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Katsushika Hokusai

There are two ways of looking at Mount Fuji. As a geological phenomenon, it is classified as an active basalt composite stratovolcano, 3,700 metres high, 10,000 years old in its most most recent form, which last exploded in 1708, on the island of Honshū in central Japan, situated on the faultline where the Eurasian, Okhotsk and Philippine plates meet, with a mounting pressure inside its magma chamber of 1.6 megapascals – and an average temperature at its summit of – 5 celsius.

But Mount Fuji is simultaneously a psycho-spiritual phenomenon interpreted in both the Shinto and Zen Buddhist traditions as a conduit to, and guardian of, wisdom and enlightenment. There are temples and rituals in its honour. It is understood to have a meaning; it wants to tell us things. For Buddhism, humans are perpetually at risk of forgetting their true irrelevant position within the natural world. We overlook our powerlessness and unimportance in the universal order. This amnesia isn’t a helpful illusion; it is responsible for much of our frustration, anger and vain self-assertion. We rage at events because we cannot see the necessities we are up against. Buddhism regularly turns our attention to natural elements (rocks, rain showers, streams, giant cedar trees, the stars) because it sees in these occasions on which we can gracefully come to terms with our denied subservience. We can be reminded that we have no alternative but to submit to nature’s laws and that our freedom comes from adjusting our individual egos to what defies us. For Zen, Fuji is only the largest conveyor of a general truth, but it deserves special reverence because of the extraordinary elegance and primordial simplicity with which it delivers its message. Its beauty, visible on a clear day when its cone is newly sprinkled with snow, makes it a little easier to accept that we will die, that our plans will be ground to sand, that nothing we achieve will matter and that we are as nothing next to the aeons of time to which the earth has been witness.

The printmaker and artist Katsushika Hokusai was in his seventies and already famous in Japan when he hit on the idea that would immortalise his name. The project was to capture Fuji obliquely, to make it almost feel by-the-by and yet also magnetically present in a series of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, published between 1830 and 1832. Hokusai never lets us forget the contrast between the eternal steadiness of Fuji, constantly resplendent and serene somewhere in the background, and the agitation, struggle, pain and over-excitement of human lives. We catch Fuji peeking out from behind a busy bridge over the Fuka river on its way out of Sumida; it’s in the background as workers and travellers do business together in the Sundai district of Edo; it’s there as some pilgrims have a picnic in the gardens of Kyoto’s Ryoan-ji temple and as a peasant leads a horse laden with saddlebags full of grass in Senju; it’s watching as a half naked craftsman makes a barrel in Owari province and as workers fix the roof of the Mitsui department store in Edo (a sign says: ‘Cash only’); it’s discreetly in the frame as some clam fishermen fill their baskets in Noboto Bay and a group of pleasure seekers have refreshments at a hanami (cherry blossom viewing) on Goten Hill near Shinagawa.

In some of the prints, the contrast between the puny defencelessness of vainglorious humans and the indifference of mighty nature is at a pitch. We feel pity and melancholy for our pride and what we are up against. In the tenth view in the series, we see a group of travellers wending their way around rice paddies on the eastern sea route near Ejiri in Suruga province. It’s autumn and a gust of wind has just blown. That’s all that may be needed to break our fragile hold on order; Hokusai’s humans are at once thrown into chaos. They struggle to hold onto their hats, their possessions fly into the paddy fields, and most notably someone’s papers (it might be anything from the manuscript of a novel to some tax returns – though what it really stands for is human logic and presumption) are being carried off into oblivion, and might end up in an adjoining province or a nearby muddy ditch. This, Hokusai is telling us, is what man is: easily buffeted, one gust away from disaster, defenceless before nature, trying to work out what it all means on bits of paper that are as evanescent as fireflies.

                                  Katsushika Hokusai, Ejiri in Suruga Province

In the eighth view, the sun is setting over Fuji; it will be dark in half an hour. A couple of hikers are ascending the steep Inume Pass while, a long way behind them, two traders are following with heavily laden horses. We can tell this latter pair are in trouble. Those horses won’t make it up the pass in the darkness; there’s a strong risk someone will fall down a precipice. This may be the end of the road for the unfortunate traders. But the wider mood is not mournful or panicked. Fuji is serene, as it always is, even when in its shadow, people are being buried, or dying of cancer or imploring the heavens or regretting their lives. Nature doesn’t care one bit about us – which is both the origin of our damnation and, when we have learnt to identify with its motions, a source of redemption.

                         Katsushika Hokusai, Inume Pass in Kai Province

Then there is the most famous view of all, the first in the series. Three fishing boats are out at sea off the coast of Kanagawa. They are the fast oshiokuri-bune boats, each powered by eight muscular rowers, that would catch fresh fish (typically, tuna, sea bass or flounder) for the market places and restaurants of Edo. But today nature has other plans. It doesn’t care about this evening’s uramaki or the lives of thirty little people with families and dependents and hopes of their own. It’s decided to send a giant wave, 12 meters high, to toss things about and remind humanity of who is in charge. We shudder for the fishermen’s fates. This doesn’t look like a picture of survival, it seems a prelude to a wake. Fuji looks on impassively, appearing like a wave of its own, its tiny-seeming snow-capped peak impersonating the foaming sea closer by. We are pawns in the hands of forces that care nothing for us – and that will not mourn us a moment when we are gone. 

                         Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanawaga

Hokusai could have chosen to anchor his melancholy meditations on human powerlessness to any number of other natural phenomena: Thirty-six views of the Moon, Thirty-six views of Drifting Clouds, Thirty-six views of the Constellation Cassiopeia (a dim speck in the hemisphere 4,000 light years away). Against these too, his genius could have shown up our exploits in all their absurdity: a couple squabbling, a writer finishing a book, a person weeping at their medical diagnosis, a lover pining for companionship.

We are fated to have to take seriously ambitions and desires that make no sense in the wider scheme. We have to live knowing that most of what we do is in a cosmic sense ridiculous. Our lives are no more profound than those of an earthworm and almost as fragile. In so far as we can ever recover a little meaning, it is by ceasing to worry so much about ourselves and identifying ourselves with planetary reality – even to the point where we might contemplate our own mortality with a degree of resigned equanimity; by fully and generously appreciating our absurdity – and using it as a springboard to kindness, art and the right kind of sadness.

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