Wednesday, July 28, 2010

WABI-SABI AND MODERNISM


As my last posting indicates, I have been reading Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers, which was written by Leonard Koren and published about sixteen years ago.  This small, elegant volume is a great introduction to the Japanese aesthetic ideal of wabi-sabi, which celebrates the beauty of things that are imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete; the beauty of things that are modest and humble; and the beauty of things that are unconventional.

Based on the comments I received on the first wabi-sabi posting, it's clear that many people are interested in exploring wabi-sabi as possible alternative to the western aesthetic ideal that dominates our modern world.  To that end, I think it's helpful to consider Koren's side-by-side comparison of the ways in which wabi-sabi stands in sharp contrast with modernism.

Modernism                                wabi-sabi

Primarily expressed                  Primarily expressed
in the public domain                  in the private domain

Implies a logical                        Implies an intuitive
rational worldview                     worldview

Absolute                                    Relative

Looks for universal                    Looks for personal,
prototypical solutions                 idiosyncratic solutions

Mass-produced/                        One-of-a-kind/
modular                                     variable

Expresses faith in                      There is no progress
progress

Future-oriented                          Present-oriented

Believes in the                           Believes in the
control of nature                         fundamental
                                                   uncontrollability of
                                                   nature

Romanticizes                              Romanticizes
technology                                  nature

People adapting to                      People adapting to
machines                                     nature

Geometric                                   Organic
organization of form                    organization of form
(sharp, precise                            (soft, vague shapes
definite shapes                            and edges)
and edges)

The box as metaphor                  The bowl as  metaphor
(rectilinear, precise,                    (free shape, open at
contained)                                   top)

Man-made materials                   Natural materials

Ostensibly slick                           Ostensibly crude

Needs to be                                 Accommodates to
well-maintained                           degradation and
                                                    attrition

Purity makes its                          Corrosion and
expression richer                        contamination
                                                    make its expression
                                                    richer

Solicits the reduction                  Solicits the expansion
of sensory                                   of sensory
information                                  information

Is intolerant of                              Is comfortable with
ambiguity and                              ambiguity and
contradiction                                contradiction

Cool                                             Warm

Generally light and                      Generally dark and
bright                                           dim

Function and utility                      Function and utility
are primary values                      are not so important

Perfect materiality                       Perfect immateriality
is an ideal                                    is an ideal

Everlasting                                  To everything there
                                                     is a season

Most people, I suspect, are not willing to completely abandon everything that is valued by modernism.  I, for one, plan to keep using my computer, camera, and cellphone -- and, much as it saddens me, I do find it necessary to occasionally visit the rational and logical part of my brain, if only as a tourist.  The great thing about wabi-sabi, however, is that it makes no demands. It simply invites us to move at our own speed toward a world that is more authentic and better connected with reality. Some may wish to practice wabi-sabi in every aspect of their daily lives.  Others may find that a middle way -- one that avoids extremes -- offers a better solution. What is undeniable, however, is that wabi-sabi offers an antidote to the modern ideal that finds beauty only in the perfect, the permanent, the completed, the grand, and the conventional.

This is a fascinating subject and I would welcome further comments on how wabi-sabi values have shaped your lives, without regard to whether you knew you were practicing wabi-sabi at the time.


Saturday, July 24, 2010

WABI-SABI


Old Peacock Feather

One of the books that has captured my imagination in recent weeks is Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers.  Published in 1994, this small book was written by Leonard Koren, a trained architect who, according to the publisher's note, had never previously built anything, except an eccentric Japanese tea house, "because he found large, permanent objects too philosophically vexing to design." 

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic ideal that is rooted to some extent in Zen Buddhism.  Like Zen, it is difficult to precisely define because it abhors structures, criteria, and formulas. According to Koren, however, wabi-sabi encompasses --

     the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent,
     and incomplete;

     the beauty of things modest and humble; and

     the beauty of things unconventional.

Looking around the outside of my home in the last few days, I have found several objects or groups of objects that seem to radiate wabi-sabi beauty: the remains of a weathered peacock feather that was arbitrarily stuck in a flower pot several years ago; odd pieces of colorful sea glass gathered by my wife from various beaches; a weathered stone with interesting patterns; a bird's abandoned nest still containing a broken shell that once contained new life; and a metal lattice strip succumbing to rust. Each of these objects is imperfect and each is a testament to the impermanence of all things.

