Sunday, August 6, 2017

The god of More-Than: on culture and who has it

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Hello from Budapest, now, where earlier this evening I made my way to St. Stephen's Basilica ("one of the most beautiful Neoclassical buildings in the world": this intrigued me, even though I'm "all churched out" for this trip). I had fully expected that I'd missed my chance to see the inside today, only to find that I could see a concert there if I wanted. It was kind of expensive, the sort of thing you sign up to do on a package day program that includes a tour of Parliament and a dinner cruise so you'll get a discount on all three.

These concerts are clearly run with tourists in mind - you also pass several offices selling tickets "classical music" concerts (really anything from Baroque to Romantic or even Modern - I've never heard anything pre-Baroque - you aren't going to hear much if anything by, say, Palestrina) as you roam the more guidebook-approved streets of Prague. They are often for people who like the genre well enough but aren't aficionados, so the music chosen is always very familiar. A typical program might include one of the Four Seasons (usually but not always Summer), Pachelbel's Canon in D, perhaps something by Handel, maybe a Bach concerto.

I'm not criticizing that really - anything that gets people listening to more than just the Top 40 is fine by me, even if it is the Classical Top 40. I have my own well-worn favorites, too - Brandenburg Concerto #2, for example, is something I always enjoy hearing. Actually I'm just a Bach fan in general.

So, when I saw that the program for tonight's concert included Bach's Badinerie (for solo flute) and Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (also Bach), my first thought was "of course - those are well-known works". My second thought was "hey, I love those!" Badinerie was the recessional music at our wedding, played by a good friend and talented flutist. And Toccata and Fugue, well, it's great for Eastern Europe, I was excited to hear such a well-known piece played in its natural setting (a huge-ass totally ostentatious church with a big fat pipe organ) and it's just great. It's exacting, requires massive concentration and no small amount of physical exertion. It's precise and focused, richly layered and jubilant, but also kind of angry. It has a bite. Not a cute love-bite, I mean like the kind that make you bleed. It's like an incredibly analytical vampire who is generally good-natured but also has a temper. It can hold forth for quite some time - just when you think it's over it has another whole wallop of music catapulting right at yer head. You use every pipe in that damn organ and you use them perfectly, got that?

In short, if asked to pick a song I weirdly identify with, it'd probably be that one. And not even the famous opening lines everyone knows (the toccata); I like the fugue.

So, even though this is the sort of thing you sign up for on a day package, I bought an overpriced ticket anyway. It's also the sort of thing solo travelers do when they have nowhere in particular to be one evening.

When I walked in, I marveled at the interior of St. Stephen's - it's not to my taste, actually - I prefer more Medieval and Gothic architecture - but it sure is great to look at. All that pink and blue marble (I'm not convinced the blue is real), the gilt-backed paintings, the rococo-esque gold curling about. It's heavy and in-your-face, but I appreciate that it's not trying to hide.

As the concert began, I let my mind wander a bit. I tend to do that - to me, the point of instrumental music is to let it guide and color your thoughts, not to sit and listen carefully to it every moment. I used to play classical music - trumpet - and I was better than you'd expect but not good enough to make a career of it. After all those years of banging out Haydn and Telemann on my trusted Benge X-series (stolen senior year of college - I never seriously played again) I felt like I'd earned the right to daydream to whatever I wanted.

First thought: man, they could have fed a lot of starving people with the money it took to build this confabulation. 

Second thought: true, but perhaps it is also important for human civilizations to have nice things, otherwise what's worth living for if we all walk around in Mao suits eating potatoes all day? You're not really a Communist anyway. 

Third thought: most of the audience seems to be non-Hungarian Europeans. Do Europeans spend their free time traveling around listening to expensive concerts in pretty buildings?

...probably yes, yes they do. 

Fourth thought: is this...culture? 

The musicians were good. Professionals - I couldn't detect note out of place and everything felt properly played, not taken at weird tempos or speeds that didn't feel intended by the composer. The setting was rich and gorgeous. Rich and gorgeous and...missing something.

