Jack Stoneman and Dr. Van C. Gessel, Humanities
Though we know Japan today for its herd mentality and uncanny ability to squash individuality, at times in its history, this homogeneous country has produced lonely aesthetes who created a world apart from what we would call mainstream culture. I have looked at three such expressions in Japanese art and literature:
1. Kamo no Ch©mei’s thirteenth-century diary H©j©ki,
2. Muromachi period (1336-1603) scholarly scroll painting,
3. Momoyama period (late sixteenth century) Raku tea ware.
Each area of study is different in various ways. H©j©ki is a literary work by a seclusionist writer. Muromachi scroll paintings are the works of many different artists, poets, scholars, and monks. Raku ware are earthen tea bowls fashioned by an ethnic Korean tile maker under the direction of the tea master Sen no RikyÅ. Each work is either born of loneliness or an expression of ideal loneliness and solitude. I will briefly discuss each in turn.
1. Kamo no Ch©mei (1153-1216) was an itinerant monk and poet. Fed up with the ways of city folk in the capital Ky©to, Kamo no Ch©mei left his family, friends, and pursuits to live the life of a wandering ascetic. It is doubtful how utterly secluded the author was, for he often communicated with friends, and an ingenious plea for financial assistance in the form of a poem written to a fellow poet still survives. Ch©mei lived in a ten-foot square hut which was completely portable. He spent most of his days, however, south of Ky©to in the Momoyama area. From there, he would make forays into the city to observe goings-on, then write of them in his diary. Several historical events are recorded with great detail by Ch©mei, including the 1177 fire that burned nearly one third of Ky©to, and the devastating famine of 1181.
All of Kamo no Ch©mei’s observations were written in an effort to show the fleeting nature of life and the futility in amassing wealth, fame, or other evanescent things. His isolation during the years of H©j©ki’s writing served to refine Ch©mei’s sense of sad loneliness. A sense of pessimism penetrates the hermit’s diary as he watches from a secluded distance the inane play of mankind’s fate in an ephemeral world.
2. A craze for things Chinese swept the artistic world of Muromachi period Ky©to. The reigning Sh©gun imported countless art objects from the continent, and artists, scholars, and poets in Ky©to were eager to imitate the Chinese models. One field of great activity at this time was scroll painting. These scrolls were most often composed of a secluded natural scene, with a scholar’s mountain retreat tucked into the mountainside, and poems written in the upper portion of the scroll. An artist would paint the scene below, and multiple poet scholars would record their poems above, thus making the creation of a scroll a group effort.
The aesthetic of loneliness enters here as an ideal expressed in the work created. Though created by numerous individuals through collaboration, a typical Muromachi scroll was the articulation of an aesthetic ideal, namely, the seclusion of a mountain retreat where the scholar is allowed to read, write, and contemplate surrounded by nothing but a tranquil natural panorama.
3. The loneliness expressed by Raku ware is yet another variety. Raku ware as well was born of collaboration. The roof tile manufacturer Ch©jir© came to the attention of the tea ceremony master Sen no RikyÅ as a ceramist capable of fashioning a tea bowl which would be the quintessential expression of the quiet, refined, and lonely aesthetic of the tea ceremony. The two succeeded, and created a style of tea ware that is highly individual yet subdued, elegant yet unsophisticated. Of course, no two tea bowls are alike, and are meant to be appreciated alone. The tea ceremony is a secluded event in which the three or four participants remove themselves from society to enjoy the solitude possible in a remote, small tea house in which the host has solitarily prepared every detail of the ceremony. The tea bowl is the penultimate expression of the rarefied ceremony, and must be highly unique, but never ostentatious.
My research is far from complete, as I have been derailed by other projects this year. Much of my study so far has been preliminary, and there are many details I have yet to hammer out. I have considered broadening my subject to individuality in Japanese art and literature, loneliness being one form and source of individualistic expression. This would allow me to include in my study the Zen monk and calligrapher Hakuin Ekaku, a highly unique artist of the Edo period (1603-1868). I would also like to include a contemporary example of individualistic expression, possibly looking at the loner anti-hero of Murakami Haruki’s post-modern novels.