Friday, September 28, 2007

Email conversation October 2005

Do you know the word in Japanese for the feeling you get watching geese take off for flight or how I can look that up?

Well, which feeling do you mean? Like the small but enveloping sadness that comes from an ennobled moment of beauty? And do you want the noun form of it (like "beauty), or the adjective form (like"beautiful")?

Yes exactly. I don't know that I would have said sadness, but well said. I want to know how it's different and differently used if you have that information too.

Okay, so the words you're looking for are probably "wabi" and "sabi". They come as a coherent set, adjectives for the much vaunted Japanese aesthetic. Wabi means, essentially, simplicity. It is more loaded than that, but that's the best, and probably most accurate translation. Sabi is loneliness, and the character used here is actually the root for the basic word for "lonely" in Japanese: sabishii. Sabi can be translated as an elegant loneliness if need be, but loneliness is better. The same character can, according to my dictionary, indicate the death of a priest in the buddhist canon. Also, it is a homophone for rust, which I thought fitting. The real reason these words are difficult to describe is really just usage history.

The words, in the way I've described them to you, together, came to be used for the Japanese aesthetic about three hundred and fifty years ago, at the same time as the devolpment of what we now see as traditional Japanese art forms. That is, the art and the lexical means to describe them were developed together. These concepts are not as ancient as might be expected. Part of that has to do with our perception, as westerners, of the whole kanji system as unchanging and primitive and beautiful. Another part might have to do with the Japanese use of these terms. These words, indicating as they do an idea inevitably wrapped into Japaneseness, are political. This was more true during the end of the nineteenth century, and had more to do with the struggle between the old Japanese empire and its new nationhood, but is still true to a lesser extent now.

The terms are also highly commodified. The aesthetic they describe sells for a lot of money when well executed, and no one is willing to pay more than those Japanese desperate to buy into the myth of their own poignant, existential appreciation. That said, they do indicate an emotion that I think everybody feels, and I wish more people were aware of the simplicity and loneliness around them.

In use, by the way, things are said to have more or less wabi or sabi. For example, grey geese that fly with the moon on their wings (thank you Julie Andrews) have a whole hell of a lot of Sabi. While I was in Japan, I spent some time learning tea ceremony where these ideas are paramount.

Why do you ask anyways? Also, sorry to write all that shit. I had a minute to think about it today. By the way, if your feeling is less loneliness and more ecstatic upwelling, try something from the Sufi tradition. Read some Rumi, maybe.

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