Wabi Sabi

I’m coming around to the notion that old things just may save my life.

Not that my life is in any danger. It’s more that, with some exceptions, I’m no longer interested in what’s new.

Part of this has to do with the learning curve that new objects bring. I don’t want to master a set of procedures–that includes new passwords–before using something. I don’t want to register my purchase on-line. I don’t want fumble through a long series of instructions so I can “personalize” my experience. Add to that, I’d rather not “take a quick survey” that tries to categorize how I may, or may not, feel about an object, that typically ends in an enticement to “sign up” for things I don’t want.

I certainly don’t want to manipulate my possessions from a distance by using my cell phone, neither do I want a corporate entity monitoring everything I do. Oh, yes, I know the argument: I’m getting what Bill Gates called a “747 jet for the price of a pizza” so I should lay back and think of England as these corporations have their way with me? No, thanks.

Besides, I make my own pizza, from scratch.

These don’t-wannas may sound lazy, but they have a biological root: as we age, the mix of brain chemicals that make it easy to learn new things…loses its strength. It becomes even more frustrating to change your way of doing things, master a skill, learn a language, etc. Experiencing this frustration may have benefits: a learning mind is an open mind and, in some studies, the awkwardness and self-conscious stress that comes from trying something new helps us deal better with the daily ups-and-downs.

Why, then, are “old things” more compelling? Part of this has to do with a slowly building appreciation for what goes into making the stuff with which we surround ourselves. Give more than a glance at movies, fashion, cuisine, music and other aspects of our “popular” culture, and you easily develop an appreciation for “craft,” that is, the skill, or a skillful aspect, that you appreciate as part of the work. Craft, such as thrilling movie special effects, a song’s ear-worm hook that you just love, the fruity blast in Beaujolais Nouveau, the way a shirt is cut to permit free movement, can sometimes redeem an otherwise inferior effort, and our experience of craft is historical: the more we sample, the more sophisticated our taste becomes.

An essential element of wabi sabi is the transitory nature of experience, objects and life in general. So, while we may savor an aspect of craft, we must also acknowledge that it is made for the moment: what may thrill us at one point in our life, may not (and maybe should not) at another. Things fade, wear down, wear out, develop scratches, scars, stains, wrinkles, rust. What is regular loses symmetry. What is sharp becomes blunt. What is blunt may take on an edge. These can be considered defects if all you want is an object that performs the same function without any change, but wabi sabi (and, when you think about it, any scientific perspective) holds that is impossible. If these changes are more than a mere loss of function, what, then, could they be?

Here’s where traditional Japanese ancestor worship comes in. Perhaps the visible changes an object acquires create character, singularity, uniqueness and (this is a favorite possibility) latent advantage?

And then there’s the strange sense of the sublime we get when we see something old that has presence. You find this in some museums that show old Japanese bowls, tea pots or furniture that definitely doesn’t look new–it’s been places, but there’s something solid about it.

The closest thing we have to wabi sabi in America is a love of antiques, but, even then, it’s different. Antique collectors value the object, be it a snuff box, a chair, a clock, a dollhouse or a car, as an anachronism, a thing that is outside its time and, because of its maker, its rarity, its previous owners, the way it fits into the buyer’s collection and its possible resale price.

And, we know that many things that are called antique, are intended to appear that way. Like our pre-washed clothing, they are treated to appear older, though they’re sold new. The spirit of what made pre-washed clothing popular was wabi sabi. The result was just another thing to put on a rack and sell.

Wabi Sabi is a Japanese esthetic that does not merely value old things, but also things that are apparently flawed and worn down. Like many esthetics, it’s risky to talk about it out of its political, cultural, moral and religious contexts. While it arose in Japan, allegedly influenced by Buddhist ideas of impermanence, suffering and immateriality, the Japanese made it their own by finding a spirituality in old things. We see it in bonsai, pottery, some forms of pictorial art, sculpture, furniture, music, theater, food, landscape design, architecture, clothing and martial arts: an appreciation of uniqueness as a totality of experience,  contradictions, inconsistencies, “flaws,” and an inexpressible sublime.

There are no mistakes in wabi sabi. There is a similar presumption in transcendent ideals of nature: that we are part of a natural order whose perfection we cannot fully understand, but we must ultimate accept. What appears to be in error, or defective, may even be a gift.

Of course, wabi sabi is not a dominant esthetic in Japan. Since their defeat in World War Two, they are just as fond of complexity, newness and the disposable “freedoms” of  American globalism: if you don’t like it, if it breaks, if it bores you, just throw it away.

I found out about wabi sabi back when I studied Japanese culture in college. I’ve never been to Japan, but I’ve explored its martial arts, tea, food, art, poetry and religion. I’m aware that the same country that produced the tranquility of zen and the “unami” of tempora, sushi and ramen, can also bring down the hell of World War Two upon the world. That barbarity may be in all of us. What would wabi sabi say to it?

Perhaps it would find, in nature, a relentless cruelty in storms, earthquakes and disease. And then it would ask, do we see this cruelty, when we look at a sunset, or the reflection of the moon in water?

We need a little wabi sabi in these new, cruel times.




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