Every age has its eccentrics, and its characteristic attitudes toward them — bemusement, contempt, tolerance, secret (sometimes open) admiration and various mixtures in varying proportions.

Typically, what seems eccentric to one age is conventional to another. Supposing a strange man of the Heian Period (794-1185) and a strange man of the Edo Period (1603-1868) met, what would they say to each other? Would their common strangeness unite them, or their different forms of strangeness estrange them?

“If a man conforms to society, his mind will be captured by the filth of the outside world,” wrote Yoshida Kenko (1283-1350) in the classic “Tsurezuregusa” (“Essays in Idleness”). Who has not felt this? Those who act on the feeling bid society farewell and become “strange.” The author himself, a somewhat worldly priest, did not; he was not strange enough, perhaps. He remained in society.

But he respected strangeness. He describes a certain abbot, Joshin, who “did not eat … in his temple at the regular times with the others, but whenever he felt like eating, whether in the middle of the night or at the break of day. When he felt like sleeping, he shut himself in his room, even in broad daylight, and refused to listen when people addressed him, no matter how urgent their business might be.” Strange man — popular all the same. “Might it have been,” mused Kenko, “because his virtue had attained the highest degree?”

Few ages have seemed more eccentric to posterity than the Heian. Its rulers were courtier-poets, courtier-musicians, courtier-lovers, soft and effete, their fear and abhorrence of war as proudly nurtured and displayed as martial valor is in almost all other times prior to our own. Edo, too, spurned war, but its peace, born of the centuries of civil war that separated it from Heian, breathed a soldierly and plebeian vigor that would have stunk in the nostrils of a Heian aesthete.

A shared symbol unites, but also divides, the two eras. It is the term ukiyo (floating world), common to both but understood by each very differently — by Heian as meaning the world is a dream and an illusion, by Edo, with its bustling commerce, gay pleasure quarters and raucous entertainments (notably kabuki), as an invitation to “have all the fun you can.”

That expression is courtesy of the monk-poet Ryokan (1758-1831), quite possibly the most appealing eccentric of his own or any age — who meant it, of course, not with reference to the floating world’s earthier pleasures (“It’s not that / I never mix / with men of the world — / but really I’d rather / amuse myself alone,” he wrote), but to a joy as irrepressible as peculiar: “In fields / where frogs sing / I pick kerria roses / float them on the wine — / have all the fun you can!

What would Ryokan say if we could introduce him to a young Heian courtier (fictional, but no matter) named Kaoru, who figures in court lady Murasaki Shikibu’s 11th-century novel “The Tale of Genji” as incurably — though not repulsively — eccentric? (There are repulsive eccentrics in the tale; their problem is lack of poetic sensitivity. Kaoru, whose name means “fragrance,” fairly quivers with exquisite, not to say squeamish, sensitivity.)

“What an odd person I am,” he muses to the woman he loves, “not much interested in the sort of things that seem to interest everyone else.”

“Some thought him rather ostentatiously enlightened in his disdain for amorous things,” the narrator tells us. Among Kaoru’s peculiarities, his most glaring, perhaps, is his unwillingness, amounting to inability, to “urge himself upon a lady against her wishes.”

This brings us to the foremost eccentricity of the age as a whole, fodder for centuries of learned, often appalled commentary down to our own time: The blurred border between seduction and rape. A man attracted by a woman — or girl, or child — was entitled to her, his passion proof of a bond between them in a past life. A certain amount of ritual resistance on the woman’s part was permissible, even called for, but unbending refusal would win her a reputation for something beyond eccentricity — possession by evil spirits. Kaoru’s love object is a case in point, as we shall see.

Kaoru’s name arises from a mysterious aromatic fragrance he exudes. He is handsome and accomplished — a fine poet, a gifted musician; he can have any woman he wants, but wants none. “All my impulses are to run away from the world,” he says. “Ostentatious” or not, this is “enlightenment” — he sees the ukiyo for what it is: a soap bubble. The girl he finally does fall in love with — quite against his will — is the elder of two daughters of a reclusive holy man, and at first “Kaoru was less interested in the daughters than in the father.”

When love claims him at last, the girl, Oigimi, is aghast. She, too, is bent on “leaving the world.” Her aged serving women don’t know what to make of her. “Why won’t Her Ladyship do as he wants?” said one fearsome-looking old hag.” “It’s positively eerie,” says her companion. “Some evil spirit must have got hold of her.”

Take my sister, the girl urges Kaoru in effect. This sounds strange, but is not. A man balked in one amorous quarter might well transfer his affection to another if, as in the present case, there is a physical resemblance. But no, Kaoru will not — cannot, he says; he is eccentric to that degree. The poor girl, hopelessly entangled in emotions too strong for her, perishes by starving herself to death.

Ryokan, too, in his own fashion, “left the world.” Born in rural Echigo Province (present-day Niigata Prefecture) to a village headman, he would normally have inherited his father’s office. Instead, at age 17, he abruptly entered a Zen temple and became a poet-monk, a very strange monk whose chief delight all his life was playing with the village children. He was like a child himself.

Life is a game, to a child. “I daresay no one’s as good at handball as me!” he wrote; “and if you ask what it’s all about — / one — two — three — four — five — six — seven.” That, perhaps, is what he would say to Kaoru — who would reply … what?

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.