By way of provision for discourse

Several weeks away for a first child and drilling on the attendant duties, far the most pleasant of which is reading aloud for night-time comfort. We found this observation last night in chapter 6 of Sense and Sensibility and it remains true that an infanted stroller sets aflow all founts of small talk.

Conversation however was not wanted, for Sir John was very chatty, and Lady Middleton had taken the wise precaution of bringing with her their eldest child, a fine little boy about six years old, by which means there was one subject always to be recurred to by the ladies in case of extremity, for they had to enquire his name and age, admire his beauty, and ask him questions which his mother answered for him, while he hung about her and held down his head, to the great surprise of her ladyship, who wondered at his being so shy before company, as he could make noise enough at home. On every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse. In the present case it took up ten minutes to determine whether the boy were most like his father or mother, and in what particular he resembled either, for of course every body differed, and every body was astonished at the opinion of the others.

Haven’t got an enemy in the world … Too lazy to make ’em

From Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon:

The Boy bit off a stalk of grass and chewed it. “Going to make a long stay here?” he asked, politely.

“Can’t hardly say at present,” replied the dragon. “It seems a nice place enough—but I’ve only been here a short time, and one must look about and reflect and consider before settling down. It’s rather a serious thing, settling down. Besides—now I ‘m going to tell you something! You’d never guess it if you tried ever so!—fact is, I’m such a confoundedly lazy beggar!”

“You surprise me,” said the Boy, civilly.

“It’s the sad truth,” the dragon went on, settling down between his paws and evidently delighted to have found a listener at last: “and I fancy that’s really how I came to be here. You see all the other fellows were so active and earnest and all that sort of thing—always rampaging, and skirmishing, and scouring the desert sands, and pacing the margin of the sea, and chasing knights all over the place, and devouring damsels, and going on generally—whereas I liked to get my meals regular and then to prop my back against a bit of rock and snooze a bit, and wake up and think of things going on and how they kept going on just the same, you know! So when it happened I got fairly caught.”

“When what happened, please?” asked the Boy.

“That’s just what I don’t precisely know,” said the dragon. “I suppose the earth sneezed, or shook itself, or the bottom dropped out of something. Anyhow there was a shake and a roar and a general stramash, and I found myself miles away underground and wedged in as tight as tight. Well, thank goodness, my wants are few, and at any rate I had peace and quietness and wasn’t always being asked to come along and do something. And I’ve got such an active mind—always occupied, I assure you! But time went on, and there was a certain sameness about the life, and at last I began to think it would be fun to work my way upstairs and see what you other fellows were doing. So I scratched and burrowed, and worked this way and that way and at last I came out through this cave here. And I like the country, and the view, and the people—what I’ve seen of ’em—and on the whole I feel inclined to settle down here.”

“What’s your mind always occupied about?” asked the Boy. “That’s what I want to know.”

The dragon coloured slightly and looked away. Presently he said bashfully:

“Did you ever—just for fun—try to make up poetry—verses, you know?”

“’Course I have,” said the Boy. “Heaps of it. And some of it’s quite good, I feel sure, only there’s no one here cares about it. Mother’s very kind and all that, when I read it to her, and so’s father for that matter. But somehow they don’t seem to—”

“Exactly,” cried the dragon; “my own case exactly. They don’t seem to, and you can’t argue with ’em about it. Now you’ve got culture, you have, I could tell it on you at once, and I should just like your candid opinion about some little things I threw off lightly, when I was down there. I’m awfully pleased to have met you, and I’m hoping the other neighbours will be equally agreeable. There was a very nice old gentleman up here only last night, but he didn’t seem to want to intrude.”

“That was my father,” said the boy, “and he is a nice old gentleman, and I’ll introduce you some day if you like.”

“Can’t you two come up here and dine or something to-morrow?” asked the dragon eagerly. “Only, of course, if you ‘ye got nothing better to do,” he added politely.

“Thanks awfully,” said the Boy, “but we don’t go out anywhere without my mother, and, to tell you the truth, I’m afraid she mightn’t quite approve of you. You see there’s no getting over the hard fact that you’re a dragon, is there? And when you talk of settling down, and the neighbours, and so on, I can’t help feeling that you don’t quite realize your position. You’re an enemy of the human race, you see!

“Haven’t got an enemy in the world,” said the dragon, cheerfully. “Too lazy to make ’em, to begin with. And if I do read other fellows my poetry, I’m always ready to listen to theirs!”

“Oh, dear!” cried the boy, “I wish you’d try and grasp the situation properly. When the other people find you out, they’ll come after you with spears and swords and all sorts of things. You’ll have to be exterminated, according to their way of looking at it! You ‘re a scourge, and a pest, and a baneful monster!”

