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.

The Golden Apple

From Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s incomplete The Golden Apple. This and, though less openly than the title would suggest, his Tale of the 672nd Night both meld pieces of fin-de-siecle culture with Arabian Nights atmosphere.

Because of the great heat, the rug dealer’s wife spent the afternoon of the following day in a room partly sunken into the ground in the section of the house facing the garden. But her child—a seven-year-old girl who was oddly small and delicate for her age, like a doll, only with eyes which occasionally flared up with great expressiveness—stole away from her mother by slipping quietly behind a curtain, and went up to a large, unused room on the top floor. There the girl found an old, partly clouded mirror and looked into it. First she smiled at her reflection, then she knitted her brow and showed the mirror her small gleaming teeth. For a moment she let her face sag in a limp expression of utter fatigue; then she contorted her soft features and stared at herself with wide eyes and maliciously curled lips. After a while she set the mirror aside and went to one of the curtained windows. She put her head out and immediately had to close her eyes, for it was painfully hot outside. She remained in this position—body and hands in the dim room, head and unseeing eyes bathed in the heat—for a long time. Many thoughts welled up in her. She wanted to picture a great many nice things, things that had happened to her with other children, animals, and adults. But a heavy feeling of powerlessness stopped her. Something stood between her and these things like a glass wall. As she reluctantly and unhappily pulled her head back into the room and for a moment was close to sullen, angry tears, the wind moved the portiere at the door slightly, and to the child it was as if a gentle, barely perceptible hint of the smell of the golden apple had wafted in. This was an actual golden apple that her father had brought her mother as a gift from a great journey many years previously. It was filled with infinitely finely branching golden foliage in which lingered an elusive scent recalling nothing on earth. The child had seen the apple seldom during her life, and then always by the uncertain light of a candle, when her mother had brought it out only to lock it up again in the dark chest. But its obscure scent, which did not weaken over the years, emerged in a cloud each time and an immense dream settled over the child’s mind. The golden apple was of a piece with the most miraculous things in fairy tales; the talking bird, the dancing water, and the singing tree were linked to the child’s life via subterranean passages that ran here and there in dark caves and among the swaying transparent abodes of the queen of the sea.

The well in one corner of the courtyard was also connected to these passages. It was said to be dry, and buckets went up and down now only in a different, bigger well. The old one was covered by a stone lid on which knelt a stone figure, not unlike a naked man, but on all fours in the posture of an animal. The dry well that this enigmatic creature was guarding was certainly no ordinary one. Toward evening, if you put your ear to the stone lid, you could hear a sudden rustling underneath and bodies moving off to a great depth. But in front of the house was a great flat stone into which an iron ring was set and which had to be another entrance to this mysterious world, if you could only lift it.

The child went slowly down the stairs, where two glowing spots projected out of the wall toward her like the eyes of a basilisk. These were two screws in the metal latch of the large chest, partly set into the wall, in which the golden apple was locked. The mild, light-saturated, pale-blue sky looked down from high overhead into the dim stairwell through an oval opening with a grating in a honeycomb pattern. But a brilliant beam of light penetrated at one place in the screen, cut through the bluish quivering air, and landed on the copper latch, making two screwheads glow and sparkle like living eyes.

The child knew that there was a secret handle with which you could open the chest from the side, to reach in without lifting the heavy lid. She tried to budge the shining latch, then the next one, and then the others which lay in darkness. Finally one yielded, and, more miraculously than the emerald doors of an enchanted cave, the hidden side doors of the chest slid apart. With her head the child controlled the outpouring of golden and multicolored fabrics, but her hands rummaged through soft piles of linen, past smooth cool amber spheres and painfully hard carved and metal objects, down to the bottom, where the apple was, and brought it out. Thinking of nothing but this piece of good fortune, she hurriedly closed the doors again; the latch snapped into place.

