Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Matsuo Bashō

My great books #3: Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

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Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

Like many young people of a certain disposition, I used to entertain a fantasy of giving away my possessions, leaving home, and traveling the world with nothing but what I could comfortably carry on my back. These days, that dream seems very remote: if nothing else, having children makes it much harder to justify. And even when I was “male, unmarried, and well-connected,” as E.B. White tartly characterized the ideal reader of Thoreau, there was one big barrier in my way: I couldn’t bear to leave all my books behind. If nothing else, though, I’ve always known which book I’d take with me if I were limited to just one: Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics by R.H. Blyth. Most readers might not recognize the title, but this little book has a lot to recommend it. My tattered paperback copy is small enough to fit into even the tiniest backpack. Along with so much else, it’s the most interesting anthology of poetry and prose, both eastern and western, that I’ve ever encountered. It’s a mine of insights and ideas that never cease to reward contemplation, no matter how many times we’ve studied them before. And of all the books I’ve read, it comes closest to expressing my own philosophy of life, which has less to do with Zen itself than with the quirky, peculiar amalgam that Blyth offers us here. His version of Zen has sometimes been called “limited,” but it’s less interesting as an objective exposition of existing doctrines than as a primary text in itself, as channeled through its author’s specific experiences, tastes, and prejudices.

R.H. Blyth himself was a fascinating figure, an Englishman who went to Japan before the war and never left, and whose work was largely responsible for introducing haiku to the west. Zen in English Literature is his masterpiece, an eccentric, sometimes ornery series of meditations backed by the poems of Bashō and the plays of Shakespeare. I don’t always agree with his aesthetic pronouncements—he despises Coleridge, whom I adore, and I’ve never been able to work up his degree of enthusiasm for Wordsworth—but the conclusions that he draws from the evidence are constantly rattling around in my brain. (His discussion of voluntary poverty, for instance, is the best I’ve ever found: Blyth describes it as “a form of safety first, a kind of fire insurance by burning down the house.”) It was one of the few books I brought with me on a recent visit to see my dying grandfather, and Blyth’s words on death and loss, while not exactly consoling, are indispensable. In the very last lines of the book, he quotes Macduff, who asks, after discovering that his entire family has been murdered: “Did heaven look on, / And would not take their part?” Blyth concludes:

What is the answer to the question? It cannot be given in Yes, or No, because as the question is understood by most people, it has the same form as, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” But you may say, “You are only equivocating: answer the question, does Heaven care for us or not?” The answer is the plays of Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, for when we are watching or reading the plays, and even for a short time afterwards, before the glow has died away, we know the answer. But it is not Yes, and it is not No.

The rules of poetical pilgrimage

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Matsuo Basho

  1. Do not sleep twice in the same inn; wish for a mat that you have not yet warmed.
  2. Do not gird even a dagger on your thigh; kill no living thing. Meet the enemy of your lord or father only without the gate, for “Not living under the same heaven or walking the same earth”—this law comes from an inevitable human feeling.
  3. Clothes and utensils are to be suitable to one’s needs, not too many, not too few.
  4. The desire for the flesh of fish, fowl, and beast is not good. Indulging in tasty and rare dishes leads to baser pleasures. Remember the saying “Eat simple food, and you can do anything.”
  5. Do not produce your verses unasked; if asked, never refuse.
  6. When in a difficult and dangerous region, do not weary of the journey; should you do so, turn back halfway.
  7. Do not ride on horses or on palanquins. Think of your staff as another thin leg.
  8. Do not be fond of wine. If it is difficult to refuse at banquets, stop after you have had a little. “Restrain yourself from rowdiness.” Because drunkenness at the matsuri is disliked, the Chinese use unrefined saké. This is an admonition to keep away from saké; be careful!
  9. Do not forget the ferry boat fee and tips.
  10. Do not mention other people’s weaknesses and your own strong points. Reviling others and praising yourself is an exceedingly vulgar thing.
  11. Apart from poetry, do not gossip about all things and sundry. When there is such talk, take a nap and recreate yourself.
  12. Do not become intimate with women haiku poets; this is good for neither teacher nor pupil. If she is in earnest about haiku, teach her through another. The duty of men and women is the production of heirs. Dissipation prevents the richness and unity of the mind. The way of haiku arises from concentration and lack of distraction. Look well within yourself.
  13. You must not take a needle or blade of grass that belongs to another. Mountains, streams, rivers, marshes—all have an owner; be careful about this.
  14. You should visit mountains, rivers, and historical places. Do not give them new names.
  15. Be grateful to a man who teaches you even a single word. Do not try to teach unless you understand fully. Teaching is to be done after you have perfected yourself.
  16. Do not treat as of no account anyone who puts you up even one night, or gives you a single meal. Even so, do not flatter people. Those who do such things are the rascals of the world. Those who walk the way of haiku should associate with others who walk it.
  17. Think, in the evening; think, in the morning. Traveling is not to be done in the beginning and ending of the day. Do not trouble other people. Remember the saying, “If you trouble them, they will be distant to you.”

