According to my Japanese almanacs, of the four seasons, it is autumn alone which is heard before it is seen.
This can happen after a windless, blisteringly hot Japanese summer, when autumn arrives around the end of August. Ever so slight, it makes itself known by the sound of the stirring of the leaves in the trees--for autumn arrives carried by the wind.
Blue-and-White Porcelain" by Jiàn Jiāng A craftsman's love of his southern lady Painted onto the glaze His soul fired in the kiln
The other day on facebook, my little sister Ting-Jen reminded me of the scene in an old Zhang Yimou film, The Road Home, when a traveling potter arrives in the heroine's village. Asking whether anyone has something needing repair, he is asked to mend a broken ceramic bowl. Even though it would cost less just to buy a new one-- and hey money was tight-- still in those days people knew that tending memories and taking care of things was a virtue（美徳). And so he skillfully repairs the bowl. That scene had struck me too, and I told my little sister that in Japan, I thought the spirit of craftsmanship is still alive and well. Having a heart to take good care of things (物を大切にする心) is related to concepts of divinity in things and to a natural piety. My best friend’s husband, for example, is really adept at repairing ceramics using gold lacquer and the repairs he lovingly labors over add to the interest or fascination of the the ceramic pieces themselves.
After all, once upon a time ceramic vessels were not just things for storing water or for putting food and flowers in, but they were places where people could put their dreams and shared imaginings. Vessels were places for storing memories and in which to put your metaphors. They were even places were great jars were used in which to bury the dead. Like in Borneo, the dragon jars had characters and destinies like any Greek hero. They had charisma.
Craftsmanship is something Hubert Dreyfus (my intellectual hero) has written about for twenty years. Contrasting craftmanship with technology, he says:
To the extent that technology strips away the need for skill, it strips away the possibility for meaning as well. To have a skill is to know what counts or is worthwhile in a certain domain. Skills reveal meaningful differences to us and cultivate in us a sense of responsibility to bring these out at their best. To the extent that it takes away the need for skill, technology flattens out human life. (All things shining)
I think it is true that if technology aims to make things easier more convenient and efficient; craftsmanship--in contrast-- generates embodied skills, discernment and care; all things which used to be very central to the way people lived their lives. This still can be found in japan where 職人文化 (craftsman culture) is alive and where people continute perhaps to value quality. The existentialist--like the Confucian or daoist-- prioritisizes embodied know-how, and this is predicated on a worldview that does not emphasize a mind-body divide so that-- (as the brilliant Wang Yangming suggested) to know is to do and to do to is to know. This is what Dreyfus called embodied know-how. And he is bringing forth heidegger's old concept--borrowed from the Greeks-- of Poiesis, which itself harkens back to a world where sophia means both wisdom and skill and where poetry was thought to be a form of craft or a practiced skill which not only warms the heart but sheds a special radiance on the subjects it celebrates (Bowra)
Steven posted on facebook, I wonder who will repair the stuff we have now, if they will repair it, and how they will do it.
I really think, sadly, the stuff we have today is not meant for repair--it is 使い捨てる (totally disposable). And, in the end, this is what Dreyfus--following Heidegger-- has been concerned with--as he frets that in the end, we begin to treat even our own selves as resources to be used and consumed, instead of being grounded in those things that really matter.
--Translation above with Jan Walls on FB (last line probably inaccurate due to my own 不足)
Only by the form, the pattern, / Can words or music reach / The stillness, as a Chinese jar still / Moves perpetually in its stillness. / Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts, / Not that only, but the co-existence, / Or say that the end precedes the beginning, / And the end and the beginning were always there / Before the beginning and after the end. / And all is always now. . -T. S. Eliot Four Quartets
I have tried to write Paradise Do not move Let the wind speak that is paradise-- Ezra Pound
The winds of paradise-- like the wind of fate-- surely they are musical, potent, and exqusitely fragrant.
They say, Cleopatra herself lived in a cloud of incense and in a dream of purple. Perfumed in Frankiscence, myrrh, lotus, sandalwood, and rose water... she traveled the Nile on a boat, said Shakespeare, adorned with purple sails so perfumed, that the winds were love-sick with them …
Surely the winds of paradise are like that--perfumed and love-sick.
In Japan, the winds in May have traditionally been known as the most delightful winds of the year-- for May is "the time of perfume winds" (風薫る五月). And, closing my eyes on a breezy afternoon in late May, I am immediately transported by the sound of the wind outside my window.
I've long wondered, why it is that everyone prefers Dante's Purgatorio to his Paradiso?
Am I the only one who-- while utterly unable to imagine hell-- often finds myself lost in dreams of paradise?
