Sunday, February 27, 2011

Donald Keene on Ishikawa Jun’s "xxxxx"

This just in from Mother:
I read your translation of Ishikawa Jun’s xxxxx. A commendable effort on a difficult text. It still needs some tightening up in places, and there are still a few spots that, frankly, don’t make sense. I’ll try to find you an editor willing to go over it. Also—and you’re probably aware of this already—while thumbing through Donald Keene’s Dawn to the West the other day, I was surprised to find that he had quite a bit to say about xxxxx. Here is what he says:  
Ishikawa's first story, “xxxxx” (The Beautiful Woman), appeared in 1935. Ishikawa was thirty-five at the time, unusually late for a Japanese author to make his debut. The story, related in the first person, concerns a man who is living with his mistress in an unfashionable, even dreary outskirts of Tokyo. He does nothing to earn a living, it would seem, and his eccentric behavior—his excitement over some sight of nature or his occasional fits of angergives him the local reputation of being a madman. He is painfully conscious of a terrible emptiness within himself, which seems to be his totality. He reflects:
I had been thinking for some time about stigmatization—how Francis of Assisi meditated so intently on Jesus that the marks of the nails that had been driven into the hands of his Lord on the Cross appeared on his own palms. The conviction that I was hollow inside had developed into an article of faith, but it was exasperating all the same to have others with smug looks on their faces casually dismiss this belief as another instance of my madness. It was not so much a matter of fanatic devotion to a faith that could move mountains as of manifesting a godhead from which I could not possibly withdraw. I was a shaman dragged about at the will of a supernatural possession; and the nothingness (mu) that I could imagine was not the creative nothingness that Lao Tsu described"We make a vessel from a lump of clay; it is the empty space within the vessel that makes it useful"but an utterly useless nothingness, like a crack in the ground, a split in a tree, a cavern . . . yes, a cavern was the form in which the god I worshiped chose to display himself, and my stigmatization was a mere slipping of the hollow body that was myself into an empty frame in the sky.
This passage, though somewhat confusing, is of particular interest because of the reference to the stigmatization of St. Francis, suggesting a familiarity with Catholic literature. But the writingand this would be true of all Ishikawa's future worksbears no trace of foreign influence. In the original of the quoted passage everything after “The conviction that” forms one long sentence; this was the “garrulous” (jozetsu) style that was typical not only of Ishikawa but of various other authors of the 1930s. The conversations, on the other hand, reveal Ishikawa's marvelously accurate ear for the many varieties of Japanese speech; far from elegant clarity, which he might have learned from French literature, his style suggests the meanderings of gesaku writings. There is humor, touched with bitterness, in this story, but the effect of the whole is a portrayal of a man in the throes of anomie, a man who has lost all connection with the world. He attempts to commit suicide by walking over a railway bridge just before a freight train normally passes, but that night the train fails to come. He accidentally discovers that his mistress is unfaithful, and sleeps with her sister instead. In the end, a final mark of his ineffectuality, he realizes that he has not related the story promised in the first paragraph.

It is not clear how much of Ishikawa’s life found its way into “The Beautiful Woman.” Clearly, it is not an “I novel,” but much accords with the little we know of his life during the years before he wrote this story. Publication led to a spate of other stories in 1935-1936. “Fugen” (the Japanese name of the Buddhist divinity who is known in Sanskrit as Samantabhadra), published like most of his early stories in the magazine Sakuhin, was awarded the fourth Akutagawa Prize in 1937 . . . (Keene, 1092-1094)


Ian Hogarth said...

Dubious claim: "But the writing—and this would be true of all Ishikawa's future works—bears no trace of foreign influence."

Carly Imantum said...

Compare Keene's translation with your translation of the same passage:
"Meanwhile I had begun to think about the notion of stigmatization, specifically, about the story of Saint Francis of Assisi, whose faith in Christ was so great that the stigmata appeared on his palms. That I am a mere void was now the principle tenet of my new faith, and I have nothing but contempt for the insolent fellow who would ascribe this faith of mine to madness. You see, this was not your usual case of blind zealotry; what I had experienced there in the middle of the street was an ineluctable manifestation of the divine, and I was none other than its oracle, subject to its holy command. But this “nothingness” as I conceived it was unlike the “purposeful void” expounded by Laozi (“Clay is molded to make a vessel, but the utility of the vessel lies in the space where there is nothing”); rather, it was a useless nothingness: a crack in the earth, a split in a tree, a cavern. It was in the shape of this cavern that the divine object of my faith had taken its form, and thus stigmatization for me meant the immersion of my earthly self into that empty frame drawn in the firmament . . . "

Anonymous said...

I'm going to have to go with Keene here.

Mother said...

No way! My son's translation is much clearer and more concise, and, I dare say, accurate (although I must admit I am incapable of reading it in the original)!

Anonymous said...

You're just saying that because you're his mother.

Mother said...

I am not. Are you accusing me of partiality?

Josh Landers said...

I accuse you of selling poison champagne to Mr. Heidi Yamada!