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Anyone who understands Mozart or Beethoven hears consonance in their music. This is expressed primarily in tonality and rhythmical order. In tonal compositions there is an ordered progression of related tonalities (typically tertian sonorities) that finds its purpose and resolution in the home key. When the home key is reached, there is a sense of rest, of purpose attained. Consonance is the analogue of a rationally meaningful world.

My experience of living abroad in Taiwan, of living in an environment radically different from New Zealand is not like this. It is more like an atonal composition. In atonal compositions there is no home key, and therefore little sense of purpose or resolution. This is an exageration no doubt, but it illustrates a point. If you are so miserable, why bother staying? – What is ‘home’, anyway?

Whatever else it means, and I am able to offer no more than a furtive sidelong glance at it, I think it can be compared fruitfully with aesthetic appreciation. Wittgenstein discusses this in a remark published in Culture & Value, p. 58e. There he talks about art and how it is thought to convey a ‘feeling’. Wittgenstein partially agrees with this traditional characterization:

You really could call it, not exactly the expression of a feeling, but a least an expression of feeling, or a felt expression. And you could say too that insofar as people understand it, they ‘resonate’ in harmony with it, responds to it. You might say: the work of art does not aim to convey something else, just itself.

Is home a feeling? I am not referring to a single dwelling by ‘home’, which merely occupies the foreground of a much larger picture. I am attempting to capture something about the picture itself, of the whole. Wittgenstein’s term ‘felt expression’ suggests that the relation of art to the world is appreciative, art is appreciated for being important. This suggests a method of knowing through feeling, which is global rather than mundane in nature. Is there a unique kind of knowing proper to feelings?

Let’s look at Wittgenstein’s simile of ‘harmony’, or, as he says, art that resonates. The word ‘resonate’ is a verb meaning ‘to sound again’.  One who understands art ‘resonates’ in harmony with it. How? Wittgenstein says: one ‘responds to it’. This suggests that art is understood by a spontaneous act of perception, and not by diagnosis. One who responds to art may therefore convey his understanding by an answering expression or gesture as by some appropriate gesture in words (consider understanding facial expressions). I think that home is like this.

I do not ‘resonate’ in harmony with Taiwan. Is that clear enough to me? The person who lives here and ‘understands’ life in this country, is like someone whose total experience of Taiwan reverberates within him simultaneously as his own or as the music of Mozart does for millions, or as a piston fits into a cylinder, and so on. All the tonalities that sound off in a person and in the environment that exist in harmony form chordal structures, and stacked together they blend into one and sound off simultaneously, without effort or transition to something else.  

Experiences resonate within a person in sequence. Taken individually, they form melodies and play out in the course of a person’s life. The world is played out in a person just as a musical chord is played out in sequence or individual notes are played out in sequence to form melodies. A person ‘at home’ in a place anywhere in the world is like an harmonic progression, it seems to me, and one who is not, is nothing more than a dissonant interval. It is therefore up to this person to resolve the tension that wars within him.

It would be difficult to be at home in a world whose sum total musical experience consisted of Richard Clayderman, or Karlheinz Stockhausen.  Imagine what such a life would be like. Clearly, a question of balance between consonant and dissonant forces is necessary if home is to take root.


80. East and West. Collective and Individual. Group geometry.

Western persons are interruptions in the undifferentiated continuity: we bob up and down like buoys in rough water seeking attention, vying to be received as individuals. There is no pattern apart from this continual seesaw, and the rough conditions are generated not by nature, but by us. Our movement is self-chosen. ‘What about me?’ is our battlecry.

Eastern persons (e.g., Taiwanese) are rather different. They do not bob or wobble individually, but tend to flow into each other like water in water. There is no leader, no collective ‘flock mind’, or ‘information center’. Distinguish behavioral qualities in university students in the USA and university students in Taiwan. A different paradigm is at play.

Compare the behavior of persons with the flock behavior of starlings when it returns to roost at dusk. Thinkers since Pliny the Elder have contemplated the synchronous movements of flocking birds. Let’s identify Taiwanese people as forming a class of persons akin to the starling flock, in terms of group behavior, and let’s contrast this arrangement with the behavior of western persons, caricatured above.

A prejudice in the West concerning Asia is that Eastern persons flock together because they are weak as individuals. This assumes that collectivism affords protection from hostiles or, to continue the analogy with starlings, ‘predators’. It is true that many flocking birds are weak fliers, and that they are not strong enough individually to escape from a hawk (compare mountain bluebirds who don’t forage in flocks, and are able as solitary fliers to outmaneuver hawks or falcons). Further, starling flocks also tend to ‘ball-up’ when attacked in flight. By contrast, when starling flocks return home to roost, they will spend an hour or more wheeling or turning before they land. If flocking is to avoid predation, then the longer they stay in the air, the more vulnerable they are to predators. Moreover, if Taiwanese flock for protection, who is the feared hostile? The PRC? This may have been the case during foreign occupation in Taiwan, but now?

But this question is wrong. There is no predator, for this flocking behavior is not directed at anything or anyone. It is undirected (like depression). I think it is largely expressive of unreflective continuity with the past, or rather, unchanging attitudes toward the past in Taiwan, which remain traditional and reproductive, and which simply have not been subjected to strong enough a challenge to change. No single stimulus is currently available which makes a direct appeal to reflect on the need to preserve the past in behavior and ways of living and acting. Can one say: the stimulus to reflect on the whole has yet to take root in Taiwan?

42. Dr. Richard R. Vuylsteke’s recent comments on the impoverished state of political leadership in Taiwan, made on his departure from the executive of the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei, are, in my humble opinion, much needed and provide essential feedback to those who have been elected to govern Taiwan.  

Taiwan is a small island country, and like all such places around the globe – especially those in Asia – its leaders exhibit more than their own fair share of imbred myopia and shortsightedness. We should not be at all surprised at the reaction of alarm and dismay with which the Taiwanese politicians greeted Vuylsteke’s remarks. Regrettably, they seem to lack all honesty of the intellectual sort or the kind of critical self-awareness which asks: ‘What is Vuylsteke saying? What really happened?’

Instead, the past seven years have witnessed cross-party and cross-faction rhetorical vendattas, flying kitchen appliances as hurled projectiles in the Legislative Yuan, and a deep pettiness of personal interaction. The public image of the Taiwan politician has turned sour, very sour indeed. One sincerely hopes that this fallow soil may yet still produce the kind of political genius able to strengthen the political, economic and social status of Taiwan by the year 2020. But it is unlikely.

32. It is difficult if not impossible to move beyond functional competence in a language if the culture it belongs to fails to resonate within a person. This may explain why after six years in Taiwan my Chinese is barely above functional. On the other hand, it accounts for my interest in European languages, even in Latin, a ‘dead- language’.  

When I first arrived in Taiwan, I would return home from work every day and listen to Mozart’s Figaro. It later dawned on me that I was using Mozart as an analogue of a rationally meaningful world. His music is expressed in tonality and rhythmic order, two qualities present in urban Taiwan only in small doses. In tonal compositions there is a home key which is the analogue of a rational purpose, there is an ordered progression of related tonalities that finds its resolution in the home key. When the home key is reached, there is a sense of rest, of purpose attained.

I viewed  – and still do – life in busy Taiwan as like an atonal composition which lacks a home key. A composition which lacks a home key conveys no sense. It seems therefore that I am in the wrong place.


May 2018
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