When I am dreaming, it’s usually my body’s emotional response that wakes me up. Dreams have shaken me awake out of joy, out of fear, out of desire.
But last night an image woke me up: Hokusai’s “Great Wave at Kanagawa.”
You probably know Hokusai’s “Great Wave,” or have seen a version of it, somewhere. It’s one of the most famous Japanese woodblock prints in the world, and it’s nearly two hundred years old. I think there’s even a copy of it in my favorite local Japanese restaurant. I loved this painting for a long time, just being attracted to the vibrant blues, the serene curve of Mount Fuji in the distance, the perfect arc of the wave.
But for an embarrassingly long time, I never saw the boats—perhaps because I only saw reproductions of the print from far off, or in small-scale reproductions. A lifelong reader, I’m used to seeing things so clearly in my mind’s eye, but I’m appalled at how often I must train my physical eyes over and over again. How could I overlook the fishing boats, the rows of bodies straining in unison against that wave?
Once I saw the boats—and there are three of them!— the entire painting changed. The wave, like Stevens’s jar, “took dominion everywhere.” The foam at the crest of the waves started to reach like claws, or thorns, or teeth. Terrifying.
It’s been hard not to think about this image lately. As far as I know, none of my family members have been directly affected by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, or their aftereffects. Yet I have been stunned and overwhelmed, like so many others, since Friday. After seeing this footage, or this footage, it is hard to write anything or even read very much. A picture of a mother carrying her toddler on her back can undo me. It feels disrespectful to write about anything else, and even for me (but not for the Japanese) to want to return to anything ventolin inhaler like normality.
And yet, as a literary critic, I have to admire the narrative tension of the woodblock print itself. Literary critics call this “in media res,” beginning in the middle of the action. A wave itself is narrative: with calmer waters moving into larger waves, then breaking, and receding. The boats and the humans in Hokusai’s painting add a patina of fear to the entire scene, and become story: what will happen to the people? Adding all three elements together, the wave, the mountain, and the boats, we wonder: when will the waves break, and where, and how? When the waves recede, what will they leave behind?
There are two steps in my usual response to tragedy and grief: first, to picture the worst-case scenario; and second, to detach. I don’t say this with pride. Recently, because I’ve been writing this book, and because I want to be more available for people in my life who might need help, I have tried to deal with grief differently. I have tried to stay available for them.
None of it is easy. But at the center of this impulse, I hope, is my urge to connect humanity: the reason why I read, the reason why I write. What will happen to us? When will the waves break, and where, and how?
Perhaps most importantly, Hokusai’s Great Wave forces us to ask: what should we do with the nearly unbearable tension of such a terrible moment? While our impulse might be to resolve that tension, Hokusai instead asks us to stay there for as long as we can bear it. As the Japanese people know, and as my Issei and Nisei ancestors knew, grace and knowledge and strength can arise from that space.
Please consider making a donation to Japan earthquake relief efforts, if you have not already done so.