Category Archives: Emptiness

The Diffident sandwiches of Uta Schreck

Every perturbation is a misery, but grief is a cruel torment, a domineering passion: as in Old Rome, when the Dictator was created, all inferior magistracies ceased; when grief appears, all other passions vanish.
Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton (1651)

If you care to conceive of the Internet as a city—and it’s a workable metaphor, I think, twenty million streets splayed out under a kaleidoscope sky—then on some foggy, wastrel nights, if you’re intrepid enough to slip on that shabby gabardine trenchcoat at the back of the cupboard in the hall, turn up its collar, brace against the wind, and click-trip your way down the fustier byways and more antique alleyways, you can, if you’re lucky, a fortune-favored anthropologist, come across a civilization in microcosm that most would have imagined went extinct in the Victorian crepuscule.
Such is the Asiatic Society of Japan (patron: Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado), which, as you can glean from its recent lecture list—

  • Japanese Netsuke: Treasured Miniatures
  • Japanese Government, San Francisco Treaty, and Disposition of Okinawa
  • On the Life of the Meiji Emperor
  • Sumo: Samurai to Cyberspace: How sumo is adapting to the changing times
  • Edwin O. Reischauer [1910-1990, US Ambassador to Japan]
  • The Rediscovery of the Japanese Sword
  • The Role of Women in Kyogen
  • The Tokugawa Art Collection
  • The Brush of Asia and the Forms of Europe

—is devoted to the most traditional of culture, the highest of high politics and diplomacy, and the Imperial Way, its world unsullied by the plebeians or the provinces, by science or commerce, by the present or the future.
It was for the meetings of the Asiatic Society of Japan that, for some years, some years ago, Mrs. Uta Schreck made the sandwiches. Reference to these sandwiches occurs some half-dozen times in the online annals of the society.

May 2004
The assembled company then adjourned to the adjacent conference room … Here we were grateful to one of our Council members, Mrs. Uta Schreck, who once again demonstrated her talent for making a large assortment of open sandwiches that were both elegant and delicious.
April 2006
To end the meeting, everyone was invited to partake of the wine that Council member Mrs. Shigeko Tanaka prudently procures for the Society’s lecture meetings at once-a-year bargain prices. Those present also enjoyed delicious open sandwiches diligently prepared by Council Member Mrs. Uta Schreck.
May 2006
After the meeting those assembled were invited to partake of wine and also Mrs. Uta Schreck’s delicious and innovative open sandwiches.
Annual Report of the ASJ Council for 2006
All the meetings … concluded with a modest reception, for which … Mrs. Uta Schreck kindly provided her distinctive open sandwiches.
Annual Report of the ASJ Council for 2007
This year Mrs. Tanaka also undertook to provide some simple snacks, as Mrs. Uta Schreck’s declining physical condition prevented her from preparing her famous open sandwiches which we had enjoyed in the past.
Annual Report of the ASJ Council for 2007
Unfortunately, never a year goes by without our having sadly to record the deaths of members. This year … we said farewell to a faithful Council Member, Mrs. Uta Schreck, who, as House Committee Chair, had so often enhanced the pleasure of our meetings with her inimitable open sandwiches, a happy marriage of Japanese and European ingredients. Some of us still try to recapture the magic of those sandwiches, and Uta, surely one of our most diffident members, is fondly remembered and greatly missed.

How my appetite pulses for these sandwiches, sandwiches that are “elegant”, “delicious”, and “innovative”, “distinctive”, “famous”, and “inimitable”, “kindly provided” and “diligently prepared” by the diffident hands of Uta Schreck. How these sandwiches must have leavened the stilted badinage of the assembled Chrysanthemum Clubbers and miscellaneous dignitaries, stiff with the self-conscious archaisms of a world in which wine is “procured” (to buy it would be vulgar) and “partaken” (to drink it might hint at drunkenness). How intriguing is the final reference—“some of us still try to recapture the magic of those sandwiches”—by doing what, exactly? Holding séances?
Recast that final sentence, transpose Uta and her sandwiches. Does the meaning change?
Some of us still try to recapture the magic of Uta, one of our most diffident members, and her sandwiches are fondly remembered and greatly missed.
That suggests, to me at least, the threnody is to the sandwiches, not their creator.

I had thought that the ne plus ultra of crocodilian insincerity in public displays of grief, the absolute nonpareil nadir of our gutter culture, was the collective celebrity reaction to the death in the summer of 2011 of singer Amy Winehouse. 

Winehouse Dead: Shocked Friend Kelly Osbourne Tweets Sadness
Celebrities are taking to their Twitter to pay their respects and express their grief in regards to the sudden death of singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse, who was found dead at her London home on Saturday. …
Best friend and fellow singer Kelly Osbourne, who had previously helped the late singer check into a drug addiction treatment facility in 2008, according to The Associated Press, tweeted her disbelief.
“I can’t even breath right now i’m crying so hard I just lost 1 of my best friends. i love you forever Amy and will never forget the real you!”
Other stars took the time to tweet their respects as well, including Rihanna, Jessica Alba, Ashton Kutcher, and Kate Moss.
Rihanna: “I am genuinely heartbroken about this,” and “Dear God have mercy!!! I am SICK about this right now!”
Jessica Alba: “So sad about Amy Winehouse—she was so talented. Really tragic.”
Ashton Kutcher: “I nevr know wht 2 post after paying respect 2 sum1 who died. Just seems lk anything funny is inappropriate. mayB I’ll just go C Harry Potter.”
Fellow Brits Kate Moss and Lily Allen shared, “R.I.P. Amy Winehouse, So upset, my heart goes out to her, sad to see such talent vanish from the world.”

There’s a smorgasbord of riches to relish here—“celebrities taking to their Twitter” as if it were an Ottoman or snuff, the tweeting of sadness, the spectacle of Kelly Osbourne, starved of oxygen and deprived by tears of eyesight, valiantly tapping out a valedictory, and Dear God, it really, really is all about ME, Rihanna—but the infelicity prize must go hands-down to Ashton Kutcher (whoever he is). One can only pray that Lord Voldemort and company helped assuage his inconsolable misery. If, as psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross contended, there are five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—they are not much on display among our clutch of celebrities. 

At first blush, the responses in the record to the deaths of diffident Uta Schreck and anything-but-diffident Amy Winehouse could not have less in common, but pierce through the abyssal differences of tone and register and there’s a shared perfunctoriness—compare “fondly remembered and greatly missed” with “really tragic”—a marking of time in public mourning. And as with the sandwiches of Uta Schreck, here it is (sometimes) the songs (“such talent”, “she was so talented”) of Amy Winehouse, not person, that are memorialized.

Grief, by all accounts, is a human universal, though capable, clearly, of great cultural and historical heterogeneity—think of those images of ululating Shias in the Iraq War, or maudlin Victorians, touched by Tennyson (“O sorrow, wilt thou live with me / No casual mistress but a wife”). Debate rages in the halls of academe as to whether grief is an evolutionary maladaptation, “the cost of commitment” as psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes labeled it, or a useful epiphenomenon, signaling a period of withdrawal and introspection. One thing strikes this casual and intermittent but curious observer of grief, though: notwithstanding the upwellings and outgushings of mass public grief over the death of a Princess Diana or a Steve Jobs, grief at its best, ardent but not debilitating, seems to me to be a glacier in deep retreat across the mountains of the modern mind, retreating from kith to closest kin, a corollary, perhaps, of a tentatively, selectively, but intriguingly documented decline in that most distinctively human of emotions, empathy. For how can you grieve for someone about whom you never really gave a tinker’s cuss in the first place?