Doubting Go

“Naoki sought to examine the worth of his own popular writings in the light of the strong fascination Go had for him, and its world of pure competition.”  (Kawabata, The Master of Go, Ch. 26)

The figure of Naoki Sanjugo — a popular writer and Go-player — floats up unexpectedly in the middle of a game-longeur, as if Kawabata’s mind wondered away for a moment, lost in a fleeting, intense daydream.  The writer’s appearance is a quintessential Japanese miniature:  brief and sharp, like as a flash of lightning, and yet, like all such miniatures, ambiguous, which is to say — pregnant with all sorts of possible reflections.

The life of a writer — the usual life of a writer, not the best-seller writer’s, just ordinarily successful one’s — is laborious (“I have to turn in thirty-six pages by nine-thirty and it is past four already”) and filled with self-doubt:  Naoki’s work seemed to him, next to Go, insignificant:  a mortal crowd-pleaser, a passing insignificance.  He was right, it seems: no one remembers Naoki today, his books are used mainly as a door stop, if that, but people still play Go — and with a measure of passion higher than anything his novels have ever inspired.

In the very next chapter Kawabata continues to investigate the idea of the significance of Go:  he recalls being disturbed by the experience of playing Go against an American — (to many Japanese conservatives Americans stand in for modernity).  The American is a serious student of Go — a competent, well trained amateur; yet his attitude to the game is disturbing: there is a certain light-hearted indifference to the outcome. To him, “it’s just a game!”  All of Kawabata’s being rebels against the thought.  Go is not just a game, he wants to cry out.  It is much more important! Yet, there seems no way of explaining just how or why Go should be more important.  The only thing that makes it important is — Kawabata’s (and Naoki’s) attitude to the game:  one approaches Go in the spirit of reverence.

I suppose it is this spirit of reverence which Kawabata means when he talks about the spirit of Old Japan.  (“The spirit of old Japan has flown out of the game”).  And he means this spirit of reverence when he suggests that Go is somehow religious — (“the Way of the Warrior resembles closely the way of art, there being a religious element in both”);  not religious as in supernatural beings — like all Japanese intellectuals Kawabata is not so much agnostic as indifferent — but religious in the sense of being taken seriously, as life’s most important element, possibly as being more important than life itself.

Naoki has doubts and they focus precisely on the source of the reverence: there is nothing inherently important about Go, it seems:  “If one decides to look on Go as valueless, then absolutely valueless it is…  if one chooses to look upon it as a thing of value, then a thing of absolute value it is.”  The thing seems so…  arbitrary.  (“Relative”, they say in America).

The conclusion Kawabata seems to be drawing from this is — that the spirit of reverence which human beings can choose to bestow upon any otherwise arbitrary object — is in itself valuable.  Such an act of reverence-bestowal makes otherwise arbitrary objects special:  such objects cease to be valueless merely by the virtue of our decision to revere them.  The act of bestowing reverence is like the anointment of a king, or the dedication of a divine statue:  it creates value… ex nihilo.  And hence there is nothing mere about it… It is in one of the most important acts of life:  by creating sanctified objects within our life, the act… sanctifies life itself.

Here lies Kawabata’s problem with modernity, then:  democracy and capitalism are by their nature… irreverent:  every authority is questioned and every value evaluated in “practical” — that is to say, either utilitarian or monetary — terms.  Any arbitrary act of reverence-bestowal can and will be shrugged off by others.

Kawabata, Mishima and others have found this dispiriting, but should they have?  After all, nothing prevented Kawabata from revering Go — and other arts — personally.  That others do not as commonly as they used to, or that public institutions no longer do without questioning should not, on the face of it, change anything in his own, private dedication to them.  And if this is all that matters… but is it all that matters, then?


In the course of his game against the American, another source of Go-doubt descends on Kawabata:  against the American’s laxness, his own dedication to the game — his hell-bent intent on winning — made Kawabata suddenly feel “rather perverse and cruel”.  If it is right to revere the game… is his way of revering it worthy of it?  Or is perhaps reverence-bestowal, by its very attempt to declare an absolute, perverse and cruel?

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