriously eclectic. The popular abridgement is a thin paperback focussed on Zen teachings and parable-like reminiscences. The editor/translator points specifically to this passage and says it was included as a representative example of a whole volume within the original. The second of these facts is that the Samurai, at various stages in their history, were in the habit of collecting trophies, especially heads, from their fallen foes.

Given the knowledge of these two facts, the passage above and its inclusion need not present an enigma at all - understanding of the source and context result in its meaning becoming perfectly comprehensible. And this is my point, really - more often than not, understanding what something actually means requires more than just reading it.

Quite a few people have been talking about the 'post-truth' era, where facts don't matter, apparently because Trump. I think this is flawed thinking (and not a little bit of sour grapes). The truth of the matter is that Trump is not so much a cause as he is a symptom. Facts have never really mattered - they have always been a more or less secondary concomitant to interpretation and meaning.

There is a worrying tendency these days to absorb a fact and then immediately interpret it through a rigid ideological lens, and then, more often than not, to proceed immediately to hysterical outrage. A single incident, such as somebody saying something in public, is immediately warped to serve some orthodoxy or other, and the loudest shouters win, thus setting immutably a current 'truth' which is generally absolute, juvenile, laden with dire consequences and, most worryingly, so ephemeral that it is essentially uncorrectable in that by the time proper analysis is applied, the reactionary juggernaut has moved on and forgotten it.

This, above all else, is the primary malaise of the current era. This refusal or inability to actually think things through is by far and away the most toxic aspect of our current dialogue. And it's worth noting that the responsibility for this does not lie with politicians, mainstream or alternative media or anyone else - it lies solely with us, the public. As long as we persist in this angry, reactionary obtuseness, we will continue to be burdened with exactly the quality of leadership, public discourse and society which we deserve.

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