The best concerts are more than the sum of their parts. The musicians, venue, pieces, instruments, the weather that day, whatever - it all comes together to create something effervescent and intangible, but unmistakably there. Some sort of perfect euphoric More-Than; a heavenliness that makes you hold your breath. The sort of thing a non-atheist would attribute to being uplifted by their god.

This concert was all very good, but that uplifting More-Than (I think More-Than could be a god-like figure - it's abstract enough) felt perhaps even weighted down by all the golden curliques and marble. It was better than serviceable, pleasant even, but...

Fifth thought: that one time in Prague...

...in 2006, I was in Prague for two days. It was March, freezing cold, and the city seemed almost tourist-free. I spent very little money - less than ten dollars - on a ticket to a violin recital at the Rudolfinum - . I had no idea what the program would be and didn't care. I was alone and it seemed like a fun idea.

The violinist...I couldn't tell you now what he played, but it was weird and modern and funky, but also melodious and heartbreaking. It was More-Than. I practically levitated from my seat. The Rudolfinum is very nice, but it's no St. Stephens. But for that concert, the fairly drab room was turned into some cross between the Klementinum, some funky old ziggurats on the Sumerian plain, maybe the inside of a Pharaoh's tomb, a motorcycle rally in New Orleans, and heaven if it were run by cool people.

At one point before the first encore - the mostly-Czech audience loudly demanded, and were obliged with, several - the floppy-haired violinist caught my eye. I was sitting fairly close and I think he smiled. There was a zing - not like a romantic connection or anything like that, just me thinking this person is brilliant. why isn't he famous, how did this ticket not cost me A MILLION DOLLARS and hoping that maybe we had a millisecond connection as two musicians who understood that we both worshipped More-Than. 



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That, I thought 11 years later, sitting in the fanciest church in Budapest, that concert was culture. That frothing of musician and music and place and time that says something about that place and its history, even if you're not always sure what. Culture is more than the sum of its parts: it's more than just buildings that look like wedding cakes or this or that book or song or famous person: it's the aggregate outcome of a group of people, however large or small, wittingly or not, building something together out of human necessity, the comings and goings and inclusions of new people and ideas, technological and artistic progress and the plain weight of time. It's a set of beliefs and assumptions - often shared, sometimes not - that inform how a group of people similarly perceive and interact with the world.

When it gives rise to something more than each person within that culture can contribute on their own, you get the beautiful and humble concert I attended in Prague. When it is used to label certain things, especially large, flashy, famous things like the most famous author, building, composer, painting or even food - essentially, getting the chemistry backward by prescribing the outcome - you get something like that concert at St. Stephen's.

In short, if the latter idea what you think culture is, you'll get something serviceable but it won't be anything more than that.

Do you know what else you get? You get a belief system in which "The United States has no culture" because the native culture was all but wiped out, and everything else was just brought in by immigrants and sort of muddled together in parts. Of course that's not true - the US certainly has a culture, and I'm not sure it's a problem that I struggle to define it. You get a belief system in which China no longer has a culture because most of the art and buildings were destroyed and all the intellectuals ran away or died. But of course China has a culture too - it's China right now. It's a bit sparser, a bit drearier from certain angles, and quite different from what it used to be, but what you see of the goings-on of people in China now is their culture - the idea that nearly 2 billion people live in a "cultureless" society is ridiculous. You could even argue that China has many cultures within its borders. In any case, it was always more than all those smashed vases. You may not like that it now includes extreme jingoistic nationalism, ugly concrete monstrosities, wearing facemasks because they are thought to filter pollution and Simplified characters among other, more pleasant things, but just because you don't like it and it's not as pretty as what came before doesn't make it any less a real culture.

This isn't a new thought by any means, and I'm not the first person to have thunk it. 

But again.

My thoughts zigzagged back to Taiwan, where for centuries this or that great power has tried to insist that Taiwan has no culture.

Lien Chan's grandfather - who, rather than sharing Lien's permanently disapproving constipated face, just seems melancholy - once wrote that Taiwan has no history. Different words, same criticism. Today I still hear and read people spouting similar opinions: "Taiwan's culture is just Chinese culture." Or "OK, but it's Chinese culture with some Japanese influence." Or, "But aboriginal culture is almost gone, what does it matter?" Or, "Taiwanese history is so tied up with Chinese history that you can't separate the two."

What these (wrong) people are thinking of when they think of culture are monumental buildings, famous works of art or world-renowned writers and philosophers. Taiwan doesn't have any ancient buildings of that scale, and while there are many talented Taiwanese artists and thinkers none have reached the level of global fame necessary to "count" to such people (Ang Li may be something of an exception, although even he is more famous for Brokeback Mountain these days than for Eat Drink Man Woman). You can look for 'world music' concerts in major cities and generally find offerings of 'traditional Chinese music', 'traditional Japanese music', 'traditional Greek music' and more, but you aren't likely to find any 'traditional Taiwanese music'. 

It's not just these (again, wrong) folks, though. The Dutch disregarded the indigenous culture they found as they built their little colony and began bringing in boatloads of settlers from China. The Qing first considered Taiwan to be "off the map", a place not worth considering, "beyond the pale of civilization" (yet another way of saying "it has no culture"). So, they tried to impose Chinese culture; the Japanese, Japanese culture; the KMT, more Chinese culture but with a decidedly nationalistic twist. 

In an echo of Lien Heng, the (re-)education forced on the Taiwanese by the KMT party state taught Chinese history with Taiwan as a(n insufficiently covered) part of it, as though Taiwan itself had nothing unique at all to offer.

I can see the appeal of it: if you believe culture is all famous things, comparing Taiwan to its big, angry neighbor - which also happens to be the place of origin of everything from Confucius to the 300 Tang Poems to several musical instruments and styles that are recognizable around the world to blue-and-white pottery to four "classic" books - Taiwan would seem to come up short.

But it's wrong. You have to have that It has to be big and famous to be Culture idea in your head in the first place to hold such an opinion. Chiang Kai-shek himself - Grand Master of Treating Taiwan Like China - knew well before his government fell in China that Taiwan was different, something apart. He was well aware that, while populated mostly by what he would consider "Chinese" yet heavily influenced by Japan under colonial rule, it was something altogether different from both. It was prone to rebellion; there was already a movement for autonomy (and he knew that). In his pre-war visit to Taiwan there is no indication that he considered it anything other than a foreign land. All that talk of Taiwan being irrevocably Chinese since antiquity, and the history curriculum forced upon Taiwanese students as a result, was all just bloviating in service of his own selfish ends.

He probably wouldn't have thought about it in terms of a group of people whose beliefs and common history bringing them together to create something more than just people living on an island, but he knew Taiwan was Taiwan - not China, and not Japan. 

You know it too - at least I do. I can't walk down a typical street in Taiwan without knowing, unmistakably, that it is Taiwan. In my everyday life, from watching the workings of the government to enjoying a temple parade to simply how people interact to what people value, it is clear that this is a place altogether unique. The temples may look Chinese, and the people may speak Mandarin (because at one time, they were forced to) and there may not be a unique musical style recognized around the world as distinctly 'Taiwanese' (I know there is Taiwanese opera, but to the layperson it wouldn't sound all that different from the various forms of Chinese opera), nor a soaring work of historical architecture to play it in, nor a particularly distinct clothing style, but it doesn't matter. When you live here, you know that this isn't China and what's more, that it's always been unique, a place apart.

And of course Taiwan has a history. Many volumes have been written about it. They may reference China, but not any more so than any history of any country or region might mention its large, influential neighbors. I've read three books on Taiwanese history this year alone and I still don't feel like I am even a fraction of the way to really knowing Taiwanese history in detail. Can you name another place that has the same history as Taiwan which includes all of the same elements - indigenous, European, Qing, Japanese, KMT, democratization? I can't.

