Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Study Guide for Kajii Motojirō’s (1901-1932) “Lemon” (1925) and “The Ascension of K—or His Death By Drowning” (1927)


*To purchase William Tyler's English translations of the two stories, click here.

Terms/Cultural Particularities/Etc.

Review the following. Add to the list as you see fit.

1. Doppelgänger: “double walker” in German; a double or second-self. In literature, dream analysis, or archetypal symbolism, the Doppelgänger is often figured as a twin, shadow, or mirror-image of the protagonist. The Doppelgänger characteristically appears as identical to (or closely resembling) the protagonist; sometimes the protagonist and Doppelgänger have the same name. Prominent literary examples of Doppelgängers include Poe’s “William Wilson,” Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer,” and the novel and movie “The Fight Club.” […] In Freudian terms, the Doppelgänger represents hidden or repressed aspects of the protagonist’s personality, and the arrival of the double represents the “return of the repressed.” The protagonist must acknowledge what the double represents, and at the same time struggle against it. Characteristically, a Doppelgänger story climaxes with a confrontation of the two, usually a fight to the death. The death of the Doppelgänger represents the successful repression of the dangerous impulses, but the struggle leaves the protagonist sadder and wiser about humanity and about himself or herself. (Dr. Glen Johnson, Catholic University of America)

2. The Fantastic: According to Tzvetan Todorov (1939- ), “the fantastic” is a distinct genre characterized by a “hesitation” either on the part of the reader in deciding whether to interpret the events of the story as real or unreal, natural or supernatural, or a similar hesitation evident in any of the characters.[1] Todorov explains:

In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know, a world without devils, sylphides, or vampires, there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination – and the laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event has indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality – but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us […] The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighboring genre, the uncanny or the marvelous. (Todorov, 25, emphasis mine)

According to Todorov, “the fantastic requires the fulfillment of three conditions”:

First, the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural or supernatural explanation of the events described. Second, this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader’s role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work -- in the case of naive reading, the actual reader identifies himself with the character. Third, the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as “poetic” interpretations. (Todorov, 33, emphasis mine)

Todorov’s third conditionthat the reader must “reject allegorical as well as poetic interpretations”is the most problematic of the three. After all, what literary text can be read only in a literal sense? Aren’t all literary texts at least open to the possibility of a “poetic reading,” i.e. of being read metaphorically or allegorically? Does this openness really disqualify the work from being an instance of the fantastic? Christine Brooke-Rose and others have challenged this claim, arguing that the fantastic and allegorical/poetic modes of reading are not mutually exclusive.
Todorov divides the fantastic into two kinds: (1) those in which the hesitation is between real and illusory, and (2) those in which the hesitation is between real and imaginary. In the first instance, the reader (or character) is certain that the described events have taken place, yet uncertain as to how to explain them; in short, the usual laws of nature do not apply. In the second instance, the reader (or character) is not sure whether the described events have actually taken place or whether they were simply the product of the character’s imagination, hallucination, dream, madness, drug-induced vision, etc.
Todorov’s positions his genre of the fantastic between two related genres: the uncanny and the marvelous. The uncanny is (according to Todorov) a genre in which the strange elements of the work are ultimately shown to be explainable in natural terms; that is, our usual laws of nature need not be adjusted to explain the strange events, which can be explained as being the product of the narrator’s imagination or illness. The marvelous is a genre in which the strange elements are ultimately explained in supernatural terms; that is, the reader (or character) ascribes the event to laws of nature that are different from our own.
Todorov explains that the genre of “the fantastic” forever vacillates between these two alternative genres of the uncanny and the marvelous, never committing itself to either. It is precisely this hesitation that is suspended throughout Kajii’s “The Ascension of K”—for in the end the question of how to explain K’s strange behavior and death is left unresolved. Is the narrator’s account to be believed?
I should also note that while Todorov holds that the fantastic consists of a distinct genre in its own right that is marked by a certain vacillation, hesitation, or ambiguity on a structural level, Rosemary Jackson and others have challenged this claim by arguing that the fantastic is a literary mode that can appear in a variety of genres, rather than a distinct genre as such.[2]

3. Icarus: Son of Daedalus in Greek mythology; attempted to escape from Crete with the wax-and-feather wings his father made for him, but drowned after flying too close to the sun.

4. Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac (1897): In the play, the character Cyrano escapes to the moon.

5. Kaguya-hime of Taketori monogatari: echoes of this tenth-century story are present in Kajii’s story; the “bamboo girl” Kaguya-hime returns to the moon at end of story.

Study Questions

In bullet-point form, answer four questions for each story. Bring your answers to class, and add to them as you discuss your answers with your group.

Lemon” (1925)

1. Identify and describe the sensory experiences depicted in the work. Which of the five senses (touch, sight, sound, taste, smell) is the narrator most sensitive to? How do these sensory depictions relate to the main theme of the work?

2. What relation between imagination and reality is implied in the first half of the work?

3. Describe the narrator’s aesthetic sensibilities. Where does he find beauty? What pleases him? What displeases him?

4. How has the narrator’s attitude toward the Maruzen bookstore changed? What is to account for this change?

5. Describe the narrator’s attitude toward his illness (tuberculosis). At the time the work was written, what sort of people and lifestyle was this illness associated with?

6. Discuss the lemon as symbol. Explain the effect the lemon has on the narrator, and the reasons for this effect. How does the lemon alter his attitude toward the world, himself, his illness, the lump in his throat, the Maruzen bookstore, etc? Why does it have this effect?

7. Discuss the narrator’s view of the relationship between art and everyday reality. Is this view an inversion or reversal of the usual view? Explain.

8. Why does the narrator pile the books into an imaginary castle and place a lemon atop the stack as if it were a bomb? What is the symbolic significance of this act? Also, discuss the significance of the last sentence.

TheAscension of K” (1927)

1. Describe the setting.

2. Describe the narrative structure of the work.

3. Identify the elements of “the fantastic” found in the work (i.e. elements that cause a certain “hesitation” in the reader or character; see above for a description of “the fantastic”). Explain how these elements cause such a hesitation.

4. Explain how the Doppelgänger motif appears in the work. Explain its significance and function.

5. How does K prepare for his own death? How are his actions a preparation for what happens in the final scene?

6. Explain the similarities and differences between Icarus’s flight to the sun and K’s ascension to the moon.

7. Describe K’s view of the relationship between light and shadows, reality and dreams. What do shadows represent for him?

8. Identify the circular imagery/motifs/descriptions in the work. Explain the significance and overall effect of all these circles, repetitions, ebbs and flows, images of roundness, etc.

9. Discuss K’s “ascension to the moon” as described by the narrator at the end of the story. Are we to believe his account of what happened to his friend K?

[1] See Todorov’s The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1973). For more on the fantastic, see Fantastic Literature, A Critical Reader by David Sandner and Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) by John Clute. For a broad-ranging overview of the fantastic in modern Japanese literature, see Susan Napier’s excellent study The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature: The Subversion of Modernity (1996).
[2] See, for example, Jackson’s Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion.

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