Second Edition, October 2009
ENL 258: Best Essays in Literary Analysis
2nd Place Winner
Ask the Art, Not the Artist
In the Japanese arts, nothing is more revered than the idyllic balance of harmony between nature and man. Such a relationship is at the heart of the Zen-Buddhist notion of “Sattori,” or enlightenment (Suzuki 211). Whether such harmony is found in the minimalist structure of the Haiku of Basho and Myoe, or in the complex, isolation-themed novels of a Yasunari Kawabata, the allure of the delicate beauty of such art has always appealed to the Western observer. Throughout one’s life, one develops bonds with two things: people and art. But as we mature, bonds with people also change, for better or worse. Bonds with art, however, do not. Even though our perceptions may alter with age, the art itself is not only consistent, but insists on its relevance.
When one reads Richard Finkel’s poem, “The Great Wave: Hokusai,” it is clear that Mr. Finkel has developed a lasting bond with this image. The image itself possesses all the qualities of a purely Japanese work of art in its quest for “Sattori,” a nearly flawless attainment of balance. It is a singular etching, a part of a greater work by artist Katsushika Hokusai that consists of thirty-six etchings, all of which contain various views of the oft-deified Mt. Fuji. Finkel’s reverence for not only the etching, but the artist as well, further demonstrates the solidarity and respect between artists. This paper will examine the Zen-like attributes of the etching itself, and discuss the relationship of a poet inspired by a work from a distinctly homogeneous culture whose people have historically perceived themselves as incapable of being understood by outsiders (Reischauer 244).
It is important to look at this work in cultural and Zen terms as it illustrates the inherent beauty and tragedy of the Japanese spirit, known as the “Yamato” spirit (Reischauer 12). The painting depicts sailors being swept away on the sea by violent waves. But they appear to be neither in peril nor do they even appear to be the focus of the etching. They are a part of the greater whole, melding into the landscape. This is indicative of great Japanese art. Foreground does not exist for the human being. He is no better or worse than his surroundings. He is a mere part of them. The implication is powerful. By being human, they are bound by constraints—an essential condition to living with each other as well as with nature. Waves represent transience in a transitory world. And no creatures are more transient than human beings (Richie71). Hokusai’s fishermen can be seen as celebrating their state; that is to say because they are a part of this world and know its rules, they accept them unconditionally.
The balance of the etching is as fine as an Ikebana flower display. Though the massive wave seems to threaten both the fishermen and Mt. Fuji itself, it is offset by the equally enormous empty space beneath it. The smaller wave at the bottom of the frame is a recreation of Mt. Fuji itself, a reminder that no matter the destruction of one great wave, the presence of a greater power is constant, and therefore a comfort. In this light, the waves are embracing the fishermen. Fuji has always been depicted as a gift of the goddess, Amaterasu, in Japan’s indigenous Shinto religion (Suzuki 112), and Hokusai is not immune to this perception. His depiction of fishermen, the common man, is integral to understanding this etching. There are no Shoguns, noble ladies of the court, or other aristocracy in the series of etchings. As figureheads for ritual, they do not contribute to the sustenance of the land, once again represented by Fuji’s humble, yet dignified stature in the center of the piece. The etching is dominated by the conflicting forces of calm and chaos, light and dark, big and small, storm and sun, or, as novelist Yasunari Kawabata himself has pointed out, it is the very yin and yang of nature (Kawabata 3).
So how does Richard Finkel, as a gaijin, or outsider, view such a uniquely Japanese work? Well, he balances the two worlds by infusing his tribute with Western allusions. At first, there is no denying that he, too, perfectly captures the notion of harmony when he writes, “And the blue men lean on the sea like snow, and the wave like a mountain leans against the sky.” Not only is the observation made of nature’s inherent dependence on everything else, he uses nature as metaphors for nature. As the sea resembles snow and waves resemble mountains, it is beautifully implied that no one thing, living or not, is any more important than anything else. In fact, the line, “because the wave is still that nothing will harm these frail strangers,” demonstrates an affinity with Hokusai in the way that he, too, shows no fear for the fishermen. Life is precious, sure, but life is defined within the confines of the world one inhabits. In other words, a fisherman is not only meant to exist within the embrace of these waves: his identity is verily established within these very confines. And because Finkel reminds the reader that Fuji, the sea, the wave, and the men are all blue “with white faces,” the camaraderie between man and nature is forever solidified.
Finkel develops his own rapport with Hokusai by alluding to him directly in the poem as the “Painter.” He recognizes his power as a creator, able to “bend anger under his unity.” He compares the safety of the artist with the safety of the fishermen spared the wave under his stroke. But the poem takes on a darker, somewhat less Zen-like tone, in its contrast with the casual observer of the work. Finkel refers to the innocent bystander as “not safe.” This sets up an interesting duality in the relationship between art and artist. It is an ephemeral relationship in that the observer must become all aspects of the painting in order to attain salvation, or “Sattori,” if you will. Finkel writes: “he is the men…he is the wave.” This arbitrary personification takes on an ominous tone, complete with a defining Biblical allusion in the end: Ararat. Just as Noah crashed at Ararat, and tens of thousands of martyrs have been crucified near its summit, the observers of Hokusai, too, are challenged to find the artist’s resigned sense of peace and balance; this is a vivid juxtaposition of the tranquility of a long-dormant Fuji with the unrest of Ararat. It is a powerful thesis that challenges an observer of art, stating that it is not enough to merely “hide behind a screen,” when taking in the work. To do so is to live in a world that is “flat,” and therefore unlike Hokusai’s quietly noble fishermen, who are resigned to “fish a sea full of serpents,” yet another Biblical reference. These Judeo-Christian references further illustrate the assimilation of not only nature and human beings, but also the universality of the soul—a common spirit of sorts.
Finkel, in attempting to put into verse his admiration for the complex simplicity that encompasses Hokusai’s print, has illuminated the very oxymoron of this statement. That is, in order to accomplish that wondrous state of enlightenment known as nothingness, he has, perhaps in a dichotomous undertaking, attempted to put into words a concept whose very nature disdains exposition in order to be understood. Nevertheless, as a Western observer of Hokusai, he has introduced the Judeo-Christian, albeit ethnocentric, perspective to an Eastern ideal. But for a work of art by an artist whose work took over thirty six different views of the same mountain, it seems only fitting that one more view be included, even if it is from the outside, and atop Mt. Ararat.
Finkel’s attempt to culminate the experience of admiration into words ultimately becomes an exercise in the beauty of the struggle. It is a struggle to “see below Fuji,” as it were. Perhaps this is most apparent in the aesthetic construct in the etching itself of a massive wave crashing down on the fishermen/ observer. In other words, without bearing the brunt of the wave and facing the pain associated with it, there will be no reward, the reward being, of course, transcendental insight. It is as much a struggle in trying to understand the artist’s soul as it is trying to understand the work itself. Finkel accomplishes his task by finding common ground between two worlds, identifying the artist and observer as this link.
Kawabata, Yasunari. Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself. Kodansha International: Tokyo, 1968.
Richie, Donald. Ozu. University of California Press: Berkeley, 1970.
Reischauer, Edward. The Japanese Today. Columbia University Press: New
Suzuki, Daisetsu. Zen and Japanese Culture. Kodansha International. Tokyo.
Corridors © 2009 English Department, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth