Monday, June 29, 2015

Akutagawa's "Green Onions" (Negi; 1920) and Lacan's Three Cognitive Registers

Today two female students came into my office and asked, in perfect unison: "Mori-mori Sensei, in another class we're learning about J Lacan's theory of the three modes/structures of the psyche--the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real--but it doesn't make any sense; can you explain it to us using simple terms and a specific example?" 

I responded: "Well girls, take, for instance, the story we read this week, Akutagawa's 'Negi' (1919). The character Tanaka exists in three modes in the text. Let us call these three modes Tanaka 1 (The Imaginary), Tanaka 2 (The Symbolic), and Tanaka 3 (The Real). Tanaka 1 is the Tanaka-for-Okimi: a pure creation of O-kimi's romantic imagination, constructed from an array of assorted images and sensory associations; it is this Tanaka whom O-kimi thinks she is in love with, and who makes her virginal heart flutter in anticipation of tomorrow's date. Tanaka 2 is the Tanaka-for-the-'I'-narrator. Since the narrator (a writer) clearly seems to be infatuated with O-kimi (possibly to the point of stalking her at night), Tanaka is his natural rival. As the weakest member of this love triangle, the 'I' (predictably) denounces Tanaka as a fraud, a charlatan, a glib lady-killer and false artist who uses his (relatively) privileged class status and superior learning/talents to dupe working-class women into sleeping with him; in short, he describes Tanaka in terms of social/symbolic context. Finally, Tanaka 3 is Tanaka-for-himself; this is Tanaka of "the Real." Since the story is narrated entirely from the perspective of the jealous/unrequited "I" narrator, we have no access to this Tanaka: he is beyond our understanding, defies signification. I have now explained the Lacan's three modes--the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary--using the example of three modes of the character Tanaka in Akutagawa's 'Negi.' You may now leave my office."

*For the official study guide to the story, click here.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Review of Blonde Redhead's Fake Can Be Just As Good (1997)

This just in from 17 years ago→my review of Blonde Redhead's 
Fake Can Be Just As Good in the July 16 1998 issue of Phoenix New Times: (scroll down)。 "The most beautiful cut on the album is 'Ego Maniac Kid,' a sensuous lullaby that Kazu [sic] sings as though in a half-sleep, with the melodious syncopation spiraling downward chromatically until the song climaxes in a throaty and panting chorus." Pretty sound judgement for a 13-yr-old boy, I must say。


Blonde Redhead Fake Can Be Just As Good (Touch and Go)

Blonde Redhead Fake Can Be Just As Good (Touch and Go) With Blonde Redhead's third and latest release, the international trio seems to be mocking its critics' accusations of unoriginality. The group's music has been written off dozens of times as Sonic Youth-inspired echoes of sounds already heard. But Blonde Redhead, starring the native Japanese Kazu Makino and the Italian Pace twins, has much more to offer than most critics have claimed, and its newest album seethes with fresh ideas. 

There's no denying that Blonde Redhead owes some inspiration to Sonic Youth. But the influence seems to be more in their philosophy of music, art and experimentation than their specific style. Stylistically, Blonde Redhead shares only Sonic Youth's sense of drama--romantic, subtle melodies mixed with chaotic, formless noise. On the whole, Blonde Redhead's songs are more structured, symmetrical and linear than those of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon. 

The album begins with a collage of beckoning and haunting noises that lure the listener into the band's bizarre, dark and opium-altered world. In the almost punk-rock opener, "Kazuality," singer-guitarist Amadeo Pace sings disjointed phrases in his strangely unique tenor: "I want you . . . too shy . . . one time . . . one two . . . slow one . . . kiss one line . . . go ahead . . . get inside." The lyrics are written as the mind actually thinks, in a sort of passive stream of fragments and ideas to which words cannot be coherently attached. The entire album is written this way. 

The music works in much the same way as the lyrics. Each musical idea is seemingly disconnected from every other, but somehow it all fits into place. The most beautiful cut on the album is "Ego Maniac Kid," a sensuous lullaby that Kazu sings as though in a half-sleep, with the melodious syncopation spiraling downward chromatically until the song climaxes in a throaty and panting chorus. 

