Category Archives: Week 5: Hedonism, Mono no Aware, Monstrosity

Week 5 posts.

Beauty in Sadness

Placing my hair I cut off in honor of Native American grandmother’s death to the Mystic River, I was greeted by two swans.

On river floating,

Wind guiding and met by swans,

The soul goes forward.

What better time to learn about the sadness of things and hedonism than when my grandmother dies, I break up with my girlfriend, and that I join a fraternity.  Before I knew it I felt like I was caught up hedonism’s ukiyo.  Ukiyo is pursuit of pleasure today, because we aren’t guaranteed tomorrow (Lecture 5/15).  If death could come at any moment then why not seek pleasure through fraternity life and parties?  While the idea is tempting, a fuzzy head every morning wasn’t very alluring.  If not partying, than how about romance?  Saikaku’s “The Woman Who Loved Love” represents the life of a woman living in a hedonistic world.  Her life is a pursuit of love and pleasure, which is represented by her actions as a courtesan.  She goes from man to man in attempts to satisfy herself.  In the end she is left alone, but makes the comment that men shouldn’t have wives, but could not live without them (Saikaku 199).  This struck me because this may explain why after breaking up with my girlfriend I’m already interested in someone else.  This pursuit of pleasure is easy to fall into, but it is tinged, if not driven by, with sadness.  An idea of the time was mono no aware (the sadness of things).  You suck, I suck, we all suck, and that’s ok (Lecture 5/15).  By realizing that everyone is powerless, has imperfections, and failures allows us to appreciate beauty better.  Without the sadness it would be hard to understand the joys and pleasures in life.  Life is evanescent and as a result is sorrowful, but this heightens the beauty of things, and in turn makes evanescent life beautiful (Inouye 85).  It is the sadness of my grandmother’s death that allows me to find such beauty in swans coming to me as I sent my hair down Mystic River.  It’s also the stress of academic life that makes a night at my fraternity that much better.  This awareness of sorrow, in a way, is an awareness of beauty and pleasure.

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Hedonism

Walking back from Dewick after dinner on Calbot Avenue, looking up and spotting the chimney attached to Pearson.

White smoke

rises up and away,

blown by the night wind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The point made at the end of Thursday’s class by Professor Inouye was an interesting one – regardless of whether or not you are interested in partaking in a hedonistic lifestyle, desire is a good thing because it makes us interested in each other (Inouye Lecture 2/21). I raised a similar point in my response two weeks ago in questioning the Buddhist perspective in pursuing an existence devoid of any desire – would we have any motivations to do anything at all? Yet, as illustrated in Ihara Saikaku’s The Woman Who Loved Love, a complete abandon to the capricious winds of temporal desires is likely to lead to ruin – “I let myself be swept away to ruin. There was no way for me to stem the current” (Ihara 159). I suppose though, in the absence of any transcendent power that would allow one to escape from samsara or the ukiyo (憂き世), it would be so easy to embrace the ukiyo (浮き世) in its entirety and lose oneself in physical pleasures. It seems however, that even those who have lost themselves in it may not necessarily find happiness therein, as again illustrated by Saikaku’s heroine. There seems to be a sort of irony in the way that an individual pursuing hedonism (a total embrace of the fundamental motivating force of human beings) – appears to be more passive than one actively seeking to kill desire (and therefore the motivating force) in the pursuit of Buddhism. Lastly, I found it interesting how even the pleasure districts – the locus of hedonistic abandon and symbol of evanescent pleasure – were bound strictly by form in the codes that courtesans were compelled to obey.

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Hedonism and Mono no Aware

Nothing this week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The development of a Hedonistic perspective in Tokugawa Japan may have come due to the merchants’ increased frustration by their inability to move up in life, regardless of their wealth (Lecture 2/21).  I believe the realization of their limitations in life led to an embracing of mono no aware.  As a result, they took to indulging in a Hedonistic approach. In the West, we have a very negative view of Hedonism.  However, if we embrace evanescence and understand that just about everything is out of our control, we may come to a realization: “we all suck” (Lecture 2/20).  Therefore, if we all suck, then what do we have to lose?  Why would we not simply embrace our suck-i-ness and pursue what makes us happy for the moment?  Both, mono no aware and Hedonism are captured in Saikaku’s “The woman who loved love.”  After a life of pursuing pleasure, she reflects on her life and states, “soon my unmourned life will vanish with the dew” (Saikaku, 172).  This is, by all accounts, a very sad story.  However, there is beauty in the sadness we experience (mono no aware).  This is the same sadness that has been embedded into Japanese culture.  It is the type of sadness we experience when we have a “tasteful admission of one’s powerlessness” (Inouye, 86).  I find the development of the Hedonistic perspective in Japan very interesting and can definitely see myself taking a similar approach.  Over the years, I have experienced various tragedies (i.e.: the loss of a loved one) that revealed the limitation of my control in this world.  Needless to say, these experiences were very difficult to deal with.  However, they did lead me to reflect and think about what I value in life.

