The Soul of the Far East



WE have seen how impersonal is the form which Far Eastern thought assumes when it crystallizes into words. Let us turn now to a consideration of the thoughts themselves before they are thus stereotyped for transmission to others, and scan them as they find expression unconsciously in the man’s doings, or seek it consciously in his deeds.

To the Far Oriental there is one subject whose influence so permeates and pervades all others that it not only constitutes the supreme object of his thought, but forms the very mainspring of his mental activity. That subject is art. The Far Oriental is an artist to the tips of his fingers. With science he has not so much as a speaking acquaintance, but with art he is on terms of the most affectionate intimacy. He cares not a straw to investigate causes; his one aim is to invent results.

To the whole Far Eastern world science is a stranger. Although the Chinese civilization, even in the so-called modern inventions, was already old while ours lay still in the cradle, it was to no scientific spirit that its discoveries were due. Notwithstanding the fact that Cathay was the happy possessor of gunpowder, movable type, and the compass before such things were dreamt of in Europe, she owed them to no knowledge of physics, chemistry, or mechanics. It was as arts, not as sciences, they were invented. And it speaks volumes for her civilization that she burnt her powder for fireworks, not for firearms. To the West alone belongs the credit of manufacturing it for the sake of killing people instead of merely killing time.

The scientific is not the Far Oriental point of view. To seek to know the reasons of things, that irrepressible yearning of the Western spirit, is no characteristic of the Chinaman’s mind, nor is it a Tartar trait. Metaphysics, a species of speculation that has usually proved peculiarly attractive to mankind, probably from its not requiring any scientific capital whatever, would seem the most likely place to look for it. But in such matters he has never dabbled ; what he now professes he has quietly taken on trust from India. Science proper has reached at his hands only the catalogue stage; that is, it has a certain outward semblance of science, with all the spirit of the thing left out. Pseudoscientific collections of facts that never rise to be classifications of phenomena are to him the height of erudition. His mathematics, for instance, consist of a set of empirical rules, of which no explanation is ever vouchsafed the taught, for the simple reason that it is quite unknown to the teacher. Of physics, chemistry, geology, and the like, he has no conception. Even in studies more immediately connected with man, such as language, customs, and so forth, it is really remarkable how little he possesses the power of generalization and inference. His long lists of specimens are superficially imposing, but not even formally important; while as for any bond between them, it either does not exist, or vanishes on inspection.

But with the arts it is quite another matter. While you will search in vain, in this civilization, for explanations of even the most simple of nature’s laws, you will meet at every turn with devices for the beautifying of life, which may stand not unworthily beside the products of nature’s own skill. Whatever these people fashion, from the toy of an hour to the triumphs of all time, is touched by a taste unknown elsewhere. To stroll down the principal street of Tokio, of an evening, is a species of liberal education. Long lines of gayly lighted shops, crammed with wares to captivate alike the novice and the connoisseur, look out upon an equally endless succession of torchlit booths, that display a happy medley of old curios and new conceits. Here the very latest thing in inventions, a gutta-percha rat, that for some reason best known to the vender scampers about squeaking with a mimicry to shame the original, holds an admiring crowd spellbound with mingled trepidation and delight. There a native zoetrope, ingenious round of pleasure, whose top, fashioned after the type of a turbine wheel, enables a candle in the centre to supply both illumination and motive power at the same time, affords to as many as can find room on its circumference a peep at the composite antics of a consecutively pictured monkey in the act of jumping a box. Then again it is some flower-stand, in the growth of whose shrubs art has dared even to interfere with nature, and begotten forms which the parent plant would fail to recognize ; while opposite this show is a booth that, among its other curiosities, has for sale little microscopes with legs. Thus from one attraction to another you wander on for miles, carried along with the tide of pleasureseekers in a sort of realized dream.

