Reading Soseki: a great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft
Without seeing Glenn Gould’s 37 pages of notes on Kusa Makura (Three-cornered world) — the book became something of an obsession for him — it is hard to guess what it was that he loved about it. Did he like the reflections on the similarities and differences of poetry and painting? (But Lessing’s Laocoon has already made it amply plain that nothing interesting can be said about the matter: the two can not be any more usefully or meaningfully compared than recreational swimming and differential equations can). Did he believe in the existence of moral or artistic truth? (But what on earth is an “artistic truth”?) Or did Gould really think the work accurately represented the process of the creation of a work of art? (I find it unconvincing, probably because Soseki was not a painter and therefore had no clue what he was writing about).
All of Kusa makura‘s hero’s reflections on art are 19th century claptrap and can only bore and exhaust someone like me who knows that a great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft; that great art has nothing to do with moral truth, or artistic truth, or any otherwise truth, but everything to do with technique; that it need not describe or discuss or reveal human feelings at all only manipulate successfully the human cognitive system; and who, like me, does not believe that a great artist either is or needs to be spiritually different from “most people” (which the novel repeatedly claims, “as an artist I am more sensitive” etc.). GIGO (“garbage in garbage out”) describes the meditations of Kusa makura rather well: starting out from false first principles one can only arrive at nonsense conclusions. It describes our modern art theory, too: what wonder we have the art we do given that we had started out with all that nonsense?
Soseki’s meditations on art aside, several sections of the novel are extraordinarily beautiful, and its last chapter is absolutely breathtaking. In English, this beauty owes as much to the translator (Alan Turney) as it does to the original: much of it is verbal; consider how beautifully this poem is translated:
Your obi worked loose and flutters in the breeze,
But once again ’tis for pretence and not spring’s passion it unwinds.
The maker’s name, though woven into silk,
Is, like your heart, unreadable.
But there is also that special je ne se quoi aspect of it — that it infuses the reader with a profound sadness on the one hand and on the other urges him to out the book down and reflect. (Magic Mountain has the same effect and, not surprisingly, it was Gould’s other most favorite novel). That the chapter portrays a universal archetype — the departure of a soldier — has more to do with its impact than one is at first inclined to believe.
On September 1, 1939, the day Hitler invaded Poland, on the other side of the globe, in far away Tokyo, Nagai Kafu, a scion of a Japanese feudal family and a great man of letters, wrote in his diary: “Glory to the land of Chopin and Sienkiewicz!” On the day Paris fell, he was so depressed, he said, he could not eat nor sit at home. He went out for a walk, wondering aimlessly through the city. He returned home to listen to Debussy’s Oratorio of San Sebastian from an old vinyl record. In the city, public support for the military was visible — “somehow, inexplicably, people like this garbage”, Kafu wrote in his journal. “What nonsense, though! In the name of serving the Japanese spirit, women must not perm their hair; and men are to have just one, government-prescribed style of haircut. Haircuts bother them, but not the piles of garbage in the streets, not the stink of the polluted river! What kind of brains do these people have? It is OK for our streets to be littered with garbage because we beat the Chinese again today?” Like the US government several years earlier, the Japanese government banned private ownership of gold. All gold in public possession was to be reported and would eventually be bought up by the government at officially set rates. Nagai took whatever gold he had — among the items his favorite maki-e pipe holder with a gold mouthpiece; and several tobacco pouches woven from gold-thread — “I used to really get into this silly stuff when I was a kid and had quite a few of them made” — wrapped them in paper and pitched them in the river. “No gold of mine for these bastards”, he wrote. “They tell us there is this thing called The Japanese Spirit which is so incredibly different from everything else that it is totally different and we must not mix it with anything else. So why on earth are we mixing ourselves with the Germans and the Italians?” That night he read in bed Salammbo.
Japanese, 19th century.
The maki-e decoration technique consists in applying multiple thin layers of Japanese black lacquer, drying it in an oven, then polishing it to high gloss, then applying the next layer — usually, about 30 times or so to get the right smoothness and gloss. For decoration gold dust of various sizes, and sometimes gold leaf, is applied to a layer, then painted over, then polished until it becomes visible again.
Gulbenkian owns what is probably the world’s best collection of these marvels.
