Malta Time (2009.12.1[Tue.])


Malta sits in the middle of the Mediterranean, just south of Sicily, like a clod of earth that has fallen from Italy's boot. As I write, I'm sitting in my room in the Westin Hotel on St. Julian's Bay. The island must be smaller than Awaji, but with nothing like a bridge to connect it to anywhere else. The very image of a resort. The cats outnumber the people here, and the isle is also home to the Maltese breed of dogs. Cacti and hibiscus bloom here and there, lizards scurry underfoot and snails are everywhere, doing their best to hide from the blaze of day. They say there are chameleons as well, but they don't reveal themselves to the casual observer. When I asked about them, I was told that even most islanders have never seen one. People have come from all over to escape the world and enjoy, and a few of the rich have built vacation homes for themselves, or even restored a castle, to live a life of luxury here. It turns out that even the ruins of one old castle perched on a hill is not a tourist spot, but private property.

    It is October 2009, and I am in Malta for a meeting of Myores, the European Muscle Development Network. Myores is an EC-funded program for the study of muscular development, and the meeting is more akin to a working group for a grant than to a symposium; there is a closeness and shared sense that the fate of the grant lies ion the participants' hands. In addition to plenary talks and research presentations, there are also annual progress reports by the general group, with no direct relationship to my interest; it's quite a relaxed program. Which is why I have time to write this essay. You might even say that here on Malta, time has stopped...

    The hotel is similar to the one operated by the same chain on Awaji, huge and impressive. You have to walk long distances to get to meals and sessions, which is actually good for the out of shape, such as myself. The rooms are spacious, and I can work on the veranda if I pull a desk out there. Across the bay is another hotel of the same sort, the Corinthia. There are apparently casinos as well, but I didn't know about them. They're the sorts of thing I only look at from afar, like looking at someone else's life. Since a little while ago, from somewhere over the water, I can hear loud music reminiscent of the Latin sound. Perhaps it's a party.... The breeze feels cool, just what you'd want to feel on emerging from a hot bath. The whole experience is luxurious, but not because of the gorgeous environment or facilities. That's not what I have in me right now - it's not the veranda, the breeze, or the scenery that sweeps away complexity for a while, shelves thoughts of work that needs to be done, and leaves me in the mood to just let time pass... No, the one thing I have that most makes me experience that sense of luxury is the back of the chair in which I'm sitting. A scientist friend of mine who was just swimming in the sea summed it up. "In research, everyone is always working like mad, so I don't feel at all guilty for coming to this kind of place and just enjoying myself. If we didn't have some time like this, how could we go on doing what we do?"

    I may be the only Japanese person here. I know a handful of the few dozen people at the meeting, have seen the faces of about 10 others, and can't be sure about 5 or so more. Not so different from most meetings. Everyone is speaking English, but this being Europe, almost no one has a native accent. In meetings like these it can't even be debated about what language to use as the common one. It's not the first time I've thought about this, but it seems to me that Japan is becoming more and more isolated from the world. Perhaps that was true even from before the war. Thinking about it, I begin to ponder where do I belong, and when?

   Take the European traditions of comparative morphology and embryology that I follow. They're all but forgotten in Germany, the land of their birth, and I seem to be one of the last defenders of Victorian knowledge (in my field, the specialist works can mostly be found only in antiquarian shops), which all leaves me a bit mystified as to where I stand in the world of science today. I suppose it goes without saying, but there's nothing in the slightest Japanese about my work. But, with the exception perhaps of Jena, it doesn't belong to anywhere in the Europe of today either. It's just me. Years ago, I saw a documentary about how centuries after Hideyoshi's persecution of the Christians in Japan, driving them underground (the so-called kakure kirishitan). Their descendants still live in tiny villages in the same region today. A music historian analysed an odd song still being sung by them, which turned out to be derived from Gregorian chants. They sound like folk music at first, but on closer listening are in fact based on Gregorian chant. In Europe, where scales, counterpoint and harmonies all continued to evolve, these songs too evolved becoming something altogether different. But having crossed over to Japan and leaving the current of Western music, it can still be heard here in nearly its original form. The transition has exposed it to different influences than it would ever have felt in the West, giving rise to an entirely separate musical form. It's the kind of experiment in evolution you could only do with a time machine. Maybe I should do the same, pour the old wine of comparative embryology into the new skin of developmental biology. No group to belong to, walking a different path... antiquarian doesn't mean out of date.

    The old music floating across the bay has shifted to 60s pop, from the era when, following a meeting of East and West in war, people's thoughts turned to how to use their money for enjoyment, all the while living under the nuclear spectre. In Japan, one popular song had verses like, ...The word for "tomorrow" is written "a bright day"... I was young and innocent then, and often thought what a wonderful time the future would be. It was a time of promise, that tomorrow would be a day like the tranquil one I enjoyed today, on a southerly island paradise with skies of endless blue, seagulls floating against the sun's glare, and breakfast on the terrace. But even that shallow luxury that characterized 60s values has yet to materialize even at the start of a new century. The disillusionment is not simply that of a boy who has grown up. It's that, having lived in and experienced the world for decades, the nostalgic vision of the future I held as a youth should appear only here in places like this Maltese resort. Paradise, but a transient one. Anyone can have the experience, and people slave away to make the money to come to simulations like these in spots all over the earth just for a moment, new crowds visiting every day for that shared sense. It's not only scientists - few can enjoy this luxury for long. The rest of us just live in a 21st century that is no longer the future.

   Civilization has explored its options; it's sated. True luxury is something that only those with the power to sense that can enjoy. In the divided world of today, resorts are like machines for the production of leisure that anyone can access, no more than a medium. When was it that people first learned how to live within their minds at a different pace than the world's? The places where we can live in happiness, today, not tomorrow, are places where time has stopped.