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beauty

Mono no aware: Beauty in Japan

Meaning literally “a sensitivity to things,” mono no aware is a concept coined by Japanese literary and linguistic scholar Motoori Norinaga in the eighteenth century to describe the essence of Japanese culture, and it remains the central artistic imperative in Japan to this day. The phrase is derived from the word aware, which in Heian Japan meant sensitivity or sadness, and the word mono, meaning things, and describes beauty as an awareness of the transience of all things, and a gentle sadness at their passing. It can also be translated as the “ah-ness” of things, life and love. Mono no aware gave name to an aesthetic that already existed in Japanese art, music and poetry, the source of which can be traced directly to the introduction of Zen Buddhism in the twelfth century, a spiritual philosophy and practise which profoundly influenced all aspects of Japanese culture, but especially art and religion. The fleeting nature of beauty described by mono no aware derives from the three states of existence in Buddhist philosophy: unsatisfactoriness, impersonality, and most importantly in this context, impermanence. According to mono no aware, a falling or wilting autumn flower is more beautiful than one in full bloom; a fading sound more beautiful than one clearly heard. The sakura or cherry blossom tree is the epitome of this conception of beauty; the flowers of the most famous variety, somei yoshino, nearly pure white tinged with a subtle pale pink, bloom and then fall within a single week. The subject of a thousand poems and a national icon, the cherry blossom tree embodies for Japan beauty as a transient experience. Mono no aware states that beauty is a subjective rather than objective experience, a state of being ultimately internal rather than external. Based largely upon classical Greek ideals, beauty in the West is sought in the ultimate perfection of an external object: a sublime painting, perfect sculpture or intricate musical composition; a beauty that could be said to be only skin deep. The Japanese ideal sees beauty instead as an experience of the heart and soul, a feeling for and appreciation of objects or artwork—most commonly nature or the depiction of—in a pristine, untouched state. An appreciation of beauty as a state which does not last and cannot be grasped is not the same as nihilism, and can better be understood in relation to Zen Buddhism's philosophy of earthly transcendence: a spiritual longing for that which is infinite and eternal—the ultimate source of all worldly beauty. As the monk Sotoba wrote in Zenrin Kushu (Poetry of the Zenrin Temple), Zen does not regard nothingness as a state of absence, but rather the affirmation of that which is unseen, existing behind empty space: “Everything exists in emptiness: flowers, the moon in the sky, beautiful scenery.” With its roots in Zen Buddhism, mono no aware bears some relation to the non-dualism of Indian philosophy, as related in the following story about Swami Vivekananda by Sri Chinmoy:
“Beauty,” says [Vivekananda], “is not external, but already in the mind.” Here we are reminded of what his spiritual daughter Nivedita wrote about her Master. “It was dark when we approached Sicily, and against the sunset sky, Etna was in slight eruption. As we entered the straits of Messina, the moon rose, and I walked up and down the deck beside the Swami, while he dwelt on the fact that beauty is not external, but already in the mind. On one side frowned the dark crags of the Italian coast, on the other, the island was touched with silver light. ‘Messina must thank me,’ he said; ‘it is I who give her all her beauty.’” Truly, in the absence of appreciation, beauty is not beauty at all. And beauty is worthy of its name only when it has been appreciated. Excerpt from Vivekananda: An Ancient Silence-Heart And A Modern Dynamism-Life by Sri Chinmoy.
The founder of mono no aware, Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), was the pre-eminent scholar of the Kokugakushu movement, a nationalist movement which sought to remove all outside influences from Japanese culture. Kokugakushu was enormously influential in art, poetry, music and philosophy, and responsible for the revival during the Tokugawa period of the Shinto religion. Contradictorily, the influence of Buddhist ideas and practises upon art and even Shintoism itself was so great that, although Buddhism is technically an outside influence, it was by this point unable to be extricated.

Poetic Realism: the film genre a director died to make

More a tendency than a genre in its own right, Poetic Realism was a highly influential yet short-lived movement in French cinema of the 1930s, a brief outbreak of lyricism sandwiched between the bludgeoning horrors of two world wars. Unlike Soviet montage or French impressionism, poetic realism was never a unified movement or ideology, rather a loosely conceived feeling and evocation: poetic, otherworldly at times, yet committed to showing reality “as it was”—a cinema of life and of heart.

Despite the fact that he only lived to make four films, director Jean Vigo is credited with founding poetic realism, first with Zéro de conduite (1933), an unusually realistic evocation of an unhappy childhood that was banned by censors, and his masterpiece, L’Atalante (1934).

