Captain Shigemotos Mother, The Prescription of Decadence
R. E. Spencer
Writing on this first day of autumn, the unusually warm weather makes me forget the winter to come. In the same way, the novels of Japanese writer Tanizaki Junichiro make us forget the waning of the old political order and the concepts that explain it. However, these books are more than a diversion, since they show us a way to meaning for a life that is no longer touched by the old politics.
This may strike some people as odd, since Tanizaki addresses themes which are out of fashion with many American critics. He offers no literature of the oppressed. His work reflects the conflict between modernization and tradition, but he is not concerned with the problem of cultural identity. And while he is no apologist for patriarchy, there is little doubt that his work has felt the wrath of feminists. He is unfashionable. However, he is nonetheless a writer for our time, because he offers us aestheticism and a literature of decadence.
One of the most moving works by Tanizaki is a novella called Captain Shigemotos Mother (Shosho Shigemoto no Haha). Unavailable in English until 1994, the story is a work of historical fiction. It concerns courtiers and samurii associated with Fujiwara Tokihira (a.k.a. Shihei), the government minister who helped exile the poet and statesman Sugiwara Michizane (845-903). Much of the novella has the appearance of historiography, sifting through Heian chronicles and quoting from old poetry collections. Tanizakis skill as a writer is shown by his ability to move readers seamlessly from the analytic prose of history to the imagined dialogs of the personalities invented to inhabit these paper corpses.
The central plot of the story is about Shiheis theft of his aging uncles young and beautiful wife, the mother of Shigemoto. The uncle, of lower rank than Shihei, is tricked into throwing a party. In order to repay past favors, the uncle offers Shihei some gifts. Eyeing the uncles remarkable wife, Shihei declines the gifts, saying that they are beneath him. Drunk, Shiheis uncle offers up his wife. Since to him she is "more precious than life itself," this act destroys Shiheis uncle. Tanizaki imagines how Shigemoto as a child would have visited his mother secretly after her abduction, and then late in life would have found her in a Buddhist hermitage, his reunion with her an epiphany for him.
Running through Captain Shigemotos Mother, as well as through Tanizakis other works, is the ideal of the aesthetic. For Tanizakis characters, one of the high points of life is the pursuit of beauty, especially fleeting temporary beauty. While this idea is well within the tradition of Japan, Tanizaki modernizes it. In part, this entails a break with Buddhism. Japanese Buddhists saw the temporary beauty of such things as the tea ceremony and Noh theater as tools to aid enlightenment. In contrast to Buddhists, Tanizaki and his characters appreciate the finite beauty of the temporary for its own sake. His characters discuss refinement in cooking, gardening, singing, acting, hand-writing, and architecture. They go on outings to catch fireflies, to see cherry trees blossom, to view the moon and write poetry. At times, this pursuit of the aesthetic becomes perverse. Characters develop fetishes and obsessions. In The Secret History of Lord Mushashi, Mushashi has a fascination with real, and then simulated, decapitation. Several other tales involve characters (both men and women) who slide into masochism. The protagonist of Diary of a Mad Old Man blasphemously arranges to have the image of his daughter-in-laws foot replace that of the Buddha on his tombstone, so she could trample him for eternity. Unlike the conventional Japanese aestheticism of his time, Tanizakis aestheticism includes the possibility of the perverse, the decadent.
Tanizaki is relevant because aestheticism is not merely an idea, an alternative on a menu of choices. Aestheticism has come to be the spiritual link between the individuals of the industrialized world, the shape of our ethical life. As such, it is not a choice in the way becoming a Baptist or a vegetarian is a matter of "life style." Aestheticism for our era defines our possibilities.
Our aestheticism is visible in the way we talk about our lives. Whereas in the past our ideal lives were about our membership in communities, our devotion to God, family, state, or organization, we now equate a meaningful life to the pursuit of unique experiences. We speak of an ideal life that is rich in encounters with the world: one should travel, one should develop ones tastes in art and music and food, one should have variety, one should be open to new experiences, one should "experience" love, one should even "experience" God.
