Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Sadness
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence
I don’t trust happiness. I never did; I never will.
Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies, written by Horton Foote
The exhibition catalog for Seasons: The Beauty of Transience in Japanese Art has as its epigraph an excerpt from Ki no Tsurayuki’s preface to the Kokinshū, the first imperially-sponsored collection of Japanese poetry, published around 905 AD:
Japanese poetry has the human heart at seed and myriads of words as leaves… the song of the warbler among the blossoms, the voice of the frog dwelling in the water—these teach us that every living creature sings.
It is song that moves heaven and earth without effort, stirs emotions in the invisible spirits and gods, brings harmony to the relations between men and women, and calms the hearts of fierce warriors.
As soon as I read the phrase “human heart at seed”, I realized why Donald Keene had chosen Seeds in the Heart as the title of the first book in his series on the History of Japanese Literature.
Of the 1100 poems in the Kokinshū—actually Kokin Waka Shū (Collection of Waka, Old and New)—all but ten of them are waka, the thirty-one syllable form that was written mainly in the native Japanese kana script (with some Chinese characters) rather than entirely in Chinese as was the case with poems in earlier collections such as the Manyōshū.
This use of Japanese script not only made waka easier to write but opened up the practice of writing poetry to women, who were largely excluded from the study of Chinese. As a result, the exchange of waka became an integral part of the love relationship between men and women, a typical example being this poem by the female poet Onono Komachi, cited in the first volume of Katō Shūichi’s A History of Japanese Literature:
Yearning for him I slept in sadness
And saw him in a dream.
Had I known it was a dream
I never would have woken with the dawn.
Kokinshū, Poem 552
There were two prefaces to the Kokinshū, one written in Chinese by Ki no Yoshimochi, the other in Japanese by Ki no Tsurayuki. I prefer Donald Keene’s translation of Tsurayuki’s introduction:
Japanese poetry has its seeds in the human heart and burgeons into many different kinds of leaves of words. We who live in this world are constantly affected by different experiences, and we express our thoughts in words, in terms of what we have seen and heard. When we hear the warbler that sings among the blossoms or the voice of the frog that lives in the water, we may ask ourselves, “Which of all the creatures of this world does not sing?” Poetry moves without effort heaven and earth, stirs the invisible gods and demons to pity, makes sweet the ties between men and women, and brings comfort to the fierce heart of the warrior.
Keene points out that Yoshimochi, in his Chinese preface, “expressed similar views, and these sentiments, like much else in both prefaces, have been traced back to China.” Both Tsurayuki and Yoshimochi believed, as did the Chinese, “that human feelings were the ultimate source of all poetry”.
The word that Tsurayuki used both for poetry and for song was uta, and he seems not to have made a clear distinction between the two. Whether the song was melodious like that of the springtime warbler amid the blossoms or as harsh as the croaking of an autumnal frog, it proved that every living creature has its song. Birds and beasts, and human beings, too, sing in response to stimulation, whether external—things seen and heard—or internal, like the pangs of love. The stimulus tends to be short-lived, and for this reason may be more easily turned into a brief lyric that distills the poet’s experience than developed into an extended poem.
Although Tsurayuki says in his preface that poetry can stir the gods, in the West it was more common for the poet to think of himself as the instrument of the gods, whose aid he might invoke in making his song. In Japan divine help was not necessary; the poet, unaided, could move the spheres and make even supernatural creatures feel the poignancy of aware, the touching things of this world. Poetry was also important in the relations between men and women; as we have seen, the necessity of writing love poetry in Japanese to women who could not read Chinese may have saved the Japanese language as a medium of literary expression. And, as we know from The Tale of Genji and other works of the Heian period, poetry was an indispensable element of courtship, at least among the nobility.
A couple of weeks ago, when I was revising some elementary kanji, the character for song/sing—pronounced uta or ka—came up so I copied it to the clipboard, switched applications, and used Dokusha’s “Kanji Explorer” feature to access a range of compound words in which the character for song appears.
The list comprised:
- 哀歌, aika, lament/elegy—哀 (grief/sorrow) plus 歌 (song)
- 詠歌, eika, poem/song—詠 (recitation) plus 歌 (song)
- 演歌, enka, modern Japanese ballad—演 (performance) plus 歌 (song)
- 歌会, utakai, poetry party/competition—歌 (song) plus 会 (meeting)
- 歌格, kakaku, poetry style/rules—歌 (song) plus 格 (status/law)
- 歌学, kagaku, poetry/versification—歌 (song) plus 学 (study/learning)
Of the six compounds, two interested me in particular. The word aika—lament, elegy, dirge, sad song—contains the character 哀 (aware: pathetic, grief, sorrow, pathos, pity, sympathize), which lies at the heart of Japanese aesthetics.
