Friday, March 28, 2008

Chikamatsu on the Art of the Puppet Stage [from "Naniwa Miyage" 『難波みやげ』by Hozumi Ikan 穂積以貫]

This just in from Cniva Albinus:
In Naniwa Miyage (1738), Hozumi Ikan recalls a chat he had with Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725) on the art of the puppet stage, in which Chikamatsu made the following points about his craft.

1. It’s the Audience, Stupid

Chikamatsu talks about his art primarily in terms of the audience’s response-- a mode of discourse which seems to be the norm in the Japanese tradition. A play is successful, he argues, only when it produces in the viewer a desired effect.

This is a doubly difficult task for the writer for jōruri theater, who has no human actors at his disposal, and must instead “impart to the lifeless wooden puppet a variety of emotions, and attempt in this way to capture the interest of the audience.” He cites as an example of effective rendering the scene from “The Village of Falling Flowers” in Genji monogatari, in which an anthropomorphized pine tree, annoyed at the surrounding snow’s being cleared away, recoils its branches and shakes off some of its snow. It was from scenes such as this that Chikamatsu learned to impart life unto dead objects in a way that effectively moves the viewer.

2. Well-Tempered Feelings

While feelings may be “the basis of writing,” they must, Chikamatsu insists, be presented in a controlled and deliberate manner. “I take pathos,” he says, “to be entirely a matter of restraint. It is moving when the whole of a play is controlled by the dramatic situation, and the stronger and firmer the melody and words, the sadder will be the impression created.” Note again that he speaks of success not in terms of the internal components of the work― as, say, Aristotle did ― but rather in terms of the work’s capacity to move the viewer. Still, Aristotle might have agreed with Chikamatsu on one important point: that the viewer is moved more deeply when the emotion is not simply stated in the narration, but rather is revealed through the controlled manipulation of dramatic tension within the play.

3. The Tyranny of Meter

Chikamatsu advocates a language that is suitable to the jōruri form and free from all excess, whether that excess is the result of a strict adherence to the 5-7-5 pattern, or from unnecessary "grammatical junk" (e.g., the particles such as wa, or the -te form of the ren’yōkei construction), which is often meaningless and cumbersome. He warns, “If an author adheres implicitly to the rules of metrics, his lines may prove awkward to recite.” Chikamatsu then provides an example where he contrasts an awkward, metrical line ― “Toshiha mo yukanu, musume wo ba”― with a more fluid, unmetrical rendering― “Toshi mo yukanu musume wo.” He concludes by confessing, “I am not concerned with metrics in my writings and I use few particles.” Despite this claim, however, many of his lines, and in fact some of the most moving passages of his plays, do in fact conform to the 5-7-5 pattern.

4. Toward a “Notional” Realism?

Chikamatsu holds that each character should meet the audience’s expectations of social class; for example, the role of a low-class prostitute should be written so that her dress, speech and behavior conform to the audience’s expectation of such a person. Though it sounds at first as if Chikamatsu is advocating a realism of sorts, he is in fact describing a kind of realism once-removed, which I call “notional realism.” Chikamatsu does not seek to mirror nature as it is; rather, his aim is to preempt the expectations of the audience, and present them with an exaggerated image of their own notions. “Would it prove entertaining if an actor,” he rhetorically asks, “were to appear on the stage and perform with his beard growing wild and his head shaken?” The answer is, of course, no; in fact, the audience would be bored to death with a makeup-less actor who was an exact duplicate of a real retainer.

Whereas with Plato’s idealism the “ideal form” has an existence independent from the perceiving mind, with Chikamatsu’s “notional realism” the characters correspond only to the anticipated notions of the audience, which may or may not be reliable representations of reality. In this sense, Chikamatsu’s “notional realism” is perhaps more akin to Berkeley’s idealism than to that of Plato. (Then again, perhaps it is inappropriate to draw comparisons to either.)

