The Timeless Wisdom of Kenko

A 14th-century Japanese essayist’s advice for troubled times runs the gamut from quirky to prescient

Kenko had little trouble living with the idea that things were getting worse. "The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty," he wrote. (Kikuchi Yosai /
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Kenko is charming, off-kilter, never gloomy. He is almost too intelligent to be gloomy, or in any case, too much a Buddhist. He writes in one of the essays: “A certain man once said, ‘Surely nothing is so delightful as the moon,’ but another man rejoined, ‘The dew moves me even more.’ How amusing that they should have argued the point.”

He cherished the precarious: “The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.” He proposed a civilized aesthetic: “Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth.” Perfection is banal. Better asymmetry and irregularity.

He stressed the importance of beginnings and endings, rather than mere vulgar fullness or success: “Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless? To long for the moon while looking on the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of the spring—these are even more deeply moving. Branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration.”

At a time when flowers have been wilting, when assets dwindle and mere vulgar fullness may suggest something as unpromising as a portfolio managed by Bernard Madoff, the eye might appreciate a moon obscured by clouds.

Of houses, Kenko says: “A man’s character, as a rule, may be known from the place where he lives.” For example: “A house which multitudes of workmen have polished with every care, where strange and rare Chinese and Japanese furnishings are displayed, and even grasses and trees of the garden have been trained unnaturally, is ugly to look at and most depressing. A house should look lived in, unassuming.” So much for the McMansion.

In a time of traumatic change, some writers or artists or composers may withdraw from the world in order to compose their own universe—Prospero’s island.

That is how Montaigne, in the midst of France’s 16th-century Catholic-Protestant wars, came to write his Essaies, which changed literature. After an estimable career as courtier under Charles IX, as member of the Bordeaux parliament, as a moderating friend of both Henry III and Henry of Navarre during the bloody wars of religion, Montaigne withdrew to the round tower on his family estate in Bordeaux. He announced: “In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michel de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out.... he has consecrated [this sweet ancestral retreat] to his freedom, tranquility and leisure.”

The wood over his doorway was inscribed to read, “Que sais-je?”—“What do I know?”—the pre-eminent question of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. So, surrounded by his library of 1,500 books, he began to write.

Montaigne followed a method of composition much like Kenko’s. In Japanese it is called zuihitsu, or “follow the brush”—that is, jot down the thoughts as they come to you. This may produce admirable results, if you are Kenko or Montaigne.

I find both to be stabilizing presences. A person’s sense of balance depends upon the inner ear; it is to the inner ear that such writers speak. Sometimes I get the effect by taking a dip in the Bertie Wooster stories of P. G. Wodehouse, who wrote such wonderful sentences as this description of a solemn young clergyman: “He had the face of a sheep with a secret sorrow.” Wodehouse, too, would eventually live in exile (both geographical and psychological), in a cottage on Long Island, remote from his native England. He composed a Bertie Wooster Neverland—the Oz of the twit. The Wizard, more or less, was the butler Jeeves.


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