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Edging Toward Japan: England's spires and Japan's pagodas -- 2 objects of ultimate obsession

The spire of Salisbury Cathedral (Photo courtesy of Damian Flanagan)

By Damian Flanagan

    Once, while driving across the semi-desert known as the "Karoo" of the Eastern Cape in South Africa, I chanced upon a town of about 35,000 souls called Graaff-Reinet, with which I instantly fell in love. Its streets were charming, historic and everywhere festooned with jacaranda trees in full bloom.

    Dining there in a local hall one night, with great high beams above my head, I thought I had arrived in a little paradise. Later, I discovered that I was not the first to think so. Apparently, the Victorian explorer David Livingstone had said of Graaff-Reinet that it was "the prettiest town in all Africa."

    So taken was I by Graaff-Reinet that I began inspecting property in the town. I was shown round a pretty Victorian bungalow with a veranda and iron latticework and a view of the hills, on sale for as little as 30,000 pounds. Back in my singleton days, I seriously considered purchasing the house on the spot with some credit cards and settling down in the house to write.

    At the centre of the town is a most striking and dominating building: a Dutch Reform Church which, for reasons unclear, is a scaled down version of Salisbury Cathedral in England. Positioned on a traffic island, the entire town languidly moves around its slightly incongruous presence. Wherever you are in Graaff-Reinet, you are aware of it: you feel its own striving towards artistic beauty, but also, distantly, its reaching out to some even grander cathedral of magnificence many thousands of miles away.

    The Golden Pavilion at Kinkaku-ji temple in Kyoto. (Mainichi)

    When in 1956, the Japanese author Yukio Mishima penned his classic novel, "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion," he imagined an awkward, stuttering and unattractive young man in the Japanese provinces obsessed with the idea of the overwhelming vision of beauty: a glittering temple pavilion in Kyoto. The concept of the pavilion so teems his thoughts that he dreams of a universe of such pavilions all existing in "structured correspondence" with one another.

    I began to see that Salisbury Cathedral too exists at the head of its own universe of "structured correspondence," inspiring a grand imitation in a far-flung Afrikaans-speaking town that in turn, at the bottom of the chain, even inspires restless travellers like me to settle down their bags and start writing.

    Salisbury Cathedral exerted its aura, directly and indirectly, on many others. The artist John Constable -- like Hokusai constantly gazing at Mount Fuji -- famously sketched, painted and repainted the cathedral from different angles and mood variations. He thought his 1831 version, "Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows," the best thing he ever painted.

    The novelist William Golding based his novel, "The Spire" (1964) -- the tale of a dean obsessed with the construction of a cathedral spire soaring hundreds of feet into the air -- on Salisbury Cathedral. It was a subtly disguised parable of artistic obsession, with the great spire finally at risk of tumbling down on its own weight and the dean's artistic and spiritual visions crashing to earth.

    "Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds," painted by John Constable (1825)

    Sometimes you can be crushed under the weight of your own artistic aspirations. Mishima's great shining golden pavilion of the mind, his immense spire soaring up into the heavens, was his "Sea of Fertility" tetralogy, requiring five years to write, and leading to his own suicide on the day he handed over the final instalment. It was as if, once having removed the Herculean effort of supporting it, the weight of his own spire came crushing down on his own head.

    Is it ultimately a blessing or a curse to have spires of artistic imagination rise up in the mind? Stray too close to the burning sun and you can be destroyed. Perhaps the best place to nurture the muse is on some outer planet with some handsome reproduction of a great artistic monument in your backyard. Somewhere that gently inspires without crushing you under the weight of the central spire.

    @DamianFlanagan

    (This is Part 37 of a series)

    In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.

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    Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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