Category Archives: relationships

Higuchi Ichiyō and Bungakukai

File this one under “research notes,” by which I mean things I think about a lot but about which I don’t have the wherewithal to write an article or conference paper. Sorry.

We know Higuchi Ichiyō 樋口一葉 now as a tragic figure, and a famous one. She appears on the 5000-yen ($50) bill in Japan and is widely read in classrooms, if perhaps not for fun due to her difficult writing style. Appearing on the money in the twenty-first century is not too shabby for a young author who died at 24 in 1896, just as her star was rising in the Tokyo literary world.

5000-yen bill

Continue reading Higuchi Ichiyō and Bungakukai

academic death squad

Are you interested in joining a supportive academic community online? A place to share ideas, brainstorming, motivation and inspiration, and if you’re comfortable, your drafts and freewriting and blogging for critique? If so, Academic Death Squad may be for you.

This is a Google group that I believe can be accessed publicly (although I’ve had some issues with signing up with non-Gmail addresses) although you appear to have to be logged in to Google to view the group’s page. Just put in a request to join and I’ll approve you. Or, if that doesn’t work, email me at mdesjardin (at) gmail.com.

Link: [Academic Death Squad]

I’m trying to get as many disciplines and geographic/chronological areas involved as possible, so all are welcome. And I especially would love to have diversity in careers, mixing in tenure-track faculty, adjuncts, grad students, staff broadly interpreted, librarians, museum curators, and independent scholars – and any other career path you can think of. Many of us not in grad student or faculty land have very little institutional support for academic research, so let’s support each other virtually.

In fact, one member has already posted a publication-ready article draft for last-minute comments, so we even have a little activity already!

Best regards and best wishes for this group. Please email me or comment on this post if you have questions, concerns, or suggestions.

よろしくお願いいたします!

*footnote: The name came originally based on a group I ran called “Creative Death Squad” but the real origin is an amazing t-shirt I used to own in Pittsburgh that read “412 Vegan Death Squad” and had a picture of a skull with a carrot driven through it. I hope the name connotates badass-ness, serious commitment to our research, and some casual levity. Take it as you will.

politics and anthologizing

In this past year, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how the form of the anthologies I study (literary individual author anthologies in Japan at the turn of the 20th century) impacts possibilities of reading and interpretation. I’ve also commented at a couple of conferences that the narratives of who these authors “belong” to have been shaped and guided in these anthologies, and have written that taking works out of their original contexts fundamentally erases a part of their meaning (in terms of the ways readers encounter them) and simultaneously alters the work in terms of its received meaning.

After doing some reading this morning, I realized that one thing links these various threads in anthologies, and it’s a word I wasn’t using: politics.

I want to talk specifically about the example of Higuchi Ichiyō. For much of her career, she wrote for the magazine Bungakukai (among others) which was a driver of the first Romantic movement in Japan. In her anthologies, of course her serial works from that magazine are included as whole pieces, as though they were wholes from the outset, which has its own implications for reading. But the other piece of this is that just as the editors were writing the Bungakukai coterie social and ideological connections out of her career in their prefaces, they simultaneously erased this connection – this fundamental supplier of meaning – from her works by taking them out of their original Romantic context.

The first readers of Ichiyō’s works would have seen them embedded in theory and poetry heavily influenced by western Romanticism, including translations of English works and illustrations of faded ruins and statuary. The readers of her individual anthology, as well as reprints in wider circulation magazines such as Bungei kurabu before her death, would have encountered a very different context: in the magazines, other “modern” mainstream Japanese literature (presented as unaffiliated with any coterie or group other than the influential publishers of the magazines), and in the anthology, Ichiyō’s own works as a cohesive and self-contained whole. No longer would her work be infused, by virtue of proximity, with the politics of literature at the time she wrote in the early-to-mid 1890s. She becomes depoliticized, ironically despite the heavily social and what I would call political themes of her work: that is, the plight of the lower class and the inequity of Japanese society at the turn of the 20th century.

