January 15th, 2005


The pleasures of being foreign

Later today I'm having lunch with Steve Trautlein, the editor of Metropolis magazine (the Tokyo English-language listings mag, not the American design mag of the same name). I owe Steve a huge amount, because he recently lent me his copy of 'Vertigo' by W.G. Sebald, and it's a terrific novel. Sebald is, I suspect, going to become a favourite writer; it's been a quite while since there was anyone whose books I wanted to read one by one, slowly, taking the time to savour every line, every situation, every page.

Perhaps the last author I felt this about was Franz Kafka, so it's appropriate that the article I recently wrote for Metropolis, Staying Foreign, starts with a quote from Kafka:

'SOMEWHERE IN HIS DIARY, Franz Kafka offers a cryptic thought. Happiness, he says, consists in having a goal, but not advancing towards it. As a “failed” pop star who finds failure increasingly interesting — perhaps even a blessing in disguise — I'm more convinced of that every day... This might seem like a strangely negative philosophy for someone who's lived in as many different places as I have; my trajectory from London to Paris to New York to Tokyo to Berlin seems, after all, to have been motivated by some utopian quest to find a place where people “think like me,” where “life is as it ought to be,” where I can find what Goethe called “elective affinities.”

Of all the places I've lived, Japan is where I feel those affinities most strongly. To list all the reasons why, I'd have to write a book. But I think one reason my relationship with Japan has been so good, and will last so long, is that I don't expect to belong, I don't expect to integrate, I don't expect to merge with the beloved. We will hold each other at a distance, and that will be fine.'

Continue reading Staying Foreign...

Re-reading that article today, I see it touching quite succinctly on a theme that's central to my life and my work these days: the paradox of feeling at home with not feeling at home. The spooky, the uncanny, ostranenie, the verfremdungseffekt, disorienteering... the Germans call the uncanny unheimlich, unhomely. The paradox is that the unhomely can become a home from home, and that one's home can become unhomely, unheimlich, too. I noted in a recent audio blog from my hometown of Edinburgh that the whole city seems to have become one enormous ghost tour, to have decided to market itself as 'spooky' for the tourists. How weird that one's home town should pride itself on being unheimlich! Perhaps, though, I'm a typical native son of Edinburgh, no matter how far I am from it. Because I too have become an ambassador of the comfortably uncomfortable, the pleasantly deranged. I have become a sort of Pied Piper of the spooky, a reliably unreliable narrator of the uncanny. Not only is my forthcoming album a tour de force of spooky disorienteering, the Hokkaido project I'm about to start, Lost Radio, Found Sound, was pitched, cannily, as a sort of guided tour of lostness, a ramble in the uncanny. There's a danger that this paradox will become as trite as the 'lonely crowd of outsider cowboys' paradox I dissect on 'Robocowboys', but for the moment, clutching my Cage and Black Dice records and preaching Japanese language unlearning in English language Japanese magazines, I'm quite happy in my 'unhappiness'. I've learned to be at home with the unhomely.