Remembering Sylvia Plath

Today is the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death, her final suicide attempt.

Although she graduated from Smith College—to my surprise, exactly 50 years before I did!—I have never taken the time to read much of her poetry. I hope that will change in the future, for her poem “Daddy,” for example, is so brutal and beautiful at the same time. It is perhaps particularly poignant for a fellow German-American such as myself, but that contemplation will have to be left to some future post.

Instead of that poem, “Soliloquy of the Solipsist” was the first to captivate me as I searched for something suitable here. For I see in it a warning related to my most recent post, wherein I wrote that history is only truly understood through the lens of personal experience.

In any case, it’s no good to preface a poem too much, so here it is, followed by an interview recorded on October 20, 1962. The interview took place a week before her 30th birthday, only a few months before she died, and if she were alive today, she would have been eighty years old.

Soliloquy of the Solipsist

I walk alone;
The midnight street
Spins itself from under my feet;
When my eyes shut
These dreaming houses all snuff out;
Through a whim of mine
Over gables the moon’s celestial onion
Hangs high.

Make houses shrink
And trees diminish
By going far; my look’s leash
Dangles the puppet-people
Who, unaware how they dwindle,
Laugh, kiss, get drunk,
Nor guess that if I choose to blink
They die.

When in good humor,
Give grass its green
Blazon sky blue, and endow the sun
With gold;
Yet, in my wintriest moods, I hold
Absolute power
To boycott any color and forbid any flower
To be.

Know you appear
Vivid at my side,
Denying you sprang out of my head,
Claiming you feel
Love fiery enough to prove flesh real,
Though it’s quite clear
All your beauty, all your wit, is a gift, my dear,
From me.


forêtphilie​/​ma forêt ancestrale

Last summer, Prof. Tanaka Jun’s seminar on philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space organized an exhibition they entitled “Topophilie” in the clock tower of the main building at the Komaba campus. I was not in the seminar, although in retrospect it looks like it must have been an amazing experience.

I also have yet to read The Poetics of Space, but a quote I found while helping translate the catalogue to the exhibit fascinates me.

Sometimes the house of the future is better built, lighter and larger than all the houses of the past, so that the image of the dream house is opposed to that of the childhood home. . . Maybe it is a good thing for us to keep a few dreams of a house that we shall live in later, always later, so much later, in fact, that we shall not have time to achieve it. For a house that was final, one that stood in symmetrical relation to the house we were born in, would lead to thoughts—serious, sad thoughts—and not to dreams. It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.

Another connection I had to the exhibit was through a friend of mine, Hara Rurihiko, who made music for the exhibit and who asked my friend Eleonore to read some French poetry and I to read a poem by Rilke, all quotations from Bachelard’s text. He then mixed the recordings of our voices into the two songs “forêtphilie” and “ma forêt ancestrale” that were played at the exhibition, which, because it took place during the summer break, I was sadly unable to attend. What I do have, however, is the music.

Hirozawa Lake

(Hirozawaike, a lake near Arashiyama with views of the western mountains of Kyoto, at the beginning of September.)

I have posted about the yearly Horinji performance on September 9th (9/9) to mark Choyo and celebrated with chrysanthemums and chrysanthemum sake a number of times before. It feels like an end-of-summer ritual to me.

After the performance, my noh teacher’s students join him for the summer’s last Uji kintoki (delicate shaved ice with green tea flavoring and a dollop of sweet azuki) at an outdoor cafe at the edge of Hirozawaike. This year was no different, and just before we left in the late afternoon, I took the picture above.

Now a little more than a month later, it already seems so long ago.

Mad Women

(Camille Claudel’s “The Wave.” Via A World to Win.)

A little while ago, I posted about Camille Claudel, but didn’t actually show the connection that makes her presence on this blog, which is mostly about Japan, clearer. So, here goes!

Shortly after the Meiji Restauration in 1868 when Japan was opened to trade, Japanese art became all the rage in Europe and influenced European art in a movement familiarly known as Japonisme. Therefore, it’s not surprising that artists such as Claudel were also influenced. Comparisons have been made between her miniature “The Wave” (above) and Hokusai’s “The Great Wave,” but Claudel has a deeper, more personal connection to Japan that isn’t as obvious.

I’d like to start a new series of posts about the personal connections and relationships that tied some prominent Western thinkers and artists to Japan. I’m often surprised what kinds of deep connections crop up between East and West. By the front door of my apartment, I have a dry erase board on which I’ve been mapping out various such relationships. Considering how fascinating these are, I feel like I should share them., and for lack of a better name, I’m going to call the series “Japan Connections” for now. (If I think of something better, or if you can think of something, leave a note, and I might change it.)

