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

By Michele Marra | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
A Buddhist Paradox: The Aesthetics of Madness

T o determine whether counterideological discourses can create counter- ideological forms of writing, we may point to the two different types of stories with which this chapter is mainly concerned. The first is the type developed within the tradition of anecdotal literature (setsuwa) by writers whose literary and epistemological horizons extended well beyond the court. The second shares formal characteristics with the court stories of the Heian period, although it totally rejects those stories' aesthetic assumptions. Both attempts struggle to create an alternative type of story, or antistory, that ignores the norms of the court tradition and thereby shocks the reader by thwarting his expectations. The result is the creation of a Buddhist aesthetics of rejection that, paradoxically, takes its start from the Buddhist belief in the sinful nature of all artistic expression.

To transform such expressions in sincere acts of religious devotion meant to assert the importance of reclusion -- either physical or mental -- as the only means to escape the world of political intrigue and social reality. If judged from the standpoint of custom, the actors of this new aesthetics are perceived as disturbing the elements of social order and, therefore, are treated as paradigms of madness. When seen from the perspective of their creators, these "enlightened eccentrics" provide further additions to the examples of perfect reclusion.


The Sinfulness of Art

In their attempt to give an ideal picture of the age of Fujiwara no Michinaga ( 966-1027), women writers of the eleventh century provided their own version of the aesthetics of courtliness (miyabi) by portraying the major figures of the Northern branch of the Fujiwara as cultural models of refinement. Michinaga's age of courtly sophistication was immortalized in the pages of the Eiga Monogatari ( Tale of Flowering Fortunes), which praises the artistic achievements of the time.1 In spite of such idealized portraits of Heian Japan, discontent against the government escalated at the end of the eleventh century and reached new heights during the twelfth, when for the first time in Japanese history military power challenged the centrality of the

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