One of the more comforting lines from my arsenal of stolen ideas comes from world-famous, long dead artist and print maker Katsushika Hokusai, creator of the renowned and thoroughly absorbed images of Mt Fuji. It goes:
From the age of six, I had a passion for copying the form of things and since the age of fifty I have published many drawings, yet of all I drew by my seventieth year there is nothing worth taking in to account. At seventy-three years I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants. And so, at eighty-six I shall progress further; at ninety I shall even further penetrate their secret meaning, and by one hundred I shall perhaps truly have reached the level of the marvelous and divine. When I am one hundred and ten, each dot, each line will possess a life of its own.
For me it’s impossible not be be heartened by this idea that growth will come with time and effort. Even though it may not be true in most cases, it’s true enough to be valuable. The Japanese phrase Ganbatte, usually used when a westerner would say ‘good luck’ actually translates closer to ‘do your best’ and goes some way to crystallize the work ethic of Japanese people from an outsider’s perspective. Effort, not luck or chance, wins out and is to be appreciated. Speaking of value derived from effort, here’s another heartening export from Japan:
- Netsuke, the ancient Japanese art of hanging stuff from things
Netsuke began as a perfunctory, pragmatic item; since samurai robes had no appreciable pocket space, samurai held their pipes, writing equipment, d20s etc in little boxes (called sagemono) which were suspended from their sashes. Tying the sagemono onto the sashes would be time-consuming and unsightly if the knots weren’t pristine, and would require more cordage to achieve.
The more elegant solution was to connect the sagemono to a cord, the other end of which would hold something like what you see above; a peg, disc, sphere or other shaped bauble that prevented the cord from simply falling away between the sash and the samurai’s bod. This allowed for speedy removal but also allowed the samurai to express themselves (or in rather more cases, commission someone to do the expressing for them)
At the above left you can see the complete ensemble, in this case from the Edo period but likely made in the late 18th century, with phenomenal detail pushed into every aspect of the sagemono and netsuke. In this instance, the netsuke was made by ôhara Mitsuhiro and the sagemono by Koami Shinsaburo, which goes some way in suggesting the amount of labour that went into these items, and the prestige connected to the ownership of such functional high-art.
On the above right there’s a depiction of the demon-queller Shoki, bursting from his scroll to defend the owner of the netsuke and protect them from evil spirits, perhaps. As with the first example, spiritual allusions and representations of deities, characters from fables and mythological creatures were fairly common, and allowed the craftsmen to create massively diverse pieces; rabbits, frogs, children or even whole families have been immortalized in ivory and hardwood.
The reason I’m so hyped about these items should be of no surprise; it’s damn hard to make intricate pieces from wood, harder still to make them small, and harderer stiller to do so while incorporating various inlays and metallurgical techniques to, say, give a roof silver tiling or an animal mother-of-pearl eyes. It’s astonishing to me, and inspirational in the extreme to know that skill such as that has existed for hundreds of years. The industry may have died down, but the ingenuity and drive for quality are traits still shown in modern day artists who keep the craft and history of the artform alive.
For example, Tatsuya Ino‘s combination of videographic style and evident skill makes watching the process a pleasure unto itself, with the finished article seeming all the more impressive for our knowledge of its creation. That’s how I feel, anyway:
- The Olympic Channel’s video series
So naturally the legacy of the Olympics kinda requires people to still be engaged with the idea of international sport and cooperation to achieve excellence in order to work, and so far I’ve seen precisely zero engagement on that platform from non-athletes and fairweather sports enthusiasts.
Which is a shame since the video series put out by The Olympic Channel has high quality videos released every few days, showing the culture of elite athleticism as well as the physical output of those athletes. it’s fascinating stuff, but as a person more keen on working with people than working on myself, the series called The Z Team really took my eye in. It follows bottom-of-the-leaguers as they receive coaching from Olympians who walk the talk and know the sport they’re coaching in forwards and backwards:
Aside from these stories, The Olympic Channel website has hundreds of articles and videos on every sport in the Olympics, brimming with insight into coaching, training and performing at an international level. I’m surprised the page isn’t pushed more.
