Books as houses

The first book Motoori Norinaga 本居宣長 wrote about the Tale of Genji was Shibun yōryō 紫文要領 ("The Essence of the Genji"), in 1763. Here's one of Motoori's analogies from towards the end. The context is that he has just been urging the reader to tackle the Genji because it will help them understand the life of Heian nobility more deeply, and this in turn will aid in their appreciation of Japanese tanka poetry (stuck, after all, in the Heian mode) and therethrough mono no aware.

[...] [B]ecause national histories and the like are written on the model of continental writing, they do not reveal clearly the details of human emotion. [...] Consider the analogy of a house. Continental writings are like the public-facing genkan or shoin. They are designed and decorated to glitter and gleam, but they reveal little about the inner life of the house. Poetic monogatari are like a view through from the kitchen to the inner chambers. In the inner part of the house, there is a tendency to relax and be sloppy, but in this way the nature of the house is made clear. If you would know true human emotion in its full and natural state, nothing will serve you as well as poetic monogatari.

We all know better than to go to Motoori for an unbiased take on the value of non-Japanese literature, but his analysis here does match up neatly with the modern take on Genji as the "first psychological novel." One big flaw in Motoori's thinking, though, is that even if we grant that the Genji provides greater access to the inner life of its characters than other works of the time, that doesn't mean that the inner life of its characters is any less constructed than the outer lives of a Chinese war history. Motoori himself acknowledges that the reader of 1693, even the Japanese reader, needs to study Heian Japan to really understand why flowers and birds could drive a sensitive person to tears, but provides no evidence that this weepiness was a natural state rather than a carefully cultivated tendency: is it analogous to the human taste for mates with good bilateral symmetry, or the human taste for the fashions and body modifications they are raised to consider normal?

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Leonardo Boiko:

Er, having your heart moved by the things of the WORLD. Though maybe it was a Freudian slip; I’d wager the Kokinshū has a lot more of poetry moved by things of the word…

Leonardo Boiko:

Talking about the Kokinshū prefaces, John Timothy Wixted suggest that even the main idea of mono no aware—having your heart moved by the things of the word so that emotion springs forth as words—is based on and influenced by continental poetics. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2719022 (JSTOR paywall.)

He quotes from several Chinese works that were known to the Heian literati, like the 詩品 Shī Pǐn:

> Life-breath (氣) moves the external world, and the external world moves us. Our sensibilities, once stirred, manifest themselves in dance and song. This manifestation illumines heaven, earth, and man and makes resplendent the whole of creation. […] For moving heaven and earth and for stirring ghosts and spirits, there is nothing better than poetry.

These are echoed quite clearly in the Kokinshū prefaces. There are many other such interesting parallels in his article.

Jaanus (as usual) has more about shoin the room (as opposed to shoin-dzukuri the architectural style): http://www.aisf.or.jp/~jaanus/deta/s/shoin.htm

language hat:

"One big flaw in Motoori's thinking, though, is that even if we grant that the Genji provides greater access to the inner life of its characters than other works of the time, that doesn't mean that the inner life of its characters is any less constructed than the outer lives of a Chinese war history."

Uh... so? Yes, everything human is "constructed" in some sense; whether Motoori would have acknowledged that or not, I'm not sure how it indicates any flaw in his thinking. He's making a distinction that you seem to agree with; he's not saying it explains all of human existence and the universe at large, and it seems unfair to hold him to such a standard.


I suppose my argument is that Motoori justifies his intense focus on mono no aware by arguing that communion with it is indeed a natural, unconstructed state, and everything else an artificial construct on top of that. I don't believe that this is the case, unless you define "mono no aware" so generally that it is meaningless.

For example, his argument here is that because Genji shows us the kitchen, we know how the house is in its "natural" state. My counterargument is that if Genji is showing us a carefully tidied-up and mopped kitchen, with the food processor arranged just so, it really isn't any different from showing us the reception room. If both emotion and action are performances, neither gives us direct access to what is "real" about a person (if that even exists).

language hat:

Hmm. I'll have to think about that. And you know how I hate having to think!


P.S. Leonardo, I think I had read that before somewhere -- maybe in some edition of the KKS? It makes sense; these sort of sentiments are pretty common worldwide when it comes to poetry. It's really the specifics of Japanese poetry that are intriguing if you ask me.

Leonardo Boiko:

Oh, I agree, the general idea must occur in many traditions (I’m thinking e.g. of the imitatio vitæ of the Petrarchists—the attitude that good poetry must follow from real feelings the poet actually felt). What I found interesting in Wixted’s essay is not simply that Japanese poetics, including the mono no aware, are based on Chinese models, but that it actually _quotes_ Chinese models—often referencing exact images, wording, or arguments. What’s more, the models in question were widely known among the Heian literati, who were the intended audience for this stuff. So if you don’t know Chinese poetic theory (as I don’t), you’re missing a large part of the meaning these works had in their culture.

I recall commenting in this blog about being intimidated by all the subtle intertextual allusions in Japanese literature. I’m simply trying to fill the cultural void, and was happy to learn the name of more influential sources. (Some time ago I managed to trace the origin of a videogame combo to Bái Jūyì…)

Undoubtedly the cool thing about Japanese poetry is to see how it developed its own character. For example, Wixted notes this passage in the kana preface:

> It is poetry which, without effort, moves heaven and earth, stirs the feelings of the invisible gods and spirits, smooths the relations of men and women, and calms the hearts of fierce warriors.

All of these functions of poetry come from Chinese sources _except_ the bit about calming warriors, which Wixted calls “quite un-Chinese”. Ages later, after the rise of the military class, the most noticeable thing about Japanese warrior poetry is how it wasn’t particularly “warrior poetry”—they would make waka about flowers and the moon like everyone else.

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