Basho, the poet of Humanity, portrays human sickness in his renku, haiku, and letters; for instance,
here he focuses not on people dying from measles but rather them recovering.
“How’s it going?”
One foot at a time
Kyorai creates a person coming to the window from putside and asking about someone inside. Basho says the latter is recovering from measles. With no scientific knowledge of physiology at all, he recognizes the essence of immunology: disease leaves “traces” (antibodies) to prevent that disease from reoccurring in this body.
Rotsu, himself a beggar, follows with a traveler’s straw sandals wear out quickly – but one is thrown away and replaced while the other is still usable. In connection with Basho’s stanza, this can be a metaphor for how the immune system functions - and I request that you take the position that people before the medical discovery of the immune system knew from experience how their bodies functioned: lymphocytes live for only days or weeks and must constantly be replaced, but never all at once for then immunity would be lost. There are always enough mature lymphocytes able to respond to an antigen, while new ones are being “educated” to benefit the body.
The earliest Basho verse on sickness may be this autobiographical renku stanza-pair, both stanzas written by Basho, which is undated, but was written before 1676, and probably occurred in reality before 1672 while Basho still lived in his hometown of Iga (now Mie Prefecture) about 50 km. southeast of Kyoto and traveled to Kyoto to study.
Walking from Kyoto to Iga, apparently he spent the night in Mika no Hara, a place in Kizugawa south of Kyoto, alongside the Kizu River which leads east to Iga. “Hara” is both “plain” in the place name, and also “belly.” Already in his twenties he suffered from the bowel disorder that ended his life more than two decades later in 1694.
The subject has decided to “go with the flow,” to let the disease run its course, either to decline or to recover on the body’s own healing resources. The body goes on a journey, “wandering place to place” in the hills of Yoshino where everywhere you go cherry trees are in full bloom.
Her voice is always beautiful, but the respiratory hoarseness of a cold adds a different beauty. Though her voice is so pretty, Basho makes her silently return the tray with the lunch she has no appetite to eat. Her immune system is weakened by a cold, and food will only make it worse. This stanza-pair belongs to teenage girls; they can tell us what it means.
Winter brings savage winds from the North to rip the last leaves from the trees, withering whatever they touch. Hohobare, (swollen cheeks) is the old way of saying the mumps, an acute communicable disease of small children that causes swelling of the salivary glands below and before the ears and a high fever as the
immune system works to kill the mumps virus. Why is this infant with the mumps outside in the cold winter wind? Mther has to shop for food and the baby has mumps. With a zukin or hood over the head, she straps baby to her back with a kimono sash. Then she pulls a nen-neko hanten, an oversized thick padded jacket over both of them, and goes outside into the bitter wind. The little body is snug and warm next to the mother’s back, and the steady walking rhythm soothes the feverish baby to calm down and maybe fall
asleep. Everywhere is covered by jacket and hood, except for around the nose and mouth, so baby can breathe – this is when Basho sees the “cheeks swollen and painful.”
Recovering from a long illness, with help she lifts herself to a sitting position on the futon. As she runs the comb down the full length of smooth black hair, she takes in its power. Then she caresses her adorable furry pet so kawaii! Watching her cuddle and pet this small living being, so soon after her-near death, makes me love her all the more. To keep the young and healthy from growing old and sick, if only there was a way.
The disease smallpox was caused by a virus in the blood vessels of skin producing a rash with small bumps which became blisters, leaving scars on the face of those who survived.
Paying attention to the children, Basho sees smallpox scars still raw and unhealed by time, indicating that earlier this year there was a local epidemic -- but it is over and the children who survived now go around outside where Basho can see them. Another writer would focus on children dying from smallpox; Basho shows us the ones who live through it.
The goose needs strength to stay in the sky. We watch the elegant V formation cross the sky when suddenly one member drops down to somewhere we cannot see. Basho is portraying his own sickness which came upon him in the cold night.
This is sickness Basho could not possibly have experienced in himself, although he may have seen in his mother or four sisters. Willow branches are pliant and flexible, submissive to every breeze, so we may think them weak. Women too are flexible, and in a patriarchal society expected to submit to every male desire.
Men admire strength and rigidity, despising the flexibility of willows or women, as they despise the ‘path of blood’ from women’s reproductive organs, and also the sickness that comes with bleeding. During her period the long spring rains make this woman feel weaker and more shameful. For some relief, she boils the herbal tea bag in the steam rising from her inflamed heart.
In passages from Basho’s letters to close friends and his older brother, we learn his consciousness of sickness and health: here from a letter to Chigetsu, a widow in her sixties, he writes
Basho counts the days he is free from his chronic disease –Exactly 53! In a letter to a woman, he tells the condition of his bowels; now that’s personal! “Fierce as a dream”? No comment. He rode into Iga in a palanquin carried by four bearers, but his butt was so pain-free he did not need a cushion underneath those cheeks - however the space within the palanquin was confining so after many hours his hips and shoulders hurt. So much body consciousness.
