Tag Archives: japanese-literature-challenge-12

Kusamakura

Kusamakura is a complex novel, a small expression of the broad literary and artistic vision of its author, Natsume Sōseki; he said he took one week to write it. Sōseki was born in 1867, on the brink of the historic moment of the opening of Japan after its 250 years of isolation. This story written about 30 years later is a hearkening back to the classical and inward culture even as it portrays a protagonist in a world that has quickly changed and will never be the same.

The unnamed artist narrator, no doubt somewhat autobiographical, is not the sort who might move the action of the story. He doesn’t really do much but philosophize about beauty and art.

His plan for his holiday is to paint, and to maintain a detached, disinterested perspective on everyone he meets, so that he can fit them into the mental painting or poem he imagines, his artist’s way of seeing the world. There the humans might be on a plane with nature, which “…instantly forges the spirit to a pristine purity and elevates it to the realm of pure poetry.”

You can hear how elevated his opinion of his own spirituality is, and his pride at knowing true art, as contrasted again and again with particular behaviors and with phenomena tangible or intangible that he calls “vulgar.” But he does truly have an eye and a feeling for beauty, demonstrated in many instances throughout the book.

He muses in detail about every aspect of the beauty of the the old woman who hosts him at a wayside inn. When he gets drenched by a rainstorm, he transforms the miserable aspects: “If I picture myself, a sodden figure moving in this vast inkwash world of cloud and rain shot through diagonally with a thousand silver arrows, not as myself but as some other person, there’s poetry in this moment.” When Sōseki wrote that scene in Kusamakura I wonder if he was thinking wryly about the attitude he might have had toward his own miserable years that he later pictured poetically: “Among English gentlemen I lived in misery, like a poor dog that had strayed among a pack of wolves.”

Of such described scenes and experiences my favorite is this: “…times when the ineffable beauty around one, some presence one can scarcely grasp, mysteriously masters the heart….” For several pages he tries to capture with words this “ecstatic motion,” that “does not originate from outside,” and is tenuous only in that it is “ungraspable.”

With abandon the Painter describes pottery, landscapes, food and people, at times in such a way that a tea-sweet becomes food porn. Humans are considered, to use his image, heartlessly: “I shall aim to observe the people I meet from a lofty and transcendent perspective, and do my best to prevent any spark of human feeling from springing up between us. Thus, however animatedly they may move hither and yon, they won’t find it easy to make the leap across to my heart….”

This coolness is maintained even toward the forward and unattached young woman of the inn where he stays. They have occasional conversations and several provocative encounters, and she seems herself to be the sole element of potential plot, while he remains impassive. He is, however, very interested in her as a sublime object to be painted, if he could just figure out what is  missing from her face.

Elsewhere he muses over a question I had never heard posed before, and in the end I thought this dilemma was significant, too: “…whatever has motion is always finally vulgar…. Should we depict motion or stillness? — this is the great problem that governs the fate of us artists.”

I think that the Painter’s familiarity with the wider world and the culture of the West have made him a bit smug. He judges the West by the refinements of Japan, yes, but he also seems to have lost the modesty and restraint that are part of the Japanese expression of beauty, and can’t help revealing his arrogance to the reader.

Having recently read the reverent Book of Tea, written by a contemporary of Sōseki, I was shocked when the narrator ranted about this Japanese art form, the tea ceremony: “No one is more assiduously pompous than a tea ceremony master, who will fancy himself the quintessence of elegant refinement. Your typical tea master is deeply conceited, not to mention affected and fastidious to a fault. He ostentatiously clings to the cramped little territory he’s marked out for himself within the wide world of sensibility, savoring his bowl of foam and bubbles with a quite ridiculous reverence.” And then I realized that it was the Painter who “fancied himself the quintessence of elegant refinement.” He breathes deeply of the vapors rising from his bowl of peeves and perceptions, and is pleased. On the other hand, doesn’t ranting at least border on the vulgar?

And yet, Sōseki himself did write about this book that he intended it to be a “haiku-style novel,” and that “all that matters…is that a certain feeling, a feeling of beauty, remain with the reader. I have no other objective.”

I felt more confident of my idea that Sōseki intentionally imbued the Painter with these ironic aspects after I read on the Literary Hub site about the author’s stay in Britain, where the government had sent him as “Japan’s first Japanese English literary scholar.” During his two unhappy years there he read constantly, and one tome he devoured and evidently thoroughly comprehended was the three-volume Tristram Shandy, which I have only read about, and doubt that I would be able to grasp the satire of it. In his first book, I Am a Cat, his cat narrator makes fun of the intellectual humans, speaking “with Sōseki’s voice, now bitingly critical, now cynically amused.” 

Kusamakura may be a book about the feeling of beauty, but the human relationships naturally get our human attention. My own philosophy and theology are that beauty originates in the Holy Trinity, the relationship of love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To try to know and appreciate another human by seeing them “objectively,” in a non-emotional or detached way, will never work. You will not see them truly. The Painter is perceptive enough in this case to realize what he isn’t able to do.

Indeed, that “something missing” in the face of the woman the Painter wants to paint, because she is so beautiful, he doesn’t discover until the very end of the story. Perhaps that is the plot, the character development and the problem solved, all on the last page. In a moment of emotion, a motion of the heart toward another person, if you will, he sees in her face the beauty that will make it worth painting.

Boundaries and Ages

A few weeks ago I tagged these two poems from the Japanese, to read again. Just now I notice that the poets were contemporaries of each other, and that in both poems there is the needed attention to the poet’s experience, but also reference to political or historic settings. Even though I probably miss many poetic allusions and metaphors because of my unfamiliarity with the realm of Japanese literature, I find these more interesting and thought-provoking than the more minimalist haiku.

