Afterglow: The Last Book–Textual Survival and Apocalyptic Knowledge in Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai

Like many unjustly marginal books, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai is a novel that makes you want to proselytize. It makes you want to blog about it, laud it to your friends, brandish it in high-transit places in the hopes that another intrepid reader, impelled by the novel’s aura of genius, will come along and ask about it.

It’s also a novel that rewards you for your efforts by not being impenetrable: risking unintelligibility only when necessary and avoiding an elliptical narrative in favor of chronological dullness, so that you’ll always be on solid footing, no matter how outré things get. (Depending on your tolerance, they get either over- or underwhelmingly outré.) It’s for this reason, I think, that The Last Samurai has survived fifteen years of abysmal levels of popularity with the general readership—DeWitt’s book is ultimately empowering and decidedly feel-good, leaving its readers with the sense that they’ve grasped a complicated whole, that they too can be as perceptive a reader as the precocious polymath/incorrigible linguistic dilettante at the novel’s center, Ludo, a really smart 11 year-old. But even though The Last Samurai since its publication in 2000 has become a critical workhorse, crowning self-congratulatory lists of under-appreciated books, it seems to have definitively missed its opportunity to become one of those generation-defining novels miming or critiquing (who can tell which?) the informational promiscuity of the early Internet—think Infinite Jest, White Teeth, The Corrections, and some other now-unavoidable novels you and I could name (maybe something by Pynchon?). I learned from the back cover of DeWitt’s synchronic Lightening Rods that The Last Samurai has been translated into 20 languages, but after some unenlightening Google searches for its title translated, I’m still wondering whether the book has roused significant devotion in Brazil or Poland. In the anglophone world, at least, the book has gone out of print, but you can still find secondhand copies. (A friend gave me one as a gift, and I am indebted.)

Unpopularity, though, might be exactly what The Last Samurai was looking for. It might not be obvious, but perhaps the most weighty part of DeWitt’s project is that it self-consciously projects its own importance beyond the scope of its readership. It’s as if The Last Samurai assumes that in the far future, our current knowledge—like our language or daily practices—will be erased or changed beyond recognition and presumes to record the indispensable to safeguard it within its pages. In this way, The Last Samurai is like a dream of the Internet after humans die off or a preemptive and curatorial Noah’s Ark; it predicts and forestalls the wholesale destruction of public and private knowledge by virtue of its very existence.

This might sound extreme. Let me explain myself. The Last Samurai has not gone out of print to form a strange underground economy of appreciation (copies seem to circulate hidden in plain sight; I found one in Harvard’s Farnsworth Room, which calls itself “an eclectic leisure reading collection”) because it’s just hard to read or too virulently perverse to be appreciated by the uninitiated. Factor out DeWitt’s singular diction and the bits of Japanese, Ancient Greek, and Icelandic that periodically appear in the text, and The Last Samurai is just the story of a Sibylla, the single mother raising Ludo, the brilliant child we already mentioned, in London. Sibylla is the daughter of an intellectually-frustrated father, and finding herself in a world offering nothing but philistinism and boredom at every turn, she becomes pretty intellectually frustrated herself. Meanwhile Ludo longs to find a suitable father around which to structure his identity and goes around telling interesting or noteworthy men that he is their lost son. The story is partially an absurdist ready-made, and that’s part of its comfort. At the same time, DeWitt exhausts the book’s main intertext, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, to parallel Ludo’s intellectual development as he wages emotional war with his faux fathers under the pretense of genealogy. Cannibalistic in his quest for knowledge that could one day prove vital, Ludo ingests everything—but mostly books and the intellectual identities of these men. “I’ve had to learn five major trade languages and eight nomadic languages just in case,” Ludo remarks as he first prepares for belated father-son bonding, “It’s insane.” But once he has learned what he needs to know from the men in his life, it’s as if they didn’t exist, as if he’s killed them off. Too indicatively, many of his encounters with a spurious father are prefaced by the lines, “He raises the bamboo sword. He draws it back with beautiful economy,” reminding us that Ludo is the eternal protagonist of the following scene in Seven Samurai.

[Kyuzo] fights a match with another samurai with a bamboo sword. He wins, but the other man claims it was a draw. So Kyuzo says, if we’d been fighting with real swords, I’d have killed you. So the other samurai says, All right, let’s fight with real swords. So Kyuzo says, It’s silly, I’ll kill you. So the other samurai draws his sword, and they fight with real swords, and he’s killed.

