Nastume Soseki, Kusamakura: matter of a single image, a very few words

September 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

“She had tied the red obi around her waist with a simplicity which suggested a young girl’s indifference as to whether or not it enhanced her charms. Carrying an old fashioned taper in her hand, she had led me to the bathhouse now this way now that, around the bend after bend along what appeared to be passageways, and down flights of stairs. In front of me all the time were that same obi and that same taper, and it seemed as though we were going along the same passage and down the same staircase again and again. Already I had the feeling of being a painted figure moving along on a canvass.”

Natsume Soseki, Kusa Makura (The three-cornered world), III, 40-41

Kusamakura is an introspective novel. The first chapter is indicative of the rest: it starts with the sentence: “Going up a mountain track, I feel to thinking” and the rest are the hero’s thoughts. This is a very attractive structure for someone like me – more interested in the internal life of men than in what actually happened (the action is always the same – she wants him, but she does not want her back, or the other way around).

The thoughts themselves are rather disappointing: they illustrate the disappointing effects of the lack of training in rigorous thinking in all humanist curriculae; and even if the total lack of familiarity with recent advances in psychology and cognitive science are forgivable (after tall the book was written in 1906), the most serious problem with all these introspections is that the novel describes the internal life of a man of around 30. Think about it:  when is the last time someone aged 30 has had anything interesting to say to you?

Yet, to me, reading Kusa Makura has been a remarkable experience — and this entirely on the strength of the passage I quote above. The hero arrives at a remote guesthouse in the mountains; it is night-time; and the maid – the sole person in the whole house as far as he can tell – is taking him to the mineral bath somewhere deep in the bowels of the house. This image – the red obi, the taper, the going down and down endless narrow passages and stairways in the moving globe of flickering light and the altered state of mind of having entered a painting. There is much reflection on painting in the book, but this is the only one that matters: yes, there is that state of mind one enters into when looking at paintings, a moment of endlessly suspended time.

It is almost as if the entire novel – all those pages, all those chapters – were needed only to provide the setting for that single image, like all that twisty metal which holds the one object of any worth, the jewel.  Much art is that way: the slow, repetitive, mesmerizing overture is needed to put the audience in the mood, to sensitize them, so that they may be ready to receive what you have to tell them.

Which may well be a matter of a single image, a very few words.


Tanizaki — a man transformed by his wife

September 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Not liking Tanizaki is not difficult if you read what is available in English.  I didn’t like him myself until I began to read him in Japanese.  The good stuff simply is not being translated.

Tanizaki’s biography in great abbreviation is this:  he came from a very poor, very humble, very uncultured background in Tokyo, and, having received at home no cultural values worth holding onto [scraping for a living leaves little time for cultural pursuits], began his literary career as westernizing, iconoclastic, somewhat pornographic — a typical directionless youth getting his rocks off on the notions of “modernity” and being up to date”.  Some prefer nettles gives us a picture of what young Tanizaki was like:  the hero — devoid if internal life as far as we can tell — divorces largely because to do so is “modern”.  (i.e. He does his bit for the modernization country). (A kind of combed and manicured Henry Miller/Jack Kerouac).

But his third wife — who came from an old, moneyed, cultured Osaka family — changed all that.  She introduced him to a new world, a world he had never suspected existed:  to the beautiful (and sometimes infuriating) ritual complexities of the life of the Osaka merchant upper-class, their elaborate language and customs, and their passion for classical Japanese arts.  Under her tutelage, Tanizaki moved to Kyoto, learned to speak with Western dialect, and to understand and appreciate classical arts.  From his second wife he learned to be a different Japanese, the sort of traditional cultivated man-of-letters he otherwise would never have stood a chance of becoming.  In a sense, he wrote Makioka sisters to celebrate this transformation:  the book is not only about his wife’s family, but also about one branch of it moving (temporarily) to Tokyo — which gives him a way to look back at and comment on his earlier life.

The Tanizaki writings I treasure most are his late essays [he calls them novels] — Yoshinokuzu, Ashikari — many of which are kind of travelogues with an antiquary interest, somewhat standoffishly contain untranslated quotations from the classics, and are full of insightful, often wittily encoded, comments on art, history, culture, and — life.  Reading them is deeply satisfying…  work.  Critics generally consider them a sign of declining literary powers — perhaps because they prefer action, or because they are generally uninterested in the internal life of cultured men (dumbest action beats wisest thought any time of day), or because they themselves find them hard going (who reads bungo well these days?).

Translators follow the critics and give us mostly the youthful Tanizaki, the rather uninteresting, somewhat confused man inclined to titillate or provoke in order to disguise the fact that he has nothing to say. And this is the man you read.

