On Yoshida Kenkō

In the 14th century, a Buddhist monk and occasional poet called Yoshida Kenkō found himself bored. So he sat down cross-legged in front of his scroll desk, and picked up his brush. He began to write what would become one of the classics of Japanese literature. The Tsurezuregusa is a collection of more or less random notes. Usually, it’s translated as Essays in Idleness or The Harvest of Leisure. It contains aesthetic opinions, anecdotes about talking vegetables, appropriately Buddhist moralising, gossip, strong opinions about flowers, and the strange advice not to sniff antlers lest micro-organisms crawl up your nostrils and eat your brain. Given my helpless obsession with dialectical tension, I found it interesting that this bricolage compiled at leisure insists on the importance of not wasting a second. That’s right: the idle monk felt a lot of urgency.

“It does not matter how young or how strong you may be, the hour of death comes sooner than you expect,” Kenkō writes, “It is an extraordinary miracle that you should have escaped to this day; do you suppose you have even the briefest respite in which to relax?”

Not only was Kenkō aware of mortality, but he drew the conclusion from it that wasting time — in order, say, to think about useless things — was wrong:

Much of our time during any day is wasted in eating and drinking, at stool, in sleeping, talking, and walking. To engage in useless activities, to talk about useless things, and to think about useless things during the brief moments of free time left us is not only to waste this time, but to blot out days that extend into months and eventually into a whole lifetime. This is most foolish of all.

Was he unaware of the irony? Was he, like so many, a hypocrite, loudly decrying in others what he did himself on a daily basis? At first that seemed the obvious conclusion. But at first is rarely at best. On reflection I realized this contradiction belonged to my thinking alone, not to Kenkō.

Why should idleness be incompatible with urgency? I think the appearance of incompatibility is a result of that jumble of maxims known as the work ethic. The work ethic: the idea that unproductive time is wasted time; that the pain of labor is virtuous; and, most pernicious of all, that one deserves one’s livelihood only in exchange for the pain of labor. Even those of us ideologically opposed to allowing our whole consciousness to be hijacked by cost-benefit analysis have about as much chance of avoiding it as a kindergarten teacher has of avoiding the flu. So when we hear things like, “hey, you know you’re gonna die, right?” We think: “No shit. I better work harder.” As if, you know, we’d be letting down the investors in our corp(se), should we fail to turn some existential profit before liquidating our assets.

Whereas Kenkō, I believe, drew precisely the opposite conclusion from his vivid sense of mortality. Here’s another thing he wrote:

If you wish something to go to someone after you are dead, you should give it to him while you are still alive. Some things are probably indispensable to daily life, but as for the rest, it is best not to own anything at all.

To oppose property-ownership because of death is to value the present uniquely. (Cf. “What’s Immoral About the Immoralist?”) To be anti-ownership because of a lively sense of your own mortality is to recognize that an infinitely projected claim from within the finite horizon of a mortal life is the recipe for wasting that life, not using it well.

The present, despite its constant availability, eludes us most of the time. We spend the majority of conscious life elsewhere: in memory or imagination, daydreaming or planning. What if these preoccupations of the mind are an insult to the fact of mortality? How else to live?

Perhaps Kenkō answers that question in the form of the Tsurezuregusa itself. It belongs to a Japanese genre known as Zuihitsu. The word derives from an expression meaning “follow the brush.” The first of the notes in the book goes like this:

What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realize I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head.

We are to imagine him sitting alone, thinking through the brush. No, “thinking” sounds too aggressive and goal-oriented. Musing, then. I’m tempted to say meditating because Kenkō was, after all, a monk. But let’s be real. As monks go, he wasn’t particularly ascetic. He lived in the capital city and collected dinner-party anecdotes like a clerical Henry James. “A man’s character,” he wrote, “as a rule, may be known from the place where he lives.” So we’ll stick with “musing.”

He didn’t take the result of his work very seriously. How else to explain passages like this:

If I fail to say what lies on my mind it gives me a feeling of flatulence; I shall therefore give my brush free rein. Mine is a foolish diversion, but these pages are meant to be torn up, and no one is likely to see them.

