Everyday Semiotics

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Carrying coals to High Castle

Juliana Frink and Nobusuke Tagomi have both killed people, after which they both reflexively consult the I Ching and come to very similar realizations about the Inner Truth and its keen disassociation from their reality.

Curiously, these two characters, both peripheral and both homicidal by necessity, wrap up “The Man in the High Castle.” (By way of explaining that “peripheral”: Juliana’s action takes place miles away from everyone else’s; and aside from her broken marital relationship to Frank Frink, she does not connect with other characters in the cleverly incidental ways every other character does. Tagomi is literally on the sidelines of an historic meeting between radical peace-seeking German and Japanese factions.)

It’s by way of Juliana and Tagomi that the novel becomes selfconsciously postmodern. (It is postmodern throughout, but not (explicitly) selfconsciously so up until the last 30 pages.) Consulting the oracle (using coins rather than the usual yarrow stalks, which must be significant in some way beyond my Western grasp), Juliana discovers, effectively, that she is in a novel. It’s not true, the hexagon reveals, that Germany and Japan won World War II and divided the spoils of America.

The novel-within-novel, the inverse parallel, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” composed with painstaking consultation of the oracle by Hawthorne Abendsen, is truth, and the reality of “The Man in the High Castle” is false. (Of course the world of “Grasshopper” is not our world or strictly speaking the inverse parallel of Juliana’s world. In the short passages we see of it, we learn it is absurdly utopian.)

The purpose of the peripheral characters in “High Castle” seems to be to come to such world-shifting realizations. Take for example another one: Paul Kasoura, is at first amused when he’s given a decorative pin, crafted by Frank Frink and Ed McCarthy and grafted him by Robert Childan. The piece seems worthless because it has no historicity, that is, has none of the appeal to a Japanese cultural appropriator that a Mickey Mouse watch would.

But then Kasoura realizes it has something else, something more fundamental to the prewar Japanese spirit, that is, wu, which we may as well equate to Frederic Jameson’s “aura.” Perhaps because this strikes Kasoura, or his colleagues, too close to home, Kasoura recommends that the only thing to be done with such original work is to duplicate and kitschify it.

Tagomi does not – cannot – derive the same sense of wu from Edfrank jewelry. I submit this is because of his actions during the invasion of his office.

Killing, for him as for Juliana, shifts his perceptions permanently into the realm of historicity, which for the sake of argument I’ll pose as the opposite or foil of wu. Both are fantasies, values ascribed to an object by its observer. But historicity hinges on a perception of the object’s role in a historical moment, whereas wu is dependent on perception of something like the eternal soul of the artist suffusing the artwork. Juliana and Tagomi become shut off from wu and sealed in historicity because their actions constitute or continue such historical moments. Tagomi defends two men working to prevent a new holocaust (using an already historically-inscribed Civil War-era revolver that may or may not be a counterfeit, ho ho!), while Juliana unwittingly stops a Nazi assassin.

Juliana is frightened until she realizes Joe Cinnadella isn’t an abusive boyfriend but a Nazi assassin. She is cold to the fact that she’s committed manslaughter, intent on the fact that she’s protected Abendsen – whose historical import, I must note, she perceives rather than understands. An important distinction, I think. She knows Abendsen and his novel are a big deal, but she doesn’t finish reading “Grasshopper” until after killing the assassin and a few hours before meeting Abendsen in person.

Tagomi has a more visceral reaction, turning to the I Ching immediately and grapping for the next 24 hours with his action’s implications. Meeting with the German consul, Tagomi suffers a heart attack. I think this happens because there are irreconcilable forces in him, forces of historicity and wu, not annihilating each other or necessarily damaging each other but bumping into each other and immobilizing each other.

What exactly is Tagomi doing by refusing to extradite Frank Frink, secret Jew, to German for extermination? Historical forces lay claim to this action, as do spiritual ones. Tagomi doesn’t know Frink (although Frink very likely produced his revolver, if in fact the revolver is a fake). He’s probably signed countless other such extradition papers. But in this case his refusal to sign is merely to spite the German consul, to retaliate for the invasion and for the moral upheaval it has caused him personally. He’s saved a total of three lives by now, but he still has taken one.

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