曲者 – Kusemono

In the Hagakure, a book written by the samurai official Yamamoto Tsunetomo in the 17th-century, the author writes about the different characteristics of people that make up society. He points out that the most valuable person is the “kusemono.”

Translators of the Hagakure point out that the modern meaning of that term is that of a “ruffian” or an eccentric. So why was the kusemono so valuable? According to the Hagakure, a kusemono is a person who avoids trouble, keeps to themselves, and only appears when needed. Not unlike the solitary hero of samurai movies in the 1960’s, a kusemono eschews high honors and recognition and prefers to keep to their own devices until duty calls. Then, when the job is completed, they return to their solitary ways.

In short, a kusemono is like a friend.


Le Myth de SisyphusAlbert Camus penned an exploration of the absurdity of life titled The Myth of Sisyphus. In it, Camus examined the essential absurdity of life (that we look forward to tomorrow even though tomorrow brings us closer to death).

One of the 4 chapters of the book covered the Greek myth of Sisyphus who was consigned to punishment in the underworld of rolling a boulder up a hill until, right before he reached the top, it rolled back down. Forcing him into a perpetual punishment of never completing his hellish task.

Camus essentially argued that, despite the unceasing toil, Sisyphus would actually be contented because he recognizes the absurdity of his fate and is thus able to reach a state of acceptance. This is similar to the theme found in many religions in which the acceptance of death is the precursor to satisfaction in that it removes all vanities so that one can focus on the joys of life.

Royal-Guercino-Sisyphus-1636We each need our mindless task, a continuing struggle that makes us confront our vanities and fears. This is not a call to sink into negativity but, rather, a call to action. Mine is kendo, specifically suburi and hayasuburi. In my daily practice each swing is done fully with as much as focus as I can muster until I can almost smell the wood of the shinai or bokken and the sound of the strike.

“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”





Masks By Mishima

Mishima Mask BookI don’t know what Mishima’s goal was, and maybe he didn’t either, but his actions signaled his understanding of the many masks that we all wear. Suicide pulled the last mask from his face.

Whenever I get bored or frustrated, I think of Yukio Mishima because he is the example of a truly less-than-heroic person who had nothing special except for an rich mind and inner life and he was able to externalize that life in some spectacular ways, including his own death.

I have no such need to die quickly or even spectacularly but I can learn from someone who did.

The Trickster

ImageAlmost all non-literate mythology has a trickster-hero of some kind. […] And there’s a very special property in the trickster: he always breaks in, just as the unconscious does, to trip up the rational situation. He’s both a fool and someone who’s beyond the system. And the trickster represents all those possibilities of life that your mind hasn’t decided it wants to deal with. The mind structures a lifestyle, and the fool or trickster represents another whole range of possibilities. He doesn’t respect the values that you’ve set up for yourself, and smashes them. […] The fool is the breakthrough of the absolute into the field of controlled social orders.” — Joseph Campbell

The trickster is chaos. He (or she or both) is entropy. Decaying, changing your plan and making you continue the struggle against complacency. In complacency is death and the trickster gives life.

Thank you to Elucipher for posting the Campbell quote.

Stalin on Literature

Yep, that title is an eye-catcher but I am drawing on a quote from him that the greatest value of any written endeavor (be it a play, script, or book) is to be that it uplifts people. Looking beyond the fact that he was a paranoid and murderous dictator, let’s look at Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth (which was turned into a Starz drama) as well as his recent new book, Fall of Giants.

There is a school of thought that says good literature should be “realistic” and that has been mis-understood to mean “depressing.” So, for instance, if you’re righting about the Middle Ages, it’s best to focus on the down-trodden juxtaposed with their social superiors as a way to show us that nothing really changes and the little guy gets squished.

Follett does this with Pillars of the Earth in which we get to see the merry lives of Tom Builder and his desperate family as they basically get crushed and fall apart, have some moments of happiness, and then fall apart. The tv series is just as depressing except that you get to see the filth and desperation up close. According to the the NY Times book review, we’re going to get more of the same in his new book Fall of Giants except it will be sad times in the 20th century…

Strangely, Follett is very popular in the UK, but then again, so was Gormenghast so maybe people in the UK like it when things go awry. Actually, if you look at any English show, comedy or drama, the main theme is usually about a good plan or vision that goes awry. Like every episode of Mr. Bean but I digress.

I think that life is never that bad and that even in bad times, people on average thrive and find happiness. Out of the 100 Years War for example, we find the growth of literature and art which lead to the Renaissance. During war in the modern period we saw new artistic movements and literature (artists like Picasso or Brassai). People find love, build families, and create order out of the chaos around them. And I think it is these exceptions that people would like to  see in their books and shows.

On a final note, if you like social history than go to the source. There are many books out there that describe the lives of people in our past. My favorite, Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, a social history of a 14th century southern French Cathar village done by a French cleric in that time. However, unlike Follett’s history, the people then were actually happy.

Sun and Steel

These words are highly evocative and it is no surprise that the great Japanese writer Yukio Mishima used them as the title of his meditation on the power and value of the human body over that of the written word.

Mishima’s arrival at this point in his life where he embarked upon started in a world quite removed from both sun and steel. He was raised until his teenage years primarily by his grandmother, being forced to sleep in her room and not being allowed to play with boys his age. He avoided conscription in World War II by feigning illness (although I would think that he actually just failed to pass the health exam) and held on to that guilt long after the war was over.

However, this allowed him to avoid an unnecessary death and he went on to become one of modern Japan’s greatest writers, writing many novels, short stories, plays, and film scripts. Mishima was also an acknowledged expert in Noh dramas; thanks in part to his grandmother’s influence as she raised him on these plays and contributed to his classical education.

Given his history, it seems quite shocking that he would perform an about face and become an enthusiastic weight-lifter and martial arts practitioner but Mishima explains it in Sun and Steel as realization that his words were like acid, eating away at his body and soul, essentially making him a coward for removing his body from the world and its reality.

As I read his book and reflect on the world around me, I see how technology is removing many of us from physical reality. Whether it be immersion in the world of an MMO, spending hours playing Farmville and watching ones friends on Facebook, or just being glued to a phone while outside in the real world, I have to agree with Mishima that many of us are lacking that necessary component that truly awakens our inner selves. The hard work and physical sensations that only come from training and competition.

Mishima’s life ended in a spectacular suicide, in the traditional samurai method of cutting his belly and having his head removed by a companion. Some felt that this invalidated his work and made any association with his ideas as dangerous. However, I feel that he just chose the time and method of his death and it just happened to be in this most dramatic way. Many people die in a hospital bed of a lingering illness, surrounded by strangers and Mishima chose another path.

He did leave the world though with a call to action (though I do believe that, had he chosen to live, he would have contributed so much more to literature and the world around him). As we plan our days and our lives, it is critically important that we make room for both sides of human existence: the body as well as the soul.