What Taiwan has created on a human level through a unique history, and through the hard work and evolving shared values of the people through that history, is what defines Taiwanese culture. If it didn't have this culture, it wouldn't have the freest press in Asia. It wouldn't, despite its people being told for generations that they are 'Chinese', not 'Taiwanese', have a democratic government wholly different from that of China. It wouldn't have the culture of protest and civil disobedience that feels uniquely non-Western but also not quite the same anywhere else in Asia. It wouldn't have had a succession of groups fighting for autonomy or recognition of autonomy, present since at least the 19th century and still active today, albeit in different forms. Even in design, where China seems to go for ancient+modern=cool and Japan goes for quirky or downright weird, Taiwanese design has an organic, homespun quality that echoes some of the hippie-organic-hipster elements of the West while being different and entirely appropriate to Taiwan.

I see efforts to promote small cultural artifacts as proof of "Taiwanese culture", from bubble tea to the Formosan black bear, and I commend these efforts. However, I'd argue that Taiwan doesn't have anything to prove. It already has culture - the problem is that too many people don't understand what culture is. This may be why Taiwan, when it is thought of at all, is not considered an exciting destination by the tourist set. It takes time to appreciate what Taiwan has to offer. You can't rush it. You can't do a quick circuit of some palaces and cathedrals and maybe a concert and a nice meal and say "that's Taiwan". It doesn't work that way here. You can't microwave it and stick in a tea bag and have that be it, the way you might in Beijing or Bali (though I'd say it's unfair to do that in those places, too). You have to let it brew slowly, letting the leaves open gently. It's more like brewing lao ren cha.

If more people understood that, perhaps more people would understand not only that Taiwan does have its own culture, but how to appreciate it. 


The more I live here, the more I have transcendent little moments that are more than just walking down the street, more than just making tea, more than just living. Maybe I'll be hanging out on Dihua Street and come across a Taiwanese opera performance, or that one time in Jingmei when I was in the night market and someone had paid for a puppet show at the temple. I stood and watched it in a weird reverie for awhile as the night market dinged, shuffled, shouted and rang around me. Or as I sat drinking tea on Maokong watching the sun set somewhere behind Guanyin Mountain, thinking "the Portuguese were right - this really is a beautiful island". Or talking to neighbors or friends and learning something I hadn't known before. Or eating a dish and realizing I'd have trouble finding the same thing outside of Taiwan. So often, things come together and although you can't point to the place, the time, the event or the people as particularly special themselves, together they form something greater.

I can even point to a few Prague-like moments. Certainly the Sunflower Movement (you'll have to read the 2014 sections to get the point of that link), but also the marriage equality rally a few years later, or going to the Nylon Cheng museum on the anniversary of his death. Hell, it even happened while driving over Hehuanshan and once just hanging out at Wistaria House, and not that long ago while watching "God of Carnage" translated to a Taiwanese setting at The Lab Space.

I don't need to seek out some tourist-ready attraction - there's no need for Taiwan to have this or that famous palace, painting or philosopher. The god of More-Than is alive and well in the everyday goings-on that make Taiwan uniquely Taiwan.

1 comment:

Nathaniel Dahl said...

Darn it! Reading this post has made me really want to go to Budapest and Prague! It's all your fault! Please don't write so vividly! Consider your audience - here we are, vulnerable westerners on this (albeit, beautiful) island, immersed in Taiwanese society, culture, cuisine, architecture, etc... That in itself isn't the problem for me, but every once in a while when something such as you have written stirs up my memory of Western things it acts strangely on my mind - I recall what it felt like being in my culture, my heritage, the place where nothing had to be explained to me or accepted because "it's just the way things are here". It isn't culture shock - I enjoy Taiwan. But when I see those photos and read your description of the music, in my mind I harken back to Carnegie Hall and the sound of violins tuning the orchestra, the young Julliard students in the row in front of mine rapt with delight at the beauty of Mozart's Oboe Concerto, the white tablecloths of that Manhattan bistro on 63rd street where I dined on mussels, beef wellington, scalloped potatoes in a white wine cream sauce and then finished off with fine French cheeses, warm crusty bread, and a Saint Émilion that tasted of oak, vine, earth, and wildflower (hmmm...maybe I'm just hungry?)