Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Notes on Tsubouchi Shoyo's "The Essence of the Novel" (Part 3)

Our Days of Involution are Over

Whereas in the Japanese tradition a work of art tended be more art-referential than life-referential, Shōyō's new ideology of realism by contrast held that the work should be a response to life itself, rather than to the self-reflexive world of art. "An intelligent person once defined literature as existing solely to provide a critique of life," Shōyō declares, quoting a passage from John Morley in which he praises novelist George Eliot (Part I, Ch. 3). In this sense, the "new novel" that Shōyō advocates represents a break from the past; the existence, meaning, and value of a text is no longer contingent upon its place within the larger series. The tradition -- which, according to Roy Andrew Miller, begins with Po Chu-i's (白楽天, 772-846) "Song of Unending Sorrow" 『長恨歌』 and mutates through the various forms (waka anthologies, monogatari, Nō theater, kabuki, kibyōshi, ninjōbon, etc.) -- is no longer the starting point for Shōyō. Whether consciously or not, Shōyō is advocating a kind of "cult of living" where art refers only to the external, "lived" world and not to the "unlived" world of art. "Morley is right," Shōyō concurs, "authors should always make the discussion of life the first consideration of their writing" (29).

In Chapter One, Shōyō classifies art into two categories, the visual and the abstract. The visual (e.g., painting) makes use of color, shapes, and textures. The abstract arts (e.g., poetry, music, jōruri) make use of human emotions, and appeal not to the eye but to the mind. (There is a third, hybrid type, such as dance or theater, but this is not discussed by Shōyō in any detail.) The novel, therefore, in dealing with human emotions, "attempts to describe human nature [by which he means the 108 Buddhist bonnō passions] and social conditions" (8). Under these new conditions, pastiche, which had been a predominant technique in traditional Japanese arts, is suddenly deligitimated. In this new framework, art that is conscious of its being art is no longer acceptable. The old tacit contract between writer and reader which acknowledged that all art is, alas, an artifice -- a contract not dissimilar to what Coleridge called the "willing suspension of disbelief" -- was no longer binding, and as a result much of the richness that resulted from the ambiguity between "real" and "unreal," "art" and "life," was lost. Under this new ideology of the real, the artist's formal techniques, too, were pushed into the shadows. The new novelist, Shōyō proclaimed, must adhere to the technique of shasei 写生 (the presentation of "reality as it is"), and all pastiche, involution, and reference to anything outside this "reality" was roundly discouraged. "The spell is instantly broken," Shōyō writes, "when closer inspection reveals both the operator and the mechanism" (24-25).

What eventually followed was a "cult of truth," represented most radically by the Naturalists, which sought to eliminate all traces of artifice, literariness and refinement, and to retain only, in the words of Tayama Katai 田山花袋 (1871-1930), "rokotsu naru byōsha," or "straightforward descriptions." A second consequence of this "cult of truth" was the conception of the narrator as an omniscient or semi-omniscient bystander. Novels in the third person grew significantly in number. The narrator was recast into the role of objective perceiver of reality who, with his powers of insight, stood apart from his creation, and, god-like, ruled over it with little or no intervention. New values such as "sincerity," "innovation," and "originality" also became buzzwords, and the old Edo writers were scorned for not adhering to these. Nouveaute replaced pastiche, and writers were discouraged from borrowing from either the classics or contemporary works. "A novel," Shōyō declares, "is the product of its author's imagination" (74).

Citing Bakin's Hakkenden as an example of what not to do, Shōyō provides a few pointers for his readers. Like the brothers in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, each of the eight main canine heroes in Bakin's Hakkenden personifies an abstraction, in this case each of the eight Confucian virtues. Since people are more than the embodiments of abstracted virtues or vices, characters must be so as well-- to do otherwise would be to go against the rules of psychological realism. Thus, Shōyō dismisses Bakin's characters as no more than "marionettes." To write psychological depth into a character, Shōyō explains, the writer must avoid idealization and construct him out of observable reality and according to "psychological principles." (27) Unfortunately, Shōyō does not tell us what these principles are. He does say, however, that the writer's own subjectivity should be minimized or, if possible, buried completely into the work. Elsewhere hailing Shakespeare as the master of this buried subjectivity, Shōyō here urges writers to subdue their own subjectivity and remain detached, objective, and scientific. "Once his characters make their appearance in the story," he writes, "he should think of them as living people. In speaking of their feelings, he should stand by as an onlooker and describe things as they are, rather than superimposing his own ideas of emotion, good or bad, upon them" (25). Ironically, the complete opposite occurred with the Japanese Naturalists, who at first showed the influence of Shōyō's ideas but eventually became so solipsistic that they lost all sense of objectivity and distance.

As stated earlier, Shōyō expresses strong opposition to escapism in art. He distinguishes "true fiction," which possesses verisimilitude and takes as its object human behavior, from "fantasies," which are marred by absurdities. Incidentally, a similar distinction is made in the "Hotaru" chapter of Genji monogatari, and Motoori Norinaga 本居宣長 (1730-1801) too makes mention of this in his Genji monogatari tama no ogushi (1796). But whereas the dinstinction is made in Genji in order to defend the value of monogatari based on the merits of nagusame (or consolatory powers), Shōyō makes the distinction in terms of the novel's relation to "truth." Knowledge of human nature and society-- much like scientific knowledge-- is possible only through the study of "true fiction"; by contrast, nothing can be learned about human nature from reading fantasy. Revealingly, the value of fiction for Shōyō is proportionate to its relation to knowledge. Shōyō writes of the escapist fantasies,
Yet because they wrote in order to satisfy public demand, they could know nothing of such things as the real purpose of art. Flights of fancy unrelated to the truth went being being merely acceptable to being a matter for pride. No doubt the readers loved it (13).
[click here for Part 4]

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