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Essaying to be

by Robert Minto

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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Notes on Reiner Stach’s Kafka

I write a lot of book reviews, but I strain against the form. I write them because they’re a vehicle for telling stories and working through my thoughts, a vehicle that editors are actually willing to publish, where they wouldn’t just publish my maunderings sans occasion (or at any rate, I don’t think they would).

But each time I write a long book review, I shelve a pile of ideas that don’t fit the angle. My latest piece — about Reiner Stach’s magnificent three-volume biography of Franz Kafka, written for Open Letters Monthly’s February issue — felt particularly tragic in this respect. So I had an idea. Why not start publishing “annexes” to my reviews, here on this blog, in which I briefly adumbrate some of the ideas and observations I couldn’t fit into the formal review?

Well, here you go. Some additional notes on Reiner Stach’s Kafka. (It would be a shame not to read first the essay to which these notes are an annex, so please do that!)


(1) Kafka loved to read biographies. He was indiscriminate though. Explorers, writers, politicians, activists — he didn’t seem to have a type of biography he liked so much as a style. Here’s Stach:

In devouring numerous biographies and autobiographies, Kafka was searching not for the minutest details but for the characteristic ones that revealed the structure and essence of an entire life — only these were “true,” in his view, and everything else a conventional frill.

If you’ve read my main review, you’ll know that this matter of “truth” is quite important to Kafka. He used the word to indicate something like aesthetic coherence and authenticity. Moreover, he sought to build his own life around such truth, forming some very distinctive, ascetic habits, principals, and preferences.

One of the many cool things about Stach’s biography is that I think Kafka would have enjoyed reading it. (Well, no, he would probably have cringed at the thought of a biography about himself; but I mean it’s the kind of biography he would enjoy.) While Stach maintains a narrative thread — and often inserts a chapter that stands out like a short story, as it follows Kafka in detail through one day, or one incident — he is focused on structure and essence. I wonder if Stach consciously tried to create the kind of biography Kafka would have liked?


Franz Kafka and Felice Bauer.

(2) Kafka’s suspicion that bachelorhood was a condition for art reminded me, naturally, of Kierkegaard, and also of Henry James. Kierkegaard famously conducted a dramatic and disastrous relationship with Regine Olsen, a relationship that reached an ignominious denouement when Kierkegaard pretended to be horrible in order to force Regine to break up with. He ghosted her and traveled to Berlin to write the first of his astonishing books, while requiring voyeuristic reports from friends back in Copenhagen on the fallout from his abandonment. And then he obsessed over and wrote about Regine for the rest of his life anyway, even after she happily married someone else. Henry James, on the other hand, was gay; but he also thought about bachelorhood as a way of being, a permanent observer status, and he meditated often upon a lost quasi-love, his cousin Minny Temple. (Colm Tóibín’s The Master is wonderful on this subject.)

Kafka noticed the resemblance between his own contretemps with Felice Bauer and Kierkegaard’s with Regine Olsen. He read Kierkegaard’s journals and commented on the parallel.

Unlike James and Kierkegaard, however, Kafka never gave up on the possibility of a balance between intimate social relations and literature. Despite the evidence of the apparent poverty of his life in comparison to either of the others, he actually harbored a more utopian vision of everyday life than either one. Kafka wrote: “Only on our death beds can we allow things to remain bad once and for all.”

And in fact, in his brief, beautiful relationship with Dora Diamant, his ungovernable hope seems to have received the benison of a happy ending. We don’t usually think Kafka in the same sentence as a happy ending. But I felt like he had a somewhat happy ending.


(3) Kafka was exposed to and highly sympathetic toward socialism. His classmate Rudolf Illovy introduced him to it; and apparently Kafka sometimes even wore the symbol of socialism, a red carnation in his buttonhole.

Lily Braun: Memoirs of a Socialist

For Kafka even to have flirted with socialism was an affront to his father, a way of siding with the shopkeepers of the Kafka fancy goods store against the authoritarian owner of the place.

It also happens that Kafka’s absolutely favorite biography was Lily Braun’s Memoirs of a Socialist.