The connection Camille Claudel had to Japan that fascinates me was through her little brother, Paul Claudel, the diplomat and playwright. He entered the civil service in 1893, and among his many posts throughout the world, one that had a deep impact on his work as a playwright was his time in Tokyo from 1922 to 1928.

Camille created a number of sculptures of her “little Paul.” Some sources say Paul also idolized his older sister, but he was also instrumental in her induction into a mental asylum in 1913, only days after her father’s death. As may be familiar to you, Camille remained institutionalized the remaining 30 years of her life although doctors suggested her release sometime in the 1920s and visitors said she did not seem in the least in need of institutionalization.

Unfortunately, I’m no expert of Paul Claudel. His fervor for the Catholic faith and his right-wing leanings have dampened my interest in his work. However, a strong resemblance between some characters in his plays and his sister Camille has been pointed out. Other research has shown that a number of his plays show strong influences from Nô, which he reportedly saw repeatedly during his time in Tokyo.

Although my understanding of the personal influences and the influences from Nô in Paul’s plays is spotty, the connection seems strong to me. In his mind, did he see his sister in the figures of mad women in Nô plays? I have no doubt he did.

Ylva and Kajsa II and a feminist look at the Japanese cultural arts

(The lake at Arashiyama.  Picture courtesy of Ylva)

A few days after the day in Arashiyama, I met again with Ylva and Kajsa for a morning of sight seeing.  We went to Fushimi Inari, the fox mountain a few stops south of Kyoto station on the train line to Uji.  The main buildings of the shrine give the appearance of order and decorum, their square structures almost uniformly painted with a fresh coat of vermilion.

The two foxes on either side of the main gate hold a jewel and a key to the storage room, symbols of financial success. Foxes are also famous, however, for trickery.  Behind the main shrine buildings, vermilion gates in various states of decay form a tunnel covering paths winding up the mountain.  We walked up a little way, passing miniature fox shrines made of stone and adorned with miniature red gates.

We climbed steep stone steps and came to a small lake with a dark shrine building at its shore.  There, under heavy eves hung with thick silk banners, fat white candles with wide flames more reminiscent of a fire than a candle flame illuminated stone fox statues with a yellow flickering light.  We prayed to the tricksters for respite from their tricks and turned to walk down the mountain again as rain began falling. Continue reading “Ylva and Kajsa II and a feminist look at the Japanese cultural arts”

International Exchange: Ylva and Kajsa I (revised)

In the beginning of August, I got a surprise E-mail from two young women from Sweden, who were coming to Japan and wanting a guide into the world of noh.

I met them at the end of the month in Asakusa over a sushi meal.  Ylva and Kajsa are contemporary dance artists and were researching for a performance inspired by Mishima Yukio’s modernized version of the noh play Hanjo.  The story centers around a young woman, who has been left by her lover, who promised to come back after he finished some pressing business.  Waiting for him to return, she becomes distracted to the point of madness and wanders Japan looking for him.  In the noh play, she eventually meets him at a shrine in Kyoto.  In Mishima’s play, after spending every day in a train station in Tokyo, waiting for him to come, he comes to her home, but runs away when she doesn’t recognize him.

It seems to me in Mishima’s case that the young man doesn’t seem to understand the woman’s madness.  Is this perhaps indicative of something larger in our society?  Do we emphasize conformity so much that we cannot understand individual pain? Continue reading “International Exchange: Ylva and Kajsa I (revised)”

The Udaka-kai European Tour: Paris

Inori Masks

Original Noh masks for the play Inori, written by Udaka Michishige

I just returned from an unreal world created in unreal time and space. From November 4 to November 15, I took time off from school to be with a group of actors, musicians, technicians, mask carvers, and general supporters in Paris, Dresden, and Berlin for a tour of Noh performances. In each city, Udaka Michishige made vengeful spirits and tormented souls appear on stage and helped them find enlightenment by telling their stories to the public. Even I got to join in the performance as a light-bringing angel in the original Noh play Inori.

The purpose of the trip was to perform Inori (Prayer), a play by Udaka Michishige about the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also about violence and terror throughout the world, to an international audience for the first time. Before our departure, Sensei went with Nakamura Yuko to Hiroshima to the Peace Memorial to inform the spirits there of the intentions for the tour. As they prayed in front of the arch, facing the A-Bomb Dome in the distance, Sensei closed his eyes and could see only a deep, dark red. Thinking this was strange, he turned his face in another direction and closed his eyes. The red color was gone. He turned back towards the Dome and saw the same oppressive red again. Was this the color of the sky during the atomic bombing? His eyes filled with tears, which he hastily wiped away before he turned around for a newspaper interview. Continue reading “The Udaka-kai European Tour: Paris”