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Week 5: Hedonism

I was walking through campus when a bunch of Canadian geese flew over my head in a perfect V formation.

clear blue sky
dozen winged geese
perfect formation

 

The discussion and readings about hedonism this week really emphasize the role of mujo (evanescence) in everyday life. Ukiyo, the world of pleasure, focuses on pursuing these fleeting feelings (Inouye 70). These feelings of pleasure are always changing and disappearing yet we spend so much of our time chasing them. What’s better: eating a donut now or enjoying a healthy body? Finding someone to have sex with for a night or putting the time in to form a long term relationship? So many people choose the former for the quick pleasure when arguably the latter brings more pleasure. I was a little amused to see that these dilemmas were prominent in 17th century Japan when Ihara Saikaku wrote The Woman Who Loved Love. Not only do we see her constantly change partners, we also watch as her beauty, like the cherry blossoms, quickly becomes “rather wilted” and she no longer attracts suitors (Saikaku 210). Not only are our pleasures temporary but our ability to enjoy them also cannot last. For me, remembering silly fun I’ve had with friends is almost as enjoyable as experiencing it. However even memories of pleasure fade and we have nothing left of the moments that gave us such joy. It’s crazy how I think back on my life and have very few select memories from childhood. There are entire months of my life where I don’t have a single memory. In ten years I might not remember a single thing that happened this month. Or even worse I can be like the woman in Saikaku’s story and be haunted by my pleasures as she was forced to see reminders throughout the world of her “whole turbulent course” of her life (Saikaku 216). It seems like a pretty delicate balance. Overall I still believe that youth brings a “sense of urgency to the pursuit of pleasure” that I feel compelled to follow while I still have the opportunity to (Inouye 70). Too much pleasure, like in Saikaku’s tale, leads to regret, but I think also not taking the chance to pursue pleasure while you had the opportunity brings its own set of equally remorseful regrets.


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Perspective

As I walked down Professors Row feeling distraught after a fight with my friends, I noticed  rain droplets dripping off the trees’ leaves along the snow covered sidewalk.

Wet leaves–

once frozen in snow

now dripping endlessly

I’m not sure what to think about Hedonism, but I feel it’s a matter of perspective. I’ve always been taught since I was young that there is more to life than “simple pleasures.” However, studying about the evanescence of life, or mujo, I have grown accustomed to why Japanese people may embrace this idea, feeling “a sense of urgency to the pursuit of pleasure” (Inouye 70). In the context of Hedonism, I feel like this “pleasure” can be construed as lyrical. When someone gets drunk, falls in love, becomes entranced by lust, etc. he/she seems to become completely entrapped by emotion.  Even then as Saikaku points out, “the blossoms of the heart are sacred/ by evening the tree itself has been turned to firewood. Who can escape?”(Saikaku, 154).  Pleasure and strong emotion is temporary, but I feel even though that Saikaku points out that this pleasure could lead to our own destruction, there is still something can be learned from it. Pursuing a life full of pleasure seems to be destructive and only ends in sadness, as all things are evanescent and all ends in sadness, or mono no aware. But as we talked about in class, sadness can be beautiful (Lecture 2/20). This beautiful sadness has become an intrinsic part of the Japanese culture. Takahito highlights that the “dual structure of inner and outer dimension” is responsible for the actions we take (Takahito, 13).  Takahito’s words hit me hard. The idea of morals seems to not matter in this context. People do not make actions based on moral values, but by their environment. Thinking back however, this makes sense in terms of the Japanese idea of evanescence. As the environment changes, so does life, and because of this we are all eternally (at some point or the other) sad. But we can learn from sadness, as Inouye highlights, that resigning oneself to the sadness of reality has its own rewards (Inouye, 85). Reading this made me wonder if it was to become enlightened and engage in a hedonistic lifestyle by learning through the beauty of sadness.

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Hedonism and a looming term paper

Sitting in my room with a special lady after a long weekend of hedonism. (She’s typing up a report)

A downward gaze

her fingers moving soundlessly

eventually sigh.

 

I find Saikaku’s narrator to be inhuman. You mentioned in class that, like this woman, Hester Prynne falls into the category of the “bad woman” who men envy, except that Hester was a real woman. She felt heartbreak and loneliness and loved her daughter and wanted to love Dimmsdale and chided herself for cheating on her husband. But the narrator here is bereft of the depth that would make her story compelling. The passages you point out (73, Inouye) are the only ones of true self-reflection I could find, and are very inconsistent with the existing mood. You can’t go 40 years without emotion and then suddenly find you are lonely. If one considers the tone of certain passages-”but the days passed and I forgot all about him,” (159, Saikaku) “to my surprise, people blamed me,” (171, Saikaku) and “during my two years of cheap prostitution there I had all sorts of experiences,” (192, Saikaku)- you realize that her affect is inappropriate. If the character is to be believed, we would assume this is a woman with a severe personality disorder. Maybe this is the “self-conscious schizophrenia” (8, Norinaga) Norinaga speaks of. That was a joke. From what I gather, that reading implied that “mono no aware” is a sense of “powerlessness and sadness” (10, Norinaga) that pervades the Japanese thought. They intellectualized this strict class and power structure by externalizing it, and the feeling exists to this day. And I think that this kind of nation-wide shared experience is beyond anything an American could really understand. As you point out in your statement to students (81, Inouye), the mono no aware experience is essentially class-based. So how can a non-minority successful student in the 1st world like me really understand?

 

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Guilty pleasures.

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.

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The sadness of things

Sitting by a window in the library after a less than wonderful weekend, I got totally lost looking at the snow as it changed from light rain to full-on blizzard.

 

Through glass

A flurry stretches into blankness

Each fluff spins down alone

The shift towards hedonism is definitely something I expected when we first touched on the idea of life being evanescent.  In some ways it seems like a more natural reaction to just go for it if life is so fleeting, and I am actually a little surprised that this reaction didn’t manifest until the Genroku period (Lecture 2/20).  I think the shift in meaning of ukiyo from “the illusory world to avoid” to “the illusive world of fleeting pleasures that one ought to pursue with abandon” (Inouye 70) really encapsulates this major shift/inversion while the continued relevance of cherry blossoms shows that the prevailing cultural attitudes of the time still shared a common foundation with preceding Zen and Buddhist ideology.  At the core, hedonistic pursuits were rooted in the same notion of life being brief and the symbiotic relationship between beauty and sorrow. On one hand, hedonism seems like an amazing way to maximize the happiness of everyone in the world, but these temporary reaches towards fulfillment seem to lead to even further sorrow in most cases.  I can imagine that acting on whims alone could lead to a severe sense of detachment.  It also seems to be a guaranteed way to slip downwards, such as the woman who loved love:  “I let myself be swept away to ruin.  There was no way for me to stem the current” (Saikaku 159). Perhaps accepting oneself as a floating part of the floating world could make this a beneficial life philosophy, but I have a hard time seeing how this form of detachment and pursuit of temporary pleasures could lead to any sense of peace or fulfillment. That said, I think the hedonistic attitude of making the pursuit of pleasure in general a common goal has a lot of value.  It seems that the fact that mono no aware was the heart of Japanese culture led to the “dual structure of an inner and outer dimension, not a moral character which makes a direct connection between consciousness and action” (Takahito 13).  This is a distinct contrast to the preoccupation that many have with morality and the inability of most to consistently uphold values. Though sad in a sense, I think it’s somewhat of a relief not to hold ourselves to higher standards than we can meet and agree that “resigning oneself to the sadness of reality has its own rewards” ( Inouye 85).

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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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Morning Saplings (Week 5)

I was sitting on my upstairs porch with a cup of coffee Saturday morning and noticed a tree beginning to bud.

Winter sapling

sprouts beneath snow

Awakened

This week’s discussions on Hedonism were particularly interesting to me. Birthed from the rigid structure of Japanese Edo period social hierarchy and the emerging “mono no aware” identity of Japan reflecting a “sentiment of sadness,” Hedonists attempted to maximize the pleasures of life (Takahito, 1). In almost direct opposition to the Buddhist concept of “anatman” or there is no such thing as self, hedonism seems to embrace the concept of self to the fullest (Inouye, 31). Inouye rationalizes the concept of Hedonism by saying, “If the end could come at any time, why not have as much fun as possible.” However, I have a different way of rationalizing Hedonism (which is a concept I like to believe in). Pleasure can be thought of in terms of evolution. Pleasure is adaptive. We feel pleasure because it is linked to some behavior that gave our ancestors millions of years ago some sort of advantage over others, so why not embrace it? Sex is one of the most obvious examples of pleasure, and its immensely adaptive value is coupled with intense pleasure. There is some point, however, when exaggerated pleasure seeking can become maladaptive. Analogous to an alcoholic’s addiction, The Woman Who Loved Love let her yearning for pleasure get the better of her. She exclaims in a dramatic final scene at a temple reflecting on her lifetime, “How wretched and shameful of me to enjoy such a long life” (Saikaku, 216). Ultimately, moderation has to play some role. Living purely and extremely by one ideology is rarely the answer. That being said, I enjoy looking at life through a Hedonistic point of view occasionally and can see great merit in its practice.

 

-Nicholas Economos

 

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