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Reading Ranjan Ghosh and J. Hillis Miller's fine book, Thinking Literature Across Continents (2016), which considers the nature of literature and its relationship to cultural and geographical boundaries, has caused me to consider how I approach literature, particularly literature from outside my own cultural experience. As an undergraduate student, I studied both English and philosophy. Many of the philosophy professors at my university were strongly drawn to the works of Hans Gadamer and Edmund Husserl. And I remember a fellow student telling me of one professor in particular who began his class by asserting that Husserl's was a presuppositionless philosophy. My friend then read me the first paragraph of I think it was Cartesian Meditations and remarked on point after point, "Isn't this a presupposition? And isn't this a presupposition?" and so on. I was reminded of this incident when in thinking about this essay I recalled yet another undergraduate experience. My English professors were a bit behind the times in their approach to literature. While many or perhaps most English professors elsewhere were then enthralled with the new developments in literary theory ushered in by poststructuralism, my professors were all New Critics. New Criticism came about as a response to the belles lettres tradition of literary commentary and the biographical/historical criticism of the early twentieth century, arguing that the former emphasized mere praise with no analysis and that the latter emphasized mere biography/history with no literature. In large part, New Criticism looked to focus on the literature by approaching a literary work in isolation, the poem found in a bottle washed up on a beach as it were, with no indication of the author, culture, or historical epoch in which it was produced--in effect a presuppositionless criticism. Trained in this approach to literature, by my senior year of college, I felt adept at analyzing literature without considering context and in what I considered, I suppose, to be a presuppositionless environment, and I felt that through this methodology I could interpret any piece of literature.

That idea quickly exploded in the space of a single class. Along with my studies in English and philosophy, I also minored in Japanese. In my senior year I took my first class on Japanese literature and suddenly realized that rather than being presuppositionless New Criticism in fact concealed many important presuppositions with its high value on ambiguity, irony, and metaphor, and, particularly with fiction, the additional expectations of conflict, complication, rising action, falling action, and denouement. I abruptly discovered these presuppositions upon reading, for example, Kawabata Yasunari's Tukiguni (Snow Country) or the sadly inelegantly English-titled The Makioka Sisters (for the elegant original title of Sasameyuki or Thin-Falling Snow) by Tanizaki Junichiro. I found myself finishing so many literary works in this class puzzled and saying to myself, "What just happened here?" My expectations, that is my presuppositions, of rising action, falling action, denouement, irony, and so on seemed absent from these works, and it was as if I had suddenly been thrust back to my freshman year and was reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness or Ernest Hemingway's The Sun also Rises for the first time and coming away with the same confused response. I then understood that rather than approaching literary works with no presuppositions, I in fact had been approaching them with many presuppositions, and while I may have come to literature without the presupposition of knowledge of biographical or historical context, I had come to it with other presuppositions concerning elements that I had thought were necessary for a literary work to be literary.

This experience came to mind as I was reading Thinking Literature Across Continents. If there were a single global culture and a single global language, then there would be no need to inquire into thinking about literature across continents, but of course that is far from reality. And if we wish to appreciate literature not of our own culture (as I do), then we must look to ways to best appreciate what it has to offer. It seems to me that Ghosh, in his chapters, consistently tends to investigate how one can experience literature across continents, while Miller, in his chapters, consistently tends to focus on how to read literary works. In dialogue with the excellent thoughts these two commentators present, I would like to engage with both ideas, that is: how does one read literary works and how does one read them across continents? There is to be sure great truth to the familiar saying, "something is lost in the translation"; anyone who has read a work of literature in the original language and then even in a very good translation will recognize a gap between the two, but I would also argue that there are aspects of literary works that can reach the reader even in translation when we approach a literary work searching for what it brings to us rather than what we bring to it. Of course, one can never fully escape one's personal and cultural background, but I think it is possible for a time to bracket, perhaps HusserHike, that background and try to look at the literary work itself--inductively--and then to follow where that work leads.

To test this hypothesis, I would like to consider a poem, "Lemon Dirge," without context, analyze it, then look at it in context, and finally compare those analyses:
You longed so for a lemon
on your sad, white, bright deathbed.
Your pretty teeth crunched
the lemon you took from my hands.
An aroma the color of topaz arose.
Those few dew drops from heaven
suddenly brought back your mind.
Your blue-bright eyes smiled dimly.
You squeezed my hand so tight.
In your throat a storm raged,
but at the brink of this life
you became the Chieko of old.
All of life's love
leaned into an instant,
and then once
as you did long ago on a mountaintop,
you drew a deep breath,
and your engine stopped.
Today in the shadow of cherry blossoms
before your photograph
I place a cool, bright lemon.
(Takamura 2007, 153-155)

If I look at this poem inductively, in the absence of biographical, historical, and cultural context (as well as bracketing New Critical privileging of irony, metaphor, ambiguity, etc., and the critical presuppositions of any other critical theory), I can still achieve an aesthetic experience with this literary work.