The album hits a kind of peak with its final cut, "Futurism Vs. Passeism," a hard-driving instrumental jam. The guitars sound thick, melodic and busy, while the drums complement with tight syncopated rhythms. This bass-less track is particularly reminiscent of Sonic Youth's instrumental tangents, but Amadeo has a vocal response ready for any sniping critics. "It's just the energy," he says, and of course, he's right. --Ryan Morrison

Here's the song:

Friday, June 26, 2015

Andrew Feenberg - "Lukács’s Theory of Reification and Contemporary Social Movements"

a very good short lecture by philosopher Andrew Feenberg, author of *The Philosophy of Praxis: Marx, Lukács and the Frankfurt School* (Verso Press 2014) on Lukács’s Theory of reification, the state of the left, etc.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Tanizaki Jun'ichirō reading from his novel Portrait of Shunkin (Shunkinshō; 1933)

this appears to be authentic:Tanizaki Jun'ichirō reading from his novel Portrait of Shunkin (Shunkinshō; 1933)。本人の声らしい。谷崎潤一郎が名作『春琴抄』(1933)を朗読。

Today's Pop Quiz 抜き打ち小テスト

A little bird told me some of my students think me classes "easy"; so today I threw them a curve ball:pop-quiz on vocab from this week's reading (in Eng translation and original Jpn;click here for study guide);only five students scored 100%;see how many you can get right;match the English word with its Japanese *equivalent*。楽チンだと思ってモリソンの授業を舐めている学生が何人かいると最近気づいたので今日は各授業で抜き打ち小テストを行った。宿題として読んてきた(筈の)芥川「」(原文と英訳)に出てくる日本語の単語をそれに当たる英語単語とマッチングせよと。満点を取れたのはたった五人。こっちの皆さんも何点取れるか是非やってみて下さい。①lascivious。② 如露亦如電。③ Mary Pickford。④ Naniwabushi。⑤ 有頂天。⑥ player piano。⑦ sentimentalisme。⑧ 犯す。⑨ Ali Baba。⑩ 裏路地。⑪ pleasure garden。⑫ 塗装。 ⑬ ecstasy。⑭ アリババ。 ⑮ back alley。⑯ 浪花節。⑰ to rape。 ⑱ メアリーピックフォード。⑲ varnish。⑳ 自動ピアノ。21 to eat out。22 外食。23 sentimentalisme。24 淫らな。25 A drop of dew,a flash of lightening。26. 歓楽境.... Ready, go!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

On Public Readings of Prose Fiction

Note to self (and blog followers, whom I regard as but extensions of myself) upon returning from a public recitation of the latest Jpn translation of --- ------: No matter how many great literary prose translations you manage to produce in the future, never force the public to sit through a live reading; such readings are like masturbating before an audience of 100 girls: though it may bring great pleasure to the onanist, it bringeth no pleasure to the girls。(*Poetry is of course an exception)。And if you don't believe me, try listening to these Youtube videos of my Hideo Furukawa / 古川日出男 translation, which have brought me immeasurable pleasure, but will no doubt bring you only misery:

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Letter to Mom (Or, Crash Course in Modern and Postmodern Literary Theory Using The Most Comprehensive Hyperlinked Glossary Ever Assembled)

Dear Mom,

Remember how you always wanted to take a crash course in critical theory? Well, here’s your chance. I’ve compiled the most comprehensive hyperlinked glossary of modern and postmodern literary theory terms ever assembled. Consider it an early birthday present. (Non-Mother others, feel free to use as well.)

Before we start, you’ll want to read through this very short but concise introduction to the major schools of critical theory (courtesy of Purdue University). Now as I walk you through this, I want you to keep in mind that a) my system of classification is somewhat arbitrary, as many of these categories overlap, and b) I’ve used Wikipedia only when absolutely necessary.

