Thursday, October 16, 2008

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


To Hell With the Audience, I'm an Artist!

That Shōyō held the audience in low regard is apparent in his berating of Edo writers for their pandering to popular tastes. It was these writers, he felt, who had lowered fiction to the degraded genre of the kusazōshi. Shōyō is also critical of the Japanese theatrical tradition, which he faults for never having held "realism" in high regard, and for its fantastic portrayals and exaggerated, audience-pleasing theatrics. "Instead of trying to reproduce something exactly as it was," Shōyō wrote, "it [Japanese theater] tried to be larger than life" (19). Echoing Chikamatsu, he concedes that a perfect realism would be both insipid and impractical; yet despite these reservations, he calls for a realism that serves as a mirror to man, society and the age (19-20). To Tsubouchi Shōyō, sinning too far in the direction of realism is preferable to straying in the direction of the "unrealism" of the Japanese arts of the past, with their "superficial, exaggerated personalities" (21). Though some disregard for audiences and their vulgar tastes can be found in pre-modern texts, it is my guess that such total neglect of the reader-writer relationship as seen here is an attitude Shōyō picked up from the English Romantics.

Though the presence of stern, Confucian censors were also to blame for the overt moralizing so ubiquitous in Edo literature, it is likely that audiences, too, took pleasure in seeing the virtuous characters rewarded in the end, and that the overt didacticism was, to some degree, a response to audience demand. "The novels popular in Japan since the early part of this century," Shōyō explains, "have been on the whole just this kind of didactic novel and not real novels." Like Kant, Shōyō believes that "true novels" are aesthetic rather than didactic in nature, and that our appreciation of them is not contingent upon any personal interest in their function or existence. The true novel is purposeless, disinterested, and meant only "to give pleasure and ennoble the character." It should not serve as a handbook on how to behave or think. But just how sincere Shōyō was in his advocacy of art-for-art's-sake seems debatable in light of his comments on what is and is not appropriate subject matter for the novel, and in light of a later suggestion that the novel should, in fact, be a "guidebook to life," and not a "plaything" for "women and children, who are fundamentally ignorant and poorly educated" (I, 5).

Just why realism of the Victorian variety is most appropriate for a non-didactic fiction, Shōyō does not explain. It seems to me perfectly plausible that non-realist or non-mimetic traditions can be just as "aestheticist" or non-didactic as the kind of realism that Shōyō advocates. Non-realism and l'art pour l'art are not mutually exclusive, but nowhere does Shōyō acknowledge this.

Shōyō goes on to distinguish art's "aim" from its incidental effects. The "noble thoughts" that art may engender are not the function of art, but rather "a natural side-effect." Here Shōyō makes the distinction, again in Kantian terms, between the primary aim of the novel (aesthetic) and its indirect benefits (didactic). The novel should aspire to be a "perfect, beautifully executed work of art . . . [that] profoundly inspires a reader." "Indirectly," he continues, "it ennobles his character and rounds his education" (33). The direct benefit is "the pleasure the reader feels. In other words, the novel is meant to entertain people" (33). Shōyō uses "entertain" in a rather limited sense, as we will see in the next section where he elaborates on just what qualifies as suitable entertainment. The indirect benefits are possible because the novel teaches us to control our passions; but such "moral instruction," he laments, is unfortunately lost on women and children (35). The final and perhaps most important indirect benefit of fiction is that it provides the "inner truths" that "fill the gaps" in the "official histories" -- again an idea first expressed in Genji monogatari and, later, in Motoori Norinaga's Tama no ogushi.

The new novel, therefore, should not be concerned with the fickle tastes of "ignorant women and children," but should follow its own rules of objectivity, sincerity, and verisimilitude. Shōyō urges writers to include more realistic descriptions of nature for its own sake, even if such descriptions are not directly related to the plot. Such a technique had never been part of the Japanese tradition and must have struck Shōyō's readers as something terribly odd; but, to the young Shōyō entranced by the Victorian English novel, it was is exactly these objective descriptions of nature that served as the hallmarks of the "true novel." Shōyō even suggested that writers should mimic passages found in the novels of Sir Walter Scott in order to hone their descriptive skills (21-2).

[click here for Part 5]

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