Sometimes you just need to keep very quiet. Today was such a day. Except that I couldn’t and had to write this. I visited two of Japan's loveliest places. There may be more, I don't know, I'm sure there are, but these by themselves were more than enough to justify this pilgrimage. On two good walks both starting from the hotel, I visited the Ryoan-ji in Northwest Kyoto and later, during the afternoon the Katsura Palace in South West Kyoto. Which is lovelier and why are they so lovely? The first question is uninteresting, the second difficult. The Ryoan-ji rock garden is one of the icons of Japan. That status does not come about by itself and it has its downside: mobs who come because they are made to and hordes because they feel they have to and a smaller but sizeable flock that really wants to.
But what is there to see? You find yourself looking at a few rocks arbitrarily placed on a bed of moss within a stretch of artfully raked gravel, set against a low wall of which there are quite a few in Japan. What's the fuss about? The guide book was honest: it is a lovely place, it said, but the crowds spoil it. Go early, it advised. So I did, and it was good advice. Despite the photographs I took on the way, I was there a quarter of an hour before opening time. I went to get myself a cup of coffee from the vending machine and looked around and had already become the second person in the row for a ticket. We were allowed our tickets ten minutes early and the lady who had overtaken me and I began a discrete race to be the first at the actual rock garden. I won.
And there it was, fifteen stones set in moss and raked gravel, set within a rectangle, framed by a low wall with a shingle saddle back ridge. You can see the garden only from one side; that is from the veranda of the temple along the longer side. I sat on that veranda and the lady joined me at some distance and we just sat there and kept quiet. Quarter of an hour later, it was obviously too early for the schoolchildren and their teachers to get themselves properly organized, a young man arrived and looked surprised, he whispered that he thought he would be the first. I smiled. And so we sat the three of us and just kept quiet.
The lady next to me had her eyes closed. That was an interesting thing to do. I somehow did not think that would be helpful to me. After all, I would only be there for a short time; I had to soak it up even though there is really very little of it. In the same way that there is really very little on a piece of empty paper, and yet it is full. I did not want to miss that what made it unique: its composition, its materiality, its signs, the setting, the time of day, the number of people sitting there, the temperature, the thoughts on your mind, whether you are tired or hungry, the intense quietness enhanced by birds and the stumbling noises made as quietly as possible by kind and helpful ladies setting up shop for the coming hordes. For that I needed all my senses working together, as a team. And as there was so little to see, the other senses had their day.
What is it exactly that reduced me to silence? What is it about this rather simple place?
One factor was undoubtedly authority: there are people, whose opinion I respect, who set store by this thing. I feel obliged to at least open up to it, allow it to do its thing. There must, on their authority, be something there that I can use to build myself a good experience of that thing, to thereby help make myself into the person I would like to become, my own artwork. I could shut myself off from the experience of course and use the garden’s status as an icon, as a symbol of Japan, to dismiss it out of hand and feel somehow superior, feel that it is no longer exclusive enough, which a lot of people do with icons. They make them laughable, because they feel that the icon, however unique as a thing, has been made ubiquitous and omnipresent by the attention it has been forced to accept and so been somehow devalued. I am not frightened by people’s laughter. Exclusivity is for them a criterion of their own taste, but to me it is the first step of giving up, of relinquishing my independence, my quest for finding my responsibility in whatever is given me. Finding my responsibility is a sort of basic quest, that which determines my game-plan in almost everything. The most exciting thing Sartre did, was to put into clear words the existential need to take a stand upon things. He posited the idea that people are responsible for everything that happens to them. That was untenable. Not everyone is or can be responsible for everything in their lives. However it is a good quest to try and find your responsibility in every event or situation. It leads to sobering conclusions about the power of individuals over their lives. Exclusivity, scarcity for anything beyond food and other immediate bodily needs is merely indulgent rivalry, one-upmanship. It gives in to the animal within us, the being that is not a me; to allow exclusivity into aeshteic experience is to bring aesthetic pleasure to the realm property and ownership. I can own my experience, I do not need to own the thing. Owning a thing is can also be part of the aesthetic experience, but troubles me. But I do not want to go there in this note. It might even be useful to an art collector as it apparently affects the price that people are prepared to pay for something, and scarce things such as the Buddha’s in Afganisthan should enjoy protection and we should be prepared to invest a lot in their preservation (sardonic laughter). I don’t mind playing that game. But the idea that the Mona Lisa becomes somehow less in my experience of her because reproductions of her face abound is to me absurd and has set me to overcome that idea. Exclusivity in the aesthetic game-plan leads to absurdity and dead ends. Exclusivity is a rather poor and purely competitive criterion, one that can only sustain a person if he measures himself against others, even when he has grown up, one who has not yet learnt to define goals for himself. Nevertheless, finding your way about in the world is about choice and you can choose to dismiss things for all sorts of reasons that have nothing really to do with the matter at hand, but are part of your own personal politics. So be it. I know I am guilty of such thinking. No doubt. But my quest is to minimize my dependence on the affirmation of others. Why? Because I want the affirmation of others for what I do and not as a goal in itself. I want my doing well to be the goal, my using well. If people like what I do, how I use things, I certainly