Practicum For Aesthetes – Playing the Stringless Qin

1.

Appreciating beauty is one of the thriftiest hobbies in the world. The moment you understand the principles behind it, traversing a single line or image can provide as much joy as climbing the highest mountains to view the finest scenery. Afterwards, you feel less of a need to spend exorbitant amounts on expensive trips all over the world.

This is exemplified best by a sentence in Hagiwara Sakutaro’s story Cat Town:

しかるに過去の経験は、旅が単なる「同一空間における同一事物の移動」にすぎないことを教えてくれた。何処へ行って見ても、同じような人間ばかり住んでおり、同じような村や町やで、同じような単調な生活を繰り返している。

“Nonetheless, my past experiences taught me that travel is no more than the simple “movement of the same thing within the same space.” No matter where you go, you find the same kinds of people live, repeating the same kinds of monotonous lives, in the same kinds of villages or towns.”

Therefore I do not seek to convince one to understand beauty from the perspective of developing ‘elite tastes’ – but merely from the perspective of economics. Thanks to the internet, we have unprecedented exposure to beautiful things in the form of free texts and pictures. If you can understand the merest aesthetic enjoyment, you can live as the eternal thrift like Warren Buffet – and forge enough of a personal wealth from abstinence, in order to carry out the greatest investments into the sectors of the industry.

Take note that this is only a possibility – in practice, aesthetes have lived with exorbitant decadence. The ideal is the Chinese ‘sage-type’ aesthete. A Chinese saying or anecdote that is frequently attached to such an entity is that he plays a ‘stringless qin’ – based on the story of poet Tao Yuanming who did just that. The implication is that the poet was so attuned to the aesthetic side that he did not even need strings to feel the lyricism emanating from life itself.

2.

The general rule is to never let a work go until you have understood it. In other words, you must not stop your criticism at saying – “this work is 2deep4me” or “this work is a confusing mess”. That merely indicates a thought-destroying cliché that your brain is falling back into. Even if you view it as a matter of taste – taste can still have a certain amount of thorough explanation, and this means that you are not even sure of your own tastes.

Let me, for example, take a random Hagiwara translation:

A damned thief dog
Is howling at the moon above the rotting wharf
A soul listens,
And in gloomy voices,
Yellow daughters are singing in chorus,
Singing in chorus,
On the wharf’s dark stone wall.

Always,
Why am I like this,
Dog
Pale unhappy dog?

Take note that I am critiquing the translation, and for the sake of this analysis I will assume this is the only text.

Confusion, in this case, comes from the juxtaposition of certain images that appear in a dreamlike way – out of nothing. Firstly there’s a dog, then the setting of the place, then a second entity that views, and then a third series of entities that are the “yellow daughters” – finally, it ends with the poet’s own statement.

The question then is whether this confusion is used appropriately. Although the imagery is disjunct logically, they form a certain kind of atmosphere. “Damned thief dog”, and “howling at the moon” and “rotting wharf” and “dark stone wall” – form a Gothic and dark moody sense. Because of this sense created, the ‘yellow daughters’ is given the connotation of a different kind of yellow. Like a sickly kind of yellow – just like that story the Yellow Wallpaper. Even the word ‘soul’ takes on a spectral tremor due to these series of connotations. In other words, it is only confusing in logic, but not in sense.

Once you understand the mood of the first stanza, then, when you link it to the second stanza, the scene in the first becomes a stark connotation to the poet’s internal state. Once he identifies himself as the dog, the positioning of the poem becomes obvious.

But you then have to ask the question – is it an aesthetically pleasing sense? This depends on the constitution of the reader. The first barrier is, of course, a reader who can suspend logical connection for the sheer feeling of the mood. If you are not this kind of reader, you are already exempt from this sphere of appreciation – no words from any poet or prose master will ever touch you. Once you are past that barrier – then it depends on whether you are the type of person who can appreciate the Gothic or mournful mood itself. That requires a certain kind of disposition. If you are the kind of person who only ever likes Songs of Innocence by William Blake or hymns of praise – then you are also exempt from the sphere of appreciation.

But there are also those who surpass the sphere of appreciation – whilst fully understanding the sense of the poem. This is the realm whereby a person who wants to reject the poem should aim for. In other words, it is the person who knows that – if he wanted to experience this kind of mood, he can access better quality stuff elsewhere.

For one – a poem whose contents is the explication of a lonely scene, and ends with the poet’s exhortation of woe – is basically a massive cliché in Classical Chinese poetry.

Here, for example, is a translation of a Du Fu poem:

After the battle, many new ghosts cry,
The solitary old man worries and grieves.
Ragged clouds are low amid the dusk,
Snow dances quickly in the whirling wind.
The ladle’s cast aside, the cup not green,
The stove still looks as if a fiery red.
To many places, communications are broken,
I sit, but cannot read my books for grief.

