Ono no Komachi: “How much longer must I carry this body of grief?”

“How much longer must I carry this body of grief,” Ono no Komachi laments. 

I hear her, though I do not see “the living grow fewer, the dead increase” yet.

I see aging, lost opportunities, regrets. There are those I knew whom I will never know again.

My losses are different. They do not have the same weight as the death of everyone near me. But they will have that weight, because that will happen.

No matter what, I am a body of grief too.

Untitled
Ono no Komachi (translation Hirshfield & Aratani)

In this world
the living grow fewer,
the dead increase—
how much longer must I
carry this body of grief?

*

Sometimes, you read a book, and you want a passage to leap out at you. Stay with you. Not like a kitten wanting hugs, but like an abstract painting in which you keep seeing different things at different moments.

This is one of those moments, I believe. I’m drawn to the opening of Nietzsche’s Genealogy:

“We are unknown to ourselves, we knowers: and for a good reason. We have never sought ourselves—how then should it happen that we find ourselves one day? It has rightly been said: “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”; our treasure is where the beehives of our knowledge stand.” (translation Clark & Swensen)

“We are unknown to ourselves…. We have never sought ourselves… how [then] should it happen that we find ourselves?” Nietzsche’s construction calls to mind Christ’s “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you,” a supremely challenging verse. A believer should want to take it literally—if I ask God, I should get what I want, no? Shouldn’t the faithful receive, especially when in need? The same believer also knows that moral truth and miracles don’t neatly coincide. That justice from God should be justice for all, not for some. That if God actually plays favorites, everything is doomed. It does feel like the great theme of the Bible is that evil is not beaten supernaturally.

Someone might say the solution to this problem is simple: never ask for anything. Don’t even expect justice in the appointed time. But if you’ve been alive for more than 10 minutes you know it’s not so simple. Many won’t ask for miracles unless they’re deathly afraid of loss. Unless they feel like they’re fighting for a chance, for the right to have something they can call a life.

There is grief prior to loving and losing. 

The ask, seek, knock triad changes into the question of the self (“unknown to ourselves”), a failure to seek oneself (“we have never sought ourselves”), and the speculation that perhaps one can find oneself. The problem of self-knowledge imposes upon a divine command. The tangible reality of knocking finds itself replaced by what sounds like most airy speculation: “how…should it happen that we find ourselves?”

There is, in both Nietzsche and Christ’s words, only a hint of the landscape of loss. There is instead the feeling of being lost, of disorientation. Still, Nietzsche, in putting together two sayings of Christ, gives what I believe to be a stronger hint. Where your treasure is, there is your heart, and that is where knowledge stands. 

We can add: what you must know is what burdens you.

*

“How much longer must I carry this body of grief?” How do the things we know—the things that compose us—hurt? How do we find any sort of peace?

The very phrase “in this world” is revealing. She perceives and attends because of love. This is not uncomplicated.

The living and dead she speaks are relative to her. She does not see the next generation come into being. But this does not sound embittered or closed to me. No rage like that of the old ideologue in “Sailing to Byzantium,” who complains about “the young in one another’s arms, birds in the trees.” His lament: “Caught in that sensual music all neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect.”

She can’t see the living beyond those she does see, but this signals her appreciation for those in her life. The absence of the dead is felt.

The last lines of Jean Valentine’s “The Harrowing,” I think, apply:

Blessed are those
who break off from separateness
 
theirs is wild
heaven.

Valentine’s lines, taken alone, almost sound like an ode to lust. In the full poem, I’d say its safe to say they’re about that, but also lost love, death, and imperfection. We do know people looking to marry the first person who likes them, who see a “wild heaven” in divorcing “separateness.” And I feel it’s appropriate to address that desire, given Ono no Komachi’s words about the fundamental loneliness of aging.

What I see is a beatitude hinting at how difficult breaking off from separateness is. So many couples—so many who are married—who have built their own separate world to make life hell for each other. If “wild heaven” were lust, there would be no lust, because lust would satisfy.

Genuine togetherness has a wholesomeness about it, but we bury that with nostalgia and images of perfect families from mass media. In reality, it has a hardness, a moral firmness, we don’t know how to discuss. (The worst discussion might be the wholly artificial standard for masculinity given by churches.) Moral firmness might look like having real standards for partners. Or, on a much more tragic scale, the knowledge that if we’re doing this right, the world will shrink before our eyes, and we can’t quite consider it a blessing. Wild heaven is only heaven when contrasted with the alternatives.

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