Monday, August 19, 2013

Art as Mastering Knowledge and Action: On Yukio Mishima’s "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion"

The birth of an image is propelled in the story by language — by a statement once made by a Zen priest to his stuttering child: “there is nothing on this earth so beautiful, as the golden temple”. From then on, this declaration sprouts an imagination within the young protagonist who, in effect, nurtures the idea of an idealized beauty in the image of the golden temple. At first, his conception of the temple’s image is formless; the temple is initially invisible to him, yet apparent everywhere: like the sea, or the golden shadow cast by the sun. In his inner world, the temple lives and is nurtured real by his imagination; so much so that, even if the mountains block the temple from his view, he can still see it inside himself.

This capacity to imagine, in the most vivid manner, is an effect to the protagonist’s speech deficiency: he was born a stutterer, who masters his inner world but not his external reality, from which he is gravely alienated due to speech barriers. In accessing the outer world, language is needed to make our imaginative thoughts concrete; yet for the young Mizugochi, his stuttering condition divorces him from the external reality – the place where he must live and painfully exist. To compensate for his speech disability, he takes pride of not being understood, inwardly becoming the master of his inner self. He is preoccupied by the absolute beauty of the temple; and his knowledge of it – which lives inside himself – affirms his existence.

This is not, however, what the protagonist initially dreams for himself. In recalling his boyhood ambition, the young Mizugochi divulges how he wants to become both an artist and a stuttering tyrant. Revealed in this ambition, as such, is his aspiration to master both his inner and outer reality — an artist, on one hand, mastering knowledge and imagination; while, being a tyrant on the other, mastering action. In imagining the temple, the protagonist has already accomplished mastering knowledge through understanding beauty; however becoming a man of action remains a far-fetched dream, simply since carrying tyrannical commands necessitates clarity of language. 

This struggle between mastering knowledge and action is, within the protagonist, constantly unveiled during his childhood. The visit of a naval officer, for instance, who made him admit his hope of becoming a priest someday, allows the young Mizoguchi to imagine the exercise of power through his knowledge of death, to officiate perhaps the demise of his foes or the naval student himself. However, at one point, Mizugochi expresses his disappointment on the invisibility of this knowledge, compared to the physical beauty of things separated from the body – such as the navy officer’s shirt and sword, which he later scratches, as a demonstration of the kind of power accomplished by one’s action. 

Since action – initiated through uttering speech – hampers the protagonist’s access to the external world, he devotes his attention to imagine the golden temple, whose physical form and beauty lives within him — and at the same time, encompassing him inside its structure of absorbing darkness.  This deep and living relationship with the temple intensifies during the war, as the structure is surrounded by destruction, looming around it. In his words, “it was quite natural that wars and unrest, piles of corpses and copious blood, should enrich the beauty of the Golden Temple”. Indeed, it is during the war that the Golden Temple, in its actual form, resembles closest to the temple of his inner imagination. 

Similar to the protagonist’s existence however, the Golden Temple must remain vulnerable to destruction. And when the destruction of the temple did not materialize after the war, the protagonist’s relationship with it changes. It appears to Mizuguchi that the temple’s eternal qualities – its indestructibility and its defiance against time – do not correspond with the temporal nature and evanescent qualities of beauty and of life. In other words, for Mizoguchi, beauty adheres to the constant tension of creation and destruction, between knowledge and action, between the mind and the body. The imperishability of the Golden Temple, for the protaganist, should end through his own action, through his exploration of evil as a force of destruction.  

As long as the beauty of the golden temple stands, Mizoguchi’s mastery over the external world is hampered by the temple’s existence. In creating absolute beauty within his imagination, for instance, the golden temple must be destroyed to fulfill his ultimate aspiration: to dominate both knowledge and action, in the respective spheres of his inner and outer existence. The burning of the temple, therefore, is the protagonist’s demonstration of mastering both the creation of beauty in the imagination and the destruction of it through action. Mizugochi has met beauty but must act by “killing” it for deliverance — and so, by reducing the golden temple into its basic substance, he reveals that indeed “nothingness is the very structure of (this) beauty” and this is what all of us must significantly understand. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Life in Nature, Nature in Life: On Murasaki Shikibu's "The Tale of Genji"

Though unaccustomed to a peculiar literary style — marked by omission of character names, usage of highly patrician language, and depiction of archaic Japanese cultural traditions — the enduring quality which, I believe, fostered my deep appreciation of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji lies in the unveiling of poetry as an embodiment of aesthetic sensibilities achieved in particular by the Japanese aristocracy. 