For me, paradise is like a Persian garden. I imagine the fragrance of roses, jasmine and gardenias intoxicates. There is music, gently perfumed spring breezes and unending picnics. Adonis flies a kite as philosophers wander nearby discussing Aristotle with my friend Señor Borges. As they talk, they are looking for the name of God in the pattern of the rose petals. They are just close enough to hear-- just close enough to be able to join in in the conversation too. The great Sam Hamill is there reciting poems from Almost Paradise as Tullio draws maps of imaginary worlds in black ink.
Averroes and Avicenna are there. Izumi Shikibu and Lady Rokujo are also there debating with each other in the most charming way-- as are all Genji's lovers. But so too is Beatrice and Hannah Arendt (Heidegger, I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear, didn't make it this far). My lover the Emperor sits not too faraway (while the object of my affection sits closer still).
The philosophers are speaking in all the great languages that could once be heard in the teeming markets of Chang'an. And, of course, Anna Karenina and her Beloved the Count sit cuddling under a great Chinar tree.
Picnics that never end include Persian yogurts and every type of biryani; the finest oolong tea, like champagne, from the misty mountains of Formosa, or green tea served in heirloom teabowls by Tea Masters with long lineages. The tea is served with beautiful sweets from my favorite shop in the Province of the Clouds faraway-- everything the verdant color of new grass. There is Japanese chocolates and dimsum from Hongkong so delicious I brush away tears of delight with 豆腐花 so divine-- well, I know that I must be in Paradise....
In the distance, a great ziggurat rises toward the shimmering blue sky. Containing every book ever written, it stands as a place of great possibility. Beijing is there in the ziggurat with Borges writing his books. I rarely go there. For I prefer my unending picnicking under the Chinar trees listening to the sound of wind in the trees. A book of poems, by Conrad Roth, lies there on the blanket-- just within reach. Icarus he writes,
the wind sang in his wings, and his wings wandered and wended their wanton way to the sun—
It's not just Icarus either, for everyone is wearing wings--rainbow wings.
There are long tunnels covered in wisteria-- white, yellow and purple... They remind me of the covered walkways at the Summer Palace outside Beijing that I have read about. Long covered walkways which the Dowager Empress in Qing China would walk for her exercise-- sometimes reading a book as she walked along. Long, shady flower tunnels-- all leading toward ancient wisteria trees, which one could circumnambulate like Mount Kailash, before choosing one of five other flower tunnels each leading in a different direction to travel down.
I am, however, still lazily sitting on a large quilt with a friend who has a giant pink peony tucked behind his ear. He is urging me to try another sweet as music from a harpsichord draws my attention toward the towering mountains in the distance. Beautiful animals wander among with gardens and palace interiors.
I see two little children in their kimono with the wings as they alight from a colorful dragon boat on the river with the 10,000 curves. They begin slowly walking toward me.
Watching them, I recall that Makiko-- 10,000 miles away in Turfan-- is probably seeing paintings depicting the same birds of paradise on the walls of the Buddhist temple caves there.
The Buddhist bird of paradise is known in Sanskrit as Kavalinka (迦陵頻伽). It is the bird whose singing begins before it even hatches from its egg. Little voices of paradise, their song was thought to be so beautiful, they were likened to angels.
Angels, arias and manicured gardens being common to most people's ideas of paradise....mountains loom large, rivers flow purely.
On the other side of the river of lights is the Double Greeting Wanton Shop with its $10 prostitutes and BBQ pork. You can take a number at the counter and have your fortune told in the back. The Ambassador is there, sitting with Professor Wang. Splitting a piece of Hungarian cheesecake, they are waiting their turn, happy.
In Dante's Paradise--there is no concept of enlightenment. The soul is not a resource to be improved or utilized and people do not aim for detachment or perfection of any kind. All that is required is love and hope.
That's it. Faith and Fidelity are just other names for it.
And in this place where poetry has been resurrected and playfulness rules the day (in the playground of the mind).
Kant would be displeased, not doubt, but in the realm of souls, reality is nothing but thought and spirit. And this, then, becomes the definition of inner freedom. For the burning hot Medieval heart; true love, true play, and any true heart's occupation (whether according to Kierkegaard or Proust or even Plato) will --no matter what-- be an end in and of itself. Like a kiss, like love, like everything worthwhile, paradise revolves around beauty and playfulness. Souls being guided by their metaphysical pursuit of the Good/God ---generate a reality that necessarily determines itself (rather than being externally or causally generated).
In my paradise, along with kant, Hume too doesn't have a leg to stand on.
