Friday, December 10, 2010

The Zen of aestheticism. Perfection is everywhere.

When I paw through The Book of Tea to rummage around its ideas about art, I’m following an old path.  I am dissatisfied with my culture’s answers to a vexing question – the permanence of great art, say – and am happy to discover that another culture has come up with different answers, allowing me to be differently dissatisfied.  What, actually satisfied?  Are you kidding?

Christopher Benfey did a great job of writing about this path, from both directions, Japan to Boston and Boston to Japan, in The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan (2003), which features Herman Melville, Henry Adams, Lafcadio Hearn, Isabella Gardner, and, again and again, the crucial mediating figure, Kakuzo Okakura.  This is an easy book to recommend.  I guess the last part, guest starring Heidegger, gets a little heavy.

When I was in Japan a while ago, I read Okakura’s earlier book explaining Eastern literature and art to the Boston socialites, The Ideals of the East (1904).  I found it fascinating, and worrying, and enormously useful, but it is hardly as artfully written as The Book of Tea, which, amidst its miniature histories of flower arranging and tea consumption and the spread of Taoism, contains a number of sparkling passages, and a surprising amount of humor.

In Western houses we are often confronted with what appears to us useless reiteration.  We find it trying to talk to a man while his full-length portrait stares at us from behind his back.  We wonder which is real, he of the picture or he who talks, and feel a curious conviction that one of them must be fraud. (“The Tea-Room”)

This joke is worthy of Howards End or Henry James.  Maybe it’s in Henry James somewhere.  And the aesthetic idea is serious.  Okakura’s aesthetics do not advocate simplicity, but oppose needless complexity, artistic clutter.

The tea-master’s art is, in fact, enormously complex:

The cut and color of the dress, the poise of the body, and the manner of walking could all be made expressions of artistic personality.  These were matters not to be lightly ignored, for until one has made himself beautiful he has no right to approach beauty.  Thus the tea-master strove to be something more than the artist, - art itself.  It was the Zen of aestheticism.  Perfection is everywhere if we only choose to recognise it. (“Tea-Masters”)

If the teapot is round, the teacups should be square.  A flower and a picture of a flower do not belong in the same ceremony.  Minute distinctions of odor, shape, color, and taste are weighted with meaning.  Thus, the necessity of a book explaining it all.  Another nice one, by the way, is Yasunari Kawabata’s short novel Thousand Cranes (1952), partly about the hobbyists, or caretakers, who continue to enact the tea ceremony.

The Book of Tea ends with a description of the final tea ceremony of Rikiu, the greatest tea master:

Rikiu places the various articles before them, with the kakemono [an ancient text].  After all have expressed admiration of their beauty, Rikiu presents one of them to each of the assembled company as a souvenir.  The bowl alone he keeps.  "Never again shall this cup, polluted by the lips of misfortune, be used by man."  He speaks, and breaks the vessel into fragments.

I will let the interested reader discover the reason this is the last ceremony, the reason for the breaking of the bowl.  There is an aesthetics of creation, and an aesthetics of destruction, perfecion everywhere.


  1. Ha! What's Heidegger's contribution, if any?


    I just finished The Mezzanine and jotted down a few thoughts in which the H-word occurs.

    I'll be sure to include H and Foucault and Derrida in my rant / tepid reception of Baker's book.


  2. The Okakura-to-Heidegger link is Japanese philosopher Shuzo Kuki, protégé of Okakura and student of Heidegger. Kuki was instrumental in bringing Western philosophy to Japan, and had some role in transmitting Japanese philosophical ideas to Europe.

    Kuki also knew or studied with Bergson, Husserl, and Sartre. With Sartre, he studied French! Amazing, really. All of this and more is in Benfey's fine book.

  3. As a descendant of the English tea aesthetic as heavily modified by the Shakers, I'm personally more drawn to the plain-and-practical-but-deeply-meaningful style. (Cozy goes simple?) I guess what might be a similarity is the emphasis on the handmade.

    Fascinating post, as usual, AR.

  4. The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan (2003), which features Herman Melville...and, again and again, the crucial mediating figure, Kakuzo Okakura

    I hardly would have imagined such a book existed, but clearly I must read it. (I loved The Book of Tea as well.)

  5. Oh yes, read Benfey's book. It'll be like candy for you, or potato chips, or wasabi peas, or whatever the relevant snack is. I don't know why I never really wrote about it.