Saturday, October 9, 2010

Mori Ōgai's "History as It Is and History Ignored"

This just in from Jarvis32:
In his essay "Rekishi sono mama to rekishibanare" (1915) (translated as "History as It Is and History Ignored"), Mori Ōgai considers the distinction between fiction and history, the nature of historical fiction, and how the writer of historical fiction should go about his task. According to translator Darcy Murray's prefatory note, the essay "was published less than a month after the appearance of 'Sanshō Dayū' in January 1915," and "is included here as a kind of postscript to 'Sanshō Dayū.'"

Ōgai first addresses the question of whether works that "make use of actual historical figures can be considered as fiction." Judging from the closing lines of the essay, it appears that Ōgai regarded "Sanshō Dayū" as a work of fiction, since history was used in the work only "as a point of departure." Still, he distinguishes himself from other writers who borrow from history only to write self-indulgent, personal confessions (he seems to be taking aim here at the Japanese Naturalists), and points out that in his approach he strives for an objectivity that, whether or not perfectly attained, gives the work a rational, "Apollonian" texture not found in many works of the late Meiji and early Taishō periods.

There is, however, an apparent disparity between what Ōgai tries to do (or claims to try to do) and what he actually does in "Sanshō Dayū." "My motives are simple," he explains. "In studying historical records, I came to revere the reality that was evidenced in them. . . Secondly, if contemporary authors can write about life 'just as it is' and find it satisfactory, then they ought to appreciate a similar treatment of the past."

Nevertheless, Ōgai soon finds that such an approach binds him too tightly to the actuality of the past, leaving him with little room for departure. Seeking more freedom, he settles for "historical fiction," in which the "bones" of historical legends are replaced, while the "purport" -- or shui 趣意 -- of the work is maintained. Such an approach to history is similar to the kankotsudattai 換骨奪胎 approach of the pre-modern Japanese writers, who essentially "retranslated" canonical works in manners appropriate for the new age and new audiences. "Just as I disliked changing the reality in history," he writes, "I became bound by history in spite of myself. Suffering under these bonds, I thought I must break loose from them." And again,

"The virtue of a legend like 'Sanshō the Steward' is that there is enough of a fixed story to prevent the writer from completely losing himself as he goes along; on the other hand, one would not be bound to pursue the story in precisely the fashion that I have. Without examining the legend in too much detail, I let myself be taken by a dreamlike image of this old story that seems itself a dream."

Though he keeps most of the details of plot and character-- the father Masauji's exile to Tsukushi in 1081; the wife's pursuit of her husband, along with her two children Zushiō and Anju; the presence of the old woman Ubatake, who, after the kidnapping, dutifully drowns herself; the deceit of Yamaoka Tayū once they reach Echigo; the abduction of the two children, who are sent as slaves to Tango, where they are sold to Sanshō the Steward; the mother's trials in Sado where she is "set to chasing away birds from the millet"; the torture and murder of Anju after Zushiō escapes to the Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto, where he is adopted by the old priest Umezuin, who soon appoints Zushiō governor of Mutsu and Tango; and Zushiō's rescue of his mother in Sado, followed by his return to Tango where he exacts revenge upon Sanshō and his sons-- Ōgai does make some significant and perhaps inevitable changes. Rather than using the premodern language, he has most of the characters speak in a contemporary Tokyo colloquial dialect. Also, he adds several characters (to which he gives archaic names) who do not appear in earlier versions of the story. The chronology, too, is slightly altered. Finally, he makes several changes to the details of lineage and plot (e.g., the promotion to governor was not likely in the eleventh century).

Still, unless we are to dismiss his final lines as false humility, it seems clear that Ōgai was somewhat dissatisfied with his version of "Sanshō Dayū" and the "misuse" of history it exemplifies. "In any case," he writes in the essay's final paragraph, "I wrote 'Sanshō Dayū' using history as a point of departure. When I looked over what I had written, I somehow felt that using history in this fashion was unsatisfactory. This is an honest confession on my part."

(Translations of the essay and story can be found in The Historical Fiction of Mori Ōgai, edited by David Dilworth and J. Thomas Rimer.)

And, for the blind:


Anonymous said...

Nice article. Also see see Ogai's "Kuriyama Daizen" story if you haven't. And the drama Nichiren shounin tsujizeppou.


Anonymous said...

You should have mentioned that the original story was borrowed from the setwa Sekkyo-bushi: この小説は中世の芸能であった説経節の「五説経」と呼ばれた有名な演目の一つ「さんせう大夫」を原話として執筆され、1915年(大正4年)、森鴎外53歳の時に「中央公論」に掲載された。

-Edward Pressel

Anonymous said...

Can someone translate for me the Japanese in the above comment?

-Mary Plowman

Anonymous said...

Mary Plowman,

I'm not sure what it says, but I think it's about the original version of Sansho the Bailiff from the middle ages. It was originally a Buddhist sermon told by wandering storytellers.

-Sarah Callahan