- Genius is Eternal Patience – Michelangelo
I was going back over my architecture notes recently and found a pattern that I’d either forgotten about or never noticed; when talking about spaces or movements through a building, the people I worked under would talk about impressions and abstractions, “this could feel very Philosopher in Meditation, couldn’t it?” but when it came to talk about façades, particularly the newer additions to Birmingham’s walkways and public buildings, only one name was mentioned- Michelangelo.
“It’s not what Michelangelo envisioned” is a quote I have down from my second day at the firm, said on the way to work as I quizzed a junior architect about the new Birmingham library. “look up: Saint Peter’s Longitudinal” is in the margin of my notes 5 days later, when I was encouraged to be less reliant on the software to create accurate renderings of buildings we had visited.
Michelangelo was an inspiration for half the firm, it seemed, and here was me thinking he was only good for making Davids. One thing I really enjoyed when looking for Michelangelo’s works was the amount of bits and pieces we still have that give a glimpse of the process; sketches unfinished but with a hint of an idea intact that can be found extant in the building he designed or the painting he finished. It’s a pretty cool rabbit hole to fall down:
- Listening to Paradise Lost
I ditched my Now TV account in order to remain cost-neutral when I took up an Audible subscription, a choice that made sense both in terms of content (I had finished Lost again, and zombies/American dramas do very little for me) and in terms of time: catching 15 minutes of a book on the way to work instead of listening to the same Jazz megamix feels a more productive use of the cycle’s duration.
After milling about on the site I remembered there was one book i was always encouraged to read aloud (to get the wordfeel textflavour or some such literary sommelier contrivance). This seemed to be a handy sidestep to that hassle, and thus I came to own the audiobook of Paradise Lost, by John Milton.
There may be some merit to the reading-aloud point, since Milton was blind at the time of writing and had to dictate his work, meaning he would’ve had to face the syntax ear-on. Either way, returning to the work has provided some choice quotations, such as:
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater?
Here at least
We shall be free…
Here we see Satan coming to terms with his Fall; realising that Hell, being a land ostensibly for him and his compatriots, is his lot to mould, he begins to make the best of it and encourages others to do the same.
This is one of the first passages Milton creates that builds on the concept of the Devil being a sympathetic, even relatable character. We see him try to rouse his friends to action with commanding rhetoric rather than violence, we see him display mental fortitude in the face of adversity but better still, we see him open a democratic dialogue with his peers to discover the next course of action. No such traits are displayed in the following book by God, who (perhaps necessarily) is inscrutable and single-minded, or by Jesus who is almost too willing to sacrifice himself for the creature who has yet to even come into existence.
Satan here highlights the power in perception, along the lines of Camus’ Sisyphus, and shows that there can only be a victor if the enemy accepts defeat. If the Devil can make a heaven of hell, even if it only is so within his own mind, he has defeated God by perverting the punishment He’s laid out. This is a skill that, if applied wholeheartedly, makes one immune to pain, loss, hunger and death itself. If the Biblical God gave us the gift of life, Milton’s Satan has given us the gift of navigating that life powerfully.
- No Song this week, since I’ve been neck deep in the podcasts I’m behind on BUT SPEAKING OF PODCASTS
Song Exploder is the podcast I wish I was cool enough to make, and it does a job desperately needed in the music industry: it allows artists to wax lyrical on their processes and methods, machines and mechanics and gives the listeners deeper insights into how the music they love got made. Highlights in this Clipping. episode include: all of the sounds are made from field recordings?! and Clipping. set stipulations for their raps like never using first person pronouns. ever. It’s super duper cool and they’re not overly long so you can burn through your favorite artists fairly quickly then get into some new music with a newly focused ear-hole.
That’s all for now, I’m working on a longer-form piece about fasting, metabolemics and doing things because you haven’t done them before, but that’ll be out around June 25th so until then, listen to all of The Adventure Zone podcasts.