Classical Japanese Aesthetics with David Armstrong and David Bentley Hart

Here are a few portions transcribed from “To Dwell in the Evanescent” (a conversation with David Bentley Hart at A Perennial Digression). These highlights will hopefully draw you into the entire conversation with David Armstrong and David Bentley Hart if you haven’t listened yet:

Over the years, more and more, I realized that I had a special fascination with Japanese aesthetic tradition for a number of reasons. One is that it’s so distinctive. It definitely stands apart, on the one hand because of the intensity of the seriousness with which it’s taken in traditional Japanese culture, that the perfecting of form at a very early period in Japanese history becomes more than a dilettante concern. It’s something that everyone, men and women, high and low, persons of every class, are expected to regard as somehow central to a life well-led. Then there’s the sheer distinctiveness of the Japanese emphasis on blending the natural and the unadorned with human artifice in a way that has some precursors and some analogies in Chinese aesthetics but in a much less central way. In Chinese aesthetics there is a predominantly Taoist or at least poetic tradition that we associate with the Taoist side of the Chinese sensibility that emphasizes the simplicity of nature. On the whole, Chinese aesthetics puts much more emphasis on on the ornate and the intricate, and there’s plenty of that in Japan but always the ideal again and again from the middle ages onward has been balancing that with nature and not allowing a love of artifice to alienate you from the beauty of the natural world.

Then there’s another distinctive element of it that fascinated me from an early time—it is that it’s the only really refined aesthetic tradition I know that presumes beauty but does not really discuss it. Beauty is the persistent backdrop. All of the distinctive Japanese aesthetic concepts have to do with other things like simplicity—finding beauty where it’s most unexpected in things broken and discarded, even, as well as rough and and unadorned—the ultimate effect of which, to my mind is some of the most exquisite art in the history of the world, within a very specific range of sensibility, but literature and visual arts and drama and music that is unlike what you find anywhere else in the world. The last thing I’ll say is the sheer challenge of trying, for a western mind, trying to grasp any one of the dominant aesthetic values in the Japanese lexicon of aesthetic terms. Their glossary, that in itself is such a challenge that it’s almost impossible to turn away once you’ve entered the game.

…In Japanese culture, you don’t have quite that same kind of—because, perhaps, the discourse of the beautiful isn’t united, you know, that you don’t have a concept like kalokagathon, the beautiful and the good in one—that sort of moral judgment seems to be in suspense. The moral content of Japanese aesthetics is humility—not necessarily perfect virtue but nonetheless an unwillingness to indulge in ostentation for ostentation’s sake and allowing the natural beauty of things and the beauty that’s imbued in things by time and by their decay, as much as by their fabrication and their growth, to reveal itself to you. So a refined sense of restraint is the closest thing to a virtue associated with aesthetics that you find in the classical Japanese canon of aesthetic terms.

…I do think that what’s distinctive in aesthetics …comes more from Shinto originally than from Buddhism. Now one supreme aesthetic value in the endless glossary of aesthetic terms that you get in Japanese is enso, and that is a very Buddhist notion of sunyata, you know, the emptiness that is expressed in the constant attempt to paint a perfect circle, in which the fullness, the allness, the nothingness at once is expressed. So enso is the closest thing to the sun of the good hovering over the whole gallery of aesthetic terms.

But for the most part when you look at the values of traditionalist Japanese aesthetics, not necessarily modern Japanese aesthetics, you’re in a world of nature spirits in a very real sense.

It’s this Protestant superstition that gods are some sort of rival to God, you know, which is just a modal catechesis. It’s a logical error to think that gods would be anything other than different sorts of creatures. You know they couldn’t possibly be rivals for God in the fully transcendent sense. It’s simply a mirage of language. Too bad that we don’t have something like the Greek—the best we can do is capitalize God and relegate the gods to lowercase subordination, but in Greek ho theos and the various theoi are not rivals for the same place in reality, and I’m all for making as much room for the spirits and gods of Japan as I am for the ones of the West.