Such a “notional realism” may remind one of the works of Tanizaki Jun’ichirō (1886-1965), who, whether or not consciously influenced by Chikamatsu, seemed to share a similar notion of representation. When attacked (as he often is by feminist critics) for creating female “types” rather than “individuals,” Tanizaki can be defended on the grounds that his fiction is not concerned with the presentation of women as they are per se; rather, he is interested only in presenting woman as they are perceived and altered by the imaginations of men. (An exception to this might be his Sasame yuki.)

In conclusion, it seems that the rising demand for realism among the Edo public was all but ignored by Chikamatsu, who stubbornly (and correctly!) insisted that realism, in the colloquial sense, is artless, insipid, and to be avoided whenever possible, as it “would permit no pleasure in the work.” If real women never speak in such a way, so be it! This is how they would speak if they could, Chikamatsu seems say. “Such things fall under the heading of art,” he insists, and “it is because they say what could not come from a real woman’s lips that their true emotions are disclosed.” He points out that exact copies of life are indeed vulgar, as is illustrated in the famous example of the court lady who, unable to meet her lover, had his exact duplicate made, only to soon grow bored of it. Successful art is always artificial, and the more stylized it is, the better. Recalling Chikamatsu’s words, Hozumi sums up this idea:

“This is what I mean by the slender margin between the real and the unreal. It is unreal, and yet it is not unreal; it is real, and yet it is not real. Entertainment lies between the two.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Jean-Jacque Rousseau (1712-1778) — World's First Yippie?

Rousseau's "Fifth Walk" is from his unfinished work Reveries of the Solitary Walker, written between 1776 and 1778. Presumably autobiographical, it begins with Rousseau's safe arrival on the Island of Saint-Pierre after having been stoned at Motiers. In the chapter "The Fifth Walk," Rousseau in fact does very little walking, spending most of the time in a boat floating around a lake, where he is exposed to no external stimulus other than a few natural sights and sounds, and is left alone with his reveries that have "no distinct or permanent subject.”

Like Flaubert, who in an 1852 letter to his mistress wrote, “What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external,” or, better yet, like Larry David, who with Jerry Seinfeld co-created "Seinfeld," sitcom about nothing, Rousseau's pursuit of art is the pursuit of pure form, and his ideal book would have as little external stimulus— or "subject"— as possible.

In his "Fifth Walk," Rousseau expresses the desire to write an entire book for each blade of grass. “They say a German once wrote a book about a lemon-skin," he notes. "I could have written one about every grass in the meadows, every moss in the woods, every lichen covering the rocks— and I did not want to leave even one blade of grass or atom of vegetation without a full and detailed description” (84). Such “full and detailed description,” he elaborates, would be filled with numerous subjective impressions, thus marking a major shift away from the "scientific" naturalism of the 19th century and toward the interiority of 20th-century modernism.

Many have long considered Jean-Jacque Rousseau to be the world’s first yippie, and for several reasons. For starters, he was one of, if not the first writer of the Enlightenment to express such outright contempt for the city and city manners, saving his praise for "uncorrupted and natural" things, such as country folk, the wild scenery of the provinces, virginal maidens, and man in his natural state.

Second, in many ways his anti-intellectual tendencies prefigure some common attitudes of later-day yippies, who also challenged the supposed primacy of reason over emotion, urging everyone to "just stop thinking and get in touch with their feelings." Rousseau, sounding in the 18th century every bit the modern-day yippy, writes, “It was enough to make me pleasurably aware of my existence, without troubling myself with thought” (87).

Third, the last century's excessive preoccupation with the self may have had its start with Rousseau, whose inward turn here in this lake seems to mark the beginning of an intellectual movement that came to focus more and more on the needs and desires of the subjective individual, and which culminated with the rise of psycholanalysis in the 20th century. "The movement which does not come from outside us arises within us at such times,” he writes, sounding more like a contemporary hippie guru than an 18th-century philosopher (90).

