This essay is excerpted from Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1983. Digital version available from Monoskop.org.
Western art transforms the “impression” into description. The haiku never describes; its art is counter-descriptive, to the degree that each state of the thing is immediately, stubbornly, victoriously converted into a fragile essence of appearance: a literally “untenable” moment in which the thing, though being already only language, will become speech, will pass from one language to another and constitute itself as the memory of this future, thereby anterior. For in the haiku, it is not only the event proper which predominates:
I saw the first snow:
That morning I forgot
To wash my face.
but even what seems to us to have a vocation as painting, as a miniature picture—the sort so numerous in Japanese art—such as this haiku by Shiki:
With a bull on board
A little boat crosses the river
Through the evening rain.
becomes or is only a kind of absolute accent (as is given to each thing, trivial or not, in Zen), a faint plication by which is creased, with a rapid touch, the page of life, the silk of language. Description, a western genre, has its spiritual equivalent in contemplation, the methodical inventory of the attributive forms of the divinity or of the episodes of evangelical narrative (in Ignatius Loyola, the exercise of contemplation is essentially descriptive); the haiku, on the contrary, articulated around a metaphysics without subject and without god, corresponds to the Buddhist Mu, to the Zen satori, which is not at all the illuminative descent of God, but “awakening to the fact,” apprehension of the thing as event and not as substance, attaining to that anterior shore of language, contiguous to the (altogether retrospective, reconstituted) matteness of the adventure (what happens to language, rather than to the subject).
The number and the dispersion of haikus on the one hand, the brevity and closure of each one on the other, seem to divide, to classify the world to infinity, to constitute a space of pure fragments, a dust of events which nothing, by a kind of escheat of signification, can or should coagulate, construct, direct, terminate. This is because the haiku’s time is without subject: reading has no other self than all the haikus of which this self, by infinite refraction, is never anything but the site of reading; according to an image proposed by the Hua-yen doctrine, one might say that the collective body of all haikus is a network of jewels in which each jewel reflects all the others and so on, to infinity, without there ever being a center to grasp, a primary core of irradiation (for us, the clearest image of this ricochet effect without motor and without check, of this play of reflections without origin, would be that of the dictionary, in which a word can only be defined by other words). In the West, the mirror is an essentially narcissistic object: man conceives a mirror only in order to look at himself in it; but in the Orient, apparently, the mirror is empty; it is the symbol of the very emptiness of symbols (“The mind of the perfect man,” says one Tao master, “is like a mirror. It grasps nothing but repulses nothing. It receives but does not retain”): the mirror intercepts only other mirrors, and this infinite reflection is emptiness itself (which as we know, if form). Hence the haiku reminds us of what has never happened to us; in it we recognize a repetition without origin, an event without cuase, a memory without person, a language without moorings.
What I am saying here about the haiku I might also say about everything which happens when one travels in that country I am calling Japan. For there, in the street, in a bar, in a shop, in a train, something always happens. This something—which is etymologically an adventure—is of an infinitesimal order: it is an incongruity of clothing, an anachronism of culture, a freedom of behavior, an illogicality of itinerary, etc. To count up these events would be a Sisyphean enterprise, for they glisten only at the moment when one reads them, in the lively writing of the street, and the Westerner will be able to utter them spontaneously only by charging them with the very meaning of his distance: he would in fact have to make haiku out of them, a language which is denied us. What one can add is that these infinitesimal adventures (of which the accumulation, in the course of a day, provokes a kind of erotic intoxication) never have anything picturesque about them (the Japanese picturesque is indifferent to us, for it is detached from what constitutes the very specialty of Japan, which is its modernity), or anything novelistic (never lending themselves to the chatter which would make them into narratives or descriptions); what they offer to be read (I am, in that country, a reader, not a visitor) is the rectitude of the line, the stroke, without wake, without margin, without vibration; so many tiny demeanors (from garment to smile), which among us, as a result of the Westerner’s inveterate narcissism, are only the signs of a swollen assurance, become, among the Japanese, mere ways of passing, of tracing some unexpected thing in the street: for the gesture’s sureness and independence never refer back to an affirmation of the self (to a “self-sufficiency”) but only to a graphic mode of existing; so that the spectacle of the Japanese street (or more generally of the public place), exciting as the product of an age-old aesthetic, from which all vulgarity has been decanted, never depends on a theatricality (a hysteria) of bodies, but, once more, on that writing alla prima, in which sketch and regret, calculation and correction are equally impossible, because the line, the tracing, freed from the advantageous image the scriptor would give of himself, does not express but simply causes to exist. “When you walk,” says one Zen master, “be content to walk. When you are seated, be content to be seated. But, above all, don’t wriggle!”: this is what, in their way, all seem to be telling me—the young bicyclist carrying a tray of bowls high on one arm; or the young saleswoman who bows with a gesture so deep, so ritualized that it loses all servility, before the customers of a department store leaving to take an escalator; or the Pachinko player inserting, propelling, and receiving his marbles, with three gestures whose very coordination is a design; or the dandy in the café who with a ritual gesture (abrupt and male) pops open the plastic envelope of his hot napkin with which he will wipe his hands before drinking his Coca-Cola: all these incidents are the very substance of the haiku.