Tag Archives: Kusamakura

Camellia: the most deceitful of all flowers (Natsume Soseki’s The Three-Cornered World)

15 Mar

My go-to book for the late winter and early spring days is Natsume Soseki’s novel “The Three-Cornered World”; it is soothing, meditative, lyrical and inspiring. The story is told in the first person by the main character, a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who one day sets out on a journey to the mountains, in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. He stays at a hot spring resort where he is the only guest. One moonlit night he hears a woman singing in the garden. This mysterious beauty, called Nami, captures his imagination, not in a romantic but in an artistic way. The novel is filled with the narrator’s observations on nature, art and life. Every time I read the novel, something new catches my attention and this time it was this passage on the topic of the camellia flower so I decided to share it today. The narrator talks about the shape, the red colour of the camellia flower, the way it withers, how seductive it is… I never spend much time thinking about camellias, but now I cannot get them out of my mind! Still, there is another reference to camellias in the novel “The Lady of the Camellias” by Alexandre Dumas fils so we can conclude that camellia is a naughty flower. Enjoy the passage bellow from the novel!

Cao Jianlou, Camellia, 1981, ink and colour on paper scroll, 95.2 x 44 cm

“I was now standing beneath the spreading branches of a large tree, and suddenly felt cold. Over on the far bank camellia bushes bloomed among the shadows. Camellia leaves are too deep a green, and have no air of lightheartedness even when seen in bright sunlight. These particular bushes were in a silent huddle, set back five or six yards in an angle between the rocks, and had it not been for the blossoms I should not have known that there was anything there at all. Those blossoms! I could not of course have counted them all if I had spent the whole day at it; yet somehow their brilliance made me want to try.

The trouble with camellia blossoms is that although they are brilliant they are in no way cheerful. You find that in spite of yourself your attention is attracted by the violent blaze of colour, but once you look at them they give you an uncanny feeling. They are the most deceitful of all flowers. Whenever I see a wild camellia growing in the heart of the mountains, I am reminded of a beautiful enchantress who lures men on with her dark eyes, and then in a flash injects her smiling venom into their veins. By the time they realise that they have been tricked it is too late.

Utagawa Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797–1858), Camellia and Bullfinch, c 1833

No sooner had I caught sight of the camellias opposite than I wished I had not done so. Theirs was no ordinary red. It was a colour of eye-searing intensity, which contained some indefinable quality. Pear blossoms drooping despondently in the rain only arouse in me a feeling of pity, and the cool aronia bathed in pale moonlight strikes the chords of love. The quality of camellia blossoms, however, is altogether different. It speaks of darkness and evil, and is something to be feared. It is, moreover apparent in every gaudy petal. These blossoms do not give the impression that they are flattering you, nor do they show that they are deliberately trying to entice you. They will live in perfect serenity for hundreds of years far from the eyes of man in the shadow of the mountains, flaring into bloom and falling to earth with equal suddenness. But let a man glance at them even for an instant, and for him it is the end. He will never be able to break free from the spell of the enchantress. No, theirs is no ordinary red. It is the red of an executed criminal’s blood which automatically attracts men’s gaze and fills their hearts with sorrow.

As I stood watching, a red flower hit the water, providing the only movement in the stillness of spring. After a while it was followed by another. Camellia flowers never drift down petal by petal, but drop from the branch intact. Although this in itself is not particularity unpleasant since it merely suggests an indifference to parting, the way in which they remain whole even when they have landed is both gross and offensive to the eye. If they continue like this, I thought, they will stain the whole pond red.

Already the water in the immediate vicinity of the peacefully floating blossoms seemed to have a reddish tint. Yet another flower dropped and remained as motionless as if it had come to rest on the bank. There goes another. I wondered whether this one would sink. Perhaps over the years millions of camellia blossoms would steep in the water and, having surrendered their colour, would rot and eventually turn to mud on the bottom. If that should happen, then they might imperceptibly build up the bed of this old stagnating pond until in thousands of years time the whole area would return to the plain it had been originally. Now a large bloom plunged downwards like a blood-smeared phantom. Another fell, and another, striking the water like a shower of pattering raindrops.”

