Wednesday, December 10, 2008

On Earl Miner’s Essay, “The Grounds of Mimetic and Nonmimetic Art: The Western Sister Arts in a Japanese Mirror”

Using Santō Kyōden’s(1761-1816) kibyōshi Edo Mumare: Uwaki no kabayaki (江戸生艶気樺焼, translated as Playboy, Roasted a la Edo) (1785) as an exemplary text, Earl Miner puts forth his thesis that the “Japanese aesthetic . . . rests not on the imitation of discrete agencies but on relation” (93). Therefore, he argues, one must avoid using Aristotelian concepts when assessing Japanese art, since Aristotle had something very different from Japanese poetry in mind when he wrote his Poetics. Miner insists that a better understanding of nonmimetic art― which, in fact, is a far more common phenomenon in the world than mimetic art― is needed for a more informed appreciation of Japanese literature.

Enjirō, the mock hero in Edo Mumare, is the spoilt son of a wealthy merchant who, after reading of the romantic exploits of several famed Heian playboys, sets out on a quixotic quest to transform himself into one such “uwaki.” But lacking both charm and looks, he must hire a slew of actors to follow him around town and bolster his image. Though the denizens immediately see through his ploys, Enjirō is oblivious to their scorn, and remains bent on being seen as the greatest lover of his day. The staged shinjū double-suicide in the end, however, does not go as planned when Enjirō is “greeted” not by his friends hired to stop the suicide, but by two robbers who leave the two hapless “lovers” with nothing but their underpants.

On one level, the work is a parody of the old tales, most notably Genji monogatari and Ise monogatari, both of which appear in the work. “The point of the parody,” Miner writes, “partly involves recollection of the old stories, whose cultural distance plays off against the modernity” (88). It is the task of each generation to make the tradition relevant again, and this is exactly what Kyōden sets out to do by retelling, or, as Walter Benjamin would say, "retranslating,” the old texts for a new age with new sensibilities. The idealized heroes are brought down to earth, and, even if they themselves are not directly ridiculed, the way in which others aspire to them is cleverly lampooned.

In Kyōden’s work, there “is no Aristotelian plot” (74), and the work is structured on a series of episodes, with both text and illustrations working together in a sort of “interpictorialism,” where the “two interplay, and no appreciation of the one is adequate without considering the other” (88). The “episodic,” you will remember, was condemned by Aristotle, who praised above all a unified and consistent plot. But in the Japanese tradition the episodic is frequently the norm, and it is therefore impractical to apply the Aristotelian standards as if they were a priori, universal principles. After all, Aristotle’s theories were intended for drama, while nearly all non-Western aesthetic traditions of the world were founded on the lyric (78).

Moreover, Aristotle’s fondness for unity, dignity of character, and logical plot structure rests on certain black and white assumptions about the world’s fundamental nature and knowability. Miner calls these assumptions a “tidying system,” and notes that it is upon these that Aristotle gives drama its moral purpose. Mimesis, Miner argues, has been the dominant mode in the West for so long simply because “it combined with the aesthetic certain philosophical, moral, and rhetorical matters―as well as because it provided useful underpinning for certain kinds of social order. It offers a realist philosophy― the world is real, knowable, imitable . . .” (84). And according to Miner, such assumptions are foreign to the Japanese.

Is this to say, then, that there were not any moral underpinnings to the Chinese and Japanese literary traditions? Certainly not. Traces of Confucian ethics, imported from China and Korea, can still be found today both in literature and life, and such traces were certainly more conspicuous during the Edo period. But Confucian teachings seemed to have had more of an influence on government officials than on artists. “The continental presumptions,” Miner writes, “did not influence writers as it did the officials of a repressive regime” (84). Kyokutei Bakin, Miner points out, was one of the rare exceptions.

However, in Japan where (if Miner is correct) phenomena are relational and dependent rather than discreet and isolated, such a clear distinction between a “self” and a “real imitable world” must not exist. This would explain why mimesis, or “exact replication” theory, made little if any headway in Japan until the Meiji period. “It should be obvious,” Miner writes, “that this [Japanese tradition] is not mimetic art. For mimesis, we require a reasonably stable sense of what is art, what is nature, who is the artist―and a definable relation between them” (76). A case in point is names. The fact that one person would use a different name for each activity reveals a very different attitude toward “self” than that held in the West, Miner claims. The birth name of the author-illustrator of Edo Mumare was Iwase Sei, but few ever referred to him as such. He is the writer, Santō Kyōden, or the illustrator, Kitao Masanobu, or, for that matter, someone else (he had a number of other names, each depending on the context). “A differing conception of the artist, indeed of selfhood, and therefore of arts and their nature,” Miner observes, “is obviously involved” (72).

