Readings — From the December 2019 issue

Being in Nothingness

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From The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism, a work of criticism that will be published next month by Bloomsbury.

In the midst of existence, most living things deny time. They grow and reproduce in order to fight the inevitable. Life strives to be permanent, though it cannot be. Even the slow natural decay of a flower in the ground is a consequence of this struggle to survive as long as possible. In 1953, the Kyoto School philosopher Keiji Nishitani wrote an essay on ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. The arranger selects a very few seasonal blooms or branches, cuts them, and places them in a handmade ceramic vase or bowl so that the plants extend upward and outward like energetic strokes of calligraphy, framed within the blank space of the tokonoma, an alcove designed to display art objects in a traditional Japanese room. Intentionally austere and reticent, ikebana is the opposite of the effusive Western bouquet’s clump of contrasting colors.

When the ikebana practitioner cuts the flower at its stem, she stops the process of decay, wrote Nishitani, freezing it in a moment in which there is “no arising or perishing,” at least for three or four days within the vase. The flower is “poised in death.” “It becomes a temporary manifestation of eternity that has emerged in time.” The philosopher argued that this ephemeral timelessness amounts to a kind of transcendence. Only by cutting can the plant be transformed into art: “The flowers are simply there, in their correctness”—defining themselves alone, moment to moment.

There are two forms of art, according to Nishitani. The Western form strives toward permanence, as in the stone cathedral built to last thousands of years or the royal portrait commissioned to communicate ostentatious wealth and power to future generations. Yet in trying to deny its inherent temporariness, this form ends up being artificial or inauthentic. The cathedral crumbles into ruins and the portrait tatters; in the end, Nishitani claimed, they can only prove the impossibility of achieving permanence. The Japanese form accesses eternity by embracing time. “Instead of trying to deny time while in the midst of it, ikebana moves along in time without the slightest gap,” Nishitani wrote.

Rather than assigning the value of temporariness only to the Japanese, as the philosopher Shuzo Kuki did with iki (a form of urbane stylishness), Nishitani observed how it is shared across cultures, particularly after industrialization. “This idea which had lain dormant for so long is gradually grasping the hearts and minds of Europeans,” he wrote. He found ikebana’s aesthetic of ephemerality in the essays of Montaigne and Nietzsche and the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, as well as in the existentialists. In the 1950s, after the cataclysm of the war, maybe the ideas of permanence and accumulation were finally bankrupt. The bombing campaigns on all sides demonstrated that humanity would willingly destroy anything it built. There was a global turn toward Japan’s negative aesthetic, an appreciation of absence and disappearance because absence was so prevalent in the ruined buildings and shattered lives.

Nishitani wrote that each flower in ikebana appears as if it emerged from nothingness. Nothingness undergirded everything—humans, animals, objects all brought together by one long shadow that rests “in the depths of existence.” The shadow of nothingness combines being and nonbeing, collapsing the binary between them. It is space in which all possibilities are simultaneous, and it “points directly to a most intimate encounter with everything that exists,” Nishitani wrote elsewhere in 1961. “A most intimate encounter with everything that exists” is also a good way to summarize Minimalist art circa 1964, the adherents of which aimed to produce objects that were complete within themselves. Donald Judd’s Marfa boxes are like so many ikebana flowers, timeless and yet captured within time.

The desire to find the essence of things, to confront existence unmediated, made sense amid the desolation on all sides after the war. The wreckage was beyond morality or winning and losing sides. Western writers sought out this nonbinary space, too. Shadow was a convenient metaphor—it represented everything that Western progress plowed over or ignored. “Speaks true, who speaks shadows,” wrote the Romanian poet Paul Celan, whose work took on the impossibility of expression in the wake of the Holocaust. Within the futility of existence one also had to find a way forward, as in Samuel Beckett’s existentialist 1953 novel Watt, which he wrote while on the run during the war: “For what is this shadow of the going in which we come, this shadow of the coming in which we go, this shadow of the coming and the going in which we wait, if not the shadow of purpose?”

