Sunday, October 10, 2010

Notes on Tsubouchi Shoyo's "The Essence of the Novel" (Part 1)

This just in from Cniva Albinus:

It was Glenn Shaw who observed in his 1936 essay "Contemporary Japanese Literature: A Foreigner's View" that Tsubouchi Shōyō's (1859-1935) Shōsetsu shinzui (1885-1886) was really no more than a summary of the "the current English idea of what constituted a novel" and that its influence on Shōyō's contemporaries was in fact rather limited. Nevertheless, one cannot deny the long-term effect that Shōyō's theory-- a sort of composite of Kant-based aestheticism, Romanticism, and Victorian notions of realism-- had on the subsequent discourse and production of literature.

In his preface, Shōyō states the two goals of his essay: first, that it might enlighten future novelists, and, second, that it might help to raise the status of the novel. "The novel in Japan,” he writes, “had long been considered unworthy of the attention of the educated." Tsubouchi imagines a future where the genre may enjoy an elevated status, and be looked upon "as a form of art the equal of poetry, music, or painting," where "realism rather than didacticism [would be] the aim of characterization and plot" (Preface). In the first section of the essay, Shōyō addresses various theories of the novel, provides an overview of its development in both Japan and the West, and defines the nature of this "true novel." The second section deals with the practical questions of language, style, form, and content. In this article I will address the following questions:

1. What exactly was the tradition that Shōyō was so adamantly rejecting?
2. What sort of "realism" was he advocating, and what were the sources and/or ideologies that informed his idea of the "true novel"?
3. And, finally, how were his points received, accommodated, or rejected by both his contemporaries and following generations, and to what extent can Japanese modern literary history be seen as a grappling with the problems posed in Shōyō's essay?

A Clean Break

At the end of Chapter Two, Shōyō advises the young generation to forget their own tradition and begin copying the "great modern writers like Scott, Lytton, Dumas, and Eliot." "Fellow countrymen," he writes, "do not waste your time worshipping Bakin and Shunsui and Tanehiko . . . Make up your minds to avoid stereotypes, reform the Japanese novel, and write masterpieces worthy of a place in art!" (23). To be fair, although much of his essay is a denunciation of the Edo tradition, Shōyō does remind us in his introduction that his critique is not a wholesale rejection of the Japanese tradition per se, and he praises those works which, he feels, mark its pinnacle. Still, he disagrees with Taguchi Ukichi (1855-1905), who asserts in his essay Nihon kaika shōshi (1877-82) that Japanese literature begins in the Edo period, with writers such as Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693), Ejima Kiseki (1666-1735), Santō Kyōden (1761-1816), and Kyokutei Bakin (1767-1848). "It is here," he wrote, "that literature is first to be found" (Kornicki, 462). Shōyō, by contrast, finds little of worth in the Tokugawa period, and singles out for praise mainly works from the pre-modern period, such as Genji monogatari, Sagoromo monogatari, Hamamatsu Chunagon monogatari, Sumiyoshi monogatari, Jōruri monogatari, among others. Though some early modern writers do make his list -- including Saikaku, Bakin, Kiseki, Kyōden, Jippensha Ikku, and Tamenaga Shunsui -- he makes clear later in the essay that, on the whole, the faults of the Tokugawa and early Meiji literature far outweigh the merits. Shōyō felt that works of late Edo and early Meiji tended toward the pornographic and didactic largely due to the authors' excessive consideration for the tastes of popular audiences. Although included in the above list of praiseworthy worthy authors, Bakin too is found guilty by Shōyō of overemphasizing Confucian ethics and writing in an overtly didactic manner. Notably, however, Shōyō later regretted having been so harsh on Bakin (Kornicki, 463).

As Massimiliano Tomasi points out, the development of realism coincided with the rise of the genbunitchi movement and the importation of Western rhetoric, and these three factors worked together to make genbunitchi and realism the dominant modes for fiction. From Western rhetoric, Meiji intellectuals learned to value clarity over the often-ambiguous associative style favored by haikai poets and the obfuscating pedantry of Confucian scholars. Genbunitchi first took hold in the bureaucracy, then in the schools, and finally in the literary establishment. "By 1887," Twine writes, "the idea of using genbunitchi as a means of spreading education and reaching all Japanese was firmly implanted, and had to a considerable extent won out against traditional prejudices" (Twine, 344). New terms, such as logic (ronri), also came into the language during this period, and were used by Shōyō as a kind of critical tool to chide writers for not adhering to the new standards.

