Sunday, October 17, 2010

Notes on Kobayashi Hideo's “Literature of the Lost Home”


This just in from Cniva Albinus:
Though he would later serve enthusiastically as propogandist for the war, in his 1933 essay “Literature of the Lost Home” 『失われた故郷』 Kobayashi Hideo seems to challenge the nostalgic conservatism of writers like Tanizaki who in the mid-1920s renounced their Western lifestyle and called for a “return to Japan” (日本への回帰) – a position that was not out of step with the nationalist ideology of the day. Kobayashi counters them by insisting that there no longer is any "home" to return to, and that any nativist attempt to reconstruct one is doomed to fail. “History,” he explains, “seems always and inexorably to destroy tradition”- yet this is not something to be lamented, since “individuals, as they mature, seem always and inexorably to move toward its true discovery” (54). Despite its nostalgic overtones, the essay can thus be read as a sort of anti-nativist tract that denies the possibility of ever returning to any "traditional" Japan.

Kobayashi sees the Japanese of 1933 as essentially homeless, and, like many intellectuals of the day, feels himself to be more a rootless abstraction than a man of any particular place. Though an Edokko, he "cannot fathom" what the phrase “born in Tokyo” really means. Those born elsewhere seem to feel some sense of belonging or attachment to their place of origin- his friend Takii Kōsaku (1894-1984), for instance, who was recently visibly moved after catching a glimpse of his rural hometown from the train window. But for those born in Tokyo, there is no such attachment, no such city, only

an endless series of changes occuring too fast. Never was there sufficient time to nurture the sources of a powerful and enduring memory, attached to the concrete and the particular. (48-49)

Having no vivid memories of any fixed time or place, Kobayashi can formulate the reality of the past only through the mediation of “a point of view or a critical perspective.” Like the pre-Meiji Japan of the nationalist imagination, his own personal past must be invented in order to exist at all.

This lost Tokyo of his memory is of course analogous to Japan in the modern world, which, like his memory, has become dislodged from the real. The particulars of his world, he explains, no longer correspond to anything general; they have become empty abstractions, devoid of any symbolic function. The distant mountain, for example, is merely an empty signifier. Memories of youth, of Tokyo, even of Japan as a national unit – these too have become insubstantial phantoms. “I know that my life has been lacking in concrete substance,” he confesses. A symbol for Japan itself, Kobayashi is a rootless ghost floating about the city, recognizing among the crowds only other fellow “abstraction(s)” (49). Such a description brings to mind the “superfluous” men of Dostoevsky's novels, which had a profound influence on him. The following passage sounds particularly Dostoevskian:

I do not easily recognize within myself or in the world around me people whose feet are planted firmly on the ground, or who have the features of social beings. I can more easily recognize the face of that abstraction called the ‘city person,’ who might have been born anywhere, than a Tokyoite born in the city of Tokyo. (49-50)

Kobayashi takes issue with Tanizaki’s call for a “literature that will find a home for the spirit.” How can there be a home for literature, he asks, when there is not even a home for me, for us? Referring to Dostoesky’s Raw Youth – the story of a young man “in turmoil because of Western ideas and who, in the midst of this intellectual agitation, has utterly lost his home” – Kobayashi sees in Russian history a similar crisis of identity. “How very closely he [the protagonist] resembles us,” he remarks. The encounter with the West has been a traumatic experience for much of the world – Russia included – and the result has for the most part been this disorientation and loss of place.

He then moves to the subject of popular and literary fiction, pointing out how neither can compete commercially with historical romances, or magemono. In the case of films, too, the most popular are those that take historical rather than contemporary matter as their subject. The contemporary world is unnatural- "out of joint," as it were- and there is something about it which resists signification. Unlike works set in the distant past, works that address the contemporary world (gendaimono) are incapable of inducing a “stream of affect.” This is partly due to their excessive reliance on plot, a device that grows more tedious as one matures aesthetically. “Only when such youths reach maturity,” Kobayashi explains, “will the plot seem silly to them, and all but unconsciously will they begin to look for the kind of style that might conceal the silliness” (53). This comment might be read as another jab at Tanizaki, who in the famous 1927 “plot debate” with Akutagawa insisted that plot should be ranked above poetry, characterization, and all other elements.

Kobayashi cites other examples of genres that are capable of inducing this "stream of affect," including “historical romances and chambara movies [which] exert a profound influence over the masses” not because of their well-wrought plots but because of their “capacity [. . .] to make the [audience] unconsciously surrender to a stream of real emotions” (52). Another example is the film Morocco, which, like Western films, chambara and magemono fiction, deals with a subject and place far enough removed from the viewer to make such affect possible. “This style elicits a sense of intimacy, so that we feel closer to the Moroccan desert we have never seen than to the landscape of Ginza before our eyes” (53). In other words, distancing the subject from the viewer can have the paradoxical effect of creating a greater intimacy between the two; that is, the further removed something is, the closer we feel to it.

Like Tanizaki and other "return-to-Japanists" of the 1930s, Kobayashi too grieves the loss of Japan’s “cultural singularity,” as he calls it. But unlike the others, Kobayashi resists the call for a return to or restoration of what has been lost, knowing full well this to be an impossible project. “What is crucial,” he concludes, “is that we have grown so accustomed to this Western influence that we can no longer distinguish what is under the force of this influence and what is not.”


