follow the brush

Following the brush

I’ve been asked to explain how I choose my topics, how I go about doing my research, and how I make connections as I go.   Here’s a reply by way of a demonstration, that might seem like a detour – or might not.

There is a classical genre of Japanese literature called Zuihitsu (随筆).  The word is made up of the kanji (Japanese ideograms) for “to follow” and “brush,” and is usually translated as “following the brush” or “running brush”.  Zuihitsu combines fragments of text, loosely connected essays, poems, lists, word paintings, and poems; genres and styles move freely, reflecting a movement of the mind the Japanese associate with the flow of a calligraphy brush.

Outside of Japan, the most well-known example of zuihitsu is the first: a set of notebooks called the Pillow Book (枕草子 Makura no Sōshi), by Sei Shonagon (c. 966–1025), a lady of court in Heian Japan (794-1185 CE).  Film director Peter Greenaway made the book famous in his eponymous film.

The other classic early zuihitsu text comes from the Buddhist world of the Kamakura period – Dogen’s world.  Hojoki (方丈記, literally "square- record" - translated as An Account of My Hut or The Ten Foot Square Hut), is an extended poem written by religious hermit Kamo no Chomei in 1212.  It's a famous book in Japan, popular for the beauty of its poetry, its mixture of Buddhist reflections on the impermanence of life and the material world, personal history. nature writing, and descriptions of the series of natural disasters (earthquakes, famine, fires, even whirlwind) that caused political upheaval in Kyoto.

Why bother investigating an ancient literary genre?  What does zuihitsu have to do with SAORI? 

Here’s how writers understand zuihitsu – as:

  • an artistic form that “incorporates a sense of process, movement, juxtaposition, collage.  To ‘follow the brush’ suggests a certain not-knowing of what will happen, that whatever might result from the process will be down to discovery rather than plan" (source); and 
  • an “associative form, alive and intuitive …. In zuihitsu we feel the writing process and touch the textures of the author’s mind more than the themes or subjects referred to, which is why it is often translated as “miscellany” or “miscellaneous essay;” there is no central point but rather parts that interact with each other. ...  Reading or writing zuihitsu is, in short, to see how the form changes the content” (source).

We really don’t have a literary genre like it in the West (although some of the more experimental, "encyclopedic" novels by Borges, Calvino and Perec might come close).  We might call it stream of consciousness.   We might call it writing "SAORI-way".

One of the many goals of this “blog” project is the effort to make connections between SAORI and Japanese culture broadly investigated, much of which must be a matter of translation for me.  I was working my way through a list of words associated with Japanese aesthetics and Zen when I crossed paths with zuihitsu.  Working to understand it might be described by Western readers as “lateral thinking”, “solving problems through an indirect and creative approach, using reasoning that is not immediately obvious and involving ideas that may not be obtainable by using only traditional step-by-step logic.” (source).  Thinking "SAORI-way"?

Sometimes you can learn some pretty interesting things by following your brush.

To understand the world of today, hold it up to the world of long ago.
- Komo no Chomei, Hojoki

Note:  Read a prose translation of Chomei’s Hojoki here.