My analyst catches me reading an old number of ‘International Netsuke Society Journal’. He wants to know more.
I confess: “Netsuke are my passion”.
“Very well, he says. Let’s begin by solving this problem.”
“Problem ?!? Netsuke are absolutely not a problem for me” I protest.
“Perfect : that’s exactly the problem” he replies.
My analyst leafs through the old number of the ‘INSJ’. That’s how I discover how right was Arthur Mervyn Stockwood, Anglican Bishop of Southwark from 1959 to 1980, when he wrote: “A psychiatrist is a man who goes to the Folies-Bergères and looks at the audience”.
In our case: “A psychiatrist is a person who leafs through the International Netsuke Society Journal and analyzes its readers”.
The netsuke disease
Netsuke as a disease : nothing really unheard of. 1990 : HIH Prince Norihito of Takamado writes : “The disease caused by the Netsuke virus is indeed a serious malady. It sends strong roots deep into the hearts of its victims; it is incurable, even by the most radical methods; and it has spread and attached itself to carriers all over the world” (Foreword to “Netsuke – Japanese Life and Legend in miniature” by Edwin C. Symmes and again at page 61 of EuroNetsuke n.33 – Spring 2009).
Netsuke as a disease : nothing really new, but we are now moving from Virology to Psychoanalysis, from “strong roots deep into the hearts” to even stronger roots into even the deepest depths.
Your madness is my business
The analyst pauses to carefully read a passage on page 30 of the Winter 2009 issue of INSJ :
Madness —I’ve always thought there is a vein of healthy madness in the world of netsuke. To begin with, some of the artist-craftsmen who conceived, carved, and signed them (not always with their own name) were a bit mad (pleasantly paranoid, you might say). Mad too were the men who commissioned the netsuke, bled themselves dry to buy them and proudly exhibited them. And then mad are the devotees who, in today’s vulgar, foolish, violent world, study and collect and caress these universes-in-miniature, each a tiny embodiment of an entire civilization, each offering glimpses of profound wisdom and moments of absolute and not necessarily chaste pleasure.
This joking tongue-in-cheek and basically affectionate diagnosis of madness quite interests my analyst I should have known it : there are few madmen madder than the doctors of madmen.
What follows is the point of view of my analyst on the psychological values of netsuke and guajian. Perhaps no one has yet dealt with our mad passion for
netsuke with such mad thoughts. They’re worth listening to.
Counterweight as Counterpoint
The psychiatrist begins quite reasonably: “These minute objects – he says – are born
to be counterweights for objects of everyday use (pipe bags, eating kits, tinder pouches, etc.) that are hung from the belt of clothing traditionally without pockets.
Certainly, it’s quite true that with a pinch of fantasy we can understand their function of ‘counterweight’ metaphorically: an antidote (‘counter’) to the psychic tensions (‘weights’) of human beings. The person who wore them perhaps also used to lightly touch his netsuke with his fingertips as a gesture of discharge, exactly because touch at times solves the need to release emotional flows in action. That is the reason for the choice of smooth materials that are pleasant to touch, the rounded shape that invites caresses and why, in the most antique examples, the most lived and loved of our netsuke, there is a patina deriving from frequent contact with human skin and its oils.
‘Sex with someone I love’
Physical contact also creates a psychic bond. Contact with an inanimate object may represent a substitute for a more mature and complex bond with another human being, recognized as external and independent of oneself. Thus contact with an object may at times even be a substitute for contact with a person: it takes the place of an encounter between two touches, two emotions, two lives.
In the pleasure of caressing a netsuke, one can even profile compensation for a sexuality not mature enough to share tactile pleasures with another percipient organism. Instead it is resolved in a solipsistic relationship with an object subconsciously considered to be part of the representation of one’s own self. In fact, Woody Allen – quoted above about something not quotable here – says he made love with a person he highly esteems: himself.
This however is a view extraneous to Oriental culture based on an interdependent Self, radically opposed to the independent Self of Westerners which is more predisposed to sensorial stimulation.
Moreover, the excessive underlining of the tactile relationship certainly neglects the conspicuous social role of guajian and netsuke: to transmit to others one’s own needs and one’s identity..
Your papers, please !
Worn on a belt, held between the fingers and showing others one’s own identity.
In fact, an individual commissioned the designing and creation of a netsuke or a guajan according to his personal taste and to communicate his identity, in addition naturally to the apotropaic and positive auspice he hoped to obtain from the object, from the material in which it was carved and from the image it represented with its multiple symbolic values, often enriched by further interpretations (the ‘subtext’ of the most modern theories of scriptwriting) played on the similar sounds of different words.
What remains true is that guajian and netsuke unite tightly interwoven psychic values – expression of one’s identity, apotropaic capacity and tactile support – typical of the Asian mentality free from the dichotomous scissions of Western rationality.
‘Anicca’ in San Francisco
At an even deeper level, the most elementary considerations regarding the impact of guajian or netsuke on the human mind also suggest the consequence of a subconscious perception of the precariousness of the human condition.
These psychic needs, this all-consuming sense of impermanence are most evident in nomadic or pastoral peoples who are used to not having the protection and comfort of a fixed abode. Nomads were forced to carry with them their riches and small objects meant to protect them from the pervasive occult powers concealed in the natural environment. However, geographically stable civilizations like that of the essentially agricultural Chinese and Japanese or even our contemporary Western civilization are not exempt from these deep psychic needs.
Perhaps one is not freed of these deep psychic needs even if one lives in the shadow of the surprising wooded enclave of Macondray Lane or in a loft in Manhattan where the subway resembles the spine of a subterranean snake and relationships with fellow citizens are often conflicting, a clash of interior spaces. All this reminds our subconscious all too much of the battle for self-affirmation during the time of emotional development preceding the differentiation process.
The path to perfection (Dhammapada XX.277)
Amendment from the relationship to transitional objects like guajian and netsuke takes place by way of a profound transformation of one’s perception of self and of the universe. This transformation is rendered with evocative incisiveness in the words of Sun Wukong, the divine monkey, the protagonist of the classic Chinese novel “Journey to the West”: «My master, he who has left the house and became a monk must dine with the wind and dwell on the water, lie down beneath the moon and sleep in the forest. His house is everywhere; so why ask where we shall rest?»
Just as poetically, a Tibetan describes the Chang Tang, an immense desert of grass in the north of his country, as “the place where you feel lost until you realize that the sky is your tent».
My analyst then hammers it home : my wish for you and for all the Readers of EuroNetsuke and netsuke collectors is that the fingers of your souls may caress the veil of the sky and lightly touch the face of God.
If whoever reads this article deems that the considerations put forth up to here merit at the least a psychiatric visit, I kindly ask the reader not to send the Psychiatric Ambulance to me, but to Stefano Pernatsch.
I’d like to conclude these reflections on collecting with the words of Steven Wright which I find both lyrical and brilliant: “I have the world’s largest collection of seashells. I keep it on all the beaches of the world.”