In fact, this question of genealogy, deliberate ruptures within it, and the death of the weaker is thematically crucial, for soon it becomes clear that, were Ludo the last person on the planet to know everything about it—were he cognitively the last samurai standing—he would be able to reconstruct major triumphs of world culture, from post-conceptual art to hyper-masculine colloquial Japanese. Tellingly, for most of its duration, The Last Samurai is his diary. Thus Ludo becomes the perfect conduit for producing a text that could serve as a Greatest Hits in contemporary civilization; the text is a geography of his mind, of the world’s mind.

Georg Lukács in The Theory of The Novel observes with twentieth-century certitude that “A totality that can be simply accepted is no longer given to the forms of art: therefore they must either narrow down and volatilize whatever has to be given form to the point where they can encompass it, or they must show polemically the impossibility of achieving their necessary object and the inner nullity of their own means.” We could say that The Last Samurai does the former by arguing against the latter. Ludo’s limitlessness is the fever dream of a novel that seeks to demonstrate the transmit-ability of all knowledge along with the viability of fiction as a repository for a species of totality—a self-sustaining web of references. In less grating language, I might say that The Last Samurai champions fiction as a device for creating worlds that simultaneously gives the reader all that she needs to survive in these worlds. (This is what I mean by ‘self-sustaining.’ Whether The Last Samurai presumes to represent one of the totalities of of our world is a thornier debate.) The text as a guide for survival is not only evident in Ludo’s frontiersman-throwback, Seven Samurai-flavored rhetoric (“I think I could live off the land in any continent.”) but more stealthily in Sibylla’s musings on pedagogy and literature and in the very processes whereby Ludo learns to interpret the world. Take how Sibylla shows Ludo Ancient Greek at four years old for instance.

There are a lot of Greek letters that are like English letters. See if you can read this, and I wrote on a piece of paper:

ατ

And he said at.

And I wrote down βατ and he said bat.

And I wrote down εατ and he said eat.

ατε. ate. ιτ. it. κιτ. kit. τοε. toe. βοατ. boat. αβουτ. about.

And I said that’s good.

And I said There are some other letters that are different, and I wrote down γ = g, δ = d, λ = l, μ = m, ν = n, π = p, ρ = r, & σ = s & I said see if you can read these.

I wrote down γατε and he said Gate!

And I wrote down δατε and he said Date!

And I wrote down λατε and he said Late!

ματε. Mate! ρατε. Rate! λετ Let μετ Met νετ Net πετ Pet σετ!!!!!!

This goes on for a while, and eventually Ludo learns the corresponding phonology and portions of the Ancient Greek lexicon—this is not the point. What’s really fascinating about Sybilla’s Ancient Greek pedagogy is that her efforts to make her son literate in Greek illustrate her preoccupations with the future of rarified knowledge. Only a few pages earlier, we find her making the following comments on the Rosetta Stone with Ludo’s soon-to-be biological father.

I said What I mean is, though I believe the Stone was originally a rather pompous thing to erect, it was a gift to posterity. Being written in hieroglyphics, demotic, and Greek, it only required that one language survive for all to be accessible. Probably one day English will be a much-studied dead language; we should use this fact to preserve other languages to posterity. You could have Homer with translation and marginal notes on vocabulary and grammar, so that if that single book happened to be dug up in 2,000 years or so the people of the day would be able to read Homer, or better yet, we could disseminate the text as widely as possible to give it the best possible chance of survival.

What we should do, I said, is have legislation so that every book published was obliged to have, say, a page of Sophocles or Homer in the original with appropriate marginalia bound into the binding, so that even if you bought an airport novel if your plane crashed you would have something to reread on the desert island…

Note Sybilla’s intense preoccupation with preserving textual intelligibility in a future where her language is a relic, her vague but repetitious use of posterity and survive, and the ostentatiously urgent tone of the plane-crash scenario. It will escape no one’s attention that Dewitt has engineered The Last Samurai so that, in the case of an emergency or personal inclination, the attentive reader could use it to learn Ancient Greek. (As you’d figure, Sybilla later writes her own Rosetta Stone for Greek.) Relatedly, earlier in this section, she finds herself “hearing in my mind snatches of books which might exist in three or four hundred years.” And if it didn’t already, this dialogue takes on an increasingly eschatological tone. About a decade later, Ludo seems to pick up his mother’s rôle in his first conversation with his biological father, a bad, popular writer. “Do you ever bury your books?” asks Ludo, now citing the possibility of “cataclysm” and again the idea future societies’ investigative excavations (“a few metres down, one on each continent”). Unsurprisingly, that inseparable couplet of “preserve” and “posterity” also comes up in Ludo’s speech, and we wonder wether what DeWitt wants to do here is remind us that in all text there is the potential to memorialize at the expense of Lukácsian self-reflexivity, to select one’s totality, to keep some fragments of previous literature alive while leaving others to wither in posterityless obscurity. (I have no doubt that DeWitt has buried her own books somewhere.)