For a long time the child stood motionless, and the elusive fragrance rose from the apple in grave puffs like the breaths of a sleeping sorcerer and darkened her mind with an awareness of infinite power and size. But gradually she became tired of standing that way and it occurred to her that mere possession of the apple was not what was important about it, that it was something like a magic lamp or the rings given by fairies, something that had power over other things. And then she saw herself clearly, as in a mirror, climbing down the steps into that mysterious world, in her hand the apple, soft honey-colored light and inner certainty radiating from it as from a magic lamp. She quickly slipped out into the street, which was empty and silent, bathed in heat. She stood over the flat stone, bent down to it, touched the iron ring with the apple, turned the apple three times to the left in her small hands, and let it roll away on the stone; the stone did not tremble, and the ring lay in its notch without moving. She had the nightmare conviction that the apple’s power had failed. Everything seemed darker to her, and a mass of noxious thoughts welled up in her, thoughts whose meaning she barely understood and which yet had an agonizing and oppressive power. She had to think of her mother and father. It was incomprehensible to her how such people could bear their lives, with so many, many years going by and nothing in them that seemed to her to make life worth living. She did not understand how it was possible to stand such dreadful boredom. She was overcome with a kind of pity, and great despondency. She looked at the apple, and it struck her as smaller and more ordinary. Its weight seemed to her to be that of a stone, whereas earlier it had had the mysterious weight of something supernatural. She decided to go and give the apple to two little girls with whom she often played, roll it in front of the two of them as though it were nothing special at all, nothing odder than a ball of colorful stone. As she made this resolution, she thought the apple must feel its import. For she had not yet stopped caring about it; the gesture of contempt that she wanted to produce still masked a somber mix of horror, sorrow, and love. She had again picked it up from the ground to execute this plan when she heard the steps of a man approaching her. He was well dressed, with two great, excessively thin wirehaired dogs leaping around him. This young man was the chief farrier to the King. He was the son of a black man and a Syrian woman and had risen to his present high position only through a series of strange strokes of luck. His stride as he approached rocked slightly like the gait of lions and panthers. He wore an emerald-green upper garment whose red-edged slashes allowed the fine white shirt to shine through. A gold chain set with amethyst was wound around his snow-white turban. Tucked into his scaled belt was a short, wide dagger, and next to it a leather whip whose handle was tipped with a golden snake entwined around a large amethyst. Beneath the belt was a red leather apron hanging to the knee. Light-yellow boots banded in metallic green came up almost to the hollow of the knee. The sleeves of the shirt were wide, but tightly encircled over the knuckles by a gold band interwoven with black blossoms so that the large handsome hands emerged from a narrow bell, shining out like yellowish semiprecious stones.

The King’s farrier was in a cheerful mood. A steady smile was on his strong, full lips; the upper one was lifted to reveal a dazzling flash of teeth. His cheerfulness had several causes. Only that morning, the King had made him a present of these two beautiful and extremely rare dogs as a token of his special favor; the King himself had received them from a Kurdish prince along with other dogs and long-haired goats.

The farrier let the dogs bound ahead of him, pulled them back from their racing with a short, piercing whistle, and their bodies, all wildness and yet all obedience, filled him with the joy of new ownership. He felt in these fiery limbs that danced around him, fast as the wind, something of the light, hot power that he himself carried in his blood, and when he met a poor misshapen dwarf under a half-shaded colonnade, a wretched creature with an aged, oversized child’s head set deeply between hunched shoulders, he became conscious of his own finely made shoulders and all the joints in his body, as when he slid naked through a wonderful bath of utterly mild and extra-buoyant water. Whenever the hot wind moved the curtain of one of the rare windows overlooking the street, he thought he saw the hand of a woman who had emerged from the mysterious shade of the curtained room to throw him flowers or a letter.

