Something Better

I was going to post something about Japanese Art, by Joan Stanley-Baker.  Then a terrible thought came into the house and stole it.  Oh how I ran to catch this thief.  She was just too fast for me.  So quick in her short pink dress and black tights; her heels at least three inches high…   I’ve put an ad out, and the cops are searching.  I have great hopes they’ll succeed.  Are there many women these days who wear pink high heels, and whose hair is done in a topknot?

Exhausted I came home.  One idea to rewrite the piece, but those pink shoes keep walking in and out of my sentences.  Smudging a line here, kicking over a phrase there; and being provocative all too often.  Eternal dissatisfaction gets it right in the guts.  Then they wander off into another essay.  As I’m reasoning with dissatisfaction Joan rings to ask if the article is finished; I promised it at least a week ago.  I’m on the telephone and a pink dress floats down, covering all my words, like a tablecloth over crockery.  Crunch!  It crushes them into a fist.  I stumble, I flay, I apologise, though it is not my fault, I just left the door open; if only my sentences were that much faster… Joan is upset, tells me I’m talking nonsense now, demands something about her book; you know, you’ve only a few days left; you do know, you haven’t forgotten?  Its thirty years since anyone has written anything, she says, getting a little maudlin.  I don’t tell her I buy her work second hand.  I see the fist rise, like some mechanical bucket, its got all my paragraphs!, to dump them in the bin.  Are you listening to me young man!  I say I do and wonder what I shall write about. I ask a question, and we talk for over three hours.  It’s years, she said, since anyone ever asked me about Masanobu.

I asked her to clarify her idea about the two tendencies in Japanese art.

One tendency is to mirror the external world as its perceived (direct imitation).  A mirror is held up to the world, so to speak, and keeps outsiders from penetrating the essential delicacy and emotional vulnerability of Japanese sensibility.  Seeing in Japan a mirror-likeness of himself, the outsider loses interest and ceases to threaten.

The second tendency is introspective and insular, and fosters a creative urge to unparalleled delicacy and poetic imagery.  Innate potentials, fully realized, gave birth to art forms and expressions unique to Japan.  One is even tempted to propose that the subtlety, poignancy and sense of vulnerability in Japanese culture in general are protected from external disturbance and survive precisely by means of the public arts.

The idea of protection.  We see what we want to see and look no further.  She develops this idea later in the book by looking at the ways Chinese and Japanese art and architecture combine.  The former usually the public face of a patrician’s property; while the private inner sanctum, for the family alone, is thoroughly Japanese.

This is probably why modern Westerners get misled by the idea of a shame culture.  Ruth Benedict didn’t really know the society at all; and would only have seen this public face; which is real, but is there is to protect the sensuous delicacy of the individual’s feelings and thoughts.  I think it was Richard Storry who once remarked how heavily populated Japan has always been; relative to Europe.  This may create its own cultural predispositions; towards an inner space to protect one from the pressing crowd (apart from his war experiences, overwhelmingly powerful of course, is this one reason why Ballard, perhaps unconsciously, was attracted to the Japanese…).  The internal life, whether it be one’s home or one’s own mind, has become a secret realm, not to be exposed lightly. 

This is reinforced by a strong cultural conformity to control and order a (relatively) dense population.  Historically even the dead were called in to help.  The ancestor cult is reflected in the large number of folk legends about a corpse mistaken for a living human; usually a loved one that has been mistreated in some way.  Lafcadio Hearn recalls a real incident where a woman was converted to Christianity, and then was persuaded to throw away the relics of her ancestors.  The community could easily accept her new religion, but shut her out completely, they forced her to live in an open solitary confinement – no one would speak to her – when she threw the tablets and other monuments away.[i]  Culture is like an imposing public building, where citizens come to work or pay their dues – certain forms and rituals are expected – and where the very gravitas of its construction impels our consent.  Once outside that building we can laugh and joke around.  And enjoy a pretty woman who, in pink and black, makes paper lanterns out of old screeds and stolen manuscripts. 

She makes hundreds of them, a candle inside each one.  Some are boats, there is a little pagoda; others are boys and girls; birds and cats too predominate, and some lanterns are ideograms.  I even see a word here and there…  They surround her like pebbles on a beach.  Captivated we watch for a long time, and return later, when the sun has almost set.  She and her friends have now carried them to the lake, and have lit each and every one.  Lights float everywhere, it is a small town on dark water, where phrases float in and out, like passing billboards in city streets… satisfaction is entangled with a samisen; eternal slides around and around; although we lose the sight of him now and then. 

She smiles at me.

[i] His wonderful In the Cave of the Children’s Ghosts from the same book gives a different perspective on this aspect of old Japanese culture.