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

By Michele Marra | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
Images from the Past: The Politics of Intertextuality

F or those who expressed their personal, social, and political discontent through the literature of reclusion, the most readily available models were poems from the Ise Monogatari, literary works by Buddhist literati, the writings of Kamo no Chomei, together with their Chinese and Japanese sources, and the poems of the late Heian recluse Saigyō ( 1118-1190).1 The simple act of borrowing from these sources enabled the poet to charge his statement with a subversive power aimed at discouraging a passive acceptance of reality and leading to the creation of an alternative mode of life. By alluding to texts that had an accepted vocabulary for addressing social and political issues, a poet could express his dissatisfaction with the present situation without exposing himself to public censure.

Lady Nijō, author of the diary known as the Towazugatari (The Unrequested Story), perfected and amplified the technique of allusive variation (honkadori) in order to express the degradation of a woman at the imperial court as a result of men's political games. She borrowed from the tradition of the literature of reclusion to underscore the depth of her personal anguisha pain, she argued, unmatched by the tragedies of poets of old. While, on the one hand, she rejected the fictional world of an ideal and protective court as envisioned by the female audiences of Heianmonogatari, on the other she portrayed historical events through fictional techniques that allowed her impunity when presenting her patron, Emperor Go-Fukakusa (r. 1246-1259), in his moments of pronounced vulnerability. The references to textual authorities hid her critique behind the screen of literary convention, reminding the reader that, after all, female discontent could only be channeled into the pages of "textual" sorrow. In this chapter we examine the use made by Nijō of the tradition of reclusion while she recorded her experiences at court and then in exile after she had been driven from the palace. The form she chose to express her inmost feelings was the diary.


The Diaristic Form of Female Discontent

To no literary form can personal discontent be better entrusted than to the diary. Traditionally regarded as the exclusive sphere of women, the diary in

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