Each of the two boxes in this set is approximately 15 cm long, 12 cm tall and 8 cm wide. Each is completely covered with landscape decoration, including the sides of the miniature drawers.
(Today at last I began reading The Pillow Book in the original — above).
The story explaining how The Pillow Book begun is this: the chancellor has gifted two bound sets of exquisite paper to the imperial couple: one to the emperor and one to the empress. Predictably, the emperor has promptly announced that he will use his to write a shiki — a historical chronicle in Chinese, which is precisely what could be expected of such a person at such a time. “What should we use ours for?”, asked the empress of her favorite lady in waiting, whose learning and pen-skills made her the go-to person in matters of literature.
“Why, let us make a pillow of it,” replied Sei Shonagon, probably laughing, and scholars have disagreed ever since about what she may have meant. A play on words, goes a typical theory, shiki being both a) a chronicle and b) a part of the saddle, makura being both a) a pillow and b) a horses head-dress; and the whole utterance thus meaning “let us do one better”; and illustrates the surprising point that scholars — Sei Shonagists, no less! — are no better at understanding Mrs Sei than the rest of the human race.
Why do scholars not understand Sei Shonagon? The claim that times change, and we change with them, and therefore no one can understand history and/ or the men of the past — seems an excuse with which to cover up some kind of severe cognitive shortcoming, a mental handicap, a congenital lack of a Sei Shonagon Decoder: surely, if I can understand Sei Shonagon, anyone should?
Let me parse this one for the scholars: the emperor is a kind, beautiful man, whom Mrs Sei loves dearly (as we know from other passages), but, although his decision to write shiki is certainly commendable, no one will, or ever should, read what he will write, certainly not all of it. Therefore, in order to match him, the court ladies might as well use their notebook for a pillow.
(Or a door stopper).
In short, dear scholars, Mrs Sei is poking fun at his majesty. (As Beatrice is of Benedick when she promises to eat everything he kills).
What makes this utterance — and all of Sei Shonagon’s utterances — so delicious, is what makes it unimpeachable: its double — even triple — entendre, none of it, in this case, sexual: the remark is funny also because as women, and therefore, in the minds of men (i.e. on the emperor’s side of the palace) stupid — and lazy — the empress’s ladies in waiting would be expected to do precisely something like use the notebook for a pillow. At any rate, given what they might produce if they attempted to write something, in Sei Shonagon’s opinion, they really ought to use it for a pillow.
This utterance — shall we make it into a pillow? — is typical of Sei Shonagon diction. It is surprising how few of her readers understand it, and puzzling why this should be the case, but explains why her bitter competitor, Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the easy to understand Tale of Genji (with plenty of romance and psychology) has ever outsold Sei Shonagon about 1200:1.
And also why, on occasion, as David Stoner reports (in a drawing, below), Mrs Sei is driven to drink.
I have been reading Nagai Kafu’s diaries with the disconcerting sensation that I am reading myself: every thought and reaction he describes I understand instantly and fully, and to most I subscribe with both hands.
Incredibly, most writings on Nagai Kafu suggest that no one else understands him — certainly no one who writes about him does. How else to explain a dull, dull book like Snyder’s? He certainly did not read the diaries, for if he did, he would have known that Nagai read much French literature in the original and therefore did not need to “learn” French modernism from Ogai as he suggests. But it’s hard to blame Snyder: the diaries, unlike the novels, are written in bungo, an old sinicized form of Japanese — this can be hard to read; and they are long: mine — an abridged version — comes to two thousand pages. Scholars in a hurry to publish — “publish or perish” — don’t have that kind of time, do they? So Snyder has not read the diaries — and therefore is unaware of the central fact about Nagai Kafu.
Let me try to explain what I think is the central fact about Nagai Kafu.
The central fact about Nagai Kafu is that he was a typical scion of an upper-class feudal household living in a rapidly modernizing world in which the old way of living was at first haltingly and then ever more decisively pushed aside. He had grown up in a well-to do house, in a family with sufficient means to dedicate themselves to the task of living a beautiful life. In modern times people rarely have the money (our middle classes are much poorer relative to the society than the middle classes of the nineteenth century were) and almost never have the time to dedicate themselves to beautiful living: to house decoration (say, changing the house decor to correspond to changing seasons), to clothing (such as changing several times a day), to ceremonies (meaning both large and small ceremonies, including things like paying calls or receiving guests or sending new year’s post cards), to manners, to cultivating friends, to correspondence, to eating properly, to literature or music-making or art-appreciation; with their 50+ hour work-weeks plus three-hour daily commutes they find such a life not only impossible but mainly — unimaginable.
