Saturday, November 15, 2008

Week 07, Shonagon, Kenko

Page-by-Page Notes on Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book.

2273. Shonagon notices not only activity in nature but also stillness; mixed in with this appreciation are the author’s impressions of various human activities. She can appreciate ordinary things, but seems most taken with people when they go beyond the ordinary, when they are wearing their best clothing and so forth. But again, it is not only finery that catches her eye—she is interested in those moments when circumstances expose the reality underneath the fine appearance. She likes ceremony and formality in general, but also searches out authenticity—it seems that both are necessary, and one must try to achieve a balance.

2275. I like the tableau Shonagon sets up on this page—the scene suggests a kind of eternity for the Japanese monarchy. It is an ideal moment, and she wishes it could extend for a thousand years. She describes the scene as if it were a painting, with everyone and everything appropriately placed.

2278. Shonagon brings up a number of stories of excellence—in this case, the story or model concerns a young woman during the time of Emperor Murakami. She knew her classical poetry faultlessly, and it would be difficult to surpass her graceful performance under pressure. There’s a sense of unreality about the palace, or rather the palace seems to be its own reality—Emperor Murakami does something purely for fun, and everyone takes it seriously. The current Emperor looks back upon this story with wonder. He considers it evidence of a golden age.

2279. Shonagon has little respect for women who do not come to know the world as she does—they do not take advantage of their high birth. Serving in the palace has its advantages, and she is quick to point them out. The palace provides respect ever after, and makes one well-versed in life’s necessary formalities, adding a touch of elegance.

2280-82. Shonagon identifies as depressing a collection of events involving frustrated expectation, failure to communicate with others, disappointed ambitions, and a sense of mediocrity. Moreover, there must be transitional phases in life, but there is sadness when they occur as well as when they go on too long.

2282-86. As we would expect, Shonagon finds hateful anyone who goes beyond his or her station in life. Above all, inconsiderate and pushy behavior earns her anger. As for conversation, I imagine the so-called “California like” would give her conniption fits. It’s like, too casual, dude. She has no regard whatsoever for people who want to be considered elegant and civil when in fact they are not. Decorum is not just finery and fluff—clearly, good manners in speech and action embody the rightness of the imperial order. Shonagon has a strong sense of privacy, but also a strong sense that sometimes it is obligatory to share one’s impressions. This is why she dislikes the gentleman who will not share his impressions with younger men. People who overstay their welcome are hateful to her. Whatever the time and occasion, there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. For example, she says that a woman loves a man partly for the way he takes his leave of her.

2286-87. Shonagon likes things that produce a striking, memorable impression. A lot of her life revolves around registering her own impressions and perhaps comparing them to other people’s impressions. As Oscar Wilde says, “nothing that actually happens is of the smallest importance.”

2286-88. In the part about Buddhist priests in the temple, Shonagon begins with her own observation but then quickly moves on to other people’s observations and behavior. In particular, the behavior of retired officials and fashionable young gentlemen. People seem to have all sorts of motives for attending the temple—most of them having nothing to do with religion. They go there to pass the time, to see and to be seen. Shonagon makes a show of moral indignation, but really she admits she is fascinated with the goings-on. She is only indirectly a moralist, but much more directly a close observer of her own time who seems to have a lot of knowledge about people’s behavior in former times. It is always an interesting question as to what people do when they have nothing to do—in a Western context, education takes as one important purpose inculcating the ability to enjoy leisure time wisely. Sometimes Shonagon reminds me of Charles Lamb in the essay where he writes about getting early retirement and wondering what he will do with himself, even though he is delighted at having so much free time.

2288. How does Shonagon conceptualize nature, how does she relate to it and describe it? I think she describes nature as if it were a work of art; we only have selections, but I find that she concentrates mostly on still-life tableaux, and not so much on natural process or activity, though of course that is always implied in any sensitive description of nature. Nature is presented to her as a series of distinct but related objects, aesthetic objects. She seldom speaks harshly about nature, but instead finds something good to say about most natural objects. She is not always so generous about human beings within the court system or outside of it. But that doesn’t bother me—people can take care of themselves; we should be indulgent with nature. Shonagon is very conscious of nature’s presence in literary tradition, both Japanese and Chinese, and she mixes in this awareness with her naturalistic descriptions. In the example of the pear blossom, it is Chinese literature that leads her to make a close examination of the blossom itself. She does not hesitate, either, to mingle observation of nature with comments about human affairs like coming home from a festival. She is not, in other words, a purist who must block out all things human to talk about nature—that is probably more a product of modern necessity. In Japan , as I’ve read, people once lived very close to nature, and then when the island became crowded, they had to work hard to recreate a sense of the natural, by means of artifice. Zen gardens epitomize this kind of artifice—they are at once natural and artificial, we might say.

