Nonsense in Japanese Art?


Recently I was asked a question by composer David Lidov, who also happens to be the author of a great work on semiotics, Is Language A Music? Having written to say he enjoyed the posting of my work The Analects of Naneun on this blog, he focused on one particular analect, which contains what might be described as nonsensical language (my description, not his!):

so! I carried my words
north of Osaka
lying to the clouds
losing my mind on a tea-shop bench
sneaking through Sasabe
with a chuhai theme
Ha! I achieved!

Having mentioned this analect he then asked me if there is “a Japanese aesthetic or philosophy of nonsense?”

Good question!

This analect does kind of look a little like a daruma-uta, one of the seemingly “crazy” Zen poems of someone like Teika Fujiwara, or a paradoxical Zen verse (koan) created to move one beyond the “boundaries” of language or meaning (though I was not at all thinking of or trying to create such a verse). One could also say this analect contains its own sense of fūkyō: “wind-blown madness”, a Japanese term for something containing aesthetic eccentricity.

But this still doesn’t bring us any closer to the idea of such things being decidedly philosophical or aesthetic nonsense in the context of art: the fine arts, art philosophy, or aesthetics. Japanese language itself contains many words that understood as definitions of nansensu, the Japanese transliteration of nonsense. Nansensu covers things that are nonsensical (tawagoto), asinine (bakageta), meaningless (muimi), and even things that are “not even worthy of being called nonsense” (gu nimo tsukanai). Cheerfully silly TV shows can also be considered nansensu, non-pejoratively.

Thus, I will use the general English definitions of nonsense as words or speech that contain no meaning, or crazy or unacceptable behavior as a starting point, exploring the implications of both definitions simultaneously as part of trying to answer the question, beginning in ancient China.

Warring States Period (476 – 221 BCE)

The Zhunagzi of philosopher Zhuang Zhou is considered an essential masterwork of Chinese literature, and indeed one of the great creations of human civilization. An anthology of stories and writings both gathered and written by Zhou, it focuses on a spiritualized understanding of spontaneity and freedom from convention; becoming free from artificiality to live as one should… as a zhenren, an “natural man” unified with both heaven and earth, which often may look odd when compared to how a “regular” person lives in society. The zhenren is discussed specifically in Chapter Six, wherein a wealthy disciple named Tzu Kung asks the great philosopher Confucius about the place of an eccentric, the “oddball”, in society. Confucius says that such a person is odd-looking to society yet he is “a pair with heaven”. Zhou also mentions in this chapter how the disabled or someone with a disfigurement could also be included as one who is outside of society as an oddity and thus had the chance to gain great insight, involuntarily set “apart” from social acceptance. Thus, this idea of an oddball (Jap: kijin) being considered strangely different (weird, eccentric, mad, possibly divine), not regular folk, is well known in Asian philosophy.

We must also keep in mind that something can also be odd by being counterintuitive; containing a hard to grasp truth hovering on the edge of ordinary human intellectual capacities. For example Georg Cantor (1845 – 1918) , a math genius that suffered from mental illness, proved that one could describe or prove that there is an infinity that is more infinite than another infinity (!). In simple terms this can be demonstrated by drawing two lines on a piece of paper (one an inch long, the other two inches long), each divided into such small parts they go on infinitely within the line. But if one line is slightly longer, that line has a “longer” infinity than the other, there is more infinity, more “endlessness”, within it! But if I simply told you that there are different lengths of infinity without explaining myself, it sounds crazy, and many in Cantor’s time similarly dismissed his ideas as crazy (nonsense) because of his illness and the explication of his ideas. So Cantor could be said to qualify as this Confucian oddball, as his thoughts on infinity were certain closer to cosmic thought than just oddness.

Even now in 2017, a vigorous debate is occurring amongst linguists over a rather extraordinary idea about language: one involving the structure of the language of a rare tribe native to Brazil, the Piraha (a name for both the people and the language). Until now it has been fact that something called recursion occurred in all languages. Recursion is how “flexible” a sentence is, how it can be expanded and nested within itself. For example:

Mr. Okaji is a poetic genius.