Namesake of a Greek Goddess, L’Atalante was originally a simplistic story assigned to the director by distributors Gaumont, but Vigo transformed it completely, employing the dreamlike cinematography of Russian-born Boris Kaufman—who would later work in Hollywood—and a surreal, poetic style never before seen in cinema.

On the surface a straightforward romantic tale—two newly weds on a river barge cruise who fight, separate and then are reunited—L’Atalante is a masterpiece, for as New Wave director François Truffaut describes, in filming prosaic words and acts, Vigo effortlessly achieved poetry.

Separated from his wife, the distraught husband imagines her reflected in the water. Simultaneously, departed wife encounters horror after horror on the streets of Depression-era Paris; beggars and thieves are everywhere, men make unwanted approaches and her handbag is stolen—persons and actions all evocative of a broken and unhappy inner state. In deep regret she forlornly but fruitlessly searches for husband and barge—shots of her longing for him in silence. By chance a crew member discovers her and the couple are reunited.

Although highly poetic, L’Atalante is also grounded in reality, the director alternating the bitter-sweet narrative of separation and reconciliation with unflinching images of the grit and ugliness of everyday life, a practise never before seen in contemporary cinema—usually located in the artificial and fantastic—and rare even today. The film is evocative of the Japanese conception of beauty, mono no aware (a sensitivity to things), in which beauty is said to exist even in its opposite; that which is ugly as reminder of beauty absent.

Critic Hal Hinson goes so far as to suggest Vigo’s poetic realism is other-world inspired:

“There’s such innocence and invention in Vigo's style here that the film seems less a consciously constructed work of art than an emanation.”

He continues: “The mood Vigo creates here is a kind of enchanted melancholy, and we feel submerged in it... The effect is almost narcotic. The picture seems to drift, and though almost nothing appears to be happening, our senses are set at a heightened level, as if we were asleep and fully awake at the same time. Vigo moves the story forward by poetic association; there's a logic to the way in which it's ordered, but the links are imperceptible. They're organised by feeling, not intellect.”

Jean Vigo
Jean Vigo

While making L’Atalante Vigo was so ill that he constantly risked collapse, and even directed some scenes from a stretcher. Remarking on the director's state of mind during this period, Truffaut suggests that “It is easy to conclude that he was in a kind of fever while he worked,” and when a friend advised Vigo to guard his health, the director replied that “he lacked the time and had to give everything right away.”

Due to the high degree of realism employed in his films—often to unflattering effect—Jean Vigo was accused of being unpatriotic, his work heavily censored by the French Government. L’Atalante has never been fully restored from the butchering it received from distributors, who attempted to increase its popularity by reducing the running time and changing the title to Le Chaland Qui Passe (The Passing Barge)—the name of a popular song inserted like an axe into the film. L'Atalante was advertised as “a film inspired by the celebrated sung so admirably song by Lys Gauty.”

Jean Vigo died of complications from tuberculosis in 1934 aged just 29, only a few days after the first disappointing cinematic run of L’Atalante. His beloved wife Lydou, lying beside him as he died, got up from the bed and ran down a long corridor to a room at the end. Friends caught her as she was about to jump out a window.

Vigo has been described as the epitome of the radical, passionate film-maker who fights every step of the way against lesser imagination and sensibility, and he is perhaps lucky not to have lived to see his masterpiece so barbarically hacked to pieces. History has viewed Vigo’s work more favourably, with L’Atalante being ranked as the 10th greatest film of all time in a 1962 Sight & Sound poll, rising to 6th best in 1992.

L’Atalante, together with similar works of poetic realism by contemporaries Jean Renoir and Marcel Carné, significantly changed the course of French and world cinema, leading directly to the Italian Neorealist movement of the late 1940s, and the French New Wave (la Nouvelle Vague) of the 1950s and 60s, which in turn inspired an increasing sense of realism in Hollywood cinema. Many of the Neorealist and Nouvelle Vague directors worked upon the sets of poetic realist films before beginning their own careers, and allusions to Jean Vigo and L'Atalante can be found in many of their works.

