In Praise of Halvings Hidden Histories of Japan Excavated by Dr D. Fenberger
In his combative and much-meditated-upon essay, “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life”, Friedrich Nietzsche identified a number of ways that the dead legacy of the past could grip the living in its stifling grasp: “Monumental” history fashioned heroes who loomed over life; “Antiquarian” history reverentially aggregated the detritus of bygone ages, and thereby forced the vital present to play custodian to a bunch of old junk; “Critical” history sorted the “lessons” of the past (the right from the wrong, the effective from the less so) with an eye on tutoring everyone with somniferous yakka-yakka about the days of yore. How to escape from history — and especially from the mindset of historical deference called “historicism”? These were Nietzsche’s questions. He hazarded answers, too, proposing that it might be time to learn to be unhistorical (by learning to forget), or possibly suprahistorical (by learning to live in/with/through “eternity” — whatever that might mean). I rehearse Nietzsche’s important argument because it offers, I think, a suggestive frame through which to encounter Roger McDonald’s “In Praise of Halvings”, presented here below. Burying history? Or inventing it? Both? And here is a problem: If others have erased your history, are you unhistorical? Suprahistorical? Or perhaps just invisible?
— D. Graham Burnett, Series Editor
March 28, 2019
I have long been fascinated by the idea that something that for all intents and purposes looked like “one thing” could also be “many things” — indeed that “oneness” (in any of its forms) is, in fact, forever composed of various parts. This preoccupation, I think, arose largely from my own experience as a person of mixed Japanese and English parentage. In Japan, where I was born, we are often known as haafu, or halves, a churlish word that hints at a rather deep cultural discomfort. Little wonder, then, my interest in Japanese attitudes regarding the hybrid, the mixed, the impure and/or half-bred.
Sometime during my doctorate studies, while visiting and researching a Zen temple outside Kyoto called Empuku-ji (it is where the American abstract painter Mark Tobey stayed in 1934), I came across references to an archive called “The HansetsuRoku”, which translates literally as “The Book of Halved Things”. This trove — which purported to contain many hundreds of documents, artifacts, and objects documenting a “cloaked history of Halved Things in and beyond Japan from the earliest time” — quite seized my imagination. Further inquiries followed.
The modern sleuth who uncovered and archived the HansetsuRoku was the late Dr Daniel Fenberger, an amateur scholar about whom little is known. It would seem that he was part Japanese; that he lived in Nagano prefecture, Japan, at the end of his life; that he began compiling artifacts and writings pertaining to the HansetsuRoku during the 1970s; and that he never published his findings during his life. No verified photograph of Dr Fenberger has yet come to light, and the bulk of the documentation I have been able to amass consists of a small box of texts and artifacts. I keep it in my home. Two sources of particular richness stand out, from which the texts below are drawn: the first is a journal and scrapbook maintained irregularly by an (unnamed) student of Dr Fenberger’s, apparently in the 1970s and 1980s; the second is a fragment of what appears to be an éloge or funerary obituary presented by this same student at the passing of his mentor. The latter offers a suggestive, if perhaps fantastic, account of the HansetsuRoku itself.
I offer these excerpts to wider attention in the hopes that they may assist in the consideration of a paradox (the composite nature of singularity), the forgetting of which, it might be argued, helps sustain various myths — not least, the myth of a “pure” Japanese nation, a notion that retains considerable political and cultural influence to this day.
I heard today that Anthony Hopkins, the actor, was born in Port Talbot, Wales. This is strange because I remember Dr Fenberger saying that he had gone to Port Talbot one summer (perhaps it was in the early 1960s). It so happens that Port Talbot was also the town where I hitchhiked from in my final year at university in Aberystwyth. It was a wager with three friends, who could hitch the furthest from Aberystwyth and hitch back, the fastest. The rule was that we must bring back proof of the furthest point we reached. I got to Port Talbot and bought a small pewter stout mug engraved with the arms of Port Talbot. Dr Fenberger used to drink beer from pewter mugs which always amused me. I always thought of medieval banquets. I never found out what exactly Dr Fenberger did in Port Talbot, except that he did not stay the night but took the last train back to London.