2290-91. Unsuitable things—this part the editors find unflattering. Shonagon says snow on common houses is unsuitable, perhaps because the beauty is wasted on people who don’t appreciate it. The idea is that beauty is only for the select, only for her and those who can appreciate her fine observational powers. She sounds a bit stingy with the pleasures of aesthetic appreciation, at least to our democratic sensibilities. We usually insist that art should be held in common, as something that unites people, that appeals to universal faculties or sensibilities (as in Kant it lets him demonstrate the universality of the faculty psychology he advocates as the basis for his epistemology). That’s hardly the case with Sei Shonagon, whose sensibilities are aristocratic. People from different ranks, though they may share many traits, are in the last analysis fundamentally different—at least the best amongst them are. Sometimes her observations seem singular, as when she says the old man with a black beard who’s playing with children is unsuitable. So how many times does one see such a sight? Just once? Her observation about how the person you stop loving seems like someone else is brilliant—here she is at her most honest and best. The point is that how we define others has a lot to do with our own needs and frame of mind. This is important because it coincides in a sophisticated way with Shonagon’s insistence on close observation of nature and human conduct.

2292-93. Here there’s a combination of sentiments: Shonagon appreciates perfection in various things, but perfection in the sense of artificial design isn’t always appropriate—ponds are best left wild.

2294-95. Shonagon is critical of men’s behavior towards women—too often, she says, they dissemble their feelings and leave women in the dark. Or they refuse to accept the consequences of their actions. There are also some excellent “imagist” observations here, like the one about “the play of the light on water” being poured from a vessel. And she mentions again how social situations can go wrong—expecting someone and then having to entertain another person. Deception is sometimes necessary in these circumstances, but it’s distasteful.

2296-97. Shonagon betrays an aristocratic sense for beauty—I don’t think she simply identifies physical attractiveness with morality, but in any event an ugly person is unacceptable to her. Attractive people should consort with attractive people. That’s similar to the Greek attitude about “the beautiful people.”

2298-99. It’s worth considering the difference between how Shonagon treats human beauty and natural beauty or the beauty of an art object—her comment about a beautiful face is valuable in this regard. Human beauty is endlessly interesting, she says, while a painting soon loses its capacity to hold our attention. She also enjoys being singled out by those who are themselves distinctive and important.

2299-2300. Why did Shonagon write The Pillow Book? I don’t know if her regrets over publication are conventional, like Chaucer’s retraction of The Canterbury Tales. Most likely her comments in this regard are partly sincere, partly image-management. She’s an aristocrat, not a tradeswoman or hack writer, if indeed there were “hack writers” in her milieu. It would be pushy to promote one’s own talents as a writer. I find an interesting mix of wanting to guard her privacy and claiming that she has “set everything down,” both feelings and observations. Kierkegaard makes a relevant point when he says that good philosophical writing always involves indirection—writing of Shonagon’s sort is at base philosophical; it can’t succeed it she assumes that we really understand her directly and simply. The point isn’t transparent communication. The effect is instead that of overhearing somebody’s private reflections—some of the meaning is available to us, but not all of it, and that’s probably just the way Shonagon wants things to be.

Notes on Yoshida Kenko’s Essays in Idleness.