like the fact of their approbation, but I do not want to gear my doing, my using well in order to catch their admiration. That is a different game. Doing well and catching people’s admiration are two different things. It’s all a big muddle of course. I don’t really know why I like it that way. I suppose it is a remnant of my upbringing. At the same time it keeps things clear. If I attempt to do things well in order to enjoy my well-doing I feel that the process is under my control, that I have a clear image of my responsibility in the situation, that I can legitimately feel responsible for my doing and my enjoyment of it. Whereas if I do things in order to win the admiration of others, I give others a great deal of power over me and knowing that the world is a place where intentions and priorities often lay hidden beneath others and means are quickly subverted to ends I feel uncomfortable giving others that power, that authority. I want to keep it myself; at least I know when I am lying to myself. So how does this work? I give some the authority to direct my attention and then withdraw into myself and build my own experience on my own terms, terms that may well have been helped in their formulation by others. Nevertheless I want to try to build my own experience, not in competition with others. The presence of others is permitted only when I have selected what they have taught me to become part of my critical apparatus. However, I do not want my experience to conform to their expectations. I do not want my inability to communicate my feelings fully and accurately to become the reason that their admiration or rejection might miss the point, be polluted by misunderstanding. I build my experience, with the help of others whose advice I select for myself. I communicate that experience to others but have little faith in its communicability. So I expect others to do the same, to select what they feel is useful to them out of my experience, however faulty I communicate, and to use what they wish to build their own experience for themselves and with that to talk about their experience so that I can sort through what they say and help myself to the insights I find useful. That is how it works.
Exclusivity of the thing, thus, in my game, is not legitimate as a building-block in my aesthetics. Not because it cannot be legitimate in someone else’s game, but because I feel I relinquish my experience to demands that seem inappropriate. If I am only interested in owning my experience, why should I be bothered about the exclusivity of a thing? If I am only worried about building my own experience well, why should I worry about other people building their experience well or badly, or even worry that their experience might begin to look like mine? My experience cannot help being exclusive to me, but that does not preclude someone else’s experience being identical to mine. Only we shall never really know that it is.
So I try to overcome issues of personal politics. The authority of those I respect and admire as authorities on a certain subject and the insights others have given me have helped me to start off as it were on a journey of appreciation, a journey that could be affected and determined by anything. But the experience I build is mine, my responsibility as far as I can stretch it at least. Here is what I have been able to put into words for you to sift through or ignore.
The thing, that is the Ryoan-ji as an object, is a thing unified in my experience from a coordinated assembly of walls, gravel, stones and moss. It becomes a garden in my activation of it as such. I recognise it as a garden. I call it a garden, because that is what I have been taught to call it and that is what I have practiced calling things of a similar nature. It belongs to something generic in that way, things that as assemblages of partial objects, coordinated in a certain way, I can place. So I open out to it preparing myself for a garden. When one uses the label garden, one expects something, one expects, at the very least, an ordering of things relative to other things. An orchestration of things. If one is a good gardener or a real expert of gardens, one might expect to find a great deal, things that people who have not practiced the idea of the garden as well or as often will not see. One might, for instance, look for carefully coordinated seasonal compositions, a more or less rigorous selection of plants and their composition relative to each other and the time they flower; one might, from experience, expect to be able to read in the signs given you, the result of knowledge, skill and attitude, of care and loving attention. And at the Ryoan-ji one is not disappointed. It is a garden surrounded by a love and attention that borders on the obsessive. One might even question whether it is love, whether the love did not disappear a long time ago and has been supplanted by directives and salaries and routine. If so, the signs are difficult to read. As a garden it is at an extreme limb of what might be permissible in the definition of a garden. Most of the visible trees, although luscious and tall, are kept outside of its walls, and wave their crowns at you from beyond. In the garden only one type of moss is allowed to flourish. Any invading coloniser is meticulously removed by armies of moss surgeons. While watching the Ryoan-ji, you are watching a stage upon which a completely immobile drama of the meticulously mundane unfolds into very little indeed: a collection of stones, and not particularly unusual ones, placed in a seemingly random order, embedded in a single type of moss and set off by a low brown wall full of wear and tear and gravel prettily raked into a pattern. For the rest there is a particular sort of silence, filled with the noise of birds and people shuffling and trees waving from behind the walls. That is all. Now it is certainly not any one of these elements that holds the magic. Gravel raked into patterns does not do it for me! Seeing too much of it makes me impatient and fidgety. Nor do stones or moss, even though, unlike raked gravel, I like both almost unconditionally. I admit to having an obsessive interest in walls, but that merely makes me extra critical. Mind you, this is the mother of garden walls. I like birdsong and quiet bustle, and I enjoy the interaction of interior and exterior spaces, so I suppose that sets the stage. But the Ryoan-ji is not unique in that. It is unique in the way it forms all these into an assemblage which I invest with the quality of magic, which helps me to make it into a heightened experience.
