Sunday, March 19, 2006

Apple Seeds and Wabi-Sabi

I can no longer find the reference, but somewhere I read that the imperfections in Victorian windows are known as apple seeds. This being San Francisco, many such imperfections are on view. We are a town of apple seeds. We are also, because of our Japanese connection, a town familiar with the idea of wabi-sabi, the Zen aesthetic that honors that nothing lasts, that nothing is finished, and that nothing is perfect. Wry and sorrowful, serene and melancholy, we work to let go of our longing that life live up to its reputation.

Intellectually, we are easy with the wisdom of apple seeds and wabi-sabi. We understand that a novel of ours may appear with three typos, a plot lapse, and a leaden minor character. Intellectually, we accept this, just as we accept that a hundred thousand books appear each year to swallow up our small offering, that the editor who loves us is entirely likely to leave her publishing house and start selling real estate, that the idea that made so much sense in a dream at dawn looks horrid on the page. We know to detach, to forgive the universe, to smile. These things we know.

Viscerally, however, we can hardly tolerate such shortfalls. They make us want to scream. They make us want to tear out of hair. They make us want to murder. They drive us mad. One small example: the painter Chaim Soutine. Plagued by the poor quality of his cheap pigments, Soutine would call up a collector to see if the painting the collector had recently purchased had cracked yet. Often it had. Soutine, intent on repainting it, would demand it back. If the collector refused, suspicious that Soutine had a new, higher bidder for the painting, Soutine would throw a fit, trembling, turning pale, foaming at the mouth, and suffering a seizure.

Not very Zen. But very human. Our (Western) heart hungers for masterpieces, excellence, immortality, pigments that don’t crack, novels that stay in print, symphonies made up of equally fine movements, dancers who do not fall and break our spell. Our (Western) heart believes in museums, bookstores, CDs and other valiant efforts to make the ephemeral long-lasting. Our (Western) heart, at war with our (Eastern) mind, hates the first dent our new car receives. Our (Eastern) mind knew it was coming but couldn’t adequately prepare us for it.

Imperfection isn’t the goal, only the reality.


denbe said...

I recently read that Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. The article did not address why, only that on-line suicide groups are particularly popular there. Maybe too much wabi-sabi leads to despair and a major crisis of meaning. Maybe some good art and the illusion of meaning is a prerequisite for choosing to live. As always, a concept common to Western and Eastern thought is ideal: balance...the middle way.

Sagecrane said...

I beg to differ; the problem in Japan is NOT too much wabi-sabi, but too little...Japan , in this post-modern time, is suffering more from Nihilism, as they emulate Western life styles more and more.