Matsuo Bashō At 372: The Haiku Master And Alzheimer’s

Basho Monkey

In 1675 the eminent haikai no renga poet of the day, Nishiyama Sōin, visited Edo from his base in Osaka. While haikai no renga – a form of linked verse with alternating sections of seventeen and fourteen morae – was already characterised by its lighthearted wit and occasional vulgarity, in Sōin’s hands it gained a new freedom of expression, for the first time in Japanese literature drawing its language from the popular idiom.

One of the select group of poets who were invited to join Sōin in Edo was Sōbō, who shortly after Sōin’s visit changed his pen name to Tōsei. Over the next five years Tōsei’s poems were published in many anthologies, as he became an established figure within Edo’s literary circles and began to win disciples of his own. However Tōsei soon became dissatisfied with life at the fashionable centre, like many artists believing he could see better from the periphery.

In 1680 he moved across the river to Fukagawa, where his disciples built him a hut in a secluded spot. A banana tree, of a species called Bashō, was planted in the poet’s new garden. Appreciating its big leaves, sullen flowers, and the ‘very uselessness’ of the thick trunk’s wood, he took the tree’s name as his own. Matsuo Bashō had settled on the identity which continues to define him 372 years later, long considered the master of the haiku and Japan’s greatest ever poet.

But Bashō, prone to spells of intense and sometimes morose self-examination, was increasingly restless. His hut burned down two years later, in a fire which spread throughout Edo, and in 1683 his mother died. The following year he began the first of the major journeys which would culminate in 1689, when he travelled north for six months, eventually arriving in Ōgaki. The journey produced his most famous work, Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North), a haibun combining haiku and prose, in which he crafted the vagaries of nature, the characters he met on the road, and the spirit of the places he visited all with a meditative unity.

Bashō spent the next couple of years venturing around Kyōto and his birthplace in Iga Province. He finally returned to Edo in the winter of 1691. Though feted by the cultural elite, the floating world continued to fill him with discomfort, and in 1693 he briefly renounced all visitors. Then in the spring of 1694, he set out on his final journey, becoming ill and dying surrounded by his disciples in Osaka at the age of fifty years old. The last of his seven major anthologies was published posthumously in 1698.

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Bashō’s skill as a poet has many facets and stands at the confluence of many streams. There is the study of his forebears and the time he spent learning under near-contemporaries like Sōin, his rare willingness to go out and experience life up close, a meticulous devotion to craft, an ascetic commitment to an ideal of naturalness, his critic’s eye and aesthete’s sensitivity for the poetic qualities of sabi (loneliness), shiori (tenderness), and hosomi (slenderness).

Yet could not some of the unhappiness of Bashō’s life, and more the cutting, sometimes strangely stunted, peculiarly modernist quality of his haiku, be evidence of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease? Just look at the evidence.

In one of his most famous haiku, Bashō seems to reflect on the timeless pull of the old capital of Kyōto, and on the very nature of human longing.

Even in Kyōto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyōto

But from another perspective, this shows a forgetful and disorientated middle-aged man, in the very act of writing suddenly uncertain with the world around him. Clearly this haiku was headed in another direction until the cuckoo’s cry disrupted Bashō’s train of thought, and brought about a perverse exclamation. He was already in Kyōto, the absent-minded fool!

The same sort of thing happens in this ultra-traditional haiku, a sort of meta or postmodernist haiku since it refers not once but twice to the season. By the end of the verse Bashō seems to have carried himself back in time, as if he is no longer in spring but experiencing again the waning days of last autumn.

First day of spring—
I keep thinking about
the end of autumn.

This sort of disassociation, the tendency to repetitively return to moments in the past, and the ensuing feeling of melancholy, are all hallmarks of early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Finally there is this haiku, which at first glance appears to comment obliquely on issues of otherness and self-identity.

Year after year
on the monkey’s face
a monkey’s face.

But once again it can be reduced to mere repetition. Bashō has witnessed or conjured a monkey’s face, and lost in the vision, dishevelled and displaced by the flurry of years he cannot remember, he immediately forgets and has to restate the picture.

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