And fourth, the breakdown of distinctions between internal and external phenomena can be seen as the first step toward the philosophical relativisms of later centuries. Due in part to Rousseau's influence, "reality" went from being an outer, mind-independent state of things to a participatory act, where the internal and external could be suffused only through the medium of imagination. “I could not draw a line between fiction and reality [while in the boat],” Rousseau confesses (90). Kant, and later the Romantic poets, would build upon this thesis; but it would be another two centuries before the yippie and hippie movements of America would take Rousseau's legitimate ideas to ridiculous extremes. (More on this subject later.)

This article is copyrighted © 2005 - 2008 by Beholdmyswarthyface.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008









Notes on “On the Difficulty of Japanese Translation,” by Roy Andrew Miller

According to Walter Benjamin, the more difficult a text is, the easier it is to translate. Miller writes: “Translation, he [Benjamin] says, is ‘difficult’ in inverse proportion to the ‘translatability’ of an original; thus, a high degree of ‘translatability’ means little difficulty for the translator,’ while a low degree of ‘translatability’ means that the task of the translator will be proportionately difficult” (Miller, 471). Simple texts, claims Benjamin, only frustrate.

Taking Benjamin’s premise and applying it to the Japanese tradition, Roy Andrew Miller reasons thus: Since, as Benjamin asserts, “translations [are] untranslatable,” and since the entire canon of Japanese literature (and culture and expression, for that matter) is a translation of a translation of a translation ad infinitum, not a single work from the canon of Japanese literature is translatable. Miller traces the Japanese tradition back to the early Chinese sources, namely the Ming fantasies and fictional works, and the poetry of Po Chu’I. From this starting point, he follows the importation of the Chinese tradition into Japan, marking its development through the various stages -- waka, Nō, bunraku, kabuki, and, more recently, the shinpa theater -- all of which together form what he calls the Japanese "canon of taste."

Faced with the task of making relevant the past, each generation must naturalize the foreign text for a new age. The whole Japanese tradition, Miller asserts, is in essence a retelling of Po Chui’s “Ballade of Endless Remorse.” “Japanese language, Japanese culture, and the expression of both in Japanese literature," he explains, "are all themselves ‘translations,’ and hence, in terms of Benjamin’s axiom, theoretically impervious to translation” (473).

Though the "matter" may be borrowed from a foreign literature, the fashion in which it is presented is markedly different from the earlier versions. “The overwhelming concern of the [Japanese] culture in its literary expression has been with how something is said, rather than with what is being said. It is a language, a literature, and a culture of style, form, rhetoric, genre” (473). It might be illuminating to compare this aspect of the Japanese tradition with Plato’s distinction between form and content presented in Phaedrus, in which he makes the distinction between the ‘what’ (content) and the ‘how’ (form, genre). Perhaps the lines are more blurred in the Japanese tradition than they are in the West. One might use Genji monogatari as a prime example for demonstrating this.

Literature of the modern age, Miller continues, can be seen in similar terms. While pre-modern Japanese literature was an endless retelling of the earlier Chinese classics, the development of modern Japanese literature has been a similar process of translation and re-translation -- only this time importation came from the West. Using Sōseki’s Michikusa as an example, Miller shows how post-Meiji Japanese literature has, to a large extent, been an attempt at interpreting Western literature through the retelling of it.

Summing up, Miller writes,

"Japanese literature in particular, and Japanese language and literary culture in general, are . . . a translation literature, and a literary culture of translation. Translation of translations is not difficult, it is impossible, as Benjamin has demonstrated. Japanese literature is translation; translation is Form, ‘genre,’ and so is Japanese literature. The translation of Japanese literature is therefore not difficult; it is impossible” (477).