At this point one can fall into the trap of hineininterpretation: the reading of your own ideas into your experience of the garden which have nothing whatever to do with the garden itself and everything with your skill with metaphor, analogy and simile, with your beliefs with regard to how the world works. Hineininterpretation is fun and enjoyable. It only becomes a trap if you lose yourself within your activity and start to believe that your interpretation is somehow more than what it is, a game you are playing, a story you are telling, a work of art you are making of your interpretation; it becomes problematic when you lose your ability to see the bigger picture, when you start believing that your thoughts and opinions somehow belong intrinsically to the garden and have an exclusive right to truth. That is bad sportsmanship, it leads to the tyranny of taste and depending one what consequences you attach to a breach of that exclusive right to truth, a tyranny in more than just taste.
Don't be fooled, this is the level at which many serious people conduct their journey into aesthetics in their wish to find constants for their experience. They start talking in imperatives, demand that things be so as they find them. They believe in correct interpretations. And they can on the basis of the fact that they have decided that there is a primacy in one particular way of looking. So there you are. A dictator is born.
When Nietzsche felt that aesthetics had been too womanly, too concerned with reception, he changed it round and made aesthetics male, all to do with intention. That was good as a political revolution in aesthetics, an act of emancipation, but it has de facto merely put the other people in power, those who believe that the intention of the artist is the right way of looking at some object of art. Now I don't want to merely suggest a third way of looking, a married way of looking, I just want you to know that any particular way of looking is valid. It helps perhaps when consciously undergone as such. My advice would be: Don't be ashamed of pursuing a male, female, married or teenage aesthetics, just be aware of the fact that that is what you are doing and that this view constitutes a perspective and that other perspectives are equally legitimate, constituting a different game. Dictators of taste take the game too seriously, want whatever they find to be in the object, and not in their finding, something they can take out and look at. However misguided these attempts, they have their use. Part of aesthetic experience is making a convincing story about that experience, and here truth (whatever that is) or rather veracity is only one of a set of qualities able to initiate cogency, the compelling nature of your story. So that it can direct action and learning. In principle any story could do, could be believed and acted upon. It just so happens that people are wary. They demand that a story be properly measured against their picture of the world, their paradigm. This makes many stories a hard sell.
The story helps you to find something, just as closing your eyes might help to order your thoughts, a story helps order your experience and set you to rest. It is at this level that people enjoy symbols and stories about the history of the place and it is this that fills their experience to the brim. The fact that such and such did this or that helps to make things feel special. A lot of aesthetics is about precisely that, feeling that something is special. And we all know that feeling. It is wonderful to feel yourself to be in a place which somehow resounds with the memory of a special event. This is what makes pilgrimage such fun, so special. I feel special when I have seen the grave of Jean Jacques Rousseau or the monument to Newton, just as I feel special about visiting the place where I first met my wife.
Some people feel, justifiably perhaps, that such extraneous details should not be allowed to be part of aesthetic experience, that a place’s history or the fact that it was designed by a famous person or whatever is somehow secondary to the appreciation of the thing itself. However, I have to disappoint them, there is no thing in itself, at least it is not knowable except through behaviour and behaviour connects it with that which is around it. Aesthetic experience is built by the person undergoing an experience with his more or less trained and practiced skills at undergoing what he has made into an object, a thing, made into a thing by being put on centre stage relative to all that surrounds it. So in order to exclude uch details entails an existential decision. And there is a good case to be made that experiences without the noisy presence of history or the magic of fame have something special and delicate about them. Here, in the Ryoan-ji, the level of history, of things having taken place here is as yet really of no use to me. I do not know enough of Japanese history to make the Ryoan-ji echo or resonate with such stories. I did not read the brochures and the books. I just arrived with what I had. Nor do I feel I need to as yet, my experience of it follows my own path to wealth. If later I want to fill it out with anecdote and the apparatus of art history then there is time enough for that. For the moment that level of appreciation is not enough for me. I want to go further, beyond the narrative, beyond the historical network, however much I enjoy a good story, to an appreciation that keeps to a narrow path, even though it is difficult to name that path with any confidence. In any case I do not want to allow history or anecdote a place in the caravan.