Pieces of Weathered Sea Glass

In its celebration of things that are imperfect, impermanent, incomplete, modest, humble, or unconventional, wabi-sabi stands in opposition to the western aesthetic ideal.  With its Greek heritage, the western ideal reveres perfection and disparages "flaws"; venerates that which is perceived to be permanent and frowns upon that which is perceived to be transitory; and favors "completed" things over those that are slow works in progress.  Westerners may occasionally find the modest and humble to be charming, but we seldom equate it with beauty.  Nor are we inclined to ascribe beauty to unconventional things; more often than not, the unconventional is suspected of "ugliness," the cardinal aesthetic sin.

Weathered Stone

Understandably, the western aesthetic ideal may seem more rational to westerners, particularly Americans. Like Zen, however, wabi-sabi is decidedly anti-rational, which is to say that it abhors any habit of systematic, conditioned thinking that separates the thinker from the reality of the present moment.  As a result, the focus of wabi-sabi is never on some abstract, intellectual notion of what could be or should be, but rather on the singular beauty emanating from that which is at any given point in time.

Bird's Abandoned Nest with Cracked Shell

While wabi-sabi is often associated with ambiance, the physical environment, or the beauty of things, it is anchored in larger philosophical propositions that can also provide the framework for one's entire life.  Those propositions, as I understand them, would include the following:

-- One should accept and embrace impermanence, not only because it is the undeniable state of all things, including the universe, but also because it is the condition that gives value to anything at any given moment.

-- One should see and appreciate the beauty of every stage of transition, the old no less than the new, the broken no less than the whole, the tarnished and tattered no less than the slick and fine.

-- One should discover wonder and beauty in unexpected places and things, perhaps even places or things that are suspected of being "ugly."  As Koren says, "beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness," and is often found in "the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to the vulgar eye."

-- One should live simply, modestly, and frugally by getting rid of everything that is unnecessary, including nonessential material things as well as illusions of wealth, success, status, power, and luxury.

-- One should always favor the intuitive over the logical, nature over technology, the present over the future, natural materials over the man-made materials, modesty over ostentation, and the inner life over the outer life.

None of this is meant to suggest that wabi-sabi would require one to live in a perennial state of austerity or deprivation; indeed, Buddha himself advocated "the middle way."  The key, as Koren essentially states in his book, is to pare down to the essence of life without removing its poetry.



Rusting Metal Lattice Strip


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

BLUE DASHERS

Blue Dasher Dragonfly

Beauty is a strange phenomenon.  Chase beauty and it is likely to remain just beyond one's grasp.  Be still and patient, however, and it will often quietly appear and announce its presence.  Sometimes it's the dog that has laid down and rested her head on your foot; sometimes it's a shaft of late evening light breaking through the trees; and sometimes -- as late yesterday in my backyard -- it's a dragonfly flitting around a dry hosta stem, calling one to examine its glorious architecture and to discover its name.

According to some brief research, the dragonfly that graced my world yesterday afternoon was a Blue Dasher, a member of the skimmer family.  "Dasher" is appropriate, of course, because this little guy can flit from sight in a nanosecond and return just as quickly. "Dashing," however, would also be an accurate description.  Looking at the photo above, I ask myself how I would respond upon finding one of my own species in a turquoise goalkeeper's mask, a tiger-skin vest, a gossamer tutu, and light blue stockings.  The Blue Dasher, however, brings it off with both style and √©lan, as if to say, "if you like Matisse, you're going to love me."


The two photos above were taken yesterday.  The three below were taken of another Blue Dasher this morning. Needless to say, it's time to add the Blue Dasher to the list of things for which I am grateful.
  





"Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragon-fly
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky."

Dante Gabriel Rossetti


P.S.  Below are three shots taken this afternoon. 








Friday, July 16, 2010

THE IMPORTANCE OF LOAFING

Lin Yutang

"Oh wise humanity, terribly wise humanity!
Of thee I sing.
How inscrutable is the civilization where 
men toil and work and worry their hair gray 
to get a living and forget to play"


As readers of my previous posting on Henry Miller will recognize, I am attracted to writers who bravely challenge conventional wisdom and offer unique perspectives on issues related to the quality of our lives.  Another writer that falls within this category is the Chinese scholar and philosopher, Lin Yutang, who wrote forty books in English, including the 1937 classic, The Importance of Living.


