Throwing away the mirror

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This is my final entry in the self-portrait marathon, which ends this week. I snapped it on Saturday, from almost the exact same position where the photo I have been using in each of the other portraits in this series was snapped. In this one, of course, the angle is different, though I expect you’ll recognize the yellow wall. You can also see the legs of the tripod I used for the original shot poking out from behind the coat on my coat rack. I had been drinking mugwort ale and was, shall we say, in a rather elevated mood when, on my way toward the kitchen, I noticed these shadows cast by the setting sun, sat down in my swivel chair, and took four pictures. This was the fourth. I was dimly aware that it might be an important shot, but did not realize that it contained my own likeness until days later, when I uploaded the pictures to my computer.

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Here’s a close-up with the contrast increased, in case you’re having trouble seeing the portrait. It’s a pretty good likeness, I think, though the mouth is canted a little strangely, as if I were laughing at some private joke. One thing you’ll notice about self-portraits is that the subjects are almost never smiling. If they were, I suppose we might worry a bit about the author’s mental health.

This morning I was re-reading a not terribly good translation of the tenth-century Japanese fictional diary Tosa nikki, by Ki no Tsurayuki. Since I had alluded to it in yesterday’s poem, I thought it might be interesting to see if I still liked it, two decades after my first encounter with it. I was blown away.

It occurred to me as I read it that it functions on one level as a kind of ironic self-portrait. And since women were considered more vulnerable than men, by inventing a female protagonist to narrate in his stead, its author, the reigning poet and literary critic of his day, could explore in depth what it meant to be an artist or poet, with one’s heart-mind (kokoro) continually open to everything around it.

In the diary, amid all the high drama and low comedy of the ex-governor’s (i.e., Tsurayuki’s) slow progress by boat along the coast of Shikoku and Honshu en route to Kyoto, the narrator keeps returning to her deep sorrow for a young son who died a short time before. Her precise relationship to the ex-governor is never spelled out — one of several omissions designed to pique the reader’s interest. In line with Tsurayuki’s theory — articulated in his preface to the great imperial anthology of poetry, the Kokinshu, which he helped edit — poems arise spontaneously from the narrator’s heart in response to her strong emotions on seeing various things deemed poetic, usually natural phenomena.* But of course in reality Tsurayuki must have composed them himself, seemingly undercutting his own theory. Her poems are much the best of those included in the diary, but she chooses not to share them with anyone, whispering them to herself and consigning them to a diary which, she says at the end, “I really ought to tear up and be done with.”

As was normal in the aristocratic culture of the time, the people in the diary are constantly composing and exchanging poems. Despite our narrator’s superficial resemblance to Emily Dickinson, poems in her age were generally not the products of a unique and private vision, but a kind of social currency used to establish and maintain relationships of all kinds.

With one exception, the worst poems recorded in the Tosa Diary are all by the ex-governor. But because of his high position, no one has the courage to tell him how bad they are. That’s partly why this work strikes me as an ironic self-portrait by a poet in the twilight of his career. By contrast, several precocious children manage to come up with poems that are deemed very good, and even the illiterate captain, quite by accident, at one point shouts commands to his crew in what the astonished narrator declares is a perfect tanka!

The captain is also at the center of the most dramatic and possibly the most telling incident in the diary. Throughout the voyage, they are plagued by high seas, adverse winds and the threat of attack by pirates. Near the end, a gale blows up while they’re offshore at a place called Sumiyoshi, which is celebrated in Japanese verse for the abundance of a grass called wasuregusa — “grass of forgetfulness,” or maybe “oblivion grass.” The narrator has just composed a sad poem about her desire to forget, if only for a moment, her sorrow at the death of her child. The sudden high seas threaten to capsize the boat, and the captain tries the standard offering of sacred shredded cloth to try and pacify the local spirit of the place, without effect. At last he hauls out a mirror — at the time, a rare and valuable object — and quotes a proverb: “We have two good eyes, but one thing more precious.” A footnote in my edition explains that this is usually a reference to one’s children, not to a mirror. The captain casts the mirror into the sea, and almost immediately the storm begins to ebb. The narrator concludes,

The [poetic] things associated with this place — the calm sea of Sumiyoshi, the grasses of forgetfulness of care, and the elephant princess-pines of the shore — the god resembles none of them. It was plain to see that the god’s desire was reflected in that mirror and that the mind of the captain understood that of the god. (Earl Miner, tr., in Japanese Poetic Diaries, University of California Press, 1969)

In his poetic manifesto, written years earlier, Tsurayuki had maintained that poetry possesses the non-coercive power to “move heaven and earth” and “wake the feelings of the unseen gods and spirits” (see footnote). Now, in the Tosa nikki, he seems less certain of this. Perhaps, like many aging aristocrats in 10th-century Japan, he was coming increasingly under the influence of Buddhist notions of no-self and emptiness. If the heart or mind of the artist is, as the ancient Japanese thought, a mirror held up to nature, what do we do about this foolish being, this creature of inexplicable emotions, who keeps appearing in it every time we try to see what it really holds?

__________

* Here’s the first paragraph of the preface, as translated by Burton Watson in From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry, Anchor/Doubleday, 1981.

Japanese poetry has its seeds in the human heart, and takes form in the countless leaves that are words. So much happens to us while we live in this world that we must voice the thoughts that are in our hearts, conveying them through the things we see and the things we hear. We hear the bush warbler singing in the flowers or the voice of the frogs that live in the water and know that among all living creatures there is not one that does not have its song. It is poetry that, without exerting force, can move heaven and earth, wake the feelings of the unseen gods and spirits, soften the relations between man and woman, and soothe the heart of the fierce warrior.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

5 Comments


  1. The more we try to separate the mirror from the person, the more we unintentionally reveal. My best example is le Carre’s Perfect Spy. A fiction, that is a biography more emotionally true than any autobiography could be.

    When looking into a thousand mirrors, ask yourself which one is real. The answer is simple, really.

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  2. Perhaps we should be greatly disturbed if we didn’t see ourselves in the mirror? Such an event would suggest we’re something apart from “nature”.

    Love that photo, Dave. Well seen.

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  3. Zhoen and pohanginapete – Thanks for these comments. You both make very good points, I think. I’m going to add a footnote and flesh out the last paragraph just a bit to provide a little extra cultural context for my question about the mirror. (It might be worth noting also that mirrors at the time were made from polished metal, which meant that the reflections they captured were quite a bit darker than, say, a reflection in still water. I’d suggest that the presence of shadowiness in the mirror actually increased its numinous power in Japanese belief.)

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  4. Perhaps the most profound self-portrait of all. A fitting finale.

    Reply

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