Menchu Gutiérrez on Writers of the Snow

“And snow crunches in the eyes, innocent, like clean bread,” writes the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam.

The snow does the labor of disinfecting the land: it washes all that is dark, all that is pitiful, all that is heavy, and once it is pure reflection, it draws us in. Out of sympathy for the snow, we too take on the task of purification. It might be said that we extend the ritual of the land.

“How tenderly does the land laugh when the snow above it stirs,” says French poet René Char.

While it’s true that the snow is kin to the wayward happiness of children’s games and that each snowball thrown during winter’s play bursts like a fit of laughter; and while it’s true that laughter is part of the vertigo induced by the sliding of skis and sleds, it is no less true that humor seems to flee the snow and that, when it falls, it falls with solemn reverence. In the words of Spanish writer Rámon Gómez de la Serna, “the snow has blue blood.”

The happiness brought by the snow is such that, to make it ours, to turn it into an eternal present, we build cases for its crystals; we enclose it in snow globes; we keep it in miniature worlds to induce dreams during the light of day.

Since they were first exhibited at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1878—almost as a scientific curiosity—miniatures of cities and landscapes enclosed in glass spheres haven’t ceased to multiply. In our hands is the power to turn them over, change the direction of time, and bring the snow down on the tiny trees and rooftops.

Next to the books on the shelf, the snow globe is a yet-unwritten haiku, an occurrence waiting to be woken, like the eye of fantasy under its lid.

The desire to rekindle the magic of the snow is the same desire that compels us to throw confetti at parties, to make it snow inside the rooms where we celebrate reunions and farewells.

This too is why we create the fantasy of snow in the middle of spring. Consider the legend of caliph Abd-ar-Rahman III and the woman for whom he built in Cordoba the famous Medina that bears her name, Medina Azahara or “the city of the orange blossom.” Despite the extraordinary beauty of the palace and its gardens, Azahara, who had lived in Granada, longs for the views of the snow on her beloved Sierra Nevada and is fraught with melancholy. The caliph orders the clearing of the cedar forest in front of the palace and the planting of a sea of almond trees. Each springtime their blossoms will evoke the snow she loves so dearly.

In Yasushi Inoue’s beautiful novel Yodel Castle, this Japanese writer tells us how, in the sixteenth century, the feudal lord Hideyoshi organizes a grand party to contemplate the flowering of the cherry trees. Taking a break from his tireless, frenetic activity—always related to matters of war—the man on whom the fate of the country depends helps prepare the party. For over a month he makes uncountable trips to Daigo hill to oversee all the details of the celebration. The lord orders the repairing of the temples, the restoration of a pagoda, and the building of tea pavilions so his guests can stop to rest as they climb the hill. There will be marionettes, dance, and exquisite delicacies; the climb is dappled with places for aesthetic enjoyment. What Inoue describes is a genuine pilgrimage to contemplate beauty, as if small initial doses should prepare us for the sublime beauty lying in wait on the hilltop. There are blossoming cherry trees at the foot of the hill, yet Inoue writes that the whiteness of the flowers at the top is even more intense: “immobile like artificial flowers, it was as if they had landed from the sky on the intertwining branches.” The flowers didn’t sprout from the branches; they “landed” on them, like snowflakes.

While the guests change places time and again, alternating views of the valley and the sides of the hill, 311 poems about the flowering of the cherry trees, written by the guests themselves, are read aloud.

One of these poems is written by Hideyoshi:

The year had not ended and I contemplated
the beauty of the snowy mountain,
where the flowers once hidden
were starting to open.
How sad to lose the unforgettable sight
     of the cherry trees
at twilight!
The day most awaited was the full blossoming,
that spring beyond compare.

Almond, plum, and cherry blossoms remind us of the snow, while the snow recalls a mystical flowering of the air. Metaphors traverse these two images, leaving traces of the wheel of life. A haiku about death, by the Japanese poet Gozan, reads:

The snow of yesterday
That fell like cherry petals
Is water once again.

This is how Sasha, Hideyoshi’s concubine and the protagonist of Inoue’s novel, remembers the poems read on Daigo hill: a scene infused with an exacting sense of sadness before the ephemeral.

Even the eternal snows crowning Mount Fuji, which have held and still hold a fascination for Japanese writers, poets, and artists, dramatically transform in the words of Basho: “The snow on the peak thinks it’s eternal but it’s only the volcano’s dream.”

Yet we still contemplate the snow, engrossed, as did the painters of ukiyo-e or “pictures of the floating world” during the Tokugawa period in Japan. We recapture this eternal fascination. We return to the scene of the first snows.

In Yasunari Kawabata’s short story “First snow on Fuji,” the ex-lovers Jiro and Utako are about to be separated. They look out the train window towards the mountain and talk indirectly of the intensity of their relationship and the inevitable exhaustion of their passion: “Even Mount Fuji can seem boring if you constantly look at it,” says Utako in a sad voice. We must reconquer beauty; when it is limp and lifeless, we must revive it with fresh eyes.

Contemplating beauty, however, has certain rules.

A young Zen monk, who has had a revelation, is invited by his master to visit Mount Fuji. While climbing, the monk can’t stop remarking on the beauty of the clouds, the snow, and a bird’s song he has never heard before. His master remains silent, growing more and more annoyed.

“Master,” says the young monk, “can’t you see how the wind lifts the snow above the volcano? Don’t you find it beautiful? Don’t you think we are one with the mountain and the snow?”

“All this is true,” says the master, “but it is a shame you have said it.”

Deep contemplation of the snow, it would appear, requires absorption, a silence much like the silence that falls when it snows.

In another Kawabata novel, Snow Country, the protagonist Shimamura gives himself over to the sight of the snow. It drains him. It fills him with its characteristic silence “like after a sleepless night.”

In this magical book, Kawabata tells us about the making of Chijimi fabric: “The thread was spun in the snow, and the cloth woven in the snow, washed in the snow, and bleached in the snow. Everything, from the first spinning of the thread to the last finishing touches, was done in the snow.” He quotes anonymous words from a distant era: “There is Chijimi linen because there is snow. Snow is the mother of Chijimi.”

Shut up in their houses, which they scarcely leave with all the surrounding snow, the women from the region spend the winter months spinning and weaving the hemp fibers they collect from the mountainside during summer and the beginning of autumn.

Shimamura, an extremely sensitive and refined man who appreciates the quality of this light cloth, looks for it in the oldest stores in Tokyo. He wants to make his summer kimonos. He believes that the freshness of the snow lives on in the white of the cloth and will be felt against his skin.

The times had changed. However, in the past, when the snow melted, parties were organized in Chijimi with guests arriving from all around. There were weaving contests and the young women came down the mountain with their coveted goods.

The best cloths were made by women aged between fourteen and twenty-four years old. After this age, their agile gesture, reflected in the cloth, invariably disappeared. The fabric gathered the love and passion the women put into their labor. All those months of being shut up, the imprisoned women’s desires charged the cloth with an emotion that could be seen and felt by foreign hands.

The process began with the spinning in the tenth month and lasted until the second moon, when the bleaching took place in the fields, meadows, and gardens still covered with snow. Many of Shimamura’s kimonos had been made this way half a century before and he still observed the custom of sending them back for “snow-bleaching.”

The thought of the white linen, spread out on the deep snow, the cloth and the snow glowing scarlet in the rising sun, was enough to make him feel that the dirt of the summer had been washed away, even that he himself had been bleached clean.

Like his protagonist, Kawabata must’ve taken his kimonos to the old, specialized stores in Tokyo to be cleaned the traditional way: in the snow.

The best time for bleaching was in the months of spring and during the second moon, when the meadows and gardens became authentic bleaching ateliers.

The cloth was placed in a vessel with water and ash and left to soak overnight. After a thorough rinse, it was stretched out in the snow and exposed to the sun. This operation was repeated day after day until the desired tone of white emerged from the fabric.

