Ross Gibson is the Centenary Professor in Creative & Cultural Research at the University of Canberra. In this role he produces books, artworks, experiments and exhibitions and he supervises doctoral students in similar pursuits.
is In Wild Air
About the spiritual side of Zen, I don’t have much to write. Because that’s the point: the real freight is not carried by language. At least, not quickly.
But I can write about Zen aesthetics. Because just about every piece of art that really moves me seems to be instilled -- if not deliberately then intuitively or serendipitously -- with Zen principles. Be it any one of a thousand gardens in Kyoto, be it a Shaker meeting-hall, a painting by Agnes Martin or Debra Dawes, a tune by Augustus Pablo, the ovoid museum-space on Teshima in the Seto Sea, or a poem by Emily Dickinson … every exemplary thing has the seven qualities that Hisamatsu Shin’ichi identified in 1971 as essential to Zen:
- Fukinsei -- asymmetry
- Kenso -- simplicity
- Koko -- austerity
- Shizen -- naturalness
- Yugen -- subtle profundity; deep reserve; mystery founded on a shadowy darkness
- Datsuzoku -- freedom from worldly attachment
- Seijaku -- silence; inwardly oriented calm.
(Hisamatsu Shin’ichi, translated by Gishin Tokiwa), Zen and the Fine Arts, Tokyo: Kodansha International, first published 1971, 2nd printing 1974. See especially pp. 28 - 37.)
People scoff. “Zen’s ineffability cannot be reduced to a schematic checklist!” Well, Hisamatsu’s Big Seven really does seem to encompass every great Zen-styled thing that I’ve ever encountered.
Hisamatsu’s Seven is better, I think, than Donald Keene’s beat-this list of four definitive Zen qualities:
(Donald Keene, 'Japanese Aesthetics' in Nancy G Hume (ed) Japanese Aesthetics and Culture, Albany NY: SUNY Press, 1995, p. 29. )
Even so, Keene’s Four will get you a long way if you’re in a hurry. I keep them in my notebook too, along with Italo Calvino’s Six Values, which he never claimed to be Zen but which certainly point you down a good path:
(Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Harvard University Press, 1988, Table of Contents.)
Emily Dickinson. You’ve probably absorbed the old idea about her: shy, bird-brittle, housebound, celibate, ill and unhinged.
The famous 1846 picture of adolescent Emily is usually proffered as evidence of her delicacy. But take another look, and read her letters as well as her poems. This is someone with a plutonium core, indomitable of intellect, obsidian of emotion. She was one of the four or five people in history who have been massively infected by the English language, then fought back till they became immune to its devilry and changed it forever deep in its DNA. (The others? Shakespeare, clearly. Austen, Joyce, Melville, probably.)
In the 1950s, R P Blackmur observed of Dickinson that “it sometimes seems as if in her work a cat came at us speaking English.” That’s some cute spruiking from Blackmur. And at least he was trying to cajole the public into paying attention, at a time when no one was interested. But cute, Dickinson aint. Blackmur was looking the wrong way through the telescope. For the cat is really enormous and always ready to be as terrifying as marvellous. Truly her writing is ferocious and ravenous.
Now that critics refuse to take the easy option of patronising Dickinson, it’s getting clearer that she was concussively intelligent and compulsive to encounter. The few people who met her and the several who corresponded with her became addicted, then often exhausted, bewildered, decomposed and recomposed. She did not make nice. No one got away unmarked. It will happen to you too, if you give her a week in your head.
The next detail is controversial and it will never be proven, but there’s recently emerged a new image that might be her, no longer the teenager. That’s ED, maybe, on the left; and alongside her, with ED’s hand on the back of her heart, the brightest-burning carnal and cerebral quarry of ED’s life, maybe. The woman on the left looks like someone who lived with an ardour that she once described as “like Chaos -- Stopless -- cool” ; the woman on the right looks like someone who felt such ardour come at her like a lion.
Start with the poems. Or the letters. Or Susan Howe’s game-changing My Emily Dickinson. Or Jerome Charyn’s A Loaded Gun.
It’s a not-famous temple in a non-descript suburb at the base of a mountain highway. You enter via an overgrown stone gate to an un-signposted path that spends fifteen metres dimming to pleasant-sombre light and silence amidst a grove mixing maples, cherry, gingko and mountain pines. If it’s summer, the temperature drops six or seven degrees in the grove and stays that way in the temple. And the din of the highway becomes an undulating wash of eddies, ebbs and flows, uncannily like the loll of estuary water soundtracking the dappled light. It’s an other world, completely unexpected.
The temple sits low and dark-timbered. It’s open on two of its sides, inviting on the right a seated view of lush moss and maple. A pond transpires in front, perfectly proportioned, the same size as the hall.
The pond is a modest miracle. Each time I’ve visited, it’s offered a new, unpredicted marvel. Examples: thousands of water-skaters playing scintillation on its surface; a giant, stately white egret devoting an uninterrupted hour to a wading meditation before turning to the people, looking into each of our faces, and ascending on three beats of its wings; five green-brown carp, the exact colour of the water, stirring the surface into a ceaseless calligraphy of undulation.
If you visit at lunchtime, there will be two or three local businessmen, sitting casual zazen. After lunch, it might be kids from the art-school nearby, or local mothers with infants.
For me, Renge-ji accords a peace that’s unmatched: the quiet, the cool, the wafts of incense, the rippled reflections from the pond, the green glow of moss penumbral on the other side of the hall. Sometimes when I arrive, it feels as if the pond knows me already and is glad that I’m here again.
The Kyocer Ceramic Ballpen KC-1
It was available throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, made by the enormously diversified and influential Kyoto ceramics-component company, Kyocera. For some years the design was also licensed to the venerable OHTO pen company, but the Kyocera-branded model is the perfect one. Retail price: less than 90 yen (one dollar).
The ergonomics are unbeatable. It’s super-lightweight but exactly balanced, particularly when the cap is clicked on top and the pen becomes remarkably long and slender as it inclines to the paper at an optimal angle. Furthermore, with its spherical toggle on the pocket-clasper, the slim cylinder clips reliably within the spiral binding of the Rollbahn notebook that is my constant companion.
Then there is the ceramic ball in the nib. Unlike the metal ball in most ballpoint pens, the tiny ceramic one has thousands of nano-scale indentations in its surface, the result being that a special thin ink can be deployed that flows finely around and off the ball more liquidly, less glutinously than is usually the case with ballpoints. For a left-hander like me, this really matters. The KC-1 is the only pen that never globs, never sticks or scours the paper-surface as it glides while I push it. And the ink dries fast enough so that I never smear the recently-formed words as my hand moves over them while I keep writing. (A right-hander, of course, pulls the pen away from the new words.) Once I discovered the KC-1 in the late-1990s, I was able to let go of a low-level anxiety that had been associated with the physical act of writing since I was four years old. Whereas I once worried with a pen, I now look forward to opening the notebook.
But here’s the thing: manufacture ceased about five years ago. There was a new model for a while, the KC-1A, but it got several things wrong and rightly disappeared. So the perfect KC-1 is at a premium now. But there’s a blessing in this curse. The only places that sell dwindling remnant stock are scattered little family-run stationery shops in old arcades (shotengai) in Japan. This means I have lovely, nerdy interactions with 80-year-old stationers, many of whom also mourn the passing of the KC-1.
Three trips ago, I found a cache of twenty red KC-1s in a tiny mom&pop shop. So I’m OK, even though I have only one blue left. And I live in hope of hitting the jackpot -- a box of the extra-rare black KC-1s -- in some run-down arcade.
The Omitted Centre
Jay Leyda was one of the most brilliant American artist-intellectuals of the twentieth century. In his early twenties, he took off to Russia and worked with Sergei Eistenstein. He wrote an indispensable book on Russian cinema. Ditto a book about Herman Melville. Although Leyda is pretty much unknown, his insights guide contemporary culture.
His greatest idea is the notion of the Omitted Centre. This is expounded in his two-volume masterpiece, The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, in which he gathers a vast cross-referenced almanac of ED’s scribbled notes, manuscripts, doodles, laundry receipts, letters and medical prescriptions. Measuring the power of ED’s work, Leyda realises that the mysterious force of her utterance comes from her refusal to divulge the thing that the reader most wants to have clarified. Every other resonant detail is offered, lucidly clustered around the omitted centre. And the reader therefore pours in the interpretive options, some of which are prompted by the supplied evidence, some of which come from the reader’s desires, some from anxiety. It's the incompletion, the reticence that generates the power.
Leyda learned this with Eisenstein: in a cinematic edit, there is something cut out, something invisible in-between the two shots, and it’s this in-between and unseen thing that makes the sequence spark as the viewer saturates the lacuna with significance.
It’s similar to how great acting works. I once saw an interview with Martin Landau (a wonderful, under-valued performer) where he explained the power of Method Acting. In preparation, the actor explores all the emotion and meaning in a character; the actor works to know and feel the deepest intimacies, the secret of the character; then, once the camera is rolling, the actor struggles to conceal the secret. Repression energises expression. Witnessing this struggle around the omitted centre makes the performance inherently compelling.
Dawes Language Notebooks
The language notebooks of Marine Lieutenant William Dawes, compiled at Sydney Cove, 1788 -91, in collaboration with Patyegarang and several other Eora nation people.
Prepare for astonishment and bewilderment. And a world of omitted centres.