In the novel, poems – either created presumably by the author or quoted from older collections of poetry – are deeply embedded in the narrative; presenting an unparalleled literary style, highly developed for its age. Poetry, enjoyed particularly by the Japanese aristocratic class, is revealed to be the highest form of art in 11th century Japan. Because of this, an examination of the role of poetry – present in the lived realities of Genji and other characters belonging to the nobility – shows trace of the aesthetic consciousness of the Japanese and serves to demystify the fascinating aspects of Japanese culture. 

 Japanese poetry, known as waka, occupies a central position in the imperial court as a revered art form and highly favored activity of the nobility. In Genji’s cultural age, both the emperor and crown prince are known to be “connoisseurs of poetry”. The fifth chapter in particular, titled The Festival of the Cherry Blossoms, demonstrates how princes and high courtiers are adept at composing Chinese poems, thus highlighting the active cultural borrowings and influences of the mainland in Japanese language and literature. 

During this period, producing a Chinese poem is considered a difficult task but, for the author, it is described as “positive torture”, endured and enjoyed by a particularly narrow segment of Japanese society. Because of this, the classification of poetry as an aesthetic form in the Heian period, informs of art’s capacity to isolate the noble class from the rest of the society. With this, we are reminded to view Genji’s world as a narrow picture of the highly cultured life lived by Japan’s nobility, privileged for their literacy and exposure to traditional aesthetics. 

Nevertheless, the incorporation of poetry in the novel reveals more than a division of class; for indeed, in examining the substance of these poems, the interrelation of human emotion and nature is harmoniously depicted in the literary form. In other words, the poems contained in the novel convey the relationship between our feelings and the natural world. For instance: the waves moaning our longings, the winds becoming messengers of our sorrow, the river of tears revealing our grief, the dews miming our tears. 

These references to nature – present in one of their aesthetic concepts such as mono no aware or “sensitivity to things” – reflect the sensibilities of the Japanese in perceiving the natural world as part of the inner self. Nature, for the Japanese, exists in harmony with our thoughts and feeling. Poetry then, becomes an avenue where the natural world and the human life, express its unity and interrelatedness. Genji and other characters in the novel internalize, through poetry, the realities of the natural world and their inner world, consciously mindful of the transitory and evanescent qualities of life in general.  

Another function of poetry, which perhaps contributes to its appeal among the aristocracy, is its capacity to conceal human emotions through highly eloquent and suggestive language. Japanese poetry is carefully tailored to not only express emotions about beauty and life, but also to allow intimate communication between a man and a woman. 

It is through poetry, for instance, that Genji is able to convey his emotions towards his numerous lovers. Poetry is his weapon to initiate amorous affairs. Because of its highly suggestive nature, poems also become an allusion to the worldly desires experienced by Genji, and by his lovers. To demonstrate this, allow me to present a poetic exchange, particularly between Genji and Naishi – an aged but lewd aristocratic woman. 

Their conversation starts with the old Naishi’s aggressive speech, which goes: 
“Sere and withered though these grasses be,
they are ready for your pony, should you come”; 
— to which Genji, known for his carnal nature, liberally replies:
 “Were mine to part the low bamboo of your grove,
 It would fear to be driven away by other ponies”. 
Indeed, the exchange above, classic in its veiling the natural world and our worldly desires, is a testament to the poet’s might in depicting the impermanence of life and the immortality of art. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Queries, More Queries: On Friedrich von Schiller's "Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man"

