Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Notes on Tsubouchi Shoyo's "The Essence of the Novel" and the Importation of Victorian Realism (Part 4)


A Puritanical Penchant

Despite his famous definition of the novel -- "The main business of the novel is human nature . . . [i..e.] man's sensual passions, what Buddhism calls the one hundred and eight appetites of the flesh" -- Shōyō surprisingly allows little room for realistic description of these "sensual passions." Seeking to distance himself from the Edo literature that was drenched with eroticism, Shōyō pursues a puritanical path that seems at odds with his own definition of the novel. Despite his bold claims about the novel, he ends up sounding like a prudish Victorian, or a Tokugawa Confucian scholar warning of the dangers of pornography (36-40). "It [the novel] must avoid lewdness," he chides, "as music avoids bawdiness; painting, eroticism; and poetry and drama, vulgar language" (28).

Shōyō concludes that there is no demand for the erotic among proper, upper-class, discerning men, and that the problem with past literature is that it was aimed at the uncultivated classes. Works that otherwise had the potential to become masterpieces -- such as Jippensha Ikku's Hizakurige and Kinga's Shichi henjin -- devolved into pornography because their audiences demanded it. If only these authors had aimed at a more discerning and civilized readership! Shōyō laments.

Though the Japanese are often thought to be indirect and ambiguous when it comes to the subject of sex, from Shōyō's essay one might conclude that the opposite is true. Here Shōyō, under the influence of Victorian mores, is making an appeal to his supposedly coy countrymen to stop the explicit eroticism that contaminates Japanese fiction, and to be more indirect in their descriptions. Love scenes, he writes,
"should be dealt with as briefly as possible, and the rest left to the reader's imagination. To lay bare the mysteries of the bedroom and reproduce the details of their conversation there in the name of realism is a task belonging not to the novelist but to the writer of love-stories" (79).

[Click here for Part 5.]

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