One of the fascinating subjects addressed in The Importance of Living is the value of loafing and how that value is being eroded by western civilization's ever-growing obsession with work.  From a western perspective, this may seem a bit odd.  Why, one might ask, would a successful author, scholar, translator, and philosopher question the western work ethic and extol the virtues of loafing?  The answer lies the inability of many westerners to appreciate the virtues of loafing, idleness, and other forms of leisure that place more importance on being than on doing or possessing.

In advanced western countries, especially America, we are seemingly obsessed with work, not just the work that is required to provide our daily bread, but work that, according to Yutang, is driven by "duties, responsibilities, fears, inhibitions and ambitions."  It is work "born not of nature, but of human society."  We are also obsessed with the process of constantly trying to improve things, our expectations being that improvement will eventually lead to perfection, and that perfection, in turn, will lead to greater happiness. We have mastered the noble art of getting things done, but we have remained oblivious to what Yutang calls "the nobler art of leaving things undone."

This constant drumbeat of work-work-work leaves little or no time for loafing, but  that  is of little concern to most Americans because "loafing," unlike "work," does not fall within the our definition of a "productive life;" nor is it considered to be a path to wisdom or a source of creativity.  To the contrary, loafing is usually regarded as unproductive behavior that merits discouragement, rather than encouragement.  On a personal level, I have found that many Americans, if not most, are uncomfortable with the prospect of being seen "loafing around doing nothing," and once discovered in that mode, the individual is likely to be somewhat embarrassed and proffer an apology.

The Asian concept of loafing is quite different from that employed by western countries.  Loafing is considered to be productive, not unproductive, because it is the bedrock from which culture, including all wisdom and art, is produced.  Again, listen to what Yutang has to say:
Culture . . . is essentially a product of leisure. The art of culture is therefore essentially the art of loafing.  From the Chinese point of view, the man who is wisely idle is the most cultured man. For there seems to be a philosophic contradiction between being busy and being wise. Those who are wise won't be busy, and those who are too busy can't be wise.  The wisest man is therefore he who loafs most gracefully.
Although loafing is often treated by westerners as an inferior use on one's mind, it  has been regarded in China as an achievement of high-mindedness.  "This highmindenness," according to Yutang, "came from, and was inevitably associated with, a certain sense of detachment toward the drama of life; it came from the quality of being able to see through life's ambitions and follies and the temptations of fame and wealth."

Yutang was not opposed to to meaningful work; nor was he opposed to the idea of progress.  The point that he was making is simply that neither work nor progress should deprive humanity of "the divine desire for loafing," time to create, time to experience the world in all of its glory, time to be fully human.  Again, Yutang:
There is always plenty of life to enjoy for a man who is determined to enjoy it. If men fail to enjoy this earthly existence we have, it is because they do not love life sufficiently and allow it to be turned into a humdrum routine existence.  Laotse has been wrongly accused of being hostile to life; on the other hand, I think he taught the renunciation of the life of the world exactly because he loved life all too tenderly, to allow the art of living to degenerate into the mere business of living.
Let us all hope that we can find the proper balance in life -- to do meaningful work, for sure, but to also reserve time for loafing, time for each person to meet himself or herself face to face, time to experience the natural world in all of its splendor and glory.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

ALWAYS MERRY AND BRIGHT

Henry Miller

With the 1934 publication of Tropic of Cancer in France, Henry Miller made his debut as a major writer on the world stage.  In the United States, however, the book was declared  obscene, and no publisher dared to publish or market it for twenty-seven years.  Sadly, the much-trumpeted constitutional right of free speech offered Miller no protection, at least initially, from the puritanical obsessions that were ingrained in American culture during that period.

Ironically, as one might have expected, the American ban on Tropic of Cancer served only to enhance Miller's reputation, both here and abroad.  The Saturday Review of Literature called Miller "the largest force lately risen on the horizon of American letters;" Ezra Pound announced that the world, at last, had "an unprintable book that is fit to read;" and George Orwell claimed -- perhaps excessively -- that Miller was "the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past."

To its everlasting credit, Grove Press finally mustered the courage to publish Tropic of Cancer in 1961, knowing full well that the company would be charged with violations of state and federal obscenity laws. When the charges were filed, Grove devoted considerable time and money in the defense of Miller's constitutional rights of freedom of speech and expression.  While the lower courts were not sympathetic with Grove's assertions,  Miller's position was finally vindicated in 1964 when the  Supreme Court ruled that Tropic of Cancer was not obscene, but was instead a legitimate work of literature.  Unfortunately, however, the damage to Miller's reputation had already been done. Even to this day, Miller's name is often associated with hedonism and obscenity, especially among those who have never taken the time to read a broad sampling of his writings.