Kenko is concerned to reflect on strategies for surviving with one’s spirit more or less intact in difficult times—the world is full of lies, so what’s the best way to act, given such an unfortunate fact? By no means to fight against the lies brazenly, but rather to let the world go on thinking as it does, and keep your reflections to yourself, for private occasions. Simply maintaining the ability to reflect on things is worth something when so few people are given to reflection about anything at all. Kenko’s way of dealing with profound subjects is to set forth a principle such as “all things must pass,” but then not to take it too seriously, lest it become in itself an attachment, an obsession. I think this is typical of Buddhism—we shouldn’t become too attached even to our own wisdom. Themes to be found in Kenko: the value of uncertainty, the meaning of death, the problem of desire, the virtues of imperfection, the need to concentrate one’s energies to achieve something worthwhile, and to eliminate whatever is unnecessary; the relative potential and dangers of youth and age.

2328. Kenko accords a certain significance and elegance to the higher nobility, but those below that exalted rank come in for some criticism: people who have achieved some distinction within their middling rank, he says, “are apt to wear looks of self-satisfaction,” but in truth they don’t matter as much as they think they do. And as for priests who try to throw their weight around, their inappropriate attitude makes them appear ridiculous. Kenko writes also, “It is desirable that a man’s face and figure be of excelling beauty. I could sit forever with a man, provided that what he said did not grate on my ears, that he had charm, and that he did not talk very much. What an unpleasant experience it is when someone you have supposed to be quite distinguished reveals his true, inferior nature.” Appearances are of some importance to him, and it is jarring when an elegant person’s character doesn’t match his or her fine looks: people really ought to be what they seem to be. Kenko’s description of excellence is delightfully whimsical: “he writes easily in an acceptable hand, sings agreeable and in tune, and . . . is not a teetotaler.” I’m reminded of Oscar Wilde’s quip, “In all unimportant matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential. In all important matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential.” Of course, that might be going a bit too far to suit Yoshida Kenko.

2329-31. Kenko favors uncertainty: “If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty” (1229). Uncertainty, he explains, leaves room for worthy aspiration and for concentration on what really matters. Kenko points out that if we live too long, our “preoccupation with worldly things grows ever deeper, and gradually . . . [we lose] all sensitivity to the beauty of things” (2329). I think he is implying that as we age, we begin to attach our hopes for permanence to seemingly solid and finished things, rather than accepting that all things are transient and appreciating them all the more for that very reason. Buddhism emphasizes self-discipline, concentration, and clarity of perception. So the suggestive, bare thing is better than the gilded one. Kenko writes, “People seem to agree that autumn is the best season to appreciate the beauty of things. That may well be true, but the sights of spring are even more exhilarating” (1231).

2332-33. “In all things I yearn for the past. Modern fashions seem to keep on growing more and more debased.” Included in this observation is the customs surrounding death. Kenko misses “The custom of paying homage to the dead, in the belief that they return that night.” We go to great lengths to ceremonialize the passing of the dead, but then we forget them ruthlessly. Life seems to depend heavily on forgetting of this sort: “During the forty-nine days of mourning the family, having moved to a temple in the mountains or some such place, forgathers in large numbers in inconvenient, cramped quarters, and frantically occupies itself with the motions of mourning for the dead. The days pass unbelievably fast. On the final day, all civility gone, no one has a word for anybody else . . .” (2333). With the end of the ceremony, the living are impatient to get back to their own concerns, and the dead become ever more distant in memory, until at last “the old grave is plowed up and turned into rice land.” I’m reminded of Tolstoy’s painful exploration of our intolerance for the dying, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, in which a dying man increasingly notices the hurry those around him seem to be in to abandon him—they wish he would just get on with the business of dying, and leave them to enjoy their own vitality.

2334. Kenko’s mention of how the living forget the dead is not exactly nostalgic or outraged, however: he says here that “It does no good whatsoever to have one’s name survive.” To seek fame in this life or long remembrance after death, he suggests, is foolish. That attitude differs remarkably from the ancient western notion that a person ought to live in such a way as to be remembered long afterwards by his or her descendants. Kenko sees all desire to rise above one’s station, all desire for notoriety or fame, as the mark of an empty and vain person. On this page, he writes in accord with Chuang Chou that “True knowledge is not what one hears from others or acquires through study,” and even quotes Chou directly: “The truly enlightened man has no learning, no virtue, no accomplishments, no fame.” We might think that’s so because enlightened people don’t draw attention to themselves: the mark of vanity, crass commercialism, or some other equally unattractive tendency. But as Kenko explains, “It is not that he conceals his virtue or pretends to be stupid; it is because from the outset he is above distinctions between wise and foolish, between profit and loss.” Anything to do with the world is void: “All is unreality. Nothing is worth discussing, worth desiring.”

