View Full Version : The Hagakure and Absurdity

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Paul Sanderson-Cimino
12-19-2015, 04:01 AM
I feel that aikidoka, and perhaps budoka in general, can relate to Yamamoto Tsunetomo, though perhaps not the constructed author of the Hagakure, i.e., Tsunetomo's idealized "warrior" self. At least, I can. Not because we are samurai who contemplate death at every moment, but because we're people who find an attraction to thinking about being in a state in which we think about death and honor and so forth at every moment.

For anyone who hasn't read the Hagakure, I'd suggest you do. As many others have said, it is bombastic quixotic nonsense that could readily be presented as "sayings of Klingon warriors" written by some stereotypical "neckbeard". Maybe Tsunetomo really does capture at least one strain of "genuine" samurai thought, though it's far from clear to me that "real samurai", i.e., warriors who fought to increase the power of their masters and put down peasant revolts, are more laudable than an eccentric Zen priest who earnestly pursued the value system he was presented with. I've got a lot of sympathy for fanatics.

The Hagakure is a fascinating book, even if one may feel compelled to constantly footnote that the author never actually had to draw a sword in anger. Like a lot of great fiction, it is not overly self-aware, or at least, it does not seem to hesitate to charge off into unknown territory. Sometimes this results in cringe-inducing nonsense, but sometimes it results in unprecedented brilliance, and a genuinely distinctive creative identity. It's a mixture, in my opinion, of (1) utter nonsense (2) reprehensible warrior-propaganda and (3) genuine insight. As a gestalt, it's a truly unique text. Go grab William Scott Wilson's translation if you haven't.

What I like about the Hagakure, from an aikido point of view, is that (if one looks past the constructed author to the actual author) it presents the sort of ridiculousness that we're all engaging in by earnestly studying a "martial art" in the 21st century. I guess the most I can say is that LARPing can ennoble the spirit, the way any kind of pretend can. A worldview built upon reverence for "authenticity" can be very limiting that way. You've got to be kind of arrogant and self-deluding to be truly, enthusiastically imaginative. Granted, there's a difference between indulging this impulse and finding out what exciting, life-affirming places it can lead to, and going totally bonkers and ending up in some maladaptive lunacy (e.g. sensei worship, or the insulting and profane assumption of unearned and uncomprehended "warrior paraphernalia").

What I still struggle with, on some murky level, is how much of a dose it takes to make poison. Is it at all acceptable to tell yourself, completely against empirical reality, "in this kata, I need to embody the mindspace of someone who is fighting for one's life"? Is there any measure of that that is not perverse and wrong? I feel that martial arts (budo) are special in part because one attempts to follow after a counter-historical, counter-factual ideal of "martial training" divorced from actual combat. It's sort of like the question of whether hope was a counterbalance to the horrible things Pandora unleashed, or just the final entry on the list of "the evils of the world". (A friend of mine frequently and earnestly argues that hope is a curse upon all of humanity, and the root of all kinds of evil.) Insert here that Terry Pratchett quote about human beings needing fantasy to be human, to be the place where the falling (or nonexistent) angel meets the rising ape. That's part of why I really couldn't keep up regular attendance at the local BJJ gym. I might end up back there again, because hey, I want to learn some good grappling, but I'm a geek who kind of needs (?) the LARP dimension. Part of who I am is someone who needs fantasy and novelty to be motivated. It just feels a bit cringey when what I'm "appropriating" is as dark as "techniques used to kill people with horrible weapons that I hope I'll never encounter off the mat".

This is kind of a rant. (Or, I guess, "Late Night Idle Talk".) But does anyone know what I mean? I feel like, on some level, to some extent, implicitly or explicitly, we're always (as "martial artists") dealing with the contradiction between reality and fantasy. Have I used too many scare quotes and hedged, qualified terms in this (somewhat alcohol-facilitated) post? Probably. I want to get to bed, so rather than properly editing this, I'll just spin that as some kind of meta-framing: it's appropriate that this post be full of academic handwringing, because it's a post (in part) about academic handwringing. (Check out that parenthetical "in part", and this parenthetical parenthetically disclaiming the previous parenthetical.)