Dr Fenberger tells me a story: The year is 1937 and Paris is hosting The International Exhibition. Facing each other in front of the Eiffel Tower are the pavilions of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. Each tries to architecturally outdo the other. The Soviets put a massive sculpture of two workers striding forth on top of the pavilion, so that they seem to be walking towards the Germans. The Germans, led by Albert Speer, counter by building a massively tall neo-classical temple-like pavilion. The Palais de Tokyo was inaugurated during this exhibition, taking its name from the avenue which separated it from the Seine River. Few know, but the Tokyo referred to in this avenue can be traced back to a certain Mr and Mrs Kikuchi from Komoro in Nagano prefecture. I think the Kikuchi’s were friends with the French Ambassador to Japan in the early 1930s, hosting him and his wife for hunting trips during autumn. In return for their hospitality, the French government named a street after the Kikuchi’s. Initially proposed to be “Rue Kikuchi”, this was deemed too personal by the Ministry for Roads, and the name was changed to “Tokyo”.
It was theorized by Dr Fenberger that “Siebold” refers to Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796–1866) a physician who was granted unusual travel access to Japan in the 1820s. No one knows who placed this paper on the wall. The paper apparently was discovered by an official exhibition guard and secretly kept until 1957, when it appeared at a small auction of antique letters held in London.
When Walker Evans was taking photographs for the Farm Securities Administration in the 1930s he used to chew on sticks of sweetened dried seaweed sent to him by a Japanese fan and pen pal named Naga Usutarou. Several eyewitnesses have testified to this fact, according to Dr Fenberger. Some people mistook the sticks of seaweed for cigars. When war broke out between Japan and the United States and the packages from Naga ceased, it is said that Walker Evans used to walk for hours along the beaches of New Haven looking for seaweed sticks.
Piero Manzoni stuffed ninety cans with his excrement in May 1961. What is not so known is exactly what Manzoni ate in May 1961. Dr Fenberger heard from an Italian lady who lived next to Manzoni in Milan that he used to like aubergines fried in miso with Japanese rice and pickles. From a digestive point of view, one could make the case that those ninety cans of excrement contain Japanese shit.
Dr Fenberger used to work in winter without heating. He claimed that heat dissipated the energy clusters that were generated during intense writing and reading sessions. This may also be why traditionally monks of all denominations meditated and prayed in the cold. The relationship between cold and concentration is further strengthened if we consider the case of Mrs Teshima Yumiko. Mrs Teshima lived alone in a small cabin on the southern slopes of Mt Asama in Nagano prefecture. During winter when it snowed she used to fill sacks of hessian with snow and place these under her floorboards. She claimed that this activated certain latent powers in the air which helped her think straight. Mrs Teshima was also known to make the best pickled cucumber in the area. In 1968 at the age of 99, Mrs Teshima made several recordings of herself eating pickled cucumbers which were released as limited editions by Soft Sembe Records, a subsidiary of Nippon Columbia.
Mr Sakuro Tanabe graduated from the Imperial College of Engineering in 1890, and went on to build the first reinforced concrete bridge in Japan, the Hinooka RC11 Bridge. Tanabe had studied the properties of concrete at Kyoto University since 1900. In 1930 the artist Theo van Doesburg published the only edition of Art Concret in which he expounded a new art which would expunge all symbolic associations from art. The RC11 Bridge has no known function or use, and is thought to have been made as an exercise in pure concrete fantasy. Although called a “bridge”, Dr Fenberger insists it does not traverse any water or road. Here, he says, we have a rare example of concrete engineering and concrete art theory colliding together.
Imagine a community of people connected by a shared hybridity, living underground in complex systems of chambers and tunnels, spending their days collating information, writing, archiving and conserving objects, so that future people would one day realize that the history which they had been taught at schools and by their grandparents was in fact only one small aspect of something more impenetrable and mysterious.