Yet this is the kind of life Nagai was bred into. That life is best described, in my opinion, as aesthetic; its goal is to produce a beautiful work of art which is the person living the life. Nagai’s most important artwork — indeed, as he grew older, his only important work of art — was his character and his life.
Economic and political changes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have meant that upper class men (and women) of the old feudal system, bred to beautiful living and attempting to continue to live it, discovered that the world around them was changing in ways which they found not merely incomprehensible but downright abrasive. Nagai discovers with shock that he no longer wishes to participate in Japan’s literary life as it becomes dominated by writers who do not know the classics (never mind actually like them!) and whose principal motivation for writing is self-promotion; he describes how his neighbors’ estates are subdivided and developed to make room for uncouth, pushy new men from the provinces and their rude children; how the old refined Floating World — staffed by classically trained geisha — gradually gives ground to grubby prostitution. When the Great Kanto Earthquake levels the city around him, he actually rejoices that it has driven his neighbors away and sadly reflects: “probably not for long”. When the war with America breaks out he comments that he understand why Americans hate modern Japan because he does, too, and expresses the hope that Americans might bomb Japan’s new ugliness and vulgarity into oblivion.
I am sensitive to Nagai’s experience for two reasons: first because it was the experience of my own grandparents to whom I was very close as I grew up. My maternal grandmother, a daughter of a very rich landowning family in the Ukraine, was driven out by the Russian Revolution, rendered penniless and forced into a social milieu in which suddenly she met as her equals people she’d never even known existed before: the mechanical classes; yet, despite her reduced financial circumstances she strove to live the old way, to maintain the old standards of politeness and gracious living, refusing to adopt the lowlife lifestyle which she was suddenly forced to notice all around her. I grew up watching her efforts and found them touchingly noble.
I am also sensitive to Nagai’s experience because my own experience of the reality outside my door is quite similar to his: I have taken early retirement from my professional career because I found the people I met in its course too disagreeable to bear; I have suspended my former (“successful”) blog because I discovered that I was largely put off by the sorts of reflections great art inspired in the majority of my readers.
This sensitivity has allowed me to see people of Nagai’s sort everywhere in the world — worldwide de-feudalization means that there are Nagais everywhere if you know what to look for. Perhaps their lot was described to me best by an elderly grand dame in New Delhi about ten years ago: “We’re not Indians, Gauvain”, she said referring to herself and her husband, “we’re pakka sahibs” (“proper masters”). Her new country, the one in which she had grown up and lived all her life and whose passport she was carrying no longer seemed to her like her own. She would not admit to having any part in it.
As feudalism recedes into the past, there are ever fewer Nagais to be seen; and the younger men who grow up with the new reality do not see it — in the same manner in which fish do not see the water they swim in. They read Nagai and miss the most important fact about him and write some excrementum bovis on sex industry as a metaphor for capitalist exploitation or sexual love as metaphor for writing.
Donald Keene, Travelers of a Hundred Ages: The Japanese as revealed through 1,000 years of diaries
Keene’s admiration for Basho is hard for me to fathom — it seems to depend somehow on Basho’s earthy approachability (e.g. he was a “nice guy”); Keene’s love for Basho’s art form — the haiku — is likewise for me a firmly closed book. What does the art involve but combining a) a trivial thought with one of three i) seasonal reference, ii) weather reference, or iii) literary reference (almost always of the “famous places” sort). I can whack out any number of these on the spot, myself:
breaking the wind
as I climb the nineteenth floor
brown smog over the city
a cup of Milo – burp –
light leaning towards evening
where has my day gone?
The Muromachi section of the book is a bit tiresome, too: to don monk’s robes and travel up and down the country, visiting famous places and composing poetry at each, seems to have been a major career avenue in the age; why did everyone of those lives deserve being recorded in a literary diary, liberally sprinkled with poems and the usual reflections on the impermanence of things baffles the mind. Why they deserve reading or discussing — even more so.