Miller presents a convincing, if pretentious, argument, but he leaves unanswered three important questions. If, as he argues, translation of a translation (i.e., every work of Japanese literature) is impossible, then what, if any, good is it the attempt? Is he advising that we quit with translation altogether? And second, is this phenomenon of "translation," or re-telling, particular to the Japanese tradition, or has it not been a feature in the literary history of the West as well? And finally, if everything is a translation of a previous work, is tracking how each generation modifies, interprets and misinterprets its predecessors the only thing left for literary historians to do?

[Roy Andrew Miller`s essay can be found in Studies on Japanese Culture, vol II, 469-79]

Natsume Soseki's "Kusamakura" 『草枕』: Precursor to Abstract Expressionism?

Like Nagai Kafū's Bokutō kidan, Natsume Soseki's Kusamakura (1906)is a work that falls into that peculiar genre of diary-of-the-artist-in-the-process-of-creation. In this case, the diarist is a not a novelist, but a painter who has left the city for an unidentified, idyllic town where he loafs about, ruminating on various matters of life and art while considering possible subjects for his next painting. In this section, Chapter 6, Soseki's narrator is left alone in his room where he records in his diary various thoughts that seem to reveal some of the young Soseki's personal views on "Oriental" and "Occidental" aesthetics, and the differences he sees between them.

First, to Soseki's narrator the pleasures of art are to be found not in - to paraphrase - the pursuit, identification, and imitatation of distinct objects to which we then form attachments (i.e, the Western notion of representation), but rather in actually becoming the thing itself. The pleasure of the artist, Soseki has his narrator explain, "does not lie in becoming attached to things, but in becoming a part of them by a process of assimilation" (86). At first, this assimilation is one of artist and object, but its final result is an assimilation into nothingness, or mu (87-88). Whether or not Soseki's description is one characteristic of a general Eastern aesthetics, it is expressly different from traditional Western ways of thinking about artistic representation, which place a solid division between the representing self and the represented world.

One detects a bit of the Romantics’ influence, too, in Soseki's narrative, most noticably that of Wordsworth and Rousseau, both of whom shared with Soseki's narrator a similar notion of "spontaneous creation," or art whose creation is not at all dependent upon external stimuli. "I was simply being carried along in a trance," the narrator records. Like Rousseau in his “Fifth Walk,” Soseki's narrator cordons himself off from the world and retreats to his room at the village-inn, where, free of any external stimulus, he can create something out of this nothingness, from a tabula rasa, as it were (87-89).

Soseki's narrator then describes what he considers to be the two types of artists, meanwhile insisting that he fits into neither group, but is instead of a new, third type. The first type is propelled by and expresses the ego, while the second type is moved by and represents external realities. In both cases, there is an initial stimulus that drives the artist into action. Our narrator, however, claims not to be compelled by any such source, whether external or internal. Instead, to him art arises spontaneously out of this fusion between subject and object. It is through this process of assimilation that the work of art is produced.

The first two types of artists, he explains, "have one thing in common: they both wait for some definite outside stimulus before putting brush to canvas. In my case, however, there was no such clearly defined subject." This lack of an external object -- an objective correlative, if you will -- through which his expression can find its effective expedient (note that Soseki, a devoted adherent to the "practical nuisance," is ever mindful of the effectiveness of the expression) points toward a new type of art: abstract art, such as the Cubist and Futurist sorts which were in their nascent stage in Europe when Soseki wrote this work in 1906. "The real question," the narrator continues, "was what object could I find which embodied it [the internal emotion] to such a degree that others looking at my painting would be able to feel as nearly as possible the way I was feeling at that moment" (89).

But Soseki's narrator, not being able to find the appropriate object to effectively express the internal emotion, quits in frustration: "I could not give shape to my feelings" (92). He considers writing music, only to recall that he knows not the first thing about its formal components. He then tries his hand at poetry, but, while musing on Lessing's notions of poetry, is suddenly interrupted by the figure of a woman who appears to him as a shadow (women are more often shadows than they are women in Soseki's early works) whom, for reasons not made clear, "evil" was "overtaking."

