I teach a class on the philosophy of time twice a week at a maximum security prison in Jessup, Maryland, for the JCI Scholars Program (which you can find out more about here—as well as the wonderful recent news about Pell Grants here!) When I told some of the students last summer that I was thinking of teaching a class on time, one approvingly responded, “If there’s anybody who knows about time, it’s us.” And so far that is indeed my experience: the students come to each class with an eagerness to relate the course material to their long and intensely reflective experience. Some of them appear to be in their sixties, but most are in their late twenties or thirties. They’ve been in prison a long time and speak about their lives beforehand with something more than the informed wistfulness most of us have in retrospection about our youth: it’s a tone of forward-looking determination and hard-won calm about who they’ve become and will continue to be. Nietzsche’s dictum to “become who you are”[1] is no dilettantish pastime for them, but a matter of keeping alive their sense of what they live for. In that regard, their decision to come to class and tackle the stuff I throw at them (light bedtime reading such as Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Parmenides and Aristotle’s refutation of Zeno’s paradox, etc.)—all for their own edification, since up to this point, they could not earn any college credit for taking these courses—all of this speaks to the nobility of their desire to learn more about the world and themselves.

In keeping with their particular mixture of perpetual acumen and poignant experience, they rapidly probe into the problems and possibilities of each text. One particularly stylish student, his white trucker hat tilted at a carefully calculated angle and with a twinkle you swear you can see behind his sunglasses that he always wears indoors, interjects during my explanation of God as actus purus: “The way I look at it, God cannot be said self-actualize, really, ‘cause that would mean he would have to become more powerful over time, like he isn’t already perfect. That would be that sempiternity and not that eternity.” He grins like the cat who got the last of the milk. For privacy reasons I can’t tell you his moniker, but I’ll call him “Cheshire” and it will be equally as artificial as the name he goes by. Cheshire’s persona in class is a total construction of self, and as a big time David Bowie fan, I am all for it.

This past Friday’s discussion centered on excerpts from Leonard Koren’s book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers. Briefly put, wabi-sabi is the traditional Japanese aesthetic that finds beauty in decaying and imperfect things. It therefore functions as a nice counterpoint to last week’s discussion of eternity as the completeness of divine life in Boethius. Whereas a modernist aesthetic strives to make things with completely smooth surfaces and sharp right angles (“clean lines”), the wabi-sabi aesthetic values the rough and irregular: a bowl with a chip in it, a clay cup a little wobbly at the top, a fountain with dark green streaks.[2] Whereas our society strives to fight the effects of time on objects—we wipe down shelves when dust accumulates, we repair scratches in cars once we find them, we buy all manner of “anti-aging” cosmetics—the wabi-sabi aesthetic embraces how time changes things. There is a beauty in how the nails in a fence leave streaks of soft red rust. Time seasons things with experiences that are irreplaceable, and can’t be replicated through mass production. As we talk about wabi-sabi in class, we arrive at the consensus that wabi-sabi appreciates how things are unique and how those imperfections and irregularities give them character.

From that we have a conversation about beauty standards for women in our society, and how the push to strive for perfection leads to ugliness. One student—who earlier had a bone to pick with Aristotle and the idea that you could identify discrete entities, apart from the constant temporal process of one thing changing into another—likes the wabi-sabi idea a lot, and shares how he knew a woman who was astonishingly beautiful in every way, but she could not get past the fact that she had a small white birthmark on her cheek, which she constantly covered up with make-up. He uses this to illustrate how if we could embrace wabi-sabi, maybe we wouldn’t have so many insecurities, and we could be at peace with ourselves instead of trying to conform to a stereotype imposed on us by culture. It’s a beautiful thought I want to connect to my passion for Marcuse’s critique of the performance principle, but I decide to sit on that and see what they have to say—and they don’t disappoint.

Another student, Kyle Williams, is soft-spoken but has a completely attentive gaze. Kyle says how he was looking outside at the uncut grass just outside the prison, and how he saw a goose laying down in it while the heat was shimmering, “and to me it was beautiful. And if somebody had cut that grass to make it beautiful, or what they think is beautiful, the goose would’ve had no place to lay down. It was just nature. That’s what I like about this wabi-sabi. People try to get rid of weeds and put flowers there in order to make it more beautiful, but weeds are really flowers when you think about it. And looking at those weeds, coming up through everything, even when things are in their way, those weeds are like me going through everything I go through.” The lyrical quality of what Kyle shares makes time stand still for a moment in the room. He goes on to read from a passage he liked: “Wabi-sabi, in its purest, most idealized form, is precisely about these delicate traces, this faint evidence, at the borders of nothingness. While the universe destructs it also constructs. New things emerge out of nothingness.”[3] Cheshire agrees that, “We are trying to make everything in nature unnatural, but the universe as a whole can’t be unnatural. If we go with wasabi, we would be a part of that whole instead of fighting time itself.” Gently, because this is the fourth time he’s done it, I point out that the term is wabi-sabi and not wasabi. He instantly cracks up at his mistake and we all have a good, friendly laugh. The room’s dynamic is lightened up and Kyle feels free to remark on how with wabi-sabi the scuffs on this wall in this classroom in the prison can be beautiful.

Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness. Wabi-sabi is ambivalent about separating beauty from non-beauty or ugliness. The beauty of wabi-sabi is, in one respect, the condition of coming to terms with what you consider ugly. Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace.[4]



[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §270

[2] Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers. Point Reyes, California: Imperfect Publishing. See pages 26-29 for helpful juxtapositions between modernism and wabi-sabi.

[3] Koren, p. 42

[4] Koren p. 51