I think Mr. Okaji is a poetic genius.

Yesterday I told Miyuki that I think Mr. Okaji is a poetic genius.

Tomoko told Akiko that she heard that yesterday I told Miyuki that I think Mr. Okaji is a poetic genius.

The idea that Piraha possibly does not (or cannot) do this has not been officially proven. But at the moment this seems to be the case, and if true, will overturn a famous theory on the existence of a “universal grammar” in humans by the most famous linguist ever, Noam Chomsky. The author of this idea of non-recursion in Piraha is a linguist named Daniel Everett, whose work many are skeptical of due to (a) the research being currently inconclusive, and (b) Everett is one of only a few non-natives who can speak Piraha with any fluency. But such an odd idea is possible, and Everett’s revolutionary theory is looking a lot less crazy or counterintuitive (“nonsense”) with every passing year. For linguists and/or social scientists like myself, this is very thrilling stuff!

(Note: Piraha is also notable for not containing number words like one or two. The Piraha say “a few” or “more” instead!).

The Kamakura Era (1185 – 1333 CE)

Moving on in our search for a possible Japanese aesthetic or philosophy of nonsense we can then look at the rise of Zen Buddhism, as much of what we call Japan’s signifying aesthetics are related to Zen aesthetics. In this case the most relevant topic is the Japanese (and Korean) history of certain Zen monks, Buddhist “madmen”, that renounced formal ministry and wandered around getting drunk and frequenting brothels in order to make some greater point about the nature of Buddha-hood or Reality. This to many was heresy, since core Buddhist theology includes precepts against monks consuming intoxicants, or being sexually active outside of marriage.

Also, according to one anthology of Japanese tales and legends (Nihon Ryōiki), the discourses of the original Buddha Siddhartha are delineated into three proceeding eras in which they are studied and practiced: the True Teachings (shōbō) Period from Siddartha’s enlightenment on for approx. 500 years (ending around the time of Jesus), the rise of Counterfeit Teachings (zōbō) period lasting for another 1000 years, and eventually a time of nothing but Degenerate Teachings (mappō) lasting for the next 10,000 years in which Buddhism will totally decline and be completely useless nonsense. This is then supposedly followed by literally millions of years before another true Buddha will arrive to correct and revitalize the teachings. Coincidentally (?), the legendary Zen iconoclasts and eccentrics of Japan begin to appear in the Mappō period, which may further the argument that they are proof of such degeneration, ergo the aforementioned heretical, antithetically Buddhist socio-sexual “nonsense” which could come to aesthetically influence creative people.

The Edo Era (1600 – 1868)

Another interesting aesthetic of (possible) nonsense occurred in Japan’s Edo Era (1600 – 1868): a time when many were interested in the eccentricity (ki) and “madness” (kyō) of certain writers, painters, and so on. For example, a well-known musician-turned-samurai-turned-literati and painter named Uragami Gyokudō (a.k.a Gyokudō The Lawless) was of the belief that getting wildly drunk was a prerequisite for painting!

During this time, several notable “compilations of eccentrics” appeared, biographical anthologies of documenting artists such as Gyokudō, including Biographies of Nagoya City’s Madmen, Fallen Chestnuts, and Eccentrics of Recent Times. In all three (Eccentrics especially) such men were detailed in light of Confucius’s idea of “divine oddballs” and how one could view these eccentrics as having various types of moral virtue in their madness. So it may have not have been nonsense that they espoused, but types of madness of which nonsense could play a part. The seeming nonsense of creative outsiders captured in these anthologies became popular in general public, consumed as entertaining strangeness. This trend became less popular though as Japan began to undergo the socio-political modernizations of the following Meiji Period (1868 – 1912).