Beauty in the Everyday – Turner and Okyo (Natsume Soseki’s The Three-Cornered World)

22 Mar

“We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart.”

(Soseki, The Three-Cornered World)

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844

One of my all time favourite novels is Natsume Soseki’s “The Three-Cornered World” originally published in 1906. It is an oasis of calmness, wisdom and meditative thoughts on nature and art. The story is told in the first person by the main character, a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who one day sets out on a journey to the mountains, in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. He stays at a hot spring resort where he is the only guest. One moonlit night he hears a woman singing in the garden. This mysterious beauty, called Nami, captures his imagination, not in a romantic but in an artistic way. The simple plot where nothing much happens is great because the true beauty of the novel can shine through: the poetic, zen-like writing which transports the viewer in a meditative state. The original title of the book is “Kusamakura” which literally means “Grass Pillow”, and the term in Japanese carries a symbolic meaning, implying a journey without a specific destination. Instead of dynamic events and exciting adventures, the narrator ponders on what it actually means to be an artist and the bliss of being in the state of inspiration:

I suppose you could say that the artist is one who lives in a three-cornered world, in which the corner that the average person would call “common sense” has been sheared off from the ordinary four-square world that the normal inhabit. For this reason, be it in nature or in human affairs, the artist will see the glitter of priceless jewels of art in places where the common herd fears to tread. The vulgar mind terms it “romanticizing,” but it is no such thing. In fact, the phenomenal world has always contained that scintillating radiance that artists find there. It’s just that eyes blinded by worldly passions cannot see the true nature of reality. Inextricable entanglements bind us to everyday success and failure and by ardent hopes – and so we pass by unheeding, until a Turner reveals for us in his paintings the splendour of the steam train, or an Okyo gives us the beauty of the ghost.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, View of Takanawa Ushimachi under a Shrouded Moon, 1879

The narrator portrays the artist, himself included, as a person who is here to show others the beauty around them which they would otherwise be unaware of. The artist is the one who, through his art, tells people to stop and take a look at the wondrous, whimsical and beautiful things in the world around us. The narrator chose two interesting artists to illustrate his point; British Romanticist Turner and an eighteenth century Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Maruyama Okyo. I love it when novels reference other things, it’s like a springboard from one source of inspiration to another. Turner’s grandiose and awe-inspiring canvases, filled with golden lightness and dreamy mists, usually portray sunsets or historical events, but in the painting referenced by the narrator, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway”, painted in 1844, near the very end of the painter’s life, the subject is something completely modern and everyday; a train. Just imagine the excitement, awe and fear with which the Victorians looked at trains. I dare say I look at them at the same way too, even today. Trains are fascinatingly fast and frightening in their speed and yet they also seem vintage in some way because it seems more romantical to travel by train than by bus. Turner captured the train’s speed and cloud of fog with the same brilliance that he had previously devoted himself to historical scenes, which shows that he approached two very different motifs with the same ardour and with the same patient search for beauty that any artist has. Soseki lived in England for two years, just before this novel was published and it’s very likely he had seen this painting in person. I’ve also included here a Japanese artist Kiyochika’s exploration of the train-motif in a more direct way than Turner, but still carrying its own beauty.

Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795), The Ghost of Oyuki, 1750

Another example the narrator gives is a painting of a ghost by the artist Maruyama Okyo. The narrator doesn’t mention a specific painting, but with a little research makes it clear that Soseki is referring to Okyo’s famous ink on silk painting which shows the female yurei or the traditional Japanese ghost of his lover Oyuki. It is a poignant portrait of a dead beloved which came from intense sadness and longing, almost a century before Poe wrote of similar themes in his poems and short stories. The ghost-girl Oyuki was Okyo’s mistress who worked in the Tominaga Geisha house and died young. Looking at the dates, I see now that Okyo was just seventeen years old at the time, wow, what a deep, profound and melancholy gesture… This sad event must have shaped his life in one way or another, and it has certainly shaped the way the Japanese, even today, see a female ghost, as a creature in white clothes, pale face, dark hair falling like weeping willow branches and ending in faint, thin lines, and lower body and feet disappearing. So simple, yet so poignant and sweetly melancholy.

Vincent van Gogh, Shoes, 1888

Another example which isn’t mentioned in the novel, but goes with the narrator’s idea; Vincent van Gogh’s “portrait” of his old, dirty, worn out shoes. The motif, when spoken out loud, seems laughable and not even remotely worthy of being painted, but van Gogh painted this pair of shoes with the same passionate approach that he had for his landscape, wheat fields and sunflowers, look at the careful brushwork and wild patches of colour. If Van Gogh didn’t paint his old shoes as his artist mission to show us beauty around us, we would never have known just what beauty lies in them.

The Three-Cornered World (Kusamakura) by Natsume Soseki

25 Feb

Last February I read Natsume Soseki’s book “The Thee-Cornered World” for the first time and it left a deep impression on me so I decided to read it again this month, and spread the word of its beauty.

Hashiguchi Goyo, Hot Springs Inn

The story is told in the first person. The main character is a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who set on a journey to the mountains in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. He stays at a hot spring resort where he is the only guest. One moonlit night he hears a woman singing in the garden. This mysterious beauty, called Nami, captures his imagination, but not in a romantic but in an artistic way. The plot is simple and the story is not a dynamic one full of events and exciting adventures. Instead, Soseki fills the pages with essay-like meditations on art and nature as the narrator tries to explain to us and himself what is means to be an artist and the bliss of being in the state of inspiration.

Another thing, the narrator loves Percy Shelley’s poetry and is infatuated with John Everett Millais’ painting “Ophelia”, especially with her face expression which he think reveals a body not suffering, but finding serenity in death. The narrator puts an emphasis on the sensitivity to beauty around you, whether it’s a pale face of a beautiful woman, a shoji paper, crimson camellia petals on a surface of a dark lake, a cherry tree in bloom or the gentle rays of sun coming into the room. Contemplation gives birth to moments of inspiration, and throughout the novel the narrator composes haiku poems and dreams of painting a perfect painting; not on canvas but in his imagination because he thinks being an artist is a state of mind rather than a skill or an occupation. To put it simply, if you like the narrator and his world views, you will enjoy the novel as well. The book invites the reader to stillness and sweet contemplation of beauties around you.

The original title of the book is “Kusamakura” which literally means “Grass Pillow”, and the term in Japanese carries a symbolic meaning, implying a journey without a specific destination. Another translation of the book is “The Three-Cornered World”, which comes from this quote:

“I suppose you could say that the artist is one who lives in a three-cornered world, in which the corner that the average person would call “common sense” has been sheared off from the ordinary four-square world that the normal inhabit.”

The quote continues: “For this reason, be it in nature or in human affairs, the artist will see the glitter of priceless jewels of art in places where the common herd fears to tread. The vulgar mind terms it “romanticizing,” but it is no such thing. In fact, the phenomenal world has always contained that scintillating radiance that artists find there. It’s just that eyes blinded by worldly passions cannot see the true nature of reality. Inextricable entanglements bind us to everyday success and failure and by ardent hopes – and so we pass by unheeding, until a Turner reveals for us in his paintings the splendour of the steam train, or an Okyo gives us the beauty of the ghost.”

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1852

Here is a beautiful dialogue between the narrator and Nami, in the ninth chapter:

“Where were you, in fact? The abbot was asking about it, guessing you must have gone off for a walk again.”

“Yes, I walked down to the Mirror Pool and back.”