In closing, I think in some ways the most meta-relevant, self-conscious passage in the Hagakure may be the following:

In China there was once a man who liked pictures of dragons, and his clothing and furnishings were all designed accordingly. His deep affection for dragons was brought to the attention of the dragon god, and one day a real dragon appeared before his window. It is said that he died of fright. He was probably a man who always spoke big words but acted differently when facing the real thing.

So yeah. Anyone else feel similarly? I guess my conclusion is that it's really quite shallow and "macho" to mock "LARPing", and to exalt the "warrior" above the "scholar who finds the ideal warrior fantasy fascinating and meaningful". There's a lot of "hurr, only REAL warriors deserve this level of respect" propaganda in modern American society, a lot of fascist veneration of the "alpha male" or the soldier who makes up part of a machine that is collectively a figurative "alpha male". In the end, I think martial artists are cringey to the extent that they start playing mindgames about "playing at war", and turning kata into choreographed unrecorded "fight scenes" rather than exercises that appropriately respect all the human ingenuity and history that went into this tradition that we receive.

But, while I don't like to dwell unhealthily on this awkwardness, I think there's some point in pausing every now and then to acknowledge it. We're all playing pretend. And if we do find deep meaning in that, we should every so often pause to acknowledge that we're getting at truth through the door of fantasy. (Something something Tim O'Brien lies that tell the truth something something?) Myself, I think I'm ultimately okay with lying to myself and deluding myself; I think that's essential to surviving and thriving in the human condition. It's also the origin of a lot of great human achievements. Much of our sciences (social and otherwise) are built on simplifying "models" that are contrary to reality but help us comprehend reality. I professionally study the law; the law itself is largely built upon pretend, which legal scholars call "formalism". Formalism is much derided, to the point where it is a tired old trope to critique a given law or judicial opinion by pointing out "the law treats X as Y, but of course, it is not Y" (e.g. "the law assumes knowledge of the law, but of course, this particular person did not actually know the law"). In the end, though, the law would dissolve, and society with it, if we made everything "true", "accurate", or "literal" and did not indulge in fantastical formalism that borders on Harry Potter-esque magical invocation. ("The contract is made", we say, as though a spell has been cast.) Maybe martial arts can be explained that way, too: e.g., Ueshiba said, "let's understand this technique for throwing down an enemy and killing them with your weapon as a symbolic interplay of the forces of the cosmos", but it's a fantasy.

In closing, I regret that this post was not written entirely within the space of seven breaths.

Jisen Aiki
12-19-2015, 09:20 PM
Hagakure -instruction manual for radical behavior. Reading that book tells you how to die. "The way of the samurai is the way of death" "there can only be 3 outcomes of a skirmish-victory, death, or mutual death"
This book, which I read as a 19 years old hardcore training fanatical martial artist, sent me into a depression, I was highly impressionable I thought I was Samurai and I felt unfulfilled because I didn't have the guts to die like a Samurai.

Dave Gallagher
12-24-2015, 10:14 PM
The Hagakure is one of the best things I have ever read. I think if you read it with only your front eyes you will no understand much of it. You must read it using your back eyes as well. Last year I bought the new translation by Dr. Alex Bennett. I like both the Wilson and the Bennett translations.

12-24-2015, 11:03 PM
Marketing has messed with the tradition a bit I think. Written in a time of relative peace by old guard forces lamenting the fact that they were becoming administrators instead of warriors, it was then published 200 years later. Compare to writings by soldiers of any era or culture, and this does not ring authentic for me.

Michael Douglas
12-26-2015, 03:41 PM
... written by some stereotypical "neckbeard". ..
Do Japanese grow neckbeards? I thought it was an american thing.