But like many other ideological flirtations in Kafka’s life (notably with Zionism), he seems not to have found it possible to commit himself to socialism as a “truth” in his sense. Stach suggests his understanding of oppression went deeper than mere political repression and material inequality, embracing more profound, universal, existential “prospects of identification, stability, and even security.” The implication being that socialism has a surface-level understanding of what it means to be precarious and insecure. Personally, I’m far from convinced this is an exclusive disjunction. I’d like to read more about Kafka’s relations with socialism and socialists.


(4) The three volumes of Stach’s trilogy have a curious relation to each other. Each of the volumes overlaps to some degree. They are not just arbitrarily severed lengths of one biographical chain: they are each books with their own themes and internal structure. Perhaps this was necessary because they were written out of order (2, then 3, then 1). Book 1 assembles the elements of an image: of an essentially static psyche, of a writerly habitus, technique, and ideal, of a set of social pathologies. Book 2 shows their most blazing incarnation, in the long debacle of Kafka’s first failed engagement to Felice Bauer, which also prompted the frenzies of writing in which he produced, among other things, his most famous works: “The Metamorphosis” and The Trial. Book 3 is about the ramifications of this established and paradigmatically demonstrated pattern, as even desperation, mortal illness, access to fame, changes in the composition of the family, fail to break the pattern or Kafka’s life or mar the image he presents. The appearance of the same picture in books 2 and 3 of Kafka with Felice Bauer (a sort of engagement photo) contributes to the sense of the books’ separateness, or individual self-containment.


Robert Musil, 1925

(5) Stach is really good with counterfactuals. What if the interaction between Kafka and Robert Musil had blossomed into a real friendship and Musil had helped Kafka move to Berlin and take up fulltime writing? What if James Joyce, Italo Svevo, and Franz Kafka had all visited the spa they liked at the same time and gotten to know one another? In each of these cases, how might the history of literature have changed?


(6) I enjoyed it when Stach would settle down to augment the drama of a moment. Biography ought to be, among other things, a dramatic art. An example of this came when he was about to describe Kafka’s first meeting with Felice Bauer, at his best friend Max Brod’s house. This meeting set Kafka on a crazy emotional and literary roller coaster for years. There are moments in literary history, Stach says portentously, which stand out for their awesome significance, and then he launches into this delightful list, saying Kafka’s evening at the Brod’s was like:

the transformation of the dilettante Jean-Jacques Rousseau into a critic of civilization one October afternoon in 1749 while he was on the road from Paris to Vincennes; Hölderlin’s first encounter with Susette Gontard, later known as Diotima, on December 31, 1795, in Frankfurt am Main; the hatching of the idea of the “eternal return of the same” in Nietzsche’s mind after a stroll at Lake Silvaplana in early August 1881; and Valéry’s renunciation of literature one stormy night in Genoa on October 4, 1892.


(9) I could have written a whole essay just on Stach’s intermittent discussions of Kafka’s craft as a writer. I just want to quote a few fascinating bits and pieces from across the three books.

An insight into the way Kafka learned to produce the flat yet sparkling affect of his descriptions:

One passage in the first version [of “Description of a Struggle,” Kafka’s first long-ish extant prose fragment] reads: “The train started up so slowly that it seemed irresolute.” Kafka was unhappy with that wording, and replaced “irresolute” with “weary,” but he ultimately opted for a totally different solution, which switched the perspective and transformed the psychological expression into an impression: “The train started up so slowly that one could picture the revolution of the wheels.”

The function of Kafka’s diary within his overall literary production:

It appears as though Kafka was inventing a new variant of the diary that enabled him to keep on writing in addition to and after his literary work; it was still literary, but without working toward a narrative goal. If a story resulted, so much the better—and this was an occasional outcome. If not, at least he had “written.”

Kafka and metaphors:

He never treated metaphor as an afterthought, and he definitely never sought one out. In the beginning — such is the first law of Kafka’s universe — is the image, and more than a few of his texts can be read as expansions of one memorable image, as a demonstration of what an image can yield.

He suggests we can understand much of Kafka’s work as, essentially, speculative fiction:

Someone roars with laughter at a solemn occasion. Someone is pursued by two little balls he cannot shed. Someone wake up one morning as a bug. Someone stops eating. How will it go on from there, assuming that everything else in the universe remains unchanged?