Suddenly he saw ahead of him the little girl, who lifted the golden apple in a beseeching gesture and then pointed down to the flat stone, as if she wished to persuade the man to open up this passage for her and was promising him the apple as a reward. For an instant the child seemed to him like a messenger of love, and the stone with the ring like a trapdoor. He was glad to try his strength on something, so he took hold of the rusty ring with his handsome powerful hand that sprang from a narrow bell of gold-and-black fabric, and in a few seconds had lifted the heavy slab, every muscle of his powerful body stretched tight as a bowstring under the fine colorful clothes. The child faced the gaping deep shaft filled with cold air and, far below, a meager trickling of water. A second look seemed to show animals scurrying here and there on the vertical, darkness-draped walls. A third revealed the mouth of another shaft going off to the side at a considerable depth, a perpendicular subterranean passage. The farrier felt at the end of his strength and let the heavy stone back down into its seat. With both hands he reached for the child, in whose eyes hung some of the deep darkness and mystery she had drunk in, and lifted her high into the hot, brilliant air. As he was letting her down again, he felt the child’s hand on his chest and a hard object slipping into a fold of his garment. But only once he had turned the corner did he reach in and discover that it was the golden apple, from which streamed a rare and potent odor, an amalgam of extraordinary sweetness and painful yearning.

When the stone had again closed off the way to that secret world, the little girl stood before it like the sea king’s daughter after being expelled from her home. She decided to bear her banishment with courage and not rest until she had found a way back into her father’s kingdom. Her trading the apple for a look into the depths seemed to her to be just the beginning of a series of wonderful adventures, and, no longer frightened by the dreariness and incomprehensibility of her true surroundings—meaningful only if she thought of them as exile—she went back inside.

Wouldn’t their students, and the world at large, be better off that way?

From Natsume Soseki’s Botchan

Now that I thought about it, though, I realized that most people actually encourage you to turn bad. They seem to think that if you don’t, you’ll never get anywhere in the world. And then on those rare occasions when they encounter somebody who’s honest and pure-hearted, they look down on him and say he’s nothing but a kid, a Botchan. If that’s the way it is, it would be better if they didn’t have those ethics classes in elementary school and middle school where the teacher is always telling you to be honest and not lie. The schools might as well just go ahead and teach you how to tell lies, how to mistrust everybody, and how to take advantage of people. Wouldn’t their students, and the world at large, be better off that way? Redshirt had laughed at me for being simpleminded. If people are going to get laughed at for being simpleminded and sincere, there’s no hope. Kiyo never laughed at me for saying anything like what I said to Redshirt. She would have been deeply impressed by it. Compared to Redshirt, she’s far and away the superior person.

An apprenticeship in unlearning

Poem 24 from the New Directions The Complete Works of Alberto Caeiro (Caeiro being one of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms).

As an eccentricity of librarianship – I occasionally do guest cataloging on items in languages no proper cataloger is comfortable with. The rule is to err on the side of expansiveness – for example, provide multiple transliterations of an author’s name or a work’s title if there’s ever a chance people will be searching such variations. So it’s odd to me that no record I’ve found for any title by a heteronym of Pessoa’s includes mention of that heteronym as co-author or even contributor. I know nearly everyone will search Pessoa’s name so maybe the real point here is that it seems somehow disrespectful to leave those names out given how dedicated Pessoa was to the fiction of his heteronyms.

What we see of things are the things themselves.
Why would we see one thing if there were another?
Why would seeing and hearing be an illusion
If seeing and hearing are just seeing and hearing?

The essential thing is knowing how to see,
Knowing how to see without thinking,
Knowing how to see when you see,
And not thinking when you see
Nor seeing when you think.

But this (alas for those of us whose soul wears clothes!),
This requires long study,
An apprenticeship in unlearning
And a solitude within the freedom of that convent
Of which the poets say the stars are its eternal nuns
And the flowers devout penitents for a single day,
But where, after all, the stars are just stars
And the flowers are just flowers,
Which is why we see them as stars and flowers.


O que nós vemos das cousas são as cousas.
Porque veriamos nós uma cousa se houvesse outra?
Porque é que ver e ouvir seriam iludirmo-nos
Se ver e ouvir são ver e ouvir?

O essencial é saber ver,
Saber ver sem estar a pensar,
Saber ver quando se vê,
E nem pensar quando se vê
Nem ver quando se pensa.

