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Origins of Modern Japanese Literature.

This book, originally published as a series of essays between 1978 and 1980, attempts to undercut the standard account of the origins and development of modern Japanese fiction. According to that account, modern fiction in Japan derived from Western models and evolved in accord with an established pattern. In this Western-centered view of the subject, modern Japanese fiction inevitably followed a linear path towards "modernity" as defined by an imperialist culture.

Karatani sees modern Japanese fiction in an utterly different perspective. His strategy, which consists of applying a series of "inversions" or "reversals" to the standard view, can be breathtaking - but also mystifying for those of us whose acceptance of Foucault, Derrida, et al. is less than complete. Mired even yet in what M. H. Abrams has characterized as Oldreading, swayed too by Harold Bloom's dismissal of "the anti-humanistic plain dreariness of ... European criticism," I could be accused of a bias against Karatani's modus operandi.

In fact, I found many of his observations and judgments to be on the mark. At one point Karatani contrasts passages from two well-known works of the Meiji period, Futabatei Shimei's Ukigumo and Mori Ogai's "Maihime." He then demonstrates his contention that the categorization of the first text as gen-bun-itchi and the second as bungo falsities the actual state of things - demonstrates it so easily, in fact, that one marvels at how the standard view ever could have gotten things so backward. In this instance Karatani's protest is put in specific terms; often, however, the author's inversions are asserted as ontological realities on the same level of generality as the views that are being called into question. Of the several remarks by Frederic Jameson in his enthusiastic foreword, which I eventually took as cautionary, one seems relevant to this problem. Critical texts such as Karatani's, Jameson writes, are "analogous to creative works themselves, insofar as they propose a scheme which it is the reader's task to construct and to project out onto the night sky of the mind's eye."

The presentation of this piece of literary criticism and scholarship in English involved two activities - the literal work of translation and the transposition of Karatani's observations into an explicitly organized vision of the sort that Japanese scholars usually shy away from. In addition to these two most basic tasks, a third might be considered for future work in this area. Surely most readers of this translation, including those specialists of Japanese literature who get to Japan only on occasion, would benefit from some insight into how native scholars interact as a community. From a vantage point subsequent to its composition by more than ten years, Karatani himself pointedly remarks that Origins of Modern Japanese Literature might have "outlived its purpose" and that "the various questions it raised are now being debated in greater detail by others." Assuming this is something more than conventional modesty on the author's part, the implication that his ideas are no longer integral to the discussion could bear scrutiny. I willingly confess that, even after several decades in the field, I remain perplexed as to how ideas get formulated, transmitted, and integrated in Japanese criticism and scholarship; I suspect I am not alone among foreign scholars in this feeling.

As for the present book, it must be said that intelligence and dedication in abundance have been expended in the task of translation and in accommodating the argument to a non-Japanese readership. The editor and principal translator, Brett de Bary, has risen to the challenge of a formidable text. I was impressed with the precision of the translation, no mean feat particularly in view of the frequently idiosyncratic nature of Karatani's argument. De Bary has provided a useful introduction on the background of Origins of Modern Japanese Literature; she has also contributed an enlightening essay focused on the first two chapters of the book, an essay based closely on Karatani but providing a more organized framework than anything I could discern in my own reading of his essays. De Bary's essay, which first appeared in the Summer, 1988 issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly on "Japan and Postmodernism," is available in Postmodernism and Japan, published by Duke University Press in 1989. Only her introduction appears in Origins of Modern Japanese Literature.

Karatani's writing is an interesting blend, his treatment of Meiji writings and often obscure incidents related to these writings jostling against references to such Western thinkers as Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, and Foucault. Ideas come at the reader thick and fast in this style of writing, with a seemingly tenuous and subjective set of linkages postulated for them. As suggested already, I occasionally became impatient with Karatani's refusal to integrate his "inversions" and "reversals" more fully with the details of his subject matter. Does this distancing reflect a preference for skimping on detail in theoretical and broadly historical formulations, leaving such for the compendia of the documentary scholar? Then again, a critic examining this question with reference to the mores of literary scholarship in Japan might conclude that Karatani's curtailed use of integrated details and examples simply reflects the distaste of many contemporary theoreticians for positivist or common-sense methods of scholarly endeavor.

Before proceeding any further, I owe the reader at least a summary of the book's contents. "Inversion" (tento in Japanese) serves as the overriding term. I say term rather than concept because the author never defines it with any rigor, let alone applies it with any consistency. In my initial reading of the volume, the term seemed a mechanism for working through a number of themes in the early development of Japanese fiction - themes indicated by such chapter headings as "The Discovery of Landscape," "The Discovery of Interiority," "Confession as a System," "The Discovery of the Child," and "On the Power to "Construct." Through an adept selection of quotations, Karatani argues that institutions and material practices give rise to such phenomena as interiority and confession, phenomena which standard accounts of Japanese literature regard as prior to practice. To restate one of these examples more fully, the sense of the inner person did not precede the means for expressing it; rather, the existence of certain means gave rise to the very sense of an interior.

A synopsis of the chapter dealing with this very subject will give a firmer sense of Karatani's manner of argumentation. I choose chapter two, "The Discovery of Interiority" ("Naibu no hakken" in Japanese), because its thesis was more accessible to me on the first reading than any other in the book. Karatani begins by recalling a document considered to have initiated the genbun-itchi movement in Japanese culture and society. The document in question, a petition to the emperor in 1866 entitled "Reasons for Abolishing Chinese Characters," clearly undercuts what Karatani designates as the usual interpretation of the movement - that is, one calling for the unification of the spoken and written languages. Impressed by the efficiency of the phonetic languages of the West, Maejimi Hisoka, who wrote the petition, argued that the Japanese language could attain the same efficiency by abandoning the kanji as a medium of written expression.

