If you go to the art section of a bookstore in Japan, you will inevitably find heaps of DIY books of a certain style of line drawings that seems unique to Japan. The idea of this artistic style is that if you can draw circles, rectangles and triangles, then you can draw just about everything. What’s more, the things drawn in this style all seem to be imbibed with a certain spirit as though they were alive – onigiri rice balls greet you with smiles, an iPad too smiles back at you.
In the irrational way in which the neurons in my brain connect to each other, these drawings get an Autobahn connection to a conversation the psychologist James Hillman had with Michael Ventura as recorded in a book called We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy – And the World’s Getting Worse (1992)–
HILLMAN: My obsessive sexual fantasies, and yours, come straight from Descartes. Because Descartes, the good Jesuit-trained Christian that he was, declared to Western civilization that only human persons have souls. No soul anywhere else. And, since love always seeks soul, you’ve got to have a “significant other,” as psychology calls it. That’s why we have all those images on billboards, in the movies, on the tube, of hungry mouths kissing, the divinely perfect man and divinely perfect woman with lost soft eyes and luscious washed hair, flying into each other’s arms, getting it on. Notice these couples are always isolated. On an empty beach, a sailboat, a private bathtub. No other voices. Just us. They never ask or hear, “What are the people saying?”
VENTURA: They might as well be in a cemetery or in outer space. They are in outer space, encapsulated.
HILLMAN: That’s Descartes. The world of trees and furniture and alley cats is soulless, only dead matter. There’s nowhere for love to go but to another person. So the magnetic pull that therapy calls “sex addiction” or “loving too much” is nothing other than the end-station of our isolated individualism. The sexual fascination is the soul trying to get out and get into something other than itself. Our genitals are right. Our hungry mouths aching to kiss are right. If we don’t fall obsessively in love, we are all alone in a cemetery of Cartesian litter.
VENTURA: Our love life is private, secret. It lets us out of the world, which can be wonderful, but the shadow of that wonder is that it reinforces our isolation.
VENTURA: Exactly. Without that realization, the wonder that two people find together increases an isolation that in the end can only make them more desperate, and that desperation will eat and kill their love in the long run.
HILLMAN: A vicious circle. As long as the world around us is just dead matter, Eros is trapped in personal relationships. Do you think the man able to make love to a banana tree is unhappy? I think he’s a Zen master, a fucking saint.
Hillman also quotes the alchemist Sendivogius who said “the greater part of the soul lies outside the body.” He explains that “consciousness of form would make us feel how assaulted and insulted we are all day long by the thoughtless ideas in things: by pretentious buildings, noisy ventilation, oppressive meeting rooms, irritating lighting, vast undetailed parking spaces. The aesthetic eye would require things to be thoughtfully designed.” With that in mind, he entertains the idea that a re-enchantment of the inanimate world – an revolution in aesthetics in which beauty is seen as having primary importance and not secondary or even tertiary – may actually be the key to a more wholesome approach to life:
This little revolution that raises the aesthetic to top rung would help reimagine therapeutic work as a deanesthetizing, an awakening, lifting the “psychic numbing” that Robert Jay Lifton claims to be the disease of our times. Each thing we notice springs to life: reanimation, reenchantment. The persons hidden in things as their forms speak up, speak out. The clinic becomes truly a madhouse, everything alive, and our concern turns from ourselves to its life. Door, how do you feel that nobody can close you right and you have to be slammed shut? Little plastic cup, do you like being thrown away? Wouldn’t you rather be a real hard china mug touched by eager lips many, many times, washed out, kept on a shelf? Big blank bank wall, three stories tall, don’t you crave a face with character, aren’t you asking for some fantastic graffiti? Parking lot, isn’t there any way you could have some fun, have some special cartoons painted on the asphalt, or labyrinths or maps or slogans—some way to make yourself not so endlessly, boringly self-same?
