Kenko, Essays in Idleness
English translation of Tsurezuregusa
Translated by Donald Keene
Tuttle Press, 1981
“The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.”
If you ask the value and purpose of this book, you will most often be told that it is a touchstone of Japanese aesthetics, an essential text praising what is imperfect, unfinished and perishable. Certainly that’s true. In Tsurezuregusa, a mid 14th century text, you can see a lot of values and ideas that are still very much evident in the 21st. And not just wabi sabi – forcing people to get drunk is also a venerable Japanese tradition!
But to value the book only for this reason – is to render it a museum piece, a textbook. What a shame that would be! Essays in Idleness is not just a book which expresses the Japanese aesthetic. It is book, like Montaigne’s Essays, that is in a hurry to figure out the best way to live. Like Montaigne, Kenko is a middle-aged man determined to make the best use of his time – he’s a sociable renunciant who knows how to enjoy himself.
For example, I was amused to discover how similar Kenko’s essay on drunkenness is to Montaigne’s on the subject. Both men passionately denounce liquor, then admit it’s enjoyable, and finally declare that imbibing is quite human and excusable! It’s easy to imagine either author, halfway though his denunciation, discovering that he was. . . thirsty.
Of course it’s interesting to read about classical instruments and imperial manners -- I am very glad to know that “the carp is a most exalted fish, the only one which may be sliced in the presence of the emperor”. But for me, Kenko is most powerful when he speaks passionately about how to not waste one’s life, or drives home the truth of impermanence:
“I suddenly realized, from the large number of people I could recognize in the crowds passing to and fro before the stands, that there were not so many people in the world, after all. Even if I were not to die until all of them had gone, I should not have long to wait.”