After a short exegesis on suffixes, Karatani contrasts the two passages mentioned earlier in this review, showing how misleading it is simply to call Ogai's "Maihime" a bungo text and Futabatei's Ukigumo a genbun-itchi text. Any translator would immediately agree with Karatani's point that Ogai's style could be readily translated into a Western language while the passage from Futabatei would prove more resistant. Despite its classical style, Ogai's text exemplifies a modern style of realism while Futabatei's harks back to an Edo comic style, in spite of its colloquial verb endings.

Reverting to an earlier notion in the book regarding "The Discovery of Landscape," Karatani cites an anecdote in the history of modern Japanese drama. The actor Ichikawa Danjuro was considered an inferior performer in the traditional kabuki theater. However, once he removed his elaborate makeup and costume and started acting with his "naked face," he began to appeal to his audience. With its ornamentation, the kabuki face constituted a figure; lacking such ornamentation, the face became equivalent to a language which has shifted to a phonetic base from an ideographic one. The impression of transparency came into play, as if the face could give access to the interior. With this distinction in place, Karatani suggests that, in the case of modern Japanese fiction as well, interiority is not the natural state assumed by standard accounts of modern Japanese fiction. On the contrary it comes into being through the transparence of the "practice" of genbun-itchi.

Karatani features the Meiji romantic writer Kunikida Doppo in his final pages of the chapter. In Doppo's poetic evocation of Musashino, the open plain which once surrounded the city of Tokyo, Karatani discerns the naturalization of the sense of interiority. Doppo writes evocatively of Musashino not because it is a famous place laden with literary associations, but simply from a sense of its presence. Although written a mere decade after Ukigumo and "Maihime," Doppo's "Musashino" shows no trace of the tension between written and spoken language. As Karatani puts it: "Words ... were no longer to be identified as written or spoken, for they had already sunk deeply into interiority." He goes on to claim that thereby the "origins of interiority are simultaneously suppressed from memory" (p. 67).

Karatani ends his chapter by summarizing a view of Rousseau propounded by Jean Starobinski. Karatani does not make the same claims for Doppo as Starobinski makes for Rousseau, but he leaves the impression that there is a definite parallel between the role each writer played in his respective culture.

As a summary of thirty pages of text, the above paragraphs can hardly do justice to Karatani's arguments. All the same, the main feature of his style of argumentation can be gleaned from the summary. Episodes in Japanese literature and the literary arts hitherto kept apart are linked up in sequence for the loosely analogous way they relate to one another. One must grant the suggestiveness of Karatani's leading idea - and the congruence of the various recalled episodes to the idea. At the same time doubts keep coming to mind. Since numerous writers of Doppo's time and thereafter have struggled with the imperatives of genbun-itchi, one wonders why Karatani doesn't deal with the complexities of this larger question. To point out a rather obvious feature of one text and relate it to a truism of contemporary theory does not take us very fax.

To be fair, however, Karatani writes as astute essayist, not as scholarly analyst. Perhaps his readers are being jostled into acceptance of several leading ideas which they should then apply to a variety of instances. To do this, one needs to get a firm hold on several exceedingly slippery notions - on "landscape," for example, or "semiotic constellation," I think I understand the former term, but explaining it would involve delving into a certain grammatical ambiguity in Japanese and several other tangled questions. Instead, then, let me take a shot at "semiotic constellation," a coining which Karatani himself is reported to have proposed as the equivalent of the Japanese kigoronteki na fuchi.

In my attempt to fathom the term, I reverted frequently to what seemed the most visible sign of the phenomenon in question. In the transition to a "modern" kind of fiction, Japanese writing gradually shifted from a kanbun style to a more pronounced phonetic mode. This was not merely a matter of employing fewer kanji; rather, even when the modern writer made extensive use of kanji (Mishima, for example, is at least as modern as Shiga Naoya), the phonetic element would take precedence over the figurative as the text moved closer to being a transcription of speech even in its descriptive and narrative portions. The modern writer, then, utilizes language as an instrument through which to express an individual interpretation of reality.

I have couched these brief observations in a mode congenial to my own manner of thinking, while recalling de Bary's explication of "semiotic constellation." Karatani, who brackets chronology, would probably dismiss my reformulation. "For the narrative of the triumph of naturalism," as de Bury puts it in her South Atlantic Quarterly article, "... he substitutes a broad metaphor of background and foreground (landscape and interiority) changing places as modern representation emerges." Karatani, as de Bary also explains, "will describe Japanese modernity as a discursive space, one which is limiting, all-enveloping, and cannot be seen beyond."

Karatani is not out to deny history and chronology outright. However, he does question the canonical account of the "origin" of modern Japanese fiction, with its "discovery" of Western fiction and subsequent vulnerability to influence from that quarter, a view of the matter which inevitably results in a catching-up process on the part of Japanese writers, or in disparaging comments about the way in which Japanese works do not "live up" to the precedents provided by Western novelists.

A desirable cathartic in the context of Japanese literary criticism as original text, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature is a welcome addition to the short list of translations of Japanese literary criticism and scholarship. Most earlier translations in this area added considerably to the information available to Western readers, but the treatment of the subject usually reflected standard scholarship or erudite amateurism. Karatani's book, along with Konishi Jin'ichi's multi-volumed A History of Japanese Literature, challenges foreign readers to come more closely to grips with Japanese literature.

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Author:O'Brien, James
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1996
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