Hidden in Plain Sight

I have finally finished reading Ellis Amdur’s Hidden in Plain Sight.  Finally.  It took me a long time, and I basically took a break in the middle of it.  It’s a very difficult read, holding out the promise of great insight and at the same time being rather boring.  Now, after having finished the book, I don’t feel either the sense of freedom and achievement that I had after finishing War and Peace or the senses of catharsis or disappointment that I feel at the end of books that made a big impact on me or that I loved.  I also don’t feel the sense of exhilaration I got from a book like After Virtue that took me into brand new cognitive territory.  Mostly, I just feel a little confused.

amdur_hidden_in_plain_sight

The two things I should say at the outset are (1) that I found I disliked much about this book and (2) that I am not really qualified to critique it.

This is a book that I never would have picked off a bookshelf to read had it not been recommended to me because I absolutely loath the cover design.  While this may seem shallow to you, I believe that cover design reflects the mentality of the person who wrote a book or the publishing house that published it.  The exception is academic books that make an attempt at cross-over appeal.  Anyhow, I would judge that a book with a cover like this isn’t one I would enjoy reading, and basically I was right.  Just as the cover looks like a half-assed self-publishing job done by someone with bad visual aesthetics, the writing inside is equally inconsistent, unpolished, and frequently in poor taste, bordering at times on the melodramatic.  It’s like the book was written and produced by someone with ADD writing during mild manic phases.  If I didn’t think the book had some truly valuable information and the author some seriousness about and facility with his topic, I wouldn’t have finished it.

My aesthetic judgments are not non-germane either.  The books’ clarity, trustworthiness, and usefulness as a resource are marred by the author’s decisions.  He says at the outset that he has chosen not to write in an academic style.  But as a result, the only way to evaluate the impressions gleaned from the book is to retrace the author’s steps.  That is what a book is supposed to help you NOT do.  I read history books in order not to have to spend a lifetime sitting in archives.  Much of the author’s biography of Takeda Sokaku is based on his own psychoanalytic speculation.  From reading the book, I can’t tell if it is even plausible because I don’t know from reading what other biographies exist of the man and in what languages.  Academic writing is either for experts, and so closely argued and highly documented, or for those entering a field (introductions, surveys), and so explain the state of knowledge about things.  This book is more like an extended letter that one researcher has written to another.

That leads me to my second point, which is that I’m not qualified to critique this book.  It is filled with a seemingly endless number of people and institutions that I have heard of for just the first time.  I imagine if I had been reading about aikido history for many years, some of these would be familiar to me, but I haven’t been.  As a result, it is impossible for me to say, based on my own knowledge rather than the books’ format, whether the author ignores important resources, opinions, or facts about the topic.  (This has led to some of my aforementioned confusion.)

And what is that topic?

The subtitle of the book is “Tracing the Roots of Ueshiba Morihei’s Power.”  Like perhaps many people, I assumed that the book would be about the technical aspects of Ueshiba’s training.  It is, but it isn’t.  If the author has presented the subject correctly, it would seem that Ueshiba was even more of a magico-religious guru than I had realized.  Part of the reason I came to study Yoshinkan is that I thought in Yoshinkan I could avoid that aspect of aikido.  However, the book suggests that Ueshiba’s training was perhaps more than 50% religious in nature and that aikido itself is not really a martial art per se but a type of martial ritual, as though aikido practitioners everywhere are always engaged in a giant, ongoing embu (in the old sense of that word, where embu were performed before kami).  While I had been led to believe that the book would connect aikido with Chinese internal training, it actually doesn’t tell us how to cross-train using Chinese methods applied to aikido–Ueshiba was much too mystical for something that simple.  In fact, the book doesn’t give us any applicable information at all in the manner of a traditional martial arts manual.

I suspect part of the reason for this lack of information is that the author’s intentions are not really for people to try to develop Ueshiba’s power.  His intentions are to show people how Ueshiba’s life was idiosyncratic, ideological, historically unrepeatable, and not about unlocking mysteries of technique that can easily be taught and duplicated.

On the other hand, the author is refreshingly not a waving-hands-in-air type.  While he may be a liberal in the mold of Marx, Dworkin, or Ginsberg (“join the Earth Liberation Front or otherwise go against the grain of society”), he hasn’t been hoodwinked into thinking that words like “peace” mean the same thing to 21st-century Americans that they meant to Taisho- and early Showa-era Japanese.

What about the content?

The Chinese connection: basically, the book makes a case for a milieu of broad Chinese influence in which aikido developed.  It is an argument that is too broad and anyone who has studied Japanese history won’t argue with it or need to have it argued to them.  He doesn’t convincingly show any direction influences of Chinese arts on aikido.

Daito-ryu’s history and Takeda Sokaku: the author’s position is that Daito-ryu’s commonly told history going back generations is all BS and that Daito-ryu was essentially invented by Takeda Sokaku, who was a martial arts genius (with, coincidentally, a lot of psychological problems that the author is happy to make “armchair diagnosis” of.)  If the raw historical information in this section is accurate, it is pretty convincing.  It is also gives us the most pause for eye-rolling as the author engages in saccharine flights, imagining poor little Sokaku’s horrible, terrible, no-good, very bad childhood, described with the lack of detachment typical of mental health workers.

Weapons influence in aikido: I found this section the most difficult to follow as it is filled with references to people and schools I have never heard of.  It was also of the least interest to me since we don’t do much weapons work in Yoshinkan aikido.  I don’t deny that ken and jo are important and interesting–I just can’t feel the apparent salience that this section of the book is supposed to have.  My overall take-away from this section is that if you really want to know anything about ken and jo, you have to move to Japan and find an aikido teacher that is not a big name like Waite or Mustard.

The religious origins of aikido: Apparently, Ueshiba left behind some interesting lectures that most people don’t have access to and seems to have seen all aikido as a magic ritual.  This would explain why he was so interested in spreading aikido and also why he was perfectly content to have aikido exist in disparate sections like Yoshinkan and aikikai–as long as more and more people are performing the magic ritual, the world is safer.  I found this section both convincing and very interesting as it possibly explains a lot of conundrums about aikido, like why you would create a martial art that doesn’t work “in the real world.”

Ueshiba’s internal training: this section is quite short and, I feel after a first reading, basically just slapped some names of religions and practices down on paper without saying anything about them.  It is potentially the most interesting for a new aikido student while also the least successful section of the book.  The author’s basic position is that lots of people train in aikido, but nobody is O-sensei, so O-sensei’s power must have come from something besides martial arts training.  But this ignores lots of possibilities like, Ueshiba’s mental training gave him the power to relax in training situations and feel something the rest of don’t feel in training, which cued him into how to use energy.  Or, his introspective practices led to realizations that most of us don’t have because we are too busy and unfocused in our heads.  There are lots of possibilities here.  What’s the answer?

Will this book change my aikido practice?

I was already thinking about making some investigations of core training outside exercise science, such as traditional operatic training methods.  This book encourages me to go in that direction, but that is all.  And perhaps to pay more attention to Daito-ryu.

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