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

By Michele Marra | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
The Ideal Court: Kenkō's Search for Meaning

I n presenting his readers with the portrait of an ideal court, Yoshida Kenkō (ca. 1280-1352) resurrected the views on miyabi expressed by the dissatisfied courtiers of the Heian period and applied them to a model political center. His purpose was to reestablish the realm of aesthetics within the world of political power. The court as reconstructed by Kenkō was to become the model for contemporary government -- an "enlightened" center suitable to the historical necessities of Muromachi Japan. Kenkō addressed the problem by using all available epistemological tools -- Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Shintoism. Through this mode of ideological appropriation Kenkō moved toward the political end of creating a theoretical basis upon which to build the new social and political structures he believed crucial to medieval Japan.

The two main trends of Japanese thought in the fourteenth century -- Buddhism in a moment of deep transformation and Confucianism revitalized by the Zen philosophers coming from China -- come into play in the pages of his major work, the Tsurezuregusa(Essays in Idleness), and contribute to the definition of Kenkō's ordered world, the world of refinement (miyabi) seen in the idealized past of Heian Japan. Whereas Kamo no Chōmei moved the "enlightened" world of Ise Monogatari from the court to the mountain hut, Kenkō brought it back to a fictional court that has become the interpretative model for generations of students of the ancient court.1 In Kenkō's capital, the yearning for a utopian past is accompanied by a detailed perception of a social reality whose behavioral code stands at the opposite extreme of courtly refinement. Kenkō subsumed such diversified reality under a Confucian model of social structure with the enlightened sovereign ruling at the top over an ordered society in which all forms and persons find their correct space.

The Buddhist idea of withdrawal from the mundane world, which had found in Chōmei its most loyal defender, clashed with a political and economic reality based more on labor than on poetry and increasingly shaped by military values. These ideas, far from disappearing, played a central role in the shaping of Kenkō's ideal gentleman, whose inner detachment from worldly concerns allowed him to find a spiritual balance in a life inevitably

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