Or, instead of the street by night, suppose the time day, and the place a temple. Between priests and pilgrims you enter in. The richness of its outer ornament, so impressive at first, is, you discover, but prelude to the lavish luxury of its interior. Lacquer, bronze, pigments, deck its ceiling and its sides in such profusion that it seems to you as if art had expanded, in the congenial atmosphere, into a tropical luxuriance of decoration, and grew here as naturally on temples as in the jungle creepers do on trees. Yet all is but setting to what the place contains; objects of bigotry and virtue that appeal to the artistic as much as to the religious instincts of the devout. More sacred still are the things treasured in the sanctum of the priests. There you will find gems of art, for whose sake only the most abnormal impersonality can prevent you from breaking the tenth commandment. Of the value set upon them you can form some distant approximation from the exceeding richness and the amazing number of the silk cloths and lacquered boxes in which they are so religiously kept. As you gaze thus, amid the soul-satisfying repose of the spot, at some masterpiece from the brush of Motonobu, you find yourself wondering, in a fanciful sort of way, whether Buddhist contemplation is not indeed but another name for the contemplation of the beautiful, since devotees to the one are ex officio such votaries of the other.

Dissimilar as are these two glimpses of Japanese existence, in one point the hushed temple and the bustling street are alike, — in the nameless grace that beautifies, and so beatifies, both.

More important even than the height to which these people have carried their art is the extent of its influence. Both objectively and subjectively its catholicity is remarkable. It imbues everything, and affects everybody. So universally is it applied to the daily affairs of life that in Japan there may be said to be no mechanical arts, simply because all such have been raised to the position of fine arts. The lowest artisan is essentially an artist. Modern French nomenclature on the subject, in spite of the satire to which the more prosaic Anglo-Saxon has subjected it, is peculiarly applicable to Japan. To call a Japanese cook, for instance, an artist would be but the barest acknowledgment of fact, for Japanese food is far more beautiful to look at than agreeable to eat; while Tokio tailors are certainly masters of drapery, if they are sublimely oblivious to the natural modelings of the male or female form.

On the other hand, art is sown, like the use of tobacco, broadcast among the people. It is the birthright of the Far East, the talent it never hides. Throughout the length and breadth of the land, from the highest prince to the humblest peasant, art reigns supreme.

Now such a prevalence of art implies of itself impersonality in the people. At first sight it might seem as if science did the same, and that in this respect the one resembled the other, and that consequently both hemispheres should be equally impersonal. But in the first place, our masses are not imbued with the scientific spirit, as theirs are with artistic sensibility. In the second place, there is an essential difference in the states of mind produced by the two subjects. Emotionally, science appeals to nobody, art to everybody. Now the emotions constitute the larger part of that complex bundle of ideas which we know as self. A thought which is not tinged to some extent with feeling is not only not personal; properly speaking, it is not even distinctively human, but cosmical. In its lofty superiority to man, science is unpersonal rather than impersonal. Art, on the contrary, is a familiar spirit. Through the windows of the senses she enters into the very soul of man, and makes, as it were, a home there. But it is to humanity, not to the individual as such, that she whispers, and for this reason she becomes a universal tongue that all can understand.

We find examples in practice of what we should expect from theory. It is no mere coincidence that the two most impersonal nations of Europe and Asia respectively, the French and the Japanese, are at the same time the most artistic. Even politeness, which, as we saw in the last paper, distinguishes both, is itself but a form of art, — the social art of living agreeably with one’s fellows. The object of Far Eastern art witnesses to the same mental characteristic of its devotees.

The Far Oriental lives in a long daydream of beauty. He muses rather than reasons, and all musing, so the word itself confesses, springs from the inspiration of a Muse. But this Muse appears not to him, as to the Greeks, after the fashion of a woman, nor even more prosaically after the likeness of a man. Unnatural though it seem to us, his inspiration seeks no human symbol. His Muse is not kin to mankind. She is too impersonal for any personification, for she is Nature.

