Letting go for a while… “Ukiyo-madness”?

By Laura Sabia

I was walking quickly down Newbury Street trying to escape the bite of the freezing rain when, out of the very corner of my eye, I noticed the first tiny green buds peaking through the soil of a small garden.

I pass quickly.

Ice falls to frozen earth-

Buds push through.


Now another type of “no-mindedness” (Inouye, 69) walks onto our stage. The embrace of hedonism wrenches us away from a disciplined, ego-free consciousness and reverses our perspective. This week, we made one hell of a 180°: one that has us now devoted to the insatiable pursuit of pleasure and to operating almost solely within the realm “below the line.” This hedonism, we are told, is but another response to our “awareness of life’s fragile and brief nature,” but more specifically, to the “sense of urgency” that this awareness ignites in us. (Inouye, 70)  I was really taken aback with this total abandonment of the Buddhist vantage point. I was just beginning to let go of my fear of the truth that life is suffering by embracing the notion that we are able to transcend strife if we tap into what we all have in common- the ability to be free of judgment and material fixation. And now I am completely at a loss again. It’s really difficult to wrap my head around the here-and-now world becoming important again in the context of this new worldview. As other students have commented before me, the historical background surrounding this ideological and cultural shift in Japan helped me to at least go along with it (rather than totally rejecting it). The “peace vacuum” left behind at the beginning of the Tokugawa period after centuries of warfare lead the warrior class to occupy a more central political role in Japan. As such, they were considered to be of higher social status than the artisan and merchant classes. But, ironically, these classes that formed the bottom of the social had the money. So why not spend it on making themselves feel a little less like vermin? Enter brothels, bathhouses, the theatre, public space- the main site of ukiyo life. (Lecture 2/20) The prostitute became the “prototypical modern person” (Lecture 2/20) as she embodied the shift towards the commodification of life and to the “just do it!” attitude that society was beginning to embrace (Inouye, 71). In his The Woman Who Loved Love, Ihara Saikaku expertly depicts this emphasis on the here-and-now aesthetic and the tremendous effort put into the process of understanding life in terms of its material beauty and pleasures. He calls on the familiar image of the cherry blossom to frame the description of the ideal woman: “she should have… the complexion of a pale cherry-blossom.” (Saikaku, 166) In reminding us of this flower, and in his recounting of his protagonist’s fall from grace, Saikaku is simultaneously reaffirming our awareness of evanescence and offers us a concrete example of a very important new concept, that of mono no aware (everything is sad). (Lecture 2/20) Everything is sadness and sorrow is beautiful. Saikaku’s protagonist is a trapped self- the physical embodiment of mono no aware. I tried to test my own response to this sentiment. Left to my own devices, would I really abandon all self-discipline and give in to pleasure? I can’t help but feel that all of this sensual gratification is ultimately full of emptiness and grounded in fear. I’m afraid of it- of all of the chaos it implies. The self gets lost in all this escapism.


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One Response to Letting go for a while… “Ukiyo-madness”?

  1. I liked your poem, it gives a very clear and simple image of the scene but also makes me excited that there’s a sign of spring. I can’t wait for warmth!

    I definitely agree with you that this 180 really has me confused on the best ways to respond to this floating world. We’ve all worked very hard our entire lives for some vague future goal that we’re not really sure we’ll ever obtain. Would we really be happy giving it all up for cheap pleasures? There’s certainly something empty and chaotic to the idea of hedonism. I really like the structure that working towards something provides, even if it’s not the most enjoyable at all times it still provides a form to live our lives in. I’m pretty torn as well.

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