But there are real gems here: I have mentioned the Mother of Jojin already.
Diaries have often survived in sets: for instance, there is one by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241, Chronicle of the Bright Moon) in which the famous poet reports mostly on his quarrel with Emperor Gotoba — a competitor poet and co-editor of the Shin-Kokinshu collection of poetry — over, essentially, who was the greater of the two. It’s all dreadfully petty: I knew men just like the two of them when I worked in a large corporation in Tokyo.
Yawn, skip over and — boom — suddenly you come upon Utatane — Fitful Slumbers — a memoir rather than a diary, in which a young woman (Abutsu) disappointed in love describes her spur-of-the-moment departure, in the middle of a rainy night, from her family home to enter a nunnery; she cuts off her hair, writes a poem — it has some reference to Ono no Komachi’s “floating weeds” — looks at it, shakes her had in amazement, asking herself: “Is this supposed to be about drowning?” and sets out into the night. It’s cold and raining, she loses her way in a forest, at dawn meets some country women who aid her, chattering to her in a language she barely understands — the dialect of the lower classes. Abutsu’s a gutsy girl and we’re not really surprised to find out that she doesn’t last long in the nunnery. We are surprised to learn, however, that she lived on to marry none other but the old windbag Fujiwara-no-Teika, in what was, incredibly, an apparently happy union. (Teika had some hidden virtues, no doubt).
The very next diary discussed in the book is one of Asukai Masaari, a footballer, no less (his high esteem at court was based on his great skill at the game of kemari), a physical type, who apologizes for writing in Japanese (Chinese having been regarded the proper medium for men), and explains why it is OK, or even preferable, though we soon realize it’s probably all an excuse: he probably couldn’t have written in Chinese his way out of a paper bag. I have known Masaari’s type, too, and though it wasn’t my type, I liked it well enough: his diary is basically one long record of this party and that party, this prank and that prank, and, of course, plenty of dancing girls — and then some. And then, in another surprising twist, we learn with surprise that Masaari studied literature with… none other than Abutsu, now Teika’s wife. The study consisted of her reading to him the Genji Monogatari for hours on end. The effort seems touching, somewhat chimeric, but, given Abutsu’s personality, it probably wasn’t much of a chore. (What she saw in Masaari is more puzzling, unless it was — the usual).
And then there is The Journey Along the Seacoast Road, a record of a long trip from Kyoto to Tokyo, of an older man who sets out in order to see the Eastern capital for himself as much as to get away from his tiresome mother; he writes poetically, in a difficult language, a mixture of Japanese and classical Chinese, and it all seems rather literary until we come upon a strange tale: on a pillar of an inn in “Kikugawa” (“Chrysanthemum River”), the author discovers a poem inscribed several years earlier by Middle Counselor Muneyuki who’d been captured in the wake of the Jokyu rebellion and passed through here led on his way to the place of his execution. Kikusui — “chrysanthemum water” — said the Chinese, was supposed to prolong life; but his own was here about to end, his cut off head falling to the ground like a chrysanthemum blossom. It all seems about one thing and then comes a sudden switch and it turns out to be about something altogether different.
The Jokyu rebellion, by the way, was raised in an effort to return Emperor Gotoba back to power, a stuffy, unlikeable man, as we have already learned from Teika. Muneyuki should have kept his head. Stuck to the game of kemari, like his footballer friend.
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 is “art” stuff. For the Chopin Competition coverage, scroll down).
Like the title says.
An inrō is a traditional Japanese case for holding small objects. Because traditional Japanese garb lacked pockets, objects were often carried by hanging them from the obi, or sash. Most types of these sagemono were created for specialized contents, such as tobacco, pipes, writing brush and ink, but inrō were suited for carrying anything small. Consisting of a stack of tiny, nested boxes, inrō were most commonly used to carry identity seals and medicines. The stack of boxes is held together by a cord that runs through cord runners down one side, under the bottom, and up the opposite side. The ends of the cord are secured to a netsuke, a kind of toggle that is passed between the sash and pants and then hooked over the top of the sash to suspend the inrō. An ojime is provided on the cord between the inrō and netsuke to hold the boxes together. This is a bead with a hole through the center through which the cord is passed. It is slid down to the top of the inrō to hold the stack together while the inrō is worn, and slid up next to the netsuke when the boxes need to be unstacked to access their contents. Inrō were made of a variety of materials, including wood, ivory, bone, and lacquer. Lacquer was also used to decorate inro made of other materials.
