Fourth (and last) letter on the sublime (introducing the Zen perspective)

Ningyo by_Katsushika Hokusai (1808)
‘Ningyo’ (Mermaid) by Katsushika Hokusai (1808)

credits:  many thanks to Derek Middleton, the language editor of all four letters


Kyoto, Japan, February 2008


Highly esteemed Mister Venturous, Mister Criterion and dear Nana,
dear future reader,

It has been 269, 119 and 89 years since you wrote your letters. With great humbleness and respect I will undertake this lettered journey and will introduce yet another insight into the ‘sublime’. My name is Wakahisa Kiwako. I am a Japanese female artist and was born in 1945, the year the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an act of sheer and awful ‘human sublime’. My name Kiwako means ‘child born on a border’ and it was given to me in remembrance of the uncertain period Japan faced. My home country had been defeated and was occupied by allied forces, which lasted seven years. After this period the once hostile relationship between Japan and America became friendly in both trade and art.

In the summer of 1972 I discovered the letters in an antique bookshop in Paris, between the pages of Nightwood by Djuna Barnes. I was a student of literature and was glad to have found an original copy of this great feminist book. It comes from the bohemian environment of the interbellum. I am fascinated by various types of cultural ‘in betweens’: in between feminism and male dominance, in between peace and war, in between individualism and the masses. The salesman had himself noticed the letters and believed them to be part of the book. He insisted on keeping the book and letters together. At the time it seemed like a dream of some long awaited purpose and I recall an intense sense of gratitude and destiny. Sublime? According to my Shinto spiritual education this is the work of the kami that mostly live in natural features such as rocks or ponds. However, kami are not confined to natural elements, but can also live in objects such as books. In fact, they now mostly ‘live’ in the video game Pokémon that is so adored by children around the world.

I am convinced that the previous letter writer, Nana, must have known Djuna Barnes. There is an inscription on one of the first pages that says ‘To Nana, my negentropy, D.B.’ Also several sections of the book have been annotated with graphite scribbles and underlinings. Honestly speaking, as a student I did not know anything about the value of the word ‘sublime’. In Japanese culture we do not use this term and are not familiar with its philosophical or artistic meaning. My first impression upon reading your letters was a smile. A poem by Matsuo Bashô popped into my mind, one that is suitable for the argument I would like to make. In my opinion, the best works of Bashô reveal satori, a sudden state of transcendental freedom:

Sabishisa wo toute kurenu ka kiri hito ha
(Bashô 1692)

Won’t you come and see
loneliness? Just one leaf
from the kiri tree.

(translated 1958 by Harold G. Henderson)

This poem or haiku is not officially explained. It simply ‘is’. It reveals a suchness. Suchness is essential to the Buddhist spirit. One can ponder about it for a lifetime, yet the event itself will not be changed by it. That may be why these poems are short, seemingly simple and beautifully mysterious. In Bashô’s version of a ‘Buddhist sublime’, ‘loneliness’ is experienced while watching one leaf that has fallen from a kiri tree. The master poet introduces a paradox here. How can you invite another person to join in experiencing loneliness? This is a fundamental question and reflects the paradox that is inherent in resisting and at the same time being subdued. All the previous letter writers have experienced something equal to loneliness: in the first letter by ‘divinity’, in the second letter by ‘independent human creativity’ and in the third by ‘an existential feminism’.

Bashô regards loneliness in ‘just one leaf’. Mister Venturous claims to see some act of creation beyond the panoramic view from the mountains. Mister Criterion claims to know the value of such viewings for humankind as an example of harmony and ‘density of meaning’ for our own human inventions. Nana is purely human oriented and embraces the dissonance that is more truthful than aristocratic romance. In all the letters, the sublime is an idea that seems relevant. It is related to something that is ideal and that raises a kind of ambition in mankind. The concept has evolved from being a divine sense of fear in the first letter into a confident self-governance in the last letter.

I cannot help but smile with a tender admiration when I read about this European type of cultural development. In my Japanese perception it is Bashô who clearly articulated the key aspect of a sublime experience: loneliness and its resulting reflections. We can choose how to interpret the fall of a kiri leaf, reflecting on both the act itself and our human interpretation of it. Both define the suchness of the event. Through a haiku we learn that we can unlearn such interpretations. This is why I have become an artist, because I want to learn how to unlearn and learn anew. I am a student of life and your letters have been my teachings. All kinds of perceptional borders can be crossed and the ‘in between’ of the border itself can be studied. The duality of things can become a ‘thickened’ border that can be a place to dwell in. This is the way I understand the value of the sublime, as a method for training awareness. Bashô’s poetic riddle is about the imagination of the human mind and how we perceive our environment. In the Buddhist tradition, and especially Zen, astonishment is not essentially related to any kind of horror; it is neither pleasant nor troublesome, but is neutral to any such value judgement and can therefore be present at every interval and scale. It is even indifferent to a moral sense, because morality is also a judgement. The highest Buddhist spiritual reward is in satori, which is a sudden awaking that can happen any time. First you wake up, which is essentially simple; then you learn what effects this has, which is the difficult part because you have to unlearn what has become routine.

