No lyrical experience this week.
So far in class we’ve been talking pretty extensively about evanescence as an inherent and inescapable part of life, and about a very specific reaction to it. In the past two weeks, we’ve seen characters metaphorically “go to the ‘self-help’ section of their neighbourhood bookstore” (Inouye 69), and dedicate themselves to self-improvement or the attainment of goals. However, a question was posed to us this week: “If you knew you were going to die in a couple of years, would you stay in school?” (Inouye 2/20). That was an interesting question. The reason we are in school is to attain some future goal — I think I can say at the very least for myself that, in my fourteenth year of continuous education, school is becoming strenuous and exhausting, and oftentimes the only thing that propels me forward is the idea of what I would attain from them. However, if I had only a few years left, would I spend it trying to complete my education, when I will never have the chance to being my career or do the things I want with the work I’ve put in for the last fourteen years? I said no. And thus, we dove into the transition to hedonism.
Hedonism was the complete opposite-spectrum response to evanescence. Instead of conforming to the strict rules and formalities that attempt to structure the floating world, people began moving instead. Upon realization that death is inevitable, some no longer saw the point in “wasting precious time in the pursuit of anything else” (Inouye 70). The most interesting example of this change in Japanese perspective is the reading this week, Saikaku’s The Woman Who Loved Love. The heroine’s pursuit of pleasure, as well as her rather arrogant disposition, caused her to fall lower and lower in the rungs of society. She began as a beautiful, charming, well-born court lady, set up for a perfect marriage, but “yielded her body” to a young samurai and was indiscreet about her affair (Saikaku 159). As a result, she is sent home to her parents. For the next few seasons of her youth, she is continuously pulled up because of her natural virtues, and ruins these opportunities with her inability to rationalize her actions. She loses favor repeatedly until her family’s only option is to sell her to the pleasure district (Saikaku 172). Even there, as a high-ranking courtesan or tayu, her arrogance and her indiscretion cause her constant demotion, until she is an old crone living in a shack in a cave.
The excerpts from Saikaku made the position of hedonism in Japanese culture very clear. In his account, the heroine wanted it both ways — she wanted to enjoy the pleasures of life, but she also wanted the structures of society to keep her in high station while she did as she pleased and treated people as disrespectfully as she wanted. While hedonism became a widely accepted part of Japanese culture (Inouye 2/20), one cannot completely escape its structured nature. Even hedonism has its specifications (Saikaku 166), and even the pleasure districts and the courtesans and prostitutes had their specific codes and rules (Saikaku 173, 177, etc.). Even though it is possible to live a life of pleasure, Japanese society retained its formalism in all matters. Even as hedonism became a way of escape, nobody could escape society and its standards and expectations. This constant, almost thematic mix between evanescence (the pursuit of pleasure) and form (the restrictions on even that) is a defining and inescapable characteristic of Japanese culture.