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     Apr 3, 2007
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Cherry blossoms, the beautiful and the good
By Spengler

Japan's yearly ritual of hanami - cherry-blossom viewing - coincides this year with the Western feasts of Easter and Passover. It occurred to me that Pope Benedict XVI would benefit from a few days of leisure beneath the sakura in Japan. The display of blossoming sakura is an event of note, but it is even more fascinating to view the Japanese as they view the cherry blossoms. Two years ago I took to task the so-called "theological esthetics" of Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of pope's great

influences. [1] A day in Japan is worth a million words on this subject.

It probably is true that the Japanese have a unique sensitivity to nature, as Professor Masahiko Fujiwara claims. Fujiwara is the author of a nationalist tract, The Dignity of a State, now a best-seller in Japan. Viewing cherry blossoms, he remarked to a Financial Times interviewer on March 9, expresses something essential to the Japanese character, which prefers the fleeting sakura to the more durable rose beloved of the English. It is the same as hearing the music of crickets: "When we listen to that music we hear the sorrow of autumn because winter is coming," he said. "The summer is gone. Every Japanese feels that. And, at the same time, we feel the sorrow of our life, our very temporary short life."

Japanese culture, Fujiwara added, makes everything into art. In that respect Japan is unique, seeking to incorporate the fleeting beauty of the moment into the most commonplace features of life. Faust bet his soul that Mephistopheles could not tempt him to try to grasp the passing moment. The art that is Japanese life only knows the passing moment. It is an attempt to immortalize the moment; that is why the Japanese are always taking pictures.

From the Japanese viewpoint, life should be beautiful. But it is not necessarily good, a circumstance of which Fukiwara himself is a horrible example. His nostalgia for bushido and samurai values repels Japan's neighbors, who suffered unspeakably the last time Japan turned in that direction. It is quite possible for evil men to appreciate beauty, and not just the beauty of nature. Adolf Hitler loved not only Wagner, but also Beethoven, and the great Wilhelm Furtwaengler stood under a giant swastika to conduct Beethoven's 9th Symphony for the Nazi leader's birthday in 1943.

It is a common observation that a sense of the natural, or the spontaneous, uniquely characterizes Japanese art: the unpredictable patterns of ash glaze in ceramics, the freedom of calligraphy, the impressionistic representation in painting, the allusiveness of poetry. Nature is cruel as well as generous, but always beautiful, and this balance and tension pervades the Japanese esthetics that Professor Fujiwara associates with samurai ethics. If nature is as cruel as it is spontaneous, then men also may be spontaneously cruel.

The comparison may seem peculiar, but the Japanese in a way resemble the Jews in their passion to bring something of the eternal into every detail of everyday life. As Franz Rosenzweig put it, the myriad laws regulating Jewish prayer, diet, marital relations, and so forth all stem from a single motive, to import eternity into daily life. As Fujiwara avers, that is what the Japanese do by making every aspect of life into a work of art. But the contrast is as sharp as the parallel. Jewish food generally is unappetizing as well as visually unappealing, as opposed to Japan's magnificent national cuisine; Jewish manners are brusque, while Japan has made an art form of courtesy; and no aspect of Jewish religious life is concerned with visual beauty in any way at all.

On the contrary, Jewish practice subordinates human instincts to revealed commandments. Dietary laws derive from recognition that animals also are close to God, if not as close as humans. [2] Marital relations put the human sex drive at the service of family and children. Prayer places every human action - waking, sleeping, eating, and so forth - in the context of the presence of a personal god. One of the most ancient Jewish teachings states that the world rests on three things: Torah (the revealed code of behavior), worship, and acts of kindness.

The notion that the natural world, the world of crickets and earthquakes, of cherry blossoms and volcanic eruptions, rests upon "acts of kindness" presupposes a god who cares about his

Continued 1 2 

Washington enters 'comfort women' debate (Mar 30, '07)

The need to dwell on the past (Mar 16, '07)

Japan's strategy to be a 'beautiful nation' (Mar 3, '07)


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