Kobayashi Issa, “Mosquito at my ear”

Mosquito at my ear (from Modern American Poetry)
Kobayashi Issa (tr. Robert Hass)

Mosquito at my ear–
does it think
I’m deaf?


“About suffering they were never wrong, [t]he old Masters,” declares Auden. An irritating mosquito might be a far cry from suffering, but both masters Auden and Issa have set to work. Auden doesn’t just describe a scene, he details paintings and a painting itself in “Musée des Beaux Arts”. There, a comment about suffering is a comment about art and poetry, how our moral intuitions are provoked and shaped by what could be ignored. In essence, Auden asks how the painting paints, how art asserts its relevance, speaking beyond its time.

Auden pulls a neat trick. He keeps his tone cool throughout, while speaking of the horrors seen on canvas. He asserts the old Masters weren’t wrong about suffering. In doing these things, he arouses the indignation of the reader, leaving him sputtering. When that happens, there’s a chance the reader might become aware of the trick pulled, self-aware of the moral notions relative to his time. He might wonder on what suffering he has turned his own back.

Issa focuses on nuisance. “Mosquito at my ear– does it think I’m deaf?” Nuisance allows reconstruction of the speaker. He is progressively getting irritated, urging himself to lash out completely. He does not want to deal with the mosquito, because if he truly wanted to deal with it, he would have done so. Instead, he asks if the mosquito thinks he’s deaf, rhetorically asking if the mosquito fails to notice his awareness of all the other irritants in his life. The minor comedy of the haiku is prelude to something that could well be a tragedy.

The moral criticism of the haiku centers on a lack of self-awareness. They may not have had psychoanalysis in Issa’s world, but the speaker’s unresolved issues are very clear at least in Hass’ translation. “My ear,” “it think,” “I’m deaf:” the speaker of the poem resolves into objects and states. A self speaks but denies agency. “I” am overwhelmed, only the mosquito thinks.

However, the self is very much there, ready to take command. On that note, Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” has disappointed at least one person I know. He felt his moral sentiments were manipulated, that it would instead be better to understand Auden as showing a cold world indifferent to suffering, one which artists of a more pious age readily accepted. Isn’t that better than showing morality relative, not so much a Truth or Law, but more like a sneaky discourse across the ages concerning how we see? I’ll say this: we need expectations and standards, and we need people held to them. That has a very definite limit, though, and maybe all ages have done more harm than good in not recognizing that limit. Self-aware people ready to step beyond nuisances and confront suffering are also needed. They don’t dismiss the pain or ambition of others, knowing how hard it is to simply see.

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