Japan (part IV)

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Never was any people more naturally an artist people, never did such a race draw on a field of sensibility, of enthusiasm and hope as rich as this one. As in Greece, all the aspects of the universe are gathered into a small space—mountains, lakes, forests, and arms of the sea that reach the heart of the land. As in Greece, an immensity of light glorifies the sea and the sky. More than in Greece, the spring deluged with flowers, the autumn with blood, the torrents carrying along the leaves or the petals which they sweep from their banks, all imprint the face of the soil with the sense of its inner life. All the climates to be found between Scotland and Italy follow one another, from the north to the south, in one continuous gamut upon which the identity of the geological formations imposes an impressive unity.

Not half a century ago, all the Japanese outside of the military caste were fishermen or peasants. Although their soil was hard to cultivate, it was fruitful, and they drew from it enough to feed themselves and, passing their whole life in this great, tangled garden where the tints of the horizon and of the flowers are so varied and powerful, living in the intimacy of the foliage, the snows, the cascades, the fruit trees, and the ever-resounding hum of the insects, they acquired a feeling for the forms and harmonies of the earth that penetrated them and was part of their nature, from the humblest of the serfs to the most powerful of the Daimos. Since the days of the Greeks, no other people in its ensemble was ever an artist to the degree attained by the people of Japan. Not possessing the power of illusion and the ennobling vision of the Greeks, to be sure, the Japanese still recall them in a great number of ways—in the seminudity with which they live their sturdy, healthy lives, in their optimism, in their tendency to deify the forces of nature and to deify human heroism, in the position of woman and of the philosopher-courtesans, in the masks of their theater, and in their sinuous and linear conception of form. It is the land where, in the springtime, husbandmen with their children and their women leave the fields and, taking with them provisions for a journey that may carry them twenty leagues from their village, go to see the blossoming of the cherry trees at the edge of a torrent.

What is strange is how this people, always open to external sensations and thus always impressionable and vibrant, still remains master of itself. It resembles its soil, whose gayety masks the subterranean fire which is always ready to send forth its lava from a hundred volcanoes. It is an affable and smiling people, and if it bursts into furious violence, there is always a methodical guidance for these outbursts. Even its anger is reasoned, its fearful bravery is only a lucid exaltation of its will. Its very emotion is stylized. And its art—whose flight it accurately controls, whose lyric impetuosity it holds in clear-cut, though sometimes abrupt, form—does not abandon itself to the overflow of the marvelous instinct which directs it. Egoistic at bottom, and jealous of keeping its conquests for itself, this people seeks to give only a transfigured image of them.

This is the only point held in common by Japanese and Chinese art, the two being as different as the indented, violent, gracious islands are different from the continent in its massiveness, oneness, and fixity. From the one to the other there is the distance that separated Greece, the investigator, the lover of forms in movement, from Egypt—almost completely immobile and in love with full, subtle, and closed forms. To the degree that China is a single block, slow in movement, secretive, and heavy, Japan—nervous, tense in movement like the twisted cedars of its forests--is mobile and ready for innovation. The ancestor worship, which the Japanese retained with the first ideas of morality that came to them from their neighbor, was not, as in China, a homage to the immutable, but the cult of the will power and the moral power with which the dead had endowed them [Lafcadio Hearn, Kokoro]. Its effect may be seen in the love of the Japanese for children, who stand, in their eyes, for an accumulation, of energy greater than their own, because the children see a larger number of dead when they look behind them.

