Like a window I looked through it. A world not so different from my own, though the scene the print portrayed existed four hundred odd years before I stood in front of it, thousands of miles and hundreds of years from its creating.
A world I recognised in intimate detail. Winds dislodging leaves from trees. Seas disturbed into frothy cauldrons. Mountains, implacable, the backdrop to trees which blossomed and sprouted and grew.
The floating world, explained the exhibition’s introduction, was an “ironic reference” to the “sorrowful world” of Buddhist philosophy. The Japanese artists whose work I’d come to see were gently mocking the Buddhist’s lamenting of a world where everything is transient and all life is suffering. The woodblock artists of this period, I learn, revelled and celebrated the material pleasures of the earthly plane. There are allusions to brothels and “pleasure seekers” and the glorious chaos of urban culture.
Yet, tracing the lines of the waterfall that still seems to move and flow in the hushed, dry atmosphere of the gallery, I see a floating world beyond brothels and city life.
A world of leaves drifting from branches; of snow smoothing out tiled roofs. Of kites swept up by Autumn gusts; of pine trees dripping after the rain.
I’m reminded of haiku poems, expressing a season or a moment in a few short lines.
Blowing from the west
Fallen leaves gather
In the east.
– Yosa Buson
The floating world and the seasons
To me, the floating world and the sorrowful world are one and the same. Beneath the city lights and concrete streets is the certainty that our cities, too, will crumble and change. Celebrating earthly pleasures is celebrating a fragile, transient thing. Think of the derelict factories of Detroit; the abandoned city of Angkor Wat.
None of what we build lasts, and here in the mountains that’s as evident as it must have been to Hokusai, drawing Mount Fuji again and again, never quite the same. The migratory birds have left now, the walnuts are falling to the ground under the trees, the brambles we cut are sinking into soil. The compost heap shrinks and settles.
The seasons turn and so there is no constant. Only the endless cycle. Some things take a long time to pass through this plane. An oak tree is said to take one hundred years to grow, one hundred years to live, and one hundred years to die. The smallest plants and insects survive only hours.
All of this transient, floating, and yes perhaps that does seem like something that would bring sorrow.
Certainly it challenges our ego-view of a clear, linear thread through our lives. Of a neat story we can tell, with some bumps in the road and a dragon or two to battle, and which ends ‘happily ever after’. The seasons do not conform to that model. They speak to me of layers and layers of lessons, falling one on top of the other, of passing through the same place twice, three, countless times.
Of returning every year to the darkness and the void, and then the light and creation. We make those same journeys again and again, tread those same paths, and so our stories are not linear but circling, or to be more accurate, spiralling.
Labrynthine we grow, in twists and turns and doubling back.
The floating world and the seasons
This evening the cold is here. Rain rattles on the roof; I am cooking rice, poaching an egg, soothing myself with the comfort I crave. Wrapping myself in blankets, telling myself it’s OK to leave what I thought I ought to have done with this time, and to rest instead. Crawl under the covers and let my soft animal body rest as it longs to.
I think I have shaken this tiredness, this soft sadness, every year in Spring. And at this time it returns, and I am ashamed to succumb to it like I am ashamed to write about it. This is too morose, I tell myself sternly. This is not what people want to read.
In my floating world Autumn is here again, and this season is no more real than the emotions which flit across my mind like clouds. No more real than the castle I’m building in my mind, the dreams I have, the empires I plan.
If this is all a dream, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. The dream is all we know, and we can honour it and learn from it.
I can let this evening be, let the floating world carry me, and delight in it. It feels so familiar, and yet the Buddhists are right – everyhting is new, each moment unique, if we can only learn to pay attention.