Mas isso (tristes de nós que trazemos a alma vestida!),
Isso exige um estudo profundo,
Uma apprendizagem de desapprender
E uma sequestração na liberdade d’aquelle convento
De que os poetas dizem que as estrellas são as freiras eternas
E as flores as penitentes convictas de um só dia,
Mas onde afinal as estrellas não são senão estrellas
Nem as flores senão flores,
Sendo por isso que as vemos estrellas e flores.

Record of the Pond Pavilion

Record of the Pond Pavilion by Yoshishige no Yasutane, in Burton Watson’s translation from Four Huts: Asian Writings on the Simple Life. The author was an official and poet in 10th century Kyoto. I’d thought to include only a portion of this piece but discovered there’s no easily found full version online. That’s a shame so here one is.

For the past twenty years and more I have observed the situation throughout the eastern and western sections of the capital. In the western part of the capital the houses have become fewer and fewer till now it’s almost a deserted wasteland. People move out of the area but no one moves in; houses fall to ruin but no new ones are ever built. Those who don’t have any other place to move to, or who aren’t ashamed to be poor and lowly, live there, or people who enjoy a life of obscurity or are hiding out, who ought to return to their native mountains or countryside but don’t. But anyone who hopes to pile up a fortune or whose heart is set on rushing around on business wouldn’t be able to stand living there even for a day.

In years past there was one mansion there, with painted halls and vermilion doors, groves of bamboo and trees, rocks and fountains – a spot so superb it was like a different world. But the owner was sent into exile because of some affair, and fire broke out and burned the buildings down. There were thirty or forty families of retainers living nearby, but one after another they moved away. Later the owner of the house returned, but he never tried to rebuild; and though he had many sons and grandsons, they didn’t remain in the area for long. Thorns and brambles grew till they covered the gate, and foxes and raccoon dogs dug their burrows there in peace. From all this it is clear that it is Heaven that is destroying the western sector and no fault of men.

In the eastern sector of the capital, particularly in the area northeast and northwest of Shijo, live huge crowds of people, eminent and lowly alike. Towering mansions are lined up gate by gate, hall in sight of hall; little huts have only a wall between them, eaves all but touching. If a neighbor to the east suffers a fire, neighbors to the west seldom escape being burned out; if robbers attack the house to the south, the house to the north can’t avoid the shower of stray arrows. One branch of a family living south of the avenue is poor, another branch north of the avenue is rich, and though rich relatives may have no special virtue to boast of, poor relatives still must suffer shame.

Then there are the humble folk who live in the shadow of some powerful family: their roof is broken but they don’t dare thatch it, their wall collapses but they don’t dare build it up again; happy, they can’t open their mouths and give a loud laugh; grieving, they can’t lift up their voices and wail; coming and going always in fear, hearts and minds never at rest, they’re like little sparrows in the presence of hawks and falcons. And how much worse when some great mansion is first built and then begins bit by bit to broaden its gates and doors, swallowing up the little huts all around. Then how many of the poor people have occasion to complain, like sons forced to leave the land of their father and mother, like officials of paradise banished to the dusty world of mortals. In the worst cases, so great is the squeeze for land that a whole family of poor commoners ends up being wiped out.

Again, there are those who elect to build their houses along the eastern bank of the Kamo, but if a bad flood comes along, they find themselves keeping company with fish and turtles. Others move out into the fields to the north, but if a drought occurs, they may perish of thirst before they find any water. Aren’t there any plots of empty land left within the two sectors of the capital to settle in? Why do people have to be so stubborn? Along the river and in the fields to the north they not only build row on row of houses but also lay out vegetable gardens and rice paddies, the old gardener settling down on the land and piling up ridges between the fields, the old farmer constructing embankments along the river and leading water into his paddies. But year after year now there have been foods, the river overflowing and breaking down the levies; and officials charged with keeping the river in check who yesterday boasted of their achievements today leave the breaks sitting as they are. Do they expect the citizens of the capital to turn into fish?

