Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Understated Eloquence

Shibumi is a Japanese word that means understated good taste. This is an example of shibumi itself as the word actually means a whole lot more. Rather than attempt this on my own, I’ll lean on the words of others. There is a Wikipedia page on Shibumi, and if you click on the title of this post, you’ll be directed to it.

The following excerpt is from Shibumi by Trevanian. Published by The Ballantine Books, New York. Copyright © 1979 by Trevanian. ISBN 0-345-31180-9 Book reviews of Shibumi are available from Books.

,,a part of a dialog ""... "Oh, vaguely. And incorrectly, I suspect. A blundering attempt to describe an ineffable quality. As you know, shibumi has to do with great refinement underlying commonplace appearances. It is a statement so correct that it does not have to be bold, so poignant it does not have to be pretty, so true it does not have to be real. Shibumi is understanding, rather than knowledge. Eloquent silence. In demeanor, it is modesty without pudency. In art, where the spirit of shibumi takes the form of sabi, it is elegant simplicity, articulate brevity. In philosophy, where shibumi emerges as wabi, it is spiritual tranquility that is not passive; it is being without the angst of becoming. And in the personality of a man, it is . . . how does one say it? Authority without domination? Something like that.""

The quote mentions a couple of other Japanese aesthetic terms, wabi and sabi.

Again, from Wiki articles:

The words wabi and sabi do not translate easily. Wabi originally referred to the loneliness of living in nature, remote from society; sabi meant "chill", "lean" or "withered". Around the 14th century these meanings began to change, taking on more positive connotations.[1] Wabi now connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects, or understated elegance. It can also refer to quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction, which add uniqueness and elegance to the object. Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.
From an engineering or design point of view, "wabi" may be interpreted as the imperfect quality of any object, due to inevitable limitations in design and construction/manufacture especially with respect to unpredictable or changing usage conditions; then "sabi" could be interpreted as the aspect of imperfect reliability, or limited mortality of any object, hence the etymological connection with the Japanese word sabi, to rust.
[edit] Wabi-sabi in Japanese arts
Many Japanese arts over the past thousand years have been influenced by Zen and Mahayana philosophy, particularly acceptance and contemplation of the imperfection, constant flux, and impermanence of all things. Such arts can exemplify a wabi-sabi aesthetic. Here is an incomplete list:
honkyoku (traditional shakuhachi music of wandering Zen monks)
ikebana (flower arrangement)
Japanese gardens, Zen gardens, and bonsai (tray gardens)
Japanese poetry, particularly haiku
Japanese pottery, notably Hagi ware
Japanese tea ceremony
Bonsai the Japanese art of miniature trees
And finally, the term “iki.”

Iki (いき, often written ) is a traditional aesthetic ideal in Japan. The basis of iki is thought to have been formed among commoners (chonin) in Edo, pre-modern Tokyo. Among those who are not familiar with Japanese culture, some tend to misunderstand iki as simply "anything Japanese." Iki, however, is one of Japanese aesthetic ideals and requires specific conditions. Samurai are typically thought as devoid of iki (see yabo).
While other Japanese aesthetic ideals, such as wabi-sabi, are almost extinct in today's Japan, iki is widely applied today. An average modern Japanese would find it difficult to translate what wabi-sabi means into English, because its definition relies on certain cultural assumptions. Wabi-sabi continues to influence Japanese culture, although its influence is far less than in pre-modern times. On the other hand, iki is commonly used in conversation or publications.
An iki thing/situation would be simple, improvised, straight, restrained, temporary, romantic, ephemeral, original, refined, inconspicuous, etc. An iki person/deed would be audacious, chic, pert, tacit, sassy, unselfconscious, calm, indifferent, unintentionally coquettish, open-minded, restrained, etc.
An iki thing/person/situation cannot be perfect, artistic, arty, complicated, gorgeous, curved, wordy, intentionally coquettish, or cute.
Iki can be used for almost anything, but especially for people (and their personality and deeds), situation, architecture, fashion, design, etc. It always describes something to do with people, or their will. Iki is not found in nature itself, but can be found in the human act of appreciating the beauty of nature.
Finally a pointer to a MA Thesis on Iki and everyday life

No comments: