I am reading Bashō, Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches. Narrow Road recounts Bashō’s late-17th century sojourns through Tokugawa Japan, sleeping rough many nights and, on others, accepting hospitality on offer from temples and shrines as well as the homes of family, friends and admirers. His aim was to travel as lightly as possible, to become a “weather-exposed skeleton.” Think of Thoreau’s Walden as a pilgrimage, not a pond.
To each place he visits, Bashō responds with haiku of unornamented immediacy, frequently accompanied by poems contributed by hosts, fellow guests, and traveling companions. This is not a traveler’s guide to the countryside (such guides did exist). It is, rather, a sketchbook:
The readers will find in my diary a random collection of what I have seen on the road, views somehow remaining in my heart – an isolated house in the mountains, or a lonely inn surrounded by the moor, for example.
Sometimes, Bashō passed over many days’ walking with a single sentence:
I travelled through the provinces of Yamato and Yamashiro and entered the province of Mino by way of Ōmi.
Yet a single day could burst into a profusion of lines:
I went to a snow-viewing party:
Gladly will I sell
Dear merchants of the town,
My hat laden with snow.
I saw a traveler on my way.
Even a horse
Is a spectacle,
I cannot help stopping to see it
On the morning of snow.
I spent the whole afternoon at the beach.
Over the darkened sea
Only the voice of a flying duck
Is visible –
In soft white.
* * *
Though one of the world’s best-known poets, until now I’ve never read more than anthologized bits of Bashō. The closest I’ve come in the last few years to something like Narrow Road is Harryette Mullen’s Urban Tumbleweed: A Tanka Diary. Mullen is no Bashō: none of her strolls around West L.A. is remotely like a pilgrimage, and her poems only occasionally aspire to Bashō’s asceticism. Yet Mullen shares with Bashō an economy of observation. A walk of several hours often yields just five balanced lines, her reward for a sharpened attention.
Among the appeals of Bashō is his paradoxical combination of linguistic precision and indeterminate meaning. This makes his work catnip for translators. You can get the idea by reading thirty translations of “Frog Haiku” side-by-side at the Berkeley-based Bureau of Public Secrets. And there are many alternatives to Nobuyuki Yuasa’s translation of Narrow Road, the version I’m now reading; David Barnhill suggests the range of possible interpretations in the ten versions he’s collected of the book’s first paragraph.
Bashō stands at the center of a dense web of language and meaning that has ensnared thousands of readers, translators and poets. I’m now ensnared myself.
* * *
Yet, while reading tonight, it wasn’t one of Bashō’s haiku that stopped me cold. It was a chance remark. Just before he sets out, a well-wisher gives Bashō a gift. The gift is a paper raincoat.
I’m not the only reader this phrase halted mid-sentence. “Paper Raincoat” is Amber Rubarth’s Brooklyn-based band. It’s a designer’s website (“I help businesses by turning pots of coffee into advertising”). It’s the tag attached to any number of instructional paper-folding videos.
I thought that “paper raincoat” must be some kind of metaphor or idiom: the phrase, though delightful, seems too fanciful to be taken literally.
But no. Bashō’s paper raincoat was an actual garment.
Before neo-folk bands, before online design ventures, before the maker movement, the Japanese made clothing from washi paper, a craft tradition called kamiko. These garments were not high-end couture. They were instead workaday clothes worn by people of modest means, locally produced and relatively inexpensive.
The Japanese were not alone in wearing paper attire. In early 20th century Europe and the United States, paper’s affordability made it a plausible substitute for linen, silk, wool, and cotton, particularly in wartime. Later in the 20th century, paper garments periodically found upscale markets among young fashionistas.
Japanese paper clothing was not as impractical as it sounds:
Soft like cotton but less expensive, paper can be durable, warm and, when coated in persimmon tannin, various oils or konnyaku (devil’s tongue) paste, can become water resistant. Kamiko played a significant role in Japan’s sartorial history, but the washi (paper) made in Shiroishi, in particular, has done much more: It played a role in defining the Japanese identity.
