Flying from Star to Star

Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is one book that I am always continually rereading.  One of the most famous statements in the whole seven volume saga comes in Chapter 2 of The Captive:

The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is; and this we can contrive with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with men like these we do really fly from star to star.

This quotation pretty much sums up one of the most important themes of the book:  the narrator’s growth in aesthetic sensitivity.  As the novel unfolds we see the narrator responding to art, to music, to literature, with ever increasing intelligence.  Proust gives us portraits of three spiritual masters in his book:  Elstir the painter, Vinteuil the composer, and Bergotte the writer.  The narrator’s encounters with their genius enriches his life and ultimately leads to the triumphant conclusion of the novel, when he realizes that great art can not only allow him to escape the constraints of space and time, but give spiritual meaning to his life. I always learn something new whenever I reread Proust, but for a long time I have struggled with this essential idea, namely seeing the universe through the eyes of another.  We can, of course, look at a painting of a great master, or listen to some magnificent music, but how are we supposed to get inside the mind of the artist or the composer who created it?  You can spend hours listening to Debussy (one of the models for Vinteuil), but how would this give you any kind of insight into his spiritual vision?  There seemed to be some kind of secret to the trick which I wasn’t picking up on.  Critical works on Proust were of little or no help.  I dutifully slogged my way through books like Alain de Botton’s utterly frivolous How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), but was usually left at a loss.

All this changed several weeks ago when I discovered Jan Walsh Hokenson’s Japan, France, and East-West Aesthetics.  French Literature, 1867-2000 (2004).  This book has proved to be the most illuminating work of literary criticism which I have read in many years.  Hokenson examines the liberating effect that Japanese art had on French culture starting in the middle of the 19th century.  We have all heard the story about how the discovery of lost texts and art from classical antiquity stimulated the burst of artistic creativity which we now call the Renaissance.  What is less known is how the the discovery of Japanese ways of interpreting the world provoked an equally profound stimulus to western culture in the late 19th century.  American, British and French artists and writers were all astonished, amazed, and inspired when they discovered Japanese art. Unlike China or India, Japan had been pretty much unknown territory until the middle of the 19th century. While people in the west had long admired Chinese aesthetic techniques, no one had ever had any solid knowledge of Japanese art until their woodblock prints began to make their way to the rest of the world, most especially the prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige.  The effect of these prints was electrifying on the visual artists of the day, suffering as they were under the heavy hand of an exhausted academic tradition.  The prints’ bold ink drawings, flat vibrant colors, lively diagonals, and images of clarity and simplicity, simply knocked everybody’s heads off.

The artists who were most greatly impacted by these prints are now the ones whom we consider to be among the greatest of their time, such as Whistler, Monet, and van Gogh. But French writers were also profoundly stirred by Japanese art.  Hokenson shows how writers like the Goncourt Brothers fashioned whole novels (such as their  Manette Salomon (1886), around Japanese ways of seeing.  Emile Zola was also deeply impressed by this radical new way of interpreting the world.  His La curée (1871) is basically an extended meditation on the need for a new way to see.  The heroine of this book comes to grief partially because she cannot perceive her circumstances with any kind of clarity, the kind to be found when you can look upon the world through the eyes of a Japanese master.  Zola’s later book, L’oeuvre (1886), concerns an artist who is unable to live up to his potential, mainly because he does not learn the lessons that the revolutionary new Japanese aesthetics provide.  Zola understood something which his characters do not:  Japanese aesthetics can provide you with a whole new way of being in the world. Hokenson’s chapter on Proust is the most enlightening in the book.  Indeed, this chapter is probably the single most brilliant piece of Proustian criticism I have ever read.  It finally answered some of my most basic questions about the book’s thematic unity.  Hokenson shows us that Proust had been as powerfully impressed by Japanese aesthetics as had Zola, Monet and Debussy.  Indeed, the famous opening scene of the novel, when the narrator receives a metaphysical earthquake as he sips a very ordinary cup of tea, is framed in terms of a Japanese work of art:

