one good principle: wabi-sabi [わびさび]
About 10 years ago, a friend of mine, who was in the navy at the time, bought a book for me called They Have a Word For it: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words & Phrases by Howard Rheingold.
I don’t know why I’m telling you that he was in the navy, because it’s an irrelevant detail, really. Perhaps I just want you to get ‘In the Navy’ stuck in your head for the next six hours.
I won’t apologise.
Anyway, this was a while before I left my hometown to study Linguistics at university in The Big Smoke (all right… Brisbane). But my friend, a Morse Code student, had somehow ascertained that I was obsessed with language — that I liked to collect words and linguistic factoids like a bower bird that collects brightly coloured pegs and the notched rings from the necks of plastic milk bottles.
They Have a Word for it is a delightful book.
It’s sitting right here on my desk, still in good condition, owing to my habit of wrapping paperbacks in plastic contact (I also write my name inside the covers in obnoxious capitals). I have read it several times, and have enjoyed its many curious entries, such as Treppenwitz, from German, which means a clever remark that comes to mind too late, and rasa, from Sanskrit, which means the mood or sentiment evoked by a work of art.
It was inside this book that I first learnt about the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi. Rheingold defines wabi as a noun meaning ‘a flawed detail that creates an elegant whole’; sabi means a ‘beautiful patina’.
Together, wabi-sabi as a whole concept goes against traditional, glossy Western ideals of beauty and art, where uniformity, perfection, and a plumped-up ‘forever-youthfulness’ reign supreme.
To many people who see the world through modern sensibilities, beauty is represented by the kind of technological sleekness, smoothness, symmetry, and mass-produced perfection that is usually associated with a sports car or a skyscraper. A highly prized Japanese teacup, which might fetch tens of thousands of dollars from a collector, might be very simple, roughly fashioned, asymmetrical, and plainly colored. It would not be uncommon to find a crack. The crack – the beautiful, distinctive, aesthetic flaw that distinguishes the spirit of the moment in which this object was created from all the other moments in eternity — might indeed be the very feature that would cause a connoisseur to remark, ‘This pot has wabi.’
… In a similar manner, sabi, draws a cultural divergence of opinion about the relationship between age and beauty. Western consumer society (which has strongly influenced Japanese culture in the past few decades) fosters a strong reverence for youth — in appliances and objets d’art as well as people. In Japan, where reverence for one’s ancestors is a tenet of the Shinto and Buddhist religions, the situation is reversed: To a Japanese master of rock gardening, an otherwise ordinary rock might be beautiful simply because centuries of moss and lichens have overgrown it in a visually pleasing way. Such a rock would then be said to possess the quality of sabi.
I was so taken by these ideas when I read about them at the age of 18 that they remained the only words from the book that I remembered in any great detail for years afterwards. When I moved back to my hometown in the midst of what can only be called a ‘period of great turmoil’ in 2010, I started a blog. And I called it wabi.
Identifying the underlying beauty in imperfection was important to me at the time, and remains a challenge that I accept more and more on a daily basis.
I feel like I ‘get’ wabi-sabi in a way that is more compatible with my nature than the ideas and principles that generally surround me. It’s the love/hate relationship I have with those jagged, pearlescent lines of stretched skin around my hips, the uneven peaks of my lips, the deep sigh of something primal within me when I step outside into the rain and flick wet leaves off my rubber boots. It’s knowing that I can’t repeat a satisfying conversation with a friend, that pastries taste best in Berlin, that the stubbled skin of my lover’s jawline in the early morning light on this particular day is at once exquisite and irretrievable.
You remember the plastic bag scene from American Beauty? That’s wabi-sabi: ‘Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.’
In Leonard Koren’s Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, he explains:
Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness. Wabi-sabi is ambivalent about separating beauty from non-beauty or ugliness. The beauty of wabi-sabi is, in one respect, the condition of coming to terms with what you consider ugly. Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace.
I like that.
An extraordinary moment of poetry and grace.
What does beauty mean to you?
Categorised as: wisdom+philosophy