Jojin Ajari Haha no Shu is an eleventh century diary written by an eighty-four year old woman. It was written for a single purpose: that of venting the author’s grievance – indeed, incrimination – against her sixty-some year old son, a highly regarded abbot, for having left Japan on a religious mission to China, an act which the author interprets as his willful abandonment of her.
She is economically comfortable and well taken care of, so the abandonment isn’t economic but emotional: “My whole life depends on seeing him every morning and every night”, she says, “and he, knowing this, has deserted me. Words fail me.”
The writing is filled with bitter indignation, and the author seems not to care what weapon she uses to prove that her son’s behavior is unspeakably cruel. Her suffering appears to verge on the hysterical and she thrashes helplessly between the desire for imminent death and staying alive until her son’s return from China (which, in the end, never transpires: Jojin the Ajari will die abroad). One has the feeling that the author’s chief hope is that her son will read the diary upon his return and be struck with crippling remorse as a result; and that she’s only unsure whether she prefers to stay alive until that moment, so as to gather the fruit of the remorse, or to die beforehand so as to leave her son with unatonable guilt.
The extenuating circumstance – that the author was widowed early and left alone to care for two infant sons – seems to extenuate but little: can her son really be expected to serve as her sole source of joy and happiness sixty years after her tragic widowhood? Does the fact that he is the sole source of joy for her place a moral responsibility on him? And what of her other son, who, apparently, not only remained in Japan, but was caring and loving and visited her frequently? Why is his solicitude not enough?
If there is something good to be said about the mother, it is that she doesn’t seem to have turned her bitterness into acts of blind cruelty: she did not conspire to turn the whole family against her son, for instance, as disappointed mothers often do; but then, she’s eighty four, which probably means that her ability to manipulate others is curtailed; and the family itself is perhaps too small to orchestrate much of an ostracism of Jojin — besides herself, there’s only the other priest-son. We can’t be sure that she wouldn’t have done it, if she could. Often, virtue is a matter of insufficient opportunity.
Jojin seems to have avoided his mother for some time before his departure: we hear his excuse that “meetings in this world are of little importance when compared with the true joy of long, uninterrupted meetings in eternity.” Incessant labor aimed at gaining admission to paradise for her and himself (as well as many other people) is his excuse for not proffering the usual manifestations of solicitude, but, one guesses that his mother’s solicitude for him tired and embarrassed him and that he paid such manifestations as he did reluctantly and with dread; and that if he did pray for her admission to paradise it was for her admission to a part of it well insulated from that to which he himself hoped to be admitted.
Indeed, as much as it is a record of the tragedy of a mother who loves her son too much, Haha no Shu is also a record of the misery of a son who is loved too much.
Much literature, perhaps most, is written to express the misery of unrequited love from the point of view of the person whose emotions are not requited. The situation is full of pathos and justly deserves compassion. But unrequited love can be a misery for the loved ones, too. After all, what have they done to deserve the solicitude, the anger and the incrimination of those who love them?
Japan is perhaps the only country in the world where the Gregorian New Year is celebrated as a religious festival. It was once identical to the Chinese New Year and celebrated around February as a rite of spring — hence so many references to spring in all celebrations — but, in 1873, the Meiji Reform, in adopting the Gregorian calendar, forced it back into the middle of snowy winter, where it now resides. (Ignorance of this fact has resulted in much mystical speculation by the spiritual and literary types, East and West, as to the hidden meaning of “spring in January”).
In Shinto and Buddhist temples across Japan, the festival is celebrated with dignity and unction. Celebrations last several days and involve performances of traditional arts, also on the national TV, NHK. Which is — other than Mezzo — about the only TV worth watching anywhere int he world; and about the only way, short of going to Japan in person at the right time of year, to see some of these arts, like the Kyogen Fuku-no-kami. Kyogen is a short humorous dramatic form, usually performed sandwiched, as an intermezzo, between two Noh plays. Fuku-no-kami, God of Good Fortune, is a generic deity, sometimes represented as one of seven such.
