Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi

I had heard Alan Watts talk about wabi-sabi, in his lecture Uncarved Block, Unbleached Silk, when I saw this book in the bibliography of Kent Beck’s Extreme Programming Explained. Beck’s annotation of Leonard Koren’s book reads:

XP does not aim for some kind of transcendental perfection in its programs. Wabi-sabi is an aesthetic celebration of the rough and the functional.

Koren writes in the introduction that he first read about wabi-sabi in Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea (available online in its entirety), but that since its publishing nearly a century ago, “the term ‘wabi-sabi’ makes a perfunctory appearance in practically every book and magazine article that discusses the tea ceremony or other arcane things Japanese.” His intention with the book is “to get beyond the standard definitions … to grasp the totality, the holism of wabi-sabi, and make some sense of it.”

As he tries to define it, Koren writes that “The closest English word … is probably ‘rustic.’” He cites Webster’s definition as “simple, artless, or unsophisticated … [with] surfaces rough or irregular,” and continues:

Wabi-sabi does share some characteristics with what we commonly call “primitive art,” that is, objects that are earthy, simple, unpretentious, and fashioned out of natural materials. Unlike primitive art, though, wabi-sabi almost never is used representationally or symbolically.

Many passages in this book makes me think of architect Christopher Alexander particularly the chapter that compares wabi-sabi to modernism: “Mass-produced/modular” versus “One-of-a-kind/variable,” “Looks for universal, prototypical solutions” versus “Looks for personal, idiosyncratic solutions,” “People adapting to machines” versus “People adapting to nature,” etc. (Koren himself is an architect, although not a practicing.)

The following passage is consistent with what Alan Watts said:

Originally, the Japanese words “wabi” and “sabi” had quite different meanings. “Sabi” originally meant “chill,” “lean,” or “withered.” “Wabi” originally meant the misery of living alone in nature, away from society, and suggested a discouraged, dispirited, cheerless emotional state.

Koren continues:

Around the 14th century, the meanings of both words began to evolve in the direction of more positive aesthetic values. The self-imposed isolation and voluntary poverty of the hermit came to be considered opportunities for spiritual richness. For the poetically inclined, this kind of life fostered an appreciation of the minor details of everyday life and insights into the beauty of the inconspicuous and overlooked aspects of nature. In turn, unprepossessing simplicity took on new meaning as the basis for a new, pure beauty.

I liked the following elaboration on the term “aesthetic”, from the notes section. (In the book, Koren writes that “Wabi-sabi can be called a ‘comprehensive’ aesthetic system.”)

Throughout this book the term “aesthetic” refers to a set of informing values and principles—guidelines—for making artistic discriminations and decisions. The hallmarks of an “aesthetic” are (1) distinctiveness (distinction from the mass of ordinary, chaotic, non-differentiated perceptions), (2) clarity (the aesthetic point has to be definite—clear—even if the aesthetic is about unclearness), and (3) repetition (continuity).

Impermanence, imperfection, incompleteness, irregularity, “the inconspicuous and overlooked details,” beauty and ugliness, getting rid of the unnecessary, unpretentious, simplicity. Poetry.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on November 17, 2004. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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