Scott's Reviews > Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenko

Essays in Idleness by Yoshida Kenkō
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's review
Jun 09, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: 1960s, medieval, japan
Read from June 09 to 10, 2011

If I fail to say what lies on my mind it gives me a feeling of flatulence. – Kenkō (1285–1350)
Kenkō, a fourteenth-century Japanese monk, courtier, poet, and antiquarian, had a lot on his mind. Retired from the tumult of the imperial court, he spent whole days alone in his cottage in Kyoto, jotting random, nonsensical thoughts on slips of paper that he pasted to the walls. After his death, these scraps were peeled away, sorted, and copied into a volume now known as Essays in Idleness (1332). These 243 epigrammatic articles, written to relieve a pressing and uncomfortable ennui, give us a fascinating glimpse into both the world of medieval Japan and the inner workings of one of that nation’s most forthright thinkers and influential stylists.

Kenkō’s reflections can be slight, suggestive, and to modern readers, utterly bizarre:
A flute made from a sandal a woman has worn will infallibly summon the autumn deer.

On a day when you’ve eaten carp soup your sidelocks stay in place.

You should never put the new antlers of a deer to your nose and smell them. They have little insects that crawl into the nose and devour the brain.
Brief and of dubious practicality, these pithy observations nevertheless show us part of a mind that took an encyclopaedic interest in the world: Buddhist ritual, carp fishing, the education of courtiers, physical deformities, burning moxa on kneecaps, the beauty of dew-covered flowers in the morning, the best way to view the moon on cloudy nights ... just a few of the many thoughts that crowded his attention. Despite the author’s expectation that his pages would be ‘torn up, and no one is likely to see them’, their influence on how the Japanese regard behaviour and beauty – often one and the same – has been far from transitory.

Kenkō, whose life spanned a period of intense civil disruption, took little interest in politics, but he was mesmerised by court etiquette. Some of the niceties of the emperor’s house certainly took some explaining: ‘Fire tongs are never used when placing lighted charcoal in a hibachi in the presence of the emperor or empress’ (a courtier was expected to use his bare hands unless he was wearing spotless white). Part of Kenkō’s fascination with courtly protocol was based on his belief that he lived in an age of profound social and artistic decay. He finds evidence of this deterioration in departures from old customs: a slightly misshaped window, a cap that’s a little too large, a coarse expression. And he sought to correct these failures by recording his memories of the proper way life was led at court in the past.

Sometimes crotchety and frequently sentimental, Kenkō could not escape his ‘longing for things of the past’, even in deep meditation. This pervasive nostalgia naturally seeps into his appreciation of art. Beauty, he finds, is usually bound up with a feeling of incompleteness or an element of age: ‘It is only after the silk wrapper has frayed at top and bottom, and the mother-of-pearl has fallen from the roller, that a scroll looks beautiful’. The recognition of elegance comes with the realisation that everything is impermanent and that ‘the most precious thing in life is uncertainty’.

He was a connoisseur of muted suspense, and that, coupled with his longing for the past led naturally to his greatest pleasure – reading. ‘The pleasantest of all diversions is to sit alone under the lamp, a book spread out before you, and to make friends with people of a distant past you have never known’. This is the image of Kenkō is perhaps most appealing to us: the bald monk, alone in his small home, poring over his scrolls, the Oi river and Mt. Arashiyama in the background. In a world where there was too much talk, too much posturing, too many possessions, there were never too many books. A friend, Kenkō concluded, may ‘grow distant and live in a world apart’, but a man who lives alone with only his books for company, his thoughts free to flutter in the breeze, can find true happiness.

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