OK. Here we go. I’ve classified the critical orientations into the following ten clusters:
Cluster 1: Marxist, Marxian, New Historicist and Postcolonial Theories
Cluster 2: Formalists, Conservatives, and Anti-Structuralists
Cluster 3: Structuralists and Semiotics
Cluster 4: Post-structuralists and Deconstruction
Cluster 5: Reception Theory
Cluster 6: Narratology
Cluster 7: Pschoanalytic Criticism
Cluster 8: Postmodernism
Cluster 9: Feminism and Gender
Cluster 10: Miscellany

Remember, I’m not here to explain things in any detail; the linked sources will take care of that. Think of me as a kind of Virgil leading you, Dante, through the fiery rings of hell.
Cluster 1: Marxist, Marxian, New Historicist and Postcolonial Theories

Let’s start with Marxism and its key terms: historical materialism, alienation, commodity fetishism, reification, base and superstructure, mediation, praxis, literary mode of production (Terry Eagleton’s term), cultural materialism (Raymond Williams’s term), dialectics, and commodity.

Next, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci and his notion of hegemony.

Then there’s the Frankfurt School (1930-1960s), which began in Germany before the war and was absorbed into the American New Left in the 1960s. Its chief task was to apply Marx’s economic theories to the realm of culture: from this we get “cultural Marxism.” Key members included Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Jurgen Habermas and Leo Lowenthal. The school contributed to the rise of cultural studies and the sociology of literature.

Among German-born Adorno’s important notions are the culture industry, authoritarian personality, and negative dialectics.

Next we have the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács, who expanded upon Marx’s notion of reification, and helped to develop the Soviet theory of montage.

You’ll also want to take a look at French Marxist Pierre Macherey’s writings on “ideological horizons” and absence.

Next is French philosopher Louis Althusser, whose key terms include “structure in dominance,” overdetermination (originally Freud’s term), ideology and apparatus, problematic, interpellation (subject, subjectivity of ideology), ideological state apparatus (in contrast to repressive state apparatus), and “symptomatic reading.”

We’ll also want to review the aesthetic theories of socialist realism, and the “epic theater” and “distancing [or alienation] effect” (Verfremdungseffekt) of Bertold Brecht:

Now before we move to New Historicism, we’ll want to quickly review the “old historicism” of Hegel, Marx, and Franz Boas. We’ll also want to look at Karl Popper’s critique of historicism.

Also key to understanding New Historicism is American anthropologist Clifford Geertz and his notion of “thick description,” which the New Historicists would later borrow.

Chief among the New Historicists is Stephen Greenblatt, whose key concepts include: [the circulation of] social energy, subversion and containment, negotiations, and the anecdote.

There’s also New Historicist Louis Montrose, who developed the idea of “historicity.”

Next, there are the postcolonial critics. They argue that our notions about the “Orient,” or, more broadly, about the non-Western world, are largely constructions of the Western imperial imagination. Edward Said uses the term “Orientalism” to refer to the discourse employed by Western scholars to explain the non-Western world. Because postcolonial critics argue that this discourse arose out of particular material, social and historical conditions (e.g., Western imperialism, economic and technological domination, etc.), I’ve placed postcolonial theories in this cluster alongside Marxian theories. Aside from Said, other key proponents of this school include Frantz Fanon, Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha.

You’ll also want to review some of the key terms of postcolonialism, including abrogation and appropriation, hybridity, primitivism, the noble savage, slave narratives, and Spivak’s writings on the “subaltern.”

Also see this general glossary of Spivak’s terms, and this summary of Spivak’s seminal essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

Cluster 2: Formalists, Conservatives and Anti-Structuralists

What binds together the varied schools of this cluster is their underlying “formalism,” i.e., a critical orientation toward the text itself, rather than toward the world, author or reader. By my count, the earliest formalists (excepting Aristotle, of course) were the Russian formalists (1914-1930s), whose key members included Roman Jakobson, Victor Shklovsky and Mikhail Bakhtin, each of whom was associated with the Moscow linguistic circle (active from 1915-1924). Key concepts developed by this group include: skaz, heteroglossia, foregrounding, thematology, literariness, defamiliarization, fabula (story) and sjuzhet (plot), and deviation (from normal speech).

