Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Civilisation Exclusivity

As you have hopefully noticed, I am sedulously avoiding the use of Western labels in my introduction and explanation of Japanese aesthetic concepts. This is consistent with two of the course axioms I have presented in lecture and here on the blog: one, that Japan and the West are two distinct civilisations, each with its own exclusive fundamental assumptions; and two, that translation -- even radical translation -- is indeterminate.

Some of you have offered on your own very good labels for some of the concepts: "pastoral" and "symbol" are two examples. And, indeed, some of the elements of the overarching aesthetic seem to have an easy Western description. What I am detailing, with some labouriousness, as "the positive presence of absence" is very temptingly similar to the Euclidic concept of gnomon, popularised by literary scholarship of James Joyce (from "The Sisters" story in his Dubliners) as indicating absence.

My general objection to this is that once this type of translation is done, then Japan disappears: it is just one more Western colony. Terms like gnomon and lacuna and pastoral have very powerful cultural -- or, better, civilisational -- history, meaning and resonance; none of which apply to Japan. There is superficial similarity but if the concept is pegged to a Western idea then the meaning in Japan is obliterated.

Symbolism is a strong illustrative case. In the West, semeiotics is not simply what we do, it is in effect what we are. The dualistic assumption that there are visible things and things behind them that have deeper -- nay, real -- meaning is encoded into our individual & collective mental template: semeiotics is the defining feature of Plato & Aristotle, the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, Augustine & Boethius, Descartes & Hegel, Freud & Jung.

To give just one example, the idea that Church and State are seperate spheres starts with Jesus' dictum that one is to "render unto Cæsar that which is Cæsar's and unto God that which is God's," and is more deeply encoded by Augustine's Civitas Dei which declares that the City of Man and the City of God are distinct realms which, though they interpenetrate, demand seperate responses from we who live, at any one time, in one, the other or both.
With this cultural potency -- from the type-archetype construction in the Old & New Testaments to Freud's dogma of the unconscious and exotic interpretational analysis of dreams -- semeioitics is almost what it means to be Western civilisation.

Indeed, in the West's modernist period, ideational chauvanism and colonialism was the (unexamined and arrogant) default assumption. Joseph Campbell was egregiously exemplary in this regard: wandering in lecture across space and time, a facile exegete pronouncing this or that object a symbol of that or the other. Of course, Campbell had merely read his Golden Bough (Frazer being, if it were possible, an even more obliviously conceited pedant) with disarming naïveté and the simple faith of the child.

Frazer or Campbell didn't, but we can and should make the blindingly obvious observation that Japan formed a cultural consciousness without any -- I say any -- contact with, again, any of these ideas or notions. If it is not plain to any scholar among you that there is no flagrant empirical reason why Japan, given the foregoing, should have a mental template that (happy accident for Western writers with a bent toward self-promotion and imperialism in scholarship) is identical our own; then there is, surely, at least a strong influence in the direction of caution and suspension of easy assumption.

Surely, much the better to us to work for that moment of "no-nous" which will give the thrill of perceiving the literary material with a Japanese sensibility for just a flash: a precious, precious flash.

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