Formless in Form: Kenko, Tsurezuregusa, and the Rhetoric of Japanese Fragmentary Prose

Formless in Form: Kenko, Tsurezuregusa, and the Rhetoric of Japanese Fragmentary Prose

Formless in Form: Kenko, Tsurezuregusa, and the Rhetoric of Japanese Fragmentary Prose

Formless in Form: Kenko, Tsurezuregusa, and the Rhetoric of Japanese Fragmentary Prose

Synopsis

In Japanese literary history, Kenko's Essays in Idleness is classified as one of the first collections of informal essay. Asking what makes a work of literature readable, Chance presents compelling arguments against this classification.

Excerpt

One of the most readable works of the Japanese literary tradition must surely be the fourteenth-century Tsurezuregusa, known as Essays in Idleness through the impeccable translation by Donald Keene. It allows access as few other classical compilations do, with its universally affirmable platitudes, sections of typically non-taxing length, and palpable presence of an eccentric, opinionated author. One can dip into this text briefly, as Japanese youths have been encouraged to do in the centuries since printing and public education began to spread, and feel on each occasion as though some piece of timeless wisdom has come flying off the pages. Yet this ostensible accessibility strains in the face of a veritable mountain of secondary material from the pens of scholars, critics, and ideologues, some merely praising, others expounding, and a good many trying to justify the lapses of the text and its hapless scribe Kenkō. What explains the volume of commentary, much of it at cross-purposes, that has arisen in Tsurezuregusa's wake? Is it all a product of the reverence accorded a favorite writer, or attempts to borrow his crystalline messages for educational projects? Looking into the interpretations and reinterpretations, one begins to suspect that the term "literary gem" applies here in the sense of a multifaceted work that does not reflect the same truth--or even a portion thereof--to all people.

My concern with this question stems directly from a first encounter with the text in the pedagogical garb of a primer. Tsurezuregusa was originally foisted upon me as a tool for mastery of the classical language, much as virtually the entire Japanese nation meets the work today. the engagement began with me as the decoder, supported by scientific dictionaries, grammar diagrams, interpretive essays, and a "neutral" modern crib as guides, guides whose usefulness lay in the fact that I would eventually in-

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