Monday, January 16, 2012

A bar to rest at

Torii at the Itsukushima Shrine
Torii Izushi
Torii at the Shimogamo Shrine

Torii at Nikko Toshogu

A "bird perch" or torii, marks for followers of the Shinto faith the division of a sacred place from the everyday world around it. Torii have been erected at the edge of Shinto shrines for hundreds and hundreds of years, and are referenced in text as far back as 922.

I myself have little knowledge of Shinto, or of Buddhist temples, where torii are also sometimes encountered, but I think of torii with some awe, and not just because of their often tremendous size. What impresses me most about torii is not their grandeur or their long history, but instead what they don't possess. I think often about what a torii doesn't have. I have no doubt that those who erect torii are highly dilligent, as the placement of torii in such extreme locations as near the summit of Mount Fuji or in a sandbar of an island would attest to. And thus I don't think that it was through simple neglect that those who have erected torii and maintained them for centuries declined to provide a depiction of a bird. Multitudes of torii, from monumental to nearly minute in stature, in wood and in stone, all across Japan, and no bird. No one decided to raise a bird perch and place on its top a divine bird statue.

Which is interesting, when you think about it. Because it might have gone a different route. There might instead have been an attempt by artisans over a thousand years to craft an idealized form of bird depiction.
A statue of the Egyptian god Horus, in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of New York

Or if bird depiction had been proscribed, as sometimes happens with the sacred, perhaps the very word torii would itself have become the subject of artistic enhancement.
Islamic calligraphy

But within the tradition of torii craftsmanship, which includes many formal variations, there are no idealized birds. If a bird comes to sit on a sacred bird perch it is a real bird, in real time, and it may only be there for a sort while, until it flies away.

No idealization. No thought to trying to define and depict the perfect. Nothing captured in one place and set for all time and forever.

Think about it. No perfect bird. No 100 points. No saying "The greatest birds are the ones that fly above Raveneau's vineyards. Those are the greatest birds in the world. Other birds can fly, but it isn't the same." No globe trotting hunt for the most valuable bird by collectors bent on possessing it, a la The Maltese Falcon. No imitation fakes of the one true special bird, again a la The Maltese Falcon.

I like a conception of the special that allows for change in the specifics. In this season there might be this type of wine, just as there might be grey birds in the sky, but in another season we might have in this same place another type of wine, just when you begin to see the white birds alight again against the sun.

I don't know of a better way to reconcile the notion of a sacred place with our own view, in the moment of a gaze.

1 comment:

Lousy Grapes said...

Damn Levi, now I have to scrub the walls of my office because you just blew my mind...