Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
(Tears are at the heart of things and we are touched by transience.) Virgil, Aeneid
Like “yūgen“, “mono no aware” is often seen as one of the core concepts of Japanese aesthetics. The term is variously translated as the “pathos of things” or an “empathy for things”. It reflects an aesthetic response to transience. But as we can see from the Virgil quote the response and the sentiment are not only part of Japanese culture. They are part of our common human heritage.
Some words have a peculiar history. The term “sensibility” is among them. If we can trust Wikipedia (and we do, don’t we?) then the term was coined around the end of the 17th century to describe a scientific-philosophical concept were sensory input and ideas are connected. Then, the word and attitude became fashionable in the 18th century and young people detected their feelings. Finally, the term fell into disregard. In 1811 Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” was published in which sensibility was rebuked and ridiculed. Since then the term has never really recovered.Now it is used mostly in the plural form and not in an entirely positive way.
Still in the jungle of English terms regarding the senses, it remains one of the few terms describing the connection between our senses and our inner life.
“As for landscape, its material form exists, but its flavour is incorporeal.”
Zong Bing (around 400 C.E.), Preface on Landscape Painting, transl. James Cahill
Earlier I have written about the mood of a landscape much in the way Zong Bing talks about its “flavour”. What both terms mean is an inherent quality of a landscape, something that the artist detects, not something he or she adds to it. What the artist attempts is to become a conduit for the character, mood or “flavour” of a landscape.
During the history of landscape art this has been one of the major approaches to the subject, often called something like the “objective” school of landscape art. Whenever such a school became dominant, however, a counter-movement, a “subjective” school, was sure to follow.
Years end is for me always a time for housekeeping. That includes managing my photo library. For that purpose I have been using a commercial application that I also use more generally for post-production of the photos from the camera. While the app is really good for post-production, it is, ahem, less good for image management. So far, as we tend to do with commercial apps, I had adopted my workflow around the quirks of the app, especially the slowness of its management functions. Now, at the end of 2017, I recognized that these workarounds had led to a situation where I didn’t really feel being in control of my photo library. One workaround too far, so to speak. It was, for example, sometimes difficult for me to find older works or even the originals to prints currently on sale. Yes, that bad.
One can make a simple experiment: to stand on a plain or at a shore and to look out on the horizon. The question is: where within the field of view is the horizon? Right, it is close to smack in the middle. But this exercise is not quite straightforward. When looking straight out, everything close to us becomes blurry and we tend to ignore, or only half-see, the foreground. The angle of view of sharpest focus is much smaller than the overall angle of view our eyes can cover. This influences where we see the horizon and we really have to concentrate in order to see it in the middle of our overall field of view.
The above experiment also only works on a flat plain like the open sea. As soon as our position is elevated or depressed our perception of where the horizon lies changes. Where is then a good position for the horizon in a photograph? That is an excellent question and thanks for asking. Let’s think about it.
If we see nothing, then this does not mean that nothing is there. John D. Barrow, The Artful Universe
It is not really news that human perception is limited. We hear only within a certain frequency spectrum, we can only see within a certain range of wavelengths and only things of a certain minimum size. Our perception is also optimised for a certain time window.
No wonder then that humans have been wondering forever what it is out there that we don’t perceive. The “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns” to quote a former U.S. politician. Photography can stretch into some of these unknowns but that opens questions of its own.
“It is like an autumn evening under a colorless expanse of silent sky. Somehow, as if for some reason that we should be able to recall, tears well uncontrollably.”
Kamo no Chōmei, An Account of my Hut, 1212
Many aesthetic terms and concepts are elusive. That might be because they often seem to stem from emotion first and only afterwards are translated into concepts. Something, we can’t quite put our finger on and still can’t resist to try. And while the concepts often seem culture-bound the underlying sentiments, I believe, often are universal.
One of the most elusive aesthetic concepts I have encountered is the notion described in the quote above and called in Japanese “yūgen”.