Especially in her second anthology, published in 1912, Ichiyō becomes a timeless woman writer, an elegant author of prose and poetry whose works are infused with tragedy – just as her poverty-stricken life was, to paraphrase the editors of the two volumes. Yet it is not a structural tragedy that pervades society, as it is in her work, but a personal, elegant, and heart-wrenching individual tragedy, one that makes her work even more poignant without necessarily having political implications. I can’t speak to the Romantic movement’s attitude toward this kind of theme found in Bungakukai, not being as familiar with its politics as I should be, but I can say that Kitamura Tōkoku – the founder of Bungakukai – basically started his career with the publication of Soshū no shi, a piece of “new-form” poetry about a prisoner, written at the height of his political involvement in the late 1880s.

So there is an association, simply by virtue of publishing in the same venues, between Ichiyō’s politics and those of Tōkoku, and the literary politics of the Romantic movement vis-à-vis the multitude of other ideologies of writing that existed at the time. Yet in her anthologies, this politics disappears and her context is lost entirely, in favor of a new context of Ichiyō alone, her works as something that stand alone without interference from the outside world. It is a profound depoliticization and something to think about in considering other anthologies as well, both early ones in Japan, current ones, and those found elsewhere in the world.

creativity, goals, and the dissertation

I’ve been consulting some books on art-making lately, that you could broadly say are on that nebulous idea of “creativity” itself. (Art and Fear is the most well known of them and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s the best tiny book you’ll ever own.) As I’ve read more, I have realized that they apply not only to my artistic life – my life outside of the “work” of research and writing – but also to my current writing project as well. In other words, writing a dissertation, essentially a non-fiction book, is a creative undertaking of great magnitude and can be considered with the same principles in mind as would a painting or a composition or a mathematical theory.  (Fill in your creative path here.)

This was a revelation for me, despite the fact that I engage in drawing, painting, and creative writing as a part of my life: why would non-fiction writing for my “real job” not be creative work as well, and best approached with the same attitudes? Why  not?

So one thing that comes out of this is the issue of the goal. Art and Fear talks about this one and I’d honestly never considered it before. The goal often sounds like this: have a solo show, or get a piece in MoMA, or get a book published, or whatever. The problem arises that when the artist is successful and meets that goal, art-making can often cease completely, forever, because the goal has been met and there is no direction anymore, and nothing to aim for.

This book in particular recommends that goals should be more along the lines of “find a group of like-minded artists and share work with them.” Things that won’t be attained in a single moment, but that continue for the rest of your life.

It made me realize that yes, as a scholar, I have an end goal right now, and that is finishing my dissertation. After that, it’s a few articles, a monograph. But then what? And I don’t have a good answer for that. Thus, I am at high risk for becoming the same as the writer who quits after her first bestselling novel, adrift without an ongoing goal.

I wonder how scholars deal with this (I may just go and ask a few of them), but I think for myself, I’ve found a seed of it in a digital humanities project I’m dreaming up but haven’t had time to start implementing yet. It’s one that is less about content and more about opening up possibilities for exploring questions in ways that didn’t exist before, and to experiment with new methodologies that wouldn’t have traditionally come from my discipline. Sure, it’s building a database. But then it’s what to do with that database that’s the real project.

At the same time, I think a huge issue both in the arts and the academic humanities is that of solitude. I am not saying anything new here. Right now, a colleague and I are planning on co-authoring an article and attempting to get it published (please cross your fingers for us). I think it may be in my best interests, more than anything else, to keep in close touch with this person who works on things that are similar to my own work, and to keep picking up those business cards I like to collect from people I meet at conferences who are interested in my research for some reason, and routinely emailing them. My database project is something I want to leave open source and twist others’ arms to take part in. So I’m thinking now, as I’m nearing the end of my PhD course, where to start with the idea of forming a like-minded group to continue to share and collaborate with. To keep the end goal always moving and yet always fulfilled, because it is within myself and other people, and not just about me and something outside of me.

wuthering heights: a review 160 years after the fact

I recently reread Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights for the first time in about 15 years. In fact, I devoured it in only 36 hours, and was so struck by it this time around that I am writing a little review here.