Reading Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man requires dissection of our thoughts concerning “art and beauty”. However, for the mere mortal in me, to arrive at a complete understanding of his thoughts requires undertaking a mental journey towards the land of abstract ideas. For this, I do not fault Schiller’s elaborate language or his tedious explication of aesthetics; after all, launching an inquiry towards the abstract requires further abstraction, not to mention the need for a laboring imagination. Schiller, in dissecting the “phenomenon” called beauty, aims particularly at demystifying and dissolving “the essential amalgam of its elements”. In reading his letters, as such, we are transported towards the realm “beyond the reach of the senses” — and given this, comes an understanding within the reach of my own. Indeed, this paragraph worth explanation is necessary, in my view, to avoid misconceiving his thoughts; which goes this way:

My reading of Schiller’s letters comes with an understanding that it presents how the French Revolution and its violent aftermath affected his thoughts on beauty and the moral dimensions of art. As such, he explores, in his letters, the role of aesthetics in achieving true political freedom. For Schiller, it is only through aesthetic education by which freedom – the mother of all art – is achieved. He starts out by explaining how man, in his natural state, is composed of physical compulsive forces; while in his moral state, he is guided by reason. Here, Schiller introduces the opposition between the law of nature and the law of reason, citing that while the former involves feelings and compulsions; the latter affects the consciousness and thoughts. 

Throughout his letters, this duality between the natural and rational state is present in his exploration of the body – being the temple of the sensual form – versus the mind, where the rational, moral, and hence ideal form resides. In other words, Schiller introduces two fundamental laws of the “sensuo-rational nature” of man consisting of his sensuous drive or his sensual nature, and the formal drive or his rational nature. The challenge for Schiller, it seems, is to reconcile the conflicting and opposing dimensions of these drives through the play drive, which he conceives as “the most perfect possible union and equilibrium of reality and form”. For Schiller, the simultaneous existence and development of the rational and the sensuous through play, allows one to become a fully realized man of aesthetic. 

Beyond this simplified understanding of Schiller’s letters are the pertinent questions and ruminations which, at the very least, challenge his thoughts on aesthetics. First, though Schiller claims that both sensuous and form drives exist in a simultaneously equal and united one plane, it seems that there is privileging of the form to dominate the senses. When Schiller speaks of nature as an expression of plurality and individuality, and reason as an exercise of unity and conformity, how can it be assured that the individual maintains his singularity as opposed to his confirmation of the “moral” laws idealized by the state? In Schiller’s words, the archetype of the ideal man is embodied by the state – and so, how can it be assured that this “moral” state would not suppress man’s individuality by its relative conception of the ideal man? Lastly, because the aim of Schiller’s letters is towards the ultimate achievement of freedom, how can it be assured that this freedom will not be mis-used? When I think of freedom as an end goal, I cannot help but compare it with the type of “freedom” espoused by capitalist ideology that encourages relentless consumption.

These questions above, for all I know, may have already been refuted brilliantly by Schiller and perhaps only misconceived by me, but then these throbbing queries represent the mental journey I undertook to painstakingly understand the great philosopher’s interest to demystify beauty as an idea, which is of course, “beyond the reach of our senses”. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

Being, Condition, and Time: On Ha Jin’s Waiting

Waiting relates to time — that is, in its progressive form, waiting encompasses all dimensions of time: the past as an inactive period spent in expectation, the present in its actual waiting condition, and the future in its seeking of the probable occurrence of the wait. Given this, a person in waiting is presumed to remain still – in its waiting state – while time flows and the surrounding condition changes. In other words, in waiting, there is an act of internal changelessness in the midst of external changes. 

This act, however, is separate from the inner reality, which is necessarily transformed through time, except for the essence of our being which, by nature, consists of the capacity for loving. To put it differently, there is, on one hand, an unchanging nature of our being – which, I contend, is our dormant capacity to love – while on the other, an inner reality – of feelings and consciousness, for instance – which permits changes with time and external surrounding. 

So simply put: within a person, there is a simultaneous existence of a natural being where love, as a dormant capacity, resides – and there is an inner reality which allows for alteration of feelings and consciousness based on time and external surrounding.  