Why would a man so keenly aware of his own mortality that he became a monk, that he renounced possessions and family ties, choose to sit idly, writing notes that he meant to destroy? The flatulence comment is vivid and illuminating. For Kenkō, sitting down to write was not to assay a “work,” but to extrude thoughts as easily as he might break wind.

Perhaps the aimlessness of zuihitsu is the literary application of the ethic of presence? Of course its apparent aimlessness reveals deeper seams of consistency. Recurring subjects appear, correspondences, symmetries, and felicities of arrangement. They’ve sparked a lively debate in the reception history of the Tsurezuregusa about whether Kenkō himself or an editor arranged it. But even if the Tsurezuregusa has proven to be a valuable book for subsequent readers, a fruitful object for commentators, that doesn’t change the fact that its composition was an act of presence. This act of presence produced meaning as a by-product.

Writing a book to store your thoughts and impressions to be simulated by other and future minds attracts me as a form of immortality. But like other pseudo-immortalities (procreation, accumulating family property), it depends on devaluing the present. (This is perhaps why many writers, like Kafka, have worried that to write was to cut oneself off from life.) Kenkō’s Tsurezuregusa — and zuihitsu in general — is an interesting experiment in writing, not to supersede one’s own mortality, but to enjoy one’s life in the present.

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Far from his desk, he was still at work

I had a friend in graduate school who sickened and died before he could complete his degree. He was frail and congenitally ill; an early death was always in the cards. But there was a period of about two years when he gradually suspended his activities as a student, at first on the assumption that he would return once he had rested and recovered, then with the increasing certainty that he would never come back. Immediately after he died, I became obsessed with imagining what it must have been like for him in the period before he was hospitalized but after he he stopped working on his degree. What did he do then? I imagined him walking around Boston, feeling that special alienation of the adult who has nothing to do in the daytime in a city.

One day, sitting on a bench beside the reservoir near Boston College, watching joggers, parents pushing strollers, and people deep in conference pass me by, it suddenly dawned on me that the reason I was so interested in my friend’s mental state during those months was that I myself do and probably will inhabit something like that same twilight zone for most of my life.

Many writers work very hard, but the appearance and feeling of aimlessness in the middle of the day, when everyone else is more or less toiling away, will always be a strange way of life, in some ways privileged, in others cursed. Even if you’re not watching the bustle with the eyes of someone waiting to die, in other ways that’s exactly what you’re doing.

Peter Handke’s The Afternoon of a Writer is a devastatingly beautiful novella about what it’s like to be a writer when you’re not (physically) writing. It’s lyrical in a way peculiar to German literature (and, for some reason, Marilynne Robinson), in which the evocation of sharp yet subtle mental states is intertwined with a kind of serious philosophical inquisitiveness. Thus The Afternoon of a Writer has those special qualities that make great lyric poems at once utterly particular and universally relevant.

It begins when the writer, who remains unnamed, finishes his day’s work, in the mid afternoon, and sets out for his daily walk. That’s it, that’s all that happens: he walks to town, gets a bite to eat, picks up a newspaper, has a few conversations, and walks home. But the tiny book is utterly enthralling. I kept jerking upright with the feeling that Handke was describing my own pathologies. For example, the writer is always making vows to himself about this or that aspect of his daily life (I will stop reading newspapers, I will read newspapers faithfully; I will walk into the center of town every day, I will avoid the center of town…). Partly this is because “he seemed to need an idea to carry him through the most trifling daily movements…” Sometimes he wonders:

did he actually have any rules? Weren’t the few that he had tried to impose on himself constantly giving way to something else—a mood, an accident, a sudden inspiration—that seemed to indicate the better choice? True, his life had been oriented for almost twenty years toward his literary goal; but reliable ways and means were still unknown to him. Everything about him was still as temporary as it had been in the child, as later in the schoolboy, and still later in the novice writer.

I have this identical problem. I know just what I need to do next in the big things that matter to me (reading and writing, basically), but I often find myself conflicted to the point of paralysis by small decisions about where to go on a walk, how to spend my free time, in what order to perform small chores, what sources of news to read and whether to pay attention to current events at all… Then I’ll formulate a plan, usually with a vow or two to myself, happily constructing a utopia of rules, which gives me energy for a day or at most a week, until I find myself suddenly faced with all the same questions as if they’d never been resolved. Surely a large part of the explanation for this helpless feeling of having to rethink the structure of what should be mindless habits has to do with the constant preoccupation that is a writer’s work?

