Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sabbatical Report

Brief summary of the original plan

Little new work has been done on the aesthetic principles of Japanese poetry. Many of the current articles and books reiterate the research of Robert Brower and Earl Miner in their forty-nine year old classic, Japanese Court Poetry (Stanford, 1960). A number of aesthetic principles need to be updated, and during the sabbatical, I intended to focus on a search through documents to identify, collect and collate all relevant material, and write initial drafts of my findings which would lead to a series of articles on different poetic and aesthetic principles specifically addressing outdated research.

Summary of sabbatical activities

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.

Departure from original plan

In the contemporary field of Japanese literature, the feud between traditionalists and post-structuralists is alive and quite palpable. By training and personal philosophy, I am inclined to the post-structuralist notion of the instability of the text. However, I also understand the necessity to ground the text in some sort of “reality”, a context within which a text derives meaning from the circumstances of composition, the background of the writer, or the era in which it was written. What this boils down to is that I believe that a critical and ultimately successful reading of a text is based on an understanding and acceptance of both of these two dialectically opposed views, and I find fascinating the idea that Heian poets seemed to reflect this stance by accepting and applying both the technique of honkadori and the principle of yūgen.

As a result of this new insight, my initial goal of identifying, collecting and collating the various aesthetic principles of Late Heian poetry was temporarily put on hold. While these are important goals to which I will return, I found it more important—and for me, more exciting—to pursue this dichotomy between honkadori and yūgen, contextuality and intertextuality, within the framework of Late Heian court poetry. As a result, much of the sabbatical was spent searching for further examples of honkadori, analyzing premodern interpretations of its application, and the reading of secondary sources concerning yūgen, honkadori, text and intertextuality, all of which led me to the above conclusion.

Results and Contributions

This deviation from my sabbatical proposal, however, is not so much a departure from the original plan but an augmentation and expansion of my ultimate goals: an understanding of post-modern thinking in premodern Japan. It is of great interest to me to analyze 1000-year old court texts that seem to reflect the critical methodology that is so much a part of the landscape of 21st century academia. The results of my work, I am currently assembling into a rough draft and hope to submit for journal publication by the end of the year. Further research and eventual publication of these findings would open the eyes of colleagues, contribute to my field of premodern Japanese literature, and hopefully to the field of humanities in general.

Other activities

Beyond my research endeavors during the sabbatical, I remained active in and committed to the business of the University, the Columbian College of Arts and Science, the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures, and to the Japanese Language and Literature Program and its students in the following ways:

  • Served on Departmental Search Committee for Chinese Language, Teaching Instructor position, East Asian Languages and Literatures. 2008-9.
  • Participated in Sophomore Major Fair, Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, February 2009.
  • Participated in CCAS Celebration, Bachelors Degree greeter, May 16, 2009.
  • Participated in University Commencement, May 17, 2009.
  • Maintained a presence in the Japanese Program by advising students online and in person, writing letters of recommendations, etc.
  • Served as Haiku judge for the Mid Atlantic Association of Teaching Japanese (MAATJ)—an organization of Japanese teachers in the DC, MD, and VA area. Judged, ranked and commented on over 70 haiku submissions by students of Japanese language from elementary to high school.