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Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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Reading in the garden. [20050621|15:11]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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It's my last day on campus and I am having my tea break with Ten Jin in Dabney Gardens. I didn't know his name before today. I sat with him, weather permitting, and since this is Pasadena it usually was, to eat my lunch, to read articles or to sip a hot beverage when I took a break. (Despite the heat, it never occurs to me to order anything iced.) I always visited him by myself. If I saw someone else sitting on the wooden benches near him, I left.

He perches perpetually on the back of a cow wreathed in brass leaves with a lotus flower tucked behind her ear. The surrounding trees shade them from the sun, though his conical hat provides additional cover. His sandaled feet dangle inches above the untrimmed patch of grass beneath him. His back stays straight while his solemn, lined face tilts downward. He'll never lift his eyes from his book.

My cell phone is in my office. I never speak a word in his presence. I hardly even look at him. I simply enjoy knowing he's there. But tomorrow I will be six thousand miles from this place and I don't know when I'll be back again. So I stand up from my bench and apprehensively bend over the plaque rooted in the ground by the cow's nose. It reads:

TEN JIN
Ninth Century Japanese Philosopher
Gift of
EDWIN H. SCHNEIDER, MD
September, 1967


How little a name means without a living being to infuse it. History attempts valiantly to supply what death and time erase. History is made of scraps of physical evidence, colored by the perceptions of the recorders and the bias of the collectors, patched together with imagination and logical deduction. It can never replicate exactly the embodiment of the name. I don't think that means history always fails, however. The ultimate product of history is legend, not truth, and legends give us hope.

Ten Jin himself demonstrates this, for that is not even his real name. In life, this ninth century Japanese scholar, poet and politician was known as Sugawara Michizane. His considerable literary talent brought him to the attention of the Emperor Uda, who promoted him to an office that his status in the aristocracy did not merit. His political rivals made him pay for his elevation when the emperor retired and he died in exile.

The events that occurred after his death, mostly in the line of natural disasters, caused consternation in the court and impressed his admirers. Both groups believed his spirit was exacting retribution for his ignominious demise. Their fear and awe induced his renaming and deification. Thus, from an erudite academic incapable of surviving court intrigue, the legendary patron of scholarship and literature Ten Jin was born.

This figure, the deity of a still-popular Shinto cult, stands in a garden of an institution where the students and the faculty strive to uphold the principles of rational scientific inquiry. Ten Jin reminds us that our academic successes can't immunize us against the power that superstition has to shape our personal histories.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: souptime
2005-06-21 16:23 (UTC)



“This figure, the deity of a still-popular Shinto cult, stands in a garden of an institution where the students and the faculty strive to uphold the principles of rational scientific inquiry. Ten Jin reminds us that our academic successes can't immunize us against the power that superstition has to shape our personal histories.”

Hey, you’re describing Vulkins.




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[User Picture]From: taische
2005-06-21 17:23 (UTC)
I can only begin to imagine the extent to which the inaccuracies and biases that one often sees reflected in modern news articles- regarding subjects that are personally known- amplify across time, space, and cultures- all the more when combined with the intentional distortions that the politics of peace and war alike, fancy, religion, and cultural bias introduce. As you point out, though, the illusions of legend are far from useless; they are varied enough that those willing to take the time to look can often find their own situation, spirit, and/or preferences confirmed, reflected, and extended in the stories of others. As a tutor, history may be made of little more than ash and shadow, but it's a tutor just the same.

Ten Jin reminds us that our academic successes can't immunize us against the power that superstition has to shape our personal histories.

Yep. The wind's only reason is self-consistency, and every single one of us is a wind-catcher; that's easy enough for most to deny until a storm spins up.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-06-23 10:59 (UTC)
The Evelyn Waugh story I read touched on that subject a little. He was talking about the shoddy Western reportage of the coronation that he witnessed in Addis Ababa. He complained that journalists were inventing sensational details - sometimes more than details - in order to submit news items as quickly as possible. While he didn't believe that was an uncommon or even necessarily terrible practice, he felt it was particularly detrimental when it came to covering news from the African continent. He argued that Westerners didn't have much of a sense of urgency about African news (I think this could probably still be said to be true) and that the lower level of concern meant that it was unlikely that errors made in haste would ever be caught and corrected later. This is a really cynical argument to make in favor of slowing down coverage in favor of maintaining historical accuracy. However, it's difficult to come up with an alternative that doesn't require magically getting Westerners to care a lot more about Africa. I guess his point was that the danger of distortions of current events that can't be found later is that they can end up being taken as historical fact. He didn't seem too optimistic about being able to prevent that from happening.
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[User Picture]From: sekl
2005-06-21 17:44 (UTC)
Ten Jin reminds us that our academic successes can't immunize us against the power that superstition has to shape our personal histories.

Or protect our achievements from the vicious cycles of politics. I wonder how much Schneider identified with Ten Jin.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-06-23 10:15 (UTC)
I tried to look him up (both with Google and on the Caltech site) after I read your comment, but I can't find anything. Mystery.
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[User Picture]From: behsharam
2005-06-22 05:53 (UTC)
"(Despite the heat, it never occurs to me to order anything iced.)"

An ex-roommate of mine was constantly commenting on how people in China will drink hot tea to cool off and dry themselves with wet towels. It almost led to me becoming violent with him using a wet towel but... well...

I like this entry. It is one to ponder. Thank you.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2005-06-23 10:30 (UTC)
Ouch, wet towel flickings!

It's supposed to be around 30 C today, and I just made myself a pressful of hot coffee without really thinking about it. It must be a result of growing up in tropical places. Unless there's 90% humidity to go along with it, it just doesn't seem that bad.

Thanks for reading.
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