[Art] Japanese line drawings, the soulfulness of things and the re-enchantment of the world


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.


5 thoughts on “[Art] Japanese line drawings, the soulfulness of things and the re-enchantment of the world

  1. Seeing some of these Autobahn connections in your head laid out like that is interesting all by itself. =D

    I think doodling in the west has an entire diffrent problem, which I see far more important, as to why it’s not so common. It’s considered to be a waste of time in the sense of a meaningless timekiller to bridge over boredom.
    I know somebody who notoriously doodles with her pencil. The doodles look quite nice, too. (Not the cute doodles as above, more like abstract line art or so.) She would also do it in meetings. When she is sitting there with a complex task before her and she starts off doodling. She says, it helps her arrange things in her head. And she is continiously in a position to have to justify herself for these doodles. Her boss doesn’t like her doodling much, actually nobody likes it. It appears like slacking off or they take it as that whoever elses’s presence tremendulously bores her and a show of lack of respect. What’s even more, one of the people who obviously dislikes seeing her like that most is rightfully a person who indulges in photography. Very skillful fotographer at that, so it’s not like the person simply is in an anti-arts faction. I would appear that doodles are not considered a piece of art or as something that possibly can be beautiful and properly meaningful in the first place aside being stigmatized with this “doing it to kill off boredom in the waiting room” aura.

    Seeing the fancy writing within these doodle sheeds made me think of yet something else. Fancy writing is also not quite encouraged anymore. Actually, people are stating to forget to be able to read those older letterings. (Like the ones they used before WW2 ended.)
    Europe used to have really nice calligraphy as well, but it’s completely dying. Germany still has the rule on most places, that children start off learning to write with pencil and quickly change over to ink, which lasts them at least for 3 years until the end of elemantary school and children have to write in the “Schreibschrift”, a writing style, where the letters are linked. The basic idea I came to learn after some research is, that the ink pen is very sensible and children should learn to be able to handle the minute diffrences in their hand movement. The “Schreibschrift” is there is enhance the speed of writing.
    This certainly sounds pretty reasonable in theory. But at least the praxis I learned was a big huge miserable joke.
    Nobody ever told my what we had to use an ink pen and not a simple ballpoint. We had to, simply because we had to, by rule of the ministrate. The teachers did not care at all, if you weren’t able to use it properly. They also won’t teach you. They would only complain about bad handwriting and tell you “put in more effort!”. There wasn’t even a proper introduction as to how to use the gadget in the textbook. You simply used it – somehow. If I compare that to the elementary first class chinese book a 6 year olf child has in China: There are images showing you how to hold the pen, there are images how you hold brush for calligraphy and there are images for the order in which things are written. (The alphabet may not be as important with that, but nobody would ever teach a child, that with an E, you don’t start with the middle stroke. I have seen people who first write the . of an i and then the vertical line…)
    We even had an own subject called “Schönschrift” (which was a joke, but still), which after several updates in the school curriculum seems to be completely dead by now. There are parents who are already protesting against the use of an ink pen, because the children don’t get to handle it properly and want the schools abolish it and simply use ballpoint pens. Some parts of the country are already introduced something new that completely discards the connected “Schreibschrift”
    I’m not sure what’s worse. That they are gradually even stopping to even try or that it was all hat and no cattle and make you believe, that “Schönschrift” is as unsalvagable of a nonsense as it made it look like. The fact that a lot of people (including me) ditched the “Schreibschrift”, the “Schönschrift” and ink altogether after elementary school for the sake of readability is rather a telltale. My childhood was even barely before everybody could afford computers. Instead of facing the problem, the problem is now mostly discarded from being even considered a problem. People just ditch handwriting altogether. “You could just type, whoever writes with their hands nowadays?!” was something an age peer told me, when I was 19 and in a sort of “I have such bad handwriting it infuriates me, but I also have utterly no clue how to properly fix it” depression. There isn’t any general sense of importance of beauty within the things you create with your owns hands in public consciousness.