In fact, more and more, I’m becoming convinced that the only sane Christian view of things is a kind of panpsychism grounded in the universality of the Logos that would require that all natural forms—that first of all the Logos as such knows from inside, so to speak, what it is to be any natural [thing]. There’s already a ground of consciousness there, but that would also have to have the mode of the personal consciousness, say, of your mulberry bush. I can’t prove this, but it seems to me the personification of the mulberry bush in the form of a very small nymph-like being, you know—let’s call her mulberria—is a closer approximation to reality than any sort of mechanist view of matter as intrinsically dead and then possessing life only in the sense of vegetative growth. Anything that is, is already, in some sense, known from the inside, and that’s how we should relate to it. But this, again, it’s just because the world is so much less interesting if that isn’t true, that, what’s the point of not believing it? We’ve only got three score and ten here.

…It also explains, let’s be honest, it explains a great number of things. There’s so much that we don’t really—the origins of so much of human culture are much more mysterious than we pretend they are, so that it just makes much better sense to assume that at some point culture had to start going from this or that resident god or archon or whatever angel.

The plain clay cup, even one that’s been broken and restored—in fact there’s a whole Japanese art of restoring broken things and then treasuring the brokenness of their character—could be more exquisite, more beautiful, that it lingered more lovingly on the threshold between the natural and the artificial. Which, you know, if you think about it, what is the central image, what is the symbol of Shinto the way the cross is for Christianity or the crescent for Islam or the star of David? You’d have to say the torii. It’s the gate. It’s this place of mystical liminality between the world of spirit and the world of human beings, but, in a sense, that dwelling on the threshold, also, between the natural and the artificial—between the human world, which is a sheltered world created with the beneficence, obviously, of certain kami and tama—and then the world of nature which is a world full of the mystery of spiritual beings—that’s all alive. In a sense, that aspect of Shinto—that always being on the threshold—is probably very much the secret inner core of the aesthetic—of the sensibility—we’re talking about.

David Armstrong: Part of the reason why our culture [in the United States] is so disenchanted is that the peoples and traditions that could have taught us how to recognize the sacred, the divine, in this place, we just horrifically abused.

Can I do a little bibliography thing here, because I already showed you the [Hiroshi] Nara edition [translation] of The Structure of Detachment, but there’s certain books that occurred to me that you’re devoted listeners [would want to know about]? …Well, I don’t have my copy of Hojiki here, for instance, or Basho’s Road to the Deep Interior, but [here are some] books on Japanese aesthetics that are worth being aware of. One really has to read the treatises of Zeami and the art of the no drama, this volume in particular actually has all of his major treatises [On the Art of the No Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami by Masakazu Yamazaki (Editor) and J. Thomas Rimer (Translator)]. Where the Japanese tea ceremony is concerned of course everyone knows Kakuzo Okakura that he wrote in English, The Book of Tea, which is a lovely book, you know, a million different editions, but if you’re really interested in the deep cuts, if you really want to go into all of the minutiae of the different schools of cha-no-yu, there is a famous book, the great Australian scholar Sadler’s book The Japanese Tea Ceremony at a very reasonable price from Tuttle. There’s another famous book that everyone should know: Soetsu Yanagi’s book The Beauty of Everyday Things. This takes the Japanese love of the ordinary to an almost obsessive extreme. It’s extravagantly plain, their wonderful praise of broken teacups. A bizarre and delightful and weirdly idiosyncratic classic of course is Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. I’m sure you’re watchers are aware that Tanizaki is the second greatest novelist of the 20th century in Japan after Kawabata Yasunari, at least in my estimation, I think in my nephew’s estimation as well and he’s a great reader of modern Japanese literature. In Praise of Shadows is very short. Everyone should read it because there’s nothing else quite like it, and it could only have been produced in Japan, but in Japan they would say it could only have been produced by Tanizaki. Oh and of course our Shinto classics, the Kojiki [Cosimo Classics edition] and the Nihongi [translated W. G. Aston].

Armstrong: I’d also say a great, very short, very cheap and very general overview to a lot of the stuff we talked about today is Donald Richie’s A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics.

Hart: I meant to mention that, and Donald Richie, of course, he’s a fascinating character. The Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics is very short, very good, and covers almost all of the major terms in as lucid a way as is possible in trying to convey their content to a western audience. Also, his book The Inland Sea is worth reading not because it’s on aesthetics, but somehow it keeps coming back to the—in a sense it’s an allegory to a kind of indigenous Japanese cultural beauty that is slowly fading.

In conclusion, here is some data from the declining Japanese handcraft industry:

Declines in traditional crafts of Japan from Culture, Creativity and Cities by Emiko Kakiuchi and Xavier Greffe.
Also from Culture, Creativity and Cities by Emiko Kakiuchi and Xavier Greffe.

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