THE POEM OF 1999
When we entered the 1990s, we entered in fact, in our perception, the year 1999. We did so in the first one-tenth of what would, by the way of counting till then, last for ten years. To put it differently, there could only be the year 1999 after 1989. And what comes next is the year 2000. _______________ Circumspectly speaking, the twentieth century lasts until the year 2000 and the twenty-first century begins in the year 2001. But the year 2000 is also the beginning of the 2000s. In our perception, this century, which has the figure 19 for its first two digits, ends in 1999. The year 1999 is the dead end, the edge of a cliff for this century. And its dead end began as soon as the year 1989 came to an end. _______________ The dead end, the edge of a cliff for a century occurred a hundred years ago as well: 1899. Did the year 1899, as in the case of 1999, come after 1889 and last for the duration of ten years? The answer is No. Following 1889 came 1890, then 1891, which was followed consecutively by 1892 . . . and next to 1898 came 1899. And 1900. _______________ It is said that the notion of a <1>century appeared first around the twelfth century in Europe and the notion of the end of the century was invented in the nineteenth century. Here, too, we might speculate that people were shocked by the thought that the numeral 19 topping the word century was to change to 20, from the teens to the twenties. This shock spawned the notion of the end of the century, we might say, which hadn't existed before then. _______________ However, the end of the previous century is essentially different from that of this century. To be sure, at the end of the previous century, too, there were a number of prophecies full of anxieties about the end of the world. But it in the end stayed within the boundaries of atmosphere. In contrast, the prophecy for the end of the world at the end of this century is one clearly underpinned with scientific calculations. Prophecy . . . perhaps I should correct it to say forecast. _______________ One example of such calculations is population. The global population for some time has been doubling every thirty years. It is said that if such doubling continues, before another 2,000 years pass, the weight of mankind on earth will be equal to the weight of the earth itself. The figure 2,000 is important. It is about 2,000 years from the legendary birth of Jesus Christ, which is the starting point of the notion of a century and therefore of the end of the century, until today. Even before the extension of the same length of time of 2,000 years is reached in the future, the weight of mankind reaches that of the earth. . . . Imagine an apocalyptic image of the earth, unable to sustain that weight, falling in acceleration through the darkness of the universe along with the human beings who, piling up in tens and hundreds of layers, have rendered its surface invisible. _______________ Of course, even if the population continues to double, human beings can't possibly live until that happens. Just thinking about food, which is the minimum condition for human survival, mankind will find it difficult to survive another hundred years, no, even fifty years. The end of the century we live today may well be the last end of a century mankind experiences. _______________ Despite this forecast, human beings are continuing to give birth to their own duplicates, children. In addition, they are continuing to increase the embodiments of their desires such as cars, airplanes, and computers. From another angle, this is to say they are continuing to destroy nature. That is, they are bringing the end of mankind closer. And to finish it up, there are nuclear bombs. The hypothesis that this might be the last end of the century is becoming infinitely close to the assertion that it must be. _______________ There should naturally be rebuttals to the forecast so described. The most optimistic say that before the decisive crisis arrives, much of mankind will move to colonize other stars. Even the most pessimistic say that large-scale wars and slaughters will occur, killing most of mankind, allowing small portions to survive, thereby enabling the age of man to continue. Either way, it is a new theory of the Ark. _______________ There is another optimistic view. It is the theory that points to the increases in the number of both men and women who remain unmarried and do not procreate, and says that this is a natural brake on rapid population increases. There is also a different kind of report. It says that the number of spermatozoa in men's sperm in industrialized countries has decreased by half in the past fifty years. If this condition accelerates, as it is expected to, the result will be an impossibility, not far into the future, of procreation through normal intercourse between man and woman. This is precisely nature's response to rapid population increases, and this phenomenon will gradually spread, it says, from industrialized to developing countries. If this is the case, we'll have to add to this the emergence of AIDS and other viruses. _______________ In any case, in the sense that the end of mankind has become a distinct possibility underpinned by scientific calculations, not as an atmosphere, the end of this century is essentially different from the end of the previous century. It is in this sense that I said earlier that when we entered the 1990s, we had in fact entered the year 1999. Well then, in the year which is the dead end, the edge of a cliff where we can see the end of mankind, what meaning does poetry have? _______________ Etymologically, "poetry" (=poesie) means "to make" (=poesis<poieo). At this edge of a cliff for mankind, what does this making mean? If "to make" in this sense is no different from "to make" cars, airplanes, and computers, not to mention nuclear bombs, doing so will contribute to