Nor am I happy with physiological stories, trying to explain my reaction in terms of evolutionary selection or biological reaction to certain surroundings. They are compelling and foundational to any aesthetics. Natural selection is, for me, a foundational paradigm. Selection, as Peter Sloterdijk controversially pointed out, is ubiquitous. It leads and directs everything we do. But psychological explanations, biological explanations, sociological or indeed economical explanations are, by themselves, and like the principle of authority, not enough. They can only help us on the way. Nietzsche was right, aesthetics is all physiology, and contemporary neurology is bearing that out. But even if aesthetics is all physiology, that fact merely sets the limits and possibilities of our bodily capacity, it does not, by itself, guarantee or even shape our enjoyment.
For enjoyment, we need to practice our skills at undergoing critically, we need to become athletic at it. The aesthete is an athlete of enjoyment. He knows how to find quality and character. The body gives us the extraordinary range and capacity to play with, to explore. This does in no way mean we manage to make it perform at that level, for that we need to desire to do so and put in the requisite work: practice and criticism, coaching and trial. Physiology and evolution, economics and our sense of justice merely provide basic conditions for aesthetic experience, not the experience itself, nor the mobilisation of those basic conditions into practiced knowledge, skills and attitude: competency. That still has to be formed. What a body does first and foremost is practice space. Authority helps us with a first step. Metaphors, similes, and explanations external to my relationship with the garden help along and my reactions can be confirmed and explained by the reconstruction of our evolutionary path towards our particular aesthetic sensibility, but the foundation to all that is critical practice. We practice, and have to practice finding things. We have to explore the full range of our physiological limitations and possibilities. Continually sharpening our ability to reason through that what we find. We have to find out what works and what doesn't. Aesthetics may have a biological and physiological basis and pleasure may be the source of aesthetic pleasure, but we are capable, though practice, through exploring our capacities as bodies of taking pleasure from things we have learnt to undergo well. Some of these talents lead us to what we decide are perversions, but most lead us to the wealth of this world. Our finding depends on our bodily condition, our situation (in terms of attitudes and selection of relevant facts) and our practiced skills at reconciling the two. So some will go to the Ryoan-ji because someone they respect has told them it is lovely, (I learnt to love modern classical music in that way) and has perhaps offered them a convincing story or explanation as to the reason for its loveliness, but whatever that story, the person undergoing the garden is left to himself and will have to confirm the story for himself and perhaps develop it further. It is up to him/her. He can even chose to give others his responsibility, but he will all that time be practicing and exercising himself, using his retention and his built up expectations to fit his experience into a perceptual story measured against his experience of things. And that story is what he has made of it, the product of his experiencing. He himself, by undergoing a work of art, has made one for himself, in the shape of his experience of it. There is nothing intrinsic in the Ryoan-ji. It is merely matter. That matter has been organised into significance by the people who made it and the people who undergo it. It is my culture, my competency that helps me along in finding my way within it as an experience. It is me participating in cultural space that makes me seek it out, heighten my expectation, and make an experience of it.
The magic I feel, as a bodily clearing, as a quiet place, as a delicate tuning of my mood, comes from me able to undergo it as a special place. That my ability to undergo it as special conforms to the experience of others, that it overlaps perhaps with some of the intentions of the garden's artist is a fact of culture. And culture is about discourse and telling each other about things; it is about learning from each other and talking to each other, learning each other’s tricks checking out each other's desires, to see whether they might also suit us. However that doesn't mean things become simple.
And I'll have no silly mysticism in my experience thank you very much, no nonsense or metaphor and as little hineininterpretation (I love German) as possible! I want to read it in a way whereby the signs have lost their power to refer to anything but themselves. I want, on the authority of John Cage said, for notes to be just that, notes, nothing more and nothing less; not warm or cold notes or stormy notes or in any way narrative, noise is just noise and this garden is this garden, nothing more and nothing less. It is no revelation, nothing other than a garden. This is a hard game to play. I do not want the garden as a sign for something, not just yet. I want to reduce its explosive nature as a sign to a minimum. I want the signs to revert to signifying only themselves: wall is wall, stone is stone, gravel is gravel, moss is moss. Wall is wall, and not a border. A stone is not a weapon, or a platform, moss is not life or pretty. Their composition is a composition a putting together of things so that they become things by virtue of the other things. The stone is not just a stone but a stone set in moss. But no! Not even that. All I want is immediate tautology. Signs however far their reference reaches into the space of possible significance, never escape tautology, a dictionary is a representation of the tautology that is the named world, tautologies have a way of growing into rhizomes of subdivided significance, a world differentiated. I want immediate tautology. What am I left with? The emptiness of Ryoan-ji. Complete Rest. A tableau of sound, vision, touch, smell and taste and memory, where everything may be together but their togetherness has no significance. Suddenly things become funny and then quiet again. There is really not much here except a whole universe in a nutshell. The minute I start seeking out signs, making things refer to the world around them they grow wild, subdivide the world into a dictionary and then “rest” becomes more, becomes “restfulness” and makes me feel rested. Before I know it, the wall attempts to speak of its age, of its tectonics, the gravel starts to speak of the work put into it, of its depth, of its representation of emptiness, the moss starts speaking of gardening and selection and the stones speak of the fact that anything is possible.
