In the famous “Thinker” of Rodin, a Frenchman. The pose, with one elbow on the opposite knee, is a most uncomfortable one, though the sculptor’s skill makes it seem calm. Foreigners remark sarcastically that it shows how the French twist themselves into knots when they think, and there is a saying, “Every Frenchman is a thinker, unfortunately; and no two Frenchmen ever think the same thought.” This last is a hit at the well-known Gallic love of argument.
Well, what do the French say about their critics, the foreign Thinkers? “The Germans sweat when they think. They try so hard, and—they shouldn’t.” It means that the Germans laboriously spin out great spider-web systems of thought, ending up hopelessly entangled in them.
It is the vast theory-systems of Hegel, Marx, Freud and so on, which are so complicated that people get confused, and which contradict each other. The English have produced hardly anything like this (Toynbee was an exception) and hence “cannot think.” “The English thinker? There is no English thinker. The Englishman never thinks at all; he simply tries one thing after another till he comes to one which works. Then he does that.”
As an Englishman myself, I can laugh at this, while recognizing that it has a grain of truth in it, just as the others have. I am not upset by it at all. I recognize that whereas the Frenchman always feels that he must say something clever, my compatriots tend to distrust “cleverness”, which we equate with insincerity.
Now someone, perhaps quite soon, is going to make a biting comment about “the Japanese Thinker.” Are the Japanese people ready for it, or will they be as hurt as they were over the “economic animal”? As a matter of fact, phrases like economic animal, political animal and so on simply mean fully at home with economic or political matters.
For instance when in August 1978 a technocrat was appointed Prime Minister of Portugal, the British press commented, “The new Prime Minister is not a political animal.” Again, when Professor Dahrendorf, a German, was appointed head of an important college of London University (imagine such a thing happening in Japan!) the press praised him as “a political animal”.
In these articles I have tried to give examples of the ways in which British people think and act; it is the kind of thing I should tell a young German who intended to live in Britain, and who asked me for advice on the “background”. (I have used the same colloquial English I should use to him.) More and more Japanese are travelling and living abroad, and I believe it is useful for them to know about such things, not for imitating or rejecting, but simply so that they can accept them as part of the world scene.
Japan’s success in the world brings admiration, but also envious criticism; I have noticed that some Japanese are over-eager for the praise, but a bit reluctant to tolerate the criticism. And they think that it is only Japan that is criticized.
Well, one must get used to these things, by gradually learning to laugh them off. As a little practice for any over-sensitive Japanese readers, let me present my own joke about the Japanese Thinker: “The Japanese thinker collects the thoughts of other people, and when he comes to one he agrees with, he thinks that.”
To help you to laugh at this, remember it comes from an Englishman, and an Englishman is one who never thinks at all.
©Trevor Leggett 1978