Mono no aware (物の哀れ)

“Yet it is this awareness of the closeness of death, of the beauty inherent in each moment, that allows us to endure. Mono no aware, my son, is an empathy with the universe. It is the soul of our nation. It has allowed us to endure Hiroshima, to endure the occupation, to endure deprivation and the prospect of annihilation without despair.”

– Hiroto’s oto-san (Hiroto’s father)

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories has been on my reading list for a while. Ken Liu, an ex-software engineer, Harvard trained lawyer, and translator, was the first author to win the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award for a single work.

I have never considered myself a science fiction fan. I was thus intrigued by Liu’s preface: “I don’t pay much attention to the distinction between fantasy and science fiction—or between ‘genre’ and mainstream for that matter. For me, all fiction is about prizing the logic of metaphors—which is the logic of narratives in general—over reality, which is irreducibly random and senseless.”

With everything going on in the world at this moment, I have been turning to stories to make tolerable of what Liu called an “unfeeling, accidental universe.” Instead of focusing this post on “The Paper Menagerie,” the short story that swept the awards, I want to talk about “Mono No Aware,” another short that won Liu his second Hugo, a story equally deserving reader attention.

The short is twenty pages so I am insistent on not giving things away other than it is a story about Hiroto, the last Japanese person in the universe onboard a starship with other survivors after Earth was destroyed by an asteroid. It is a story layering in themes such as sacrifice, heritage, memory, and loss among others.

Among all the layers, what intrigued me the most was the concept of mono no aware (物の哀れ). Even after some extensive research, I still cannot pin it down. Attempts to define it have resulted in descriptions such as: “the pathos of things,” “an empathy toward things,” and “a sensitivity to ephemera.”

It is most often explained in Japanese culture by the ephemeral beauty of cascading cherry blossoms—beauty that is fragile, transient, and inherently impermanent. Fireflies have also been used as examples illustrating mono no aware (物の哀れ)—creatures of illuminating radiance that are a privilege to behold in a dark night although these insects will only sparkle to live long enough to mate and lay eggs. Mono no aware (物の哀れ) is a call to recognize both fleeting moments and change, to appreciate the present moment even if it is passing, fading, or dying. The acknowledgement of the passing of time and things can evoke feelings of wistfulness, sadness, and bittersweetness.

I was not surprised, when researching the adage, to learn that the idea of mono no aware (物の哀れ) exists also in other Asian cultures. Yet, I was surprised to find that some people find a connection between mono no aware (物の哀れ) and “this too shall pass.” We have all undoubtedly heard the phrase “this too shall pass” at some point. Some of us have assumed that the familiar line is biblical; others have often associated or even credited the famous line to Abraham Lincoln in American culture.

It turns out though our 16th President should be recognized for solely popularizing the phrase. “This too shall pass” (Persian: این نیز بگذرد‎ ) traces its origin to two potential sources: (1) Farid al-Din Attar of Nishapur, a 13th century Persian Sufi poet or (2) King Solomonn (according to Jewish literature).

I myself do not find a strong connection between mono no aware (物の哀れ) and “this too shall pass.” But one can argue that both adages are about the impermanence of time, persons, and things. Yet, on the temporal dimension, the dragging of time is a requisite for “this too shall pass,” contrasting sharply with a fleeting snapshot of time for mono no aware (物の哀れ).

Regardless if you subscribe to mono no aware (物の哀れ), “this too shall pass,” both, or neither, we should remember that bad things shall pass but so will good things. Humans can be both saddened and appreciative of things happening in our lives. I leave you to find some comfort in Hiroto’s final narrative voice: “And we walk together down the street, so that we can remember every passing blade of grass, every dewdrop, every fading ray of the dying sun, infinitely beautiful.”

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