Thursday, November 22, 2012

"When the dragon has soared to the summit he knows the chagrin of descent"

I sit and read a few passages out of Essays in Idleness, the Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō, translated by Donald Keene. It's a book published by Columbia University Press in 1967 and though I won't pretend I've had it that long, I have had it for more than thirty years. It has lain on my night-table for much of that period -- when I'm weary of the ego-stoked prose of the present, I go back and read a few of the numbered passages. Then I sleep unhindered by the demons who visit during the day.

Truly, it is a wicked thing to allow the smallest parcel of land to lie idle. One should plant vegetables, medicinal herbs, and so on.

I decided to write about this book yesterday morning. I was interviewing a young publishing person in my office in the city. It was the day before Thanksgiving, it was relatively early, and the city lay in full sun like a young mother on vacation -- snoozing, perhaps with a dreamy smile, on a chaise lounge, with sparkling blue water in the background. We talked about books and authors, of course. He mentioned how much he liked to dip into the Diaries of Witold Gombrowicz, recently republished by Yale University Press. (They are amongst my favorite works too, in the original and ugly Northwestern University three-volume set.) He mentioned how he kept them on his night-stand and used them to wind down from a day of heavy contemporary reading. I understood right away what he meant, although he may have been a touch too insistent on claiming how their revivifying power affected him. Books are, after all, merely books. Even the Bible has its longueurs, many of them, in fact. Hard to believe that people still read those wonderful stories for clues to living.

Living is much harder than reading, most of the time, even if reading is your profession. My interviewee's confession of faith in Gombrowicz prompted me to remember how often I'd relied on these writings by a Buddhist priest -- set down almost seven hundred years ago -- to eliminate a little bit of the omnipresent waste I find myself wading in. New York City is not often a sleeping mother.

They say a good carver uses a slightly dull knife. But yesterday morning's amble through the crazy lanes of today's publishing world -- it is not changing fast enough, and the changes it is undergoing are not particularly helpful -- provided only one reason for me to reveal my ongoing love for Kenkō's "essays." The other reason is today, the day we celebrate as Thanksgiving. For someone with a religious bent, but who cannot subscribe to a particular brand of faith with open heart and mind, the best that can be done is to use the stories at hand to devise a comprehensible world. A world one can give thanks for, despite hurricanes, fires, snow, crime, duplicity, and death. A world as beautiful as a mother sleeping in the sun.

That is how I use the Essays in Idleness. I read one or two of them and close the book and breathe deeply and try to empty myself of the present. I close my eyes and let the texts circulate in my consciousness like clouds. No tricks, no ideology. No ego, no sparring. It is so hard to live a good life.

A fox was squatting there, just like a man, watching them. At the shout of "It's a fox!" the creature became rattled and ran away. It must have been an inexperienced fox, a failure at working spells.

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