Matsuo Basho, the great 17th-century Japanese poet and teacher whose hokku developed the form later known as the haiku, engaged in a number of “wanderings” during which he meditated, observed the Japanese countryside, and wrote. The coastal roads were heavily built up, crowded with travelers on all sorts of journeys including mercantile, dotted with inns (one of my favorite books of all time is Japanese Inn, by Oliver Statler, which recounts the history of a venerable inn on the Tokaido Road and along the way gives a rich history of the road and the people); Basho followed instead the less-traveled roads and paths into the interior of Japan, stopping at small inns and various shrines. (Blue Highways, by William Least Heat–Moon, takes a similar journey in the late-20th-century United States.)
The last of Basho’s wanderings, which he took with a fellow poet, resulted in a journal that included numerous poems he had written along the way, copies of some of which he had left behind as memorial notes and thank-you notes. I tell my students that if he had had a modern camera, the world would have gained a great photographer and lost a great poet, since the verses he wrote seem to me to be like the pictures taken by my friend Maressa Blau Gershowitz—wonderful, insightful views of moments and details of a journey that is both physical and spiritual.
Basho called this book (published posthumously) “The Narrow Road to the Interior.”
As you can see above, my student referred to it as “Narrow Road of the Inferior.”
In terms of the actions of the eye, this is not a difficult error to make. Take a quick look at these two letters:
Now look quickly at the two words:
Now read fifty or so pages of a smallish-print anthology (on “bible paper”) and take another look. At what point did you have trouble telling the difference?
The trouble isn’t that my student mistook a letter; the trouble is that she didn’t question what she thought she had seen.
Just where, in my description of Basho or his journal, does the idea “inferior” fit? The word “of” is ambiguous: what is the “inferior” to which the road is attributable? Was the road inferior, since it wasn’t commercial or heavily traveled? Was the inland part of the island inferior, being less heavily populated and not built up—is coastal Japan “superior”? Or is my student somehow under the impression that Basho himself is inferior to something or someone? His life may not have followed the lines his birth would have predicted, but surely in terms of its richness and the contribution he made to culture and poetry there was nothing “inferior” about him (and although he seems to have been modest of manner and means, he was admired by his students and generally would not have considered himself inferior in most senses of the word).
So we’re looking here at the interesting moment when a mere mistake becomes a real error: when a misapprehension is accepted as correct. The journal reflection that followed didn’t present anything as of lesser value, but she must have seen no disconnect between the word she had used and the ideas she was discussing, or she would have gone back and double-checked that title.
Basho called the road he traveled a “narrow” road because it was narrower than the main road—a rural road is narrower than a highway—not because it offered a narrow view or narrow experience, or evoked trivial thoughts. He was interested in it primarily not because it was “lesser,” but because it was itself, and worthy of note.
Despite what packagers and advertisers try to imply, big is not always better. and popularity is not always an indicator of superiority.
Viewed through eyes that see clearly and do not judge, any road is interesting, and nothing and no one is by definition “inferior.”
Happy trails to you!