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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