Of course, Du Fu wrote with Classical rigor – and so he does not have the same colloquial or free verse sense of the Hagiwara poem. But this is only one example – there are thousands of such poems already existing within the reams of Chinese poetry out there.

Hagiwara has an edge in being starker – with ‘damned’ and calling himself a dog and whatever. That may provide a more gritty sense than Du Fu.

But Hagiwara would lose out to starkness in the way that Plath does it – for example:

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two——
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

Then what about the imagery itself? In terms of imagery – he isn’t really that far from the Symbolists that came before him. Neither does he provide a counter-point by using that kind of imagery but having a twist at the end where he might say something like:

Always
But I am like this
Dog
A pale happy dog

If you have a moody psychological image in the first stanza, you can expect it to end with a psychological exhortation of misery. On the other hand, this provides a slight mode of acceptance to the poem – it points out of the poet’s feelings.

I’m not saying that the poem must point out – but that since so many people have already written poems that point into – creating their own psychological image landscape, then if you’re going to do the same you might as well provide a twist.

Of course, there are people who have done the twist before already – so merely changing it to ‘happy’ will not make Hagiwara’s stand out that much.

As you can see – the steps of appreciation are very simple: What is the sense of the poem as I understand it? -> Why might this sense be beautiful? -> Do I appreciate it in the end?

3.

The problem is making a critique that is special for the poem – that tells us of its significance. For example, it’s very easy to speak of the poem as a ‘lonely poem’ – but why is that significant?

Let’s say I take this critic from the Asian Review of Books:

In “Unknown Dog”, the poet examines the darkness of his heart, and the haunting shadow of solitude:

Ah, no matter how far, how far I go,
this utterly unknown dog follows me,
crawling along the filthy ground,
behind me, dragging its hind leg, a sick dog,
distant, long, sadly terrified,
at the lonely moon, howling afar and pale, an unhappy dog’s shadow.

The dog is symbolic of the hidden threats in life: loneliness, unfulfillment, and the vulnerability of man.

I could literally write something like this:

In “Unknown Dog”, the poet examines the darkness of his heart, and the haunting shadow of solitude:

I am being followed by a poodle
This filthy poodle is a dog
It is a shadow of my dog
It is a dog

The dog is symbolic of the hidden threats in life: loneliness, unfulfillment, and the vulnerability of man.

And you would not have told me a single inkling of why I should appreciate it because it is an image of loneliness.

These are also images of loneliness, unfulfillment, and the vulnerability of man:

I wanted chocolate ice-cream,
But all I got was vanilla –
It pains my heart.

I am like a butterfly caught in the middle of a giant field
That is slowly being eaten by the massive rotors
Of grinding tractors
Driven by blue screaming prostitutes

The plain sock
In the washing machine
Is being swept away by torrents of water and water
While it spins, cyclic – isolated

The test results came back
And my friend was so happy that he laughed
But I could not laugh
Because I failed
And I was the only one who failed
Because
I’m stupid

A great sign that you are saying nothing is if your criticism can apply to a wide variety of things – just by changing a few key terms.

4.

But – this raises a question.

If I am so critical of the appreciation – then aren’t I not playing the stringless qin?

Well, I have a different interpretation of the term.

Some people might view that playing the stringless qin refers to bending your taste to fit a poem. By bending your taste in a variety of ways, you can fit an infinite amount of poems.

But – to me – that is not playing the stringless qin. That is being played like a stringless qin.

To play the stringless qin means to have the poetry emanate directly from your own being, so that you do not have to rely on the creations of others as much. If you can recreate the mood yourself, with your own poem or music, there is no need to read poetry.

If I could paint like Picasso or Dali – why would I need to look at them? Much less – why would I need to buy them on the auction house?? This is the economic benefit of understanding how to play the stringless qin.

To play the stringless qin is to understand the cause and effects of the works you witness – and to understand how to invoke those cause and effects.

(Take note that ‘effect’ is different from ‘intention’ or ‘interpretation’ – it exists before them. When you understand cause and effect – you do not need to intend to write something, and neither do you care about the multivariant interpretations of it – you will simply replicate the cause to derive the effects. It is the difference between an amateur writer who intends to write about his love, but is unable to do so in a satisfactory way – and a writer who may not have experienced the same passions of love– but still successfully writes about love itself from observation.)

In this view, there is a difference between a person who critiques viciously for pure destruction, and a person who critiques viciously – but his disposition coolly integrating it into his being. In other words, he is destroying it to use it – and he is adding his strings to the stringless qin. On the surface, though, there may be no difference in tone between these two types of critics.

Thus, the Death of the Critic is the Birth of the Artist. This is because he no longer critiques, but he synthesizes.

Happy is he who uses a hammer to play the stringless qin!

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