Exemption from Meaning

Mu, emptiness

The haiku has this rather fantasmagorical property: that we always suppose we ourselves can write such things easily. We tell ourselves: what could be more accessible to spontaneous writing than this (by Buson):

It is evening, in autumn,
All I can think of
Is my parents.

The haiku wakens desire: how many Western readers have dreamed of strolling through life, notebook in hand, jotting down “impressions” whose brevity would guarantee their perfection, whose simplicity would attest to their profundity (by virtue of a double myth, one classical, which makes concision a proof of art, the other romantic, which attributes a premium of truth to improvisation). While being quite intelligible, a haiku means nothing, and it is by this double condition that it seems open to meaning in a particularly available, serviceable way – the way of a polite host who lets you make yourself at home with all your preferences, your values, your symbols intact; the haiku’s “absence” (we say as much of a distracted mind as of a landlord off on a journey) suggests subornation, a breach, in short the major covetousness, that of meaning. This precious, vital meaning, desirable as fortune (chance and money), the haiku, being without metrical constraints (in our translations), seems to afford in profusion, cheaply and made to order; in the haiku, one might say, symbol, metaphor, and moral cost almost nothing: scarcely a few words, an image, a sentiment – where our literature ordinarily requires a poem, a development, or (in the genres of brevity) a chiseled thought; in short, a long rhetorical labor. Hence the haiku seems to give the West certain rights which its own literature denies it, and certain commodities which are parsimoniously granted. You are entitled, says the haiku, to be trivial, short, ordinary; enclose what you see, what you feel, in a slender horizon of words, and you will be interesting; you yourself (and starting from yourself) are entitled to establish your own notability; your sentence, whatever it may be, will enunciate a moral, will liberate a symbol, you will be profound: at the least possible cost, your writing will be filled.

The West moistens everything with meaning, like an authoritarian religion which imposes baptism on entire peoples; the objects of language (made out of speech) are obviously de jure converts: the first meaning of the system summons, metonymically, the second meaning of discourse, and this summons has the value of a universal obligation. We have two ways of sparing discourse the infamy of non-meaning (non-sense), and we systematically subject utterance (in a desperate filling-in of any nullity which might reveal the emptiness of language) to one or the other of these significations (or active fabrications of signs): symbol and reasoning, metaphor and syllogism. The haiku, whose propositions are always simple, commonplace, in a word acceptable (as we say in linguistics), is attracted into one or the other of these two empires of meaning. Since it is a “poem,” we assign it to that part of the general code of sentiments called “poetic emotion” (for us, Poetry is ordinarily the signifier of the “diffuse,” of the “ineffable,” of the “sensitive,” it is the class of impressions which are unclassifiable); we speak of “concentrated emotion,” of “sincere notation of a privileged moment,” and above all of “silence” (silence being for us the sign of language’s fulfillment). If one of their poets (Joko) writes:

How many people
Have crossed the Seta bridge
Through the autumn rain?

we perceive the image of fleeting time. If another (Bashō) writes:

I come by the mountain path.
Ah! this is exquisite!
A violet!

it is because he has encountered a Buddhist hermit, the “flower of virtue”; and so on. Not one feature fails to be invested by the Western commentator with a symbolic charge. Or again, we seek at all costs to construe the haiku’s tercet (it’s three verses of five, seven, and five syllables) as a syllogistic design in three tenses (rise, suspense, conclusion):

The old pond:
A frog jumps in:
Oh! The sound of the water.

(in this singular syllogism, inclusion is achieved by force: in order to be contained in it, the minor premise must leap into the major). Of course, if we renounce metaphor or syllogism, commentary would become impossible: to speak of the haiku would be purely and simply to repeat it. Which is what one commentator of Bashō does, quite innocently:

Already four o’clock…
I have got up nine times
To admire the moon.

“The moon is so lovely,” he says, “that the poet gets up repeatedly to contemplate it at his window.” Deciphering, normalizing, or tautological, the ways of interpretation, intended in the West to pierce meaning, i.e., to get into it by breaking and entering – and not to shake it, to make it fall like the tooth of that ruminant-of-the-absurd which the Zen apprentice must be, confronting his koan – cannot help failing the haiku; for the work of reading which is attached to it is to suspend language, not to provoke it: an enterprise whose difficulty and necessity Bashō himself, the master of the haiku, seemed to recognize:

How admirable he is
Who does not think “Life is ephemeral”
when he sees a flash of lightning!

Roland Barthes
Empire of Signs (1970)

Illustration: Mu, emptiness


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