In The Books in My Life, Miller said this about his works and his life:
What were the subjects which formed my style, my character, my approach to life.  Broadly these: The love of life itself, the pursuit of truth, wisdom and understanding, mystery, the power of language, the antiquity and glory of man, eternality, the purpose of existence, the oneness of everything, self-liberation, the brotherhood of man, the meaning of love, the relation of sex to love, the enjoyment of sex, humor, oddities, and eccentricities in all life's aspects, travel, adventure, discovery, prophecy, magic (white and black), art, games, confessions, revelations, mysticism, more particularly the mystics themselves, the varieties of faith and worship, the marvelous in all realms and under all aspects, for there is only the marvelous and nothing but the marvelous.
According to my count, Miller has identified over thirty subjects that underpinned his work, and, interestingly, only two involve sex.  It is the fear of sexual content, however, that has kept so many potential readers from considering the extraordinary works of this fine and gifted writer.  And for those who continue to be somewhat apprehensive about  Tropic of Cancer, it is worth noting that the autobiographical novel was on Time magazine's 2005 list of the best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005.

Set forth below are some brief excerpts from Miller's writing.  Hopefully, these excerpts  will illustrate the scope of his interests and encourage readers to reconsider some of his work.

On Acceptance --
Life, as we all know, is conflict, and man, being part of life, is himself an expression of conflict.  If he recognizes the fact and accepts it, he is apt, despite the conflict, to know peace and to enjoy it.  But to arrive at this end, which is only a beginning (for we haven't begun to live yet!), man has got to learn the doctrine of acceptance, that is, of unconditional surrender, which is love.
        The Wisdom of the Heart
This doctrine of acceptance, the most difficult yet simple of all the radical ideas man has proposed to himself, embodies the understanding that the world is made up of conflicting members in all stages of evolution and devolution, that good and evil co-exist even though the one be but the shadow of the other, and that the world, for all it ills and shortcomings, was made for our enjoyment.
        Stand Still Like a Hummingbird

On Solitude --
Only when we are truly alone does the fullness and richness of life reveal itself to us.
        Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch

On Trust -- 
The key word is trust.  Trust that everything that happens in life, even those experiences that cause pain, will serve to better you in the end.  It's easy to lose the inner vision, the greater truths, in the face of tragedy. There really is no such thing as suffering simply for the sake of suffering. Along with developing a basic trust in the rhyme and reason of life itself, I advise you to trust your intuition.  It is a far better guide in the long run than your intellect.
       Reflections

On Harmony with Life --
When God answers Job cosmologically it is to remind man that he is only a part of creation, that it is his duty to put himself in accord with it or perish.  When man puts his head out of the stream of life he becomes self-conscious.  And with self-consciousness comes arrest, fixation, symbolized so vividly by the myth of Narcissus.
        The Books of My Life

On Destiny --
Every man has his own destiny: The only imperative is to follow it, to accept it, no matter where it leads him.
        The Wisdom of the Heart

On Individuality --
Let a man believe in himself and he will find a way to exist despite the barriers and traditions which hem him in.
        Stand Still Like a Hummingbird


On Understanding --
Understanding is not a piercing of the mystery, but an acceptance of it, a living blissfully with it, in it, through it and by it.
        The Wisdom of the Heart

On the Miraculous --
When you are convinced that all the exits are blocked, either you take to believing in miracles or you stand still like the hummingbird.  The miracle is that the honey is always there, right under your nose, only you were too busy searching elsewhere to realize it.  The worst is not death but being blind, blind to the fact that everything about life is in the nature of the miraculous.
        Stand Still Like a Hummingbird


On Seeing Properly --
One's destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.
        Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch


On Happiness --
Man craves happiness here on earth, not fulfillment, not emancipation.  Are they utterly deluded, then, in seeking happiness?  No, happiness is desirable, but it is a by-product, the result of a way of life, not a goal which is forever beyond one's grasp.  Happiness is achieved en route.  And if it be ephemeral, as most men believe, it can also give way, not to anxiety or despair, but to a joyousness which is serene and lasting.  To make happiness the goal is to kill it in advance.  If one must have a goal, which is questionable, why not self-realization?
       Stand Still Like a Hummingbird


These quotes are just some of the passages that have been underlined through the years in my copies of Miller's books.  I revisit the books frequently, interested always in the underlined passages, wondering if I have made progress on the questions that Miller has raised. And that's what Miller does best -- he is always challenging me to take a new look at the assumptions that underpin my life.

