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“The world is groping in the shadow of egotism and vulgarity. … Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea.”

In 1906, Kakuzo Okakura told us what we’ve got to live through now, and how tea of all things can help us endure it. The Book of Tea paints the tea room and the tea ceremony within it as a refuge of stillness, simplicity, freedom, and meditation in a frenzied and convoluted world. In Don DeLillo’s novel Players, both of the main characters worry repeatedly that they have “become too complex” – incapable of a reflective inner life, and equally incapable of navigating the dizzying postmodern city outside themselves, a city full of egotistic pleasures, but at the same time oppressive and threatening. DeLillo’s postmodern city is Okakura’s early modern city greatly elaborated, and both writers seek ways to escape or at least distance themselves from it.

Starting with the roji – the garden to the tea room – one is meant

to break connection with the outside world, and produce a fresh sensation conducive to the full enjoyment of aestheticism in the tea-room itself. One who has trodden this garden path cannot fail to remember how his spirit, as he walked in the twilight of evergreens over the regular irregularities of the stepping stones, beneath which lay dried pine needles, and passed beside the moss-covered granite lanterns, became uplifted above ordinary thoughts. One may be in the midst of a city, and yet feel as if he were in the forest far away from the dust and din of civilisation. Great was the ingenuity displayed by the tea-masters in producing these effects of serenity and purity.

Irregularities matter; one seeks to avoid the modern cityscape’s inhuman and destabilizing tendency toward massive symmetrical perfection (one of the characters in Players works in one of the twin World Trade towers, but she often gets lost and can’t figure out which one) by creating a small, imperfect, unsymmetrical space. The core value and central gesture here is much like the one Roland Barthes finds in the paintings of Cy Twombley: “a blur, almost a blotch, a negligence.”


The simplicity of the tea-room and its freedom from vulgarity make it truly a sanctuary from the vexations of the outer world… Nowadays industrialism is making true refinement more and more difficult all the world over. Do we not need the tea-room more than ever?

Does true refinement sound too ladidah? Consider the real-world importance of the tea ceremony for Vaclav Havel during his years of imprisonment:

What comforted him most, almost to the point of obsession, was the ritual he made in preparing tea. It was, as he wrote Olga, a pleasure, an extravagance of a sort, something he could control in a thoroughly uncontrollable situation.

“When I was outside, I didn’t understand the cult of tea that exists in prison,” he writes. “…I wasn’t here long before grasping its significance and succumbing to it myself…Tea, it seems to me, becomes a kind of material symbol of freedom here: It is in effect the only fare that one can prepare oneself, and thus freely: When and how I make it is entirely up to me. In the preparation of it, I realize myself as a free being, as it were, capable of looking after myself.” …I schedule (tea) carefully, so it does not become a formless and random activity…”

Well, all of this is a variation on the currently fashionable business of “mindfulness,” which can be undertaken with varying degrees of formality and spirituality; but especially now that so many of us are in a sort of vexatious fog about the fate of our shared world, ol’ UD thinks it makes sense to think about/indulge in the strange formal/informal, ritualized/negligent gestures that somehow calm and focus and even transport us.

Margaret Soltan, November 14, 2016 6:11AM
Posted in: tea

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3 Responses to ““The world is groping in the shadow of egotism and vulgarity. … Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea.””

  1. Greg Says:

    You might, if you haven’t recently, try something like this for a similar meditative experience involving the senses, tradition and seasonal food and colors. It’s been too long since we’ve been to Makoto for me to vouch. Tripadvisor of course comes to mind. But it was wonderful then from removing shoes, hard benches, delicious and colorful fish and vegetables, raw and cooked:


  2. Jeff Boulier Says:

    A bit further off, but if you are on your way down route 50 to Middleburg or points West, I very much enjoyed The British Pantry. http://thebritishpantry.us/

    It’s a bit pricey by my standards, but very enjoyable. Reservations in advance are a good idea, and they aren’t open as often as usual during the winter.

  3. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Jeff: You know, I think I’ve stopped in there – I don’t think I’ve had tea there, but the name stirs some memory or other… But thanks for the reminder, and of course I’ll go there now. UD

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