In a letter to his old friend Ensui, April 28, 1692:
Millions throughout time have suffered and died from tuberculosis: the chronic cough with blood-containing sputum, fever, night sweats,and weight loss which led to the term "consumption" -- the infection consumes the body, although memories continue in a fading physique.
The flow of images make this one of Basho’s most heart-rending verses. He begins with a single word of speech or thought to open the mind without specifying content. The second and third lines portray the physical actions that evoke memories. The fourth line adds deep and reoccurring emotion, and the fifth provides the sad context for the entire scene: tuberculosis.
At the end of 1692, Basho’s nephew Toin, a fugitive from the law in Iga, came down with tuberculosis, and Basho brought him into his hut to nurse him. Here from a letter to his older brother in Iga:
In addition to dealing with Toin’s suffering, Basho has to make the difficult decision whether or not to inform his sister has not seen or heard from her son in 17 years. He decides that it better to let her remain unaware of Toin’s disease and go on with her present life.
Three months later Basho writes much about Toin's sickness in a letter to his follower Kyoriku:
Basho escorted Toin out of Iga in 1676 because the boy was in trouble with the law, and had to live as a fugitive in the metropolis.
Thank you, Basho, for your compassion. Even in this
sad letter, Basho uses that word yorokobi, “joy.”
On June 3, 1694, Basho, along with his grandnephew Jirobei, began his final journey. Although Western scholars have formed a notion that Basho was terribly sick on his journey, if he had been that sick, he seemly could not have gone the distance. Also, on this journey, Basho devoted much attention to the nature of sickness and health.
They spent about four hours with friends and followers at the Shinagawa post station, the start of the Tokaido Road to Kyoto. The farewells went on, and on, and on, so the old man and teenage boy did not leave until afternoon. Kon explains that Basho was quite able to walk, but Sampu and Old Kosai insisted he and Jirobei ride a palanquin and paid the cost. Considering that Basho was 50 years old with a chronic bowel problem, I would be most surprised if the wealthy and generous Sampu did not so insist – however the palanquin would only carry them seven miles to the next post station, and then they walked.
In the fog of translation, this palanquin has become a “litter” Basho was “strapped to” because he was so sick he could not walk. Sam Hamill is very specific about the symptoms -- “chills, fever, and headaches” -- he says Basho suffered throughout June and July, although Japanese scholars report no such symptoms at this time. Kon tells us Basho was “weakened by old age and his chronic bowel disease,” but without symptoms.
Barley planted in winter rice fields is harvested just before plowing to prepare for rice-planting. Western translators have taken this verse to mean Basho was so sick and weak he could not walk by himself and grasped the barley stalks like an old man’s cane – however Ueda translates this commentary by Konishi Jin’ichi:
In fully grown barley ears reside the forces of health and life. The goodwill of my friends,
who have come to see me off, is as encouraging to me as those barley ears.
On the strength of that encouragement I start on this long journey.
While the Western scholars see the "grasping onto" barley as an expression of sickness and weakness,
while a Japanese scholar pays attention to the growing power of barley, so the verse expresses health and strength.
Basho wrote two letters to Sora, one on June 8:
Evidence suggests Jirobei was about 15 years old, able to move about nimbly and quickly, but without much endurance – untilbpushed by day-after-day of exertion he develop endurance.
Hamill, Barnhill, and Reichhold seem to have gotten the idea thatbBasho was sick on the early part of this journey from Ueda whobdoes not indicate where he got it. They all suggest that Basho wasbdepressed about being sick and close to his death, but in his letters Basho seems tired, but still confidant about his health.
The second Letter to Sora is dated a month later, July 13
The wide Oi River was flooding from heavy summer rains, so they had to stay for three days in Shimada
Basho focuses on the nature of good health
Basho has noticed something very important about children and even teenagers: that they develop. They are not stuck with yesterday’s self. Given a few days of concentrated input, they change. In a few weeks of natural communication with local children, a “foreign” child will learn their language and speak itwithout an accent. After just ten days of Basho’s Boot Camp (even with a three-day furlough), Jirobei discovered an energy no one knew he had. He changed from being a wimpy 15 year old to a “robust” young man, who can just walk and walk, carrying a backpack, without tiring.
Also, in a letter to Sampu, also dated July 13, Basho says:
We know he left Shinagawa in the south of Edo mid-afternoon the 3rd, and he did arrive in Shimada before dark on the 7th. That’s 110 miles in 3 1/2 days of travel. Basho said he had some “hindrance” from his chronic bowel disease, but not enough to prevent him from doing 30 miles a day.