That poet whose name carries with it a certain presumption of infallibility has told us that “ the proper study of mankind is man ; ” and if material advancement in consequence be any criterion of the fitness of a particular mental pursuit, events have assuredly justified the saying. Indeed, the Levant has helped antithetically to preach the same lesson, in showing us by its own fatal example that the improper study of mankind is woman, and that they who but follow the fair will inevitably degenerate.

The Far Oriental knows nothing of either study, and cares less. The delight of self-exploration, or the possibly even greater delight of losing one’s self in trying to fathom femininity, is a sensation equally foreign to his temperament. Neither the remarkable persistence of one’s own characteristics, not infrequently matter of deep regret to their possessor, nor the charmingly unaccountable variability of the fairer sex, at times quite as annoying, is a phenomenon sufficient to stir his curiosity. Accepting, as he does, the existing state of things more as a material fact than as a phase in a gradual process of development, he regards humanity as but a small part of the great natural world, instead of considering it the crowning glory of the whole. He recognizes man merely as a fraction of the universe, — one might almost say as a vulgar fraction of it, considering the low regard in which he is held, — and accords him his proportionate share of attention, and no more.

In his thought nature is not accessory to man. Worthy M. Périchon, of prosaic, not to say philistinic fame, had, as we remember, his travels immortalized in a painting where a colossal Périchon in front almost completely eclipsed a tiny Mont Blanc behind. A Far Oriental thinks poetry, which may possibly account for the fact that in his mind-pictures the relative importance of man and mountain stands reversed. " The matchless Fuji,” first of motifs in his art, admits no pilgrim as its peer.

Nor is it to woman that turn his thoughts. Mother Earth is fairer, in his eyes, than are any of her daughters. To her is given the heart that should be theirs. The Far Eastern love of Nature amounts almost to a passion. To the study of her ever-varying moods her Japanese admirer brings an impersonal adoration that combines oddly the æstheticism of a poet with the asceticism of a recluse. Not that he worships in secret, however. His passion is too genuine either to find disguise or seek display. With us, unfortunately, the love of Nature is apt to be considered a mental extravagance peculiar to poets, excusable in exact ratio to the ability to give it expression. For an ordinary mortal to feel a fondness for Mother Earth is a kind of folly, to be carefully concealed from his fellows. A sort of shamefacedness prevents him from avowing it, as a boy at boarding-school hides his homesickness, or a lad his love. He shrinks from appearing less pachydermatous than the rest. Or else he flies to the other extreme, and affects the odd ; pretends, poses, parades, and at last succeeds half in duping himself, half in deceiving other people. But with Far Orientals it is very different. Their love has all the unostentatious assurance of what has received the sanction of public opinion. Nor is it still at that doubtful, hesitating stage when, by the instrumentality of a third, its soul-harmony can suddenly be changed from the jubilant major key into the despairing minor. No trace of sadness tinges his delight. He has long since passed this melancholy phase of erotic misery, if so be that the course of his true love did not always run smooth, and is now well on in matrimonial bliss. The very look of the land is enough to betray the fact. In Japan the landscape has an air of domesticity about it, patent even to the most casual observer. Wherever the Japanese has come in contact with the country he has made her unmistakably his own. He has touched her to caress, not injure, and it seems as if Nature accepted his fondness as a matter of course, and yielded him a wifely submission in return. His garden is more human, even, than his house. Not only is everything exquisitely in keeping with man, but natural features are actually changed, plastic to the imprint of their lord and master’s mind. Bushes, shrubs, trees, forget to follow their original intent, and grow as he wills them to; now expanding in wanton luxuriance, now contracting into dwarf designs of their former selves, all to obey his caprice and please his eye. Even stubborn rocks lose their wildness, and come to seem a part of the almost sentient life around them. If the description of such dutifulness seems fanciful, the thing itself looks incredible. Hedges and ornamental shrubbery, clipped into the most fantastic shapes, accept the suggestions of the pruning-knife as if man’s wishes were their own whims. Liliputian maples, Tom Thumb trees, a foot high and thirty years old, with all the gnarls and knots and knuckles of their fellows of the forest, grow there in his parterres, their native vitality not a whit diminished. To enter a Japanese garden is like wandering of a sudden into one of those strange worlds we see reflected in the polished surface of a concave mirror, where all but the observer himself is transformed into a fantastic miniature of the reality. In that quaint fairyland diminutive rivers flow gracefully under tiny trees, past mole - hill mountains, till they fall at last into little artificial lakes, almost smothered for the flowers that grow upon their banks; while in the extreme distance of a couple of rods the cone of a fuji ten feet high looks approvingly down upon a scene which would be nationally incomplete without it.