My own history with the book: I read it in high school, for English class, and was knocked over by it then too. I quickly started putting it at the top of my “favorite books” list, despite having only read it once, and having not read it since then. I wondered recently, did I love it so much because it was literally (sadly) the only book I had to read for school that I’ve ever liked? Was it something about being 15 and the book being so over-the-top with crazy drama? Or is it actually really that good? I was hoping it was the last, but this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve revisited a loved thing from my childhood or teen years and had all of my good memories ruined by its reality.

As you can see, this was not the case. In fact, I liked it more this time around. So I can happily say, now, that it is one of the best books I have ever read, with no reservations.

First, the most amorphous: This has to be one of the most well-written works I have ever come across. It’s not every day that a book forces me to stay up half the night reading it, despite almost falling asleep on my Kindle (I’m reading the Project Gutenberg copy – go Gutenberg!). Throughout, I was practically shouting at the page, “Nelly Dean, don’t go to bed! Get back here and finish telling us what happened!” But it’s more than simply keeping a fast and absorbing pace. Emily Brone’s writing style is powerful and unique; I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it before or since. Sadly, I can’t put more of a finger on it than that at the moment. I’m still fighting my urge to reread it immediately, after all.

But I want to spend the remainder of my short review on what I value so much about this book and its narration, and why.

I was looking around for information on the reception (because I’m a book history nerd) after I had finished, and I was really, truly astounded to find this book referred to as a romance and a love story everywhere I looked. Heathcliff himself was being referred to as a romantic hero! I nearly fell off my chair when I ran across that one, but then I kept seeing it again and again. Did these people read the same book that I did?

I’m going to go ahead and make a statement that I don’t think will be terribly controversial to anyone else who has read this novel: This is not a love story. It contains one, but it is not primarily about the love story. This is a book that has one foot firmly in the horror genre, and at times borders on terrifying if the reader has any sense of humanity. It is about unspeakable evil, here personified in the not-exactly-“romantic” main character, who I would also refrain from calling a “hero” in any sense, except perhaps “hero of unnecessary revenge through evil means.”

This is, for me, a tale of abuse and its results; of real, almost unimaginable evil; of madness (and in a sense, the madness that results from the characters and from the environment and experiences that they face); and of a borderline-horrifying environment in which the characters are so isolated that the rest of the world may as well not exist.

Now I’m going to make a much more controversial statement: Emily Bronte was Lovecraftian before H.P. Lovecraft was born.

No, she may not have a Cthulhu lurking among the heather on the moors, but she has the same type of setting as Lovecraft’s freakish isolated New England villages and awful countryside, and if she’s not talking about evil as manifested through fungus and occasionally monsters and aliens, she’s talking about the same kind of incomprehensible evil as personified through our favorite Heathcliff. If you pushed me, I’d rank Cathy Earnshaw just below him on the evil scale. And if you want some more Lovecraft precursor: The theme of madness in Wuthering Heights is overpowering. I’m not one to ascribe bipolar disorder with psychotic episodes (what I’m sure I’m seeing in Cathy, though I am not a doctor) to seeing the face of evil in person, but it’s undeniable that it’s a major presence in the novel – something more than a theme – and goes beyond a simple character attribute.

It is Bronte’s frequent attempted descriptions of Heathcliff – and failed descriptions, for the most part – that make me recall Lovecraft so closely. Obviously, we have a link in their racism and linking of “brown” characters to base evil. I’m being overly general, but bear with me, because if you pay attention you will find it throughout the entire novel, not just in the main characters. More than this, though, is that I truly struggled to envision Heathcliff – especially his face – while reading, despite paying close attention to every word that conveyed any physical characteristic. It’s as though the characters often had to stop at simply concluding that he is the devil or a demon incarnate, describing the terror-inducing emotion they see on his face (the eyes!) rather than his basic appearance. There are attempts but they are repetition of the same few facts over and over.

Lovecraft can point to unspeakable evil, but it is just that: it is indescribable, beyond words. Heathcliff, as a person, appears to be in the same category.

