This essay is excerpted from Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1983. Digital version available from Monoskop.org.
The haiku’s task is to achieve exemption from meaning within a perfectly readerly discourse (a contradiction denied to Western art, which can contest meaning only by rendering its discourse incomprehensible), so that to our eyes the haiku is neither eccentric nor familiar: it resembles nothing at all: readerly, it seems to us simple, close, known, delectable, delicate, “poetic—in a word, offered to a whole range of reassuring predicates; insignificant nonetheless, it resists us, finally loses the adjectives which a moment before we had bestowed upon it, and enters into that suspension of meaning which to us is the strangest thing of all, since it makes impossible the most ordinary exercise of our language, which is commentary. What are we to say of this:
The boatman chews his grass stem.
And on the matting
The shadow of a pine tree.
or of this:
In the fisherman’s house
The smell of dried fish
or again (but not finally, for the examples are countless) of this:
The winter wind blows.
The cats’ eyes
Such traces (the word suits the haiku, a kind of faint gash inscribed upon time) establish what we have been able to call “the vision without commentary.” This vision (the word is still too Western) is in fact entirely privative; what is abolished is not meaning but any notion of finality: the haiku serves none of the purposes (though they themselves are quite gratuitous) conceded to literature: insignificant (by a technique of meaning-arrest), how could it instruct, express, divert? In the same way, whereas certain Zen schools conceive of seated meditation as a practice intended for the obtaining of Buddhahood, others reject even this (apparently essential) finality: one must remain seated “just to remain seated.” Is not the haiku (like the countless graphic gestures which mark modern and social Japanese life) also written “just to write”?
What disappears in the haiku are the two basic functions of our (age-old) classical writing: on the one hand, description (the boatman’s grass stem, the pine tree’s shadow, the smell of fish, the winter wind are not described, i.e., embellished with significations, with moralities, committed as indices to the revelation of a truth or of a sentiment: meaning is denied to reality; furthermore, reality no longer commands even the meaning of reality); and on the other, definition; not only is definition transferred to gesture, if only a graphic gesture, but it is also shunted toward a kind of inessential—eccentric—efflorescence of the object, as one Zen anecdote puts it nicely, in which the master awards the prize for definition (what is a fan?) not even to the silent, purely gestural illustration of function (to wave the fan), but to the invention of a chain of aberrant actions (to close the fan and scratch one’s neck with it, to reopen it, put a cookie on it and offer it to the master). Neither describing nor defining, the haiku (as I shall finally name any discontinuous feature, any event of Japanese life as it offers itself to my reading), the haiku diminishes to the point of pure and sole designation. It’s that, it’s thus, says the haiku, it’s so. Or better still: so! it says, with a touch so instantaneous and so brief (without vibration or recurrence) that even the copula would seem excessive, a kind of remorse for a forbidden, permanently alienated definition. Here meaning is only a flash, a slash of light: When the light of sense goes out, but with a flash that has revealed the invisible world, Shakespeare wrote; but the haiku’s flash illumines, reveals nothing; it is the flash of a photograph one takes very carefully (in the Japanese manner) but having neglected to load the camera with film. Or again: haiku reproduces the designating gesture of the child pointing at whatever it is (the haiku shows no partiality for the subject), merely saying: that! with a movement so immediate (so stripped of any mediation: that of knowledge, of nomination, or even of possession) that what is designated is the very inanity of any classification of the object: nothing special, says the haiku, in accordance with the spirit of zen: the event is not namable according to any species, its specialty short circuits: like a decorative loop, the haiku coils back on itself, the wake of the sign which seems to have been traced is erased: nothing has been acquired, the word’s stone has been cast for nothing: neither waves nor flow of meaning.