And in this world of play and beauty, in addition to unending picnics, I imagine there is also an exquisite calendar of ceremonies, feasts and rituals---where just like in the world of Genji, sutras are read, incense is burned and dances performed by little children in wings-- not because anything will come of it, but merely because it is beautiful and therefore Good.
‘Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiasm,’ he wrote in 1846, ‘and shrewdly lapsing into repose.’ Passion in this sense is about bringing one’s whole self to what one does, including reasoning. What is much more common today is either a sentimental subjectivity, in which everything becomes about your own feelings or personal story; or a detached objectivity in which the motivations and interests of the researchers are deemed irrelevant. Kierkegaard insisted on going beyond this objective/subjective choice, recognising that honest intellectual work requires a sincere attempt to see things as they are and an authentic recognition of how one’s own nature, beliefs and biases inevitably shape one’s perceptions."
An absolutely wonderful article about Kierkegaard by Julian Baggini here.
To meet Proust would have been delicious and the sight of John the Baptist incredible, and yet, in the end, I knew I could not really top the allure of Voltaire. In terms of a day spent, I just have to believe that Voltaire really had what it takes. I mean, he kept Madame du Châtelet happy for decades in her grand chateau, right?
We know at Cirey, the two lovers would spend their days absorbed in the respective studies. Working at opposite ends of the vast chateau, it is said they passed notes constantly during their days spent working apart; liveried butlers would deliver handwritten love-letters on silver platters whenever one of the lovers had something to say to the other. In the evenings, though, Madame and Voltaire would always come together to dine. Oh, can you imagine the sparkling conversations? Those dinners alone make him worthy of a wistful sigh.
I love Voltaire. And, like a favorite landscape, Candide is a book that I seem to return to again and again.
Some say Nowruz, or Persian New Year, is a holiday that goes back 2,500 years. Seems impossible, but everyone agrees it is one of the world's oldest celebrations-- a celebration which continues to be one of the most looked-forward to events in the Persian calendar.
Part of the festivities include a picnic-- hopefully with a fire. Persians love their picnics-- as this devotion to picnics can be seen across the vast expanse of what was once the Great Persian Empire. From Turkey, Afghanistan, Central Asia to Kashmir-- even in Tehrangeles, in the more elegant part of LA-- people picnic around the vernal equinox.
It is a civilized pastime, very much like cherry-blossom viewing-- a day to relax and dream of paradise-- enjoying both the company and spring itself-- the birds, the clouds, the sunshine, and more than anything the flowers.
And, why is it that everything tastes better outdoors?
I was indoctrinated into picnics long before I came to Japan (by a Persian best friend back home). It is a custom which I carried with me to Japan-- where, of course, it fit like a glove.
So, every year we would celebrate the vernal equinox by picnicking. And, in my heart, this will always be the real New Year.
Like clockwork, the ducks and egrets return to the Uzumagawa River and specks of green start sprouting in the lawn-- yes, the return of life and the start of a new year. I cannot help but start imagining all the picnics and flower-viewing-- and somehow everything seems so filled with possibility.
The Kid and I usually would start taking to the mountains just before the equinox to go "baby fern hunting." Called "zenmai" 薇 you know how they are like little coiled springs waiting till it gets to be just the right time to unfurl?
They are so cute and adorable. I read once that ferns used to cover prehistoric forests... so maybe they're very old like dinosaurs? Can you imagine wandering in never-ending forests of ferns as huge, prehistoric dinosaur birds soared in the skies above?
There is an expression used in haiku poetry composition around this time of year: "Mountains smiling in early spring" Borrowed like so many other things from China, the painter who coined this phrase, the Northern Song painter and Literati great, Guo Xi, is most famous for his work titled Early Spring. His poem about mountains smiling appeared in an poetry anthology in Japanese known as 漢詩集 「臥遊録」 (yes, that's right, the Han Anthology Dream Journey Jottings)
春山淡治而如笑 夏山蒼翠而如滴 秋山明浄而如粧 冬山惨淡而如眠
Mountains smiling in early spring was a theme much appreciated at court-- even during my beloved's times-- which came about 100 years after the painter wrote his legendary poem. Imagine after what must have felt like an almost unendingly long period of cold and depressing "mountains sleeping," the mountains in March would seem to almost "spring" to life again.
First, came the slow but sure return of green. Followed by a splash of color here and there: plum, robai, and finally sakura. And, so people would take to the hills....