It seemed to him that he was not going away from his work but that it was accompanying him; that, now far from his desk, he was still at work. But what does “work” mean? Work, he thought, is something in which material is next to nothing, structure almost everything; something that rotates on its axis without the help of a flywheel; something whose elements hold one another in suspense; something open and accessible to all, which cannot be worn out by use.

Just a few days after I finished the book, on twitter JM Schreiber shared a link to some promotional materials about a forthcoming documentary about Peter Handke. Reading those materials, and watching some preview clips I decided “the writer” of The Afternoon of a Writer is unquestionably Handke himself.

The Compassion of Irreverence

In Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook the narrator castigates novels which amount to no more than “journalism,” when they should be “philosophical statements about life.” This has stuck with me because I profoundly disagree with it. Reading A Manual for Cleaning Ladies, a collection of Lucia Berlin’s short stories, I found myself rehashing Lessing’s idea as I sought to explain to myself what I enjoyed about Berlin’s collection. Here’s Lessing:

During that period of three months when I wrote reviews, reading ten or more books a week, I made a discovery: that the interest with which I read these books had nothing to do with what I feel when I read—let’s say—Thomas Mann, the last of the writers in the old sense, who used the novel for philosophical statements about life. The point is, that the function of the novel seems to be changing; it has become an outpost of journalism; we read novels for information about areas of life we don’t know—Nigeria, South Africa, the American army, a coal-mining village, coteries in Chelsea, etc. We read to find out what is going on.

I wonder, first, why philosophical statements about life and information about areas of life we don’t know are mutually exclusive. Surely they aren’t. But also, even if we assume that a single novel can’t do both things, I’m not all convinced that a philosophical statement is superior to information.

So I’ve been thinking about this again because I enjoyed A Manual for Cleaning Ladies as journalism. I enjoyed the information I got from it about areas of life I didn’t know. I learned about alcoholism and those titular cleaning ladies, about Mexico city and what it’s like to live with a terminally ill sibling, about how it feels to wear a back brace as a child in grade school and to work as a switchboard operator in the ER.

Of course mere information about these things wouldn’t be enough to interest me in a collection of short stories. Even if, in retrospect, this information is the majority of what I have taken away from the experience of reading. I also need a reason to care about this information—which the narrative provided me—and I need the experience to be one of aesthetic significance. Lucia Berlin hit all my buttons at once: I found her prose delightful, her stories enthralling, and I am glad for the information they’ve imparted to me. This is rare in a collection of short stories. Usually I can’t make my way through one without interruption, where I might read a novel twice as long on the strength of just good prose or just a good story or just fascinating information. I have higher—too high—standards for a short story collection. (Interestingly, in light of Lessing’s allusion above, I’ve been defeated on three separate occasions by Thomas Mann’s collected short stories…)

Most of A Manual For Cleaning Ladies is evidently based on Lucia Berlin’s own life. As Lydia Davis puts it in her preface (which is a work of art on its own, as you’d expect), Berlin was practicing “auto-fiction” well before it was a thing. This auto-fiction often features a protagonist called Lucia. And lots of characters reappear in different stories.

As a consequence of this seamlessness I found the organization of the book annoying. The plot-lover in me wished the stories had been organized by the implied chronology of Lucia. That the stories about the girl with the back-brace and alcoholic dentist grandfather had all been clustered at the front, followed by the college stories, then by the stories about love and children, then by the stories about addiction, and so on. But I also completely understand why the editors chose not to give me this satisfaction: by disrupting the implied continuity between stories, each story stood on its own as a fiction, as a poetic construction. (Or, come to think of it, maybe the stories were just organized by the order of publication or writing. That would make sense too.)

Whatever the case, the point I want to make is how astonishingly strong these stories are. Besides my general disinclination to persevere with less than sterling collections, I was actively annoyed by the organizational choices of the editors—and still I kept at it, eagerly, until the last sentence.