But besides the. delights of domesticity the Japanese enjoys daily in Nature’s company, he has his accès de tendresse, too. When he feels thus specially stirred, he invites a chosen few of his friends, equally infatuated, and together they repair to some spot noted for its scenery. It may be a waterfall, or a shaded pond, or the distant glimpse of a mountain peak framed in picture-wise between the nearer hills ; or, at their appropriate seasons, the blossoming of the many tree flowers, which in eastern Asia are beautiful beyond description. For he appreciates not only places, but times. One spot is to be seen at sunrise, another by moonlight ; one to be visited in the springtime, another in the fall. But wherever or whenever it be, a tea-house, placed to command the best view of the sight, stands ready to receive him. For nature’s beauties are too well recognized to remain the exclusive property of the first chance lover. People flock to view nature as we do to see a play, and privacy is as impossible as it is unsought. Indeed, the aversion to publicity is simply a result of the sense of personality, and therefore necessarily not a feature of so impersonal a civilization. In front of the tea-house proper are rows of summer pavilions, in one of which the party make themselves at home, while gentle little tea-house girls toddle forth to serve them the invariable preliminary tea and confections. Each man then produces from up his sleeve, or from out his girdle, paper, ink, and brush, and proceeds to compose a poem on the spot and the occasion, which he subsequently reads to his admiring companions. There they sit sipping sake, which is to them what beer is to a German or absinthe to a blouse, and pass their thought as they do their cups, in honor to one another. At last, after drinking in an hour or two of scenery and sake combined, the symposium of poets breaks up.

Sometimes, instead of a company of friends, a man will take his family, wife, babies, and all, on such an outing, but the details of his holiday are much the same as before. For the scenery is still the centre of attraction, and in the attendant creature comforts Far Eastern etiquette permits an equal enjoyment to man, woman, and child.

This love of nature is quite irrespective of social condition. All classes feel its force, and freely indulge the feeling. Poor as well as rich, low as well as high, contrive to gratify their poetic instincts for natural scenery. As for flowers, especially tree flowers, or those of the larger plants, like the lotus or the iris, the Japanese appreciation of their beauty is in keeping with its cause ; one could not say more in praise either of the fact or of the feeling. Those who can afford the luxury possess the shrubs in private; those who cannot feast their eyes on the public specimens. From a sprig in a vase to a park planted on purpose, there is no part of them too small or too great to be excluded from Far Oriental affection. And of the two “ drawing-rooms ” of the Mikado held every year, in April and November, both are garden-parties: the one given at the time and with the title of “ the cherry blossoms,” and the other of “ the chrysanthemum.”

That nature, not man, is their beau idéal, the source to them of inspiration, is evident again on looking at their art. The same spirit that makes of them such wonderful landscape gardeners and such wonder-full landscape gazers shows itself unmistakably in their paintings.

The current impression that Japanese pictorial ambition, and consequent skill, is confined to the representation of birds and flowers, though entirely erroneous as it stands, has a grain of truth behind it. This view arose from the attitude of the foreign observers, and was in fact a tribute to Japanese technique rather than an appreciation of Far Eastern artistic feeling. The truth is, the foreigners brought to the subject their own Western Criteria of merit, and judged everything by these standards. Such works naturally commended themselves most as had least occasion to deviate from their canons. The simplest pictures, therefore, were pronounced the best. Paintings of birds and flowers were thus admitted to be fine, because their realism spoke for itself. Of the exquisite poetic feeling of their landscape paintings the foreign critics were not at first conscious, because it was not expressed in terms with which they were familiar.

