January 20, 2011 | by Wesley Yang
This is the second installment of Yang’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.
Bach Organ Works.
One of my many collegiate affectations was to play old records on a plastic turntable that I purchased at a garage sale. I had a bunch of classical LPs from my parent’s living-room bureau that I brought with me, including the Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major and Beethoven’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in E-flat Major. The poor fidelity of those enormous sounds pressed through that tinny speaker gave the music an abstract and deconstructed quality that made it somehow purer.
My best friend at the time was Hoon, who was only four feet, eleven inches tall and very slight. We both shaved our heads totally bald in the summer between freshman and sophomore year in emulation of Michel Foucault. “I have a good head,” Hoon assured me in advance of shaving it. He was right—it was a very elegant ovoid shaped like a coconut that you could hold in the palm of your hand. I doubted I would have a good head, and after spending an evening trying to depilate it with a disposable Bic razor (I had to go to the barber the next day to finish the job, as there were impacted clumps that would not come off), I discovered that, in fact, I have a grossly oblong, egg-shaped head.
During my sophomore year at Rutgers, I fell into a desperate and unrequited passion for a Colombian girl who lived a floor above me in the river dorms (where I had moved after feeling alienated in Brett Hall, the honors dorm where 95 percent of the students were Orthodox Jews from South Jersey), and then had something like a minor breakdown. I would spend hours staring at the record player as it spun out this strange celestial music that induced a cold rapture that was intense in its longing but inhumanly remote. It seemed the aural manifestation of an austere and exacting God. I never quite enjoyed it, but everything else felt irrelevant.
I never really got over that record of Bach. I carried the little plastic record player with me throughout the rest of college, until finally my roommate during senior year snapped the record in half in a passive-aggressive fit. He had reason to be upset with me: I had made out with his sixteen-year-old sister who had visited us for a week after refusing to return to school that January. We stayed together, on and off, for the next seven years.
Very recently, I downloaded a complete set of Bach organ works by another performer and assembled a playlist of the tracks that made up the original record. The tonalities do not compare in beauty and strangeness to the ones recorded on the LP, and now I think I hear what the roommate must have heard. At the time, he confessed to me that he believed I played that record specifically for the purpose of tormenting him, and that was the reason he broke it.
January 19, 2011 | by Wesley Yang
11:45 A.M. The excerpt of Amy Chua’s parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was an exquisite embarrassment for everyone who read it. The editors at The Wall Street Journal extracted all the most inflammatory material from Chua’s odd book and successfully unleashed another one of those unedifying pseudo-controversies about upper-middle-class American mores that the press lives to generate. The children of Asian Americans took to various online forums to bewail the trauma inflicted on them by mothers like Chua, or to declare their filial gratitude toward the sacrifices made their parents on their behalf. Suddenly, the model minority and its travails had become momentarily relevant to the larger culture, through the cartoon figure that Chua inadvertently made of herself—berating her daughter and refusing her bathroom breaks until she had mastered a tricky passage on the piano. A dignified, nonhysterical account of our peculiar sufferings untethered to the American upper middle class’s Ivy League fixation and (richly justified) fear of national decline remains elusive.
12:00 P.M. The essay immediately called to mind a passage from Junichiro Tanizaki’s great novella A Portrait of Shunkin. In this passage, the narrator reminisces about the cruelty and abuse that were an unquestioned part of the pedagogic methods of a less enlightened age still within living memory.
Then there is the case of Yoshida Tamajiro of the Bunraku Theater. Once, during his apprenticeship, while he was helping his master Tamazo manipulate a puppet hero in rehearsing a climactic capture scene, he was unable to perfect a certain movement of the legs for which he was responsible. Suddenly, his angry teacher shouted “Fool!” and, snatching up a puppet sword (one with a real blade), gave him a sharp blow on the back of the head. To this day he bears the scar of it. And Tamazo himself, who struck Tamajiro, once had his head split open when his own teacher struck him with a puppet. He begged his teacher for the broken-off, splintered legs of the puppet, which were crimson with his blood, and then wrapped them in silk floss and stored them away in a plain wooden box, such as is used for the ashes of the dead. Now and then he took the legs out and paid obeisance to them, as if he were worshipping the spirit of his dead mother. “Except for that beating,” he would say with tears in his eyes, “I might have spent my whole life as a run-of-the-mill performer.”