“Not a word of truth in it,” said the dragon, wagging his head solemnly. “Character’ll bear the strictest investigation. And now, there’s a little sonnet-thing I was working on when you appeared on the scene—”

“Oh, if you won’t be sensible,” cried the Boy, getting up, “I’m going off home. No, I can’t stop for sonnets; my mother’s sitting up. I’II look you up to-morrow, sometime or other, and do for goodness’ sake try and realize that you’re a pestilential scourge, or you’ll find yourself in a most awful fix. Good-night!”

Surrounded by disciples “lost to boundless grief”

From Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s O’er A Withered Moor, an imagining of the final moments of Matsuo Basho and – the true focus – the thoughts of his gathered disciples. This translation is from the Archipelago Press collection called Mandarins.

Kikaku was followed by Kyorai, who since Mokusetsu’s signal appeared to have lost his composure. True to his reputation as a consistently modest man, he nodded slightly to all assembled as he slid his way to Bashō’s side, but as soon as he saw the disease-ravaged face of the old poet stretched out before him, he felt despite himself a strange mixture of satisfaction and remorse. These emotions, as inextricably linked as darkness and light, had indeed been troubling the mind of the timid man over the course of the last four or five days. Learning of Bashō’s serious illness, Kyorai had immediately set out by ship from Fushimi and, having rapped on Hanaya Nizaemon’s door in the dead of night, watched over his master day in and day out. Moreover, by prevailing upon Shidō to arrange for an assistant, sending someone to Sumiyoshi Shrine to pray for their ailing master, and consulting with Hanaya for the purchase of various personal effects, he had, more than anyone, endeavored zealously and relentlessly to provide whatever was required. Needless to say, he had done all of this quite on his own, never intending to impose a debt of gratitude on anyone.

The intense awareness of having immersed himself in the care of his master had naturally planted within him the seeds of enormous satisfaction. Hardly knowing his own mind in this, he felt rather untroubled in allowing the emotion to warm his carefree heart as he went about his daily tasks.

Had this been otherwise, he might well have conducted himself differently with Shikō, as one evening they kept their vigil under the light of an oil lamp. Rather than holding forth on the subject of filial piety and dwelling endlessly on his desire to serve Bashō as a son would a father, he would have conversed of mundane matters. Though basked in such complacency, he had caught in the spiteful face of Shikō the flicker of a sarcastic smile and now felt his tranquil state of mind disturbed. The cause was the dismal realization, as brought home to him by his own self-critical eye, of a hitherto unconscious sense of self-approval. Even as he nursed his master, so gravely ill that there was no knowing what the next day would bring, he was far from anxious or concerned for him; rather he was vainly and smugly observing the pains that he was taking on his behalf. For a man of such honesty, such a revelation would surely have aroused in him terrible pangs of conscience.

Since then, in whatever he sought to undertake, he had naturally felt constricted, trapped between the conflicting emotions of pride and contrition. Of the former, he became all the more aware whenever he glimpsed, if only by chance, the hint of a smirk in Shikō’s eyes, a frequent and ever more painful reminder of his lowliness.

….

Amidst all these mournful voices, Jōsō, his bodhi prayer beads still dangling from his wrist, quietly resumed his place. Sitting directly across from Kikaku and Kyorai was Shikō, who now took his turn. But Tōkabō, known as a cynic, did not appear to suffer in the least from the sort of distraught nerves that would cause him, induced by the sentimentality all around him, to shed vain tears. As he unceremoniously moistened the lips of the master, there was on his swarthy face the same familiar expression: a mélange of mockery and a strange haughtiness. Yet it is, of course, indisputable that even he was filled with a measure of emotion.

Cutting to the quick,
(“Here I leave my bones to bleach . . .”)
The harsh autumn wind.

Four or five days before, the master had said: “I had long thought that I would die stretched out on the grass, with earth for my headrest. I could not be happier than to see the hope for a peaceful end here fulfilled on this splendid bed.” This he had oft repeated as an expression of his gratitude, though whether he was now lying on a withered moor or in the rear annex of Hanaya Nizaemon’s residence was of no significant difference.

In fact, up until three or four days before, the very person now moistening the lips of the dying man had worried that his master had not yet composed his last verse; just the day before he had contemplated how he might compile a posthumous book of his hokku. Now today, just a few minutes before, he had been intently observing the old man as he rapidly slipped into the arms of death, seeking anything in that process that might be of poetic interest. Indeed, to advance one step further in cynicism, one might even suppose that behind his watchful gaze was the hope of finding inspiration for at least one line in an account he would later write of these last days and hours. Even as he was ministering to him in these final moments, his mind was obsessed with the renown he would win among other schools of poetry, the consequences for the disciples, favorable or otherwise, and all that he might reasonably expect to gain himself.