If the traditional Japanese concept of art, then, is not mimetic, what it is? Miner calls the Japanese nonmimetic tradition an “affective expressive system,” which can be traced back at least to the preface to the Kokinshū (c. 920 CE), in which Ki no Tsurayuki writes that the “seed” (impetus) for all art is “kokoro” (mind, heart), which, stirred, seeks “leaves” (signs, words) to communicate this initial subjective experience (92). This original impulse to art begins as internal phenomena. The poet then finds its expression in outer things, through which it is communicated to someone else, who, in turn, is moved to continue the process. Such a concept is markedly different from what Aristotle held to be the original “seed”― that is, mimesis, or man’s natural impulse to imitate what he observes in the external world. As I have noted, this nonmimetic conception of art is the norm in non-Western traditions; and furthermore, this concept of the nonmimetic should not be confused with the anti-mimetic art of Western postmodernism, which, as Miner points out, already had a mimetic tradition against which it could react. The Japanese, “never having supposed the necessity for mimesis, never had to oppose it” (77).

One major feature of nonmimetic art is narrative flexibility, which is the ability to shift perspectives freely without having to make explicit demarcations in the text. Such flexibility, in turn, demands of the audience a certain interpretive flexibility. Miner points out an extreme example in Izumi Shikibu nikki, where four points of view are presented in one sentence. The shifts in perspective are not marked by punctuation (which, of course, did not exist in classical Japanese) or by any stage directions identifying the speaker. Rather, they are marked only by subtle shifts in tone or levels of politeness. The dialogue marker, too, is more often omitted than not, thus blurring the lines even further between narrator(s) and characters. Miner notes that which narrator or character is talking “seems to make less difference than what is being talked about” (74). He goes on:

The Japanese assumption [regarding point of view] clearly differs. Point of view and point of attention are variables, correlatives of each other; neither is the same as the other nor possible without the other―and the relationship between the two is more significant because it is also more flexible than in Western narrative. (91)

Also, the narrator can and often does intrude upon the scene to give commentary:

When the narrator intervenes to say, in effect, that Enjirō is an ass, we sense a sudden shift in the poise of ourselves as readers in relation to the narrator and Enjirō. Relation remains but is altered. (89)

Another feature of nonmimetic poetry is the synchronicity of what Miner calls the “three points,” namely, the points of view (the subject or narrator), the points of narrative attention (the object, or characters, place, etc.), and the points of understanding and affect (the reader or audience). A fourth element―“the world”― also comes into play not as the external and impregnable object of our imitation as it is in Aristotelian theory, but rather as both the “setting of what is under attention” and the “interrelation of the three correlatives” (92). In other words, aside from imparting both physical and referential location to the work, “the world” also serves as an intermediary force that links everything and everyone involved― the narrator, author, reader and audience, as well as the intertextual references, the language, and “the stuff” of the work.

As we can see, having independently functioning and distinct dramatic voices is not the most important element in Japanese poetics. Narrators frequently intervene or speak on behalf of characters, and characters often do the same, at times even breaking the “third wall” to speak as actors about the roles they are playing. (An example can be seen in Edo Mumare when Enjirō’s “friend” Shian complains about his assigned role, “Ore ga yaku mo tsurai yaku da”). Japanese audiences learn to expect such elasticity, and see no inconsistency or contradiction in the use of such involutional devices. In this sense, the Japanese narrative is more of a communicative act between characters and narrators, between present and previous texts (both literary and visual), and between the text and reader, with all parties equally capable of shifting roles.

[For the English translation of Edo Mumare: Uwaki no kabayaki, see Shirane's Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600-1900.]


Mid-Term said...

I'm reading a book now by Neil Leach called 'Camouflage' where he writes about similar ideas of mimetic behavior in humans. Starting with the linguistic in Benjamin going on to the visual in Adorno. Interesting is that for him the idea of Camouflage based on mimesis is about adapting to the environment to have a sense of belonging. He opens with Woody Allen's movie "Zelig", about a man who takes on the identity of those who surround him. Which somehow relates to the idea of multiple identities, something similar to the episodic, or the multiple pen-names that Japanese writers take up.

Anonymous said...