And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

Well, there it is, a Japanese reference which I had never really noticed before, even though I had read this passage many times.  Hokenson goes on to show us how Japanese references, Japanese aesthetics, Japanese ways of seeing are emphasized through the rest of the saga.  The long drawn-out aesthetic apprenticeship of the narrator is at bottom quite simple:  it is a way to attain the “Japanese way of seeing”, which Hokenson summarizes as “(a) a non-European relation to nature, (b) imaginative activity in the mind, and (c) evanescence and fugitive impressions in art.” It is an aesthetics of “simplicity, suggestion, indeterminacy, and impersonality”. Time and again throughout the novel, Hokenson shows us that Japanese aesthetics are emphasized at critical points in the story.  What is interesting is that these aesthetics provide a way out of the emotional pain which the narrator is constantly experiencing.  The novel progresses almost unrelentingly through constant disappointment and unhappiness, not only of the narrator but of the other principal characters, such as Charles Swann.  Unlike Swann, however, the narrator ultimately does find an escape from his distress, thanks to his slowly acquired Japanese way of seeing.  Not just seeing, mind you, but creating (the 3,000 page novel, after all, can be summarized as man drinks tea and writes book).  Artistic creation is ultimately presented as the novel’s greatest value, as it provides the narrator with the greatest joy and happiness he has ever known. Hokenson also states:  “The emphasis [in Japanese art] is no longer on resplendence but on simplicity, purity of line and form, spare vivid contrasting colors, delicacy of method, and suggestion of unstated essence … The artwork therefore entails, radically requires, two moments in time, the moment of creation and the moment of affective recreation.”  This last is also very important.  The greatest value of Japanese art is the way it stimulates the viewer’s imagination:  “the artist’s economy of means and radical simplification operate suggestively to provoke, in the viewer, an affective experience–comparable to the artist’s at the moment of creation–and an imaginative completion (of the image, locus, motion) in the mind.”  This is why Japanese art is so powerful.  You are no longer a passive spectator being bludgeoned by academicians but an active co-creator, along with the artist, of what is being depicted.  When you respond to a work of art like this, you are then able to enter into “a new order of reality.” Hokenson has many other brilliant insights in her book, both about Proust and other French writers, too many of which to be summarized here.  But here I must confess that I found the second half of the book, when she discusses 20th century writers, to be weak.  The first author she talks about after Proust is Paul Claudel, whom I had never read.  I immediately went in search of his more well-known works but found them to be dated, superficial and pretentious (sample sentence:  “London is a city composed of body parts.”)  Hokenson also gives us a detailed account of Roland Barthes’ Oriental peregrinations, but she never quite seems to realize that he is coming across as a ridiculous poseur (probably because he actually was a ridiculous poseur).  Her discussion of the two celebrated Marguerites (Yourcenar and Duras) is more insightful but will be appreciated only by those who like their fiction bland and humorless.  As for me, I gave up on their kind of “literary” fiction a long time ago.

Nevertheless, Hokenson’s insights into Proust have caused a major shift in my own life and have deepened my appreciation of his masterpiece.  If you want to find a whole new way of being in the world, if you really do want to fly from star to star, all you need to do is start practicing the Japanese way of seeing.  Keep your mind receptive and calm.  Strive to maintain your clarity of vision.  Pay careful attention to the natural world, most especially its color and light and space.  When you encounter a work of art, take time not just to perceive it, but to recreate it within your own being.  And–best of all–start studying the old Japanese masters who started the fuss in the first place.  This is easy enough to do these days, thanks to the internet.  Hokusai’s prints can be found here, and Hiroshige’s here.

Quote of the Day

From Japan Style by Gian Carlo Calza (2007):

Foremost among the concepts that Asia has passed to the West are those connected with the world of tea–a short word with a vast and complex range of associations. Even though it is part of everyday life, with the attendant dangers of its consumption becoming automatic and taken for granted, it retains an aura of mystery and inscrutability. The introduction of the tea-bag has, of course, made drinking tea a somewhat sterile experience, interposing a barrier that obscures its reality and prevents the full enjoyment of its essence and all its hidden qualities. Yet, even in a crowded, busy bar, tea is not experienced in the same way as an espresso or any other beverage. Even those whose approach to it could not be more down to earth have a reflective air. Of all drinks it is tea that, even in the West, immediately evokes thoughts of private, exclusive and sometimes ritualized consumption. It is as if it has the intrinsic, natural characteristic of inducing a state of its own, creating a break in the routine in which we are submerged, causing us to distance ourselves from our actions and allowing us to contemplate them from a more rarefied dimension where we can grasp the general significance of an act and its true place in our life. We do not feel the same way about coffee, which comes from sunnier, tropical climes and whose purpose seems to be to whip up our psychic energy and stimulate us to engage even more feverishly in what we are doing.