The Restoration of L'Atalante by Jean Vigo

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Beautiful Moments in Film #1: Dedication

Dedication (2007) by Justin Theroux

Rudy: That's life Henry. Henry: Yep. Rudy: You know what life is? Henry: Life is a horrible little giggle in the midst of a forced death march towards hell. Rudy: No it isn't. Henry: An interminable wail of grief... Rudy: No! Life is a single skip for joy. Henry: (sigh) I know...
A realist, two feet planted firmly on the ground, looks down and pronounces that this, here and now, is life. A poet instead dreams of flight, and bravely leaps up into the air... If life is a skip for joy it requires one to enjoy, remember the time we spend in the air, rather than dwell upon that spent on the ground. Or in the ground for that matter. These are the Newtonian laws of happiness—the ipso facto necessity of optimism and hope instead of pessimism and doubt, for life is a cup both half-empty and half-full, poison-laced and nectar-brimmed, a meal we cook either satisfying or not by our very perceptions and attitudes. Dedication Movie PosterHenry Roth (Billy Crudup) is a character who sees nothing but the landing at the end of life, the death awaiting him when his skip—more leaden-footed stumble—touches the ground. Dedication begins with Henry as a realist, but his realism really an excuse for an all pervading, bleak without respite pessimism, a pessimism which, in an endless circle of causation, justifies his fear and perpetuates his misery. Henry ends the film taking a leap of faith, dares blindly to hope against “facts” or “proof,” chooses no to longer look down.

Pessimist, Optimist, Realist

A pessimist is he Who shuts his eyes To the rising sun. An optimist is he Who looks up and sees Through the teeming clouds. A realist is he Who faces the clouds And adores the sun. —Sri Chinmoy The Wings Of Light, Part 3

Lion-sized love

[kml_flashembed movie="/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2008/02/lion-love.swf" width="420" height="400" wmode="transparent Awwwwww! King-sized cute more like it! An African lion in Colombia meets the woman who rescued him six years previously, bonding human style with a hug and a kiss. Tell me which animal is the “king of the beasts” again?

The selfish, selfless Yukio Mishima

I've been going through something of a Yukio Mishima phase again recently. I did once before, many years ago, until a cursory read of his biography saw me dismiss him as deeply flawed, and in his fascination with violence, perhaps more ugly than beautiful. But I am having second thoughts. I don't think I will ever condone his suicide—it bespeaks to me ultimately of selfishness, and short-sightedness, and for one so enamoured of the virtues of duty, strength, sacrifice and courage—the forgotten“bushido” code of the Samurai—even of weakness. He was a man who cared passionately for his country, and his pronouncement that she would gain little satisfaction through her headlong rush for material prosperity has been more than vindicated, yet it seems common sense to say that he would have been better placed to make his point living rather than dead. His word alone was newsworthy, and as one once connected to the wife of the Emperor and personal friend of the Prime Minister, he moved in circles that suggested a career in politics was there for the taking should he have wished. So his death can only be seen as a waste; his desire to live his life as a poem and die by the code of bushido ultimately a vain, selfish act that more served himself than the greater good. Still though, I find much to admire in his written and lived ideals, and it should be emphasised in Mishima's case that they were always lived—his death the ultimate example of that. He prided himself on turning ideas into action, a form of self-abnegation in which he sought to erase, in his view, the effeminate, ineffective intellectual of his youth, by becoming a man of strength and action. And I can’t help but secretly admire, half in horror half in awe, his final, mis-guided act, and the un-imaginable courage—or insanity —it must have taken to do such a thing. Almost completely un-heard of now, seppukku was near common-place in pre-modern Japan; Mishima’s however was the first recorded of the post-war era. In the short excerpt that follows, some will see simply an idealisation of self-destruction, and in the tale of a pre-war army officer, a glorifying of the militarism that so led Japan astray. But that would only be a shallow reading of the story, very much incomplete. Yes, Patriotism is a celebration of death, but not in a negative, destructive sense. Rather it celebrates the death of an army officer and his wife as the ultimate form of sacrifice—his death for belief and country; her death for him—the wife takes her husband’s beliefs as her own. Patriotism asks the question “what if?”—what if the sacrifice of 1936 Niniroku Jiken uprising, of which this real life army officer was a part, hadn't been in vain, if this last stand against the faction in favour of western style militarism and imperialism—forces incidentally which the “rightist” Mishima saw as negative, “un-Japanese” imports—had been successful. With the restoration of the spirit of bushido to the army, and its spirit of sacrifice and honour, of true service to the greater good, the destructive war with America might have been averted—a war which very near totally destroyed Japan outwardly, and, in Mishima’s view, in the occupation that followed, with its enforced constitution, robbed her inwardly of half her essence—the sword no longer beside the chrysanthemum. Mishima saw Japan as having lost her spiritual values, and in her excessive materialism, dying slowly from a “tediousness” and “insipidness” of the soul. Sadly, although largely proved correct, he left the earthly stage prematurely, and with surely much still to contribute. It is perhaps worth saying that his criticism of Japan is hardly unique to Japan; the whole world would do well to heed this warning near forty years old against materialism unchecked.

