Book Review: "A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics" by Donald Richie

THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF FOREIGNERS: The one who visits the holiest zen garden and sees nothing but a dirty pond, a bit of gravel, and some shrubs, and the other who finds infinite spiritual wonders in a small, misshapen clay tea cup. Most of us living in Japan exist between these two poles of stolid cynicism and excitable, awestruck reverence for Japanese culture.

Exactly where you lie on this continuum will determine how much you appreciate this small book by Donald Richie. The acknowledged don of resident gaijin writers in Japan, Richie first came to these shores in 1947 as a cub reporter for the US military publication Pacific Stars and Stripes. What is notable at the start is the way Richie attempts to set his book apart by (a) calling it a "tractate," and (b) asserting that an exploration of Eastern aesthetics is not compatible with the ordered, logical, and analytical "conventions of a Western discourse." While "tractate" is similar in definition to dissertation, its connotations call to mind the mysticism of the Hebrew Talmud and Neo-Platonic philosophy, something that seems borne out in Richie's declared intention to allow unspoken factors to "guide his brush."

"Most likely to succeed in defining Japanese aesthetics is a net of associations composed of listings or jottings, connected intuitively, that fills in a background and renders the subject visibly," he writes in the preface.

Given Richie's age — 83 — one is tempted to think that he's employing these tricks to set up easier and more tolerant ground rules for what follows or, to put it more bluntly, giving himself an old man's license to ramble on. The incessant abstraction and definition of terms by words that are themselves undefined gives great stretches of the book a vague, misty character or, worse still, the feeling of reading a dictionary without the alphabetical organization. To be fair to Richie, he seems as much aware of this as anyone else.

"But such a subjective term as 'taste' (even under a rubric as generous as good-sense equals good-taste) needs to be codified," he writes at one point, apparently regretting his decision to turn his back on the certainties established by the "conventions of a Western discourse." Luckily, he soon moves away from such wordism and throws in more actual examples. "This is jimi, usually translated as simple 'good taste,' though it does have a pejorative edge. When a plainish kimono is worn in a group wearing brighter garments, a close friend might remark (with a smile): "Isn’t that a little jimi?"

Read with patience and a degree of faith in the undoubted erudition of the writer, this little book eventually has much to say. As the above quote suggests, much in Japanese aesthetics is determined by social dynamics and one-upmanship. In one of the many small boxes that pepper the main text, Richie writes that "[Japanese aesthetics] still serve to separate status and class." This is aesthetics as a line of defense against social turbulence and changes caused by economic forces. The salient features of Japanese culture—wabi sabi, "less is more," Zenism, etc.—thus appear as attempts to constantly outflank and counter the gaudy flash and panache of the nouveau riche.

Japanese aesthetics are revealed as the product of this social competitiveness, of the desire to find yet more subtle shades of meaning and beauty than the next guy. This has often led to an effete pretentiousness and an overabundance of subtlety, as in the appositely named Arthur Waley's definition of the term yugen, quoted in the book: "To watch the sun sink behind a flower-clad hill, to wander on and on in a huge forest with no thought of return, to stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that goes hidden by far-off islands… such are the gates of yugen." The kind of person who reads that and thinks, "Great! Where can I buy some?" then this book is for you. As for me, I enjoyed it for all the wrong reasons.

28th December, 2007
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