Unlike ancient Egypt and Greece or modern Bali or the bird-feathered, body-painted, masked “primitives” of Papua New Guinea, our culture just can’t accept aesthetics as essential to the daily round. The prejudices against beauty expose our culture’s actual preference for ugliness disguised as the useful, the practical, the moral, the new, and the quick. The reason for this repression of beauty, in therapy too—for beauty doesn’t come into therapy any more than it comes into the mall or the workplace—is nothing less than the taproot of all American culture: puritanism.
You see, taste, as the word itself says, awakens the senses and releases fantasies. Taste remembers beauty; it enjoys pleasure; it tends to refine itself toward more interesting joys. Puritanism would much rather focus on hard realities and moral choices that you have to suffer through and work for. But for me, the greatest moral choice we can make today, if we are truly concerned with the oppressed and stressed lives of our clients’ souls, is to sharpen their sense of beauty.
With that in mind, it may comes as no surprise that Hillman refers to the Japanese aesthetic sense as a model to emulate:
The Japanese are trained aesthetically early on and live in a culture devoted as much to the chrysanthemum (beauty) as to the sword (efficiency)—to use their symbols. Japanese people—ordinary people—have hobbies of calligraphy, flower arrangement, dance gesture, paper twisting and cutting. They live in a world of very small detail, which we call quality control. Their eye is trained to notice, their hand to tastefully touch. Watch the sushi chef. Even their language takes immense care. It’s aesthetic training that gives them the economic edge, even if they get as drunk as we do and as tired.
So this is what I had in the back of my mind whenever I look at books of these line drawings from Japan, of which I had bought a few; I even tried to copy some of the drawings myself. The popularity of these drawings may be comparable to colouring/extreme dot-to-dot/querkle books in the West (which are saving moribund high street booksellers). Some Japanese people (mostly women) draw them regularly in agendas, personal diaries and stick-it notes, and show off their handiwork on social networking sites. With practice, you can do these drawings within seconds. The explosive popularity of Frixion – a series of erasable pens made by Pilot – also aided this boom (possibly because the fact that the ink is erasable removes a sense of failure when you do not get a doodle right). And if it is any testimony to Hillman’s idea that Japanese people indeed live in “a world of very small detail” – Frixion pens marked for the domestic market come in a total of 20 colours and a range of tips from 0.38mm to 0.7mm, whereas those marked for the western market come in a total of 12 colours and a smaller range of tips from 0.5mm to 0.7mm. Very fine tips like 0.38 mm and differentiating colours between “Baby Pink,” “Coral Pink,” “Rose” and “Violet” are important to Japanese consumers.
A second book that also gets an Autobahn connection to these drawings in my nervous system is Gary Lachman’s Caretakers of the Cosmos (2013). Perhaps in sketching a picture of the ramen noodles you had for lunch, you are – to borrow words from the Bohemian-Austrian poet Maria Rainer Rilke – “saving the fleeting things of the world from oblivion”. As Lachman explains:
In order to save these things from complete oblivion, Rilke said that we must take them into ourselves, and transform them into the furnishings of our interior world. Our task is to stamp this provisional, perishing earth into ourselves so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its being may arise again, invisibly in us.
We can save the universe, we can repair it, take care of it, redeem it and awaken it from its trance by becoming aware of our creative contribution to reality and by intensifying our consciousness to such a degree that we never lose sight of this fact.
When we “complete” the world, when we “represent” the “unrepresented,” when we infuse dead matter with meaning, when we fill the empty forms of reality with the living force of the imagination, we are moving against the tide that is carrying the fallen, physical world into nothingness. Each act of imagination, each moment of creative life stands up to the entire material against the corroding solvents of entropy, dark matter, or whatever else may be dragging the physical world into oblivion.
Berdyaev calls the Eighth Day of Creation, the ongoing work of tikkun, taking care of and helping to create the cosmos, to transform it from a bleak, meaningless event into a living world. This means to humanise it, not in the small sense of reducing its vast, mysterious otherness to the triviality of the only human, but to release its sleeping life, its hidden meaning by acknowledging ourselves as the answer to its riddle
Saving the fleeting things of this ephemeral world from oblivion… Perhaps that is why these Japanese sketchers, instead of living in “a cemetery of Cartesian litter,” are surrounded by seemingly mundane things that gently smile back at them.