Bakhtin, the most influential critic of this group, developed the following key concepts: dialogic/dialogism, polyphony, assimilation, microdialogue (i.e., internal dialogue), utterance, popular culture, polyglossia, polyphonic, Menippean satire, monoglossia (heteroglossia), and embedding. Make sure you read each of those articles carefully, Mother.

The American version of the Russian Formalists— the New Critics, who reigned from the early 1920s through the 1960s— emphasized close reading, unity, intrinsic criticism, explication, analytical criticism, impersonality, organicism, and irony. Two of the school’s key proponents, William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, warned us not to fall prey to the intentional fallacy. Also associated with this school were F.R. Leavis (his followers are called Leavisites), Cleanth Brooks, and I.A. Richards.

Brooks is remembered for his work The Well-Wrought Urn, in which he explains the importance of paradox.

I.A. Richards is remembered for, among things, his advocacy of practical criticism, and for his division of the metaphor into two parts: tenor (eg, world) and vehicle (eg, stage).

We should also keep in mind that it was proto-New Critic Irving Babbitt who revived the liberal humanist tradition of Matthew Arnold, sparking the movement that came to be known was as New Humanism. The works of Lionel Trilling and F.R. Leavis can be seen as extensions of this earlier movement.

As mentioned, Aristotle was a sort of proto-Formalist. His division of the elements of tragedy into mythos (plot), peripateia (reversal), anagnorisis (recognition), hamartia (tragic flaw), catharsis (purification), mimesis (imitation), and subplot served as a sort of rulebook for dramatists during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. However, in the 19th century the Romantics began to question some of his assumptions, and by the 20th century many modernist writers came to reject two of Aristotle’s key concepts, plot and mimesis. Formed in the mid-1930s, the Chicago School of Critics sought to revive Aristotle’s reputation and re-implement his theories.

The most prominent critics of the Chicago school were Ronald Crane and Wayne Booth. In his The Rhetoric of Fiction, Booth develops some of his key concepts regarding rhetorical criticism, including his notions of pluralism and the unreliable and naïve narrators.

Finally, I should point out that, unlike their Russian counterparts, the American Formalists (i.e., New Critics, Chicago School critics) emphasized pragmatic and practical criticism over theoretical criticism.

Cluster 3: Structuralism and Semiotics

Now on to Structuralism, which began with the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. A member of the Geneva School of Structural Linguistics, Saussure’s ideas about signified and signifier, referrer and referent, langue (linguistic system) and parole (verbal utterance), and diachronic and synchronic relations revolutionized the way we view language. It might even be said that all subsequent developments have been but extensions of his theories.

One American semiotician particularly under the influence of Saussure was Charles Peirce, who developed his own theories about the index, icon and symbol.

Founded in 1929 and disbanded in 1938, the Prague linguistic circle included Russian émigrés Roman Jakobson, Nikolai Trubetzkoy, as well as Czech literary scholars Rene Wellek and Jan Mukarovsky.

For now, you’ll want to focus on Jakobson’s key ideas about poetic function, metaphor and metonymy (aka, synecdoche; metaphor being typical of romantic and symbolist writers, metonymy of realist writers), and contiguity.

Finally, there’s French critic Roland Barthes, who’s a little harder to pin down. Some say he’s more post-structuralist than structuralist, others say he’s equally both. I’ll put him right here on the border: at the end of the structuralist cluster and the beginning of the post-structuralists (continued in my next post). For now, Mother, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with his work, S/Z, as well as with some of his more important terms such as doxa, demythologizing, death of author, play, text, ecriture, readerly text vs. writerly text, closure (closed text vs. open text), writing degree zero (or, zero degree of writing), narratology, ecrivant, and lexia (i.e., arbitrary excerpts).

In the next post, Mother, we’ll continue with Clusters 4, 5, and 6.

Your dutiful son,

Letter to Mom (Or, Crash Course in Modern and Postmodern Literary Theory: The Most Comprehensive Hyperlinked Glossary Ever Assembled)-- Lesson Two

Cluster 4: Post-structuralists and Deconstruction

OK, Mother, here’s the next installment. I’m running out of time, though, so there’ll be even less explaining here than in the previous post. Also, keep in mind that some of the links might not exactly match up with the terms.