* * *
Reading a bit about kamiko reminded me of a story I heard as a teenager from a family friend. Growing up, Belle Mishkin was the oldest person I knew. She was born, my father said, when Benjamin Harrison was president.
There is a small tribe of children who memorize the names of U.S. presidents in order. I was a member of that tribe. As a child I considered Benjamin Harrison the most exotic of extinct American leaders. He lived unimaginably long ago. And he was the last of the bearded presidents, an Assyrian king reborn into an American body. Belle was thus a link to the Republic’s antediluvian past, born before the shriek of modernity blew out our eardrums with its world wars, economic calamities, and media immersion.
When my high school history teacher assigned me an oral history project, I interviewed Belle. Her life was as compelling as I’d hoped. Because I knew nothing at all about 20th century women’s history, her early careerism, her L.A. community activism, and her local political leadership came as a complete surprise.
And yet, as an adolescent, the bit that struck me had nothing to do with local politics or American feminism. It was the fact that, during World War I, Belle worked in a Washington, D.C. office tasked with designing and launching concrete ships.
I was completely incredulous: “Wouldn’t they sink?” She laughed. Some did, she said.
In fact, concrete ships weren’t so absurd . As far back as the mid-19th century, naval architects had experimented with ferrocement (that is, cement reinforced with metal mesh or rebar). Cement was cheap, promising both cost savings and rapid production. The Wilson Administration was perfectly sane when it tasked the U.S. Emergency Fleet Corporation with building two dozen such vessels. The war ended before the ships could be built. Still, well into the 21st century, concrete hulls remain a plausible choice for small craft – barges, houseboats, and the like (for examples, see the work of the Danish firm Dirkmarine).
* * *
Why should phrases like paper raincoat or concrete ship be so surprising? Though the idea of rain-resistant garments may seem unfamiliar, wax paper is not. And, placed in a water-filled sink, a ceramic bowl will float. For centuries, people have water-proofed paper with substances ranging from persimmon to paraffin; pozzolans (“a broad class of siliceous and aluminous materials”) have extended the life of concrete for two thousand years.
Paper raincoats and concrete ships seem lunatic only because our minds get stuck in rigid categories. Such rigidity is imagination’s enemy (a point made with extravagant humor when Elon Musk put a red Tesla Roadster in orbit).
This brings me back to Bashō, whose work makes a frontal attack upon certainty. Haiku is an art of subtle juxtaposition, its non-sequitors and shifts of tone resolved not through effort, but through release from effort. Here is Bashō:
How many columns of clouds
Had risen and crumbled, I wonder
Before the silent moon rose
Over Mount Gassan.
Move, if you can hear,
Silent mound of my friend
My wails and the answering
Roar of autumn wind.
In a patch of yellow rape,
Pretending to admire
Haiku’s downside is its greeting card familiarity. The form is universally translated, taught, anthologized and, inevitably, satirized. There are several lit zines devoted solely to haiku – more, I imagine, than to the sonnet. Bashō is eminently teachable, and can be shared, to their delight, with small children. Yet, as his many translators attest, he does not easily surrender to one understanding over another. The same might be said for Emily Dickinson, America’s own Bashō, whose widely quoted quatrains are easy to read, but resist easy readings. (On this, see William Bowers’ essay “All We Read is Freaks.” Thanks to Casey B. for the citation).
We live, so it’s said, in the era “mindfulness.” What a lie: this is the most dishonest and distracted decade of our deluded Aquarian age. What’s needed (apart from an expanded capacity for human empathy) is not meditative mindfulness. It is deeper friendship with indeterminacy, a resistance against the mind’s innate and pitiless will to organize, categorize, include and exclude. This is not an argument against reason, but an argument against trusting the utter finality with which our minds render judgement.
Indeterminate lines, such as those uttered by Bashō or Dickinson, challenge the mind’s rock-hard category-making obduracy, leaving our minds supple and softly receptive.
Sometimes it’s useful, then, to clothe ourselves in paper raincoats and sail in concrete ships. Returned to dry land, we ought, always, to walk and watch the world.