Shōyō also takes aim at Edo writers for reveling in vulgarity, pornography, sadism, and violence. "Eroticism is to be avoided," he states unequivocally. His catalog of faults includes the excessive use of fantasy (he was firmly anti-escapist), monotony and redundancy (which, incidentally, is one fault of his essay), the favoritism and patronage of certain characters, the inconsistencies in plot, the ostentatious scholarship (e.g, the ever-pedantic Bakin he faults for obscurantism), lengthiness and redundancy (he urges that delay tactics be used only in moderation), the lack of poeticism ("what I really mean is a lack of dramatic sense"), and the use of long monologues to relate personal histories (83-88). For praise he cites mainly Western-imported aesthetic notions such as symmetry, heterogeneity, and coherence of plot (94-5). As for the hero of the novel, he must be "outstanding" and bear traits that set him apart from his counterparts. Finally, the writer should avoid describing fools or characters with foolish traits, and bad characters should always be balanced with a good counterpart (95).

There are two problems with Shōyō's analysis. The first is that he applies a Western theoretical yardstick to the Japanese tradition, without acknowledging that Japan has a system of aesthetic discourse and narratology entirely distinct from Western, Aristotelian notions. Instead of dealing with the Japanese tradition on its own terms, he applies the newly-acquired and undigested theories to Bakin and others, measuring them according to these new standards. The second problem lies in his misreading of the native literature. To give an example, in talking about waka, he concludes dismissively that "our tanka and chōka, by comparison with Western poetry, are very simple -- they do no more than express a transient emotion" (7). Here Shōyō seems to be under the mistaken impression that the significance of waka is to be found in each individual unit rather than in the sequence as a whole. Instead of reading it as it always had been read -- as a complex progression of verses linked together by subtle narrative and linguistic associations-- he reads waka as if it were English poetry.

[Click here for Part 2.]


Josh Lander said...


Thanks from my contribution. I reinerate: Central Park was designed in 1850 by Joe Peppitone during the Civil War so the northern armies could practice fighting on grass.

Josh Landers said...

Correction: should read "reiterate."

Char Bovary said...


You asked if it was I who posted the recent comment, "Probably one of the best blogs on the internet." Certainly not! If it was I I would have called it one of the most self-recycled windbag blogs on internet. It seems to be gone but earlier in the day I appreciated the opportunity to revisit A**x's comment in regards to his navy days: classic! Indeed. While I would like to comment on your more recent utterly fascinating original works, my communication as of late is restricted to the phrases "We go to the moon!" "homo mag," and "hobo camp." I do not want to offend the refined sensibilities of you, Beholdtheswarthyface, or those of Sally, Eoin Hogarth, ghost of Eoin Hogarth, son of Eoin Hogarth, let alone those characters created and copyrighted by myself in the great state of Tennessee by myself, ghost of Josh Landar. In conclusions, my sentiments are exact, if not profound. Thank you very much, sir. Dr. Swarthface. Ryan. Dude. It's me, Char! If I didn't trick you already. I'm trying.

Char Bovary said...

Correction: Should read "ghost of Char Bovary."

Tom said...

We decided it would be best not to put a price list on the site, as there are so many variables that go into making a proper quote.

right now, i'd say around 14 JPY per source character for translation and 4 JPY per word for editing.

Mother said...

Hi honey,

Well what a week it has been. We painted the house, the wood floors were installed on the landing upstairs, and today they are finishing the installation of the carpet. What a job-what a mess. I will not do this again in my lifetime if I can help it. Everything had to be moved. . . .oh my. But it does look really nice and I got rid of a bunch of stuff that your father will never miss!

You have been heavy on my mind. I hope you know that I am always here for you, even at my age I am comforted knowing my mother is still alive! You are so far away, but thank goodness for the internet and phones we can stay in touch. Maybe we should do that spike thing where we can see each other and talk over the internet-we did it once then you stopped it.

How is everything? I am going to call you this weekend-ok. I know you are busy with your class and other classes. Has it snowed there yet? How is Hisae? Do you want to come home for Christmas or in February? Many questions for my number one son. I love you and miss you. Auntie just got here so gotta go, love you much.