Hito o omou / Kokoro wa ware ni / Araneba ya / Mi no madou dani / Shirarezaruramu
Is it then because / this heart of mine that yearns for her / Is not within me / That I do not even know / How I am lost in darkness?
Love is a strange thing in medieval Japanese poetry. Given both the huge number and variety of poems devoted to the topic, however, we can find many things we recognize, such as passion, excitement, and the frustration at the onrush of sexual desire. But Japanese poets always found separation more poetic than reconciliation, and since poems were often sent between lovers as the primary form of communication, it’s not surprising that most of them are concerned with the pain of being apart.
And here is the crucial point – the word koi, which has come to mean ‘love’ in modern Japanese, had entirely negative connotations in the medieval period. Being ‘in love’ refers to the feeling that one person has for another when they are separated; a feeling which is essentially suffering, and the lover wishes themselves to be rid of. Preferably this is by coming together with its object, but sometimes just to have it go away. There is no sense of the lovers’ joy of being together, curled up like cats under a blanket before a log fire, or kicking through the autumn leaves and eating pastries outside quaint cafes on hidden sidestreets off Parisian boulevards whilst staring into each others’ eyes dreamily as charming French children chase each other through cobbled alleyways, giggling…charmingly. Medieval Japanese poets were having none of that greetings card gag-fest. Being in love meant to be dejected, lost and confused, turned everywhichway by your own frustrations, but unfailingly ending up thoroughly miserable.
Kurogami no / Midare mo shirazu / Uchifuseba / Mazu kakiyarishi / Hito zo koishiki
I fling myself down / Heedless of the wild disorder / Of my long black hair / And soon I am yearning once again / For him who used to stroke it smooth
Having tangled hair was no throwaway statement for the Heian period Japanese woman. Japanese love poetry can be characterized by the general absence of statements in praise of physical beauty – whether the subject is male or female it is almost exclusively the poet’s own feelings that monopolize the verse; we find no praises of elegant limbs, fresh complexions or well-turned ankles of the sort that abound in European poetry. The one exception to this would be hair. Hair (long, black, shiny) was considered to be the defining characteristic of a woman’s beauty – in fact this is often the sole marker in contemporary literature mentioned as determining it. A woman’s hair was the woman, and women went to extraordinary lengths to ensure it presented them in the best light. Older women used wigs and hair extensions as age took its toll, and since the state of one’s hair could be used to characterize a person, crazy women in medieval paintings can be identified by their wild, unkempt manes.
Just like today hair in disarray could reflect a lack of interest in one’s own appearance- if you’ve lost your lover who is there to impress? But more meaningfully, hair was used in poetry as a symbol of the relationship, with disheveled hair not only signifying the morning after a night of passion, but its tangled state a reflection of the emotions of the heart. This state of agitation is another level up from the more restrained ‘elegant confusion’ by which we can categorize some literature, as reading these poems often gives the feeling of the author’s temporary dementia.
So can this different sense of love mean anything to us? (again, I mean me). After we grammatically analyzed Komachi’s poem in class, translated it, talked through the various syntactical nuances etc., my professor read it aloud again and tears came to my eyes so fast that it was physically painful. Someone used to brush my hair for me too and remembering that hurt, hurt badly. But don’t get out the violins just yet – most artistic traditions make a career out of ladling on the misery with a spade, so it’s pretty certain that something you read somewhere will resonate.
But in any case this got me to thinking about the poem more that I might have otherwise. Hair is a brilliant metaphor, enchanting the men who lust for it, and entrapping them within it in equal measure, just as its tangles represent the disordered heartache of both parties. The verb madou in the opening poem means to go astray, to lose one’s path, and by extension to become lost in the blindness of passion. This loss of control often took on the broader Buddhist meaning in these poems of a departure from the path of enlightenment. Human relationships can connect us together, but like hair, they can also tangle us up. The error of human attachments was a theme ever present on our poets’ minds, and this becoming ‘lost’ in love’s confusion has important connections to the Buddhist concept of the darkness of the heart, or ‘kokoro no yami’.
Since Buddhist doctrine assumes human attachments to be delusion, a way of darkness, it is not surprising to find that love’s path often leads to the world of dreams in these poems. We have seen before that love affairs were a real possibility in the dreamworld, possibly linked to the feeling of the confusion of fantasy and reality we experience when in the presence of a lover. These dreams were somewhat of a hot topic at the time, and it seems most people had an opinion on them. Some poets maintained that if just changing your sleeping positions didn’t do it, turning around and sleeping the other way in your bed could bring them about. The phrase ‘turning up one’s sleeves’ in poems refers to the sartorial method that could also reportedly bring about this effect; Komachi got so desperate sometimes that she tells us she would wear all her clothes inside out to go to bed (please try this at home, conclusions on a postcard). There were also contemporary debates about who exactly was the progenitor of these dreams, whether the intensity of your feelings for someone could cause you to visit them nocturnally, or the opposite, that someone’s feelings for you could cause you to dream about them. Which obviously means something when the dreams stop. If the dreams do not come from one’s own heart, but are born from the heart of one’s lover, then the absence of these dreams would imply that they no longer care about you. However you look at it, unrequited love is kind of rude.
I have had to become used to a life sleeping alone, or rather, since it turns out that I cannot sleep alone, become used to a life of not sleeping. I can well understand the sense of ‘love’ given above; I don’t want it either, and I think I’m ready now for something to replace it with. As the nights are getting colder, maybe a hot water bottle would do it. Or a puppy. Maybe I should just cut all my hair off.