“…shibumi has to do with great refinement underlying commonplace appearances. It is a statement so correct that it does not have to be bold, so poignant it does not have to be pretty, so true it does not have to be real. Shibumi is understanding, rather than knowledge…In art, where the spirit of shibumi takes the form of sabi, it is elegant simplicity, articulate brevity. In philosophy, where shibumi emerges as wabi, it is spiritual tranquility that is not passive; it is being without the angst of becoming. And in the personality of a man, it is . . . how does one say it? Authority without domination? Something like that.”
— from “Shibumi”, by Trevanian
I read that quote for the first time while in high school in the mid-80’s. The book is a thriller, sort of a high-class Jason Bourne. It informed, to a greater extent than I’m comfortable with, the kind of man I tried to become as an adult (along with a passionate desire to be passionate about the game of Go that I never quite managed). I’ve re-read the book many times over the years, though my paperback copy was purged a few years ago during a move.
I recently found a copy of the book, in hardcover, and re-read it, expecting it to be a fun romp through the exciting world of international espionage (along with some amusing early speculations about what computers would be like pre-internet).
You Can Never Go Back
It was…a bittersweet experience.
Among other things, I am now the same age as the protagonist in the book (and slightly older than the author when he wrote it). I can see where the main character is something of a masculine fever dream of wishful thinking, along with all of the toxic and fragile masculinity that goes along with the genre. In fact, I can’t not see it; there were many “shake my head” moments as the author portrayed this larger-than-life hero.
More than that, I can see the inherent racism, sexism, nationalism, and classism that are somewhat a product of the author’s background in Academia and, at the same time, inexcusable. These are things I brushed over earlier in my haste to lose myself in the Hero’s Journey; for the first time in this reading I found that I saw the scenery around the journey, and the destructive ideas they contained.
I don’t want to say that I didn’t enjoy the book — but this will be my last reading. I need to say goodbye to this particular Favorite Thing, and maybe re-think all the times I recommended it, and be thankful that I didn’t buy into that mindset completely the way some Libertarians buy into Ayn Rand.
The Bittersweet Farewell
Before I get jumped all over by people yelling defenses of The Fountainhead, let me add: I get it. I went through my Libertarian phase too, later in high school. I also went through a Heinlein phase, a Sheri Tepper phase, a Richard Bach phase, a Leo Buscaglia phase, and even a bit of a Tom Clancy phase. We have a tendency, like milk, to take in the ideas promoted in the books we love.
But I think it’s important that I also examine those ideas that I might have absorbed, and question them. There may be times that I need to say “No…this was not useful, not right. It was only entertaining.” Behind every work of fiction is an author’s own hangups and shortcomings, the same as any of us.
Sometimes it’s time to just say “thank you for the distraction”, close the cover, and let it go.
We have our own non-fiction reality to work on.