Discovering Japanese Aesthetics

It is still believed [in Japan] that, although the elements found common to beauty are perhaps universal, it is their reception (the universal standard) that creates the excellence of the art.

Donald Richie, Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics (2007)

The relativity of any “universal standard” is best exposed at the cultural boundaries, so it is prudent to investigate as many such boundaries as possible, in good light and good faith.

Finding an appropriate guide can be tricky.

Indeed, when seeking introduction to unfamiliar topics, I am wary of two types of books: the highly technical, impenetrable beasts dense with signs and shortcuts aimed at experts in a neighbouring field, and the colloquial, jokey-breezy anecdotal stories filled with mental candyfloss aimed as those desiring educational fairgrounds. Once in a while, I find myself in either readership, but usually the fairest, quickest route lies through the middle ground, and even then I require a particularly fortuitous path that caters to my strengths.

An introduction to Japanese aesthetics has been long in the planning, and only recently did I find an apt foothold.

Donald Richie’s Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics (2007) is a brief but serious text, and one which can be read quickly, read for pleasure and insight, and at a later stage, read with a view towards references and synthesis.

Take the following quote:

If aesthetics in the West is mainly concerned with theories of art, that of Japan has always been concerned with theories of taste. What is beautiful depends not upon imagination (as Addison thought) nor qualities proper in the object (as Hume said) nor in its paradoxes (as Kant maintained) but rather on a social consensus.

You may be unfamiliar with the philosophies of Addison, Hume, and Kant, yet the gist of what Richie is saying remains intact. On the other hand, familiarity with the names only enhances the experience. Continue reading

Quirks and Perks: Playfulness

val vesa https://unsplash.com/photos/ihFWKicceNk

To be playful is to let go; it is to seduce and to be seduced, though perhaps in a small way. Finally, solemnity is the virtue from which we may someday perish, while playfulness is the vice that may yet redeem us.

—Crispin Sartwell, Obscenity, Anarchy, Reality (1996)

Playful is light-hearted, or light of heart.

It means jumping up because you can.

It means embracing the slight uncertainty of landing because nothing can be certain anyway.

It means reaching for the stars and grabbing handfuls of air because air is what we need, anyway, to breathe. Continue reading

Reading on the Fringes: Codex Seraphinianus

Codex Seraphinianus cover 1

If you’d like a bewildering encounter with an alien culture, read the Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini. It’s an encyclopaedia of an imaginary world written in a fully incomprehensible language and illustrated with detailed, coloured drawings that cover all areas of life: flora, fauna, science, manufacturing, alien (humanoid) anatomy, history and ethnography, dining and fashion, and architecture.

As the act of understanding words will be limited, here is a taster of visual delights that await you in the order that you’d encounter them (and including only the ones that can plausibly be put into a few words):

Bird with a second head where a tail would be, flower that rains on itself, flower that grows laddered stalks, flower that grows leaves shaped like scissors, fruit that bleeds, apple growing within an apple, grapes growing on a banana, walnuts growing out of a fennel, matchsticks growing in a beetroot, trees growing inside trees, trees jumping off a cliff and swimming away, trees that grow into the shape of a chair, flowers that blow up to become helium balloons. Continue reading