The primary image in the poem, the lemon, has no symbolic associations either in the culture of its original language or in the culture of the translated language. Instead, its function results from the poem itself, and it takes on a particular significance because it unexpectedly brings back Chieko's mind (from delirium, senility, or insanity it matters little) and returns her to her former self ("the Chieko of old"). The speaker of the poem (spouse or lover) welcomes this transformation ("Those few dew drops from heaven") and feels that the full weight of their shared bond is compressed into a single moment ("all of life's love leaned into an instant"). It is as if they are now as they once were, before Chieko's mind has caused her to drift away from him. Even her death cannot break this bond, as he separates Chieko, whom he associates with the deep breath she draws at the end rather than with the "engine" that is her body and has ceased to function. The speaker emphasizes Chieko's continuation in his mind when he introduces the lemon again at the poem's close, in effect invoking this "spot of time" through a physical object. The speaker underscores this final gesture through parallel stress patterns. The second line ("on your sad, white, bright deathbed") in its chain of stressed syllables appears to imply the finality of death, but this finality is actually deflected by the experience that follows when Chieko returns to the speaker through the lemon. In fact this finality is even reversed by the poem's concluding act in which the speaker repeats his final moment of communion with Chieko by placing a lemon in front of her photograph and in the shade of sheaf of beautiful but transient flowers. Still more, the speaker can repeat this connection (like a "spot of time") whenever he repeats this gesture. And he further augments the power of the poem's conclusion and the victory of his connection with Chieko over his separation from her by echoing the chain of stressed syllables in the second line ("sad, white, bright deathbed") with yet another chain of stressed syllables ("cool, bright lemon"), thereby emphatically asserting not the finality of Chieko's death but rather the finality of their enduring communion. (The original poem achieves this same effect through the repetition of sounds in both lines.)

"Lemon Dirge" is a moving testament of love, devotion, and memory. The poem, of course, has a context--biographical, historical, and cultural--which situates it and may lead to a somewhat different experience than when it is read in isolation but one that I would argue is no more moving.

This poem was written by Takamura Kotaro in February 1939, recounting the death of his wife, Chieko, after her many years of battling schizophrenia. Theirs was an unusual relationship; they married out of love some thirty-five years earlier in a time of almost exclusively arranged marriages. The poem appears in a collection called The Chieko Collection (1940), in which Takamura chronicles, in this series of poems, the time from their courtship until shortly after Chieko passes away. There are also important cultural references in the poem, for example, the photograph mentioned in the poem is typical of Buddhist tradition, in which a small shrine, a butsudan, is erected in one's home, which includes a photograph of the deceased and before which one places food items for the benefit of the deceased. It is also worth mentioning that cherry blossoms have a particular place in Japanese culture, signifying the beautiful but brief, their beauty in part being because of their brevity. Knowing this background contextualizes our reading of the poem, supplies it with helpful details about the story behind its construction, and adds to our experience in various positive ways. I would contend, however, that ultimately the poem's effect on the reader comes less from its context than from its reading, an effect that is always enhanced by its historical and cultural background but is nevertheless also independent of that context in its emotional engagement with the reader, an engagement that arrives not through context but through an inductive accumulation of energy-infused images, syntactically enhanced language, and emotionally invoked events within the poem itself, producing a powerful and reactive response.


Ghosh, Ranjan, and J. Hillis Miller. 2016. Thinking Literature Across Continents. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Takamura, Kotaro. 2007. The Chieko Poems. Translated by John G. Peters. Los Angeles: Green Integer.

JOHN G. PETERS, a University Distinguished Research Professor at the University of North Texas, is past President of the Joseph Conrad Society of America and current General Editor of Conradiana. His books include Joseph Conrad's Critical Reception (Cambridge 2013), The Cambridge Introduction to Joseph Conrad (2006), Conrad and Impressionism (Cambridge 2001), and the Norton critical edition of Conrad's The Secret Sharer and Other Stories (2015). He has also translated the Japanese poet Takamura Kotaro's book The Chieko Poems (Green Integer 2007).
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Author:Peters, John G.
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Sep 22, 2018

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