“I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow,” Sylvia Plath wrote in her 1963 novel The Bell Jar. The narrator gives a litany of “the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow” that creep under everything, like Nishitani’s nothingness:

There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.

Shadow both negating and uniting everything.

Comparing these sentiments to the bland façade of popular minimalism today, the trendy version lacks an essential darkness. It adopts the easy hallmarks of simplicity without reckoning with the inherent challenge and danger.

After the war, a new wave of international artists began visiting Japan. Among them were members of the Beat movement, many of whom were already familiar with Japanese culture from living in San Francisco. Kenneth Rexroth, one of the predecessors of the Beats, set about translating Chinese and Japanese poetry. In the Seventies he rented an ancient Kyoto farmhouse with a tea room. “Kyoto was unbombed & full of temples etc and old houses,” as he described it in a letter to the poet Morgan Gibson. Gary Snyder, known as the Thoreau of the Beats, made an intense study of Zen and in 1956 traveled to Kyoto to join a temple. A 1958 volume of the Chicago Review focused solely on Zen, with essays from Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Alan Watts. In 1963, Allen Ginsberg had a life-changing epiphany on the high-speed train between Tokyo and Kyoto; it was so strong that it made him temporarily give up drugs in favor of meditation.

Zen’s absences provided an alternative to America’s postwar drive into suburbanization, consumerism, and the nuclear family—the seemingly solid pillars that identity and success were supposed to be built upon. In 1979, Rexroth described the United States as a “bankrupt police state” and said he couldn’t imagine anyone who had moved to Japan going back there. (To be fair, in letters he also complained about Japanese conservatism.) Was the adoption of Zen cultural appropriation—an almost punitive theft of the losing side’s heritage? Minimalism could fall under the same critique. The answer is more complicated.

Though its roots were in the nation’s deepest past, the Japanese aesthetic of absence grew over the course of the twentieth century as a response to Western imperialism and the pressures of capitalist and industrialist globalization. Through the Buddhist religion from India and China, Shikibu and Shonagon’s literature, novelist Junichiro Tanizaki’s interior-decorating crisis, philosopher Kuki Shuzo’s conflicted identities, and the rise then fall of the Kyoto School of philosophy, this cultural impulse of absence defined a different mode of being in the world, a parallel modernity built on the careful appreciation of life’s minor details and ephemerality over permanence.

Small wonder, then, that absence has broad appeal today, when so many feel that modernity has failed the West, that our civilization has come close to destroying itself, and that our lifestyles are gaudy and pointless. Embracing nothingness reflects the need for a new way of thinking, one that makes a virtue of incompleteness. Adopting some of the hallmarks of Eastern thought or style has been a way for Western artists to assert an otherness or an alienation from their own dominant culture, to claim independence from their forebears, as Judd, John Cage, and Agnes Martin did when they pioneered Minimalism in the United States, thus casting themselves as sui generis artistic innovators. Yet the aesthetic that they created—which planted the seeds for the minimalist trend we see today—was already inextricable from the presence of the West. Its origins were global and heterogeneous from the beginning.

Blank slates always prove to be mythical. Minimalism is a communal fiction. It is popular around the world because it reacts against a condition that is now everywhere: a state of crisis mixed with a terminal dissatisfaction with the material culture that seems to have brought us here, though the fault is our own. Rather than a cause, the omnipresent minimalist style is a symptom, a way of adopting the pose or outline of a solution to this dissatisfaction without broaching the real answer, which would be to actually start over. Instead of cleaning our closets and painting our walls white to highlight the few expensive objects we have left, we could imagine society anew.

When I see the austere kitchens and bare shelves and elegant cement walls; the dim colors and the skeletal furniture; the monochrome devices, the white T-shirts, the empty walls; the wide open windows looking out onto nothing in particular; the rough reclaimed wood; when I see minimalism as a meme on Instagram and as an encouragement to get rid of as much as possible in the name of imminently consuming more—it’s that deep, sinking shadow that I see, the anxiety of nothingness and the simultaneous fear and desire of capitulating to it.

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