Matsuo Bashō, "Winter solitude"

I believe Bashō and Stevens have something to say about writers who are too comic.

Matsuo Bashō, "Winter solitude"

Welcome! Love having you here. Please share and subscribe and spread the joy.

I don't read much about personal finance, but "What You Learn From a Year of Watching Bad Financial Advice on TikTok" was extremely worthwhile. It's an excellent interview that serves as a snapshot of our society. Everything you can think of is there: making tremendous financial decisions because of a short video, get rich quick schemes, people making stuff up because it gets attention, and, of course, the notice of the actual financial sector. Some people wonder what might be our equivalent of Plato's Republic or the Divine Comedy. Reader, I submit to you this:

Right before this, I saw that something like 52 percent of Gen Z gets financial advice from TikTok.‌‌
It's insanity. People watch a 30-second video on TikTok and then will actually use that information. What's really sad about all that—in my opinion—is the way that the algorithm works on TikTok is based purely off of views and likes and comments. It's not based on actual good information. The people who post good information don't get a lot of views. It's the people who post ridiculous stuff that get a lot of views.

Below, I've written some thoughts about a haiku by Bashō to which I know we can all relate. It's got the fun themes of isolation and despair surrounding it. It's also a magnificent work of art and can be used to reflect on some attitudes currently plaguing us.

Matsuo Bashō, "Winter solitude"

Bashō's "Winter solitude" addresses more than our loneliness or the cold. To be sure, the scene this translation sets is instantly recognizable: "Winter solitude — / In a world of one color / the sound of wind." Snow and cold aren't just about making a snowman or cleaning the driveway. They present plenty of moments where we feel endangered or completely isolated. You don't have to be particularly moody standing alone in an icy dark to believe the natural world not merely indifferent to your existence, but outright hostile.

Winter solitude
Matsuo Bashō (tr. Robert Hass)

Winter solitude —
In a world of one color
the sound of wind.

That larger idea, that each of us could be so insignificant, is reinforced by the word translated "Winter solitude." Credit to matsuo-basho-haiku for providing a thoughtful lesson on Bashō's diction. What Hass translates "Winter solitude" is fuyugare, the "withering winter." The winter which freezes, isolates, destroys life and beings. A question which comes to mind is how the winter affects one's thinking. Not just one's attitude or even outlook, but how one conceives anything in the first place. "In a world of one color / the sound of wind" implies that Bashō is inclined to think himself made of snow, the words of his own poem indistinguishable from the howling of wind.

A similar problem resides within Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man." There, "One must have a mind of winter / To regard the frost... / The spruces rough in the distant glitter / Of the January sun; and not to think / Of any misery in the sound of the wind." Stevens is clear enough: unless your mind was already frozen shut, you will see the beauty of winter and hear how miserable everything around you is. Like Bashō, we are speaking not merely of a landscape with a stark elegance, but a sublime landscape. An early work of Kant's makes this distinction. Beauty is more or less conventional or attractive. Sublimity leans toward holy terror. Your entire being quakes, if you are lucky enough to survive.

Again, the question is how this affects thinking. Before this winter solitude, before becoming the snow man, you can list your accomplishments. You can assert your existence. But now, the cold immensity of it all makes you feel like nothing. You are overwhelmed to the point of nothingness. Stevens: "...the listener, who listens in the snow, / And nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."

What is peculiar, to use the wordplay of classical and existentialist philosophy, is how beings (the winter landscape) generate nothing (the howling of wind). Being as a whole and beings give voice to nothingness. Some beings are so cold they kill. I believe Bashō and Stevens have something to say about writers who are too comic. Say, for example, a writer eager to show Socrates laughing all the way to his execution. Perhaps there is an underlying brutality to life which we neglect to our detriment when we focus on our ends regarding society and justice. A number of difficult if not fatal matters must be confronted alone.

All the same, I know I have to close these remarks with a warning. Philosophers and poets who want to do justice to the human condition can demonstrate a certain nobility when thinking about nihilism. But for all practical purposes, this is a grossly nihilistic society. A lot which masquerades as patriotism or traditionalism is a way of saying "nothing could ever be better" and "know your place." We've got people at rallies who say they want to "Save America" who are also completely beholden to a bloody apocalyptic vision they hope will manifest soon. I do know some who would use a bleak moment in literature as justification for their awful views. Precisely where Bashō and Stevens want to show sensitivity to humanity, they want to interject their cruelty.