A large part of my fascination is the way Berlin tells stories. Lydia Davis gets it right in the preface:

How does she do it? It’s that we never know quite what is going to come next. Nothing is predictable. And yet everything is also natural, true to life, true to our expectations of psychology and emotion.

In her book on writing thrillers, Patricia Highsmith argues that the ideal turn of events in a story would combine the greatest possible surprise with the greatest possible feeling of inevitability. That doesn’t just apply to thrillers: it’s the mathematical ideal of the interesting story in any genre. What makes a narrative is the imposition of writing onto life: artificial organization and the chaos of chronicle. Davis is saying that Berlin approaches this ideal. I agree.

Here’s an example. One of the stories in the collection is about caring for an aged parent as they become senile. Like every Berlin story, it parsimoniously evokes a setting both as a material place and as a network of relationships. The protagonist learns to know the other residents at the nursing home and their caretakers. The end of the story sees the protagonist joining the nursing home for an outing to a park. By this time her father no longer recognizes her; he has, in fact, created an elaborate story about her abandoning him. Nonetheless, she’s come on this outing. The nursing home residents have been stationed among a group of winos, one of whom keeps slipping an old man cigarettes. It’s an almost unbearable scene of contrast: addiction and senescence, human wrecks in the midst of a beautiful landscape and a beautiful day. The story ends with Lucia pushing her father’s wheel-chair away from the group:

It was hard to push the chair up the hill. Hot and loud with the cars and radios and interminable thud thud of the runners. It was so smoggy we could barely see the other shore. Memorial Day litter and debris. Paper cups floated in the foamy brown lake serene as swans. At the top of the hill I put on his brakes and lit a cigarette. He was laughing, an ugly laugh. “It’s awful, isn’t it, Daddy?” “It sure is, Lu.” He loosened his brakes and the chair started down the brick path. I hesitated, just stood there watching it, but then I threw away my cigarette and caught his chair just as it was picking up speed.

I don’t know if it comes through just as an addendum to my summary, but this paragraph packs a whole lot of surprise and yet logical culmination into a few words. We have the suicide attempt, obviously, and the jarring moment when Lu almost allows it; also the brief return of clarity in her father’s mind; but perhaps what really displays the surprising-yet-inevitable quality of this ending is how it conflicts with the kind of ending we have come to expect from this type of story. The temptation to melodrama is almost irresistible: either to end like this, “I hesitated, just stood there watching it.” Or to end with something heartwarming, some meagre little uplift. What Berlin actually did is more bracing. It both reaffirms the squalid strength of convention—of course Lu doesn’t let her father wheel himself into a lake—while letting out the ugly inner truth—it would be better for both of them if he were dead. Oof.

This is the quality of moral vision displayed throughout the collection: a quality I would call “bracing.” (Perhaps the existence of this quality has implications for Lessing’s suggestion that fiction-as-journalism isn’t a philosophical statement about life? Maybe you don’t need to pontificate like Thomas Mann to make such a statement.) Bad stuff happens. Really bad stuff. And its devastation is defused with wry humor and by the very fact of clear-eyed presentation. Berlin excels at the compassion of irreverence. For example this, from a story about her time as an ER switchboard operator:

There are “good” suicides. “Good reasons” many times like terminal illness, pain. But I’m more impressed with good technique. Bullets through the brain, properly slashed wrists, decent barbiturates. Such people, even if they don’t succeed, seem to emanate a peace, a strength, which may have come from having made a thoughtful decision.

Art Takes Naps

Former poet laureate Donald Hall wrote the collection published as Essays After Eighty for what might seem, at first glance, a pretty tragic reason: “New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance. Prose endures.”

You see, he’s very old. As of this writing he’s 87. I would say he’s still sharp as a tack or going strong or one of the other clichés by which we condescend to the very old, but he himself forbids my flippancy: “When kindness to the old is condescending, it is aware of itself as benignity while it asserts its power.” Without using a word as infelicitous as “ageism,” he has written the most powerful excoriation of that prejudice I’ve ever encountered. Also, the clichés would be false. He’s not sharp as a tack at 87. No one is. Age brings diminishment, and Hall is not here to blunt the fact: “there are no happy endings, because if things are happy they have not ended.”