Last week we discussed the first three clusters. Today we’ll do the next three, starting with post-structuralism and deconstruction. You’ll recall from last week that structuralism— post-structuralism’s predecessor— and semiotics overlap in many regards. Just to review, take a quick look at this explanation of semiotics.

Sometimes used synonymously, post-structuralism and deconstruction fit under the larger heading of antihumanism. Some of its key figures are Jacque Derrida, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Julia Kristeva. Derrida’s key concepts of deconstruction are presence/absence, supplement, alterity, decentering, play (aka ludism), binary opposition, logocentrism, and margin. Also look into Derrida’s notion of white mythology and sous rature (or under erasure, in English).

Next you’ll want to check out Franco-Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov and his theories of literature-as-palimpsest, fantasy and the fantastic, and the uncanny.

Then there are the Yale critics, most notably Paul de Man and Harold Bloom. You’ll want to look into Paul de Man’s notion of “rhetorical reading” and his distrust of formalism. Some of Bloom’s key terms are revisionism, the anxiety of influence, strong poets vs. weak poets, creative misprision, the canon, and agon.

Also look into J. Hillis Miller’s notion of the linguistic moment, and Jean Baudrillard’s silmulacrum.

You’ll also want review J.L. Austin and John Searle’s ideas about speech act, performatives, discourse analysis, and illocutionary and perlocutionary acts. Keep in mind that their theories were heavily influenced by the logical positivism of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Cluster 5: Reception Theory

Cluster 5 is concerned with Reception Theory and three of its major theoreticians: Hans Robert Jauss, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Norman Holland.German scholar Jauss is best known for his reception theory and reader response criticism, and for his notion of the horizons of expectation. German philosopher Gadamer is known for his horizons of meaning, the informed reader, and oppositional reading. Finally, there's American critic Norman Holland, who's also made significant contributions to reader response theory. Also try to remember these basic terms of reader response theory.
Cluster 6: Narratology

For this cluster, we’ll start with Russian formalist Vladimir Propp and his key terms: folklore, protagonist, morphology of the folk tale, and his conception of narratology.

Next is French theorist Gerard Genette, another major theorist of narratology. You’ll want to pay extra attention to his terms focalization and zero focalization (i.e., omniscient narrator), mood and interpolation, paralipsis and apophasis, anachrony (i.e., prolepsis, or narrator’s anticipation) and analepsis (i.e., narrator’s recollection), and verisimilitude. Also have a look at his notion of the focalizer. You'll also need to learn the various kinds of rhetorical tropes (eg, irony, metonymy, metaphor, synechdote).

I’m really running out time so we’re going to have to rush through the rest of the terms: analepsis (flashback) and prolepsis (flashforward), and mimesis and diagesis.

Also have a look at this introduction to genre theory, and some of its terms, including discourse and story, and free indirect discourse (aka, the Uncle Charles principle).

Also, scenic method (dramatic method) and syncretism.

Lastly, you’ll want to get acquainted with Lithuanian linguist Algirdas Julien Greimas and his theory of narratology, and his notion of the actant.

Next week we'll continue with clusters 7, 8, 9 and 10.

Your dutiful son,

Addendum to Letter to Mom (Or, Crash Course in Modern and Postmodern Literary Theory: The Most Comprehensive Hyperlinked Glossary Ever Assembled)


One thing I forgot to mention: You’ll want to refer to these eight handy online resources as you're running through Lessons 1, 2, and 3.

1.Cambridge’s Virtual Glossary of Literary Terms
2. The Literary Encyclopedia
3. University of Chicago Glossary
4. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
5. International Society for the Study of Narrative
6. Film Theory Glossary
7. Glossary of Marxian Terminology
8. Glossary of Linguistic Terms

Letter to Mom (Or, Crash Course in Modern and Postmodern Literary Theory: The Most Comprehensive Hyperlinked Glossary Ever Assembled)-- Lesson 3

Cluster 7: Psychoanalytic Criticism


OK, in this last installment we’ll be covering clusters 7, 8 and 9. Just in case you'd like to review, here are the first and second installments. I’m in a hurry, so we’re going to have to make this quick.

