Sunday, May 4, 2008

Notes on Motoori Norinaga's "My Personal View of Poetry" (Isonokami no sasamegoto, 1763)

This just in from Cniva Albinus:
In this essay Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) builds on his theory of aesthetics first put forth in “A Small Boat Punting Through the Reeds” (Ashiwake obune, 1757), an earlier essay which argues that art should be expressive rather than didactic, that the focus should be on the reader's response, and that moral or philosophical "correctness" is not relevant in determining the success of a given work.

Elaborating on these earlier themes, Motoori argues that only through a reciprocal relation with an audience can the poet can experience nagusame, which can be defined as a kind of consolatory catharsis. Only when the listener understands and sympathizes with the expressions of the speaker can "the poet’s heart . . . be cleared even more.”

Motoori's analysis is thus an implicit rejection of the Chinese tradition, which holds that it is literature's didactic rather than aesthetic or consolative function which is of primary importance. He that the critic should judge poetry on its own merits rather than by the standards of Confucianism and Buddhism. For Motoori, the mutual understanding and expression of mono no aware between poet and reader is the primary purpose of literature. "By making our deepest emotions known to others," he writes, "poetry serves to establish feelings of mutual empathy that form the basis of our relations with others” (Intro).

However, successfully evoking empathy in the reader is not such an easy feat; rather, it made possible through the development and refinement of technique, or what he refers to as aya 綾. Only language that possesses this aya can convey mono no aware. Like T.S. Eliot, Motoori points out that the direct expression of feeling alone does not make for poetry, and that only those who cultivate aya are capable of becoming poets.

Prefiguring the arguments made by Tsubouchi Shōyō over a century later, Motoori insists that the political and social benefits of literature, which had long been considered the sole benefits of art, are only of secondary importance.

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