Wheat & Chaff
Dear David F Burditt
As you obviously know, an editor is one who separates the wheat from the chaff
and prints the chaff. (Adlai Stevenson 1966).
I would like to comment with you on the chaff titled : “Guajian, Chinese Toggles : Netsuke’s Newest Old Frontier” published by the International Netsuke Society Journal on its last Winter 2009 issue, pages 30-32.
The author intended to provoke us, scholars and collectors of netsuke and to make a splash, alluding to Basho’s frog in the ancient pool of knowledge about netsuke. Unfortunately, as they say around here, “he missed the toilet”. It still sounds like water, but it isn’t exactly pleasant, especially when it comes from a guest in your bathroom.
I will limit myself to countering his “Nine Explanations for Love Impetuous for Chinese toggles” with just as many, and possibly more, reasons for a reasonable and refined love for Netsuke. Love from the mind, the heart and the gut: a well-cultured intellectual stimulus and infinite sensual pleasure.
1. A netsuke is pleasing from the first moment you set eyes on it. It speaks to you and challenges you. You want to discover what it represents and why.
2. You study every part, look at it from every angle, and work your way across each millimeter of it. You caress it with your eyes, but above all with your soul.
3. Then you know it even with your eyes closed, like Solomon knew the lovely maidens who cheered his nights or like the old man who visited Kawabata’s “House of the Sleeping Beauties.” You retrace each curve, each detail, and penetrate each fold. You possess it.
4. You sniff it, try to decipher sediments of antique perfumes, you breathe them in and . . . I’ll stop here and instead advise that those who have tasted the petites madeleines of Proust try an unknown, profoundly sensual jewel, ”I feel you, Giuditta” by Piero Chiara. (Transatlantic Review, n. 29, London–New York, Summer 1968). If you haven’t read it, you can’t understand. If you can’t understand, what’s stopping you from reading it?
5. Now that you know everything about its physical aspects and a bit more about yourself, you can make space for intellectualizing. We could, but it’s not obligatory, start with the signature. Is it signed? Let’s decipher that name: is it in the
list of known signatures?
6. Did you find its maker? You want to know everything about this netsukeshi: who he was, what he did, where he lived, how he lived. What was said and written about him, from his days to the present.
7. You now know about his life. It’s normal that you want to see as many of his works as possible. What others netsuke did he carve? Is this piece coherent with the others attributed to him? Days and days might go by. Days of pure pleasure. To be savoured slowly, moment by moment.
8. No, it’s not signed. Good, maybe better. Who could be its maker? You adventure into unexplored territory, infinitely more intriguing than discovering the murderer in a mystery or the guilty party in a crime case.
There is always some clue, one can always invent a lead. The adventure is as exciting as the song of the Sirens. But let’s not get tied up to the mast like Ulysses. Family, work, earning money, the serious stuff in life—does all that urge us not to give in to the terribly dangerous temptation of proposing an attribution to this netsuke, even if it’s not signed? No one has tried, no one has gotten there before you? Because no one has loved this netsuke as much you do. And you will find out who carved it.
And when you’ve formulated an hypothesis, when you have perhaps a name, you go back up to point 6.
9. Let’s go on to the iconography. The same theme —whatever it is—has certainly been treated by other netsukeshi in other times. You want to see them all. You want to savour all the variations of your theme as only Elliot Gould knew how to with the Goldberg Variations.
10. But there is more than netsuke in life (one could discuss this point, but for the momen let’s just accept it). You want now to discover the theme of your netsuke in sculptures, paintings, tissues, prints, and in the illustrated books offering models for the artisans. Perhaps the theme of your netsuke was invented by Inaba Tsuryu or perhaps Hokusai. And if you’re lucky, you’ll find it in literature, novels, poetry. In chronicles and legends. And in everyday life.
11. Like everything in the Orient—everything—even this netsuke signifies something more than what it is. It is a symbol, it alludes, evokes; it can be experienced on different levels. You want to explore all of them.
12. Now this time-machine netsuke has transported you into a dimension where you hear the voices of people, the songs of maidens, the music of the theater, the sounds of the streets. At this point nothing that is human from that period is alien for you. At this point . . .
13. . . . at this point you have no choice. You MUST return to No. 1 above and go through the whole itinerary again—the entire extraordinary voyage done up to here— because now you are not the same person you were before. This tiny object you encountered days, months, perhaps years ago, has changed you and enriched you so deeply, that every step of the preceding voyage is now a new experience, a never before felt emotion.
Heraclitus says: “No man can bathe himself in the same river two times, because neither the man nor the river waters are the same.” Our relationship—of study and love—with a netsuke can also never be the same. It is new each time.
Again Heraclitus: Panta rei, everything flows. And the sound of water is—as it has always been—a marvelous sound of life.
To end on an epic note, I will confess that in a netsuke “I’ve seen things other people wouldn’t believe” But, differently from ‘Blade Runner’, all those moments will never be lost in time, like tears in the rain. They will be savoured over and over and over like a sip of a 1939 ‘Chateau Lafite-Rothschild’.
In a netsuke we can savour things that the Chinese toggles lover Franco Bellino could never—I will not say understand—even suspect. Take it from me.