The first inferno: communication
It is generally thought that Buddhism introduced the notion of ”hell” into Japanese culture. In fact the idea of hell is already found in the original religion of Japan, Shinto, ”the way of the gods,” in the myth of Izanagi and Izanami, recounted in the Kojiki. Giving birth to the god of fire, Izanami burnt her womb and died. Izanagi went on a journey to the land of the dead and called to Izanami until she came back to life. But she replied that she could only return on one condition, that Izanagi did not look at her. Izanagi`s impatience was his downfall: unable to wait he lit a little fire. What he saw was not his beautiful sister and wife, but a mass of rotting flesh, covered in maggots. This myth is the same as the Western one of Orpheus and Eurydice, told by the Latin poet Ovid in Metamorphosis (Book XI ff.). The latter, however, lacks the macabre detail found in the Kojiki.
This story is the starting point of the first of Araki`s hells and is described in the photographic album Senchimentaruna Tabi, Fuyu no Tabi (”Sentimental Journey: Winter Journey”), which deeply moved me because I, too, in the same years at the end of the 80s, lost my wife in a similar way. This book is like a photographic documentary, in which art and life intertwine and merge according to a model that has precedents in literature and the visual arts, for example in Truman Capote and Sophie Calle. However, Araki`s book, is characterized by a sentiment that finds inspiration in the Buddhist monk Genshin (942-1017) and his fundamental work Ōjōyōshū. One passage from this work describes the way in which you must help the dying pass into the hereafter, accompanying them with expressions of encouragement, burning incense and uttering words that announce their transit to the Pure Land. In Araki`s book you only see the hand that holds the dying person. Another image shows his wife in her coffin, with a calm face, surrounded by flowers, with the photograph of her favorite cat by her side. Another photograph shows the chimney from which smoke from the cremation leaves, sign of the transient and ephemeral nature of every human thing. The Japanese aesthetic category where Sentimental Journey: Winter Journey is located is the mono no aware, i.e. the knowledge of the precariousness of all things accompanied by a feeling of deep sentiment.
This feeling, however, is not expressed in a novel, such as Murasaki Shikibu`s The Tale of Genji, or in a poem or a painting, but in the most realistic and immediate way, that of photography and with a beautifully bound volume where the idea of duration is implicit. Thus, a way of thinking intervenes that is more Western than typically Japanese. In this way a contradiction arises between Buddhist impermanence and the Western desire to pass on the experience, transforming it into something to communicate to contemporaries and transmit to posterity.
According to the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, a work of art presents contradictory aspects which it is naive to expect can be overcome in a harmonious and pacific vision. One of the greatest contradictions emerges from the opposition between its ”fetish” character and the size of the apparition taken on by the beautiful artistic fact: in fact, if on one hand the work of art is a thing amongst things, on the other hand it shows itself with the speed and the immateriality of lightening. Therefore the work of art now appears as something immobile, now something dynamic: or rather, more properly its truth becomes eloquent in the str11th of triggering of res and apparition. In this way Adorno, on one hand recognizes the ephemeral and impermanent character of the experience (the apparition), and on the other justifies its reification.
However, for those who, like Araki and like me, belong to the generation after Adorno, things are not so simple, because, from the 1960s onwards, we have been battered by the tsunami of mass media communication, which has enormously str11thened the ephemeral, superficial and futile character of the experience, completely removing both the sentimental character of mono no aware, and the amazing and marvelous character of the apparition. This aspect of the contemporary experience has been defined by historians by the term presentism: it is a would-be new historicist regime in which immediacy and simultaneity acquire a hegemonic role and remove value from both the past and the future, sinking us in an ocean of inanity and nihilism. In my book Miracles and Traumas of Communication (2009), I described this phenomenon that, from 1968 to today, has completely destabilized the traditional aesthetic categories and has also transformed our way of feeling in a sensology, as I showed in my book On Feeling (1991).
The first hell, therefore, would not only be the pain of a tragic loss, but the impossibility of our feeling the awareness of things, as was perceived in the Heian period: on one hand we still feel emotion and sympathy for things and pain for those who have left us, on the other, the society of appearance, of which we play a part, introduces a certain malaise into our souls, so that we would like to escape and spend years in solitude like Genshin (942-1017), in meditation and contemplation.