Zuihitsu on The Strangeness of Beauty
The Strangeness of Beauty is nothing like the Japanese literature I’ve read. It is terribly conscious that an American is reading it, so all of the Japanese terms are explained in-text, and some Japanese terms are abandoned for American ones. Fuji-sama (I assume) becomes “Most Honorable Mrs. Fuji,” and Minatoya explains simple things like split-toed socks and the Obon festival. Our narrator, Etsuko, goes off for pages on Japanese history lessons on samurai manners or the significance of bridal gifts. Instead of feeling like an insider, as I do when I read (translated) Japanese literature, I’m suddenly an ignorant white American, and I resent that. I wish Etsuko felt like she could be herself, and I don’t understand why she’s explaining all these Japanese things.
Etsuko often tells too much. After explaining how she always paused to smell herbs in her childhood home, she says, “I loved the aromas of the drying herbs” (102). As if it weren’t already evident! Another time after Hanae shouts, Etsuko tells us, “Mari’s sudden shallowness makes Hanae angry” (158). Does she have to spell it out? Another thing about Etsuko: she’s terribly self-conscious and doesn’t do anything to fix the flaws she notices. She writes, “I’m growing bored with my I-story. All reminiscence, no action” (110). She doesn’t make it more exciting though; she just reminisces some more. When speaking of Hanae’s seriousness, Etsuko says that adolescence is the place for “self-conscious moping” (70). She should have added “I-stories” as a place for moping.
Despite my problems with Minatoya’s style, there are some things I’ve really enjoyed about her novel. Chie feels like a real old person to me. So many times I think elderly people are simplified as either bumbling idiots or wise sages. Chie can be cruel, but she has feelings for her descendents. Sometimes I feel the same way about my own grandma. I lived with my grandparents for my first two years of college, and I found out that my grandma isn’t always comforting and smiling. She has strong opinions about what I should do with my life and the kind of man I should marry. But despite (or maybe because of) her constant reminders that I should look for a good job or get a better boyfriend, she loves me and wants me to have a happy life. And I think Chie feels the same way about her daughter when she says “you walk like a turtle! […] An intelligent turtle, whose curiosity outreaches its stride” (269).
I think I finally understand what Etsuko was “doing” with her I-story. Etsuko explains how one day she and her husband saw many amateur painters, all trying to paint irises, but with all of their paintings looking the same. Etsuko saw beauty in their mediocrity, because it represented their sincere effort. She says this is the strangeness of beauty: “that transcendence can be found in what’s common and small” (350). I think people like mothers and teachers can understand this, but coolly cynical almost-graduate students like me have a hard time with it. It’s unhip to like things that are popular and amateurish… but if I’m going to enjoy art instead of constantly criticizing it (as I do on the first page of this essay), I need to learn to see the good in things instead of constantly finding faults. At the same time, finding flaws and problems in literature is part of what teachers encourage from literature students. Sometimes I find it difficult to just enjoy a book, no matter how common or flawed it might appear.
Another thing about enjoying the strangeness of beauty is that our culture does not encourage it. Mediocre is no longer acceptable, as shown by grade inflation, my high school declining to reveal class rankings (for fear of parent bereavement?), and motivational speakers urging students not to be satisfied with mediocrity, to keep pushing to do their best. No wonder so many students have problems with perfectionism! But seriously, what’s wrong with mediocrity? Plenty of kids are average. Why does that seem so sad to me? I irrationally value excellence and intelligence, probably because I was rewarded for it so often growing up. In the end though, excellence and intelligence are not enough to make me value life.
Going back to The Strangeness of Beauty, Minatoya captures to “madness of love” (67) when she describes the underwear Naomi sewed for Hanae, and the waistbands sewed with a thousand stitches in hope that they will protect soldiers from bullets. It’s just this kind of thing that makes me think how stupid love makes people. But why does it seem stupid to me? I evaluate others’ efforts by the usefulness or beauty of the things they produce. Hanae’s underwear isn’t useful, and only Hanae and her family can appreciate its beauty. The waistbands with a thousand stitches are neither bulletproof nor aesthetically pleasing. In these cases, it’s not the utility or the beauty of a thing that matters but the love shown by the effort of doing something crazy. I think the “madness of love” is something I can understand a little easier - I’ve done plenty of stupid things in the name of love – but I haven’t valued those things as an evidence of an effortful love. Maybe I should start enjoying my love madness.
The Strangeness of Beauty helped me to understand how my evaluations of literature are steeped in my assumption that the style of literature should be exemplary or remarkable. Even if I didn’t think that Minatoya’s style was perfect, she helped me to see the beauty in her own novel by explaining the strangeness of beauty in the everyday and mediocre.