Last night, I dreamt about political philosopher and Sinologist Daniel A. Bell.
Let me preface that.
Bill and I are talking about reading one of Bell's books along with a certain, mysterious Professor A. Ku. Trying to decide between Bell's East Meets West or his Beyond Liberal Democracy, we are aiming to chat about the book here in mid-December and welcome others to join us. In the words of Bill, "the more the merrier."
To be totally up front about my own project (which of course I have), more than discussing how Bell's ideas can be mapped to western philosophical conventions, I am interested to see whether Bell illuminates the Asian perspective as a method within its own context. That, to me, is the only really interesting question-- how to push back the boundaries of our own ontological limitations (of which it seems we have many).
Anyway, back to my dream. It was mid-Winter and Bell was in Tokyo for a lecture. I had agreed to pick him up at his hotel and escort him to the lecture hall and was racing through Tokyo Station thinking about the things I wanted to talk with him about. It was the morning rush hour and the station was packed with people rushing toward the exits in thick coats, bracing themelves again the northern wind which was howling outside.
I thought, I really would like to know if the recent huge down-turn in Japanese public opinion toward China was making the news in China-- or whether America remains the main issue on people's minds (the elephant in the room that everyone is still talking about?).
And does the public opinion reflect what is happening on a governmental level? The gyoza scare was huge here and it took a really very ugly turn I thought. Despite that, I seem to recall recently reading that Japanese investments in China were at an all-time high.
Just the other week at a Ladies Lunch (I remain convinced that ladies lunches are things that go on for eternity in hell), the ladies turned to the topic of China and you know things are really bad when your Japanese friends start talking like this, but wow, even I was speechless. Not that I disagreed with anything they were saying: from the environment to contaminates in the food everything was hidoi (terrble and unbelivable). At the same time, looking around the table, I did take note that it was the ladies who gave their kids the greatest volume of cheap plastic toys made in China or bought the ready-made food who were complaining the loudest. Because, in fact, this was only an issue to them because it was directly affecting them-- but, of course, it would not be directly affecting them if they had chosen to purchase with more conscience (there you have it-- a Peony opinion, for what its worth).
Anyway as I located Bell's hotel room and was about to knock at the door, I wondered if he would have much to say about this-- or if he had noticed the avalanche of Japanese books devoted to this topic of a dangerous, rising China that have been published over the past year. My words, however, got caught in my throat for when he opened the door, he had in his hands this gigantic piece of amber. Behind him, the curtains were open and a strong shaft of light was hitting the amber just right too, for it was glowing. And, there in the middle of the honey colored, glimmering chunk of amber was a million year old red bug.
What could this mean, I wondered? (Even in my dream it was all so unexpected).
He said that he wanted to get his coat and as he put it on, I noticed that his briefcase was also full of amber. And like happens in dreams, the golden honey color just infused the entire room with color and warm fragrance.
"But I thought you were here to talk about China?"
"No," I am here to talk about my new theory."
I waited for him to tell me what (knowing it must have something to do with that piece of amber in his hands).
"The Three Kings from the East, the Magi, they didn't bring frankiscence, myrrh and gold. What they brought with them on their long trek to the King was frankiscence, myrrh and amber."
And that was it. I woke up.
Before I went away to college, I attended a lecture series held at the Jung Institute in Los Angeles. It was really very interesting as maybe a dozen or so Jungian scholars and therapists gave various lectures about myths and dreams. I wonder how they would have interpreted my dream-- for it actually left me puzzled.
When I woke up, though, I recalled something I had glanced on NHK a few months ago-- a documentary about Poland. There was the most beautiful castle, not the kind of castle that kings build in times of peace, but a real Medieval castle of the type that gets built in times of siege. Called Malbork Castle, this fortress during part of its long history had its fate tied up with the amber trade-- and indeed, I think the Amber Road might well have ended up in Poland.
Mined along the Baltic, vast amounts of amber traveled along the Amber Road all the way to Rome during the time of the Empire. It also traveled East along the Silk Road-- maybe as far as China (amber was valued for its medicinal properties in the Middle East and perhaps in China as well).The castle now has an amber museum that the Japanese documentary described as being rather important (this amber Hermes is from there, circa 1600)
Not all that far from Malbork, in fact, a Polish Count I know was born and raised till he was maybe 12 or 13. He used to like to call me Atalanta. I liked that very much-- but not for the same reasons as he did.
You may recall the story of Meleager. The Fates had decried that he would only live until that moment when a brand in the family hearth was consumed by the fire. Trying to put off what fate had decided, his mother grabbed the brand and hid it away so that he might lead a long life.
You know fate, though.
Some intrigue involving Atalanta-- whom he probably loved-- led to a violent argument with his uncles, whereby he ended up killing them both. Enraged that her son would kill her brothers, his mother tossed the brand into the fire. He died that instant. His sisters were heartbroken and it is said that their tears turned to amber falling unendingly from their eyes.
Have you ever cried like that? Where even your tears felt heavy-- thick like amber.
I wish I could explain that mysterious utterance of Bell's. I have no idea what it means-- though I do love a mystery. I also find myself rather fascinated with tree saps and resins lately.
Between two large projects, I've been trying to finish up a blog post-- part two of Two Emperors and a Shogun-- This time, I'm writing about a great Japanese emperor of the 8th century. Emperor Shomu and his court lived in an exquisite cloud of aromatics; a truly dream-like world of perfumed baths and robes infused with the scent of precious incense brought from the exotic lands to the west.
It's all the stuff of Edward Schafer legend.
There was aloeswood, camphor, and sandalwood from Southeast Asia; cinnamon and musk from Vietnam and Frankinscence from Somiland. Cloves were used to freshen the breath. These aromatics were used to treat both body and spirit as they affected-- according to Professor Schafer-- the totality of the person: body, mind and soul.
One of Emperor Shomu's most valued possessions-- a gift from the Tang court-- was a piece of aloeswood. So precious was this piece of incense, it was given a name: Ranjatai. Only about 61 inches long, the piece of diseased wood weighs some 25 pounds! Native to the aquilaria tree of Southeast Asia, aloeswood has been an important item of trade for centuries and centuries. The tree alone does not produce the wood for incense, however, as the miraculous perfume is only created when an aquilaria tree is infected with a fungus. It is this infection that produces the fragrant resin-like substance. The fragrance is deeply penetrating and is usually described as warm and woody.
The small chips of diseased wood are permeated with this resin, which is what gives it its miraculous perfume, which in this case has lasted 1500 years (It's still stored in Shosoin today).
More similar to myrrh, perhaps, the main ingredient of violin varnish is also resin (which are the solids found in tree sap). There are three main types of resins: amber (made from fossilized sap up to 90 million years old), copal resins (crystallized sap from Mediterranean evergreen trees), and pitch. Made from the sap of a variety of pine species, including the Aleppo pine, it was this last one which was most probably what Stradavari and the other great Cremonese masters used for their varnish.
Adonis' violin probably has a synthetic varnish of course. However, the rosin he delights in using--golden Greek pitch-- is made from the same substance. Can you imagine? The finest, most exquisitely beautiful violin music depends on the delicate interaction of human hand with horsehair bow, sheep gut strings and pine sap.
Any interpretations of my dream?