Cluster 7 is concerned with Freudian literary criticism. Key terms include displacement, projection and introjections, the uncanny, the unconscious, psychological repression, Oedipus complex, condensation, sublimation, and the arche. I'm sure you're familiar with some of these terms from your New Age psychobabble self-help books. Just be careful not to confuse Freudianism with the more popular "vulgar Freudianism."

And if we’re going to talk about Freud, we’ll also have to spend some time on Carl Jung and his analytical psychology and notion of the collective unconscious. Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye borrowed Jung’s collective unconscious and applied it to literature, producing what is now known as archetypal literary criticism. Some key terms of his include the four mythoi (romance, tragedy, comedy and satire) and menippean satire.

Next is Michel Foucault. Key terms: sexuality, archaeology of knowledge, panopticon, episteme (2), and transgression strategy. Again, some of the links might not exactly match up, so you may have to do a little sifting.

Thanks to Slavok Zizek, French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan has been revived in recent years. His key ideas: structure of the psyche (the real, the imaginary, the symbolic), imaginary/symbolic/real, other, name-of-the-father, the gaze, and desire/lack. Also see Slavok Zizek’s “How to Read Lacan,” which is available on this most excellent site.

There’s also Bulgarian-French philosopher and critic Julia Kristeva, whose key terms include: the semiotic and symbolic, phenotext and genotext, and abjection. You’ll also want to look into Melanie Klein’s object-relations theory.
Cluster 8: Postmodernism

Now on to postmodernism. Because postmodernism is more of a historical condition than a particular theory of philosophy or art, I’ve included only two names in this cluster. The first is late French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, who famously said postmodernism is characterized by a general skepticism toward metanarratives and totalization. The other is American Marxist Frederic Jameson. Here’s a summary of his works; some of his key terms: late capitalism, the political unconscious, the postmodern condition, pastiche, strategy of containment, and ideologeme.
Cluster 9: Feminism and Gender

Finally, there’s feminism and gender. I think H. Bloom refers to this as the "school of resentment." Some of their key terms: sexism, misogyny, homophobia, androgyny, and phallogocentrism. Feminist and gender criticism has its roots in Engels, who was among the first to examine Europe’s patriarchal system. You’ll also want to look at these key terms: patriarchy in feminism, matriarchy, androcentric/gynocentric, and phallocentrism.

Also familiarize yourself with the Bloomsbury group, the Fabian Society (which included E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf), and Kate Millet and the radical feminists. You’ll also want to look into Elain Showalter’s notion of gynocriticism, and critic Toril Moi, and Linda Hutcheon’s narcissistic narrative.

Oh, and don't leave out A.D. Nutall’s notion of transparent criticism (eg, Aristotle's formal descriptions) vs. opaque criticism (eg, Derrida's criticism), and Judith Butler on performativity. And while you’re on Butler you might want to take a look at her writings on Zionism.

Also look at Belgian feminist Luce Irigaray and her logic of the same, and Ecriture feminine. Also: Judith Fetterley's notion of resistant reading, and interrogation.

Lastly, we’ll finish this cluster off with a little gay and lesbian criticism, looking at American critic Eve Sedgwick and her notions of homosocial and homodiegetic storytelling.

This concludes our three-part lesson, Mother. You can go back to your New Age self-help books now, hopefully with a new perspective. To review, here are Lessons 1 and 2.
Your dutiful son,

Monday, June 15, 2015

Letter to Mom (or, Crash Course in Modern and Postmodern Literary Theory Using the Most Comprehensive Hyperlinked Glossary Ever Assembled)

This just in from Sally Suzuki:
I've converted your literary theory guide into PDF format in order to make it easier for your students to use/download. I hope you approve. -Sally Suzuki

Letter to Mom (or, Crash Course in Modern and Postmodern Literary Theory Using the Most Comprehensive Hyper...                                                            

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Akutagawa Ryūnosuke: “In a Bamboo Grove” Study Guide (1922; Shinchō)

Akutagawa Ryūnosuke: “In a Bamboo Grove” Study Guide (1922; Shinchō)

Akutagawa Ryūnosuke: “In a Bamboo Grove” Study Guide (1922; Shinchō)

*Original: Yabu no naka, 1922, Shinchō. (Click here to read in the original.)
*Translation: Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories. Translated by Jay Rubin. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006. (Click here to purchase.)
*Click here to read my previous study guide for the story.

