Thursday, December 9, 2010

A diet of salt, vinegar, alum, and sometimes, vitriol - the impermanent beauty of the tea ceremony

If only Nathaniel Hawthorne had been familiar with Japanese aesthetics.  I suspect he would have been pleased with the Japanese understanding, the cultivation, of the impermanence of beauty.  He would have had to live another forty years to read Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea (1906), a Japanese scholar's delicate exposition, for a select group of Boston connoisseurs, of Zen Buddhism and Japanese aesthetics, centered around the tea ceremony.

The tea ceremony is a performance, and by its nature impermanent.  The beauty of the tea ceremony remains in memory only, itself hardly permanent.  The ceramics remain, and the tea-room, to be rearranged and reused, up to a point:

Zennism, with the Buddhist theory of evanescence and its demands for the mastery of spirit over matter, recognized the house only as a temporary refuge for the body.  The body itself was but as a hut in the wilderness, a flimsy shelter made by tying together the grasses that grew around, - when these ceased to be bound together they again became resolved into the original waste.  In the tea-room fugitiveness is suggested in the thatched roof, frailty in the slender pillars, lightness in the bamboo support, apparent carelessness in the use of commonplace materials. (“The Tea-Room”)

The tea-room can be abandoned, the cup sacrificed.  The tea ceremony is an act of beauty, and a preparation for death.  Every action is meaningful in itself, and more meaningful in conjunction with some other element of the ceremony – the pot, the tea-master’s robe, the picture, the flower.

Okakura devotes a chapter to the history and art of flower-arranging:

[The flower] rests there like an enthroned prince, and the guests or disciples on entering the room will salute it with a profound bow before making their addresses to the host.  Drawings from masterpieces are made and published for the edification of amateurs. The amount of literature on the subject is quite voluminous.  When the flower fades, the master tenderly consigns it to the river or carefully buries it in the ground.  Monuments are sometimes erected to their memory. (“Flowers”)

What a wonderful, perplexing, mix of the fixed and the ephemeral.  Drawings, literature, monuments.  Monuments to a single flower!  That last detail sounds like something from a Ronald Firbank novel.  The flower arranger’s very function is to stave off the inevitable, but minutely:

He would diet you with salt, vinegar, alum, and sometimes, vitriol.  Boiling water would be poured on your feet when you seemed ready to faint.  It would be his boast that he could keep life within you for two or more weeks longer than would have been possible without his treatment.  Would you not have preferred to have been killed at once when you were first captured?  What were the crimes you must have committed during your past incarnation to warrant such punishment in this? (“Flowers”)

The “you” is the poor flower, tormented in the name of fleeting beauty.  Okakura is surprisingly funny in The Book of Tea.  More of that tomorrow.  Every culture, every aesthetic, finds some way to balance the permanent and impermanent – monumental architecture and modern dance, the play as text and the play on stage.  As a reader, I sometimes gasp at the thought of the lost plays of Sophocles or poems of Sappho, but in fact the vast bulk of books are effectively lost after a generation or two.  The technology allows the possibility of resurrection, which is reassuring.  Okakura suggests, wisely, that I instead embrace that loss.

The Book of Tea was written in English, but I should still register it at Dolce Belleza's admirable Japanese Literature Challenge, shouldn't I?


  1. Yes, you should :)

    So that means I shouldn't worry that I've forgotten most of what I've learned as it was the learning that was important, not the content ;)

  2. Have you read Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows? Might be a nice pairing for The Book of Sea (and it's beautiful). Celebration of the ephemeral.

  3. Mmm...grr, make that The Book of Tea.

  4. Lovely post. Sounds like good reading for a world which is always in a hurry.

  5. Tony, that's right, it's the learning that's important. And if you forget the content, then the re-learning is also important. Repeat, endlessly.

    Thanks, verbivore, for the recommendation. I have read neither that book nor any of Tanizaki's novels, although several of them look intensely interesting.

    grad, yes - plus, the book is barely over 100 pages, so you can read it quickly. Wait, I mean, so you can read it slowly.

  6. "That last detail sounds like something from a Ronald Firbank novel." by an odd coincidence I just read Susan Sontag's "Note on Camp" in which she mentioned two novelists as high camp-one is Ivy Compton Brown that I have read and Ronald Firbank of whom I have never heard prior to this mention-I googled him and read sone of his prose-ok really florid but I liked it-what do you think of Firbank-is he so bad he is good or worth readi g for the lush prose?

  7. Firbank's books are artistically serious - I would never think of him as camp. But they are light and playful books.

    They often seem to be lost in some other, highly aestheticized world that only Firbank can see. I would not know how to argue with a reader who recoils from them. They are a specialized pleasure - like trying to read an elaborate bouquet of flowers.

  8. I found a link to about 1/2 of Firbank's work last night-I will, I hope, post on one of his short stories, "Odette, A Fairy Tale for Wicked People" soon-I think I will try to see why Sontag saw him as the epitome of a Camp writer-(as she defined the expression in her 1964 "Notes on Camp"-which can be found on line-I liked your comment comparing reading him to being like like trying to read an elaborate bouquet of flowers.-