Saturday, April 14, 2012

`A Longing in All Things for the Past'

Already in the fourth decade of the fourteenth century Yoshida Kenkō was complaining:

“In all things I yearn for the past. Modern fashions seem to keep on growing more and more debased.”

Note that it’s not his personal past the author of Tsurezuregusa (translated by Donald Keene as Essays in Idleness) is mourning – the vulgar longing for lost youth, and so forth. Rather, he yearns for a more genteel, less debased time, when greater care was taken in the design and manufacture of almost everything. He cites furniture – “those in the old form are the most pleasing” – and letter writing – “how superb the phrasing used to be.”  Speech, Kenkō says, has “steadily coarsened.” 

Burnishing the past and feeling its pull are powerful temptations, especially as we get older and in such an age as ours. Speaking to a chemical engineer the other day, I indulged in a reverie about a world without plastics, until he reminded me of syringes, prostheses, surgical tubing and IV-solution bags, and I realized my objection to plastic is largely aesthetic, and romantically aesthetic at that. Yes, I prefer the look and feel of wood, stone and metal, and nothing looks more soiled than dirty plastic, but ethics must trumps a tender sense of aesthetics. Who would choose to live without the germ theory of disease, antisepsis, anesthetics and antibiotics, not to mention jazz and the U.S. Constitution? In another essay, Kenkō’s sense of laudator temporis acti turns more personal: 

“When I sit down in quiet meditation, the one emotion hardest to fight against is a longing in all things for the past.”

He describes how, after others have gone to sleep, he reads old letters and recognizes the calligraphy of friends long absent or dead. Kenkō says: 

“What a moving experience that is! It is sad to think that a man’s familiar possessions, indifferent to his death, should remain unaltered long after he is gone.”

1 comment:

Ian Wolcott said...

My son’s recent Cub Scout assignment required us to find a newspaper from the day he was born. (I set one aside at the time, but who knows what box it’s saved in?) We went to the local library and learned they don’t keep old newspapers anymore. No microfiche either? I asked. No. You can look up newspaper content by date or keyword on the computer system instead.

I told the librarian (a woman maybe sixty years old) that I used to work at a university library and missed the old card catalogs and stacks of smelly old newsprint. If I could flip a switch, I said, I’d gladly roll us back to the technology standards of about 1989. I guess I expected her to agree with me, but she gave a look of revulsion instead. “You know,” she said, “it’s a lot easier for me to help people in a really helpful way today.”