Things by themselves can only be themselves if they are meaningless, immensurate and that means not that they have no meaning but that their meaning is allowed to go no further than prescribed by the thing as a thing in such a way that the thing can no longer be measured because we have given up placing it in the other. The hammer must give up its potential as a hammer and become just a handle with a metal head. And these in turn must lose their significance as an assemblage, they must lose every significance, every use. A world without significance is a world where use becomes uncontrolled, falls out of focus, is no longer at issue and at that moment the world becomes one, things become everything and nothing, indeterminate and immensurate. We can imagine such a state. And that experience is itself useful, for it brings us back to square one, to one square: to Lewis Carroll’s map of the ocean, which, by the way, has a clear relationship to Ryoan-ji. In the Ryoan-ji I attempt pure immanence. It is not at all easy to know what is meant by immanence. Immanence is defined as that which is within itself, as the intrinsic, as that which needs nothing outside itself to be itself. But that does not get us anywhere, for surely only that extraordinary abstraction “the all” could obey such a definition. Everything within the all, is by virtue of that which is next to it and how it behaves in relation to the rest. Only the all can be immanent, and the all is too big for me to grasp. Bugger that. Otherness is a primary condition of objecthood. An object can only be a thing within everything else and for it to be, it therefore requires that which is beyond it of which it is only separated conditionally, from a certain perspective, by organisation for instance. The world is subdivided and differentiated for use. As soon as we stop using the world is one again, for we no longer care about it then. It is fun to approach immanence in one's exercise of thought just as it is fun to follow the paths of transcendence. The latter comes about in my relationship to things. I am, as I have said, the composer and conductor, even the musician of my experience, in fact I am my experience, and because that experience relates my body to my world, it creates a stand, a me, a dasein. My me is what services the way my body is folded back into the whole while maintaining itself as a thing, a body in an environment regulated by a me as a one of the virtual organs of an organism. To talk of immanence and transcendence is nonsense. Every thing is an abstraction. The concrete is continuous, even if it does allow intensities and filters and borders and ducts and organisation. The me is transcendent in that it relates things to each other, making something more, something beyond the body and the world; making an experience. The me is also immanent in that I can talk of a me. But all we are talking of is is something that it is impossible to grasp firmly and even if it is possible to grasp it firmly it is affected by its grasp. Things connect. That observation is a very modest form a transcendence, one which religious people wouldn't feel very impressed by, but that is as far as I will allow it to go for now. At the same time, that experience has to be composed, maintained and fed.
In building an experience of the garden I take on board a whole heap of stuff. Deven when I try to abstract that experience. When looking at the garden, and in my remembrance of it, I get its materiality, its change over time and the signs of that change in shifts within the composition, of sounds and light and shadow, in the people around me, in my own mood. For this I have to have prior experience of all these things, of materiality and the signs of time passing. From my scant knowledge of Japanese culture I am given a story about this garden and how it fits into their picture; from my knowledge of European history I get a further story against which I measure this garden against similar or dissimilar gardens and experiences, the garden of Stourhead for example, my own little garden at home, the sad Japanese garden in the park of The Hague, the grand theatrical gardens of the 16th and 17th century such as Bomarzo, as well as the medieval cloister gardens of France, with their emblematic emptiness at the centre. I connect th Ryoan-ji with landscapes I love and if I am not careful I unleash my formidable metaphorical arsenal, bringing in John Keats and William Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins and W.B. Yeats, Basho, Marsman, van Eyck and J.C. Bloem. I can even bring in the personal, the infectious love of gardens that a friend of mine has. A garden is never a simple thing when one gets hold of it in experience, it requires one to know that it has been made into a garden, and read the signs of that making and the maintenance and that it is cared for and loved by people who love gardening. A neglected garden can of course also furnish a wonderful aesthetic experience, it requires merely a different composition of knowledge. The care and attention is evinced in signs: in the composition, the way it is kept. Its liveliness as a place, is that history of care for something that has the full synaesthetic quality of silence, without ever reaching silence as an absence of sound.
This is a very special garden. Its magic is something that I have to feel. I make it with the garden as only and ingredient. I have to produce that feeling in building my relationship to that garden. Nobody and nothing else puts it there. I make it together with the help of the garden and my experience, the thoughts and the imagination at my disposal. If I cannot feel the feeling myself and if I merely repeat the words other people have whispered in my ears, I am lying about my feeling, I would be lying to myself. I don't like lying, certainly not to myself. So, I can only conclude that however wonderful the garden, however much effort goes into its cultivation, if I cannot bring to it its specialness as a recognition of the work of others, its special music as played by my coordinated senses and my experience at experiencing, there is nothing.