The story of Fuku-no-kami involves two bumpkins worshiping him on New Year’s Day with strong desire to improve their lot. Impressed with their reverence, the god shows up. He wears a laughing mask and a ridiculous head-gear — not quite a pillow, nor yet a steamed dumpling — and keeps cracking up disconcertingly. He promises to give them the secret of happiness, but demands sake first. As they ply him with drink, he tells them that the best thing is to have a good grounding. “If you mean money, well, we wouldn’t be here, I suppose, if we had any”, says one of the worshipers. Fuku-no-kami laughs: “No, no, I don’t mean anything so crass. I mean is the right sort of spiritual attitude.” They hang upon his words. “Listen up,” he says. ” One must rise early… be merciful… show hospitality to guests… and — he he — drink a lot of well aged-sake!”
At which he laughs even more uproariously and — leaves.
You see, he’s called Fuku-no-kami not because, somehow, it is his job to grant happiness; or because he cares to; but because he knows how to be happy himself.
(This idol – a Calcutta Durga — has not had its eyes opened)
The Manichean book‘s third part — and longest (200 pages) — with the baroque title perhaps best rendered as (bear with me while I am having fun):
A small anthology of poetic mind-twisters;
40 problems in the form of poems to be translated
along with commentary showing why the task is impossible
40 solutions of the same problems
in the shape of translations made nevertheless
is perhaps the book’s most useful; and mostly (with the exception of the poems and their translations themselves), generally translatable. It consist of 40 chapters, each of which consists of three parts: 1) the original poem (in Spanish, German, English, Russian or Lithuanian), 2) a discussion of the difficulty it presents, and 3) its Polish translation. The discussion is the useful part because it explains Baranczak’s take on the elements of the original poem which make it great.
An unpoetic know-nothing, I find the exercise fascinating: I read the original, at which point it seems to me anything from O.K. to (ahem) waste of time; then read the discussion, nearly always with a sense of “aha”; and then reread the poem with the discussion in mind. In general, guided by the comments, I do notice the goodness of the poem on the second rereading. (For one thing I seem to know how to read it — I mean, where to lay stress, rests, etc.)
It is for me, a kind of Prana Pratishta.
This is a kind of applied aesthetics.
There should really be such a term as applied aesthetics, I imagine: it would refer to the use of language to describe the good-making (or bad-making, as the case may be) characteristics of a work. The difficulty of applied aesthetics would appear to be two-fold: first, the difficulty of knowing what we like (the sound of a musical performance, say, as opposed to the pianists’ body-language, or hair-do, or politics — as explained by Rosen, see this post) — which is a kind of refined power of introspection; and, second, the difficulty of being able to name what we like in precise terms.
This has been lacking in the Avdeeva controversy (see this post): while several of her critics have been able to name very precisely what they found displeasing about her performance (such as lack of chord differentiation in her performance of x; her pedaling of a specific place of y; her unrestrained use of fortissimo in z; etc.), no supporter of her has yet been able to name a single specific thing s/he liked; thus leaving me with the suspicion that perhaps the theory of educated taste is OK and the debate is really between the more educated taste (that of the articulate) and the less educated taste (of the inarticulate). (The more articulate invariably seem to be more right).
Now, while I am in principle prepared to believe that we and Avdeeva’s fans are equally educated in the appreciation of Chopin performance and the radical difference between our perceptions of the quality of her work is one of genetic mutation of brains – divergence of DNA, a kind of proto-speciation; which would seem to make our views equivalent and further debate pointless (who’s to say our pleasure is better than theirs?); the lack of specificity in Avdeeva’s defense does make me wonder if their opinions are as valid as ours. After all, if you cannot say specifically what it is that you like about the performance, I suppose I am free to imagine that you like the outfit? (Which, incidentally, I did, too, no matter her piano playing).
Of course, the problem is complicated by the fact that most musicians are inarticulate. How much less can one expect of music fans!