But first impressions, here as elsewhere, are valuable. One is very apt to turn to them again from the reasoning of his second thoughts. Flora and fauna are a conspicuous feature of Far Asiatic art, because they enter as details of the subject-matter of the artist’s thoughts and of his day-dreams. These birds and flowers are his sujets de genre. Where we should select a phase of human life for effective isolation, they choose instead a bit of natural beauty. A spray of grass or a twig of cherry-blossoms is even commoner as a motif than is an animal. For to the Far Oriental all nature is sympathetically sentient. His admiration, instead of being centred on man, embraces the universe. His art reflects it.

Leaving out of consideration, for the moment, minor though still important distinctions in tone, treatment, and technique, the great fundamental difference between Western and Far Eastern art lies in its attitude toward humanity.

With us, from the time of the Greeks to the present day, man has been the cynosure of artistic eyes ; with them he has never been vouchsafed more than a casual, not to say a cursory glance, even woman failing to rivet his attention. One of our own writers has said that, without passing the bounds of due respect, a man is permitted two looks at any woman he may meet, one to recognize, one to admire. A Japanese ordinarily never dreams of taking but one, — if indeed he goes so far as that, — the first. It is the omitting to take that second look that has made him what he is. Not that Fortune has been unpropitious; only blind. Fate has offered him opportunity enough; too much, perhaps. For in Japan the exposure of the female form is without a parallel in latitude. Never naked, it is frequently nude. The result is much the same, though the cause be different. For, according to their own standards, the Japanese are exceedingly modest. No respectable woman there would, for instance, ever for a moment turn out her toes in walking. It is considered immodest to do so. Modesty of intent is with them the criterion of propriety. In their eyes a state of nature is not a state of indecency. Whatever exposure is required for convenience is right, whatever unnecessary wrong. From this it would seem to be the very spot for a something like the modern French school of art to have developed in. And yet it is just that study of the nude which has from immemorial antiquity been entirely neglected in the Far East. An ancient Greek, to say nothing of a modern Parisian, would have shocked a Japanese. Yet we are shocked by them. We are astounded at the sights we see in their country villages, while they in their turn marvel at the exhibitions they witness in our city theatres. At their watering - places the two sexes bathe promiscuously together, in all the simplicity of nature; but for a Japanese woman to appear on the stage in any character, however proper, would be deemed indecent. The difference between the two hemispheres consists in an artless liberty on the one hand, and artistic license on the other. Their unwritten code of propriety on the subject, seems to be, “ You must see, but you may not observe.”

These people live more in accordance with their code of propriety than we do with ours. All classes alike conform to it. The adjective “ respectable,” used above as a distinction in speaking of woman, was in reality superfluous, for all women there, as far as appearance goes, are respectable. Even the most abandoned creature does not betray her status by her behavior. The reason of this uniformity and its psychological importance I shall discuss later.

This form of modesty, a sort of want of modesty of form, has no connection whatever with sex. It applies with equal force to the male figure, which is even more exposed than the female, and offers anatomical suggestions invaluable alike to the artistic and medical professions, — suggestions that are equally ignored by both. The coolies are frequently possessed of physiques which would have delighted Michael Angelo; and as for the phenomenal corpulency of the wrestlers, it would have made of the place a very paradise for Rubens. In regard to the doctors, — for to call them surgeons would be to give a name to what does not exist, — a lack of scientific zeal has been the cause of their not investigating what tempts too seductively, we should imagine, to be ignored. Acupuncture, or the practice of sticking long pins into any part of the patient’s body that may happen to be paining him, pretty much irrespective of anatomical position, is the nearest approach to surgery of which they are guilty, and proclaims of itself the in corpore vili character of the thing operated upon.