PS.  I’m wrong:  Ashikari at least has been translated into English (and published in 1932).  So don’t fault translators.  Publishers?  Or whoever else is responsible for deciding what stays in print/discussed/public eye?

PPS.  A witness to the profound change brought about in him by his third wife: Tanizaki says somewhere that, were there to be a “complete works” edition of his works, he would not include his early novels in it, since he no longer considered them as “his own”.

Reading Heike Monogatarii one is struck by the cabotine mediocrity of the characters

May 13, 2012 § 2 Comments

Reading Heike Monogatarii is bloody grim business.  Not on account of the blood and guts, no, one expects that in an epic, but… on account of the cabotine mediocrity of the characters.

In Book Two, emperor Go-Shirokawa, retired so that he could plot re-taking of power from the safety of the temple, talks openly about his dream of overthrowing the Heike at a drinking party.  Participants — imperial sympathizers without any especially great commitment to the cause — when in their cups perform sarugaku – “monkey turns” — humorous drunken dances with improvised jokes on the theme of “Heiji” — a play on words, meaning both “Heike clan” but also “wine bottles”; perhaps to please the emperor (he’s quite powerless but still controls some lucrative patronage); perhaps to express their own frustrations with the way the Heike have monopolized comfortable sinecures; but mainly because… they are drunk.  “There are too many Heiji here!  What shall we do with all these Heijis? Knock them over!”  And in a drunken showing-off, they vie to decapitate wine bottles with bare hands.

A few days later, having sobered up one of the participants of the plot gets cold feet and — reports them.  All are arrested; some are murdered immediately, some gruesomely, others are sent into exile in commutation of a death sentence, to be murdered there anyway.

One, before being arrested manages an interview with the emperor begging him for aid.  The emperor basically washes his hands — denies any knowledge of the “plot” — but cries into his sleeve to demonstrate his powerlessness.

Perhaps the most terrifying is the story told to summarize the incident:  another Heike malcontent passed up for an office — one not present at the party — followed good advice of a Heike friend:  he went for on a pilgrimage to Heike Kiyomori’s favorite temple; having worshiped there with great show of piety and expense and befriended the priests, he made sure a report of it got to Kiyomori.

“Why on earth would he go all the way there?”  Kiyomori asked flabbergasted on hearing the report.  “Because he’d been passed over in his attempt to secure an appointment.  In his disappointment he wished to obtain guidance at a temple he respects on whether or not to enter priesthood.”  “Very commendable of him”, said Kiyomori, pleased that a Kyoto court official would travel all the way to Hiroshima to worship at his favorite temple, demoted his son from the post in question and appointed the (former) malcontent.

“What a splendid strategy!” continues the poet.  “And what a pity the others have not tried a clever trick like this instead of plotting senseless revolt, which destroyed them and brought countless suffering to their women and dependents!”

For all the poetry, the paintings, the brocades, all the moon and cherry-blossom viewing parties, all the Chinese scholarship and all the biwa playing, twelfth century politics at the Chrysanthemum court were not any more sophisticated than the politics of a second rate advertising agency today.  If there has been any improvement, it is that we don’t slit people’s throats at the drop of a pin.

Not that we don’t want to.

Apparently, you can spend years reading literature and miss absolutely everything important and moving about it

January 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

I get a great deal from reading Nagai — to me, he was the last of the Chinese-style retired scholars, and therefore a person close to my heart:  like me he found the world a disgusting place and cultivated another life — a life of culture — as an antidote; he had a deep and insightful appreciation for many art forms and artists; his taste and aesthetic judgment were impeccable; his observation on east/west are especially keen; his comments on the changes in the world around him strike a chord with me; his view of his life-task, which I think is best summed up making himself into a work of art, seems inspired; he wrote especially beautiful bungo, an archaic form of erudite Sino-Japanese, now dead; and, perhaps most importantly, his discussion of sexual relationships has really broadened my understanding of the facts of life and my own erotic entanglements.

So I can only stare in disbelief at this:  a review of Fictions of Desire.  “Critique of capitalism symbolized by the
licensed quarters”?  “Kafu’s stories “thematize the act of narration””?  And how about this:

“It may be that the narrative
“frame” is presenting a contrast to the embedded narrative,
which has the thematic focus on desire. Thus, Kafu is not
merely proposing a case in favour of a particular kind of writing,
but demonstrating that case by contrasting one view of
love with another clearly more convincing.”

Apparently, you can spend years reading Nagai and miss absolutely everything important and moving about him!

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