Kawabata, the Unfortunaeid, and a serendipitously discarded plot

(This is an essay in “Aesthetic Ontology”.  Aesthetic Ontology is a inquiry into the “sorts of aesthetic and art objects that exist”.  One hopes for it to be useful, but will be happy if it’s just fun).


Alas, my fifth Kawabata — Beauty and Sadness — turns out a disappointment.

Since the back-cover blurb promised a  “twenty-years-later” reunion in Kyoto (while listening to the Chionin bells, no less) of two former lovers — a writer and a painter, I expected more of the same-old-same-old I had come to love:  intelligent and sensitive reflection on the past, passage of time, memory, etc., with an occasional pearl of aesthetic insight.

Alas, Beauty and Sadness isn’t about any of that.  Instead, it is about an emotionally disturbed young woman with whom both protagonists become  inexplicably involved, instead of doing what every healthy person would in their case:  reversing as far and as fast as the wheels will spin.

(Why don’t they?!)


Beauty and Sadness strays thereby from the high (perhaps unique) Kawabata standard (who else writes convincing novels about very intelligent healthy people?) into a very common sort of art — think Munch, Schiele — which does not touch upon our persons at all. Stories of affairs with the mentally disturbed, and mental disease in general, of retardation, self-mutilation, psychopathy, panic attacks, alcoholism, wife-beating — it is, as far as we normals are concerned, stuff that might as well be happening in the cracks the my bathroom floor; or in the heads of cats.

I mean, yes, we know that such people exist.  Mental disease is human, no doubt.  We are certainly sorry for such fellows; I personally have a at least a somewhat academic interest in mental malfunction (and have once read extensively in the Encyclopedia of Psychiatry); and we do our bit for the unfortunates, when we can.  But Afer’s dictum — humo sum, etc. — does not describe us and I must wonder whether it actually described Afer:  plenty of what is human is and shall remain wholly foreign to us.

And well it should.  What gain is there for me in dwelling on the fact that some people bite their nails?  To know that they do has some epistemological value. To dwell on it — none.

For, here’s the thing:  no amount of exposition of the inner workings and plight of, say, psychopaths, or wife-beaters, or indeed, beaten wives, will do a damn thing for my own internal life.  It can at most elicit a relieved sigh of “Thank God, it’s not me”.  Though usually it only elicits — “Yuck!”  (Name this quote:  “One does not refute disease, one rejects it”).

Indeed, old friends, can you perhaps see how this kind of stuff is supposed to enrich our own internal lives?


For all its uselessness to us, normals, the “Unfortunaeid” (as in “Aeneid”) – the story of the plight of the unfortunate — has been an awfully common sort of art since (round-about) Zola.  Indeed, on my last visit to NYC, which, for precisely this reason, shall forever remain the last, I found myself scanning theater listings for something to see and discovered that absolutely every single non-musical production was an “Unfortunaeid”.  And a good deal of the musical productions, too. (How else would you classify La Traviata?)

Somehow, Unfortunaeids are deemed “socially engaged art”.  Yet, the Unfortunaeid does not usually tell its story honestly, preferring to prettify its victim-heroes for greater heart-rending effect:  we’re made to think that the endangered Blue Fin Tuna aren’t all that carnivore, they only gently harvest the smaller fry, etc., the psychopath is a brilliant aesthete, etc.  But lying means that the deemed “engagement” is not there: we are not made to engage the plight of the unfortunates; rather, we’re made to engage the author’s lies.  And if so, then what is this kind of art but attention-mongering through shock and revulsion, while simultaneously morally check-mating any criticism into silence:  “What?! Are you against the [put your topical unfortunate demographic here]?!”

There are two answers to give here:  the first is that if you lie about the facts, you’re not educating, you’re just lying; and, second, and more relevant to me: no, we do not have anything against the unfortunate demographics; but it’s not doing us any good personally to dwell upon their plight.


Was Kawabata attention-mongering when he set out to write his Beauty and Sadness?  That seems unlikely:  it was written towards the end of his career, when he was already a Nobelist, and could really have written anything at all — and gotten it published and talked about.

So…  perhaps that is exactly what he did:  spent, gone barren with age and drink, he did just write anything?  (The literary equivalent of Dali signing indifferent doodles).  A small thing and yet, how it embarrasses!

I suppose the good news in all this is that, since Kawabata has not done justice to the plot of two intelligent, sensitive lovers meeting after twenty years’ separation, the plot is, as it were, “available”, and I am free to use it in my Wurzubrg project.

(Kate:  don’t ask the provenance of the painting, for I do not know it: it’s just something the cat dragged in.  The brushwork looks modern to me; but, hey, whaddayaknow?)

Wurzburg, or How to write a Kawabata

Bedridden after surgery, I have been reading a Kawabata, my 5th or 6th, and toying with the idea of writing one myself.  The idea is Huellean (Pawel Huelle wrote a prequel to Magic Mountain, see here), but Kawabata’s Spartan brevity does not allow for prequels — Kawabata writes like a stone-cutter carves:  by removing material rather than adding it. Not one excess word is the rule.  Therefore, any addition to a Kawabata, such as a prequel, is an anathema.  A Kawabata must be free-standing, a separate novel in its own right.

The plot is easy enough:  all one needs to do is follow the tried and true:  a cultured, thinking man of about fifty undertakes a solitary pilgrimage to a cultural destination — something obscure and very high-brow; there he meets an accomplished young woman; the meeting occasions memories of past events; some inconclusive conversations follow, some of them about art, which may or may not lead to physical intimacy; the man returns to his former life with a sense of resignation while reflecting on the desolation wrought by time. 10 chapters, 150 pages.  No more than three weeks of work: just the time I need to recover.

