Richie’s Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics

I just read my first Donald Richie, a short “treatise” called A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics. It begins:

Aesthetics is that branch of philosophy defining beauty and the beautiful, how it can be recognized, ascertained, judged.

Japan and the West differ vastly in their view on aesthetics, for example in the simple fact that the very word is of Western origin; in Japan, “aethetics” has always been inherent in all aspects of life, not least the tea ceremony, called 茶の湯 (chanoyu).

One aspect of Japanese aesthetics that appealed to me is their “tendency to value symbolic representation over realistic delineation.” (p. 23) Western art has traditionally been obsessed with “mimesis;” the attempt to imitate nature, to represent it just like it looks. Whereas the Japanese rather try to represent what’s underneath, the concept rather than the surface. I can relate!

Richie dwells on what he calls “elegance,” a kind of beautiful simplicity to be found for example “in the precise stroke of the inked brush, the perfect judo throw, the rightness of the placing of a single flower.” (p. 31)

I love it. I didn’t grasp half of the contents of this little book, but I have the feeling it will grow on me, and that I will understand more as I get to know Japanese culture more. It reminds me a bit of when I was 20 and tried to grasp the concept of “camp.” I couldn’t, but as I digested more gay culture, I was slowly beginning to “get it.”

This book was an appetizer for me.

3 thoughts on “Richie’s Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics

  1. A small declicate book about Japanese esthetics written by a Japanese is Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. I also recommend his novels (The Key), his prose seems more to-the-point and minimal than the eloborate Mishima, whom I find rather difficult to read. I read “Forbdidden colors” some time ago. I found the theme of course very intriguing, but had a hard time getting it finished. It is so elaborate, that you sometimes find yourself thinking, oh get on with it!. The description of the gay scenes are very good, reminded me somewhat of the gay-scenes in 50s Paris from Baldwin Giovanni’s Room. A novel I did not like, btw.

  2. Wonderful, Erik, thanks for the tip.

    I browsed your whole flickr collection the other day and gathered we have a bit of a common interest here. 🙂 So without knowing it you got me to order Yasunari Kawabata in Swedish translation.

    I agree about Forbidden Colours. There’s a lot of fluff. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is much more concentrated, which works better with this type of highly conceptual novels according to me.

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