The title of this posting, "always merry and bright," was Henry Miller's motto.  Spend a little time with Miller and you are likely to feel, as I do, that his merriment can be contagious.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

COAST TO COAST: THE SECOND HALF -- KIRKBY STEPHEN TO ROBIN HOOD'S BAY

Approaching Upper Keld

Given the challenges and uniqueness of the Lake District, I have devoted four postings to essentially the first half of my coast to coast hike across England. Today, I will cover the remainder of the trip, specifically, the section between Kirkby Stephen to Robin Hood's Bay.  In doing so, I will let the photos and captions speak for themselves.

Day 7:  Kirkby Stephen to Keld


Leaving Kirkby Stephen on Country Lanes
Flanked by Gorse and Hawthorn Trees in Bloom

Through the Pennine Moors


Approaching Nine Standards Rig
(Site of Nine Ancient Cairns)

Hikers Resting at Cairns at top of Nine Standards Rig

Descending from Nine Standards Rig

Moors and Bog Fields


Walking Through Moors and Bogs


Ravenseat Farm

Break at Ravenseat Farm
(Which Offers Hot Tea and Scones to Walkers)


Ravenseat Farmhouse

Ravenseat Bridge over Whitsundale Beck

Whitsundale Beck


Looking Back Towards Ravenseat 

Headed for Keld

Farmstead Between Ravenseat and Keld

River Swale Near Keld

Wain Wath Force on River Swale


Farmstead Near Keld


Village of Keld

Near Keld

Above Keld

Day 8:  Keld to Reeth


Kisdon Force on River Swale

River Swale Valley

Crackpot Hall
(ruins of a 17th century farmhouse)

On Precipice Above Ruins
of Blackethwaite Peat Store


Ruins of Blakethwaite Peat
Store on Gunnerside Gill

Surrender Bridge 


Another Steep Descent Before Getting to Reeth

 
Houses and Shops in Village of Reeth


Days 9 and 10:  Reeth -- Bolton-on-Swale -- Ingleby Cross



The Nuns' Causey
A Flagged Medieval Causeway Through Steps Wood
Connecting Marrick Village with the Marrick Priory


Path Along Stone Fence Toward Richmond

Across Wildflower Field Toward 
Crag Known as Applegarth Scar

Houses on Street in Richmond

River Swale Below Richmond Castle

Through Fields Toward Bolton-on-Swale

A Perfect Day for Walking

Typical Signpost for the C2C

 Charming Facade of Old Schoolhouse 

Day 11:  Ingleby Cross to Blakey Ridge


Valley Below Cleveland Way Path


On Section of Cleveland Way Path


Valley Beyond Moors

In North York Moors


Valley Below


On Cleveland Way Path
Seeing North Sea in Distance for First Time

On Top of Carlton Moor

Toward Cold Moor


Hasty Bank and the Wainstones


Trail Along Hasty Bank
Beneath the Wainstones

Climbing up the Wainstones

Days 12 and 13:  Blakey Ridge -- Grosmont -- Robin Hood's Bay


A Break in the Moors

 Walking Through Moors 
North York Moors National Park

Looking From Moors to Valley


Entering Little Beck Nature Preserve


In Little Beck Woods


Little Beck Woods


Little Beck Woods

Through Moors to Robin Hood's Bay


Coastal Path to Robin Hood's Bay



My Group Arrives at North Sea
With One Determined to Celebrate with a Swim


Robin Hood's Bay

Since completing the C2C, some have asked, "What's next?"  The best answer I can provide is to simply quote the lyrics of a walking song that was brought to my attention by my friend, Steve, who guided our group across England.  The song is sung by Bilbo Baggins in J.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings."

     The Road goes ever on and on
     Down from the door where it began.
     Now far ahead the Road has gone,
     And I must follow, if I can,
     Pursuing it with eager feet,
     Until it joins some larger way
     Where many paths and errands meet.
     And wither then?  I cannot say.