—Attributed to Matsuo Bashō

Written by nevalalee

June 20, 2015 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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My life as a quote hoarder

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Matsuo Basho

A few months ago, this blog quietly passed a milestone that I didn’t even notice at the time: I published my thousandth quote of the day. (In retrospect, I was happy to find that it was this quotation from Matsuo Bashō, which I love: “The haiku that reveals seventy to eighty percent of its subject is good. Those that reveal fifty to sixty percent, we never tire of.”) These daily quotes, like so much else on this blog, were intended to fill a specific role that quickly evolved into something unexpected. I initially conceived them as an easy recurring event that would allow me to post a smidgen of content on slow days when I didn’t feel like writing something substantial—that is, they were born out of sheer laziness. As regular readers know, however, this isn’t exactly how it turned out: for the last three years, on most weekdays, I’ve published both a quote and a full blog post. In short, what I originally meant to serve as a labor-saving device has almost doubled my workload, to the extent that there are days when I’ll spend just as much time tracking down a good quote, discarding dozens of possible alternatives, as I will writing the main post itself.

And as time goes on, the kind of quotes that I like become increasingly hard to find, largely because I’ve already used up so many good ones. It doesn’t help that I’m looking for a particular sort of quotation that considerably narrows my universe of options. When I look back at the quotes I’ve posted, a certain tone starts to emerge: they’re primarily quotes about creativity, writing, and the other arts, but I’m drawn specifically to practical advice, prickly admonitions, or passages that illustrate the aspects of the creative process that I find personally appealing—ingenuity, flexibility, and pragmatism. I don’t like blandly inspirational quotes about the joys of reading or writing, as much as I may agree with their sentiments. If you’re reading this now, you probably already love books and know that writing is a vitally important activity, so I’m looking for quotes that don’t just congratulate ourselves for having our priorities straight, but remind us that we’re here to get a job done. After a while, a lot of the famous quotes on the artist’s life start to feel like daily affirmations, and I’d rather have something on the order of Degas: “An artist must approach his work in the spirit of the criminal about to commit a crime.”

"Les Petits Rats" by Edgar Degas

It doesn’t hurt that I’ve always been a compulsive quote hoarder. In college, I kept a commonplace book of favorite passages from what I was reading, and although I’ve given up that habit, I’ve continued to collect quotations, mostly because they’re so useful. As Margaret Drabble once wrote—see what I did there?—much of the art of education consists of learning to think in quotations, or of assimilating the wisdom of others until it becomes part of your own, and the crucial thing is to pick the right sources. Like many writers, I’m also obsessed with epigraphs, and whenever I’m working on a new project, which is most of the time, I’m quietly assembling a list of possibilities. As I hope to discuss further in a future post, an epigraph is one of the most undervalued tools in a writer’s bag of tricks: it allows you to set the tone for the novel to come, provides a clue to point the reader’s attention in one direction or another, and offers one of the only permissible ways of explicitly laying out the story’s themes. Not surprisingly, then, I’m always on the hunt for good epigraphs, and I’ll sometimes keep a promising one in storage for years until I find a place for it. (The line from W.H. Auden that leads off City of Exiles falls into this category.)

These days, I maintain several text files on my laptop in which I compile quotations as I encounter them, although filling out this blog’s quota of quotes has often led me further afield. About a third of the quotes come organically from my own reading, and I can tell you that there’s nothing more satisfying than coming across the perfect quote for tomorrow’s blog post by chance. Another third or so are mined from a handful of valuable reference works that I’d probably be browsing through anyway, notably The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Quotations and The Harvest of a Quiet Eye. The last third originate from a range of miscellaneous sources, mostly online, although I’ve learned from experience to independently check anything I find on Wikiquote, particularly if it makes me feel especially warm and fuzzy—it’s often too good to be true. This also explains why I’ve increasingly culled quotes from such fields as architecture or computer science, to the point where I taught myself a bit of coding so I wouldn’t feel like quite such a poseur. The result, I’m happy to say, is as much of a self-portrait as the rest of this blog, assembled in a gradual collage, and whenever I revisit it, I’m often surprised by passages I’ve forgotten. This blog may not go on forever, but the quotes, at least, will remain, and I have a hunch that they’ll end up being the most lasting thing I’ve done here.

Written by nevalalee

January 14, 2014 at 9:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

October 29, 2013 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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