The Floating World

by Melvin Maddocks
There is a fascinatingly mysterious print by Hiroshige called The Cave at Enoshima. At the left, three figures are shown entering the island’s grotto, a famous shrine. Dwarfs frozen in awe, they are blind to the enormous white-capped wave that seems to be reaching in after them like a dragon’s tongue. A gnarled tree worthy of Samuel Beckett stands watch above the mouth of the cave like a crippled sentry. But the background is a bland denial of the foreground motif. A flat blue sea stretches off vaguely into the distance, and three motionless white sails add a touch of postcard lyricism. It is as if two different artists were at work here: a complacent copier of pretty conventions and a recorder of demoniac nightmares.
The paradox of Hiroshige’s cave runs through Japanese art, through Japanese life. There are ultimates of disclosure and ultimates of concealment. One hides the body beneath kimonos and parasols; one hides the face under ritualistic smiles. Then one gives the body away in the grotesque (and often comic) exaggerations of Japanese erotica; one gives the face away in the Kabuki actor’s grimacing caricature of jealousy or vengeance. Nature is suppressed by the absolute control of a Japanese garden or revised into an artifact: a toylike bird arranged on a branch of idealized plum blossoms. But then one takes a look at those stones in that garden—petrified force, as sobering as the monoliths of Stonehenge. And one turns one’s beguiled eyes from those flawlessly dainty finches to, say, the Tokoyuni print, Revenge at Mount Fuji, with the peak—aloof, icy, as white as Moby Dick—looking
down upon the Soga brothers’ massacre.
What accounts for these profound self-contradictions? The amateur Japanese-watcher—and all Westerners are amateurs—will have to take the long way around to the mystery of Hiroshige’s cave. For he must deal first with the general inclination to explain the phenomenon of “Enoshima double-image” historically. The premise goes like this: Japan, due to the accident of its brief, intense modernity, still contains within itself irreconcilable elements of pure medievalism and late-twentieth-century supercivilization. The “black ships” of Commodore Perry steamed their dotted course like a moral dividing line across the Japanese cosmos; and as a consequence, the greatgrandsons of samurai warriors are destined, as it were, to wear doubleknit suits and ride their Hondas to jobs in public relations. When a Japanese intellectual sorts out his confusions, his impulse—his temptation— is to label them “Westernization.”
In the case of a number of Japanese writers, like the 1968 Nobel Prizewinner Yasunari Kawabata, this historical theory has also become an artist’s theme. Shortly after World War II, the supreme disaster in Japan’s Westernization, Kawabata announced that he would write only “elegies.” Thousand Cranes, The Sound of the Mountain, and now The Master of Go (Knopf, $5.95), written in 1954 but just published in the United States, fulfill their author’s prophecy. In this last novel—really a novella—Kawabata has composed a kind of parable which could be read as an extension of the Japanese poem:
If only the world
Would always remain this way,
Some fishermen
Drawing a little rowboat
Up the river bank.
What can compare in persistent subtlety with a Japanese love song to the Old Ways—to the moment of perfect taste arrested forever? In Thousand Cranes, Kawabata virtually set the tea ceremony to plot, like an Oriental Henry James manipulating a four-hundred-year-old teabowl as his elegiac symbol. In The Master of Go, the ritual is the ancient game of black and white stones, loosely described as the Japanese equivalent of chess. Requiring infinitely patient turns of strategy—there are 361 intersections on a board—Go must appear to the Westerner as a nice metaphor of the Japanese soul.
The Master is Honnimbo Shusai. The novella, based on a Go match Kawabata covered for Tokyo and Osaka newspapers in 1938, details the Master’s defeat, an event which with Old Japan leisureliness takes nearly six months to consummate. Kawabata carefully loads his contest. Otaké, the challenger, is a perfectly likable young man but fretty. At thirty, he is a bit of a hypochondriac. He carries with him a small clinic’s supply of medicines, yet continually fusses from eye and throat ailments as well as from apparently chronic indigestion. In addition, he suffers from a kidney weakness, which, combined with his compulsive tea-drinking, forces him to gather up his kimono and rush from the Go board at annoyingly frequent intervals.
By contrast, the Master bears his grave illness—a heart condition—with stoic equanimity. Weighing less than seventy pounds, only five feet tall, a frail old man with tufted eyebrows, the Master is the epitome of tradition. Otaké, on the other hand, stands for “modern rationalism,” for “science and regulation,” for “this new equality” that simply is tone-deaf to the Old Ways. Otaké is the technologist of Go who plays to win. The Master, redolent with “grace and elegance,” is the artist who plays toward that mystical moment when the conscious intent of style is imposed upon the unconscious intent of life. At the critical instant, Otaké makes the ruthless, slightly treacherous move that wins him the match while at the same time spoiling it—in the Master’s words, “smearing ink over the picture we had painted.”
At first, the Western reader may find The Master of Go charming: that fatal adjective by which the Occident simultaneously praises and dismisses Japanese art. But behind the charm of Kawabata—as behind the charm of Hiroshige and behind all that quaintness described as “Japonaise”—lies a hidden darkness. Kawabata refers to the Master’s “addiction,” his “obsession.” Day and night he “gave himself” to games—Mah-Jongg, billiards, and chess as well as Go—as if, Kawabata writes, he were giving himself to “devils.” Do those Go stones he holds so authoritatively in his hands end up possessing him?