2335-36. Kenko says that we should neither “accept popular superstitions uncritically” (2335) nor dismiss them because of their improbability. We should instead remain even-minded about such things, and not take up the habit of scoffing at the beliefs of the ignorant. Kenko also says that he has no problem believing in “the miracles of the gods and buddhas, or in the lives of the incarnations.” I am moved by this to note with some disdain the current fashion for atheist scoffing. Not that I’m religious in the traditional sense (going to church, accepting a set of metaphysical doctrines or a creed, etc.). But all the same, I find the today’s bustling advocates of Reason misguided: they seem to have little appreciation for the sustaining power of eloquence, or the need for anything beyond some set of facts by which to live. To assume that Reason is all-sufficient seems to me as preposterous a gesture today as August Comte’s (1798-1857) attempt to found a “religion of humanity” a century-and-a-half ago. Furthermore, the French Revolution’s exaltation of Reason ought to be warning enough about the dangers of setting up our own qualities as self-sustaining replacements for “a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused / whose dwelling is the light of setting suns” (Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”). Failing to project something beyond ourselves (whatever one may construe it as being) to which we can at least then try to connect may well strip us of our potential for transcending our limitations and lead us to withdraw into our stagnating selves. That isn’t Kenko’s point exactly, but I think it’s worth making. On 2335 bottom, bottom Kenko writes that “A man should avoid displaying deep familiarity with any subject.” It’s a good thing this gloomy monk didn’t have to attend academic conferences: erudition on display for the purpose of impressing others is something he just can’t stand. In fact, Kenko disdains ostentation of any kind: “Possessions should look old, not overly elaborate; they need not cost much, but their quality should be good” (2336).

2337. “Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless?” asks Kenko. The cherry tree before or after it is in full bloom, or the moon when partially clouded over, he suggests, is best because we appreciate most what is transitory; we give it our respectful attention. Things we consider permanent are apt to be taken for granted and reduced to what today we might call “post-card status.” Kenko writes, “In all things, it is the beginnings and ends that are interesting,” and he said on 2336 that “uniformity is undesirable. Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting.” Perfection isn’t the goal when it comes to choosing the objects of our perception. Beauty, yes, but the kind of beauty we must really look for; it shouldn’t just be given to us. On the whole, Kenko shows a refined sense of how a person ought to enjoy life: “The man of breeding never appears to abandon himself completely to his pleasures; even his manner of enjoyment is detached.” In an almost Kantian passage, Kenko writes of the unrefined that, “No matter what the sight, they are never content merely with looking at it.” Kant would perhaps nod in agreement, based on what he writes in his Critique of Judgment about the necessity of “disinterestedness” in making properly aesthetic judgments about beautiful things: if we desire the object’s existence or expect to get some use from it, we can’t sustain the kind of “dry liking” Kant thinks appropriate to aesthetic experience.

2338-39. One of Kenko’s most haunting descriptions of the emptiness of life is his passage about going to a festival, and getting caught up with all the sights on the crowded street. Then the festival ends, the props and so forth are hauled away, and the entire scene is empty, as if nothing had happened and no one had ever been there: “Before you know it, hardly a soul is left . . . . Then they start removing the blinds and matting from the stands, and the place, even as you watch, begins to look desolate. You realize with a pang of grief that life is like this. If you have seen the avenues of the city, you have seen the festival” (2338). The sense of meaningfulness we lend life is transitory, and soon gives way to utter desolation, a deep feeling of absence and emptiness. One doesn’t usually realize this except upon reflection, standing in the empty street, but perhaps some understand it even while the festival is under way. The street pageant is the main event; there is nothing at the core of events, and in fact, suggests Kenko, there is no core. Denying this fact leads to self-delusion, and Kenko’s meditations most likely allow him to register personally the “nothingness” to which his writing attests. Kenko then discusses that frequent theme of his, the inevitability of death: he points out that at such festivals, he often recognizes many of the people—his is a small world, so to speak, and he is led to reflect that soon the lot of his friends and acquaintances will be gone, as will he: “the hour of death comes sooner than you expect,” and there’s no way to avoid it. As he writes on 2339, “When you confront death, no matter where it may be, it is the same as charging into battle.”