“I’d like to go there sometime….”

“Please do.”

“Is it a good place to paint?”

“It’s a good place to drown yourself.”

“I don’t have any intention of doing that just yet.”

“I may do it quite soon.”

This joke is uncomfortably close to the bone for mere feminine banter, and I glance quickly at her face. She looks disconcertingly determined.

“Please paint a beautiful picture of me floating there – not lying there suffering, but drifting peacefully off to the other side of the world.”

“Eh?”

“Aha, that surprised you, didn’t it? I’ve surprised you, I’ve surprised you!”

She rises smoothly to her feet. Three paces take her across to the door where she turns and beams at me. I just sit there, lost in astonishment.

***

Hashiguchi Goyo, Woman at a Hot Spring Hotel, 1920

Also interesting, in one chapter the narrator is reading a Western book, but not from the first to the last page, but dipping in here and there, not following the plot but relishing in beauty of the words, and Nami finds it strange, but insists that he reads it to her out loud. The narrator says:

It’s because I’m an artist that I don’t need to read a novel from cover to cover. On the other hand, wherever I choose to dip in is interesting for me. Talking to you is interesting too. In fact, it’s so interesting that I’d like to talk to you every day while I’m staying here. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind falling in love with you. That would make it even more interesting. But we wouldn’t need to marry, no matter how in love with you I was. A world where falling in love requires marrying is a world where novels require reading from beginning to end.

Kyoto, photo by maco-nonch.

And now the quotes because, at least for me, sometimes the quote make me eager to read the book more than the plot:

As I climb the mountain path, I ponder –

If you work by reason, you grow rough-edged; if you choose to dip your oar into sentiment’s stream, it will sweep you away. Demanding your own way only serves to constrain you. However you look at it, the human world is not an easy place to live.

And when its difficulties intensify, you find yourself longing to leave that world and dwell in some easier one – and then, when you understand at last that difficulties will dog you wherever you may live, this is when poetry and art are born. (…) We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart.

“Sorrows may be the poet’s unavoidable dark companion, but the spirit with which he listens to the skylark’s song holds not one jot of suffering. At the sight of the mustard blossoms too, the heart simply dances with delight. Likewise with dandelions, or cherry blossoms.”

Photo found here.

“Yes, here among these mountains, in immediate contact with the phenomena of the natural world, everything I see and hear is intriguing for me.”

“In order to regain the poetic point of view on this occasion, I have only to set up before myself my own feelings, then take a step back from them and calmly, dispassionately investigate their true nature. The poet has an obligation to dissect his own corpse and reveal the symptoms of its illness to the world.”

“While we live in this world with its daily business, forced to walk the tightrope of profit and loss, true love is an empty thing, and the wealth before our eyes mere dust. The reputation we grasp at, the glory that we seize, is surely like the honey that the cunning bee will seem sweetly to brew only to leave his sting within it as he flies. What we call pleasure in fact contains all suffering because it arises from attachment. Only thanks to the existence of the poet and the painter are we able to imbibe the essence of this dualistic world, to taste the purity of its very bones and marrow. The artist feasts on mists, he sips the dew, appraising this hue and assessing that, and he does not lament the moment of death. The delight of artists lies not in attachment to objects but in taking the object into the self, becoming one with it. Once he has become the object, no space can be found on this vast earth of ours where he might stand firmly as himself. He has cast off the dust of the sullied self and became a traveller clad in tattered robes, drinking down the infinities of pure mountain winds.”

“I am floating there aimlessly (…) when from somewhere I hear the plucked notes of a shamisen. (…) But listening idly to the sound of those distant strings makes me wonderfully happy, laying here in a hot bath in a remote mountain village, my very soul adrift in the spring water on a quiet vernal evening, with the rain adding to the delight of the occasion.”

“Yet here this young man sits, beside an artist for whom the sole value of human life lies in dreaming.”