It must also be mentioned that not everyone would have necessarily wanted this designation; that being glorified as an eccentric or madman against one’s will, no matter how popular it made a person, was not freedom at all. In fact, this phenomenon could be explained as a reflection of narcissism on the part of the glorifier, wanting to see the world as a reflection, dehumanizing the glorified in the process. Alternately, self-identifying as an eccentric (or creating “nonsense”) for the sake of attention and admiration in this context would seem to suggest the very artificiality Confucius’ spoke of the kijin being freed from! And indeed one can find many examples of such artifice in the more abstract forms of creativity wherein one might explain away a technical deficiency as a conceptually sophisticated “choice” lying beyond the comprehension of the “ordinary” man. But in reality, the true avant-gardist is actually he or she who passionately makes a thing they desire to see realized in the world that they have not “seen” anywhere else except in their own imagination, and upon production discover it is at the forefront or the edge of other things; labeled eccentric post hoc by those who critique or consume it. This is also often true of what many define as grotesque.

“Between” the Taishō & Shōwa Era (1920 – 1936)

In the early 20th century, a writer with the pen name Edogawa Ranpo (Tarō Hirai) became known for his novels, which contained many themes considered deviant to regular social norms, many considered bizarre, sexually deviant, or decadent. Subsequently such works became known as eroguronansensu, an abridged Japanese transliteration of the English words erotic, grotesque, and nonsense. Eroguronansensu works tended to focus more on sexuality than nonsense: literary descendants of 18th century Japanese erotic woodblock print collections (shunga) that, though mostly unonctroversial, occasionally included fantasy scenes of women being raped by octopi, decapitation, bondage, and even crucifixiion. Oddly enough, shunga have been illegal in Japan for decades while hardcore pornography is not, the difference being modern pornography uses digital pixilation to hide female genitalia. The rules for both are changing though as the 21st century progresses.

Eroguronansensu has become ero guro in modern arts: styles or genres of visual arts that focus primarily on the erotic, though a movie like Hitoshi Matsumoto’s R100 could be considered a work of aesthetic nansensu. This imaginative dramatic comedy about a businessman who gets caught up in a bizarre BSDM club is self-referential in a very humorous way, as it is also a film about itself being shown to a group of producers who can’t figure out the meaning of the very film they are either knowingly (or unknowingly) in. Though the meaning of the film eludes them (and us the viewers) it is finally revealed that the title of the movie “R100” is the movie’s rating, meaning only 100-year-old people are allowed to see it: the only ones who can understand what it is about! Indeed, the scenes where the producers spill out of the screening room for a smoke-break, expressing their continuing confusion over the mostly nonsensical plot and meaning are completely hilarious, and worth the effort to learn Japanese. If there is an artistic aesthetic of nonsense, I would suggest Matsumoto’s film would be a good example of such a thing.

Myō No Yō

All things considered then, I think the key to Lidov’s question is summed up by one particular phrase that can be coaxed from the various eras and cultural objects considered: myō no yō, a certain sense of “useful uselessness”, tangible or intangible aesthetic creations rooted in a conception of nonsense which are considered pleasing, entertaining, uplifting, and/or worthy of recognition, things that have sense via nonsense. For example, my mentor Shozo Shimamoto (1928 – 2013), painter and founder of the legendary art collective the GUTAI, often created ink/paint works (called nyotaku) by painting nude women and pressing thin paper against them, or having them roll on a horizontal canvas on the ground. Ordinarily, painting oneself with ink while nude and rolling around on the ground would be considered nonsense, especially if one did it in a public space for no apparent reason. But do the same in an art studio on a canvas and sense is made of this same nonsense, because we have contextual use for the body and ink.

