Thursday, February 26, 2004

The Dragon

"In China there was once a man who liked pictures of dragons, and his clothing and furnishings were all designed accordingly. His deep affection for dragons was brought to the attention of the dragon god, and one day a real dragon appeared before his window. It is said he died of fright. He was probably a man who always spoke big words but acted differently when facing the real thing."

The above passage is from Hagakure, The Book of the Samurai, by Yamamoto Tsunetomo - a book I found lying in the trash on Locust Street in Philadelphia. The passage seems to me to express something perfectly true about human nature. And not only is it perfectly true, it also expresses it perfectly. Our expression, "Be careful what you wish for, you might get it," expresses something of the same idea, but without the elegance or pictorial element.In reading this book, or rather, reading such of its pages as survived someone's frenzied slashing of the first ten pages or so, not to mention its disposal in the dump, I am introduced to a mode of life and consciousness utterly unlike our own. The chief virtue of the Samurai was loyalty, even unto death. Selfless loyalty is the human ideal.

A very different ethos rules our period. The American age is the age in which self-indulgence is to be tried and experienced in all its forms. We shall go to the very end of self-indulgence, we shall drink the cup of self-indulgence to its bitter dregs. And still we will be forced to drink from it, for we have concluded that there is nothing greater than ourselves. So we will keep drinking of our own power until the dragon finally appears at our window - which, in this American age, is actually a mirror.