Closing my eyes like my neighbour, would I feel, constitute a subversive tactic, an attempt to make the garden into something it wasn't, a place of magic where a certain kind of osmosis was possible, beyond my effort and responsibility, which you could experience as unique even when closing yourself off from its most prominent feature, its composition of stones, moss, walls, trees and noises. Maybe the lady was there for a completely different reason than I was. Maybe the garden for her at that moment was no more than a familiar medium to draw out her unhappiness. Or maybe she just closed her eyes for a minute to heighten and centre one quality above the others, so as to shape the total experience with greater sophistication. I only glanced at her, maybe she merely blinked. Anyway who am I to tell her to open her eyes? I kept mine open. Then, fickle as I am to any principle that tries to dictate to me, I tried shutting them "to see" what she might have been doing. The birds, the breeze through the boughs, the shuffling of feet and things, the heat, the sweat forming on my skin and trickling down my back my thoughts about having my eyes closed, all these things took centre stage, together with a slight anxiety. I opened them again, relieved. The garden addresses all senses in some way and they fill each other out: they work together to make something larger than the sum of the parts. I coordinate myself with respect to the garden, its composition of elements, visual, audible and tactile, olfactory and whatever way they all merge in the tactile. What the garden offers in terms of materiality and movement, and what my experience offers as a frame to situate this materiality and movement, I orchestrate into a feeling, and make into a story. Not a narrative story, not even a description in words, but a story nevertheless, a description nevertheless, of bodily movements, of sensual messages, of feelings, of responses to memories and experiences. In short I make an experience. I couldn't taste the garden as such, although those fortunate enough to be offered a cup of tea in that situation would be able to taste that tea in a special place, which unquestionably enriches the experiencing of drinking that tea as they are undergoing the garden. The taste of the tea is the one of the building blocks of the memory and expectations of the place. That also might have been true for the lady who was sitting there with her eyes shut. To shut your eyes in that place is perhaps comparable to having a cup of coffee at the top of the Eiffel Tower; it is more than a cup of coffee. Your retention of where you are and the ability to allow the moment to fill your expectation of quiet is enough. Shutting her eyes allowed her to draw an essence from the garden. In this way you can, if you so wish, retain the immediate image of the garden and concentrate on one aspect of it, the sounds, or even your own need to think your thoughts. But if you are able to do that, could you not also find the same solace in another quiet moment as you recall the garden in your kitchen, or indeed in your own garden? The lady, however, was on her own pilgrimage. I was certainly not going to presume to tell her how she should do her thing. I wasn t even sure what she was doing there. I did not have long. I felt that if I were to close my eyes I would be shutting off precisely that which made that place unique: its curious composition of visible things in an auditory, olfactory and tactile stetting. It was my eyes that feasted together with the other senses at that moment. Without my eyes the experience would have been less specific, less unique. I cannot avoid that conclusion. The eyes do not deserve to be privileged among the senses, and their primacy has to be relativated, but if one does that, their activity coordinated with the other senses makes for a very full experience. At least that is what I felt when I closed my eyes to try things out. How would a blind person react to the Ryoan-ji? I don't know. I am not blind. Closing my eyes made the experience unquestionably more generic. It made it into something like: I am glad I'm in a quiet place; let me collect my thoughts and think about this or that dilemma in my life. Then the garden would have been no more than a quiet place, a vehicle for self collection. There are many of those, just as there are many attempts to imitate the Ryoan-ji. In any case, if my retention of its image helped me to create the setting of the mood needed to collect my thoughts, then I cannot but conclude that the image, recollected or immediate, is requisite to the development of a full experience. I kept my eyes open after that. Roan-ji's concentrated reduction of things, its isolation of each element through contrast with the other elements, the stones, the moss, the gravel the wall, the horizontal line dividing the crowns of the trees from the compositional discipline of the rock garden, its relative nothingness is what made me start thinking about things. Every work of art is a beginning for such a journey into experience.
The working of the garden into an experience is my own responsibility. It, the garden, was made by others and is maintained by others, but I make it my own by undergoing it. What is mine? Not the garden, but my story of it, my experience of it. My use of it as an object, or rather assemblage of part objects, a group portrait of visible sides, against which to think my thoughts. The people who care for it have done their bit and they own their care of the garden. The people who have recommended it have done their bit, as has the publicity. They own their experience of it and their enthusiasm in recommending others to build their own experience of it. Now it is up to me myself to make it part of my corpus of experience. You have to take responsibility for what you find. That does not change as you open your eyes and thereby push the other senses to coordinate their action with the eyes. The stillness of the air, or the breeze can still be felt but is now part of a full tableau, a drama of fifteen stones, moss, wall, gravel patterns, the sound of birds and gentle people, wind, the smell of wood and gardens and the rest.