This was also after all the best season for a love affair ---for of course, we all know everything is always dashed to hell by mid-Fall so it's better to get started early, right? :))
In China, people travel back to their hometowns around this time of year for qing ming to sweep the tombs of their ancestors and celebrate the return of spring-- very much like Japanese O-bon. There is also a custom of eating outdoors to celebrate spring.Some scholars see the Japanese cherry blossom-viewing custom having its roots in qing ming --as a day of family communion (between the living and the dead), picnics (celebrating spring) and purification. Ideally, one picnics on top of a hill and purified oneself in a river (to wash away in bad deeds or bad luck). There are probably poems about friends climbing hilltops （踏青）or maybe about picking mountain herbs (山菜摘み）...
It was this idea, of "stepping on blue" （踏青→ getting out and walking in nature）, along with the Japanese idea of the gods of the fields returning from their long slumber around this time of year that are most deeply connected to Japanese sensibilities surrounding cherry blossom viewing.
And, it's that time again.
Shalimar Garden; one of Srinagar's three famous "gardens of love," one the most memorable picnic I ever had in my life took place in the shade of one the garden's many chinar trees. Beautiful tulips were planted alongside the many fountains, and families sat in the pavilions as what seemed like an army of newleyweds strolled across the grass....Sultan's wife had prepared a true Persian picnic of pollo rice and yogurt, kebabs and tea served in glasses. Although nearly 20 years have passed since then, I will never forget it. Sultn's wife had brought the most beautiful tomatoes I have ever seen and we laughed and talked about the flowers and all the future children we would have.
To sit in the warm sunshine in a cool garden surrounded by the sounds of flowing water and laughing children truly is the perfect pastime for a spring day. I only wish I could go back in time and somehow insert my son right smack in the middle of the memory. Of course, he is war of rice with nuts and fruit in it and isn't crazy about tomatoes....Still, I think he could have really had fun in those fountains.
So, not only did the son of a bitch bring home a concubine with him from Troy, but he had killed with his own hands their beloved daughter Iphigenia.
Really, what else could she have done-- what else would any woman do-- but murder him that night when he was in the bathtub.
The Chorus, though, was not convinced. I mean, despite whatever marital issues they may have had, wasn't Agememnon--son of Atreus and brother of Menelaus-- a great and virtuous King? Had he not led the Greeks in their stunning victory over Troy?
How could she do it?
The chorus, demanded an answer.
And, so in a series of speeches, which would be the envy of any Washington speech writer, the queen lays out her case. Her husband-- the King-- has killed their beloved daughter. That he had brought a concubine home with him from Troy and that she and her lover were already happily ruling the Kingdom ensconced in the castle were reasons as well. But Clytemnestra-- make no doubt about it-- is clear about her reasons: he killed their daughter and for that he must die.
So, she sets him up.
In what is one of the most famous homecoming scenes in all history-- Clytemnestra gives her husband Agamemnon the "red carpet treatment."
Laying out the family's priceless textiles, she urges him:
"Walk across, my Lord."
He tells her he will not. For that is the kind of arrogance that Persian Kings show-- believing themselves to be as all-mighty as the gods.
"We are democrats," he responds.
And when she continues begging him to glide across the sea of blood-red tapestries, he retorts:
"These are heirlooms, how can we soil our family heirlooms?"
In the end, exhausted perhaps from the trip, he allows himself to be persuaded and across he walks-- to his death. For it was this final show of arrogance that will become the all-important piece of evidence that Clytemnestra will require to persuade the chorus of the need she had to get rid of him. For most Greeks would have agreed that an all-powerful monarch in the style seen in Persia was something to be avoided at all costs.
And, so we see that this theme developed by Herodotus was already to be found in Aeschylus-- just waiting for him and his retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae.
I am re-reading William Golding's famous essay on Thermopylae, "Hot Gates." It is such a wonderfully written essay, harkening back to better days in travel writing, better days in essay writing too (with some exceptions, of course, essay writing seems to have become an almost lost art). Truly and with thankfully not a trace of any personal journey of self-discovery anywhere in the essay (Eat, Love, Puke), Golding sets out to walk the ancient battleground. What was at one time only a narrow sliver of land-- pressed up against the cliffs, the edge dropped straight down into the sea. Thermopylae. Between cliffs and the sea, it was here that Leonidas made his legendary last stand.
It is so famous, I hesitate to attempt to even describe the armies-- the myriad of tribes and peoples comprising the Persian army alone went on for pages and pages in Herodotus. Here is Golding:
No man had ever seen anything like this army before. It was patently unstoppable. It came along the neck of the hills on the banks of the Asopus, from the heights of the mountain and along the coastal track from Alope and Phalara. Lengthening rivers of men—Persians in fish-scale armor, turbaned Cissians, bronze-clad Assyrians, trousered Scythians, Indian bowmen, Caspians, Sarangians in bright cloth and high-heeled boots—came down and spread in a flood that filled the plain. Soon there was nothing to see but rising clouds of white dust, pierced and speckled with the flicker of steel. If each of the seven thousand Greeks should kill his ten men, there would be more than enough to press forward—and this was only the vanguard.