I have privately checked into the regulations and find that in the area west of the Kamo, only the Sushin-in is permitted to have rice fields; in all other cases they are strictly prohibited because of the danger of flood damage. Moreover, the area east of the river and the northern fields represent two of the four suburbs of the capital, where the Son of Heaven goes to greet the seasons or to enjoy an outing. If people take it on themselves to build houses there or start growing things, why don’t the authorities prohibit and put a stop to it? What about the ordinary citizens who would like to stroll about and amuse themselves? Summer days when people want to enjoy the cool, they find there are no more banks where they can fish for little ayu trout; in the autumn breeze when gentlemen want to go off hunting, they find there are no more fields where they can loose their young falcons. Season by season people scramble to move out of the city, and day by day the area within the capital becomes more deserted, until the wards in the southern section are turned into a vast wilderness of weeds, where only “the ears of grain droop down.” Leaving the rich and fertile lands, people go off to barren and stony ground. Is Heaven causing this as well, or is it the madness of men themselves?

Originally I had no house of my own but stayed in someone else’s house at the Toto Gate. Constantly aware of the disadvantages of such an arrangement, I decided I didn’t want to live there forever, and in fact, even if I had wanted to, it would have been impossible. Estimating that I could buy two or three set of land for ten million cash, I finally chose a barren plot north of Rokujo, where I put up a wall on four sides and constructed a gate. I selected the kind of out-of-the-way spot that Prime Minister Hsiao would have approved of, and at the same time aimed for the clean, spacious grounds of Chung-ch’ang T’ung. In all, my land measures some ten or more se. Where the ground is high I made a little artificial hill, in the sunken part I dug a small pond. West of the pond I built a small hall to house the Buddha Amida, east of the pond I put up a little building to hold my books, and north of the pond I constructed a low house for my wife and children. In general the buildings cover four tenths of the area, the pond three ninths, the vegetable garden two eighths, and the water-parsley patch one seventh. In addition I have an island with green pines, a beach of white sand, red carp, white herons, a little bridge, and a little boat. Everything I’ve loved all my life is to be found here. In particular I have the willows on the eastern bank, in spring misty and lithe; in summer the bamboos by the northern door, clear breezes rustling through them; in fall the moon in the western window, bright enough to read a book by; and in winter the sunlight by the southern eaves, just right for warming my back.

So, after five decades in the world, I’ve at last managed to acquire a little house, like a snail at peace in his shell, like a louse happy in the seam of a garment. The quail nests in the small branches and does not yearn for the great forest of Teng; the frog lives in his crooked well and knows nothing of the vastness of the sweeping seas. Though as master of the house I hold office at the foot of the pillar, in my heart it’s as though I dwelt among the mountains.” Position and title I leave up to fate, for the workings of Heaven govern all things alike. Heaven and earth will decide if I live a long life or a short one like Confucius, I’ve been praying for a long time now? I do not envy the man who soars like a phoenix on the wind, nor the man who hides like a leopard in the mists. I have no wish to bend my knee and crook my back in efforts to win favor with great lords and high officials, but neither do I wish to shun the words and faces of others and bury myself away in some remote mountain or dark valley. During such time as I am at court, I apply myself to the business of the sovereign; once home, my thoughts turn always to the service of the Buddha. When I go abroad I don my grass-greeen official robe, and though my post is a minor one, I enjoy a certain measure of honor. At home I wear white hemp garments, warmer than spring, purer than the snow. After washing my hands and rinsing my mouth, I ascend the western hall, call on the Buddha Amida, and recite The Lotus Sutra. When my supper is done, I enter the eastern library, open my books, and find myself in the company of worthy men of the past, those such as Emperor Wen of the Han, a ruler of another era, who loved frugal ways and gave rest to his people; Po Lo-t’ien of the T’ang, a teacher of another time, who excelled in poetry and served the Buddhist Law; or the Seven Sages of the Chin dynasty, friends of another age, who lived at court but longed for the life of retirement. So I meet with a worthy ruler, I meet with a worthy teacher, and I meet with worthy friends, three meetings one day, three delights to last a lifetime. As for the people and affairs of the contemporary world, they hold no attraction for me. If in becoming a teacher one thinks only of wealth and honor and is not concerned about the importance of literature, it would be better if we had no teachers. If in being a friend one thinks only of power and profit and cares nothing about the frank exchange of opinions, it would be better if we had no friends. So I close my gate, shut my door, and hum poems and sing songs by myself. When I feel the desire for something more, my boys and I climb into the little boat, thump the gunwale, and rattle the oars. If I have some free time left over, I call the groom and we go out to the vegetable garden to pour on water and spread manure. I love my house – other things I know nothing about.