Indeed many of Shimamoto’s works had a flavor of whimsical nonsense while retaining or creating aesthetic power: dropping bottles full of paint from a crane, or showing movies on the back of his bald head. Fellow GUTAI artist Saburo Murakami ran through a series of giant, vertical pieces of paper, while another (Kazuo Shiraga) wrestled with clay, ending up being bruised by the pebbles embedded within. These “useless” acts are the reason you, the reader, now know who they are, if you did not before, and the GUTAI’s ebullient myō-no-yō inspired many including myself to seek artistically excellence and originality passionately. I would thus call Master Shimamoto a kijin, a personification of the Confucian oddball who becomes something more full and enriched, more genuine in their perceived nonsense. His work also engendered much work from we his “students”, his collaborators, his spirit continually inspiring action and utility in his absence.

So… there is no formally defined and practiced aesthetic or philosophy of nonsense that I can point to in the manner which Lidov requests of me. But myō no yō may be the closest thing to it, or to the future formation of such an aesthetic school: sensible nonsense, useful uselessness, play that produces work, sobering intoxications of the artistic soul.



8 thoughts on “Nonsense in Japanese Art?

  1. so fitting that on the day i read this i have posting my own useful useless beautiful nansensu.
    you really are a walking encyclopedia of culture & nonsense even. there is much in this article for me to look deeper into, such as the drunken Gyokudo who reminds me of Chiwaseon. Shimamoto seems a glorious madman to look more in depth at.
    being English, non-sense, especially in comedy has plenty of appeal. it is not easy to be successful in nonsense: Stewart Lee does a bit in his stand-up where he talks about a journalist pro-Brit, anti-immigrant Rod Liddle. the bit is nonsense starting something like “Rod Liddle, y’know…gravy down his shirt, some suet on his collar…” he goes on to list numerous places on Rod Liddle’s clothes or body, with different sauces or foods. & then half way through, deconstructs what he is doing & explains that you can’t just pick parts of Rod Liddle’s anatomy & put food there, it has to be choreographed— he picks them specifically.
    it is nonsense, or so it seem, but shows that say “Rod Liddle with a pea on his foot” (which gets no laughs) is not funny, but “Rod Liddle, with Angle Delight, not mixed, just the powder on his chin” is funny & everyone laughing is the proof in the pudding. if you look & know Rod Liddle, it of course has a much deeper meaning.

    great stuff Daniel. a really entertaining article, especially for a great lover of nonsense.

    1. Stewart Lee is a divine genius of the highest order. His writing and live comedic timing is unparalleled in stand up comedy, past and present. To me it is a sign that we are in lost times when Stewart is not considered as such. His “Jungle Canyon Rope Bridges” bit is an absolute masterpiece of recursion. AND he then proceeds to deconstruct his work, which becomes even funnier in the process. Often I find myself beyond laughter, just marveling at the surgical precision with which he delivers it all, several hundred exponential orders of humor magnitude beyond “stand up comedy”. That you would quote and appreciate Stewart Lee tells me everything vital I need to know about you (VERY GOOD), and I am beyond honored that my writing would inspire you to reference SL in your response!

      And it is indeed a cosmic sign of unity that we have come to similar topics so chronologically close together. Praise My Lord and Saviour Stewart Lee for this serendipity!

  2. Found it !!! Thanks for this whirlwind but informative tour. Dr. Raymond Moody (MD & PhD) has a book, Making Sense of Nonsense, that was supposed to be published this month in France. I had the pleasure and privilege to see a prepublication draft & I’m convinced it’s an important investigation. His associate, Lisa Smartt, has written a book coming out next month, Final Words I think is the title, which examines ‘nonsense’ spoken by people very near death. With all this — plus your piece here — I’m inspired to put some time in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. Moody’s fundamental viewpoint that nonsense offers positive and sometimes transcendental experience is in evidence all around us. But of course the capital of nonsense, the neither positive nor transcendental nonsense we want to escape from, is Washington DC.

    1. I HAVE to read Moody’s work, thanks for pointing it out… and thank you for the great question!! I never thought about it until you asked, and it brought me back to my dissertation days and beloved Shimamoto Sensei via so many fond memories and a few tears over the years it has been since he passed. You are a real mensch, Lidov Sensei! 🙂

      As for Washington, DC… nonsense is subjective, while lies are not.

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