2339-41. Kenko discusses the relative merits of youth and age: “Youth is the time when a man ruins himself. // An old man’s spirit grows feeble; he is indifferent and slow to respond, unmoved by everything” (2339). But all the same, “The old are as superior to the young in wisdom as the young are superior to the old in looks” (2440). Meditation is like “a little death,” lending us a perspective that lets us register the nothingness of ourselves and of life. On the whole, Kenko’s comments on age and wisdom are somewhat paradoxical: he asserts something like the idea that the preacher of Ecclesiastes keeps coming back to: “all is vanity.” Add to this his point that aging tends to muddy our understanding; we are beset by a materialism that is founded on the fear of death. To cling to the things of this world is to cling to life. But at the same time, he puts some stock in the attainment of “wisdom” and even says that “we should be impatient to discover the sources of enlightenment” (2341). With respect to learning, Kenko has a keen sense of what economists would call the “opportunity cost” of any such endeavor: those who mean to learn something allow themselves to be distracted, and end up dispersing valuable energy. “In the end,” we says, “they neither become proficient in their profession, nor do they gain the eminence they anticipated” (2340). What is the solution to this problem? The following: “we must carefully compare in our minds all the different things in life we might hope to make our principal work, and decide which is of the greatest value; this decided, we should renounce our other interests and devote ourselves to that one thing only” (2340). Sound advice, of course—but then there’s always Shelley’s equally true observation: “We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon,” and often not capable of the sort of intense, perpetual concentration Kenko is suggesting we must maintain to accomplish some great feat of learning.

A personal reflection: I take Kenko’s ideas about learning to heart since I’ve always considered myself rather more like Shelley’s drifting cloud-consciousness or the wind lyre “To whose frail frame no second motion brings / One mood or modulation like the last” than like the model scholar. But as I’ve grown older, I have learned how to turn this inconstancy into more of a strength than a weakness, or at least to bring out the reserve of strength in the weakness: I’ve read very broadly and reflected a great deal, if not always in a sustained way; so I am able to make many connections that may not be available to those whose path of study has been more single-minded, more persistent, more constant. I am not so much trying to “amass information” in one or two fields as I am trying to achieve some degree of wisdom, and perhaps even to arrive at that elusive state Milton calls “calm of mind, all passion spent.” For me, that’s the value of literature, criticism, and literary theory. Younger scholars who want to make progress would do well to reflect on why they want to learn (insofar as that understanding is accessible to them), how they proceed, the limits of their attention and desire, and so forth.

While Kenko says, “A great enterprise is unlikely to be achieved except at the expense of everything else” (2341), it’s fair to suggest that very young people might find it best not to focus too narrowly on any one subject: the time of life to do that is somewhat later, as one approaches middle age, and time becomes more obviously a factor: there are some things I’d like to learn thoroughly, but I know that there just isn’t enough sand left in my hourglass, so I might as well concentrate my activities somewhat and accomplish something in what I’ve already found worthwhile.

2342. The concluding paragraph of our selection shows genuine humility: at eight years old, says Kenko, he asked his father about Buddha, and his father gave one of those answers parents give when they don’t know quite what to say. You become a Buddha by following the teachings of Buddha, says father. So who, asked little Yoshida, taught him to teach? And all the father can say is, “I suppose he fell from the sky or else he sprang up out of the earth.” Ultimately, Kenko’s whole approach as a mature thinker suggests, there aren’t any answers to the profound questions that people begin asking even in childhood—or at least there aren’t any final answers or answers that will please everyone.

Finally, to compare Kenko with Sei Shonagon, I’d say that while the latter is mostly serene and upbeat (except when she is criticizing those who fail to come up to the mark in some capacity or other), Kenko is rather “Eeyorish” in his outlook. While Shonagon writes in a quirky first-person mode dedicated to excellent impressionistic descriptions, Kenko’s style tends to lean on philosophical abstractions and a rather impersonal “we.” But both are for the most part admirably non-systemic in their way of perceiving and judging things, and they show some affinity in the loose, almost episodic quality of their writings.