Nor does the sculptor owe anything to science. He represents man simply as he sees him, blindly, so to speak; and it betokens the very highest powers of generalized observation that he produces the results he does. As for pictorial delineations, man is shown, not as he might look in the primitive, or rather privitive, simplicity of his ancestral Garden of Eden, but as he does look in the ordinary wear and tear of his garments of to-day. Civilization has furnished him with clothes, and he prefers, when he has his picture taken, to keep them on.

In dealing with man, the Far Oriental artist is emphatically a realist; it is when he turns to nature that he becomes ideal. But by ideal is not meant here conventional. That term of reproach is simply a misnomer, founded on a mistake. By ideal I mean that poetry of the imagination which transmutes without transforming. The Far Oriental has plenty of it, but it is peculiarly impersonal. His color-blindness to the warm, blood-red end of the spectrum of life in no wise affects his perception of the colder beauty of the great blues and greens of nature. To their poetry he is ever sensitive. His appreciation of them is something phenomenal, and his power of presentation worthy his appreciation.

A Japanese painting is a poem rather than a picture. It portrays an emotion called up by a scene, and not the elaborate complexity of the scene itself. It undertakes to give only so much of it as is vital to that particular feeling, and intentionally omits all irrelevant details. It is the expression caught from a glimpse of the soul of nature by the soul of man ; the mirror of a mood, passing, perhaps, in fact, but perpetuated thus to fancy. Being an emotion, its intensity is directly proportional to the singleness with which it possesses the thoughts. Hence the Far Oriental’s peculiar appreciation of the power of simplicity. This principle is his fundamental canon of pictorial art. To understand his paintings, it is from this standpoint they must be regarded ; not as soulless photographs of scenery, but as poetic presentations of the spirit of the scenes. The very charter of painting depends upon its not giving us charts. And if with us a long poem be a contradiction in terms, a full picture is with them as self-condemnatory a production. From the contemplation of such works of art as we call finished, one is apt, after he has once appreciated Far Eastern taste, to carry away an unpleasant sensation of satiety, as from the partaking of too elaborate a feast.

Their paintings, by comparison, we call sketches. Is not our would-be condemnation unwittingly the reverse ? Is not a sketch, after all, fuller of meaning, to one who knows how to read it, than a finished affair, which is very apt to end with itself, barren of fruit ? Does not one’s own imagination distance one’s power to portray it ? For in suggestion lies the soul of art, and nothing is half so suggestive as the half expressed, not even a double entente. To hint a great deal by displaying a little is more vital to effect than the representation of the whole. The art of partially concealing is more telling, even, than the ars celare artem. Who has not suspected through a veil a fairer face than veil ever hid ? Who has not been delightedly duped by the semi-revelations of a dress ? The principle is just as true in a single branch of art as it is of the attempted developments by one art of the suggestions of another. Who has not felt a shock of day-dream desecration at the subsequent illustrations of some book he had laid to heart ? And I venture to believe that to more than one of us the exquisite pathos of the Bride of Lammermoor is gone when Lucia warbles her woes, be it never so entrancingly, to an admiring house. It almost seems as if the garish publicity of using her name for operatic title were a special intervention of the Muse, that we might the less connect song with story, — two sensations that, like two lights, destroy one another by mutual interference.

Against this preference given the sketch it may be urged that to appreciate such suggestions presupposes as much art in the public as in the painter. But the ability to appreciate a thing when expressed is but half that necessary to express it. Some understanding must exist in the observer for any work to be intelligible. It is only a question of degree. The greater the imagination of the person addressed, the more had better be left to it. Now in Japan the public is singularly artistic. In fact, the artistic appreciation of the masses there is something astonishing to us, accustomed to our immense intellectual differences between man and man. Sketches are thus peculiarly fitting to such a land. Besides, there is a quiet modesty about the sketch which is itself taking. To attempt the complete even in a fractional bit of the cosmos, like a picture, has in it a difficulty akin to the proving of a universal negative. The possibilities of failure are enormously increased, and failure is less forgiven for the assumption. Art might perhaps not unwisely follow the example of science in such matters where an exhaustive work, which takes the better part of a lifetime to produce, is invariably entitled by its erudite author an Elementary Treatise on whatever it may happen to be.

