Wabi-Sabi Revisited

This is one of my favourite old buildings. It is located near Beausejour Manitoba.  A number of months ago I wrote about a new philosophy I had discovered.  Well to me it was new, but it was really an old philosophy. The philosophy is called Wabi-Sabi and it has found a congenial home in Japan, the same country that brought us forest bathing. More on that another time. Wabi-Sabi is a philosophy of genuine conservatism—not the shallow rancid kind practiced by some modern politicians of the right. Wabi-Sabi cherishes what has stood the test of time, even though it is already decaying. Nothing lasts forever, but we should embrace the good while it lasts and then give it up with regret, but understanding.

Wabi-Sabi is a philosophy that accepts impermanence and even celebrates it. Like buildings that are collapsing into decay. Or old vehicles or other instruments.  Even old people are embraced and appreciated for what they can bring, even when it is less than they could bring at one time.

Wabi-Sabi rejects the current relentless pursuit of the new in favor of cherishing instead the old, which is still valuable. Like all good art Wabi-Sabi finds and then celebrates the extraordinary that can be found in the ordinary, provided one has the eyes to see. Or has the mind to see. Common everyday things can have a startling beauty if one is alert. One must be alert for the marvellous as otherwise it might pass one by.


I think Wabi-Sabi fits in well with my search for moral humility. One can forsake the hyper-beautiful in favor of a quiet beauty that stills the soul rather than puffing up the chest. It is modest or humble.

Early on in photography, I saw images by photographers who found beauty in the mundane even if they had never heard of the philosophy of the Wabi-Sabi. Freeman Patterson is one of my favorite photographers and I think he exemplified this approach. I remember the first time I saw his photographs of collapsing buildings in South Africa and was amazed at the beauty he found there.  I am nowhere near the photographer that Patterson is, but I have caught on to the beauty in the ordinary even if I fail to match his skill in displaying it. But I try. And, of course, I am not perfect, and never will be. The perfect is the enemy of the good and sometimes even of the one who strives for beauty.


One artist who appreciated the beauty of the flawed was Leonard Cohen. Remember the line from his song,


Ring the bells that still can ring,

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in


Too often who seek perfection are continually dissatisfied with the good. What a pity. The good is good enough.

Life is always frayed and if you don’t like the untidy ends you don’t love life. You love death instead.  The art, the photography, I am interested in sees beauty and truth in such rough timber, for as Shakespeare said, we are made of such rough timber. Art that is perfect is too often lifeless.  By definition the ideal is not alive. The ideal can inspire us, but it does not keep company with us. This is the art of the rough.

Recently on the radio I heard a Broadway musical star talk about her “dream home” that she had bought in the country.  She said she loved that it was 100 years older than she was.  It was more than 150 years old. Not old for Europe where such homes are appreciated, but very old here in North America. She also loved that it had its original floors. She said she loved to walk barefoot on that floor, especially on the “uneven floor.”  She loved the flaws. I love flaws. Of course, some say I love flaws because I am so deeply flawed. Maybe they are right.


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