The Poetics of Motoori Norinaga: A Hermeneutical Journey

583e2419944ae.jpg Author Michael F Marra and Motoori Norinaga
Isbn 9780824830786
File size 2MB
Year 2007
Pages 293
Language English
File format PDF
Category Poetry

Book Description:

In this piece Norinaga presents Yoshino as a "common poetic space" that readers must inhabit to develop the "common sense" that makes them live ethically in the poet's ideal society. Norinaga's ideal society is deeply imbued with the knowledge of poetry and the understanding of emotions as evidenced in the translation of Norinaga's twenty-six songs on aware (pathos) also included here. The rest of the volume offers translations of several essays by the poet that shed further light on the places he visited in Yoshino and on the main topic of his scholarly interests: the sound of the uta (songs) from his beloved Yamato. An introductory essay on Norinaga's poetics serves as a guide through the dense arguments he developed both practically in his poems and theoretically in his essays.

For all that he's one of the most influential thinkers of the Tokugawa period in his own time and even today (for better or worse, depending on who you ask), translations of Motoori Norinaga's voluminous writings are a bit on the sparse side. We can read a fair amount about him in various relevant studies, but it's not so often that we get to hear him make his own case in his own words, so this "hermeneutical journey" is definitely a step in the right direction. What we have here is also the kind of scholarly treatment that Norinaga deserves. The translation is careful and accurate--more academic than literary all in all, but never clunky and dull. Kanji are inserted in the text when the detailed nature of Norinaga's etymological discussions require them for clarity, plus there's a character glossary in the back. Each poem is given in the original in romanji alongside the English translation. Annotation is extensive, as is necessitated by his frequent direct and indirect references to Japanese poetry collections (The "Manyoshu" and the "Kokinshu" especially but not only), fictional narratives and diaries from the Heian period, and mythohistorical accounts like the "Kojiki" and the "Nihongi"--all texts that Norinaga expected his friends and disciples to be more or less familiar with given their common interests. In addition, Norinaga frequently mentions theories by scholars prior to or contemporary with himself, supporting some and refuting others, and pretty much all of these are painstakingly traced to their source--giving one a pretty vivid impression of the lively world of Tokugawa thought in the process.

The core of the book is Norinaga's "Sedge Hat Diary" of 1772. This is a literary diary somewhat similar in format to works like Matsuo Basho's "Narrow Road to the Deep North" and such, and features a rambling account of a trip taken by Norinaga and some acquaintances ostensibly to see the cherry blossoms of Yoshino but to explore the historical/literary/religious/linguistic traces of the Yamato region in general along the way, with moments of emotional aesthetic intensity punctuated by waka poems composed on the spot. In addition to showing a lighter side of Norinaga out sightseeing with his friends, we can see how he enacted his theories of "mono no aware" in practice, out on the field as it were. On a personal note, for someone like myself who poked about this area extensively in the 1990's checking out the shrines and temples and such, reliving those happy trips through the record of a fellow intellectual tourist preceding me by a few centuries is something of a rare treat.

This record of a sentimental journey (as Doris Day might put it) is supplemented by a selection of Norinaga's waka poems explicitly thematizing his concept of "mono no aware" (all taken from his poetry collection "Suzunoya Shu" compiled between 1798 and 1800), giving a clearer idea of how his ideas were articulated within the framework of verse in dialogue with the larger Japanese poetic tradition. Then follows an extensive number of essays in section four, mainly excerpts from "Isonokami no Sasamegoto" (1763) and "Tamakatsuma" (1793-1801). Here we definitely get the serious side of Norinaga, the scholar at home in Matsuzaka formally elaborating on his ideas and theories in exhaustive detail, all of which casts light on the more carefree narrative of the travel diary. Topics range from the etymologies of place names and deities inhabiting the ancient landscape, interpretations of classical poems, the aesthetic appeal of different flowers, grouchy ruminations on his almost crassly mimetic taste in paintings, and important theories on the sources and functions of poetry and aesthetic sensitivity as these work into his overall ethical vision.

These three sections of translation are preceded by a helpful and erudite introduction by the translator and editor Michael Marra, who discusses Norinaga's life and thought especially as they inform the works that follow both within the Japanese context closer to home as well as the wider framework of philosophy, aesthetics, and literary theory in general. It is very easy pickings to bash Norinaga for what many might see as the proto-nationalist and retroactive culturally essentialist character of his ideas. Marra thankfully avoids this tendency and focuses on elucidating those ideas to the best of his ability, allowing Norinaga to speak to us as directly as possible given the temporal, spatial, and linguistic distances between us. Then we can make up our own minds, making this book something of a hermeneutical journey for the reader as well.


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