One interesting thing about the experience of reading the 40 Problems is that, even though Baranczak’s presentations do make me realize what is special about poems like Hopkins’ As kingfishers draw fires, dragonflies draw flame (here) or Blake’s Tyger, Tyger or Benn’s Meinen Sie Zurich zum Beispiel; and thus make me appreciate their technical accomplishment, often with a sense of great admiration and pleasure; I am not turned into a poetry reader by it. I can now see the art of Hopkins, but I still do not see the value of the point he is making. I mean, come on, “that each thing is what it is and not some other thing”? This is Dunce Scotus, for Chrissake, isn’t it? Why is this worth saying, no matter how beautifully?
In the course of the last 15 years I have vastly expanded my appreciation of many arts, often through reference to applied aesthetics (i.e. having someone explain to me why they liked what they liked). Often I have thereby learned to enjoy arts which had failed to interest me before. (One of the biggest surprises being film to which for most of my adult life I have devoted no time at all, but which, over the last two years has become and important part of it). This has raised the frequency with which I experience happiness and therefore greatly improved the quality of my life.
But some arts, I suspect, shall have to remain outside of my range of interests and poetry appears to be one of them. As I explained to Kate recently, language seems to me an epistemological tool — by which I mean a tool for the discovery of facts; and given that facts are often extremely complicated, the language used to elucidate them must be precise and, for this reason, the simplest possible. One mucks with its simplicity at his own peril. The proof of this lies in the fact that by and large poets seem chronically unhappy. This is to be expected, because happiness comes from good cerebration (see this post) and undue pre-occupation with the musical aspects of language at the expense of its semantic content interferes with good cerebration. Look at the semantic content of poetry: poets, appear by and large, to be — ahem – tenors. I mean, seriously, except that they say it beautifully, what reason is there to listen to any poet speak?
For this reason, poetry is perhaps best appreciated in languages which we do not understand: in such cases, we can appreciate the musical aspects of poetry without falling into the temptation of trying to understand the poet’s argument.
I have always suspected that more was to be learned from memoirs and diaries than from novels. Mostly, this is not true: both are fiction. But sometimes one finds a good one. Iwo’s Diaries pay off — in a number of small ways.
One of their more interesting entries comes on 14 December 1960. Here Iwo reports having come across a record of his own lecture, one which he had delivered in Kiev in… 1917, aged 23. How smart I was at 23! he says. And continues:
Going up to Warsaw subsequently was my undoing: I fell in with Tuwim and Slonimski; their shallow and arbitrary views, their silly jokes, their ignorance overwhelmed me, snaring me into their net. I was unable to develop my philosophy further.
Tuwim and Slonimski, with Iwaszkiewicz cofounders of the Skamander poetic group, were Poland’s Monty Python as well as her most prominent literary figures. Tuwim, highly regarded today, has always irritated me with his stress on “ethics” and “intuition” — which is, at bottom, to say: his lack of learning and inability to perform rigorous analysis (intuition and ethics being things those unable to think for themselves resort to). For this, I have got a lot of grief from all sorts of otherwise likeable people who were into Tuwim — probably because of their own lack of learning.
I am pleased to hear that, aged sixty-five, Iwo had come to share my own impression.
The fragment of his 1917 lecture which Iwo quotes isn’t exactly high energy particle physics, yet it is very telling. It contains the following lines:
A thoroughgoing synthesis is not possible. Any synthesis must contain dissonance, a paradox. (…) For this reason, the question what is better, death on a mountain or life in the valley, shall always remain open.
What is interesting about it is this: these lines are in fact about happiness. Indirectly, Iwo is linking his unhappiness at sixty-five to his lack of learning as a youth — his lack of thorough grounding in philosophy, and his failure to follow up the little he had.
About this we agree: I have elsewhere argued that any man still unhappy at sixty-five proves his intellectual inadequacy. Unhappiness is OK in teens, who have not had control over their lives; and in young people who are assumed to be still building their future happiness, and therefore temporarily delaying satisfaction; but unhappy sixty-five year-olds have no one to blame but themselves.
