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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Wodehouse, Kenko, Dante and Montaigne make an improbable quartet, hilariously diverse. They come as friendly aliens to comfort the inner ear, and to relieve one’s sense, which is strong these days, of being isolated on an earth that itself seems increasingly alien, confusing and unfriendly.

It is a form of vanity to imagine you are living in the worst of times—there have always been worse. In bad times and heavy seas, the natural fear is that things will get worse, and never better. It’s a jolt to a Western, instinctively progressive mind, trained to think of history as ascendant—like the stock market, like housing prices—to find trends running in the other direction.

Still, I remember once going to Kyoto, the scene of Kenko’s exile, and after that I took the bullet train to Hiroshima. The memorial park was there, and the memorial museum with its terrible record of what happened in August 1945—hell itself—and there was the charred skeleton of the dome of the city’s prefecture, preserved as a reminder. But otherwise...a bustling, prospering city, with a thousand neon signs flashing familiar corporate logos. And when you crossed a busy intersection, the “Walk” signal played a tinkling little Japanese version of “Comin’ Through the Rye.”

Those who say the world has gone to hell may be right. It is also true that hell, contra Dante, may be temporary.

Dante, Kenko and Montaigne all wrote as men exiled from power—from the presence of power. But power, too, is only temporary.

Every moment readjusts the coordinates of hope and despair—some of the readjustments are more violent than others. We live now in a validation of Bertrand Russell’s model of “spots and jumps.” In 1931, the philosopher wrote:  “I think the universe is all spots and jumps, without unity, without continuity, without coherence or orderliness or any of the other properties that governesses consists of events, short, small and haphazard. Order, unity and continuity are human inventions, just as truly as are catalogues and encyclopedias.”

Kenko in one essay wrote: “Nothing leads a man astray so easily as sexual desire. The holy man of Kume lost his magic powers after noticing the whiteness of the legs of a girl who was washing clothes. This is quite understandable, considering that the glowing plumpness of her arms, legs and flesh owed nothing to artifice.”

That, too, sends a strange little echo back to our time. The magic power the holy man lost was his ability to fly. Our world regained the magic, and it gave us Charles Lindbergh, Hiroshima, global travel, 9/11 and the Nigerian terrorist who, coming into Detroit one Christmas Day, set his underpants on fire.

We are surrounded by magic, some good, some evil and some both at once—an excess of magic, a confusion of it. Solitary Kenko brushed his cranky, acerbic thoughts onto scraps of paper that survived through the centuries only by luck; they might just as well have rotted on the walls or gone out with the trash. But look at our magic now: you can Google Kenko, and if you have a Kindle or Nook or iPad or some other e-reader, you can reassemble all of Kenko or Dante or Montaigne electronically upon a thin, flat screen—from which it may also vanish at a touch, in a nanosecond.

A trompe l’oeil universe: creation and un-creation—poof! Precious writers are miraculously diffused through the Web, you fetch them out of the air itself. And they may disappear more quickly than Kenko’s vanishing blossoms or shrouded moons. The universe is not a solid thing.


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