The narrative of a westerner travelling to the East to find enlightenment – and a sense of spiritual calm and…
The summer of 2005 was when things started to break. Sleep deprived and exhausted, in the early months with a new baby, my husband and I were engaged in an unconscious competition to deplete our cupboards of crockery. Fast forward a few years, and the contest had become a family affair as the wide-eyed baby grew into a toddler and his energetic younger sister joined the fracas. Every week, a hand would fail to place a teacup on its saucer, or accidentally swipe a bowl to the floor. Time and time again, we reached for the dustpan, the brush, and the bin.
Then one day, after my favourite vase had fallen to the floor, I paused in my resigned clean-up to examine the broken pieces in the pan. Rather than feeling frustrated or sad at what had been lost, I looked carefully at what was left. A few small chips of glaze and clay had crumbled to dust as I swept them up, but two large glazed pieces remained intact. The jagged grey clay edges, like two claws, easily fitted back together. The flawless vase was gone, but here was the opportunity to recreate it.
Over the years I’d dabbled in the dark art of supergluing: a cup handle here, a sugar bowl lid there. At first these rescue projects were a reply to my ‘new parent’ consciousness – a sense of shock at just how much stuff we needed, and slight shame at the indulgent things we did not. Like the diligent recycling and composting, my ‘make do and mend’ experiment was a response to this shock.
This responsibility was the impetus to repair broken things, but it was not enough to deeply change how I felt about them. The fixed things often felt burdensome and were, in fact, unreliable. Teacup handles, for instance, fell away repeatedly, then hit a point of ‘peak glue’ where the divorced pieces refused to lock together again. I began to doubt them.
“It’s not hard to understand a certain wariness about repair,” says writer Philip Ball, “what broke might break again.” This was exactly how I began to feel. I also felt the social side of what Ball calls the “prejudice” against repair stemming from embarrassment of poverty and thrift. The unintended consequence of such prejudice and worries, however, is a ready acceptance of waste in the pursuit of everyday perfection. For example, the company that replaced my new dishwasher, rather than address its minor fault, chose to send it to ‘dishwasher heaven’ (their words).
Western culture’s neglect of the broken, Ball argues, is due to an underdeveloped repair aesthetic. Breakages and faults make the entire object redundant because they defy our need for “perfect appearances” and “the constant illusion of newness”. Perfection as the rule, rather than the exception, makes it difficult for others to see the point of repair experiments. Perhaps this is why I felt relieved each time I threw the unsalvageable away.
If being troubled by excessive consumption and waste is not enough to overcome the devaluing of repair, what might we do? How might we combat the problems that stem from this? One answer is to look to the traditional Japanese aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi. “Wabi,” writes Crispin Sartwell in Six Names of Beauty, “as an aesthetic is a connection to the world in its imperfection, a way of seeing imperfection as itself embodying beauty.” The rough, hard, and humble are idealised in wabi, whereas in sabi, it is the solitary and space that are valued. “Wabi-sabi” is the joining of these related terms, whereby beauty can be appreciated in the “withered, weathered, tarnished, scarred, intimate, coarse, earthly, evanescent, tentative, ephemeral.”
The sense of beauty, wrote scholar Donald Keene in The Pleasure of Japanese Literature, was dominated by unconventionality: “irregularity rather than symmetry, the impermanent rather than the eternal and the simple rather than the elaborate.” Novelist Junichiro Tanizaki, for instance, in his elegant 1933 essay In Praise of Shadows, speaks of the Japanese wish to avoid glitz and bling: “We find it hard to be really at home with things that shine and glitter… while we do sometimes indeed use silver for teakettles, decanters, or some cups, we prefer not to polish it.”
This aesthetic and spiritual valuing of decay, loneliness and imperfection is strikingly at odds with contemporary capitalism and the love of the shiny and new (including in today’s Japan).
This aesthetic, however, did not happen by accident. Japan’s sense of beauty was actively shaped by its writers and painters, poets and priests. There was “little beauty in old stones,” wrote Keene, “before Japanese priests and poets began writing about them.” The 16th century tea master Sen no Rikyu is widely credited with introducing the ritualistic use of simple peasant pottery tea bowls to the tea ceremony. He removed the superfluous elements of status and distilled the ceremony to its simplest form: tea and a cup. Rikyu, as a Zen Buddhist, “sought enlightenment in the ordinary, or identified ordinary life (getemono , or the practical) with the highest life.”
This was a deliberate decision. Until that time, expensive, flawless Chinese porcelains had been in use. Rikyu’s aesthetic re-evaluation rendered them effectively worthless. This reveals the power play behind seemingly trivial matters of taste. Rikyu apparently paid highly for his veneration of everyday, peasant cups. It is thought, writes Sartwell, to have been the reason why his patron, whose prized ceramics were devalued by the elevation of peasant pottery, demanded his death by hara-kiri.
My vase is not a deliberate emblem of the ordinary, humble life in the way that Rikyu’s tea cup was for him, although it is handmade and cost me very little. But my relationship to the repaired vessel does draw on some elements of wabi-sabi values. Now reglued, the vase’s elegant curved sides are restored, and you can follow the sweep from its almost too narrow foot up to its wide mouth. Its maker has not made it crudely, but gone to a great deal of trouble to shape it and glaze the inside brown, while the outside melds together shades of greens and blue, burnt red and blackish-brown.
It does not offer the bland everydayness of a grey office building or the mechanically mass-produced items of the shopping mall. Now, a deep scar, with several distinctive chips, runs through the various shades of glaze. I did not try to make my repair invisible. I didn’t want to erase the crack, to pretend that it had never been broken. The crack itself adds to the quirkiness I find beautiful in everyday life. This is why, I suspect, when something is broken, its particularity becomes more interesting. It no longer offers either seamless wholeness or broken fragments, but a suggestive, meditative ambiguity somewhere in between.
From the ‘cat’ edition of Womankind – you can buy a copy from our online store.