Quote of the Day

From The Importance of Living, by Lin Yutang (1937):

Thus chastened in spirit, quiet in mind and surrounded by proper company, one is fit to enjoy tea. For tea is invented for quiet company as wine is invented for a noisy party. There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life. It would be as disastrous to drink tea with babies crying around, or with loud-voiced women or politics-talking men, as to pick tea on a rainy or a cloudy day. Picked at early dawn on a clear day, when the morning air on mountain top was clear and thin, and the fragrance of dews was still upon the leaves, tea is still associated with the fragrance and refinement of the magic dew in its enjoyment. With the Taoist insistence upon return to nature, and with its conception that the universe is kept alive by the interplay of the male and female forces, the dew actually stands for the “juice of heaven and earth” when the two principles are united at night, and the idea is current that the dew is a magic food, fine and clear and ethereal, and any man or beast who drinks enough of it stands a good chance of being immortal. De Quincey says quite correctly that tea “will always be the favorite beverage of the intellectual,” but the Chinese seem to go further and associate it with the highminded recluse.

Poetic Living

From Oriental Secrets of Graceful Living (1963) by Boye de Mente:

SHINMIRI (Sheen-me-ree). Another word that is laden with a serene type of sadness is shinmiri. A completely colloquial term known and used by all Japanese, shinmiri refers to a type of atmosphere that is charged with intimate tranquility and sad contentment, and is characteristic of traditional life in Japan. The idea of passing time alone, austerely, while letting one’s mind dwell on nostalgic events of the past, or giving up the hectic life of the city for a quiet, rustic type of existence in some isolated countryside, is not unique to Japan. But no other people crave it like the Japanese. As a result of this craving, the Japanese attempt to create the atmosphere of shinmiri in their surroundings, their music and their literature. Rain is often one of the most important ingredients of a shinmiri atmosphere. An afternoon spent sitting quietly in a Japanese style room that looks out over a garden which is being pelted by a late fall rain is certain to be flooded by a strong sense of shinmiri.

Chasing Chimeras with Stuart Merrill

I always look forward to the first cool breezes of autumn. This is the one time of the year when I want to spend as much time as I can just experiencing the world around me. When you are able to go into the moment as intensely as you possibly can, when you strain to feel every sensation, hear every sound, breathe in every scent, you can lose yourself in the glory of the world around you. This is so much easier to accomplish in the fall, when the air is fresh and invigorating, and when the natural world seems to be transforming every hour on the hour.

Every autumn I also take time to reread Stuart Merrill‘s 1895 volume Petits poèmes d’automne (online at Gallica). I stumbled across this forgotten book several years ago and have been entranced with it ever since, especially when summer’s energies start to wind down and the shadows lengthen. Merrill was an American who spent most of his life abroad and wrote in French. While his poetry sometimes seems both repetitive and derivative, it is also full of the most entrancing fin-de-siècle reveries. The book was apparently a great success when published but has since been mostly forgotten, as has its author.

All of which is a pity since Merrill was full of the most exquisite sensibilities. He was blessed with a superb gift for perception, a talent for melodious phrases, and a temperament filled with placid melancholy. Baudelaire tells us that he cannot conceive of beauty in which there is no melancholy, and Merrill’s poems are filled with this most mellow emotion. But this is not the sort of melancholy where you start feeling depressed—you find yourself in an evocative dream world filled with visions of the past, misty moonlight, faded gardens, and the sound of the sea, all of which are perfectly suited to a gentle autumnal mood.