Akutagawa Ryūnosuke 芥川龍之介 (1892-1927): Novelist. Born in Tokyo. He published “Hana” (The Nose) in 1916 while studying at the Tokyo Imperial University and the start of his literary career was highly regarded by Natsume Sōseki. After graduation, he taught English as a part-time instructor at the Naval Engineering College and published “Imogayu” (Yam Gruel) (1916), “Hōkyōnin no shi” (Death of a Christian) (1918), and “Rashōmon” (1917). After resigning from the Naval Engineering College in 1919, he went full-time into literary activity as a staff writer for the Osaka Mainichi Shimbun. In 1927, he committed suicide at the age of 36. (National Diet Library). (Click here for Aozora Bunko texts.)

Akutagawa published “Yabu no naka” (“In a Bamboo Grove”) in 1922. The story is based on one episode from Konjaku monogatarishū, a collection of setsuwa tales from the tenth century. In the original episode, “The Tale of the Bound Man Who Was Accompanying His Wife to Tanba,” an aristocrat and his wife are attacked by a bandit while travelling along a mountain path; the wife is raped; the man is forced to watch; the bandit flees; and they continue on their way. Aside from this basic plotline, everything else in “In a Grove” Akutagawa added himself.[1]  
In 1950, director Kurosawa Akira adapted Akutagawa’s story into the acclaimed film Rashomon. The film won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and became an international sensation. Since its release much has been written on both Akutagawa’s story and the film. The great bulk of this criticism focuses on the purported “philosophical” message of the work, namely the idea that there is no ultimate reality or truth but only an irreducible multiplicity of subjective perspectives. A term was even coined—the “Rashomon effect”—to explain this phenomenon, which has since been referenced and parodied in numerous novels, films, plays, and even several American sitcoms and cartoons. As I argue here, this is a misreading of the story.
Akutagawa’s story borrows the form of the whodunit mystery. The story anticipates the modern law enforcement precept of the unreliability of eyewitnesses. In all, seven witnesses provide testimonies of what they purportedly saw. Very little matches up. Although the ghost of the dead husband Takehiro appears at the end of the story through a medium—a usual cue to the reader that the truth will at last be revealed—this final testimony adds only another layer of confusion. The reader wants to piece together the puzzle, but the pieces don’t fit. Without any omniscient narrator to tell us what actually happened, the story ends with the truth lost somewhere in the “yabu no naka.”

Study Questions

1. Is there an omniscient narrator in the story? If not, what effect does this have?

2. How does this story conform with/depart from the conventional whodunit mystery novel/detective fiction?

3. Why do you think Akutagawa set the story in the ancient past? Describe his use of history.

4. Discuss the significance of the work’s title, “in a grove” (yabu no naka)? Is the yabu a symbol for something? If so, what?

5. According to the last testimony—that of the deceased Takehiro via a medium—Takehiro was not killed at all; rather, he took his own life. What would have motivated him to do this?

Group Activity

Answer each of the following questions for each of the seven testimonies.

1. Make a chronological timeline of the events as described in this testimony.

2. Describe this individual’s relation to the involved parties.

3. Who is the murderer according to this testimony?

4. According to this testimony, what happened between Tajōmaru and Masago? Did a rape take place? Consensual sex? Explain.

5. How is Masago represented in this testimony? What female archetype does she correspond to?

6. Does this individual have a personal agenda? If so, what is it? What reasons might he/she have for concealing/distorting/revealing the truth?

7. On a scale of one to ten—ten being perfect credibility—rate the credibility of this testimony. Explain your reasons for giving this rating.

