The Aesthetics of Discontent: Politics and Reclusion in Medieval Japanese Literature

By Michele Marra | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
The Aesthetics of Reclusion: Kamo no Chōmei and the Last Age

K amo no Chōmei brought to full light the contradictions and ambiguities which the concept of miyabi had suffered since its inception. The idea of the perfect and enlightened courtier had been appropriated to suit different discourses. The ambivalence of men of miyabi had been introduced by members of the aristocracy whose political power had been curbed and whose cultural power represented their last chance to be heard in the political arena. Female writers of the Heian court had seen in Prince Genji the ideal incarnation of "courtliness," the expression of an enlightened politics that was taking place in the fictional space of his reclusive villa. Authors of anecdotal literature ( setsuwa) had completely depoliticized the man of miyabi, arguing that perfect enlightenment could only be achieved by rejecting an active mode of life.

In his literary works Kamo no Chōmei deals with all these different appropriations, emphasizing the ambivalence of the reclusive act, which cannot escape the law of impermanence (mujō) as long as it is still conceived as a utopian space far from the worldly realm of politics. A victim of politics himself, Chōmei continues the tradition of political dissent that had been associated with Confucian scholars from the beginning of Japanese culture and gives it an interpretation modeled on the Buddhist philosophy of rejection. The result is an enlightened aestheticization of reclusion in which artistic pursuits and eccentric behavior are blended in Chōmei's heroes of perfect reclusion. In the end, the figure of the enlightened recluse emerges as one who lives in constant awareness of the unsolvable contradiction existing between his attachment to a life of reclusion and the total, spiritual detachment which must be the target of reclusion itself. Chōmei perpetuates the utopian discourse of early Heian courtiers: the rejection of any political act that cannot find its justification in the world of an "enlightened" aesthetics.

Before approaching these issues, we must first examine the epistemological assumptions on which Chōmei's ideas on reclusion are based -- namely the millenarian belief in the advent of the terminal age of the Buddhist Law.

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