This book is a clear-eyed account of what it’s like to become old as an observant and articulate person. I think the theme of aging, which (duh) is hardly new, is due for a crescendo in the symphony of the century. Unless utter environmental catastrophe of a superseding intensity swamps us first, the vast quantities of very old people are going to force us to rethink our societies. And each one of us alive today is increasingly likely to have to face the fact of extreme age ourselves. We’ll need models, literary exemplars to guide our own performance of old age. Hall’s on my list because of paragraphs like this one:

When I was thirty, I lived in the future because the present was intolerable. When I was fifty and sixty, the day of love and work repeated itself year after year. Old age sits in a chair, writing a little and diminishing.

For some reason (fine, we can just call it morbidity) I’m obsessed with books written by people who know themselves to be dying or who have reached an age when death is omni-imminent. (For example Clive James’ Latest Readings.) Due to a lively sense of my own mortality (fine, we can just call it hypochondria) I’ve devoted a probably inordinate amount of time to the question of what death means for life. If you believe—as I do and an increasing proportion of the rest of my society does—that death is a total dissipation, a curtain without encore, does that fact or the awareness of that fact have implications for the conduct of daily life?

It seems to affect people in wildly different ways. Clive James was inspired by his leukemia to a frenzy of minor writing, producing the above-mentioned book of essays, an ongoing column in the Guardian, and then a new collection of poetry. J.G.A. Pocock, on the other hand, commenced his magnum opus, Civilization and Barbarism, a five-volume study of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, when he was 75. At 26, I have only my fantasies to add to this list of anecdotes. But I can say that last year when I had a minor medical scare (see above, under “hypochondria”) I told my beloved that my immediate instinct had been to drop the novel I’m working on and write as many short stories as I could. So I guess the prospect of death would propel me in a Jamesian rather than Pocockian direction. As for Donald Hall, since death is approaching him slowly and clearly, step by step up the lane outside the window where he sits most days and watches the barn, he has a motto: “Technology speeds, then doubles its speed, then doubles it again. Art takes naps.”

Between his naps he’s written these essays. Not a bad way to live.

Gargoyles, by Thomas Bernhard

The light in my bathroom, where every day I read for a while in the bath, recently broke. So I read Thomas Bernhard’s Gargoyles by candle-light.

Bernhard was notoriously antagonistic to plot, which isn’t to say that nothing happens in his books. In Gargoyles The voice of the narrator is that of a young man home from school to visit his widowed father and his sister. He has recently written his father a long letter explaining his sense of what is wrong in their family, that they don’t communicate, that their mother’s death has cast a serious pall over their relations, that he is worried about their sister who has exhibited suicidal tendencies. And he expects that they, his father and him, will have a serious discussion about these things. They are preparing to do so when they are interrupted by an emergency call. His father is a doctor. His father is called to attend to an inn-keeper’s wife, who has been struck by one of the inn-keeper’s clients, and is lying, bleeding to death, on a bed in the inn. Father and son heed the emergency call. This is only the beginning of the visits they make together to increasingly bizarre places: a capitalist who lives in very purposeful solitude with his half-sister, working on a book that he burns the draft of each day. Some brothers living in a mill who are systematically killing the contents of a menagerie of exotic birds behind their house. A musician whose twisted body has deprived him of music and is gradually depriving him of sanity, whose sister takes care of him, occasionally imprisoning him in a cage. And finally, a mad prince, who lives in the castle of Hochgobernitz, overlooking the whole territory through which father and son have traveled that day, and whose fascinating monologue accounts for half the book’s pages. Father and son never really have that talk. Though they talk at each other on several occasions.

But I think there is very clearly a plot here. I deny that any discourse with a viewpoint and a problem can fail to be a narrative. Gargoyles is a narrative. And it is a narrative about solitude, and trying to communicate, and trying to listen.

1. Bernhard is at his best in furious, intense monologues, like that of the prince which takes up over half the book. In the course of these monologues, he typically eschews paragraph breaks, and repeats at close intervals his attribution tags (I mean, “the prince said,” or “I told him,” etc.). These two choices have the effect of adding to the logical structure of the monologue itself a musical structure. Without paragraphs breaks to help articulate collections of sentences, the repeated attribution tags serve that purpose instead, but these tags moves away from communicating anything and toward sounding, like a timpani, a point of rhythm, an articulation of sound rather than sense.

