Friday, October 09, 2009

Sabbatical Report

I began the sabbatical by focusing on collecting further examples of the application of the aesthetic/poetic principle, yūgen (幽玄 lit. mystery and depth), by Fujiwara Shunzei in poetry matches by going through matches he judged starting from the Shigeie Poetry Match of 1166 to the Sengohyakuban Poetry Match of 1201. I have identified thirteen—and I believe all—instances of yūgen in extant documents. Previously, I have determined that this principle—unlike the anachronistic interpretation by many previous scholars who believed that yūgen was applied to “mysterious” content—was applied in reference to poems that manifested an unstable text, poems that had more than one meaning. This instability was based on the poems reference to archaic elements that were somehow sensed but not readily explained. The noted Japanese scholar, Kubota Jun, reached a similar conclusion but makes reference to archaic grammatical patterns.  My research, on the other hand, suggests that this is an overly convenient conclusion; analysis of Shunzei’s application of the term does not refer to just any archaic element—would the phrase “thou hast” in a modern English poem render it “mysterious and deep”?—but rather specifically to older texts with which the connection is not obvious.

The absence of an obvious and direct association with other texts is in contradistinction with another poetic technique of the same era known as honkadori. A crucial prescription for this compositional technique was to borrow more than one poetic segment (ku) from a source poem and incorporating it into your own poem. Moreover, the borrowing must be an obvious reference to a previous poem. As the leading poet of the early 13th century, Fujiwara Teika, noted in his poetic treatise, Maigetsushō, “[borrowing] should be done in such a way that it is clear that the older poem has been used.”   While all scholars of premodern Japanese literature recognize the distinction between yūgen and honkadori, there seems to be a misconception when analyzing their role in critical method. David Bialock indicates that Teika was “deeply committed to the concept of the text as a stable, fixed entity,” but then indicates that the Shinkokinshū “conceals a vertical depth reaching back or down into the intertextual space of the tradition, an intertextual space which it in fact generates out of its own textual practice.”  While I agree that Teika’s approach suggests a commitment to a “stable, fixed entity,” this seems to contradict his idea that the Shinkokinshū—the eighth Imperial Anthology of which Teika was one of the compilers—reached into an “intertextual space” which “generates out of its own textual practice.” His comment suggests that honkadori—with its clear relationship with older poems—was a form of intertextuality. This is, in my opinion, far from correct. Intertextuality as defined by Julia Kristeva or Roland Barthes promotes quite the opposite: the text is an unstable, unfixed entity.

Still, Bialock’s assertion is understandable to the degree that honkadori is intertextual in nature. A poem that incorporates this technique can technically have more than one meaning—the straight-forward meaning suggested by the original text itself and the alternative meanings rendered when the source poem is also taken into consideration. However, the fact that the prescription for honkadori requires that it be “clear that the older poem has been used” strips away any pretense to the instability of the text. This is not intertextuality. It is contextuality.

So ultimately, what this means is that I kind of departed from my original plan and began researching something else.

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