Since the Öwa era [961-964], people of the time have taken a fancy to building luxurious mansions and high-roofed halls, even going so far as to have the tops of the pillars carved in the shapes of mountains and duckweed designs incised on the supports of the roof beam, But though the expenditure runs into many millions in cash, they manage to live there barely two or three years. People in old times used to say, “The builder doesn’t get to live in what he builds” – how right they were. Now that I am well along in years, I’ve finally managed to construct a little house, but when I consider it in the light of my actual needs, even it seems somewhat too extravagant and grand. Above, I fear the anger of Heaven; below, I am ashamed in the eyes of men. I’m like a traveler who’s found an inn along the road, an old silk-worm who’s made himself a solitary cocoon. How long will I be able to live here?

Ah, when the wise man builds a house, he causes no expense to the people, no trouble to the spirits. He uses benevolence and righteousness for his ridgepole and beam, ritual and law for his pillar and base stone, truth and virtue for a gate and door, mercy and love for a wall and hedge. Devotion to frugality is his family business, the piling up of goodness his family fortune. When one has such a house to live in, no fire can consume it, no wind topple it, no misfortune come to threaten it, no disaster happen its way. No god or spirit can peer inside it, no thief or bandit can invade. The family who lives there will naturally grow rich, the master will enjoy long life, and office and rank will be with it forever, to be handed down to sons and grandsons. How can one fail, then to exercise caution?

Inscribed on My Pine Study

From Burton Watson’s translation of Po Chu-i, the third of the great Tang dynasty poets (alongside Li Bai/Li Po and Du Fu/Tu Fu). Pine Study was the name of the poet’s house in Ch’ang-an. The act of inscribing his study and the overall mood both put me in mind of Montaigne.

Inscribed on My Pine Study (When I Became a Han-lin Scholar)
Not old, not young either,
my years exceed three dozen.
Not lowly, and yet not eminent –
for the first time assigned a post at court.
Meager talent, easily resigned to my lot,
liberal in mind, body at all times relaxed.
Any food that fills my belly I look on as tasty;
if there’s room for my knees, I’m content with my quarters.
How much more so this Pine Study of mine,
one ch’in, a couple of bags of books.
With books I don’t try too hard to get the meaning;
the ch’in I just play for my own enjoyment.
Nights on duty, I enter the ruler’s gates,
come home later to sleep in my own house.
I let my body move with the flow of things,
my mind I consign to emptiness.
This is how I get through the days,
the natural way, way of much repose,
blankly blank, silent, unspeaking,
not wise – not stupid either.

Or perhaps he does not know

A creation hymn from the Rig Veda (10.129), first in Wendy Doniger’s translation (Penguin) and then in Stephanie Jamison and Joel Bereton’s (Oxford’s 3 volume edition from 2014):

1 There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred?1 Where? In whose protection? Was there water, bottomlessly deep?

2 There was neither death nor immortality then. There was no distinguishing sign2 of night nor of day. That one breathed, windless, by its own impulse. Other than that there was nothing beyond.

3 Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign,2 all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that one arose through the power of heat.3

4 Desire came upon that one in the beginning ; that was the first seed of mind. Poets 4 seeking in their heart with wisdom found the bond of existence in non-existence.

5 Their cord 5 was extended across. Was there below? Was there above? There were seed-placers; there were powers.6 There was impulse beneath; there was giving-forth above.

6 Who really knows ? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.7 Who then knows whence it has arisen?

7 Whence this creation has arisen – perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not – the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows – or perhaps he does not know.