Inrō, like the ojime and netsuke they were associated with, evolved over time from strictly utilitarian articles into objects of high art and immense craftsmanship.
A good illustration of inro anatomy is here.
Clickable gallery of 21 others below. My favorites are the starving dog, the yawning man, and Kenshin thwacking Shingen on the head with what looks like, er… a flaccid retractable baton?
Like the Chinese, the Japanese sense of humor is also often veiled. Take this laquerware (makie) writing box. Made in 1500’s it shows a temple in a pine grove by the shore. Within the swirling lines of the forest and water lie hidden characters which spell out a poem by Onakatomi no Sukehiro, from the Golden Leaf Poetry Colletion (Kin’yo waka shu), compiled around 1127. The poem reads:
The bejewelled thickets
By the sea
Of Futamigaura Bay
The clusters of pines
Look like makie lacquer.
But in Japan humor is veiled because it is dangerous. Humor often is dangerous — and suppressed — in countries with intrusive social control: an old (and dangerous) joke in Russia related that the White Sea Canal (in the arctic) was built by joke-tellers (i.e. prisoners condemned for daring to make fun of the regime). In such countries, when humor breaks out, it is often riotous and subversive. Take this scroll, known as the monkey scroll, ca. 1550. It was painted to celebrate the birth of a grandson to a head priest at Hiyoshi Shrine, on Mount Hiei, the sacred mountain of Kyoto. The shrine houses a troop of sacred monkeys. Here they are enjoying tea-ceremony. The oldest representation of Japanese tea-ceremony is — a farce.
No object is too sacred for subversion. Here are monkeys playing go. This is an ivory netsuke — a handle by which an inro (a medicine pouch) was tied to a belt:
When they do allow themselves to laugh — which typically happens only “under the influence” — the Japanese laugh huge, red-faced, loud, uproarious laughs and the jokes are often cruel, bordering on the hooligan. Here’s another ivory netsuke:
All objects in the Japan Room of the British Museum.
I loved this little piece — it’s only about 10 cm high — on my last visit here and was delighted to find it again this morning. Alas, against the dark and the reflective glass, my tx-1 does no better than my last camera:
The vase is a typical shippo: copper covered in cloisonne enamels, with silver mounts. It is signed Namikawa of Kyoto.
The Namikawa Cloisonne Museum of Kyoto is housed in the former residence of Yasuyuki Namikawa, a famous Cloisonne artisan during the Meiji and Taisho periods. The museum has preserved the main architecture including the artist’s studio and kiln (both of which have been recognized as national cultural treasures), and a garden designed by Jihei Ogawa.
Alas, the museum posts no images on its website.
Luckily, V&A has several good photos of a some of the many Namikawas it holds: here. None of my love, though: it isn’t even listed — on the display shelf it stands between the two unpictured vases listed at the bottom of that page.
Which is typical: the museum pieces I like best are never reproduced. (And some are banished to stores).
I guess I have a mutated brain.
Chiyogami (“paper of 1000 colors”) is a cheap, block printed sort of washi paper.
Those steeped in Japan’s wabi-sabi aesthetic are forever surprised just how gaudy Japanese art can be. A 16th century texts attempting a synthesis of the two tastes suggested that “dull quenched gaudy”; the truth is that it provides just the sort of background against which gaudy shines all the more brilliantly: chiyogami stands out beautifully against the dull background of untreated wood architecture and grey- 0r indigo-colored domestic clothing.
One buys it in sheets and uses it to wrap gifts; or books; or clothes; or anything that needs wrapping: a use of beauty in everyday life of the sort now long since banished in our own, western lives impoverished as they are by the combination of kill-joy Judeo-thinggie, utilitarianism, and plain unwashed ignorance.
Now, please yourself.
There, the BBC did it again.
Their new series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, here, presents 100 art objects in the British Museum collection in short, 15 minute programs. Not all are interesting: the Olmec stone mask and the Paracas carpets are fantastic objects about which not enough is known to make up a fifteen minute program. Others are smashing hits, like this Chinese Han Dynasty lacquered cup story — which has a great story to tell.
