Sunday, December 14, 2014

Study Guide: Hagiwara Sakutarō’s “The Town of Cats” (1935; Nekomachi- sanbunshifūna shōsetsu)

*To purchase Jeffrey Angles' English translation of the story, click here.
*To read the story in the original, click here.

Terms/Related Concepts/Topics

Look up the following terms/related concepts/topics, and consider their relation to the text. (Note: I have already started to fill in some of these.)

1. Drug use, availability, and distribution in modern Japan:
2. Parallax: the apparent displacement of an observed object due to a change in the position of the observer.
3. Metaphysics: Traditional branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world. Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions: What is there? What is it like?
4. Dislocation (and the aesthetics of):
5. Defamiliarization (Rs: ostranenie; Jp: 異化) : The distinctive effect achieved by literary works in disrupting our habitual perception of the world, enabling us to 'see' things afresh, according to the theories of some English Romantic poets and of Russian formalism (Baldick, 1990).
6. Wanderlust: a strong impulse to travel.
7. Plato’s Theory of Forms: The idea that behind the flux of phenomenal appearances lies an immutable realm of non-material abstract (but substantial) forms (or ideas) that possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. The Form (or Idea) is an aspacial, atemporal, objective blueprint of perfection, as contrasted with idol (image/appearance), which is merely the Form’s particular aspect, which exists materially and temporally. According to this theory, each concrete particular is an imitation of its abstract and eternal Form.

8. Zhuangzi’s 莊子 butterfly: Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.” (Zhuangzi, Ch 2, tr. Burton Watson 1968:49). Original: 昔者莊周夢為蝴蝶,栩栩然蝴蝶也,自適志與,不知周也。俄然覺,則蘧蘧然周也。不知周之夢為蝴蝶與,蝴蝶之夢為周與?周與蝴蝶則必有分矣。此之謂物化。
9. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860): German philosopher best known for his book, The World as Will and Representation.
10. The fourth dimension:
11. “The Fantastic” (Todorov’s concept): According to Bulgarian theorist Tzvetan Todorov (1939- ), the fantastic is characterized by: a) a hesitation on the part of the reader in deciding whether to interpret the events of the story as real or unreal, natural or supernatural; and/or b) a similar hesitation evident in the characters or narrator(s). To qualify as “fantastic,” the reader must be able to resist reading the story as a simple allegory or extended metaphor; in short, he must read it literally and metaphorically. “Fantastic” works are often divided into two types: strange (in which rational explanation is predominant) and marvelous (in which supernatural explanation is predominant).
12. Spirit Possession in Japanese Folklore:
13. Utopia/Dystopia:
14. Metamorphosis:
15. Prose Poem (sanbunshi):

Study Questions

Answer all of the following questions. I expect at least one full paragraph for each answer.

1. Consider the three references that appear in the work (the Schopenhauer quote, the Horace reference, and the Zhuangzi reference). Explain each reference in relation to the overall theme(s) of the work.

2. The narrator provides several interpretive frameworks for explaining the strange happenings described in the work. List and describe each of these interpretive frameworks. Which framework does the narrator seem to prefer? Which framework is the reader most likely to use?

3. As we discussed in class, “hesitation”—either in a character or in the reader—is the hallmark of “the fantastic.” Explain instances of “hesitation” that occur in/are produced by this work.

4. In the title, Hagiwara refers to his work as a “prose poem” (sanbunshi)? What makes the work a “prose poem”? (In other words, what are the work’s poetic qualities and its prosaic qualities?)

5. What metaphysical claims is the work suggesting/making? What is this “riddle” that the narrator keeps referring to?

6. Describe the town of U and its residents. Can this section of the story be read as a metaphor/allegory/critique of Japanese society at the time? As a prophecy of what was to come in the late 1930s? Explain.

7. Describe the meaning/significance of the residents’ metamorphoses into cats. Why cats? What do the cats represent? Given all the buildup, isn’t this a bit anticlimactic?

8. Discuss the final section of the story. In your view, can the “true” aspects of reality be seen only when one is removed from ordinary modes of viewing? Or is reality knowable only through reason, science, objective observation, and the like? What does the work tell us about the limits and potentials of “reason” and “intuition”?

9. What other works that we have read in class is this story similar to? Explain the similarities.

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