To aid the effect due to simplicity of conception steps in the Far Oriental’s wonderful technique. His brush strokes are very few in number, but each one tells. They are laid on with a touch which is little short of marvelous, and requires heredity to explain its skill. For in his method there is no emending, no superposition, no change possible. What he does is done once and for all. The force of it grows on you as you gaze. Each stroke expresses surprisingly much, and suggests more. Even omissions are made significant. In his painting it is visibly true that objects can be rendered conspicuous by their very absence. You are quite sure you see what on scrutiny you discover to be only the illusion of inevitable inference. The Far Oriental artist understands the power of suggestion well; for imagination always fills in the picture better than the brush, however perfect be its skill.

Even the neglect of certain general principles, such as the absence of shadows and the lack of perspective, which we consider vital to effect, is seen not to be of the importance we imagine. We discover in these paintings how immaterial, artistically, was Peter Schlimmel’s sad loss, and how perfectly possible it is to make bits of discontinuous distance take the place effectively of continuous space.

Do we not follow the same course as regards time in the case of our comedies, those acted pictures of life ? Should we not refuse to tolerate a play that insisted on furnishing us with a full perspective of its characters’ past ? And yet of the two, it is far preferable, artistically, to be given too much in sequence than too much at once. The Chinese, who put much less into a painting than what we deem indispensable, delight in dramas that last six weeks.

To give a concluding touch of life to my necessarily skeleton-like generalities, I will instance a certain painting of Okio’s which I happen to possess. It is a sunrise on the coast of Japan. A long line of surf is seen tumbling in to you from out a bank of mist, just piercing which shows the blood-red disk of the rising sun, while over the narrow strip of breaking rollers three cranes are slowly sailing north. And that is all you see. You do not see the shore; you do not see the main ; you are looking but at the border-land of that great unknown, the heaving ocean still slumbering beneath its chilly coverlid of mist, out of which come the breakers, and the sun, and the cranes.

So much for the more serious side of Japanese fancy; a look at the lighter leads to the same conclusion.

Hand in hand with his keen poetic sensibility goes a vivid sense of humor, — two traits that commonly, indeed, are found Maying together over the meadows of imagination. For, as it might be put, —

“The heart that is soonest awake to the flowers

Is also the first to be touched by the fun.” The Far Oriental well exemplifies this fact. His art, wherever fun is possible, fairly bubbles over with laughter. From the oldest masters down to Hokusai, it is constantly welling up in countless sujets de genre. It is of all descriptions, too. Now it lurks in merry ambush, like the faint suggestion of a smile on an otherwise serious face, so subtile that the observer is left wondering whether the artist could have meant what seems more like one’s own ingenious discovery ; now it breaks out into the broadest of grins, absurd juxtapositions of singularly happy incongruities. For Hokusai’s caricatures and Hendschel’s sketches might be twins. If there is a difference, it is simply in the greater generality of its appreciation. Humor flits easily there at the sea-level of the multitude. For the Japanese temperament is ever on the verge of a smile, which breaks out with catching naïveté at the first provocation. The language abounds in puns which are not suffered to lie idle, and even poetry often hinges on certain consecrated jeux de mots. Nor is there anything selfish in the national enjoyment. A man is quite as ready to laugh at his own expense as at his neighbor’s, a courtesy which his neighbor cordially returns.