1 The nonexistent did not exist, nor did the existent exist at that time.
There existed neither the airy space nor heaven beyond.
What moved back and forth? From where and in whose protection? Did
water exist, a deep depth?

2 Death did not exist nor deathlessness then. There existed no sign of night
nor of day.
That One breathed without wind by its independent will. There existed
nothing else beyond that.

3 Darkness existed, hidden by darkness, in the beginning. All this was a
signless ocean.
What existed as a thing coming into being, concealed by emptiness—that
One was born by the power of heat.

4 Then, in the beginning, from thought there evolved desire, which existed
as the primal semen.
Searching in their hearts through inspired thought, poets found the
connection of the existent in the nonexistent.

5 Their cord was stretched across: Did something exist below it? Did
something exist above?
There existed placers of semen and there existed greatnesses. There was
independent will below, offering above.

6 Who really knows? Who shall here proclaim it?—from where was it born,
from where this creation?
The gods are on this side of the creation of this (world). So then who
does know from where it came to be?

7 This creation—from where it came to be, if it was produced or if not—
he who is the overseer of this (world) in the furthest heaven, he surely
knows. Or if he does not know…?

Humor alone

From Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf. I find something a tad off in the puffed solemnity wrapping this message but I think it can be read as how the idea must first be preached to the protagonist, lost as he is at the novel’s beginning. By the end it is reduced to ‘… enough of pathos and death-dealing. It is time to come to your senses. You are to live and to learn to laugh. You are to learn to listen to the cursed radio music of life and to reverence the spirit behind it and to laugh at its distortions. So there you are. More will not be asked of you.’

If we now pause to test the soul of the Steppenwolf, we find him distinct from the bourgeois in the higher development of his individuality—for all extreme individuation turns against itself, intent upon its own destruction. We see that he had in him strong impulses both to be a saint and a profligate; and yet he could not, owing to some weakness or inertia, make the plunge into the untrammelled realms of space. The parent constellation of the bourgeoisie binds him with its spell. This is his place in the universe and this his bondage. Most intellectuals and most artists belong to the same type. Only the strongest of them force their way through the atmosphere of the bourgeois earth and attain to the cosmic. The others all resign themselves or make compromises. Despising the bourgeoisie, and yet belonging to it, they add to its strength and glory; for in the last resort they have to share their beliefs in order to live. The lives of these infinitely numerous persons make no claim to the tragic; but they live under an evil star in a quite considerable affliction; and in this hell their talents ripen and bear fruit. The few who break free seek their reward in the unconditioned and go down in splendor. They wear the thorn crown and their number is small. The others, however, who remain in the fold and from whose talents the bourgeoisie reaps much gain, have a third kingdom left open to them, an imaginary and yet a sovereign world, humor. The lone wolves who know no peace, these victims of unceasing pain to whom the urge for tragedy has been denied and who can never break through the starry space, who feel themselves summoned thither and yet cannot survive in its atmosphere—for them is reserved, provided suffering has made their spirits tough and elastic enough, a way of reconcilement and an escape into humor. Humor has always something bourgeois in it, although the true bourgeois is incapable of understanding it. In its imaginary realm the intricate and many-faceted ideal of all Steppenwolves finds its realisation. Here it is possible not only to extol the saint and the profligate in one breath and to make the poles meet, but to include the bourgeois, too, in the same affirmation. Now it is possible to be possessed by God and to affirm the sinner, and vice versa, but it is not possible for either saint or sinner (or for any other of the unconditioned) to affirm as well that lukewarm mean, the bourgeois. Humor alone, that magnificent discovery of those who are cut short in their calling to highest endeavor, those who falling short of tragedy are yet as rich in gifts as in affliction, humor alone (perhaps the most inborn and brilliant achievement of the spirit) attains to the impossible and brings every aspect of human existence within the rays of its prism. To live in the world as though it were not the world, to respect the law and yet to stand above it, to have possessions as though “one possessed nothing,” to renounce as though it were no renunciation, all these favorite and often formulated propositions of an exalted worldly wisdom, it is in the power of humor alone to make efficacious.