Monday, January 7, 2008

Floating Worlds

This weekend I visited the bonsai garden in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Most bonsai are arranged off-center--planted to one side or the other of their pot's axis, or with a trunk slanting away from it. A note on one of the walls of the exhibit offered an explanation from the garden's chief Bonsaiman: "The center is for the Deity."

I thought of catamarans, of bicycles, of the innovation of parliamentary government, of donuts and bagels, of LPs, of equal signs, of a passage from Nabokov I had just read:
the very the security of a situation where infinite perfections fill the gap between the little given and the great promised.

Bonsai is one of those idioms that appears timeless and pure, but is in fact modern and hybrid. The cultivation of miniature plants was a well-established and highly regarded art by the 14th century. A scroll from the Kamakura period (1185-1333) argues that "to appreciate and find pleasure in curiously curved potted trees is to love deformity". But these trees were always taken from the wild, and their natural miniaturization merely maintained. It was not until the 20th century, when the previously unknown art became popular in western countries, and the globalization of Japanese culture created a huge demand for the trees, that Japanese craftsmen learned to start with young trees and keep them small artificially with root-pruning and wires.

For two centuries before Commodore Matthew Perry's canons arrived at Kanagawa in 1854, Japan's now-familiar crescent of islands, balanced around the empty sea east of Russia, was itself a blank spot on the West's cultural maps. The only Europeans allowed in the country were Dutch traders, restricted to a post on the island of Dejima. (Interestingly, the bonsai house at the Botanical Gardens is named after Cornelius Vander Starr, the son of a Dutch railroad engineer from California, who founded American International Group--now the largest insurance company in the world. Starr began his career as a mail clerk in Yokohama during the lull between the World Wars.)

Within a decade after Japan was opened to international trade, its aesthetics began tipping the balance of arts far beyond bonsai. European painters, from Monet to Bonnard, became fascinated with Japanese woodcuts. As Paris became a hub of exported Japanese culture, the subjects of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings drifted toward the corners of their canvasses.

How much of this history was Ernest Hemingway conscious of when, living in Paris in the 1920s, he began writing according to a "new theory"? He mentions his germinating technique briefly in A Moveable Feast, in the chapter "Hunger Was Good Discipline":
Then I started to think in Lipp’s about when I had first been able to write a story after losing everything…It was a very simple story called ‘Out of Season’ and I had omitted the real end of it which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted it and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.

1 comment:

LeonDavis said...

Interesting. I like how you combined a history of the bonsai with a brief tidbit on an american icon. The obscure with the famous. Those two often go together I would say. You know, I think if most stories or movies or poems ended how the author really believes they should no one would want to read them because they wouldn't feel "rightfully inspired".