Wednesday, April 13, 2016

on the function of the moral in modern Jpn novels and short stories of the prewar period

Today two students came to my office and asked, in perfect unison:"We took your advice and spent the winter break reading as many J-lit works as we could;we found that many works written between 1880s and 1940 tend toward overt didacticism;can you explain to us the function of the moral in modern Jpn novels and short stories of the prewar period?" I answered:"Of the modern Japanese novels I have read, the morals promulgated in them—or more precisely, the moral stances of their author—generally reveal themselves in a fairly straightforward way. That is, the author’s personal view vis à vis the world’s established moral codes tends to present itself clearly and directly, at times even in spite of his coy insinuations and innuendos. While the novelist may have a penchant for boasting about how accurately he can film the lived (or staged) phenomena of life, and in general he may plant his morals deep enough into his stories so as to not be too glaringly obvious; but given the fact that no two things are as notoriously entwined as quotidian life and morality, the hidden thread of his moral will always come into view sooner or later, no matter how hard he tries to conceal it. And the more deeply rooted the novel is in his own lived quotidian life, the more moralistic [his] critique of that everyday life will be. (And the better the composition, the more potent the critique.) This basic structure is why the most novelists can never completely conceal their own moral sensibility. Ironically, those flashy, urbane, and critique-averse writers who, fearing censure, eschew the use of morals in their stories may strive day and night to draw up an elaborate panorama of the customs of society—only to receive a withering rebuke later for immorality from the state-sponsored moral authorities. Most Japanese novels, you see, are constituted in such a way that they will always descend into petty moralizing, even if it had originally commenced from literary technique. Even those writers who scribble away in oblivion will eventually reach the point where their selected materials start to dictate the way they write. For you see, no prose form is as eager as the novel to sacrifice the author to morality, regardless of the author’s own intentions. Even with the most candid writers, the more they try to avoid moralizing, the further they are pushed to the point of immorality. Perhaps this is one of the more interesting aspects of the Japanese modern novel. [...] In the case of the conte, the moral enters the interior of the work from the very start and forms an integral part of the work’s raw material. The conteur, taking a single moral of undefined content as his nucleus, merges this moral qua nucleus with the surrounding fragments of phenomena until they together form a single ion, the whole of which we refer to as the conte. Fusing his chosen moral into this world composed of tiny particles, the conteur swells proudly at the beauty of the world he has created, all the while remaining utterly indifferent toward the actual moral he has exploited for his own aesthetic purposes. There are also those conteurs who like to tack on to the end of their story a short, seemingly wise aphorism or witticism—but for the most part, such ploys are no more than a bald attempt to wow the reader by fabricating a situation that conveniently reflects a conventional moral, and so the moral itself is nothing we have not already seen. When the conteur fails in this ploy, his work is ultimately no better than the punch line of a third-rate comic raconteur. Personally, I have no bone to pick with the conteur who churns out a hundred contes, each showcasing a different moral. Indeed, readers of such contes will applaud their great moral versatility. You see, the only thing of consequence in the world of the conte is craftsmanship. So long as the fireworks go off without a hitch, all other concerns can be forgotten. In the world of the conte, there can be no such thing as a “beautiful failure.” Do not waste your time reading botched contes: their authors are little more than half-wits. Though the prolific conteur who manages to turn out successful contes year after year may seem to have achieved the highest status a writer can achieve, the reality is quite different: for even among the most highly acclaimed conteurs, very few are lucky enough to die of ripe old age after putting out a lifetime’s worth of exquisite contes. More often, they go insane like Guy de Maupassant or hang themselves like Gérard de Nerval. That Ueda Akinari managed to long outlive the publication of his works was thanks only to his having the prudent foresight to toss down the well the original drafts of his later years."

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