The project requires 1) a scheme, 2) two decisions, and 3) the resolution of one difficulty.

1) The scheme must be classical: in Kawabata it’s usually the seasons; times of day; or festivals.  But it could perhaps be the three acts of a play, say, or the stages of a tea-ceremony.  In Ray’s Kanchenjunga it is the weather:  clear skies, clouds gather, dense fog, fog lifts, clouds part, bright sunlight — within this cycle of weather, the plot thickens and — is resolved. Perhaps, if I located my Kawabata in Europe, a Roman scheme could be used:  the three theological virtues, say, or the four elements, or the seven good deeds.  This must not be too contrived, though:  many such attempts have failed on account of being too heavy handed:  the scheme must be present, all encompassing, yet natural and unobtrusive.  If it must be explained, it has failed.  Perhaps it’s best to stick to weather.

2) The two decisions are:

i) First, choice of cultural destination.  Somehow Nikko’s on my mind, in winter, in snow.  One winter day, in heavy snow, over twenty years ago, I got lost on my climb through the dense ancient forest that covers up the mountain up to the lake.  I fell in deep snow up to my arms, a troop of monkeys passed overhead, it began to grow dark, I began to fear for my life.  It is a good setting for philosophical reflections — and — think about it — the mountain, the snow, the falling dark, the imminence of death — what a powerful literary symbol, very Magic Mountain-like.

Yet, I should probably avoid a Japanese destination:  the point is not to copy Kawabata:  a Kawabata cannot be a pastiche of itself; it cannot be a masquerade. It has to be something true, authentic, my own.  Besides, moving the location to Europe would have an added bebenfit:  it just might allow me to — Rameau-like — “hide art with art” (i.e. conceal the fact that my novel is in fact a Kawabata).

So, perhaps I ought to make my destination– Würzburg.  Many years ago I passed through there.  I arrived in the morning and departed by dusk.  (There’s the scheme!)  It was a beautiful autumn day — and a dramatic moment in my life, a kind of Scylla-and-Charybdis passage from slavery into exile — I was on my way to the refugee camp, on a 24 hour transit visa from Sweden to Austria, where I would give up my old passport and officially break with my masters — in exchange for nothing but the right to throw myself upon the mercy of the free world. Nine tense months’ wait later, the free world would accept me and I would breathe out: I wouldnot have to crawl back, tail between my legs, to my old masters, swearing loyalty evermore and begging them not to whip their runaway slave to death.  Of course, that day in Würzburg I hadn’t known yet that the free world would accept me.  The moment was pregnant with hope and fear and amazement at my own daring.

I waited for my train to Vienna in the park.  I remember leaving its autumnal beauty at dusk with great sadness in my heart — I had not had enough time to get to know it — as the watchman strode through the paths ringing energetically a large hand-bell to announce the imminent closing of the wrought iron gates.

I didn’t know then about the Tiepolo.  Many years later I tried to go to Würzburg to see the Treppenhaus, and to walk again in the park, but friends who were to come along didn’t turn up, my train was late, I didn’t make the connection.  Yes, I should go back there again.  Why not make it into my Kawabata.

The second decision to be made would be:

ii) The encounter.

The difficulty here would be to choose one from all the memorable encounters I have had with beautiful, interesting women.  Perhaps instead of one, I could describe two; or, rather, one but double: an encounter I had several months after my divorce.  In the lobby of my hotel in Phnom Penh I met and lunched with two western women, two days in a row, one after the other, one a Latin-American brunette, the other a Scandinavian blonde.  They were both exceptionally beautiful, intelligent, sensitive, educated women, gushing with youth and health, and they both obviously enjoyed my company, perhaps because I could regale them with enthusiastic talk about Cambodian sculpture and dance-drama in a way in which no light-weight youngster half my age ever could; perhaps because I was being my Old World self: courteous, polite, considerate; but perhaps also because… I was safe:  it was all strictly uncle-like. It was such a great pleasure for all that.  It made me feel that I wasn’t all dead yet.

3) But the difficulty, which lies in the memory bit, may well be insurmountable. While I sympathize greatly with the mood of kokai — saudade – regret – zal — see this post on the aesthetic of regret; and relish it in art, poetry and music; I do not actually think with longing of any of my past affairs.  There is nothing of the past that I miss.  For all my inclination to feel sorry for myself, I am, I suppose, as everyone should be:  always happier today than ever we have been.  I simply cannot imagine who my hero could long for!

This is not to say that I do not have regrets or longings; but they are for places — like Nikko; or for art — like the Würzburg Tiepolo; or for activities — like riding my orange 125 cm in cold driving rain on winding roads along the Thai-Burmese border.  To long for lovers seems obviously childish — after all, any attempt to find happiness in another person must misfire if you cannot find it in yourself.

A part of me welcomes this idea as a challenge:  yes, let us write a Kawabata to make just this philosophical point: that people do not matter, things do.  Let’s have a Kawabata with a hero who longs for places or art, not women.  But, then doubts assail me: to long for things and places — instead of people — seems… unKawabatan.  And… unnovelistic.  Has anyone ever heard of a novel without a love interest?  Is such a thing even possible?

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?

The Kawabata-Mishima Letters

…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)

Kawabata, Master of Go

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).