Monday, December 29, 2008
Happy on the Shelf #5
For many years I’ve proceeded from the standpoint that our reality is largely dictated by language—whether it’s Heidegger writing about how the “rootlessness” of Western thought derives from the translation of Greek philosophy into Latin (i.e., from a concrete language into an abstract one), or thinking of the various ideas of time that are possible based on tense structures in various language—for instance, some African languages that have a more complex understanding of past time than is afforded by European languages. Our language shapes the form of our thought, & by enabling certain forms of thought & not others, it also ultimately shapes the content, & the perception that generates that content.
This is why translation is such a tricky endeavor—there’s a different perceptual & existential shape formed by each language. For instance, to take an example near at hand, the use of the general pronoun “on” in French—sometimes it means something closer to the English “one,” (as in “one does such & such”) sometimes it can mean something more like “they,” sometimes it may best be rendered by omitting a subject pronoun altogether & giving the statement in some passive form.
This is a long way of saying that I read the fascinating The Narrow Road to the Deep North by 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō with an understanding that it’s simply not possible to access all of the work’s nuances. The Western mind—mine included, certainly—finds it difficult to grasp Zen thought; the Haiku form seems exotic & really doesn’t “translate” readily into English, either in terms of actually translating Japanese poetry or, in my opinion, of producing poems that really partake of the form itself. This isn’t a comment on whether or not it’s possible to write a good 17-syllable poem in English—I certainly believe that’s possible; but there’s a lot more to poetic form than rhyme patterns & syllable counts & metrical stresses—poetic form ideally crystallizes a mode or pattern of thinking. Even beyond that, the form of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, an integrated mixture of prose narrative & poetic expression (known as haibun to the Japanese) is alien to English, where we tend to like our literary genres “straight up”—novels are novels, poems are poems, & travel sketches are travel sketches: they don’t mingle. That’s not to say mixed forms don’t exist in English language writing—many folks produce them & enjoy them (myself included); they are still outside the “norm,” however.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North & Bashō’s other travel writings are formal mixtures, & in addition recount journeys that are not only actual, covering large portions of 17th century Japan (typically on foot, & not always in the best seasons for travel), but also “virtual,” in so far as they describe interior journeys that are both aesthetic & spiritual. Of course, to make a distinction between the aesthetic & the spiritual is immediately to step decisively outside of Bashō’s world, where these two categories can’t be separated.
Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Deep North was written toward the end of his life, & describes a journey he took from his home in Edo (now known as Tokyo) into the largely unexplored northern part of Japan. Nobuyuki Yuasa writes, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North is Bashō’s study in eternity, and in so far as he has succeeded in this attempt, it is also a monument set up against the flow of time.” Bashō himself begins his work as follows (in Yuasa’s translation):
Days and months are travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth till they succumb to the weight of years, spend every minute of their lives travelling. There are a great number of ancients, too, who died on the road. I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind—filled with a strong desire to travel.
Interestingly, the work ends with Bashō beginning another journey to view the dedication of a shrine—the journey continues as long as the poet lives in the temporal world, as the existential journey is ongoing for each of us. In a sense, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a sort of Zen Pilgrim’s Progress—as would be appropriate to Zen, it is both realistic & minimalist in style, & it isn’t allegorical in the sense that we understand the term (it's an interesting comparison because John Bunyan & Matsuo Bashō were close contemporaries—the British writer lived from 1628-1688, while the Japanese poet’s dates are 1644-1694). One could make some interesting cultural observations by comparing the “progress of the soul” described by the two works.
In a sense, Bashō is a “sightseer” on his journey—he makes a point of visiting sites of natural beauty, or of historical or spiritual significance (again, the distinction between these three types of sites is imposed, since I believe the category of “spiritual significance” would cover all three in Bashō’s mind). There’s also some aim of interacting with these sites by producing poetry in response to them. On more than one occasion Bashō expresses regret that he was unable to compose any verse at a given location. This form of disappointment is itself somewhat foreign. To move from the sublime to the ridiculous, I don’t believe it’s the sort of disappointment a tourist might experience because he/she failed to get a good snapshot at a landmark. In fact, Bashō seems most creatively restricted when he’s too excited by a given scene, as for instance occurs at the gate of Shirakawa; he tells a companion, “I had not been able to make as many poems as I wanted, partly because I had been absorbed in the wonders of the surrounding countryside and the recollections of ancient poets.” When Bashō is able to achieve a focused detachment, he does produce startling haiku, such as the following after seeing a legendary helmet at the Tada Shrine:
I was awe-struck
To hear a cricket singing
Underneath the dark cavity
Of an old helmet
Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa
Bashō is generally considered the premier haiku poet, & also an innovator both in the haibun form & in “linked verse,” which is one way of describing the Japanese form of renga. This verse form links a number of separate poems, often written by different poets, into a coherent whole. Typically the master poet would compose the haiku (called “hokku” in Bashō’s time) that began the chain. The haiku could either exist as a distinct poem or as the opening of a renga. Bashō’s most famous haiku (which isn’t included in his travel writings) could read as follows in translation:
Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water —
A deep resonance.
Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa
Those who are interested can find 31 translations of this poem (including the original, transliterated to Roman letters) here. This page also provides a commentary on the poem. My understanding is that the line rendered by Yuasa as “A deep resonance” is particularly resistant to translation.
I recently read—& then immediately re-read—The Narrow Road to the Deep North in the Penguin edition translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa. I read it back in my San Francisco days in a different translation, but I don’t have access to that book right now—however, I believe that edition may not be in print any longer after a bit of ‘net research. Yuasa’s translation is in print, & is very readable & engaging—I have no other objective criteria for judging a translation from the Japanese—& it has the virtue of containing four other travel sketches by Bashō: The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton, A Visit to the Kashima Shrine, The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel¸& A Visit to Sarashina Village. All of these works are short (the entire volume, including introduction, footnotes & maps is less than 170 pages), & all are absorbing. Bashō's commentary about excellence in art from The Record of a Travel-Worn Satchel is fascinating:
Saigyō in traditional poetry, Sōgi in linked verse, Sesshū in painting, Rikyū in tea ceremony, and indeed all who have achieved real excellence in any art, possess one thing in common, that is, a mind to obey nature, to be one with nature, throughout the four seasons of the year. Whatever such a mind sees is a flower, and whatever such a mind dreams of is the moon.
Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa
Highly recommended for a quiet afternoon’s reading.