Wednesday, November 16, 2011

58. Bronze Mirror (Japan, AD 1100-1200)

Japan in Isolation!
What, you say? These don’t look like mirrors? They’re bronze and, at one time, were polished so that they worked as reflective surfaces; modern mirrors, using glass on top of a shiny reflective surface, didn’t evolve until Venice during the Renaissance. These objects had, as they still have, an evocative, mysterious power: there’s something magical about being able to turn light around, to look at yourself in reverse. In Japanese culture at the time, mirrors were used both for defense—shields, or ways of attracting good fortune—and feared because they might be portals for mischievous demons, or might bring about bad luck.

Historically, the thing that’s important about this episode is that Japan, situated way out at the eastern end of the inhabited world, has often cut off interactions with its big neighbors to the west (China and Korea) and established a policy of isolationism. Which then results in, I believe the word MacGregor used was, an extremely 'idiosyncratic' culture. When you’re isolated, you can develop in directions different than the mainstream; when everything is connected, bland homogenization is the result. If much of Japanese culture seems baffling or odd to an outsider, this geography, not to mention this geographically-inspired policy, is the reason.

Much, however, is familiar; good old human nature at work. These mirrors, for instance, are manifestations of a courtly, aristocractic culture, which, like all such courtly, aristocratic cultures all over the world, became obsessed with aesthetics. The tea ritual, which developed in Japan into this elaborate thing, isn’t about replenishing the body’s water supply—it’s about showing off your grace and refinement and beauty. These mirrors would have been used by aristocrats in such a culture as part of looking their best when venturing forth in public. MacGregor draws our attention to The Tale of Genji, a novel from this Heian period, which (like Gilgamesh) I’ve always promised that someday I’ll get around to reading. I know a little more about the later, Samurai period, mostly from watching Kurasawa films...there’s a lot to know.

One other fun thing about these mirrors: they were found in a pool in a temple quite a ways from Kyoto, which was the capital at the time. People came and tossed their mirrors into the pool for good luck, as we toss coins into fountains. Who knows the origin of this human obsession with dumping magical things into water? The Nibelung horde, in the old legends, lies at the bottom of the Rhine for years and years; Tolkien buries his Silmarils one in the deep, one in a volcanic crack in the earth, and the other transformed into the evening star, shining on Eärendil’s brow forever. I’m sure Ishmael opines at length on what this means, somewhere in Moby-Dick.

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