The world of the Japanese is a moving world [Lafcadio Hearn, Loc. cit.]. The flowering of the gardens that they cultivate with a restless passion has in it something of this mobility, which we see also in the varying shades of their soil and in the profile of the mountains—which may change at any moment as the mists trail in tatters, now revealing, now masking the roofs of a phantom city, a lake, a dark stretch of sea spotted with white sails, a brilliant cone that starts up into the light, the forests of black pines, and the red forests of autumn. The soil may begin to tremble at any moment, and the twilight changes with the fire of the volcanoes. Japanese art will set itself to seize the characteristics of the object in movement, living, varying its place and giving, despite its practically constant form, the sensation of instability. It is as far from the mobility of impressionism, through which the modern Occident caught the variations of light with so much vivacity, as it is from the immobility of the Chinese. The Frenchman, working from nature and adhering faithfully to direct sensation, ended by losing sight of the characteristics of the object. The Japanese, composing from memory, sees nothing but those characteristics. With the former, analysis reaches the point of dissociation [With Neo-Impressionism] with the latter, synthesis reaches the point of creating a system.
The need of Japanese art to characterize things is so pronounced that our Occidental eyes cannot always differentiate between a work of character and a caricaturist's system. Caricature appears at the moment when the descriptive element tends to absorb the ensemble instead of remaining subordinate to it. But how is that moment to be determined? Character and caricature oscillate around a purely theoretical point which all eyes do not locate in the same place. For a Japanese eye, doubtless, character continues after caricature has already begun for us.

What carries the Japanese artist beyond the mark, perhaps, is the ironical turn of his mind and, at the same time, his miraculous skill, which he does not sufficiently distrust. When, in a flash, he seizes form in movement, he gives an impression of infallibility, though one must hasten to add that this applies more especially to his representation of the smaller animals. Save in the case of Sosen, a savage and pure painter who lived in the woods like a wild creature, so as to surprise clusters of monkeys as they huddle together on great branches and shiver in the snow or the cold of dawn, the Japanese has not understood the larger animals so well as he has the smaller ones, for his eye is somewhat shortsighted and he does not easily grasp the idea of mass. He has scrutinized the microcosms so patiently and sagaciously that through them he has remade the world, as a scientist reconstructs it in the field of his lens. He has seen the sun behind a spider web. Beside him, the Occident, in its effort to bring everything to the level of man and to the general surroundings of his activity, seems to have neglected what is at the level of the soil, near our eyes, within reach of our hands—the things one can see only if one bends one's neck and stares fixedly at the same point. only looking up to rest one's eyes after too prolonged effort. The Occident saw form and lines, certainly, and colors and their broad combinations, but it never saw a flower or a plant, it never studied the slight, curling lines on water or the trembling of a leaf. As it shut itself up in the house during showers, it did not see how the rain claws space nor how it bounces from the puddles on the ground; and when it went out of doors again when the sun shone, it did not study the dust that dances in the light. But the Japanese has classified, as if in a science, the most secret revelations of his burning curiosity. His eye is a little shortsighted, he is very meticulous, he squats on his heels to tend his vegetables, to care for his flowers, to graft his bushes, and to make war on hostile insects. The life of his garden becomes the central theme of his meditation, which follows its ironical path through minute anecdotes and little concerts of rustling leaves. He has surprised the vast world in its humblest cares. He has visited the aquatic flowers with the sudden flight of the dragon fly, circled around with the bee from the hive to the glycine flowers, pricked the sugared fruit with the wasp, noted the bend of the blade of grass beneath the weight of the butterfly. Under the wing shells, as the insect raises them, he has heard the transparent wings unfold, he has observed with passionate sympathy the tragedy enacted by the fly and the toad, and it was in watching the circular muscles roll in the flanks of snakes that he came to understand the silent drama of universal hunger. He has had long vigils over birds standing in melancholy on one long thin leg, and over their motionless intoxication with the freshness of the morning sun. He has seen them stretching out their necks in their rigid flights, and how they wink the round eyes that are flush with the sides of their flat heads, and how their spoon-shaped or pointed bills preen their varnished feathers. He has described the concentric circles that the water spiders make on the pools, he has discovered how the reeds stand waiting when the wind is about to rise, he has felt the agitation caused in gramineous plants and in ferns by the action of dew and by their proximity to a spring. And, having made all these tiny adventures a part of his life, he had only to raise his eyes to the line of the horizon to be filled at once with the serenity of the mountains in the light of the dawn, to feel peace come into his heart with the fall of night, and then to let his dream wander over the immobility of the distance or be cradled by the sea.

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