The 10th Level Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-12-30 15:00:00 No comments

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Zeami Motokiyo, widely considered to be the man who developed the foundational aesthetics of  drama as we have come to know it, once wrote a treatise about nine levels or grades of acting quality. The topmost grade, myōka-fū, is said to be a performance of total sublimity and spontaneous perfection. As Masaru Sekine put it:

An actor, to create this supreme art ... must reach to the depth of subconsciousness, so that his body moves almost on its own and his voice comes completely spontaneously. His acting surpasses his own intention. ... The actor himself cannot explain his own performance at [this] leve, as he hardly realizes what he is doing .... [I]t is beyond an audience's powers of analysis or praise.

(Emphasis mine.)

The mysticism inherent in this outlook is both attractive and problematic. I wrote recently about the problem of inspiration or creativity being seen as something primarily "out of our hands" — something that just gets handed to us by God or the gods or the Muses or what have you.

Because of that, I wound up looking at Zeami's theory in a different light. A performance that strikes like lightning (or, as one of his commentors put it, comes "like sunshine at midnight"), where one's own intentions are surpassed, shouldn't be thought of as a gift that has simply been dispensed to us and thus disposed of. It's the kicking open of a door to possibilities that weren't appreciable before. In other words, it's a starting point and not an endpoint.

Many of us are content to back off a bit when lightning strikes like that, or maybe we simply have no other strategy. For years after writing Summerworld I despaired a bit of ever recapturing the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of that work; the whole thing just seemed to pour out of me, intact, as if I were taking dictation. But there are many more times when one can take dictation and set down nothing but word salad and dog food, so it's not a matter of it being spontaneous alone.

The veneration of the spontaneous has a primeval quality about it, one that in Zeami's age could be attributed unironically to divine inspiration. In this day and age, we might take a more scientific view, one more inspired by Malcolm Gladwell than Zeami — although, I admit, I'm more enamored of the poesy and gentle fire of the latter than I am of the coldly-calculating former.

Tags: Japan creativity inspiration