    Since I am on that topic, perhaps also interesting:
    From the way I look at it, the writing has gone from beautiful to boring as hell.
    There is also quite some criticism on the latest estabilished writing:
    (The samples seriously make one cringe.)
    It’s the one, I had to learn too. I can attest, it’s hell to write and is simply unintelligable. Even the computer printed template doesn’t even look that nice imo. I ditched it without a second glance and moved back to the “Druckschrift”.
    It kind of makes me wonder if the people in the education ministrate are having cucumbers on their eyes.
    (One can of course say justly anything negative about Hitler as they may, he was however at least sensible enough to make Antiqua being the writing children had to learn. It looks quite beautiful and has had centuries to proof itself.)
    To makes things even worse, even if one would like to learn writing the older styles, there is no realy place you would get taught this. Calligraphy is such a self-evidently important huge part of the culture in Asia, but here it’s simply dead.
    I seriously ever wondered why.
    Seeing the idea that the puritans may be at fault is quite interesting. I suppose yes, beauty is also considered a sort of luxury and luxury is mostly bad for the humble believer in Christianity.

    How was writing in School when you grew up?

    • Speaking of doodles, I was at an exhibition of John Dee’s magickal library here in London some time ago, and this man (on top of being a polymath) was also a very skilled doodler on the margins of his books:


      That drawing of a ship you see there is one of his doodles on a book he owned.

      I am familiar with Schreibschrift. I went to the sort of school where at the age of 6 you were already taught to write cursive letters with a *fountain pen*. One of my grandfathers was a professional calligrapher (did you watch Barakamon? Think Seishuu Handa’s father). My father is an amateur calligrapher. I am no good with any of that though. (I supposed I am interested in writing interesting things more than writing the letters beautifully.) In some of the snobbish circles where they move, being literate does not mean just being able to read letters printed in modern fonts. To them, being literate means being able to read various artistic font styles (such as 草書):


      Everytime you learn a new artistic font style (there are dozens out there) makes you feel like you are three years old and learning kanji/Chinese characters all over again.

      • Now, that most certainly is quite a beautiful doodle. (And I can’t even doodle stick figures properly. Oh well…)

        Oh right, fountain pen, I mixed the words up completely. Thanks for pointing out.
        What Schreibschrift did you learn?

        I remember having a talk with my father; my father had taught me about calligraphy right when he started teaching me chinese. I think I was 5 and I also remember how I hated it, because I was just so ludicoursly bad, it always looked awful no matter how much I tried. (And the logic behind that was also, the more I was impatiently trying, the worse it would only get.)
        Some time a lot later, when I was about at high school level we’ve been pondering on a letter from a relative of mine that, for the love of life, I could not decipher at all. (My father called it a “a crab’s footsteps when you put ink on its feet”.) He jokingly told me, that actually my Chinese handwriting wasn’t even that bad in comparison; it were easily readable. But at the same time excactly that meant, it was only on elementary class level. Because it’s so standard textbook-ish. No proper personality, at most perhaps a sense of a child’s unrefined crudeness in it. (I think by now it probably deteriotated to a kindergarden’s writing…) Well, the standard textbook sure brings one to Barakamon again, as well.
        We’ve also been in a Chinese museum glacing over some beautiful calligraphy brushes. Now, I don’t think I would have been able to read that even had it been just computer printed textlines, but I do remember how engaged my father was from it. Now living quality sure is nice in Germany, but that”s just one thing you can’t get here at all. (I remember how he sneered over some street artist selling of his writings; his self study was more nice than the street artist’s.) He has resigned to that, but sometimes it does sparkle out and it’s rather sad to see.

  2. Reading your thoughts as well as Luna’s comments moved my heart somehow for some reason. It also made me sad of the way the West has lost sight of the pretty things and it appears that beauty is reserved only for the rich. I’ve recently experienced affordable fine dining and I’ve also moved houses so I was buying stuff for my new place and I can totally agree how precious and important I find to be surrounded by pretty things, to taste delicious things and be adorned by beautiful things. I can understand they aren’t necessary for survival but it does good to certain hedonistic souls like mine.

    By the way, this post reminded me when I was at school and was learning the history of the Minor Asia’s destruction and subsequent fledge to Greece. People who had very little to even eat, they would try to decorate their houses with frames and other little trinkets that would remind them their glorious days back in Smyrne but also uplift their spirit. It also takes me back when I was reading a part of a German book which was set after WWII in Germany and how people would go out of their way to buy fresh flowers. I deeply believe beauty is nourishing to the soul.

    • Glad to hear that things seem to be working out for you!

      Recently I read Philip Mansel’s book ‘The Levant’ and I think I understand what you mean by Smyrna’s past glories.

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