This makes sense, because Bernhard was a musician. He experiences prose partly as music.

2. But we should not neglect the logical structure of Bernhard’s trademark monologues. Bernhardophiles, in my opinion, have a tendency to elevate the musicality of his texts above their meaning, as if he aspired to some kind of sonorous or jagged nonsense. It is not so. Instead, the content of a Bernhardian monologue is an intricate dialectic, dealing with the details of person and place. It reminds me of Kierkegaard at his dialectical best.

For example, the beginning of the prince’s monologue concerns an ad he placed in the newspaper for a new steward. That morning three people called to apply for the position. The prince analyzes in excruciating detail the appearance and conversation of each applicant, as well as the difficult cerebrations and emotional responses he himself went through in his attempt to decide which of them was suited to the job. It would be impossible for me to convey the intricacy and logical progression of these thoughts in a reasonable quotation—they take place over about twenty pages, and are clearly meant to be experienced in full. But I can describe them, as I just have, and I can offer, in Bernhard’s own words, in his prince’s words, an explanation:

At the climax of the discussion I told my listeners what a discussion is, told them that a discussion is something entirely different from what people nowadays think a discussion is. I had the impression that the people assembled in the library were completely transformed, that they were not horrible relatives, but receptive people, capable of thought, capable of trains of thought, capable of developing trains of thought, able to engage in discussion.

That is what these monologues are: (1) the presentation of characters capable of thought, (2) capable of trains of thought, (3) capable of developing trains of thought.

I think it significant that Bernhard writes monologues not streams of consciousness. He is not interested in the flitting fragmentariness that characterizes an inner monologue by Joyce or Woolf. His characters appear mad because the kind of repetitive and detailed picking of the way forward which characterizes focused thought is a kind of obsession, a kind of madness. I’m familiar with it because it’s precisely the kind of thinking that characterizes philosophical reflection. That’s why I can identify Bernhard’s monologues as dialectical excurses. They are not mad music-driven developments of essentially aural melodies. They are the rational development of trains of thought. There is something to be learned from them, something to be admired, something to be imitated.

3. Though there are many sisters in this book, they never speak. Not the sister of the narrator, not the sister of the industrialist, not the sister of the musician, not the sisters of the prince. There is something to tease out of that silence, and the key to teasing it out would be this passage:

 It was a well-known phenomenon, my father said, that at a crisis in their lives some people seek out a dungeon, voluntarily enter it, and devote their lives—which they regard as philosophically oriented—to some scholarly task or to some imaginative scientific obsessions. They always take with them into their dungeon some creature who is attached to them. In most cases they sooner or later destroy this creature who has entered the dungeon with them, and then themselves.

4. Finally, my favorite passage, also from the prince’s monologue:

All the things that people say are said only in monologues, the prince said. “We are in an age of monologues. The art of monologue is also a far higher art than the art of dialogue,” he said. “But monologues are just as pointless as dialogues, although in a way much less pointless. Whenever you engage in a dialogue with another person (with yourself!) because otherwise you are suddenly afraid of suffocating, you must be prepared for his doing his utmost to undercut you. That can be done in the subtlest, the most elaborate, but also the nastiest manner. Whenever people talk they undercut one another. The art of conversation is an art of undercutting, and the art of monologue is the most horrible kind of undercutting. I always think,” the prince said, “that my interlocutor is trying to push me down into his own abyss after I have just barely managed to escape from my own abyss. Your interlocutors try to push you into as many abysses as possible simultaneously. All interlocutors are always mutually pushing one another into all abysses.”

There is so much worth unpacking here, but I want to do it somewhere else, at greater length. A list of things that ought to be unpacked, however, would not be inappropriate:

  1. What is the pointlessness that dialogue and monologue share? And is this pointlessness a bad thing?
  2. In what way does dialogue reduce to monologue, because even a dialogue is a dialogue with yourself?
  3. In what sense does all spoken communication amount to undercutting someone?
  4. What is the abyss into which interlocutor’s try to push each other?
  5. What do these truths—because I think reflection on them reveals them to be true—have do with dialectical reasoning, with philosophical method?