Riding a horse or palanquin are easier than walking, but if Basho had any actual sickness in his bowels, they would get most uncomfortable on a horse or in a palanquin. If Basho were as sick as Hamill claims, he simply would not have been able to make this journey. They left Edo after noon June 3rd and arrived in Iga June 20th. The basic distance is 240 miles, however their side trip to Ise and Hisai added 60 miles. Also, they stopped for three days at Shimada and two days and three nights at Nagoya -- so 300 miles in
12 days on the road, 25 miles a day. Not exactly an invalid!
So we have the opinion of a doctor who actually treated Basho for a while, and he said Basho “need not worry.” We have Basho’s own statement that his chronic illness did not arise all the way from Edo to Zeze – though he did get more exhausted than he did on previous journeys. (I know just how he feels) Certainly an acutely sick man could never have made this journey. Hamill says, “Basho was pleased to be celebrated in his hometown, but was far too weak to participate in any festivities.” Basho, however, in the Letter to
In this letter to Sampu he says the same. Basho had a great time socializing with his old buddies in Iga, and he obviously had enough energy to write long, long letters – though scholars in the West say Basho was near-death on this journey. Who do we believe?
From Iga Basho and Jirobei traveled to Zeze and then Saga west of Kyoto where Basho wrote a letter to his neighbor in Fukagawa, Ihei:
Kon believes that the younger of Jutei’s daughters is 11 at this time. Basho only mentions Ofu in his letter, not Masa, so it appears the younger girl suffers from some health problem her sister is free of. The Japanese summer is mushi atsui, day after day of sultry, muggy heat which makes all health problems worse. Basho cares about his prepubescent grandniece’s delicate health.
From July we now skip ahead to November; on the 11th, In a letter to his older brother, Basho says
Such intermittent fevers, called ague, are usually malarial. Here may be one origin of the Western myth that from June Basho was sick with “chills, fever and migraines.” Hamill translates the symptoms accurately, but has the date five months off. I assume he did not do this consciously or deliberately. The information he received must have been somehow scrambled so that symptoms Basho described in a letter in November were attributed to Basho in June.
Two days later he wrote:
Basho told Shiko,
Basho feels the power of words in his body. His chronic disease is in his bowels, so literally will tear them to pieces.
Two nights before this disease became acute, Basho wrote the second stanza:
According to traditional Chinese medicine, the wind gets inside the body to cause disease – so in Japanese both “wind” and “a cold” are pronounced kaze. A wind that changes direction produces disharmony in the body, so disease defeats the body’s defenses. Diagnosis of the pulses at the wrist gives the doctor detailed
information on the state of the internal organs and the whole complex of yin and yang energy. Basho, a month before his death, knows that any disharmony or disease in his body could accumulate to his ending.
Late at night, November 16th, Basho woke up with severe pain and diarrhea. Realizing he could not attend the gathering the next evening, he asks Shiko to bring the following verse to open the sequence.
“Deep in autumn, the loneliness of the journey closing in on me, I lodge in a corner of the city. Someone resides in the next room, making no sound. There is something my neighbor does to pass through the world. I wonder what it is.” (Kon)
Basho knows that the wonder of human activity in harmony with the seasons goes on all the while he lies dying, and will continue after he is dead. Robert Aitken says,
“On his deathbed… in the loneliest circumstances the human spirit can experience,
Basho’s mind goes out to his neighbour… Even the pain and isolation forced by his illness
did not turn his energy to his smaller self.”
Even as the infectious sores “tear his bowels to pieces”, Basho maintains his Lightness and sense of wonder for human (male, female, or child) activity.On his deathbed, after midnight of November 24th., Basho dictated:
“Fields” may represent the body while dreams are the spirit which animates the flesh for a while and then passes on. In the spring and summer and autumn of life, dreams wander about fields bright in the
sunshine and alive with birdsong. But then comes winter, time for dreams to wander off into eternity.
When he awoke the next day, he told this verse to Shiko:
Instead of an old man sadly dying on a withered field, we gaze in wonder at young green life flowing away in the mountain stream. CLEAR CASCADE is a rejuvenation in Basho’s spirit, a casting off of the sickness of ON A JOURNEY TAKEN ILL, reaffirming Lightness and Liveliness as the Way of Basho -- even on his deathbed.
November 27, Basho turned toward Bokusetsu, his doctor, and said,
(Points to Bokusetsu)
The next day, November 28th, was a warm early winter day
All other insects have died from the night cold, but flies are somehow tougher.
Early in the afternoon, he spoke his final words with a smile:
Basho maintains Lightness to the very end. He makes a joke about the flies "having" him, as we "have" a pet, cherishing him for the smells that come from his bowel infections and diarrhea.