Then imagine these people across millennia of time, spanning the archaic communities of hunter-gatherer tribes of the Paleolithic and Jomon, early Yayoi farming groups, through the Asuka, Nara, Kamakura, Muromachi, Edo and Meiji periods, up into the contemporary, which seeks connection again with the archaic ancestors and which always remains different from those periods, unable to be fully integrated into those epochs and their histories.
Imagine further still, that these people compiled thousands of documents, objects, ceramics, textiles, natural formations and ephemera, looking after them in a cave complex that spanned many miles in many directions, and which remained secret until some forty years ago when Dr D. Fenberger chanced upon it.
Imagine, finally, and with discipline, that this story is a fiction, created further to confuse and protect an unfathomable reality of unending half-truths, surprise, and archaeological rumpus, which in turn produces counter-histories to the subtle master narratives of the Japanese islands — and that through this continued story-telling one comes to realize that the imagination is a spell-maker, the incantational device that always has and always will confer balance upon the predicament called “living”, which we are all currently moving through, moment to moment.
The keepers and archivists and the HansetsuRoku considered all things, from the smallest of atomic particles to the largest stars and moons, to be temporary clusterings of perpetually moving, mixing experiences. All things are considered to be simple but temporarily perfect moulds taken from what they referred to as Dai San no Tochi, or the “Third Soil”. This soil may be understood as a perpetually potent flow of experience which both creates and erases all things in the universe. The earliest reference to this soil, Dr Fenberger insisted, is found in an engraved pot made sometime in the late Jomon period, depicting what is believed to be the various aspects of our universe. A unique symbolic form appears on this pot for the first time. This form — about which Dr Fenberger often spoke, but which he steadfastly declined to show in any of his lectures or private conversations — re-appears, he claimed, in many other guises on an array of different media including paintings, drawing, sculptures, textile embroideries, metal-work, elaborated ceramics, photographs, verse, and glass ware. From this, he alleged that we can deduce that this single iconic form first expressed over 3000 years ago remains the constant philosophical underpinning for the HansetsuRoku. It visualizes a metaphysical constellation of supreme elegance and complexity.
The Third Soil which the HansetsuRoku elaborates suggests a panpsychic or panexperientialist position, wherein all things in the universe possess some kind of experiential capacity. Moreover this experiential capacity is a constantly interacting entity, moving into and through all other things. The idea seems to form the bedrock upon which a theory of “halvings” or mixings could be developed. Time is considered a fluid aspect, always influencing the present and moving into the future. Concepts such as eternity or bounded identity are not supported within its orbit. For its makers and keepers, the HansetsuRoku must have provided a haven for liberated thinking where the true nature of reality was mapped onto their bodies.
Dr Fenberger repeatedly suggested that from the late fourteenth century onwards there emerged a practice within the HansetsuRoku which merged various Indian and Chinese practices and archaic performance. From a careful analysis of several drawings and texts found in a box titled “Techniques of Journey”, Dr Fenberger discovered that this comprised a meditative practice based around “stillness and silence”. It is believed that members of the group would gather around some image or object and gaze at it for long periods in silence. The stillness of images was considered to provide a doorway, like a tunnel or cave entrance, into a journey. Stillness and silence are two significant qualities of drawn and painted images and also of sculptural objects. It is believed that the act of looking at them in silence could vibrate the many tiny experiences which made up a painting or sculpture so that the image would literally begin to flow and metabolize with the persons looking. Dr Fenberger speculates that this journeying practice was one of the key methods by which members would enact their mixed being, allowing the world of material objects to infuse the world and their minds. In this way, over millennia, the HansetsuRoku became an accumulation of composite experiences, a fertilized complex of the Third Soil.
Roger McDonald is a founding member of Arts Initiative Tokyo and Director of The Museum of Cosmic Consciousness at Fenberger House, a small private museum founded in 2013 in the mountains of Nagano prefecture, Japan, where he lives.