Poetic Living

From Zen and Zen Classics, Volume 1, by Reginald Horace Blyth (1970):

Asceticism, found in every religion, is seen too often in people who were pretty bare and empty from the beginning. The desire to be nothing is particularly common among those who are already practically nothing. The other extreme, a Wagnerian wallowing in sensation is of course worse, but there is a third alternative, not the Middle Way, of course, but another extreme, mentioned before, the way of poetry. This has practically nothing to do with iambic pentameter, but consists in giving the highest possible value to every moment. We are to be painting or looking at pictures, or composing or reading verse, or thinking deeply or making things grow, or having sexual intercourse with someone we cannot bear to be parted from even for a moment — and when we die we shall sleep the sleep of the just.

Poetic Living

From The Green Round, by Arthur Machen (1933):

“Has it ever been your fortune, courteous reader,” the author enquired, “to rise in the earliest dawning of a summer day, ere yet the radiant beams of the sun have done more than touch with light the domes and spires of the great city? Have you risen from your couch, weary, perchance, of sleepless hours of tossing to and fro, or, it may be, impelled by the call of business, and gone forth through the familiar street where your abode is situated, the street which had known your steps by day and by night, but never before at the hour of dawn? If this has been your lot, have you not observed that magic powers have apparently been at work? The accustomed scene has lost its familiar appearance. The houses which you have passed daily, it may be for many years, as you have issued forth on your avocations or your amusements, now seem as if you beheld them for the first time. They have suffered a mysterious change, into something rich and strange. Though they may have been designed by no extraordinary exertion of the art of architecture, though their materials may be of common brick and stone and piaster, though neither Pentelicus nor Ferrara has assisted in the adornment of these edifices; yet you have been ready to affirm that they now ‘stand in glory, shine like stars, apparelled in a light serene’. They have become magical habitations, supernal dwellings; more desirable to the eye than the fabled pleasure dome of the Eastern potentate, or the bejewelled hall built by the Genie for Aladdin in the Arabian Tale.” And so forth, and so forth: “And if the boughs of a tree chance to extend over a garden wall, you are ready to vow that its roots must flourish in the soil of Paradise. . . . Your perspective may be closed by the heights of Hampstead or of Highgate; but in the light of the Aurora these hills rise in the land that is very far off.” A good deal in this vein; and then a curious passage: “But all these are transitory effects that soon disappear. As the sun mounts in the sky, the vision fades into the light of common day; buildings, trees, objects close at hand and distant vistas resume their ordinary aspect; the whole enchanting scene is now a sullen street of common clay. You may, perhaps, reproach yourself with having allowed your senses to be beguiled and your imagination to be overcome by the mere fad: that you have gazed on a familiar scene in unusual circumstances. Yet, some have declared that it lies within our own choice to gaze continually upon a world of like beauty, or even greater.”

Poetic Living

From Studies in Prose and Verse (1908) by Arthur Symons.

A man who goes through a day without some fine emotion has wasted his day, whatever he has gained by it. And it is so easy to go through day after day, busily and agreeably, without ever really living for a single instant. Art begins when a man wishes to immortalise the most vivid moment he has ever lived. Life has already, to one not an artist, become art in that moment. And the making of one’s life into art is after all the first duty and privilege of every man. It is to escape from material reality into whatever form of ecstasy is our own form of spiritual existence.

Quote of the Day

From The Vision of Asia (1933) by L. Cranmer-Byng:

The gift of the Chinese nation at its zenith to the future was the gift of vitality through art. Its interpreters were interpreters of life and not of theory about life. They were citizens of this world, and as administrators, magistrates and even soldiers they played the part of men in public affairs. But the life from which they drew their power of evoking life, of calling the dreaming forces of Nature from their enchanted sleep, remains hidden from the eyes of the world. It is not for Art to reveal its Whence; the secret of its magic belongs to religion. Yet those who care to go deeper into the sources of human inspiration may find something to guide them in the following passage taken from an ancient Taoist text: ‘The essence of the perfect Tao is solitude and silence; the highest point of the perfect Tao, its further pole, is secrecy and silence; there, where is neither sight nor sound, where the spirit is centered in absolute peace; where, sans effort from within or movement from without, calm complete and perfect purity are Kings; where the spiritual essence dies not and dims not; where thought irradiates to its fullest splendour and the hidden life puts forth its flowers; where I—the strength within, close-shrined from all externals, all apprehensive, compact of wisdom and intimate power—know how to guard the self of self and secure the harmony of all my being.’

Celestial Water

My dog has long insisted that we go for our walk as early as possible every morning, and there are no better mornings than the ones you can experience during the month of May.  We leave the house shortly after the sun comes up, when the sky is clear, the air is gentle, and the dew is starting to form on the grass.  At this time of year, it is the dew which makes our walks truly special.

The Chinese called dew “celestial water”, which is a perfect description for the liquid which mysteriously comes into being in the early morning hours.  Dew has always seemed to be a very powerful and exceptionally pure kind of water.  If there is such a thing as a quintessence of water, you can surely find it in dew.

Many people over the centuries have felt that dew has health giving qualities.  In My Water Cure (1893), naturopath Sebastian Kneipp recommends that you walk barefoot in the dew-soaked grass as often as you can.  Indeed, he was so enthusiastic about dew he almost considered it an elixir of life.  Well, I don’t go barefoot when the dog takes me for his walk, but my socks and tennis shoes always get drenched with the stuff.  If there is anything truly celestial in this water, it is getting absorbed right through my feet.  Can I feel any difference when this happens?  Not much I guess, except that I feel like I’ve been walking on clouds.

But you don’t always have to get your feet wet–the simple act of contemplating the dew can also be a wondrous experience.  In her Pillow Book (10th century) Sei Shogonon approvingly quotes a friend who fully understood the charm of dew:

Noticing that the grass in the garden outside the palace had been allowed to grow very high and thick, I told them they should have it cut. “We’ve left it like this on purpose so that we might admire the dew when it settles on the blades.” The voice was Lady Saisho’s and I found her reply delightful.

As do I–here is a lady who knew how to find beauty everywhere she looked.

French novelist Guy de Maupassant states in Une Vie (1889) that there are only three things in creation which are beautiful: light, space, and water. This idea has always stuck in my mind, since one way or another we can experience these miraculous elements every single day.  While we cannot always head off to the beach whenever we wish, we can find countless other ways to enjoy the spectacle of light and water.  There is no better time to do it than the early morning hours, when the sunlight slowly turns the earth into a diamond-studded carpet.  And if you contemplate it long enough, you will find the world around you expanding into infinite space.

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.

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.