There are seven stories I read at least once a year, for pleasure and in the same very rational spirit that infertile males of certain old (and new) world tribes have eaten rhinoceros horns and tiger penises, hoping that imbibing a thing of a certain shape and power will transfer the shape and power upon the imbiber. One of those stories is Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro
." Each time he follows that woman through the streets of Paris, dreaming she is his first love, hoping she will not turn around and break the spell, my blood quickens, for I have done that. Another is a story I found by accident called "The Dandelion Clocks" by Juliana Horatia Ewing
, who was said to have influenced Kipling
and who, like an Edo ink painter, draws character in a stroke. Four of the stories are Kipling's: "The Church That Was at Antioch"; "The Manner of Men"; "The Gate of a Hundred Sorrows," the most beautiful story of terminal drug addiction you will ever read; and a rarely anthologized story about a Lahore prostitute and betrayal of the Empire called "On the City Wall," which is perhaps my favorite of all his stories. The last is Yasunari Kawabata
's "Izu no Odoriko
," "The Izu Dancer," a masterpiece of the kind of minimalist prose Ernest Hemingway
was contemporaneously forging in Paris, each writer unknown to the other.
"The Izu Dancer" is the account of a young Tokyo university student who goes traveling in the far-flung Izu peninsula. There, he comes across a band of itinerant performers going between guesthouses and hot springs. Among them is a young girl, Kaoru, with whom, though he never says as much, he falls in love.
As the troupe travel west, roadside signs begin to appear ("Itinerant performers unwelcome!") that warn of the loose behavior that goes hand in hand with the troupe's nights.
They arrive in a town and Kaoru's uncle tells the young narrator he must not go with them to their evening engagement at a ryokan. He should stay at a different guesthouse altogether. He obeys, but listens all night to the silence in the mountain town and to the dancing girl's drum. When the drum sounds, he feels some peace, but when it stops...
I could not bear the silences when the drum stopped. I sank down into the depths of the sound of the rain. At length I could hear the noise of confused footsteps — were they playing tag or dancing in circles? Then all fell silent. I opened my eyes wide, trying to peer through the darkness. What was this stillness? I was tormented, wondering if the dancing girl's night might be sullied.
The next day he sees Kaoru bathing in a stream and laughs at his guilty concern, for she has the body of a little girl, but later there are dim hints that have us suspect her youth may not have barred her from a "sullied night" after all.
I first read the story as a 20-year-old, and I wondered: Do the unspeakable things happen when that drum stops beating at night, or not? What is the exact nature of the young man's "torment"? (That is, would he, if given the chance, be her protector, only so he might "sully" her night himself?) This all occurs in the silence of the night when the drum stops beating, which is doubly silent as it marks a silence in the narrative: the questions are not even directly asked, let alone answered.
It was the first time I had encountered a particularly East Asian use of generative silence in literary art. Afterward, each time I sat down at my desk, I considered the words I penned as the beating of a drum, and I considered what might be born in the silence after them.
Of course, I read and was deeply influenced by the minimal art of Ernest Hemingway, particularly the silences born of his "Iceberg Theory":
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.
Yet there was, at least in the criticism of the day, and according to Hemingway — though the writer's assessment of his own work need never be the last word — a definite "thing" that was omitted. So Hemingway could comment post-facto on his story "Out of Season" that the young man making vague fishing plans for the next day committed suicide, even though the suicide is not narrated.
In the Japanese art and writing I began to admire, the use of silence was different. I am thinking of the minimal, enigmatic expressions of haiku; the empty space that envelops sumi-e (inkwash painting); the long gaps between articulations in Noh theatre; and, most recently, the silences that inform a kind of writing known as "ambient fiction," practiced by such writers as Yuki Kurita, whose express purpose, at least in her novel Oteru Moru (Hotel Mole), is putting people to sleep. At last I realized that the most striking thing about the use of silence in Japanese art and writing was that the absences were meant to be considered as just that; they did not require filling.
The resistance of academia and criticism to take up East Asian literature (aside from Murakami) with the same energy it takes up European and even African and sub-Continental writing might be ascribed to the Western literary academic habit of "decoding" texts. Even today, in highly regarded universities, it is possible — it is likely — to take classes that operate under the assumption that literary works are kinds of high-brow puzzles, prepacked with ideological messages grafted on at time of authorship, which sensitive readers, given the correct tools — biographical and historical data, contemporary philosophical overlays — might then go about the task of decoding to find "what the author really meant." In the Orient, traditionally at least, it is seen as more profitable to look at what a work does, rather than what it means. To consider it rather as an experience to be had than a potential transmission of bytes of knowledge. Indeed, throughout ancient and medieval periods of Japan, no writing existed that did not have a ritual purpose. It is even likely that a novel as late as The Tale of Genji was originally read publicly as part of Shinto ritual, in order to banish demons and reconnect the listeners and tellers with an unworldly place of peace.
The Japanese codified the use of silence in art under the aesthetic ideal ma (?). In Chinese, the character literally means "door." The strokes indicate a gateway that braces the Chinese character ri, "sun" or "day": so a great light shines through the gap. The negative space that exists between the walls of a room or in the silence between notes of music are