This is my favorite, so far: it is a Jomon jar — the Jomon of Japan were the first people on earth to make pottery — some fifteen thousand years ago; and they made this pot. They were an interesting people — a settled hunter-gatherer nation; their invention changed us phenomenally as a species; but this is not all: in the sixteenth century someone adopted this object, by then perhaps six or seven thousand years old, as a water pot for tea ceremony and had its inside lacquered in gold to reflect its new, precious status. The resulting object embodies many aesthetic theories associated with tea ceremony: a combination of rough and polished, the contrast of ancient and new, the idea that one honors one’s tradition by modifying it. It’s a perfect object for meditation.
See this page on the British Museum website for more photos.
…which, unless you read Japanese, or Spanish, or French, you will not read, start out with long worshipful letters from young Mishima to the elder Kawabata whom he calls his master. The “master” is at first polite but noncommittal. He sends back short thank you notes with occasional best wishes for the upcoming holiday, etc. But eventually the correspondence grows, becomes two-way and quite personal. The two men discover that they have two important things in common. First, they are both immensely cultured — being not only deeply knowledgeable in Japanese traditional arts but also, a rarity among “westernizing” Japanese (like Tanizaki), in western art and literature, also. (Among Mishima’s many odd writings is an essay on… the St Sebastian theme in western painting. Which is, of course, when you think about it, kind of… funny).
And, second, an immense dissatisfaction with modernity.
The causes of this dissatisfaction aren’t easily identified: the two authors themselves struggled to say just what the problem was. The answer at which Mishima finally arrived — and the one that pushed him into his theatrical self-destruction — that modernity emasculated us by taking away from us the opportunity to be manly, heroic and — martyred — the invigorating danger of having at any moment our bodies pierced like St Sebastian — which ought to concentrate the mind most wonderfully — betrayed perhaps something of his thrill-seeking (some may say, sado-masochism) but perhaps also something of his impetuosity. Had he lived beyond his 45 years, would he have found that his testosterone cooled, yet his dissatisfaction with modernity remained unchanged? Would he have been obliged to seek other interpretations of his alienation?
The closest analysis of the problem that I can find in Kawabata comes in chapter 12 of The Master of Go. “It begins to seem inevitable in championship tournaments”, he writes, “that the title of “Master” will become a mark of strength and no more, and that the position will become a sort of victory banner and a commercial asset for the competitive performer”. In that chapter Kawabata discusses the fact that the hero of the book appeared to many to abuse his privileged position as reigning master (and teacher of the challenger) in order to manipulate the game to his advantage (by arbitrarily changing what seemed to some previously set out rules of protocol). Kawabata:
“It may be said that the Master was plagued in his last match by modern rationalism, to which fussy rules were everything, from which all the grace and elegance of Go as art had disappeared, which quite dispensed with respect for elders and attached no importance to mutual respect as human beings. From the game of Go the beauty of Japan and the Orient had fled. Everything had become science and regulation. The road to advancement in rank, which controlled the life of a player, had become a meticulous point system. One conducted the battle only to win, and there was no room for remembering the dignity and the fragrance of Go as an art. The modern rule was to do battle under conditions of abstract justice, even when challenging the Master himself.”
These words do not strike me as especially good analysis. But they do seem to me to be an important finding in my search for diagnosis of the ailment from which the two men have suffered and — died, Kawabata eventually taking his own life as well.
The search is personally important because their ailment is also mine.
(to be continued)
In 1938 a game of Go was played in Japan — “the game of the century” — over a six month period, 18 meets, and 54 hours’ playtime (19:57 for the defender, the rest — 34 hours+ — for the challenger). Yasunari Kawabata, a humble newspaperman then, covered it for the Nichinichi, the ancestor of today’s Mainichi. In 1954, a disastrous war, defeat, occupation and 16 years later, he reworked his 18 newspaper reports into a work of fiction, a shosetsu, as the Japanese call it, not exactly what we mean by a novel.
He later said he considered The Master of Go his best work.
The game was fought between the reigning Grand Master — he’d held the Honimbo title for nine consecutive years — and a challenger who’d once been his student.