You mention Izumi Shikibu. Have you read “Poetic Ideal and Fictional Reality in the Izumi Shikibu Nikki,” by Janet A. Walker? In it, she writes:

“The Izumi Shikibu nikki (1008): both Romance (Northrop Frye’s definition) and Realistic Novel: “The coexistence of what can be called an idealistic (romance) and a realistic (novelistic) mode of presentation in the Diary creates a tension in its very structure” (136).

“The aim of this essay is to explore the tension in the Izumi Shikibu Diary which results from its dual aim of celebrating the poetic ideal and depicting reality” (136).


Anonymous said...

Nice article, Ryan. But if there are any problems to be found in Miner’s argument, they are to be found in claims such as the following: “The relational aesthetics has its own assured foundations in terms of Japanese societyin which one is defined less by the Western sense of self than by a personhood defined in terms of relation to others and by social role” (93-4). This reeks of essentialism. Surely, examples abound in Japanese literature and history that support such a claim. But it is highly suspect to infer that because it is so in art, it is too in life. Here Miner seems to be dipping into nihonjinron.

Also, you might want to say a word about Aristotle’s categories of knowledge (history, philosophy, poetry, etc.) vs. China’s wen (which included history) (79).

But I think Miner has a point when he says that Western “formalist” notions of “the literary object” as discrete and self-sufficient mean nothing in the Japanese view” (92). It's hard to argue with that.

- Haruko

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article. Here are my notes from the same text.

On Santō Kyōden’s (1761-1816) “Grilled and Basted Edo-Born Playboy” (Edo Umare Uwaki no kabayaki, 1785)26

Santō Kyōden (writer of kibyōshi and yomihon) and Kitao Masanobu (illustrator) (same historical self, real name: Iwase Sei): born commoner in Edo.

Intertextuality: Genji, Ise, Hanabusa Itchō, Emma, Confucius,


Enjirō: Mock hero, millionaire’s son, funny nose. Ridiculous quest to be a real uwakimono; hires people to make it look real. Fails.

Kitari Kinosuke: neighbor, hanger-on, fellow frequenter of the quarters.

Warui Shian: neighbor, fellow frequenter.

Ukina: Enjirō’s geisha

Two ruffians: steal clothes during shinjū “attempt.”

Also, here's a summary of the 22 parts:

1. Reading tales of uwakimono, Enjirō decides to become one.

2.Kinosuke says, to be a real uwakimono, first you have to be able to sing all these songs; gives list.


gets tattoes

pays Oen to run in front of house every night; friends after profits

hires Oen to act as if she’s in love with him in front of father Yajiemon

pays newspaper to hawk rumors about how cool he is; maid doesn’t buy it

to Yoshiwara w/ 2 friends.

Enjirō picks Ukina


looks for a “jealous” wife; hires 40 year old; don’t wet your bed!

pays extra to meet Ukina secretly; Shian aware of his part (involution?)

fake cheating; hires apprentices to pull him back to Ukina

hires mistress to feign jealousy; Enjirō masochistic tendencies

makes offering at Ekōin temple, like the Kabuki actors. Turned down by busy lantern maker.

hires thugs to beat him up, since sexy men get roughed up a lot (an idea he gets after watching kabuki)

orders parents to disown him, after hearing rumors that he’s “just a rich kid paying for all this”; father agrees, but only for 75 days (# of days a rumor lasts)

pays girls to look grieved at his being disowned; prays to Kannon at Asakusa


mother still sends money, takes up tough job to look impoverished; mocked by townspeople; Enjirō oblivious

75 days almost up; requests 20 day extension for fake shinjū; dresses like the songs about shinjū describe

decides on actors; “steals” her from brother to look cool, has to pay for ripped blinds; Ukina reluctant; Enjirō persuades her by arranging that there suicide be made into play after death (ref: Chūshingura, Okaru and Yuranosuke); finds writer, actors, etc.
20. chooses spot for shinjū; entourage follows, says goodbye; robbers appear instead of hired friends, steal all but underwear; naked michiyuki follows.

21. “Shinjū passion cools to goose-bumps”: long poem (michiyuki). Dōjōji reference. Both naked, press on homeward. (in)famy comes to Enjirō at last.

22. returns home, lectured by father (on Confucius); Ukina, disgraced, has no choice but to marry Enjirō. Business prospers under Enjirō; agrees to have life retold in kibyōshi by artist Kyōden, as guide for others. Anti-climactic final line: Ukina catches cold.