Monday, June 30, 2008

Notes on Tsubouchi Shoyo's "The Essence of the Novel" (Part 2)

The Ideology of Realism

Having found themselves in the "civilized present," Tsubouchi Shōyō and his contemporaries were in need of a new literary form flexible enough to withstand the complexities of their rapidly westernizing world. It is within this context that an "ideology of realism" was developed. A genre large enough in scope for "modern ideas" was not to be found in the old forms, whether that of miniaturist waka or haiku or the traditional theater with its exaggerated mimicry. "The scope of the novel is on the whole wider than that of the theatre," and only it, he asserts, can provide a form sufficient for the modern age (21).

To illustrate what I mean by the term "ideology of realism," let us look at the following passage from W.G. Aston's A History of Japanese Literature (1899) in which he criticizes the yomihon of Bakin (he calls it "the romantic school" and faults it for its "unreality") and praises the ninjōbon for their "realistic" portrayal of the human heart.

The novelists of the romantic school [i.e., yomihon writers such as Bakin] were too much occupied with sensational situations, hairbreadth escapes, and supernatural wonders, to study the human heart with its affectations and passions; while Ikku and Sanba, though excellent in their way, were humorists and nothing more (Aston, quoted in Kornicki, 464).

Aston's statement rests upon the following assumptions: that the artist's proper subject is human emotion, that his proper method is a sort of scientific realism, and that his proper tone is one of sincerity. This strikes me a rather sentimental and stodgy conception of art which leaves little room for play, pastiche, imagination or humor-- attributes which, under this new rubric, might be condemned as frivolous. According to Aston, "extravagance, false sentiment, defiance of probability whether physical or moral, pedantry, pornography, puns and other meretricious ornaments of style . . . impossible adventures" are all characteristic of second-rate art. And Aston is not the only observer who holds such prejudices. In fact, many of the last century's most prominent scholars of Japan seem to share a similar critical disposition that was largely informed by 19th-century Victorian notions of art and realism. Robert Leutner writes of Keene that he is incapable of "appreciating them [i.e., Edo literature] on their own terms" (Kornicki, 465). But this statement should not be read as an attack on Keene -- who is of course one of the great pioneers of this field-- or on Aston or Tsubouchi Shōyō, for that matter. Instead, it should be read as a warning that critical theories must be applied with extreme care -- especially when crossing into traditions that have different fundamental assumptions about the very nature and function of art -- and that one must be almost neurotically conscious of the existence and origins of one's preferences. For Tsubouchi Shōyō, his ideas about realism and mimesis were not unconscious assumptions; rather, they were the result of an accumulation of acquired knowledge about the principles of a literary tradition fundamentally different from his own. And his fault, if it can be considered as such, lies in his imperfect appropriation of Western theories to his non-Western tradition, and in his refusal to acknowledge the possibility of a separate set of aesthetic principles.

[click here for Part 3]

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