Kobayashi Hideo (1902-1983): Some Background Information

Kobayashi Hideo (1902-1983) is often cited as the most important Japanese literary critic of the twentieth century. Like Edmund Wilson, Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes, Kobayashi sought to make criticism a literary genre of its own. He studied French literature at Tokyo Imperial University, and translated French poetry and fiction. He advocated an expressive, subjective, self-conscious and self-questioning mode of criticism that, while bearing in mind the ideological designs of the day, challenged the validity of the many “–isms.”

Anderer writes in his introduction that “Kobayashi remained skeptical of the apparent stability of any announced position, whether Marxist, aesthetic, or nationalist, especially when these positions were conveyed impersonally, as a dunning recitation of preselected facts or theories” (2). One might, however, cite Kobayashi`s behavior and writings during the war years as evidence to the contrary. But Anderer insists that throughout his career Kobayashi advocated a criticism that was “an exploration of consciousness, a matter of internal urgency, motivated less by general conditions of the world or even by habits of mind than by a specific provocation, a question that demands a personal response” (Anderer, 3).

Kobayashi brought to criticism a kind of “double vision” that simultaneously examines both the work and one's own subjective responses to the work- a technique that might be compared to Edward Said’s notion of "contrapuntal reading," or Fredric Jameson's dialectical reading.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

You mentioned Nabokov, which-- whether related or not-- reminded me of something.

Nabokov writes in his“Letter to Alfred Appel, Jr." about the hatefulness of symbols, especially color symbols: “The type of writer I am . . . finds the use of symbols hateful because it substitutes a dead general idea for a live specific impression.”

He goes on: “I think your students, your readers, should be taught to see things, to discriminate between visual shades as the author does, and not to lump them under such arbitrary labels as “red.”

And on simultaneously remaining objective and aloof, while being subjective and particapting, Nabokov writes that the authentic instrument of the reader is “impersonal imagination and artistic delight. . . We ought to remain a little aloof and take pleasure in this aloofness while at the same time we keenly enjoy— passionately enjoy, enjoy with tears and shivers— the inner weave of a given masterpiece.”

-Harold

Anonymous said...

Are those Nabokov quotes from "Lectures on literature / Vladimir Nabokov," edited by Fredson Bowers, with an introduction by John Updyke. Imprint [London] : Picador, 1983, c1980?

-Sarah

Anonymous said...

You mention Akutagawa. Ever read his "In a Grove" (Yabu no naka, 1922), from Akutagawa Ryunosuke: The Essential Akutagawa, ed. Seiji Lippit?

Akutagawa's first published short story was Rashomon (1915). Yabu no naka (1922) was published in 1922.

It is divided into seven sections: The Stories of a Woodcutter, Travelling Priest, Police Official, Old Woman, Tajomaru (confession), Woman from Kiyomizu-ji (confession), the Ghost (told through medium).

Unlike in Poe's "Murders in the rue Morgue," there is no Dupin-like character in Akutagawa's story to bring everything together: a statement on Meiji Japan?

That is all for now.
-Carly

Anonymous said...

お疲れさん
徹夜大変だったねぇ
-Kiriman

Anonymous said...

大変な一周?一週?
おつかれさまですコーヒー
Yotchi

Ryan said...

どうもどうも、お疲れさん。
今週やっと終わってよかったね。大変な一週だった

Ryan said...

doumo, doumo. naoshimashita.

Anonymous said...

英語ばっかりげっそり(苦笑)
Lizlisa

Ryan said...

ごめん、今度は日本語の記事にします!

Anonymous said...

よしっ、今世紀こそ「英語の壁」を乗り越えてみせるぞ。
時間があったら、私の日記「日本語クイズ」も見てください。やさしいけど。
-Bonjin

Anonymous said...

Beholdmyswarthyface,

You also might want to check out these other books on the subject of mapping the city:

Seidensticker, Edward, Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake (Knopf, 1983).
Seidensticker, Edward, Tokyo Rising: The City Since the Great Earthquake (Knopf, 1990).
McClain, James, et al., eds., Edo and Paris: Urban Life and the State in the Early Modern Era (Cornell University Press, 1994).
Theodore Bestor, Neighborhood Tokyo (Stanford University Press, 1989).
Roman Cybriwsky, Tokyo--The Shogun's City at the Twenty-First Century. John Wiley & Sons, 1998.

Berque, Augustin, Cities and Social Bonds (Pilkington Press, 1997). Published in England, and hard to get in this country, although it can be ordered for $60. A very French sort of approach to the Japanese city, certainly the most interesting theoretical writing on the issue, and closely geared to architectural issues, by a leading scholar of Japanese geography.


Bognar, Botund, Tokyo. (John Wiley & Sons, 1997). $85.50. A lavish picture book focusing on recent architecture in Tokyo, includes some useful short articles.


Popham, Peter, Tokyo: The City at the End of the World (Kodansha, 1985). [Out of print as of 2004, but easily available used, from $10-$15). A readable and perceptive critique of contemporary Tokyo by an English architecture critic.


-Sally Suzuki, Beholdmyswarthyface Media Director

Anonymous said...

Nice hagiography. Read this here to see see what a bastard Kobayashi really was.

-Wang Xiu

Anonymous said...

Wang Xiu, you act like you've just discovered imperialism...