So the three of us were sitting there all working hard on our story. I don t know about the others, but mine, even if I say so myself, was magnificent, one that I shall cherish for a long time to come. The materiality of the wall, its stains and visible and audible texture, the haunting knowledge of its age, the imagined picture of generations of quiet monks going about their business, the knowledge of the immense love and care spent upon this silent play of the time of day, the sharp shadows softening as a cloud passed and hardening again as soon as it was gone, the noises, the smell, the feel of the wood I was sitting on, the look of the wattle and daub wall and its beautifully crafted ridge of cedar wood, the weirdly elongated proportions of the garden geared to the size of the temple, which itself was measured with the dimensions of the human body, helping the legibility of the place; the symphonic orchestration of all these elements and not least the thought of the bustling world revving their engines and making their money and negotiating each other as obstacles not a few hundred yards away; all of this helped shape and heighten the experience for me, as did the thought of my companions so eager for their own experience. In fact even the prospect of writing this epistle helped. But above all it is the knowledge that these stones are just that: stones. And the moss is no more than moss, and the wall is just a wall and the gravel, gravel, carefully raked into a pattern and nothing else, that the composition of the stones makes me make relationships between them, that I am charged with the place because of my ability to undergo it as something special, helped in no small measure by the authority of people I respect, by the practice of undergoing simple things and letting them do their simplicity on me, that I am the one making this thing into the special thing, that may be called a garden, a powerful place produced with the help of the culture I am part of, with the physiology that gives me such reach, a most beautiful quiet place, that heightens the idea of quietness, that makes acute the gentility man is capable of, that it merely stands there for my use of it as a machine for the purpose of filling out my being just as the body of a Stradivarius helps a string do its thing. For me it was a machine of emptiness, Sartrean emptiness, an emptiness with which I could confront the fullness of my self, and emptiness like all cloister gardens: a clearing in which things come to presence by drawing out the self. But above all it gave me the chance to think about things, it brought me in a ruse, forced me to struggle with myself and remake myself. That was fun. And it was enough, in fact more than enough, a huge abundance of really very little. That for me was the silent drama of Ryoan-Ji. The first busload of schoolchildren had arrived. It was time to move on, although not without observing them at least for a while. I think that for them the Roan-ji was a schooltrip, a thing about friends and loyalties, laughs and small power games, the kind that kids are good at.
The Katsura Detached Palace or Villa is a different thing. The Katsura has all of the above, but one thing stands out and, for me at least, becomes the theme of its extraordinary loveliness. But before we get to that, it has qualities I have already mentioned in my description of other gardens, the picturesque making of tableaus, the drama of setting and scenery. It has all that in a more sophisticated way than even those places described earlier. The use of the position and movement of the human body to heighten the orchestration between building and garden is refined further.
Take for instance the zigzagging of the veranda of the Shinden pavilions as you walk along the continuous veranda and turn ninety degrees around each corner so that the building and the garden alternate as the focus of your gaze as you move along. Take the way the view from the building and from the various teahouses the garden is composed as a picture in a series arranged along a circular route around the garden. At the same time, while you walk through the garden, each tableau you see has been composed like a picture with a building as its carefully placed focus. The circuit around the garden and the various buildings are all coordinated and orchestrated in such a way that they are themselves first the frame for a view and then the focus of a view. Add to that the careful auditory and olfactory composition of sounds and smells as well as the tactile quality of the materials and you have more than enough to make something very special.
On this level, the most spectacular view is no doubt from the main teahouse back towards the house. In other words it is not the garden that is the thing under consideration here it is the fact that both the house and the garden work together to form a single experience. The one is an integral part of the other. Another lovely view is from the main villa to the main teahouse. But these are merely the best views. At each point in the circuit there is fun to be had. There is, for instance, a tree near the beginning of the circuit which stops you seeing the garden in one go as you pass that point! You see similar tactics in other gardens of course, in the lovely garden at Stourhead for example, which was composed along similar principles.
What makes Katsura so beautiful and special for me however, is the sheer delight in tectonic sophistication: the way materials are taken for what they are and carefully crafted to meet each other in joints and seams with careful consideration to their use and purpose in the design. And that use is the enjoyment of care in the detail. The way columns meet the stones they are set on; the way paper and wood, are enough to make the compositional structure of the walls of the villa. Sometimes this reaches levels where it becomes something of a joke, but I will allow the villa its jokes as it never loses sight of its sense of decorum, it is above all a highly disciplined place, the discipline of high culture, in which the occasional smirk is not out of place as long as it does not go too far. At the same time its system of proportions is very attractive, because is it is legible and attuned to the human body.
