Inside the Book:
Title: Fuji, Sinai, Olympos
Author: Michael Hoffman
Format: Ecopy /Paperback
Travel companions on my journeys are four in number: Odysseus, Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn and Basho.” (Travel) “He walked in priestly garb. Arriving towards evening at a town or village, he’d chant sutras until passersby gave him, or flung him, enough money for a flophouse bed, a little food, a bath and enough saké to induce a measure of forgetfulness. ‘A beggar,’ he admonished himself, ‘has to learn to be an all-out beggar. Unless he can be that, he will never taste the happiness of being a beggar.’” (Walking) ‘“The pleasantest of all diversions,’ said the fourteenth-century Japanese priest Kenko,“ is to sit alone under the lamp, a book spread before you, and to make friends with people of a distant past you have never known.’ Reading is inseparable from reverie. ‘Sitting alone under the lamp,’ I was soon not alone at all, but hosting, I venture to say, as vivid and varied a company as ever gathered under one roof. (Genji, Myshkin and Jones) “Everest is nothing, mere seismology.” (Fuji, Sinai, Olympos)
There are any number of things I could be writing about here, but only two which I am uniquely qualified to discuss: myself and my book. I therefore crave your indulgence.
I begin with the book because it is more interesting than me. The title, Fuji, Sinai, Olymposnames three sacred mountains – the three pillars that support and also unite the 20 essays that make up the book. Why these particular mountains? Fuji because it symbolizes my adopted culture (I live in Japan); Sinai and Olympos because they symbolize my native (Western) culture.
Humankind from its earliest beginnings have stood in awe of mountains. In mountains we conceive our gods, lodge them, encounter them, worship them. “To ascend is human,” I write in the book. The book is therefore itself a kind of ascent – at least strives to be. The essays complement each other, and yet each is a whole in itself.
At the core of the book lies a premise: that philosophy is central to human life, that, simply by virtue of being human, we are all philosophers. I think, therefore I am; I am, therefore I think, I think, therefore I am a philosopher. It has nothing to do with earning a doctorate, mastering arcane terminology, or even being extraordinarily intelligent. Don’t all philosophers say somewhere in the course of their work that all other philosophers are fools? Bertrand Russell, that barbed philosophical wit, defined philosophy as “an unusually ingenious attempt to think fallaciously.” Taneda Santoka, the Japanese haiku poet, said, “Let us become more foolish. Better: let us revert to our original foolishness.” See what I mean?
No – I’m not making myself clear. I won’t apologize – obscurity, in moderation, is no bad thing; it’s bracing, stimulating. But I think of it like this: Socrates said philosophy is learning how to die; I say philosophy is learning how to be “more foolish” – to “revert to our original foolishness” – to recall our original foolishness, again in the spirit of Socrates, who said all learning is recalling what our souls knew before birth.
I say of myself that I am a philosopher because I am human. I am a thinker – not, I hasten to add, a professional thinker, or a professorial thinker (on the contrary, very much the contrary: I am a student, a perpetual student, a lifelong student; I never got out of college; studentcy is my natural and native mode), but a thinker in the sense that thoughts come to me, invited and uninvited, from books and from the void, from thinkers, poets, dreamers, saints, rogues, or none of the above, or all of them at once; they seduce me, these thoughts that come to me; I write them down raw, brood over them, rewrite them a little less raw, put them together, take them apart; years pass and I see, or rather feel, that they’ve become something – what? I don’t know – something – and that, that obscure but urgent feeling, is the sign that it’s time to start writing.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Michael Hoffman has lived in Japan since 1982. His columns appear regularly in the Japan Times, irregularly elsewhere. His previous books include “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan;” “Other Worlds; Little Pieces: This Side of Japan;” and “The Coat that Covers Him and Other Stories.”