The numbers alone are exhilarating-- the Persian army being said to have been comprised of a million men! Impossible, of course, but Herodotus' famous anecdote about the great Spartan warrior Dienekes is unforgettable:
Although extraordinary valor was displayed by the entire corps of Spartans and Thespians, yet bravest of all was declared the Spartan Dienekes. It is said that on the eve of battle, he was told by a native of Trachis that the Persian archers were so numerous that, their arrows would block out the sun. Dienekes, however, undaunted by this prospect, remarked with a laugh, 'Good. Then we will fight in the shade'
Truly one of the most exhilerating moments in history, when the Persians try and persuade them to lay down their weapons, Leonidas responds, "Come and get them." Not that he thought for a minute that his Spartans could overcome numbers like that. But, he knew, there were some things worth dying for.
Everytime I read it, it makes me breathless.
Golding's conclusion is rightly famous:
I came to myself in a great stillness, to find that I was standing by the little mound. This is the mound of Leonidas, with its dust and rank grass, its flowers and lizards, its stones, scruffy laurels and hot gusts of wind. I knew now that something real happened here. It is not just that the human spirit reacts directly and beyond all argument to a story of sacrifice and courage, as a wine glass must vibrate to the sound of a violin. It is also because, way back and at the hundredth remove, that company stood right in the line of history. A little of Leonidas lies in the fact that I can go where I like and write what I like. He contributed to set us free.
What is worth fighting for?
Thermopylae-- this battle which the Greeks lost after all-- will always stand as something greatly symbolic. Indeed, it formed so many of our Western notions of bravery in the face of great obstacles-- of a few who gladly gave up their lives to take a stand for freedom and the law. And, maybe it is even to suggest that to not have something you would die for is perhaps one of the saddest fates a person can have (ie, Kierkegaard).
There is this great speech given by Leonidas to his men in Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire:
"Listen to me brothers. The Persian king is not a king as Kelomenes was to us or as I am to you now. He does not take his place with shield and spear amid the manslaughter, but looks on,safe, from a distance, atop a hill, upon a golden throne." Murmured jeers rose from the men's throats as Leonides spoke this. "His comrades are not Peers and Equals, free to speak their minds before him without fear, but slaves and chattel. Each man is not deemed an equal before God, but the King's property, counted no more than a goat or pig and driven into battle not by love of nation or liberty but by the lash of otehr slaves' whips."
For two thousand years, the West has held up freedom as personal liberty as the ultimate value to be prioritized. Never mind that Leonidas' own culture was itself based on slaves--some say some 50% of the Greek population was comprised of enslaved people. And, we see even in this speech above, the conflating of Democracy and Freedom with personal liberty (and negative freedoms).
It has been-- since the time of Herodotus-- presented as a great "clash" of values.
But what values were the Persians holding up as the Greatest Good? Well, the same values that we see being held up in many East Asian societies: Order, stability and collective Good. This is what the Persians were offering and their own ideas of freedom were inherently tied up with these values. I think we really can find this in Confucian philosophy-- this idea of "Freedom to" as opposed to "freedom from."
Melvyn Bragg had a great In Our Times show on Thermopylae in which he and his guests trace the rhetoric of Orientalism back to Herodotus' version of the battle. One of the guests describes ancient Greek culture as being unique in its holding up of dialogue and competition, and that it was this dialectical predeliction in Greek thought which would pave the way for theorizing and for philosophy. In her explanation, she describes two lawyers arguing or philosophers debating; Clytemnestra persuaing the chorus... and that out of this acceptance-- indeed it was a preference-- for the dialectical that true theory and true philosophy came into being.
The narrative surrounding Theropylae is also constructed in this dialectical framework. And, without a doubt I think we can see that it has laid the foundation for certain ideological constructs that continue to influence the way the West views other cultures. From Theropylae to the Ottoman Empire to China. This was what was so interesting about the great emotion surrounding Daniel Bell's work about China, for example. Nothing he said was so shocking from a Japanese point of view. That is because, perhaps, Japan, like China and maybe like the Persia under Xerxes prioritizes values differently. Freedom is certainly not defined in the same terms. Neither is "philosophy"... And so, like with so much else, everything comes down to translation and interpretation. And one's comfort zones.
And, this Battle, which has been re-told for generations upon generations in the West, hardly even showed up as a blip in Persian history.