On my way to and from both these places I walked through the bustle of Kyoto and saw things which in contrast would be fair to describe as ugly, messy, uncared for, neglected, sad, stressed, miserable and absurd. But those judgments were of my own making, products of my own climate of justice and techniques of judgment. Perhaps I share them with others, but that merely helps to confirm what I just said. My judgments are mine because I participate critically and more or less skilfully in a culture as a human being. I walked past flats which were extraordinary in their drabness: nasty brown-tiled bathroom walls on an immense scale, turned to face the city, thereby becoming public property. A city made of bathroom walls! Many buildings were full of dark holes, crammed with the technological overflow needed to keep their interiors comfortable and fully immunized from the outside: electricity pylons, gas metres, air-conditioning units, you name it. But above all there were sad, neglected buildings in which the poor and the otherwise preoccupied muddle along with their own techniques for daily life. "There, but for the grace of God, live I" I thought to myself as I passed them. I was turned towards them in the comfort of my own social position, my knowledge that I would soon be back in beautiful Holland, manicured Holland, planned Holland. Without romanticizing this ugliness, there was something about it, a kind of selective concentration on what is crucial for leading a life with specific priorities. These sad seeming places were both the products as well as the affirmation of a taste, a taste that is impressive and worth dwelling on, not because I am trying to find beauty in the misery of others. I am not. But because the sad neglect, the tragic ugliness, the nasty dirtiness of things also reveal the possibility of transcendence, of things being what they are because other things are what they are. The Ryoan-ji and the Katsura are places that people have left for them to become pubic property as jewel-like examples of what is possible. The nasty areas of a city form places that people have turned away from without moving away from them. The turn their backs on the place they face. I don’t know how it is possible, but I am sure you will agree. The people that dwell in them perhaps have developed techniques for doing this, by placing the television or their dreams between them and their surroundings, by becoming obsessed with this or that event, task or problem. In any case, these places are prisons because they cannot be loved and cannot be escaped. That is the definition of the prison, a place that cannot be loved and cannot be escaped. These places of the miserable are part of a taste of aversion, of turning away without the possibility of escape. A fully fledged nightmare. That taste of aversion is the taste of desire doubled up upon itself. Taste is that which makes one turn towards and turn away from, things isolated and centred in the tableau composing our experience of our environment. Taste in its compositional activity of turning towards, centering and turning away from and moving things to the periphery. Taste is formed in a climate of right and wrong and good and bad, beautiful and ugly, desirable and undesirable. That is where it articulates into a pattern. We imitate each other's desires, or at least centre them in our thinking about what it is we want. The fact is that this geography of taste is never merely national or merely socio-economical, it divides the world into a peculiar geology of critical practice. The plurality of tastes in a culture comes about when people set their own priorities with regard to their own situations discarding with or focussing on their own views from a present with its past on a future with its wishes and fears..
It may be a weird kind of question, but what if all the world was of the level of the Katsura palace? What would happen? That is a fun game to play and virtually impossible to speculate on. But let's give it a go. The Katsura Palace would be..., what? Would it still be a well-cared for and sophisticated place of the gaze and the bodily undergoing of place and space? Would it change physically? Or would it change in our appreciation of it? Is a world possible where everyone is able to enjoy their space at the level of refinement of the prince who built it? And what would happen to the world if that was possible? And would the world look any different to how it looks now? The Katsura would be one among millions of other sophisticated, well-cared for places! Cared for, sophisticated, loved, but no longer special in that narrow sense of scarce. Would it be fun to visit it? What would happen with tourism? Everyone would be exploring their own fascinations to extremely high levels of practice, all homes and institutions athletically undergone. It would be a world full of athletic aesthetes; a sort of paradise, or heaven of the well practiced and refined. But would it then still be possible to feel ecstatic about the Katsura Palace? Surely one would, for if we were all refined, all well practiced in our ability to undergo and appreciate, the Katsura would simply be another object to practice on. Or would the whole world look like the Katsura palace. Surely not. We would explore all avenues of refined facture and practiced finding. We would have to learn to cope with universally high levels of wishing, designing, making and maintenance, but they would not quickly be exhausted. In fact we would have to learn to cope with exhaustion, become good at it. Such a situation will never arise of course precisely because people have other things to worry about than practicing their spatial and tectonic refinement, the beauty of their wishing and wanting, forming their taste by imagining and pursuing their good so that a wonderful plurality of taste and concerns is what we have, producing everything from neglected, sad and miserable places, to places well cared for with few means, to places cared for with royal means to places cared for with the means of practiced taste according to any budget, to ugly bathrooms turned inside out as city buildings. And as I argued elsewhere, a thoroughly practiced and athletic taste is not better or more valuable than an unpractised and careless or sloppy taste, it is only practiced and athletic. It comes at a price. It needs constant attention and a focussed training programme. It is athletic in its skill at finding something, of making a story of an experience, of enjoying this or that story all for oneself or the ability to present it in such a way that it can be shared. Taste can be more sophisticated perhaps, more athletic, but not intrinsically better than another taste. In fact the person of sophisticated taste is able to practice his taste as far as to appreciate, (that is find a good story for) the tasteless and the ugly. The only thing that remains outside one's reach is the sadness of people.
||Or butcher, very near my hotel, walking towards the Ryoan-ji