As a final note on my categorization of this book in the horror genre, and close enough to Lovecraft to be in the same corner within that genre, I want to remark that having been to Yorkshire, and having been to the moors – they are terrifying enough on their own. They’re a landscape as bizarre and vaguely horrifying to be eligible for most of Lovecraft’s work to have been set there rather than in New England, although I understand the point of setting a story where New World villages can have been simultaneously without history from newness, and forgotten already. This is what, in my opinion, really sets apart the United States in particular as a setting quite different from any European country. But in these isolated, threatening places, I can imagine the same kinds of stories taking place without too much strain on my part.

This review isn’t as coherent as I’d like it to be, but I’d love to hear what my readers think about my shifting focus here from the “love story” of the novel (which really doesn’t take up a whole lot of space, and in light of the second half of the book, isn’t the overall point) and toward the idea of unspeakable evil personified – and having taken up residence in an isolated, abusive home in a bizarre landscape and threatening world. Not quite the evaluation I’ve been coming across in my online reading, but I can’t be the first person to praise the novel for these points.

new manga: a bride’s story

I was clued in to a newly translated manga by Mori Kaoru via Feministe: A Bride’s Story, the tale of an arranged marriage set in 19th-century central Asia.

'A Bride's Story' cover, vol. 1
A Bride's Story, vol. 1

 

To summarize briefly, it is the story of a woman sent to a neighboring village in an arranged marriage – naturally, without meeting her new husband first. It turns out that she is 20 and he is 12, making the situation even more awkward than usual. I haven’t ordered a copy yet (the first volume came out May 31, 2011), but between the detailed, grand artwork and the fascinating premise, I’m looking forward to reading it myself.

Beyond having a relatively unique setting and focus (I hear that much time is spent on women’s lives and communities within the villages), I have to say I’m in love with the role reversal. An arranged marriage of a young woman and older man is too familiar, and the surprise of the same age would be too boring, too ideal. To reverse the aspect of arranged marriage that can be most scandalous to Western (European and North American) sensibilities – the age difference – is the most intriguing part of the story.

What typically happens in a tale of older man, younger woman (even girl)? Not all situations are painted in a positive light, but I can think of few cases in which the younger party is not tremendously sexualized, far beyond what is often considered appropriate. (Then again, given the sexualization of even young teenagers in contemporary America – let alone historically – maybe this is not so surprising.) Sex is assumed no matter how young the bride. And rare are the stories – fiction, I’m talking about here – where the relationship doesn’t take on a weirdly romantic cast, or even an explicit gradual romance.

I’m looking at you here, Shining Genji. I was once in a graduate-level course and the professor threw out the question: what was it that happened to Murasaki? Unbelievably a woman in the room threw out “grooming” as the answer. Grooming for ideal sexuality. The professor cut her right off with “statutory rape at best.” Thank you. But if this could be the automatic answer for such a sick situation, one that is portrayed romantically even by a woman writer in 1000 AD – well, doesn’t that say something about conditioning?

In any case, I’m giving this background to highlight the unique situation of a much older bride and a groom that is still a child. I would argue that although this happens, we don’t have such an automatic social narrative for their relationship. If someone talked about “grooming” with regard to the boy, we would cut them off with “no, it’s sick. THAT is sick to even imagine.” Right? It’s creepy. I think that we’re more ready to imagine a developing romantic relationship between a much younger girl and an older man – I’ll dig up our favorite Shining Genji raising Murasaki to be his future wife as my example again. Can we imagine this bride in A Bride’s Story raising her child husband to be the perfect sexual object in the same way? I would say no. No way.

So I’m very interested to get my hands on this manga to see how this is treated. From the Feministe post, I gather that there is a warm relationship with a fondness developing on the part of the bride. But I would like to see for myself: there is no way she can’t participate in raising the boy, in some way, as an older woman who has come into his family’s home. But what is her role, and what is the intention? Does she raise him as a loving family member would raise any boy to be a proper man, or does she have something else invested in it, a la Genji and his child bride?

We’ll see. If any of you have read this in Japanese, let me know your thoughts. (Incidentally, I would kill to be able to go to Book Off right now and just buy this series used!)