Of course, it’s not only Ancient Greek that gets this treatment. Glossing dialogue from resonant scenes in Seven Samurai, DeWitt also breaks down Japanese so as to be comprehensible with some effort. She reproduces a Hiragana chart, both fundamental and abstruse Kanji, and a bulk of handy phrases in the text to accord with Ludo’s efforts to learn the language. The same goes for the Icelandic, whose North Germanic syntax and vocabulary require little intervention. You’ll also find some Inuit, Arabic, Finnish, and scraps of additional languages and glosses. With all of this, DeWitt seems to argue that for world culture to protect itself from inevitable decay, we need texts to become consumable,and thus intelligible, not independently but in the gap between one language or another. Education, accordingly, must become at once ubiquitous (“airport novels”) and incisive (by using one language to elicit another). Nevertheless, this logic of preservation through cleverer teaching extends beyond the linguistic. Through sensuous descriptions, conversations, edifying asides, or Ludo’s constant recitations of accreted knowledge, DeWitt manages to give readers a decent notion of some of the flashiest cornerstones in intellectual progress thus far. Flipping Samurai’s pages almost at random, I compiled this incomplete, possibly representative list.

Contemporary classical music infatuated with the idea of sound as an event.

Explanations of atomic theory accessible to an untrained understanding.

Carl Friedrich Gauss’s famous shortcut for adding up a bunch of sequential numbers.

Contemporary linguistic fieldwork resulting in dramatic sociolingustic conclusions (“There was an indicative, past present and future, and an imperative, and these were used only by men—and then there were what he would call by analogy the subjunctive and the optative, and these were used only by women.”)

Visual art that challenges the notion that seeing is passive while advancing projects that thrive on viewer-artist intersubjectivity (“Then he let out the bloody water, and he sold the first set of bloody canvas for £150,000. It was called Let Brown = Red.”)

Naturalistic film’s aesthetic of viewer immersion.

Self-consciously formulaic phrases bateaux. (“La formule est banale”)

Serendipitous patterns in basic arithmetic.

Presence or absence of what could be called perspective in Japanese woodblock prints of the

nineteenth century in conversation with

Second Viennese School-era music theory.

Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy and accompanying polemics surrounding the moral

legitimacy of suicide.

Where better to preserve these riches than in a work of fiction, with its ability to operate across languages and broad swaths of knowledge, with its ability to become the ultimate self-reproducing commodity? (What’s more cunningly preservationist than a book that generates a cult readership?) This vision of fiction is what DeWitt in her novel unerringly promotes. Criticisms of The Last Samurai could rage from the legitimate complaint that much of the text is irritatingly allegorical to the possible turn-off of much of DeWitt’s David Foster Wallacian verbal tics (among these, a nasty fetish for initialisms), but no one can say that DeWitt has not exploited the fictional narrative’s natural way of expanding to do what is demanded of it. For this reason, this mobilization of the book as a decentralized, referential, transitive object that generates interest in the reader commensurate with the author’s investment makes The Last Samurai more of a self-aware artifact than a novel. In its paranoid desire to preserve, The Last Samurai forcibly introduces itself—along with all the information with which it is pregnant—into an un-lived future, a hypothetical future which might as well be real, in which it is one of those books excavated by a temporally-distant society for examination. Neither I, nor you, nor anyone can read this book as if it were the last book we—all of us here—had left behind. But let’s imagine what that might be like. Let’s imagine that some literary altruist had been prudent enough to catalogue some of our world’s advancements in the guise of an eclectic work of fiction—an impressionistic and highly-selective Voyager Golden Record. How much of us would survive? How much would be obliterated by virtue of omission? It’s this anxiety of existential fragility that fuels The Last Samurai and makes it so damn good. As mortal readers, we root for DeWitt because in the survival of her words is our survival, the survival of our mundanity, the invisible air of knowledge that we all breathe without thinking about it.

By Lucas Quatrecasas ’18

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