None of this had the remotest bearing on the imminent death of his master, whose fate was now faithfully fulfilling what he had so often predicted in his verses, for truly he was now being left as a bleached corpse in a vast and desolate moor of humanity. His own disciples were not lamenting the death of their master but rather their own loss at his passing. They were not bewailing the piteous demise of their guide in the wilderness but rather their own abandonment here in the twilight.

Yet, as we humans are by nature coldhearted, of what use is it to offer moral reprobation? Lost in such world-weary thoughts, even as he exalted in his capacity to indulge in them, Shikō wetted the lips of his master and returned the plumed stick to the water bowl. Then glancing about at the weeping faces of his fellow disciples in apparent derision, he slowly and calmly returned to his place. For the good-natured Kyorai, Shikō’s cold demeanor had from the beginning only renewed his anxieties; for his part, Kikaku returned the look with an oddly awkward expression, apparently irritated by the air of brazen disdain that was Tōkabō’s wont.

….

Behind Kyorai sat Jōsō, the faithful student of Zen, his head bowed in silence; even as his boundless sorrow deepened with each sign of weakening in Bashō’s breathing, his heart was gently filled by a boundless sense of peace. His sorrow required no explanation, but this feeling of serenity was strangely like the feeling of cheer that comes when the cold light of dawn slowly penetrates the shadows of night. Moment by moment it was purging his mind of idle thoughts, so that in the end his sadness was one purified of all tears and heartache.

Was he rejoicing in his master’s transcendence of the illusory distinction between life and death, his attainment of Nirvana in the Realm of Treasures? No, that was not the reason that he could affirm even to himself. Then . . . Ah, who could have been so foolish as to vacillate in vain, to dare to deceive himself as to the truth? Jōsō’s serenity sprang from the joy of liberation, of being freed from the shackles with which the sheer force of Bashō’s personality had long bound him, of feeling his drearily oppressed soul allowed at last to exercise its own inherent strength.

As he rubbed his prayer beads, filled with joy both rapturous and sad, his eyes no longer seemed to see any of his companions, engulfed in tears. A faint smile on his lips, he reverently paid homage to the dying Bashō.

Thus, it was that Matsuo Tōsei of the Banana Plant Hermitage, the great and incomparable master of haikai, then and now, suddenly expired, surrounded by disciples “lost to boundless grief.”

Is it your desire to be born into this world, or not? Think seriously about it before you reply.

From Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Kappa, the tale of a man, now housed in an asylum, who claims to have fallen into the land of the kappas and lived among them for some time. At the surface it is a very Swiftian rollick but a little below is a darker thread connected to the author’s life – the story being completed only a few months before a suicide prompted largely by fear of onset inherited mental illness (thought to be schizophrenia).

But there is the other side of the picture; for, by all human standards, nothing could be quite so ludicrous as the processes of Kappa childbirth. Not very long after this conversation with Chak, I went to Bag’s cottage to watch as his wife gave birth to a child.

Just as we would, the Kappa calls in a doctor or a midwife to assist at the delivery. But when it comes to the moment just before the child is born, the father— almost as if he is telephoning—puts his mouth to the mother’s vagina and asks in a loud voice:

‘Is it your desire to be born into this world, or not? Think seriously about it before you reply.’

Bag followed this regular practice; kneeling on the floor so as to bring his mouth on a level with his wife’s vagina, he asked the question a number of times, after which he rinsed his mouth with a liquid disinfectant that lay handy on the table.

Then came the child’s reply from inside its mother’s womb; it seemed to be having no small amount of scruple, for the voice was weak and hesitant.

‘I do not wish to be born. In the first place, it makes me shudder to think of all the things that I shall inherit from my father—the insanity alone is bad enough. And an additional factor is that I maintain that a Kappa’s existence is evil.’

The natural sequel of an unnatural beginning

From Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

How eloquent could Anne Elliot have been! how eloquent, at least, were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence! She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.

It’s a bit close for comfort to the passages someone at Penguin always chooses as the back-cover blurb but is redeemed in interest because there’s a surviving copy from Austen’s family where someone – believed to be her sister Cassandra – has added in the margins here, ‘Dear, Dear Jane! This deserves to be written in letters of gold.’

I’ve always liked Persuasion best of Austen’s novels. There’s something so curious about a romance in which the romancing pair never meaningfully speak to each other until the final pages. There’s also a delight in how unredeemed the other Elliots remain through the end.