Now humor is essentially human in its application. The principle of the synthesis of contradictories, popularly known by that name, is necessarily limited in its field to man. For whether it have to do wholly with actions, or partly with the words that express them, whether it be presented in the shape of a pun or a pleasantry, it is in incongruous contrasts that its virtue lies. It is the unexpected that provokes the smile. Now no such incongruity exists in nature ; man enjoys a monopoly of the power of making himself ridiculous. So pleasant is pleasantry that we do indeed cultivate it beyond its proper pale. But it is only by personifying Nature, and gratuitously attributing to her errors of which she is incapable, that we can make fun of her. We sometimes go so far as to hold the weather up to ridicule by way of impotent revenge ; but satires upon the circus-clown-like character of our climate, which, after the lamest sort of a spring, somehow manages a capital fall, would in the Far East be as out of keeping with fancy as with fact. To a Japanese, who never personifies anything, such innocent irony is unmeaning. Besides, it would be also untrue. For his May carries no suggestion of unfulfillment in its name.

Those Far Eastern sujets de genre which have to do with man fall for the most part under one of two heads, the facetious and the historical. The latter implies no particularly intimate concern for man in himself, for the past has very little personality for the present. As for the former, its attention is, if anything, derogatory to him, for we are always shy of making fun of what we feel to be too closely a part of ourselves. Impersonality has prevented the Far Oriental from having much amour propre. He has no particular aversion to caricaturing himself. Few Europeans, perhaps, would have cared to perpetrate a self-portrait like one painted by Kinsei. It is a composite picture of a thoroughly Japanese kind, a new variety. The great potter, who was also, apparently, no mean painter, has combined three aspects of himself in a single representation. At first sight the picture appears to be simply a full-face portrait; but as you continue to gaze it suddenly dawns on you that each side is a profile portrait of the same individual, the contour lines being ingeniously made to do double duty; and when this has once struck you, you cannot look at the picture without seeing all three faces simultaneously. The result is more effective than flattering.

Far Eastern sculpture, by its secondary importance among Far Eastern arts, witnesses again the secondary importance assigned to man at our mental antipodes. In this art, owing to its necessary limitations, the representation of nature in its broader sense is impossible. For in the first place, whatever the subject, it must be such as it is possible to present in one continuous piece; disconnected adjuncts, as, for instance, a flock of birds flying, which might be introduced with great effect in painting, being here practically beyond the artist’s reach. Secondly, the material being of uniform appearance, as a rule, color, or even shading, vital points in landscape portrayal, is out of the question, unless the piece be subsequently painted, as in Grecian art, a custom which is not practiced in China or Japan. Lastly, another fact fatal to the representation of landscape is the size. The reduced scale of the reproduction suggests falsity at once, — a falsity whose belittlement the mind can neither forget nor forgive. Plain sculpture is therefore practically limited to statuary, either of men or animals. The result is that in their art, where landscape counts for so much, sculpture plays a very minor part. In what little there is Nature’s place is taken by Buddha. For there are two classes of statues, divided the one from the other by that step which separates the sublime from the ridiculous, namely, the colossal and the diminutive. There is no happy human mean. Of the first kind are the beautiful bronze figures of the Buddha, like the Kamakura Buddha, fifty feet high and ninety-seven feet round, in whose face all that is grand and noble lies sleeping, the living representation of Nirvana; and of the second, those odd little ornaments known as netsuke, comical carvings for the most part, grotesque figures of men and monkeys, saints and sinners, gods and devils. Appealing bits of ivory, bone, or wood they are, in which the dumb animals are as speaking likenesses as their human fellows.

The other arts show the same motif in their decorations. Pottery and lacquer alike witness the respective positions assigned to the serious and the comic in Far Eastern feeling.

The Far Oriental makes fun of man and makes love to Nature; and it almost seems as if Nature heard his silent prayer, and smiled upon him in acceptance ; as if the love-light lent her face the added beauty that it lends the maid’s. For nowhere in this world, probably, is she lovelier than in Japan: a climate of long, happy means and short extremes, months of spring and months of autumn, with but a few weeks of winter or of summer in between ; a land of flowers, where the lotus and the cherry, the plum and the wistaria, grow wantonly side by side ; a land where the bamboo embosoms the maple, where the pine at last has found its palm-tree, and the tropic and the temperate zones forget their separate identity in one long selfobliterating kiss.

Percival Lowell.