the destruction of nature, bringing the end of mankind closer. Even if we are to limit ourselves to simple phenomena, to make a thousand copies of a book of poems means to destroy trees and other parts of nature that a thousand copies of a book of poems require and to deprive nature of the space to be occupied by those thousand copies. _______________ There may be an opinion that making poetry is essentially different from making cars and computers. Some will say that it is similar to growing rice and breeding cattle. But agriculture and cattle-breeding were originally natural and were, if anything, of a secondary nature; to be more exact, they were the first attempts at nature destruction. Who can say making cars and computers is not modern-day agriculture and cattle-breeding? _______________ Needless to say, there may be an opinion that making poetry is essentially different from growing rice and breeding cattle. Rice and cattle have shape and bulk just as cars and computers do; in contrast, poetry doesn't. Poetry is above all spiritual, and a book of poems is no more than a temporary material manifestation. But one can also argue that cars and computers are equally spiritual at the stage of ideas and what we see are no more than temporary material forms. _______________ It does not seem that there is a spiritual and material distinction in making. Making is originally spiritual, and the result of that spirit wanting shape and making use of material may be rice as an agricultural product, a cow as a cattle-breeding product; or else, it may be a car, a computer. The same can be said of poetry making. Making poetry is originally spiritual, and the result of that spirit wanting shape and making use of material is a poem (=poesie). A poem is material even when it does not take the form of a book of poems but is simply written on a white sheet of paper because white paper and ink are material; it is material even when it is not written down but is only uttered in a voice because a voice is material; it is material even when it is simply memorized because memory is material. _______________ However, what we have to be concerned about is not material so much as the spirit. For the spirit is a human invention and it is the ultimate culprit for changing nature in its natural state and destroying it. What is nature in its natural state? It is -- though this, too, is according to our spirit's analysis --the universe that was born out of nothingness as a result of the Big Bang, has, in the process of its growth, spawned the solar system, the earth, and life, separated mankind from that life, and will in due time decline either through expansion or contraction, in the end returning to nothingness. Nature, even when left to its own devices, declines and heads toward nothingness. In this process mankind or the spirit merely destroys it and hastens its own annihilation by attempting to revise in order to make its own circumstances as comfortable as possible. If the act of making is at the center of the spirit's work, a poem is no exception. _______________ I have just said that the spirit is a human invention; more precisely, though, I should say that it branched out of mankind which branched out of life. Just as mankind that branched out of life sacrifices life for its own comfort, so does the spirit that branched out of mankind sacrifice mankind for its own comfort. Viewed this way, we can more easily understand the present circumstances in which we can foresee the end of mankind. Is not the spirit trying to survive at the expense of mankind? -- Even though the consequence will in fact lead to the annihilation of the spirit itself. _______________ What will directly annihilate the spirit? In logical order, it has to be poetry (=making) which branched out of the spirit. Poetry annihilates the spirit, then mankind . . . then life itself, or will it? Life, even left alone, will grow, then decline, and ultimately return to nothingness. As I have already pointed out, mankind will sacrifice life out of its egoism, but life's return to nothingness as a result of that sacrificing will be partial for the time being. For before then mankind will perish. _______________ If after mankind has perished, the spirit that branched out of mankind stays, and after the spirit has perished, the poetry that branched out of the spirit stays, that which will destroy poetry will have to be something that branches out of poetry. What will branch out of poetry? It will ultimately be nothingness -- nothingness that will branch out of poetry before the end of life, of the earth, and probably of the universe. _______________ My thinking has come thus far, but I in fact stay put. My initial expectation was a vague one that at the present point in time where there is only despair for the future, I might still be able to find hope in poetry. As a result of deduction, however, I have reached the opposite place. So now, what can I do? Let's try to go back to the starting point. _______________ Yet, the starting point must always be nothingness. Besides, here there may be some unexpected hope. We talk of nothingness, but the fact is that we don't know nothingness. Nothingness, on the contrary, might take poetry, the spirit, mankind, life, the earth, the universe to the non-material other shore where multiplication does not interfere with the others. If from the edge of a cliff of the year 1999, beyond the spectacle of the end of mankind we can see the spectacle of nothingness branching out of poetry (which a brain scientist might explain from the viewpoint of material change -- or, shall we say, transformation --that goes beyond the brain's imagination), we will be witnessing a picture more moving than that of the infant Jesus Christ branching out of the legendary Virgin Mary.
Volume Three Index
|The East Village Poetry Web
from the Japanese of Mutsuo Takahashi