“The sight when, as the bleaching came to an end, the rays of the rising sun turned the white Chijimi blood-red, was quite beyond description,” writes Kawabata. He tells us of an old travel guide that recommends visiting the region to contemplate this “spectacle.”

Even though the practice of snow-bleaching is followed in the East and West and many people know the happiness of laying out a white sheet in the snow, or hanging it out to dry on a sunny day, it is only in a country like Japan, where the senses are cultivated to reach unimaginable heights of subtlety, that someone would recommend taking a long journey to contemplate the distinct shine of the first rays of sunlight on a white cloth in the snow, turning fabric into landscape.

This sensibility is reflected in the diaries of another extraordinary Japanese writer, Natsume Soseki, when he recalls the time he spent in England while continuing his studies in literature as some of the most somber years of his life. Among other incidents, he mentions how he is teased for inviting a fellow student to watch the snow fall together.

For the Western student, it was laughable that someone would “invite” another person to watch the snow, while for Soseki, sharing such a profound emotion meant giving a sacred part of his intimacy; it was a way to extend the hand of friendship. Soseki may well have taken the train to Chijimi and gotten up early to see those first glints of sunlight on the white cloth. The image more than makes up for the long journey.

The pursuit of such whiteness in a cloth has profound significance. As Kawabata writes, its effect is instant purification, for both the onlooker and the person who wears it as a second skin.

We might guess that it is this fascination for white cloth and the idea of purity or positive infection which the wedding dress tries to symbolize. When small crystals, small pearls, are encrusted into the tulle of the wedding veil or into the satin . . . doesn’t the wedding dress become a vertical blanket of snow?

However, not all brides are happy and not all white dresses reach the altar. Centuries-old hatred between nations means that, even dressed as snow, resentment freezes the desire for union.

In his novel, The Wedding Procession Turned to Ice, Albanian writer Ismail Kadare recounts a very sad legend from his country:

In the Gadime crystal cavern, a stalactite and stalagmite facing one another, which according to geologists would take one million and a half years to unite, were deemed by the press and television as the Romeo and Juliet of Kosovo. No more needed be said. Everyone understood that it must be an Albanian Romeo and a Serbian Juliet, and the lapse of one and a half million years revealed just how far-fetched it was that the feud between the nations would disappear anytime soon.

Kadare is recounting an epic poem from the medieval paladins and the way in which the brides’ white veils shone on the day of their engagement. But, alas, if the bride and groom came from two different peoples, if the marriage sought to unite Albanians and Slavs, “an anguished uncertainty always weighed heavily on these unions.” The wedding procession never arrived at the bride’s house. The Slavic or Albanian Erinyes froze the marriage entourage in its tracks.

In the snow, the “impossible vows” symbolized by the frozen entourage are an ice monument to the disease of failed understanding, a crystallization of irrational hatred.

Life and death unite under one color. A “white-as-snow” cloth is chosen to baptize a child, bringing it into the kingdom of light. A white cloth also covers the dead: the shroud that is their new skin, placing faith in their resurrection.

Before death, the immaculate white of the hospital bed’s cotton sheet fights bravely to counter the effects of an illness. The snow-white of the pillowcase, the whiter-than-white sheet turned down, are seemingly unaffected by agony, the nearing final scene. Next to hot blood they are cold, compressed in the body and threatening to spill in an ultimate hemorrhage.

While at burials grief and the color black prevail, in some cultures white is the color of the bereft. It's as if they want to celebrate a second epiphany: the birth of death.

In this eternal struggle between light and shadow, some face death with black; they immerse themselves in shadow and find a sort of solace. Others struggle against the loss of a loved one with white. These are homeopathic or allopathic principles of color. A person who is sad takes comfort from listening to melancholic music, thinking that sadness has a life of its own that must be lived from beginning to end, yet another person plays happy music in the belief that happiness, even if an artificial structure must be built to house it, is the best antidote for pain.

There is no one type of medicine, much less so for death, as we have learnt from our relationships with the white of the snow, one of the most powerful mirrors to be found in nature.

translated from the Spanish by Mattea Cussel