“To sit alone in the lamplight with a book spread out before you, and hold intimate converse with men of unseen generations — such is a pleasure beyond compare.” -Yoshida Kenkō, from ‘Essays in Idleness’
To hold an idea in the mind’s eye and contemplate it aesthetically; to comment on the fading glory of the past while delighting in the present moment; to offer up to posterity a nuanced view of the world — heavily influenced by a Buddhist worldview — all are attributes of Yoshida Kenkō’s magnum opus ‘Essays in Idleness,’ also translated as the ‘Harvest of Leisure.’ This work, 243 short essays, offers up compelling seeds of philosophic contemplation drawn from worldly experience, rather than abstraction for the sake of abstraction. Kenkō (c.1284–c.1350) was both a man of his time and a man for the ages. He has become a canonical author in Japanese literature and his fame spread beyond Japan over the course of the last century. His musings of the mind offer fruitful seeds for any discussion of aesthetics — both Japanese and aesthetics more generally. With one foot in the world of a Buddhist monk and one in the fleeting world of reality, Kenkō argued for the desirability of impermanence:
“If our life did not fade and vanish like the dews of Adashino’s graves or the drifting smoke of Toribe’s burning grounds, but lingered on for ever, how little the world would move us. It is the ephemeral nature of things that makes them wonderful.” -Yoshida Kenkō, from ‘Essays in Idleness’
‘Essays in Idleness’ is hard to categorize. According to historian Meredith McKinney, Kenkō probably wrote the work over many years (from the 1310s through the 1330s). Tradition has it that he wrote the essays on scraps of paper that he glued to the walls of his modest cottage. This story may be apocryphal, as Kenkō and his ‘Essays’ remained relatively obscure until becoming part of the Japanese literary canon in the early Tokugawa period (1603–1868). This work is generally classified as a ‘zuihitsu,’ a literary form consisting of loosely connected observations of varying length. The word literally means ‘follow the brush’ in Japanese. Perhaps the best definition of ‘zuihitsu’ comes from the contemporary American poet Kimiko Hahn:
“zuihitsu: literally, left up to the brush or running brush. It is a poetic text, usually written in a prose form that utilizes disorder as its general strategy, by employing such tactics as fragmentation, juxtaposition, contradiction, a variety of forms (such as lists, diary, commentary), a variety of lengths, and a variety of topics under and organizing theme”
In ‘Essays in Idleness’ Kenkō reconciles Buddhist notions of impermanence with a worldliness generally not associated with monks. What is the unifying feature in this work? Kenkō’s peculiar vision, one built by hand, so to speak, and shaped by experience, allows one to get to the exalted heights of aesthetic appreciation without the excess of words and laboriously Platonic (or Kantian) layers of seemingly endless abstraction. Kenkō is able to put his finger on something without having to write pages about concepts. His work is one of an economy of words — an ideal philosopher for the minimalist and an example for philosophers all over the world.
Yoshida Kenkō’s aesthetic explorations in many of his brief essays coincide with the Japanese aesthetic notion of wabi-sabi. The terms ‘wabi’ and ‘sabi’ were brought together in the fourteenth century and gradually became associated with rustic simplicity, impermanence, asymmetry, the patina of aging, and asperity. Kenkō’s aesthetics is grounded in what is natural while avoiding the pitfalls of excessive ornament in either decoration or discourse.
His essays do have a tendency to descend into anecdotes or references to obscure practices — the tint of nostalgia detected on the fraying edges of his insightful essays.
“One yearns for the old world in every way. Modern fashions just seem to grow more and more vulgar, The most beautiful finely crafted wooden utensils are those from the old days. As for letters, those old ones on reused scraps are written in wonderful language. Everyday speech is also going from bad to worse.” -Kenkō, from ‘Essays in Idleness’
One could easily simply dismiss the above quote as mere aching nostalgia from an old man reflecting on times gone by. There is more to these observations than that! While Kenkō’s laments have been uttered by countless generations shaking their heads at the new trends, he put his finger on something here. There is a strong argument for looking to the old ways, not merely to be conservative or subject one’s self to the dead hand of the past. Fashion does have a tendency to develop from the practical to the staggeringly useless and expensive while many of the finest pieces of writing come from those who have been dead for centuries. As for the wood utensils, there is a patina of aging, sabi, associated with such things as they age. What is new can, and often does, have an air of superficiality about it. What has withstood the test of time has a greater sense of authenticity. Moreover, the Buddhists like Kenkō loved those things which evoke the transience of things.
Kenkō also expressed his appreciation of the patina of aging on objects by arguing against those who would try to protect these items from the inevitable wear and tear that comes with use.
“Very often, there will be pieces of furniture in a house that disappoint with their crassness. Not that one should always have excellent furniture, of course; I speak here of items where the desire to protect from damage results in tasteless and unattractive work, or those that have unnecessary bits added t them or strive for effect in order to make them interesting. The best things are those that have a somewhat antique air, are unpretentious and are inexpensive but well made.” -Kenkō, from ‘Essays in Idleness’
Kenkō would have hated the Baroque and Rococo art which developed among European elites in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He would have been appalled at the sight of Versailles — monument to the vanity and narcissism of Louis XIV as well as the modern monstrosity of Trump Tower — monument to the vanity and narcissism of Donald Trump. Aesthetic appreciation in the truest sense depends upon a vision forged by the trials and tribulations of experience over the course of years, if not decades.