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

By Michele Marra | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
A Lesson to the Leaders: Ise Monogatari and the Code of Miyabi

W hen dealing with the Ise Monogatari (Tales of Ise), scholars usually classify it in the category of the monogatari ("tales"), taking it as one of the first expressions of the genre, a kind of groundwork for Murasaki Shikibu's eleventh-century compilation of the Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji).1 The fictional biography of the Heian poet Ariwara no Narihira ( 825-880) is never included in studies of the Japanese "literature of reclusion," which instead examine the life and literary works of the Heian poet Saigy ( 1118- 1190) and the Kamakura and Muromachi writers of essays ( zuihitsu) Kamo no Chōmei ( 1153-1216) and Yoshida Kenkō (ca. 1280-1352).2 And yet the entire text of the Ise Monogatari deals with matters of reclusion and provides an interpretative key to understanding those counterideological discourses presented by the poet-recluses, who were following the path of art and philosophy after having been alienated from the arena of politics.

By analyzing the complicated textual history of the Ise Monogatari, we will see that the compilers' act of writing was motivated by their desire to express a profound political dissatisfaction with the dictatorial government of the Fujiwara. The chorus of ideological dissent lasted about three hundred years, from the ninth to the eleventh centuries, and was voiced through the mode of contextual reinterpretation. Ancient poems were read in the light of a new contextual situation designed to replace Fujiwara culture with a new aesthetic code of which the Ise Monogatari was to be the theoretical manifesto -- that is, the aesthetics of "courtliness" ( miyabi). Unable to recapture the prosperity enjoyed in the past, the compilers of the story -- mainly members of the Ariwara, Ki, and Minamoto clans -- seclude themselves in the realm of aesthetics and there forge their counterideology.

The loss of political power forces these poet-courtiers to develop a cultural discourse of which they become the unrivaled masters until the eleventh century, when cultural dissent is finally assimilated into the mainstream of Fujiwara ideology with the autocratic government of Fujiwara no Michinaga ( 966-1027). Michinaga's ability to silence the voices of opposing families was dictated mainly by his ingenuity in absorbing the lesson that the opponents

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