8. In your view, which testimony gives us the “real” Masago? Is she the pure, innocent, somewhat boyish, docile, loyal, chaste wife that her Mother describes? Is she a modern, independent, strong-willed, proud, clever, erotic woman that Tajōmaru describes? Is she the helpless/hapless victim that she herself describes? Or is she the unfaithful, calculating, perfidious woman/femme fatale that Takehiro describes?

8. In your view, what actually happened in that bamboo grove? Explain your case, citing evidence from the text. (Note: You will need to explain whose testimony you find most believable and explain your reasons. Also, you will need to explain the inconsistencies/contradictions with the other testimonies.)

[1] Two other possible sources of inspiration are: Ambrose Bierce’s short story “The Moonlit Road” (1893), which concerns the use of a medium to obtain the account of a dead woman regarding her murder; and Robert Browning’s long narrative poem The Ring and the Book (1868-1869), which presents a murder from twelve points of view.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971)

Today's highly recommended free viewing:from the Criterion Collection, Sam Peckinpah's ulta-violent flawlessly-directed brazenly-politically-incorrect Straw Dogs (1971), based on Gordon Williams's novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm (1969), starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George。Criterion blurb/essay here:

Journal Entry #42:(M)othering One's Dissertation/Book

Today two female students came into my office and asked, in perfect unison:"Mori-mori Sensei, what is the final stage of the essay/book writing process?" I answered:"That would be a process I call 'mothering';by which I mean not '(M)othering' in the usual sense of '(M)othering the nation' and such, but rather the act of revising the essay/book into something that even one's mother can understand; i.e. deleting/rewriting ponderous phraseology, ten-dollar words, superfluously long sentences, unnecessary semicolons/colons, etc; this stage is at once the most important and the most difficult."

Journal Entry #32

Today two female students came into my office and asked, in perfect unison: "Sensei, how should we begin each day?" I answered: "Your day must begin with a meditation upon death as the ultimate event. Every morning with a calm mind, form a picture in your head of the last moment of your life--such as being slain by bow and arrow, gun, sword, or spears; or being carried away by ocean waves; jumping into a big fire; being struck by lightning in a thunderstorm; swallowed up by a great earthquake; falling down hundreds of feet from a high cliff; death by sickness; or unexpected sudden death. Every morning be sure to take time to think of yourself as dead."


first Harlem, now Hobart (Australia); my university seems to enjoy sending me places I know nothing about; I've been selected to chaperon a batch of students to the University of Tasmania ( March 2-15 2016; the only thing I know about Australia is coral reefs, Leith Morton, and Walkabout (1971;。


post-lecture vomiting


Three back-to-back classes (one on Modernism and Barcelona; one on Muromachi-era Japanese architecture; and one on modernist writer Akutagawa Ryūnosuke) went so well today that I vomited in a bed of flowers on the walk home; I've been teaching at university level for five+ years now (I was a volunteer lecturer at S----a University for five years prior to this), but this was my first experience with post-lecture vomiting; my question:is this normal/some kind of rite of passage for university folk?

Notes from Today's Class: Akutagawa's "In a Bamboo Grove" (Yabu no naka; 1922)


Doing a close comparison of the original and the translations of Akutagawa's "In a Bamboo Grove" (Yabu no naka; 1922) in one of my classes; today a female student made a very astute observation: the word "nyobosatsu 女菩薩" is translated simply as "Boddhisatva" in both Rubin's and Lippit's translation;yet the term can also mean "prostitute/courtesan"; no doubt, claims the student, Akutagawa used the term as a double entendre; this may indeed be a miss on Rubin's/Lippit's part; if so, I must inform them immediately。

Peter Watkins' La Commune, Paris, 1871 (2000)

I'm only twenty minutes into this, but I can already say with full certainty, "This is well worth watching"; Peter Watkins' five-hour pseudodocumentary about the Paris Commune of 1871, in full, with quality subtitles。And here's a review by film critic J. Rosenbaum

Part 1

Part 2 

And when you're done with this, you can watch The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins, Geoff Bowie's 77-minute documentary about Watkins' making of his pseudodocumentary