How we have come to aestheticism is a long story. In essence it was chronicled by myriad historical thinkers including the likes of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Weber. Still the dynamics of our aestheticism is a matter of metaphysics. This is the approach of the twentieth century German social thinker Carl Schmitt in his book Political Romanticism. For Schmitt, Romanticism is rooted in the metaphysics of "subjective occasionalism," something akin to relativism. It is an irrational Copernican revolution in which the individual self in all its capricious glory becomes the center of the universe, in spite of nature, in spite of community, in spite of everything beyond ego. Subjective occasionalism stands in contrast to the objective occasionalism of Malebranche. For Malebranche the universe exists as an occasion of Gods thought and will. Each moment of being is a moment of Gods thought. Subjective occasionalism replaces God with individual ego, such that the presence of the universe is premised on a metaphysic of narcissism. Schmitt thinks that this metaphysical attitude underlies all romantics whether they are pietist or nihilist, nationalist, or individualist. Critical of the movement, Schmitt thinks that the elevation of the subject to the place of God produces something absurd, if not trivial. He remarks that in writing the focus on the subject means that the banal details of ones private life become the material of literature, that an "interesting encounter becomes the occasion for a novel."
Schmitt is right about the elevation of individual subjectivity. He is wrong about the direction our political life should take. He is condemning something we want. From our present standpoint, aestheticism appears to be the goal towards which our tradition has been moving for centuries.
In the Western tradition, philosophers have always had a problem with pleasure. In general this is understandable, since to be an intellectual is to find oneself in a world concerned always with intoxication, but never with contemplation. This must of have been as true for Plato and Aristotle as it is for us. Nevertheless, the usual philosophical understanding of pleasure is one-dimensional. Aristotle, for example, when asking about the basis of the good life, dismisses the possibility of a life based solely upon the pursuit of pleasure, saying that it would be a bovine existence. For Aristotle a good life is a matter of developing ones understanding, and it is matter of avoiding the destruction that comes with excess. He is not against having fun, but he nonetheless views pleasure as something antithetical to thinking. Then again, Aristotle never read haiku.
Of course, the rejection of hedonism is not exclusively western. The Buddhists had their own tradition of puritanism, exemplified in the Japanese tale Dojoji. It contains a parable in which a man pursued by the tiger of karma falls into the well of hell. Clinging to a tuft of grass, he watches as two rats nibble away at his momentary security like time itself. However, the tale says the droplets of the sweet dew of pleasure, falling from a tree branch above, make him forget the situation he is in. Pleasure is but a veil of illusion hiding the real story of life.
While we may know the truth of such a parable, and we may even advocate its prescriptions, we as aesthetes have become the man hanging by the tuft of grass. But the story for us is not simply that we find solace in the lie that comes with the dew. Rather beyond the lie of the dew, our look into oblivion intensifies a truth found in the dews beauty and pleasure.
We live, not according to the warning of Dojoji, but according to the maxim of the French poet Charles Baudelaire:
One should always be drunk. Thats all that matters; thats our one imperative need. So as not to feel Times horrible burden that breaks your shoulders and bows you down, you must get drunk without ceasing. But what with? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you choose. But get drunk.
Many of our modern moralists talk of the evil of pleasure when in public, but privately they live an aestheticism. A number of classmates and professors I encountered in graduate school shared this attitude of Aristotle. Even while drinking wine and eating food, even while arguing about the phenomenon of a popular film, even while drunk, they would maintain the separateness of thought and pleasure. Most intellectuals share a cultural snobbery that erects a hierarchy of art and pleasure that is wholly arbitrary, though they maintain that it is based upon some objective distinction. This not to say that one cant make distinctions about art and pleasure. That is another matter. The point here is that intellectuals often times do not see that while they explain their lives in the language of intellect, they actually live in pursuit of the aesthetic. They are unable to reflect. They rail against the silliness and danger of relativism, yet they encourage their children to "live a little before settling down." They lament the decline of the American mind, yet they pursue the experience of the perfect golf game, the endorphinal rush of long distance running, the feeling of accomplishment to be gotten from pedaling 50 miles, or the thrill of haute couture that comes from wandering the streets of an urban center like Paris or Kyoto.
We live in pursuit of experience. Explaining this in the style of a German philosopher, we might say that our aestheticism brings us back to sensation, aisthesis in Greek. Sensation, though is never mere sensation, never simply data, never just an impressionistic dot of color. We experience things whole. Because of this, we can say sensation is never separate from thought. To experience a thing is not simply to sense it, but also to identify it, to think it.