I take time every autumn to memorize one of the poems. It gives me a good opportunity to practice my French, such as it is. I can read the language pretty well but have never had much chance to speak it. Memorizing a French poem every now and then is one of the better ways to learn the language, and far more enjoyable that trying to memorize un billet de première aller en retour pour Paris, s’il vous plaît—or
something similarly dismal. Better to hang out with Stuart Merrill and
his chimeras:

ÂME D’AUTOMNE

Au bord de la lointaine grève
Où nous conduisit la Chimère,
Puisez dans la coupe du rêve,
O mes frères, cette onde amère.

En l’azur du soir les sirènes
Nous chanteront, surnaturelles,
L’histoire des rois et des reine
Qui moururent d’amour pour elles,

Oubliez le casque et l’épée
Dont la cime et la lame en flamme
Tonnèrent dans maintes épopée.
Vainement, pour l’Or et la Femme.

C’est ici le pays du rêve;
Abreuvez-vous de ronde amère,
O frères, au bord de la grève
Où nous conduisit la Chimère.

Garden of Serenity

From A Chinese Garden of Serenity (1959), translated by Chao Tze-chiang:

When a man of insight appreciates the music of a lyre, calligraphy, poetry, or painting, he nurtures his mind with them; but a worldly man delights only in their physical appeals. When a noble-minded man appreciates mountains, rivers, clouds, or other natural objects, he develops his wisdom with them; but a vulgar man finds pleasure only in their apparent splendor. So we know that things have no fixed attribute. Whether they are noble or ignoble depends upon one’s understanding.

Poetic Living

Walter Pater on Giorgione in The Renaissance (1873):

Now it is part of the ideality of the highest sort of dramatic poetry, that it presents us with a kind of profoundly significant and animated instants, a mere gesture, a look, a smile, perhaps–some brief and wholly concrete moment–into which, however, all the motives, all the interests and effects of a long history, have condensed themselves, and which seem to absorb past and future in an intense consciousness of the present. Such ideal instants the school of Giorgione selects, with its admirable tact, from that feverish, tumultuously coloured world of the old citizens of Venice–exquisite pauses in time, in which, arrested thus, we seem to be spectators of all the fulness of existence, and which are like some consummate extract or quintessence of life.

Garden of Serenity

From A Chinese Garden of Serenity (1959), translated by Chao Tze-chiang:

Natural scenery—such as the azure mists on the hills, the ripples on the water, the shadow of a cloud on a pond, the hazy gleams among the grass, the expressions of blossoms under the moon, or the graceful manners of willows in the wind, all of which are existent and yet non-existent, half real and half unreal—is most agreeable to the human heart and most inspiring to the human soul. Such vistas are the wonder of wonders in the universe.

Poetic Living

From Proust and Santayana (1937) by Van Meter Ames:

“To live aesthetically does not involve literally following the example of Santayana or anyone else who has a sense of beauty. It does not require living abroad or in an ivory tower. It does not necessarily mean devoting oneself to the fine arts or to the society of artists; nor does it involve the artificialities often practiced by “aesthetes.” Aesthetic is simply appreciative living, with awareness of lights and shadows, textures and tensions. It is living religiously without religion, with a sense of awe and gratitude; with inner joy, in the senses and the mind, in the revelation of the mystery and majesty of the universe; it means welcoming the sun of each succeeding day, the stars of each new night; responding to friends, wondering at their otherness and nearness; and ever marveling at being alive, being oneself, or dreaming.”

Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet

The American Scholar has an interesting new article about the fiftieth anniversary of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.  Durrell has always been one of the very few 20th century novelists whose work I have always appreciated.  Certainly he has his weaknesses–he doesn’t know Alexandria the way Joyce knew Dublin or Proust knew Paris, he wastes too much energy playing the antiquated Victorian game of épater le bourgeois (yawn), and by the last volume of his saga it’s obvious that he has run of ideas about what to do with his characters.  But his prose is rich and luminous, his poetry is is first rate, and his ideas make you think.  I also find much to admire in his use of the four primal elements as the underlying metaphysic of the series.  Justine is the fire novel, the saga of passion and spirit, Balthazar is a thoughtful intellectualization of everything that has gone before, Mountolive gives us seasonal cycles and the rhythms of the earth, and Clea shows us both death and rebirth through the power of water.  Fire, air, earth, water–Empedocles would have approved.  The Quartet has its flaws, but compared to the nothingness of most post-modern fiction, it can be very rewarding.