Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Notes on Motoori Norinaga's Critique of "Genji Monogatari"

This just in from Cniva Albinus:
In the “Ōmune” 「大むね」 section of his "Genji monogatari tama no ogushi" 『源氏物語玉の小櫛』, Motoori Norinaga 本居宣長 (1730-1801) condemns the bulk of previous commentary on Genji monogatari, and calls instead for a new, aesthetically-based standard for assessing monogatari. He argues that the Confucian-Buddhist framework of analysis― the only one made available for the past several centuries― is no longer appropriate, and that a new system based on mono-no-aware must be established. The terminology of kanzenchōaku 勧善懲悪 (“promotion of good, chastisement of evil”) must be replaced, he insists, with a system of discourse centered on the idea that the primary purpose of literature is to make the reader aware of the "workings of emotions” (ものの哀れを知らしむる), and not to promote virtue or chastity.

Motoori's first task is to reassess the terms of appraisal. Within this new system, the value of the work is no longer determined by the moral “goodness” (as decided by Confucian and Buddhist scholars) of the characters; rather, it is determined by the degree to which the work conveys mono-no-aware and engenders empathy in the reader. Attributes such as “good” and “bad,” being relative to their substance and function, might have an opposite meaning in another context. For example, what is considered “good” in an ethical context might be “bad” in an aesthetic context, or vice versa. Motoori gives the example of the “penetrability” of the arrow and the “impenetrability” of the armor― both good qualities in terms of their substance and function.

Having established that qualities are only good or bad in relation to their context and function, Motoori goes on to define the “good” qualities of a monogatari. A good monogatari conveys mono-no-aware (ものの哀れを知り), engenders empathy (情ありて), and adheres to laws of decorum (世の人の心にかなえる); a bad monogatari fails to do these things. These three qualifications may or may not coincide with those of Buddhist-Confucian doctrine. As the cases of both Genji and Fujitsubo demonstrate, characters can be "good” despite behaving rather badly.

As is typical of Japanese aesthetic theory, Motoori discusses the purposes of monogatari in terms of reader-response. While providing the reader with diversion, amusement, and solace is included among its purposes, the main purpose of monogatari is to offer the reader a “knowledge of life,” i.e., the understanding of the “actions of men” and the “workings of emotions.” According to Motoori, the kind of writing that best conveys this “knowledge of life” is a sort of psychological realism, which takes as its subject “the ordinary stuff of life.” Contrasted with this type is the “outlandish” category of monogatari― those works concerned with gods, fantasies, absurdities, etc.― which Motoori holds to be inferior.

Motoori points out that when monogatari is attacked, the attack usually comes as one of the following two objections, or both. The first contention is that the content of monogatari is frivolous and indecent, and will likely lead the reader astray. The second complaint is that, because the happenings are not true, it is absurd for one to feel empathy toward people who never existed (i.e., the “fiction paradox”). In Genji monogatari, Murasaki provides a defense of fiction in the famous Hotaru chapter, which is one of the world’s first examples of fiction-as-subtextual-aesthetic-argument. Her argument is subtly presented in dramatic form through the characters Genji and Tamakazura.

Motoori, tracing this famous dialogue between Genji and Tamakazura, provides the following defense. Just as it is necessary in speech to give vent to pent up feelings, so too is it necessary to give vent through writing. Like poetry, monogatari arises from and is legitimated by the need to communicate one’s grief to another, and it is this process of communication that provides relief. The purpose of art, again, is defined in terms of a communicative act― a contractual bond between author and reader― with the reader finding solace through the identification with representations of people, and the writer finding relief by unburdening his thoughts through these representations.

As for the criticism that monogatari contain only frivolous lies, Motoori counters that they are merely half-lies, or rather half-truths, similar to the hōben 方便, or “expedients,” of Buddhist doctrine, and that within their fictional framework essential truths (偽りの中の真) are contained and delivered. While being untruths, they are not untruths (空ごとながら空ごとにあらず), he reasons. In this way, they are essentially no different than the official histories of Japan or China, and certainly no less important: for while the official histories record the “outer” truths (i.e., the public events of officials and aristocrats), the monogatari record the “inner” truths of the events that go on behind closed doors, and the private thoughts of those within these inner quarters.

[For an English translation of Motoori's essay, see: Motoori Norinaga's criticism of the Genji monogatari : a study of the background and critical content of his Genji monogatari tama no ogushi / by Thomas James Harper.“The Intentions of the Novel” section.]


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jill said...

Very informative article, Cniva. Here are some other points he discusses:

The Characters: speak fondly (genji has all “good” traits, though he is immoral.) For the bad traits—show, don’t tell. Flower-mud analogy.

Literature of Japan (deep, psychological realism) vs. literature of world (i.e., “China”: superficial, pedantic, moral posturings):

Stuff of life: compare to Horace’s statement