And I’ve loved enka music ever since first hearing it in a tiny yakitori-ya where I ate regularly when I lived in Japan ten years ago. I’ve always seen it as the Japanese equivalent of country-and-western music but Barbara’s Enka Site provides a far better explanation:
Team up a songwriter who writes old-fashioned Gypsy music with a romantic lyricist of an American blues or country music background. Then translate the lyrics into poetic but old-fashioned Japanese and arrange the music for a band made of half Japanese musicians and half European classical musicians, plus a harmonica and electric guitar. Then find a Japanese woman to sing the song in full kimono, but choreograph her performance as if it were an operatic aria. That would give you something close to Enka music…
Barbara points out that in enka, “songs of love, separation, death and suicide abound. The subject matter of the typical lyrics involve tragic love and sweet resignation to the comfort of cherished memories of better times”. In other words, there’s an absolutely direct connection across a thousand years to the poems of the Kokinshū and The Tale of Genji, in which aware figures so largely.
Again, Onono Komachi:
My soul will go as often as I like
To my lover in a dream
Because no one will blame me there.
Kokinshū, Poem 552
The cherry flowers have faded
Here in the reign of mortality
Here in the weary rain.
Kokinshū, Poem 113
If Onono Komachi were alive today, she might augment the royalties from her published poems by moonlighting as an enka lyricist.
As Dokusha’s Kanji Explorer suggests, there are only two degrees of separation between uta and aware, from “song” to “pathos”.
Donald Keene points out that, in his preface to the Kokinshū, Tsurayuki “went on to describe the circumstances under which people of the past had turned to composing poetry”:
When they saw blossoms fall on a spring morning, or heard the leaves fall on an autumn evening; when they grieved over the new snow and ripples reflected with each passing year by their looking glasses; when they were startled, seeing dew on the grass or foam on the water, by the brevity of life; when they lost their positions, though yesterday they had prospered; or when, because they had fallen in the world, even those who had been most intimate treated them like strangers.
“These springs of poetry”, writes Keene, “can be resumed under a single general heading, regret over the changes brought about by the passage of time.” It’s this “aesthetic empathy of things and feelings” connected with time’s passing that the eighteenth century literary scholar, Motoori Norinaga, defined as mono no aware, which I’ve seen variously described as
- deep impressions produced by small things
- sympathetic sadness
- an intense, nostalgic sadness, connected with autumn and the vanishing away of the world
- a serene acceptance of a transient world
- a gentle pleasure found in mundane pursuits soon to vanish.
In his popular novel, Musashi, the story of Japan’s best-known swordsman, Yoshikawa Eiji writes describes mono no aware from the warrior’s perspective:
In the case of the samurai there is such a thing as an appreciation of the poignancy of things… a real samurai, a genuine swordsman has a compassionate heart, he understands the poignancy of life.
One of the reasons for my strong interest in Japanese literature and aesthetics is this acceptance of sadness as an essential ingredient of life. And (perhaps mistakenly) I’ve always regarded Jefferson’s assertion that the pursuit of Happiness is an unalienable Right as a kind of denial of the rightful place of sadness in human experience—that in pursuing happiness we are simultaneously fleeing sadness.
Accepting sadness is not, however, the same as mistrusting happiness. One one level it is tragic that Mac Sledge, who appears to have overcome his alcoholism and learned to love a woman and her child at the end of Tender Mercies, can say “I don’t trust happiness. I never did; I never will.” That he cannot trust the happiness which is the direct fruit of his reawakened faith in God, in his wife’s love, and in his own courage and dignity.
I can’t help thinking that this mistrust of happiness springs—at least in part—from his inability to properly relate to sadness. In the movie, the Mac Sledge character has “written” unbearably poignant country-and-western songs, including the beautiful Over You (which was actually written by Austin Roberts and Bobby Hart) but he struggles to accept and to reveal the sadness that lies much deeper than is suggested by that song about unrequited love. His feelings seem to remain on the surface and it’s the genius of Robert Duvall’s portrayal that makes us aware of how far he has traveled since waking up in an alcoholic stupor at the beginning of the story and how far he—and we—have yet to go. So, in another sense, his admission that he doesn’t trust happiness indicates his willingness to be truly honest to the woman who has done so much to bring him happiness.
For Motoori Norinaga,
If one examines the depths of the true human heart there is much that is feminine and unstable; the masculine and clever things are added, when we have become conscious of ourselves, in order to keep up appearances. When we are doing such things as talk[ing] to other people we act more and more so as to show a surface which is arranged to impress rather than bringing out what is really there.
If one can forget for a moment the implied sexism of linking the feminine with the unstable—an entirely natural association for an eighteenth-century Japanese man—it’s clear that Norinaga is equally critical of the superficial cleverness of the “masculine heart”. Katō Shūichi correctly points out that this is “the first writing to point clearly to the connections between the Japanese ‘surface’ and ‘depths’, the expressed and the true feelings, conscious values and unconscious psychological tendencies…”
Yet the reluctance or inability to express one’s true feelings is not only a Japanese problem, although it was a Japanese—Ki no Tsurayuki—who 1100 years ago elegantly and succinctly portrayed this aspect of human frailty:
To the distant observer
They are chatting of the blossoms
Yet in spite of appearances
Deep in their hearts
They are thinking very different thoughts.