The writers who create and give us their creations are also fascinating to me. It’s nice to be able to read a bit of biography, but you know that they are telling the most important things in their poetry. Both here are considered haiku poets. Takami was arrested for Marxist writings and communist activities while at university, but later recanted, and years later became director of the Japanese Literature Patriotic Association. In addition to his poetry he published various memoirs including 3000 pages of wartime diaries.

The minor planet Kusatao was named for Kusatao Nakamura in 1994.

 

AT THE BOUNDARY of LIFE and DEATH

At the boundary of life and death
what exists I wonder?
For instance, concerning the boundary of county and country,
during the war, on the border of Thailand and Burma,
although I saw it when I crossed through the jungle,
nothing unusual was found in that place.
There was nothing like a boundary line drawn.
Also at sea when passing directly over the equator
nothing special like a beacon mark was visible.
No, at that place was the wonderful dark blue sea.
On the Thailand-Burma border was a wonderful sky.
On the life-death boundary too might there not be something hung like a wonderful rainbow,
even though my surroundings
and also my self
were a devastated jungle?

-Jun Takami (1907-1965)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sailing in autumn,
being inside
one huge and deep blue disk.

In the baby carriage,
onto the joggled apple
continuing to hold.

Falling snow!
The Meiji period, far
away it has gone.

Greenness everywhere
and inside it my own child’s
teeth starting to grow out.

-Kusatao Nakamura (1901-1983)

 

(The ocean painting is detail from a print by Hiroshige, “The Whirlpools of Awa.”)

Four sad poems from the Japanese.

I picked four of the One Hundred Poems from the Japanese, collected and translated by Kenneth Rexroth in 1964. Why did I choose these in particular? They have a couple of things in common in that they are not obviously love poems, and they are sad and melancholy. The last one, by the “deified poet” Hitomaro, was his death poem. Next week I will post some verse that is less lonely, but it’s worth considering how some long-ago poets expressed this universal condition.

This is not the moon,
Nor is this the spring,
Of other springs,
And I alone
Am still the same.

-Ariwara No Narihira, 9th century

 

I may live on until
I long for this time
In which I am so unhappy,
And remember it fondly.

-Fujiwara No Kiyosuke, 12th century

 

All during a night
Of anxiety I wait.
At last the dawn comes
Through the cracks of the shutters,
Heartless as night.

-The Monk Shun-e, 12th century

 

My girl is waiting for me
And does not know
That my body will stay here
On the rocks of Mount Kamo.

-Hitomaro, 7th-8th centuries

Drop it gently onto the tongue.

It’s always nice to have a piece of toast, or some tasty thing to go with tea. At least, that’s how many of us think. In Kusamakura, the narrator takes tea with the host of the inn where he is staying, and there is a tea-sweets plate on the table, but it is bare. It’s there to be itself, a blue stone artifact that the owner wants to show off, and the narrator muses without speaking:

“It is nothing short of astonishing to consider the fine dexterity of the master craftsman who has carved such a large piece of stone to such thinness, and with such delicate precision! Spring sunlight shines through the translucent stone, seemingly captured and held there within its depths. It is right that such a plate remains empty.”

At a tea time earlier in the story, the guest does mention a tea-sweet, “…the firm bean jelly known as yōkan…. Yōkan happens to be my very favorite tea sweet. Not that I particularly want to eat it, but that velvety, dense texture, with its semitranslucent glow, makes it a work of art by any standards. I especially enjoy the sight of yōkan that has a slightly blue-green sheen, like a mixture of gemstones and alabaster — and this bluish yōkan piled on the plate glistens….” Sorry, I can’t go on. In a later post I hope to have more to say about this character who, while his mind overflows with voluptuous details pertaining to what he likes, dismisses more and more other things and behaviors as “vulgar.”

Because of him, I am feeling more welcoming of Lent. But before that shift toward better feasts, I want to show you my own edible works of art from blogger friend Orientikate in Japan; she wanted to contribute to my research on the land where she dwells. 🙂 In my case, I was so vulgar that I did want to eat them all! The dorayaki below is made with the same red beans that our artist praises above. Made into a sweetened paste and wrapped in a soft pancake, they make a lovely treat to eat with tea.

A packet of crispy snacks was in the package, and several types of green tea, and all of those gifts have been much enjoyed; sometimes I drank the tea from one of the ornate teacup twins that were given to our family more than 20 years ago, by a shy Japanese exchange student who was with us for only a week.

I try to drink tea only in the morning, because I seem to be more sensitive to caffeine the older I get. I know that green tea contains substances that have a calming effect as well, and there was a time when I could drink it all day, as I know many people do. But I laughed out loud at the end of this passage from the same book, when after admiring the plates and the kettle and the calligraphy on the wall, the guests take some nourishment:

“A connoisseur with time on his hands will elegantly taste this rich, delicately sweet liquid, ripened in the precise temperature of the hot water, by letting it run one drop at a time on to the tip of the tongue. Most people believe that tea is to be drunk, but that is a mistake. If you drop it gently onto the tongue and let the pure liquid dissipate in your mouth, almost none of it remains for you to swallow.

“Rather, the exquisite fragrance travels down to permeate the regions of the stomach. Using the teeth on solid food is vulgar, while mere water is insipid. The best green tea, on the other hand, surpasses fresh water in its delicate, rich warmth, yet lacks the firmness of more solid substances that tire the jaw. Tea is, in fact, a marvelous drink. To those who spurn it on the grounds of insomnia, I say that it’s better to be deprived of sleep than of tea.”