Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
(Tears are at the heart of things and we are touched by transience.)
Like “yūgen“, “mono no aware” is often seen as one of the core concepts of Japanese aesthetics. The term is variously translated as the “pathos of things” or an “empathy for things”. It reflects an aesthetic response to transience. But as we can see from the Virgil quote the response and the sentiment are not only part of Japanese culture. They are part of our common human heritage.
So let’s talk about transience.
I have this theory (that means: I could be utterly wrong) that “sunt lacrimae rerum” is something we do not experience in our youth. At least I as a boy was deeply convinced that by mid-life I would be wealthy and famous. Change was welcome and assumed to bring progress and better times. Also, there could be no challenge by life I wasn’t ready to tackle.
Then, there is this invisible line in most people’s lives where suddenly change doesn’t look so much like progress anymore. The youthful optimism gives way to a more or less wistful nostalgia and it occurs to us for the first time that, in fact, life could possibly overwhelm us. For many this change happens somewhere, gradually in mid-life.
People react differently when this happens. Some get angry at the world not being what it “should” be – or has been. Middle-aged-men-rage is (more than) a stereotype related to this feeling. Some simply get sad. Virgil was about 40 when he started to write the Aeneid so he was quite the right age to feel the transience of things.
How should we then respond to this transience, to the perception that everything goes down the drain? Should we be angry and desperate? Both Virgil and the concept of mono no aware give a somewhat strange answer: we should be “touched” by it and respond with “empathy”. Underlying this answer is firstly the insight that transience is inevitable. No amount of rage will change it. Despite our misgivings, transience lies at the very heart of reality. And it applies to everything, from galaxies to reed stalks to ourselves. Everything and everyone is in the same boat.
And there comes a second thought into play: we can react to transience by reaching out, by empathy and compassion. While our rage and sadness only pit us against the world, reaching out includes us in the wider context and is a liberating act. No-one has said this more pointedly than Albert Einstein: “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Did you notice, how strange a statement this really is? Einstein mixes consciousness, feelings, compassion and beauty all in just four sentences. The reason why this looks so strange is that deeply ingrained in Western thinking is the notion that aesthetics and ethics have nothing in common. They are totally separate domains. “Compassion” and “beauty” don’t connect. Japanense thinking, I believe, makes not such strong distinctions. Mono no aware not only is about the transience of things and compassion as an aedequate emotional response. It is also about the inherent beauty of this transience and our compassion.
As an artist, for me this means to approach my photography subjects with a certain, for lack of better word, tenderness. An awareness for the unavoidable tragedy of all existence. But also with alertness to its beauty. And I am quite convinced that a key to open Einstein’s “prison” is in cultivating this aesthetical response. In the last post I wrote about the smile of the universe. Mono no aware is about the tears of the universe and, strangely, I find both are one and the same.