Kawabata’s novel is not the sort of BS that comes out of Hollywood about genius mathematicians and artists: Kawabata knew what he was talking about and the novel contains a succession of diagrams documenting the progress of the game which Kawabata understood better than Seidensticker, the translator, does. As it happened, in a development Kawabata was to hold significant for the rest of his life, the challenger won in the end, by five points.
By coincidence, Kawabata was at Atami, a beach resort, covering a literary festival, when the Grand Master died there several months after he’d suffered his first — and final — defeat. The writer was asked to take the Grand Master’s death-bed photos. He writes:
I looked at the body. The head of a doll, and the head only, seemed to protrude from the honey-comb pattern of the rough-woven kimono. Because the body had been dressed in an Oshima kimono after the Master’s death, there was a bunching at the shoulders. Yet, one had from it the feeling one had had from the Master in life: as if from the waist down he’d dwindled away to nothing. The master’s legs and hips: as his doctor had said at Hakone, they seemed scarcely to bear his weight. Taken from the Urokoya, the body had seemed quite weightless except for the head. During that last match I had seen the thinness of the Master’s knees, and in my pictures, too, there seemed only to be, quite gruesome, only the head, as if somehow severed. There was something unreal about the pictures, which may have come from the face, the ultimate in tragedy, of a man so disciplined in art that he had lost a better part of reality. Perhaps I had photographed the face of a man meant form the outset for the martyrdom to art. It was as if the life of Shusai, Master of Go, had ended as his art has ended, with that last match.
This is what I have been banging about elsewhere: that it is OK to become so committed to art that one loses the better part of reality because reality just ain’t that great. (Compared to art, anyway).
Ando Shippo (Ando Cloisonne) are still around, too, some 150 years old today, with a production facility in Nagoya and shops in both Nagoya and Tokyo. The business is down-at-heel; to make some revenue — any revenue — they’ve gone into the sort of garbage the modern state allows the middle class to afford — key-chains and pen holders; which is where their turn-over is made; but they still turn out nice pieces well. And if you ask, they will make one to order.
As you browse, asking learned questions, the Tokyo shop staff thank you repeatedly — bowing so deeply you worry about their crossbones — for coming: “we need customers like you!” They certainly do. Not only has Japan, through years of deflation, grown shabby and fraying at the edges — (once glizzy Tokyo — it was never pretty — has taken on a distinctly Dhakaesque air); but the middle class have been turned into aesthetic idiots — which is what they are everywhere — mistaking, in their clouds of unknowing, image and technology for value. Image is of course total garbage (who cares about Bulgari’s image if what they make is utter cheap junk in machine-bent platinum, for Chrissake); and technology — well, ask yourselves: what value will there be in today’s flat screen TVs come year… 2015?
Now, here is a page with links to Ando’s current catalogs. There is much dross: look at the links to the expensive items, near the bottom of the page. Why Ando — and all of Japan, in general — with all its resources and technological prowess should be so stingy with the size of their images, I do not know. I wonder if anyone has explained to them that this is hurting their business. Anyway: look at the JPEG version of the catalog, the PDF is fuzzy.
As is often the case, art objects made today represent good value compared to similar quality objects of some age, as if time itself made the least of a difference. The matter is this: they still make them now; will they still in 2025? Buy now if you can. Wasting assets appreciate in value, you know. And consider this: at 91 cm, any modern copies of the two vases would not be cheap — I am guessing $20-30K for the pair, but they would still be 17 times cheaper than the price paid by whoever bought these at the Christie’s auction 2008.
I visited the store with a friend; her father had been lecturing her about her moral duty to her family and her country; but when I showed him my newly acquired shippo, he said “Is that Japanese, I wonder?”
They still make lacquer-ware in Japan; the quality is good and prices, though high, lower than what you’d pay for comparable old pieces. Many designs are “modern” — like this one, using color and hardly ever any gold dust. I am not a modern man, but this design I do like.
You may browse a few of their expensive pieces here. If you do not read Japanese, do not despair: just click the link in the lower right hand corner under each piece you like (just above the thin gray dividing line which separates it from the next entry). That will take you to the piece’s own dedicated page where you will see dimensions and prices (in Japanese yen) given in western (“arabic”) numerals. They will stand out since they will be the only things you can read. Anyway, it’s all about looking at the pictures.
The front page is kind of cool, too: check out the profiles of the artists.