The Diaries of Iwaszkiewicz are unlike most: entries are rare — a few a month — but long, and carefully crafted. They are small essays, really — some running to a dozen pages. What an improvement over, say, Thomas Mann’s, one thinks. Here’s a man who treats himself with the respect he deserves: a man writing to himself in full, carefully cogitated sentences. I do know why this honor should be usually reserved for strangers.
Then, half-way through, one learns from a footnote that the diaries were from the first intended for publication: the author had them typed; he then revised the typescript. In an instant, they deflate: they were written for others, after all. Worse: they become suspect: it is now hard to imagine that they were not intended to color the truth a little, to present their author in a better light. On second glance, some essays do feel like an apology (for the author’s homosexuality, for example); others seem to set out to set the record straight (“what really happened”).
The author disguises this objective by a clever ruse: frequent confession of his fear of oblivion. He fears, he says, that his works will be forgotten, yes; and worse: that no one will remember him as he really was. He means to say: all I write here is god’s own truth because I am trying to preserve myself for posterity as I really was.
Some threads in the Diaries do sound convincing, though. Such as the oft repeated complaint about loneliness and abandonment: friends do not love me, my wife has become a stranger, my lover is cheating me, my children do not remember me. I am only remembered when people need money. Etc. (Old men are often enamored of this theme). Alongside these complaints lie oft-repeated declarations that happiness is about other people, having them in your life, loving them and being loved in return. The same ideas are expressed in contemporaneously composed Slawa i chwala, a semi-autobiographical novel. It’s hard to escape the feeling that this at least is an authentic, honestly recorded perception: the author believes what he says.
But then, with surprising frequency we encounter entries like this one, on 12 October 1956, describing a magical moment at Stawisko, his countryside home (photo above):
How I adore such evenings. Windy, and quite cold, but not too cold. Trees stand quiet, the heart of the forest seems lost in thought. And this abandoned forest, this overgrown pond, gigantic ancient willows at the water’s edge, and clouds covering half the moon… The pond’s water is black and red. And this feeling of fulfillment in the air, completion, in all of nature. Everything’s closed. One only waits for the last leaves to drop. And the rye-fields green with fresh, wonderfulness greenness. My beloved season — Stawisko is so beautiful, so mysterious, so wild, so lonely — quite like me. I am so well on such days — I so much do not want anyone else… the noise of Warsaw seems so foreign to me. Such evenings accustom one to his old age, to his loneliness. Oh, that I could remain here forever! Perhaps, I ought to have myself buried here, there, under that large oak?
Time and again, Iwaszkiewicz tells us, and with conviction that the only happiness one can ever find is in other people; but when he does record moments of his happiness, they are more frequently than not like this: lonely, quiet, retired, away from people. Often, at such times he expresses the thought how much he does not want people around him; and how much he just wants to remain in his beloved Stawisko, in peace and quiet, taking in its beautiful nature undisturbed.
In short, contrary to the aforementioned belief that happiness is other people, l’enfer, c’est les autres.
A question, then. If Iwaszkiewicz is happy at home and does not go out of Stawisko, why does he? He does not have to. At 65, he has reached a natural retirement age. He is successful: he lives in a beautiful, huge house on a large piece of land which he owns outright; 45 years’ of publications still in print throw off considerable residual income; thus there is absolutely no need for him to work an editor’s job; to stand for his parliamentary seat; to be the chairman of this NGO or that; to attend all the functions at home and abroad. So why does he?
Futher, when he records these moments of happiness and reflects upon them, is he… lying? Or does he somehow not see the truth of what he is saying? Does he perhaps — not notice it, so to speak? Perhaps forget it as soon as he has put it to paper?
This kind of blindness is a common failure in very intelligent, successful men. For instance, similar mental confusion is recorded in Francis Bacon’s essay Of Great Place whose point — that those who seek their happiness in the opinion of others are bound to be disappointed — seemed to be the precise opposite of what Bacon himself practiced — and went on to practice for years (while assiduously pursuing a political career).
Very intelligent people, it seems, are programmed to miss seeing the truth staring them in the face: that happiness is at hand. And that is has nothing to do with men.