(To be continued. . . )

[For a translation of『草枕』see Alan Turney's The Three-Cornered World.]

Conversations With History

In this episode of the UC Berkeley series "Conversations with History," one of the Pentagon's chief military strategists, Thomas P.M. Barnett, discusses with host Harry Kreisler his ideas on the role of military power, U.S. military strategy, and globalization.

Listening to Barnett, I was reminded of a similar grand strategy— that of the Japanese in the first half of the 20th century. Although there are some notable differences (e.g., Barett's vision is far more ambitious than that of Imperial Japan, which sought only to unify a "bloc of Asian nations," rather than the entire globe), the "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere" 大東亜共栄圏 was a similar attempt at "inclusion" under a single center of power.

And last time I checked, Japan's "Co-prosperity Sphere" in the end provided very little prosperity and even less "greatness" for either Japan or those living under its beneficent umbrella, and I venture to guess that Barnett's strategy might be as equally doomed to fail.

At any rate, the interview offers an interesting look at how the Pentagon currently sees the world and its role in it, so do check it out.

Monday, March 17, 2008







Monday, March 10, 2008

McCain’s New TV Ad: Invoking Two Giants of the Imperial Age

Just in from Grady Glenn:

A new TV ad by the McCain campaign invokes two heroes from Anglo-American imperial lore, Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and provides us with a glimpse into a pompous head filled with anachronous imperial delusions.

For the neoconservatives, it is always 1938, and there is always an endless line of nefarious mini-Hitlers charging at us, bent on our destruction.

All political leaders, their pundits claim, fit into one of two camps: the “appeasers,” who, like poor Neville Chamberlain— their favorite whipping boy from the last century— appear weak for choosing prudence over impetuosity, and “the rest,” who boldly go on offense to defend (“offensive defense” they call it in hockey) freedom, liberty, democracy, peace, rule of law, and other once-meaningful abstractions.

For the neoconservatives, there are only two choices: Either abort these nascent Hitlers at once, or deal with them after they’ve become full-grown monsters. And the poster boy for what I call this “cult of imprudence” is the self-professed “Churchillian” candidate, John McCain, who has been the neoconservatives’ favorite since the 2000 Presidential election.

In his new TV ad, McCain again invokes Churchill by splicing in with his own speech snippets from Churchill’s famous “We Shall Fight Them On the Beaches” oration, which makes his own shrill gripe sound tedious by comparison.

McCain then goes on to liken himself to another one of his idols— the early hero of American imperial lore, Teddy Roosevelt.

In a way, the comparison to Churchill is an apt one, though not in the sense that the ad’s creators had intended. For like Churchill, who presided over a British Empire that was disintegrating far more quickly than anyone had imagined, McCain, too, if elected, could indeed, by doggedly clinging to the failed policies of military intervention around the globe (including a possible catastrophic war with Iran), bring about America’s economic collapse, thus putting an end to our global preponderance.

And the cameo by old Teddy Roosevelt— who in many ways began this century-old American imperial project— provides the McCain narrative with a starting point, as if to say: We began this project with Teddy Roosevelt, and we'll finish it with John McCain.

This bit of irony was, of course, unintended, and will probably go unnoticed by the punditry and the public. But when historians look back at the hundred-plus years spanning from the first President Roosevelt to President McCain (assuming, of course, that we fail to stop his White House bid), they might find it somewhat ironic that the man who effectively ended this century-old project of American Empire thought himself to be the reincarnation of the man who began it.

Monday, March 3, 2008


This just in from Josh Lendente:

今日は珍しくお父さんと二人きりで出かけてきた。Sunsのバスケ試合に連れて行かれ、Shaquille O'Nealという大スターを初めて観ることが出来てとても楽しかった。結構コートから近い座席だったからはっきりと見えたシャキールが凄かった。生憎Sunsが負けたんだけど。