Love is defined, in this manner, as an absolute capacity to perform the act of loving; yet this capacity is said to be dormant, precisely since it needs to be awakened or nurtured by one’s natural being. A person cannot not love – provided that the being is reared and roused for it; but one can misrecognize being loved as love. Being loved exists in the inner reality, which allows for an alteration of feelings, but it does not penetrate inside one’s being which concerns itself only of loving. Being loved is merely a surplus feeling when the loving is realized and happened to be reciprocated. 

Now, if love is a dormant capacity of the being, then performing it will be its form of expression. With this contention, the subscription to conceive love as an art here is apparent; for indeed, art is universal yet diverse in its expression among cultures and individuals. Again, if love – which is a dormant resident of our being – is likened to art, then not everyone is capable of creating and performing it. Moreover, if love is an art, then its expression is entirely dependent whether or not the external surrounding permits its expression. Lastly, if love is equated to art, then it has to remain undeterred by time.

Now, these two-tedious-paragraphs worth of ruminations about love is, to me, a necessary buildup to forward my thoughts about Ha Jin’s work; particularly since, it is from this novel where my ever-changing exploration of love is challenged and remolded. The pertinent question is asked: if the trinity of characters in the book – Lin Kong, Shuyu, and Manna – are in the state of waiting, then is it given that they are all in love?

The immediate answer is no — that is, if love is conceived in the Western ideology of romantic love. In Western society, where the liberal ideology emphasizes freedom, love becomes a personal and private choice which an individual makes. People in the West, in essence, marry for love and only for love; it is unthinkable to marry for something else. In other words, love in the Western sense comes with the idea of freedom – as a liberal ideology – and it is through marriage that this love is institutionalized. 

However, in contrast to Chinese society, where the communal surrounding constraints freedom for collective welfare, love is understood as an act of conformation and obligation to familial and social institutions. Marriage, in Chinese society, is a communal or an institutional choice characterized by bonds and alliances for societal welfare. In both Western and Chinese societies, it is worth noting that love is neither lost nor absent, but is dependent merely on the degree of freedom which the external surrounding allows it to be exercised and expressed. 

Here, we go back to transform our earlier question: if the main characters in the book are all waiting, are they exercising love in the Chinese sense? To answer this requires that the characters are explored and their experiences be subjected to my earlier ramifications about love and being. If love – characterized solely by loving – is a dormant capacity residing within the being, then it requires that a developed character is suited to perform it. While good-natured and intelligent, Lin Kong is also an indecisive, dispassionate, and passive character. Getting in touch with his nature – with his capacity to love – requires not only a buildup of character, but a decisiveness of self, of developing the natural being. 

Both his marriage to Shuyu and his requests to divorce her for Manna represent his adherence to external conditions of his culture and the state. Now, the decisiveness of self – notably missing in Lin Kong – is found in the character of Shuyu, who represents precisely how love is being accommodated within the particularity of Chinese society. Shuyu is able to develop the natural being which concerns itself only with loving. On the other hand, Manna – being the modern and educated representation of urban Chinese female – accomplishes the idea of love only within her inner reality which, as noted previously, is subjected to external conditions and time. Note that the changes in Manna’s character are exhibited from her initial affinity with Lin Kong, then shifts to the necessity for marriage because of societal expectations. 

Hence, it is not surprising why Lin Kong and Manna’s conception of love permeating only within their respective inner realities, and not within their being, failed. True enough; among the three characters who were all in the state of waiting, it is only Shuyu, who stood by her inner being – solely to perform loving – and hence, is able to accommodate the particularity of love in Chinese culture. Indeed, within Shuyu’s inner reality and being, time flows to embody the changelessness amidst the changes surrounding her in her waiting. 

(Note: In formulating this new conception of LOVE, I used three works to substantiate my ruminations. I did it because I could not accept that during the Cultural Revolution -- when the ideology was radicalized and stretched beyond its limit -- Ha Jin seemed to portray that there was no love existing in such society. And so, I used his novel as the grounding context of my formulation and used 2 books: Erich Fromm's "The Art of Loving" and Schiller's "On the Aesthetic Education of Man" to prove that love in China did exist even those times.)

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