Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics

Donald Richie's A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics is a fascinating exploration of Japanese philosophy(ies) of beauty. It's written in a zuihitsu ((随筆) style. Meaning random thoughts, zuithitsu essay is very much, I think, written by instinct and the subconscious. The wisdom therein often surprises the author.

So in this book Richie, one of my favorite authors and Japanophiles, describes or explains Japanese terms and concepts like wabi, sabi, gyo, shin, so, etc. I realize that sounds like the book is basically a dictionary. It isn't. The best way to convey the book is to give you a sample of the text.
Shibui. . . is a term one sometimes encounters in ordinary conversation, and everyone still knows more or less what it means. I was recently complimented on a necktie that was approvingly see as shibui. It was a subdued tie, brownish, slightly murky, but wiht a neary indiscernible touch of dark green threaded in it.
Ah, I don't think that or any quote taken from the whole really does give you a good sense of the book's power. So you'll have to trust me. If you're interested in Japanese culture, Richie conveys its meanings and experiences with trenchant insight.

The Japanese have all these rich words that need to be experienced rather than just defined. Wabi sabi is one (technically they're two terms frequently combined like salt and pepper) that could be defined as old and tattered yet beautiful. A Japanese friend explained them as " . . . imagine you've hiked a long way up a hill or mountain and come upon a temple and just feel very . . . ahhhh!" Well, that's sort of it. And with Japanese culture there's a lot of "sort ofs". You have to be comfortable with the ineffable or indeterminate to thrive in Japan, I think.

I agree with Michael Dunn who writes in The Japan Times that:
This is no "How to look at Japanese Culture Lite," and Richie neither condescends nor dumbs down. He presumes that his readers are able not only to think for themselves, but also intuit the subtleties of Japanese aesthetic sensitivities clarified in his concise prose. So concise in fact that with fewer than 80 pages this little book is, in itself, a distilled demonstration of "less is more" — one of the prime tenets of so many Japanese arts. It provides essential and profound reading for anyone having even a passing interest in Japanese culture, and is small, portable, and affordable enough for ever-present reference.

Wikipedia on Zuihitsu
a blog called Zuihitsu
An brief example of zuihitsu:
"Trust, even when misplaced, creates stability." from a blog called Thought.

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