This gets at why aestheticism is meaningful. Because it is not separate from thought, pleasure can be revelatory. When we experience, that experience is multifaceted, multilayered. More often than not, an experience has more facets than we can pay attention to. These facets are also connections to other things, other experiences. And consequently, an experience can always lead somewhere else, can always open up to us and show us more. Experiences can give us insight. Artists and film makers understand this. While colors have a physiological and formal logic in our perception, they have meanings that involve more than an electromagnetic registration. The cobalt blue in the sky of Van Goghs crow painting is not a only a specific wavelength, it is death.
Aestheticism while relativistic is not without its distinctions. The fundamental standard and telos of relativism is intensity. In cuisine, a chef attempts to make flavors standout and work together to create an array of memorable sensations. Composers and story tellers try to draw an audience into their work, to show them something, to leave an impression. In jazz and rock music, a virtuoso musician improvises melodies, sometimes drawing the listener into a malestrom of notes. When these fall short, listeners are unmoved, unchanged, unaffected. In popular culture, when a performer achieves an intensity, hundreds, if not millions, of people are moved to emulate the performer in dress, in taste, in art.
Intensity is the difference between erotic films, which are sexy, and pornographic films, which curiously are not sexy. By this way of thinking, the difference between pornography and "art" films has nothing to do with the attempt by the latter to edify its audience. Sex itself can be edifying. Pornography fails because film footage of people simply having sex can lack intensity.
The pursuit of intensity is not the end of the story. For better or worse, the pursuit of intensity carries with it the possibility of decadence. In principle, heroin use is the same as mountain climbing, and kinky sex is the same as sky diving. They aim at the intensity of the experience, regardless of the danger of the pursuit. This telos of aestheticism underlies many contradictory phenonmena. For instance, it explains how it is that the entertainment corporations which make films for children which encourage them to partake in the diversity of experience, are the same corporations which created pop cultures voyeuristic openness toward deviant sexuality.
Experience, intensity, decadence, revelation, this is the story Tanizaki tells. It is this single minded pursuit of the aesthetic that unfolds in Captain Shigemoto, a pursuit even to death. In telling about the theft of Shigemotos mother, Tanizaki shows us four characters who pursue her beauty.
Shihei, abducts her. He is a man of power, and she is object of desire, a thing to be wrested from another. His possession of her is yet another assertion of his power. He meets his death, not in the throes of longing, but in an encounter with the ghost of Sugiwara Michizane, the patron saint of Japanese poets.
She has an affair with the legendary lover Heiju. Their trysts took place while she was married to Shigemotos father. When her abduction made it impossible for Heiju to see her, even in secret, he turned his attentions to the lesser beauty of Jiju. She was a cruel lover who would entice him and then reject him. Her rejections and manipulations made his desire for her all the more intense, driving him even to acts of coprophilia. Finally, unable to withstand his urges, he dies, withering away in his intensity.
Shigemotos father also dies a death of longing. After his wifes abduction, he tries, without success, to forget her. When neither time nor alcohol help him, he turns to religion, adopting a meditational method called the "Contemplation of Impurity." This entails meditating at gravesites which have washed away, their rotting corpses left exposed. Shigemotos father hopes that seeing the truth of the body will free him from his enchantment with the intensity of his former wifes temporary beauty. Unfortunately, he is unsuccessful. Shigemoto, Tanizaki tells us, is upset with his father because he is attempting to make his mother into something dirty. One imagines that this is Tanizakis defense of the aesthetic: we must not make it into something dirty.
Shigemotos encounters his mothers beauty as a revelation and as a return. While he was never his mothers lover, he sought her beauty in his own way. He remembered a single occasion in which his mother came out from the shrine-like shadows of her apartment to read a poem stealthily written on young Shigemotos arm by the lover Heiju. Tears streaming down her face, her beauty shone in the spring sunlight. This was the only time Shigemoto ever saw her face clearly. According to Tanizaki, he spent the remainder of his life searching for her. When he does meet her again, forty years later, she is hidden behind her Buddhist veil. Shigemoto over come with emotion embraces her and then lays his head on her lap as he did when he was a child. And though it might have been an illusion, he whiffed the incense his mother had always burned, and he saw the beauty he had seen only once before.
Tanizaki is no utopian. For that matter, he is not even a moralist. He lived a life punctuated by scandal, and wrote tales of obsession. But when life reaches a point beyond crude economic struggle, what else is there but hope for a vision of beauty? For this reason, his writing has come to tell us about the good life, the life worth living.