Human perfection is different from natural perfection. This is reflected in the concept of wabi sabi. The word wabi refers to the same loneliness that Bashô recalls. It is the loneliness of living or travelling in nature. Everything surrounding you is not made by humans, nor does it seemingly need humans. Sabi is the affection this duality arouses, an affection for the worn aspects, the scars of use or the patina of time, and a tension between the now and what once was. This affection is not always comforting or tranquilizing. It sometimes refers to pressing survival and instincts, while at other times it is sheer beauty. It is a dynamic aesthetic experience, because our emotions are triggered differently depending on time, place and the people we are with. There might be a ‘density of meaning’ at some moments, but also a ‘shallowness of meaning’ at others.

The fact that wabi sabi is two words and sublime only one is perhaps significant. The ideas about the sublime in globalizing culture are driven by a desire to become one, a singularity. The ideas about wabi sabi are about a dynamic interaction, accepting a natural duality. European minds have accepted being guided by their imagination, even if they do not understand it. They experiment with failures and successes. The Buddhist belief is opposite and less creative. Buddhism is sure that the awareness of the illusion of living in a box will reveal a bigger box until there is no knowing possible, only awareness and humbleness. Instead of a box, they uphold the metaphorical qualities of the cup, that is open and can be filled and emptied. To Buddhists there are boundaries beyond which there is nothing conceivable. European minds seem confident that they can perfect purely imaginative illusions within boxes, including a sense of boxed loneliness. To me it is obvious that the Buddhist sense of reality is true, and yet Western ambition is more adventurous. For instance, I grew up with the manga illustrations of Osamu Tezuka, creator of the immensely popular fantasy figure Mighty Atom – or Astro Boy in the American version. No other culture has embraced such a love of robotics and computers as rapidly as the defeated Japanese. During the war, Japan still used bamboo constructions for their fire bombs, whereas the Americans developed the technologically advanced atom bomb. After their defeat the Japanese became obsessed with gaining technological mastery, this time for the cause of peace – the Americans had made the Japanese adopt a pacifist constitution. Mighty Atom was therefore imagined as a ‘reverse Pinocchio’, not a toy that wanted to become a serious human being, but a serious robot that wanted to become a playful human being. Mighty Atom is the symbol of a new Japan: a nearly perfect robot that strives to become more human and more flawed (i.e. emotional and illogical). Instead of developing a technology to dominate human beings militarily, the Japanese embraced a technology that included wabi sabi and the humble lesson it provides. Compared with the superpowers possessed by Superman and the pure innocence of Walt Disney characters, one of the great strengths of contemporary Japanese industry is the humanizing of complex technology.

My own work does not directly refer to the sublime or to wabi sabi. I have deliberately distanced myself from these notions to unlearn them. I create games and drawings for children and young adults, because they are most involved with learning and unlearning. I create work that does not enforce another world upon young people, yet provides a buzz of experience, like being in a beehive: changing, comforting and busy. They resonate with several possible ways to drift off. I once came upon the seventeenth-century term sha, used by Western travellers to ‘oriental’ China to refer to what they experienced as a naturalistic style of landscaping. Sharawadgi represents an unexpected aesthetic perception without any recognizable order or composition. It is a beautiful expression because the sound of the word represents the experience. The seventeenth-century travel guide carefully distinguished sharawadgi from the Kantian sublime. It is ‘without splendour or theatricality’ (Augoyard & Torgue, 2006), the gentle version of a confusion or discordance that transports us elsewhere. What is more important, it has essentially no roots in the natural, but rather in the cultural.

Amidst a soft and gentle confusion we can enjoy the buzz of life, giving us the energy to create. Satori is in experiencing the energy itself and not so much the products that might result from it. This resembles the playfulness of children playing outdoors or the exhilaration of a carnival or family feast. If only one leaf has fallen from the kiri tree, there are a lot more leaves still on the tree. So many leaves with the potential to fall and evoke all types of illusionary experiences over and over again.

Wakahisa Kiwako


Postscript: The whole series of letters (all hand written) and the original copy of the book Nightwood have been carefully sealed in a specially designed cocoon that can withstand rainfall, chemical exposure, radioactivity and attacks by animals. It was inserted into the stem of a kiri tree that will gradually encapsulate it in its bark. The tree is now growing with healthy roots in the decomposing surface of an island of mostly plastic debris floating on the Indian Ocean.


Bibliography used

Augoyard, J.-F., & Torgue, H. (2006). Sonic experience: a guide to everyday sounds: McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.

Barnes, D. (1937). Nightwood. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.

Bashô, M. (2001). De herfstwind dringt door merg en been (J. Vos, Trans.). Amsterdam: De Arbeiderspers.

Koren, L. (2008). Wabi-sabi for artists, designers, poets & philosophers: Imperfect Publishing.

Schodt, F. L. (2007). The Astro Boy Essays. Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom and the Manga/Anime Revolution. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press.

Welch, M. D. (1995). The Haiku Sensibilities of E.E. Cummings. Spring, the Journal of the E.E. Cummings Society, New Series(4), 95-120.