I recently stumbled upon this dialogue between the poet Takahashi Mutsuo 高橋睦郎 and the designer Hara Ken’ya 原研哉, in which they explore a number of topics having to do with art, language, and the power of words. One of the several things that struck me in this dialogue, were Takahashi’s comments on his attempts to move away from “individuality.” Considering that these come from one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary Japanese letters (and an author on whom I’ve done a lot of critical work), these comments struck me as somewhat surprising.
I have never believed in the concept of “individuality” at all…Imagine that there is an apple and a peach, and that I am to paint a picture of them. At this time, my individuality is not necessary. What is necessary is the individuality of the peach and the apple. I should express and return that individuality as accurately as possible. I should return a peach and an apple. At that time, I require only the individuality of the peach and the apple. Perhaps my own individuality can be of use in accomplishing this, however revealing my own individuality is not the ultimate goal.
Speaking from my perspective, the more I express my own individuality, the deeper I fall into a hell from which I may not be able to rescue myself. I think that the modern hell is a hell created when everyone asserts themselves all the time.
So what is the purpose of expression? In the end, it is to redeem oneself from the hell of one’s own individuality through those subjects a person wants to express.
Whereas most people tend to think of language as a tool to assert individuality, Takahashi suggests that instead, it ought to more properly represent a tool to overcome individuality, to allow the outside world to travel through the self. In his other work, he has suggested that the image of a unified self is always predicated on a sort of lack or absence—a knowledge that the self is not total but, rather, cut off from the outside world through the prison of the body. Perhaps language is not a tool for conveying individuality after all, but merely a means to allow the outside world to flow through us and, in the process, to assuage the pain of being formulated through absence.
I firmly believe that if one has any sense of fairness, if one has any sense of justice, one must grant others the freedom to develop their individuality for the sake of their personal happiness, even as one secures it for oneself. Unless we have a very good reason, we must not be allowed to obstruct other from developing their individuality as they please for the sake of their own happiness.
Natsume Sōseki 夏目漱石 speaking about the dangers of using money and power to suppress individualism and liberty in the 1914 speech 「私の個人主義」 “My Individualism.”
Translation from Jay Rubin in The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, Vol. 1: From Restoration to Occupation, 1868-1945 (Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 327.
Poets and the Need for Space
The British poet George Ttoouli wrote this lovely introduction to the Tada Chimako poems on Poetry International Web.
Poetry, of all the modes of verbal expression, is where people take refuge in times of need. And people should not need to take refuge in these places out of necessity. It should be a choice, one that, when engaged with willingly, allows for aesthetic consideration, for the kind of luxurious experimentation and testing of the self that Tada Chimako’s poetry displays so brilliantly.
From Japan’s domain, then, comes a poet who seemed to have ridden the wave of a localised, deeply personal late modernist mode. Chimako’s poetry is beautifully crafted, delivered to an international audience through Jeffrey Angles’ precise, careful renditions. It is hard to tell what is lost in the conveyance, for the results are so striking and fresh, so deeply layered, despite the fact that some of the poems were written four or five decades ago.
What comes across above all is how Chimako infused an alien atmosphere into familiar imagery; she applied razor-sharp metaphor to common objects to create what my limited understanding of Japanese aesthetics would describe as yugen. Loosely speaking, this manifests as a kind of philosophical awareness, or spiritual realisation, arising from a profound sense of mystery:
I am planted in the earth
Happily, like a cabbage
Carefully peel away the layers of language
That clothe me and soon
It will become clear I am nowhere to be found
And yet even so, my roots lie beneath …
The point at which the poet can make that leap, from a more familiar poetic territory – of self and metaphysics – to a sense of oblivion and tradition walking hand in hand, is wonderfully smooth. This kind of deep thinking and simple expression comes from the contemplative space granted to poets by their social circumstances.
As Angles writes in his introduction, Chimako “spent most of her career working at the edge of the Japanese poetic world … in relative isolation”; though her situation often brought a degree of sadness, “it was also fruitful, as it encouraged her to think independently and allowed her to work in ways that did not necessarily parallel the quickly shifting trends of the capital”. Poets, everywhere, depend upon this ability to step back, think independently, and then decide when and how best to speak to their communities, from their experience and understanding of the world.