In his introduction to The Master of Go, the translator, Edward G. Seidensticker, writes: “One was puzzled to know why the flamboyant Mishima and the quiet, austere Kawabata should have felt so close to each other.” Yet for all his spokesman-forthe-new-generation swagger, Yukio Mishima turned out to be a traditionalist, indeed a fanatical traditionalist. Spring Snow (Knopf, $7.95), the first novel of a posthumous tetralogy entitled The Sea of Fertility, reveals a Mishima who is more of a Japanese purist than Kawabata.
Spring Snow is a historical novel, set in 1912, about a very rich, very precious seventeen-year-old named Kiyoaki, an all-too-beautiful, all-toosensitive young man, born jaded. He devotes himself rather languidly to “the cultivation of his anxiety.” Perhaps Kiyoaki can best be defined as the sort of adolescent who keeps a diary of his dreams.
Only “the beauty of the unattainable” can excite Kiyoaki, and so he falls in love with Satoko, once she is made properly unattainable by her engagement to the third son of an imperial prince. At least it is stipulated that Kiyoaki has fallen in love. He is, in fact, so narcissistic that Satoko’s first kiss leaves him “gazing over her head at the cherry trees”—the pink “made him think of an undertaker’s cosmetics.”
As a doomed love story, Spring Snow might qualify as Far East Erich Segal. But Mishima intended—and achieved—far more. Kiyoaki is his symbol of “a plant without roots,” a samurai descendant with the instincts for heroism but no model to follow. The novel is finally about fathers who
fail. Kiyoaki’s father, the Marquis, represents “the new ascendancy of money.” In his Western-style house the oak paneling is English, the marble is Italian, the steam heating is from Chicago. At parties in the Marquis’ set, an air of “ ‘English’ absentmindedness” is cultivated, along with gold-tipped Westminster cigarettes. European phonograph records are played, and the pièce de résistance is likely to be a British silent-film version of Dickens. At this point, the Far East Erich Segal turns into something like a Japanese Proust. With what mocking pleasure Mishima satirizes his bourgeois sons of samurai. With what sentimental reverence he treats Kiyoaki’s old-fashioned grandmother.
“Purely Japanese literature died out completely around the year 1897,” the late novelist Kafu Nogai observed a little bitterly. “The literature written after then is not Japanese literature. It is Western literature written in the Japanese language.” With a young novelist like Kenzaburo Oë citing Huckleberry Finn as his favorite work, and even Kawabata acknowledging the influence of Flaubert, European and American readers have felt free to criticize Japanese novels as failed Western fiction. The “faults” (by Western standards) in both Kawabata and Mishima are obvious:
Everything tends to turn into a symbol. Mishima in particular goes in heavily for snapping turtles, black dogs, and the like. Worse, everybody tends to turn into a symbol, too. Few Japanese novelists have a gift for what Western readers think of as “character”; their characters fuzz at the edges into representative myths, leaving passions without their proper focus. Even the most aroused passages of love or hate or lyricism seem to float like clouds above the novel, self-contained if not detached exercises. The words go on and on—elegant diffusions of haze, “interminable sentences” (in Donald Keene’s comment) “left incomplete, at the end of the twentieth or fortieth subtle turn of phrase.”
But these “faults” may finally suggest a failure on the part of the reader. The Western reader, insisting upon his much admired conciseness, his crisp narrative rhythms, his sharp definition of person, is positing the book he is used to reading rather than
the one he is given. He is camouflaging under criticisms of style a criticism—or rather a puzzlement—in the face of Japanese attitudes. For whatever the Japanese novel becomes in the future, The Master of Go and Spring Snow indicate that the Westernization of Japanese literature has been overestimated.
To understand the Japanese novel—that is, to understand what one does not understand—the Western reader must return to Hiroshige at Enoshima. The Hiroshige print, like The Master of Go and Spring Snow, gives off to the Westerner unmistakable intimations of damnation. But just when the poor Western moralist, confronted by the specter of death if not apocalypse, prepares his climactic shudder, the Japanese artist drifts off into anticlimactic frivolity: white sails off Enoshima.
Perhaps the Japanese word ukiyo provides the clue. In its origins it was roughly the Buddhist equivalent of Christian “vanity.” Meaning “this fleeting, floating world,” ukiyo marked off all that was transient and illusory in mortal life: not worth a serious man’s attention. But by a kind of linguistic, if not moral, detour, ukiyo came to take on hedonistic connotations: this pleasant, delightful “floating world,” full of what Mishima once called absolutely “useless beauty.”
A brilliant short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (better known for Rashomon) postulates a painting, a masterpiece, that two connoisseurs devote a considerable portion of their lives and their hopes to discovering and verifying. Each sees it once, but upon comparing impressions they begin to wonder if they have seen the same painting, or if the painting even exists. By a Westerner’s values, this should be a moment of agony, when faith disintegrates into doubt, meaning into meaninglessness. Instead, a curious exhilaration enters Akutagawa’s story: a total joy at the point of total indifference, what a Japanese poet called “the bliss of nothingness.” One masterpiece-lover turns to the other and concludes: “Even if it never existed, there is not really much cause for regret.”
Here is “floating” for a fact. This sudden cool at the temperature of hellfire—a phenomenon in almost every Japanese novel—can attract a Westerner or it can frighten him. He may find it unspeakably cruel or an admirable case of poise. No matter. At that moment he has taken one step too many into Hiroshige’s cave. Charmed or terrorized, aghast or en-
vious, he is, above all, lost. Like the Master of Go, he is cut off from “the better part of reality,” or at least his kind of reality, and that is his peculiar pleasure. That is his nightmare.