From “Rice Paper”, a short story

“Everything depends on distinction,” wrote the great Kleinhardt.  “The thingness (dingheit) of a thing consists entirely in its distinction from every other thing or not-thing (keinding), and to apprehend the thing in its inimitable thingness one must parse the thing diligently in its every aspect or, by which one simultaneously parses the universe that is not the thing.  To be is also not to be.”

The latest cinematic experiments in environmental art appeared to challenge this dictum.  The creation of virtual architecture that rendered drab institutional efficiency and the cheapest materials into feasts for the senses seemed to collapse distinctions.  Night-long light sculptures and dazzling outdoor laser shows in which the sky itself became the screen or medium exploded the frontier between art and life to the furthest horizon.  Musical performances that transformed office towers into resonators and mountains into amplifiers (provoking, incidentally, a flurry of legislation when a minor earthquake was attributed to Michael Gunn’s ground-breaking “Rock and Roll”) effaced the increasingly fine line that separated art and nature.  A century into the new age, Kleinhardt’s As Such was answered and eclipsed by Todd Frodd’s The Art of Everything.

“It’s all sensational,” the critic Prusak was heard to comment, “but it says nothing.”

“Haven’t we gotten beyond the primitive obligation to say something?” his rival, Sprauk, sneeringly replied.  “After all, hasn’t enough been said?  Why shouldn’t we accord nothing the respect due to any statement?  Why shouldn’t nothing be equal in force and validity to something?  Isn’t it always something that gets us into trouble?”

His acolytes tittered at the perspiring Prusak, who nevertheless rejoined with the now-famous observation:  “Because there are as many somethings as there may be statements, but there is only one nothing, and it can only be restated.”

The acolytes snarled.  The argument persisted.  Eventually, it was supplanted in the headlines by reports from the East.

The first notice appeared on TimeSite, picked up from some obscure Chinese webserve.  Someone known in translation as Master Ran – evidently Japanese – had now been at work for seventy years on a single poem.  The story metastasized onto every blogsite.  SoftMedia immediately snapped up “ran.com,” but within hours it had spawned “masterran,” “ranjap,” “ranpo,” “ran1” and countless other amateur domains all over the plan.net.  A media encampment sprang up at the foot of the mountain on which Master Ran’s little dwelling, a one-man monastery, could be seen from the valley below.  The handful of Master Ran’s disciples, some of whom were second-generation pupils, appeared distressed and disoriented by the attention – unleashed on them by a hapless hiker from Shanghai who had lost his trail and wandered into the valley, collapsed from exhaustion, been found by the disciples and nursed back to health in the master’s anteroom, and who then spread the rumor of Master Ran’s poem upon his safe return home.

Like all rumors, it had a little truth, a little not-truth.  The master had been at work on the poem for seventy-three years (four months, two weeks, a day, six hours and fourteen minutes when the first posting appeared).  It was not actually a single poem, but a sequence of poems, each unit in the sequence represented by a different written character.  Each written character, though composed of elements of classical Chinese and Japanese characters, was unique, invented by the master for his own purposes, and as the years had passed, the characters had become extraordinarily complex.

The master’s method of composition was to sit each day before the single sheet of rice paper available for the entire poem and contemplate the blank space below the last character inscribed.  Such periods of contemplation could go on for weeks, months, even years, during which the master would eat and sleep at regular hours and return at dawn to his place at the low table on which he wrote.  He would hold his loaded brush at the ready, prepared to work, and at the end of each day he did not write he would lay his brush aside, stiff and dry.  No one had ever actually observed the master in the act of writing, consequently no one could determine how long it took him to produce a character once the brush touched the paper.

copyright 2009 R.D. Eno

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