Life is but a dream…

A circumzenithal arc (upside down rainbow) by Andrew G. Saffas Serendipity: Thanks, Horace Walpole by Sumangali Morhall has left me reaching for superlatives and floundering in imitation. A total of two mentions to this web diary? Flattered beyond due, how could I not be effusive in my praise! On the topic of serendipity, still, I am reminded of a friend from very long ago, an art student and later fellow practitioner of meditation who introduced me to the concept that life itself could be art. My ears picked up at this point; being something of a frustrated artist—one who could and should be doing creative things, had always planned to do them but convinced self that he was not “good” enough to—I knew intuitively as soon as he spoke that here was a better way to live; a chord was struck within. In following this outlook, my friend and his art school acquaintances admittedly went to very unusual extremes. A flatmate of his, a particularly shy, awkward young man, took to roaming the streets in a reflective, silver spacesuit; several years later child-like quirkiness became full-blown strangeness, live art gallery performances and national magazine writeups of the very unusual party trick—sewing his own lips shut. Borderline psychosis of fleeting acquaintances aside, I very much admired my friend’s philosophy of allowing life to surprise him, the way he sought joy in the random, the unusual and completely unplanned. Like leaving small amounts of money “forgetfully” in pockets; in a week or a month when next worn—a pleasant surprise! To one used to planning and practicality but not terribly enamored of the consequences, seeing a person living thus opened my eyes, and ever since I have made a practise of always allowing life to surprise me. Like turning one's eye skywards to glimpse a rainbow, serendipity and chance are there when looked for; accept them upon their own terms, graciously and un-demanded, their workings far more beautiful than explanation. There is belief common to many religions and philosophies that maintains our world is an illusion. A more positive way of stating this, a way which doesn't negate the meaning of our fleeting human experience and reality, is to see life as a game. This is Sri Chinmoy's approach to living, and he describes it as God’s as well—a being whom he often refers to as an eternal child. If you take God to be omnipotent, omniscient and omni-present, and all the major philosophies do, then what could give such a being more joy than the unknown—a game of surprise? It is said that God deliberately limits himself, hides from himself and his full capacity, just to be able to enjoy Himself and his creation more fully. This the real meaning of life; our lives an experience of God-becoming in the midst of limitation, God enjoying himself and his creation here on earth in ever-new ways, through our eyes and our human form. Life, it is said, is the ultimate game of hide and seek...
Hide and Seek Every minute inspires me To attempt. Every hour perfects me To ascend. Every day illumines me To reach. In my attempt, I have come to learn what I can be. In my ascension, I have come to learn who I eternally Am. On my arrival, God and I shall stop playing our age-long Game, Hide-and-Seek. —Sri Chinmoy

Serendipity

Sri Chinmoy I discovered a new website today; new to me and to the rest of the world, for much like this site it has only just started. Sumangali.org, named after its owner, is dedicated to and I quote:
“...to the spirit of serendipity: finding good-fortune from unexpected sources; discovering the extraordinary in the ordinary, and the new in the familiar, fueled by the sense that all we need is already within us—we only need learn how to look...”
I'm definitely in favour of these sentiments; in fact I think my last post was about them. Now that's serendipitous! In the spirit of serendipity I am now going to post a comment by Sri Chinmoy on rainbows, found by myself in exactly this spirit:
“A rainbow is composed of seven colours and seven rays. A rainbow always means success and progress at the same time, even if that success and progress are not in the outer world. A rainbow signifies success, progress, divine victory—everything positive. When you see a rainbow, in the outer world you may not observe your success, but in the inner world, progress has taken place or is about to take place. Again, if it is not destined for you to have success or progress, then you are not going to see a rainbow. Even if the rainbow is there, you will be looking somewhere else. When you are walking, you will be looking at your feet to keep your balance. The rainbow will be there in the sky, but you will miss it. Then for you there will be no success, no progress. If you are meant to have success or progress, then even while driving the car, you will turn your gaze and you will see it. But if you are not going to make progress, you will be looking somewhere else. So always look at the sky. Do not look at the ground all the time.” From Sri Chinmoy Answers, pt9.
Now that I think of it, I haven't seen a rainbow in a while...