Saturday, October 01, 2005

Mynah Birds and Flying Rocks I

Continuing to think about the Rosenfield book. I'll just list the things that occur to me. They may or may not appear in the review. If I am somehow impolite in my comments I mean no disrespect to Professor Rosenfield; I'm just trying to get things straight here and may sound slightly intemperate. But I doubt it; there is nothing offensive in this book--it's quite dignified and uncontroversial. I hope to be much the same.

Overall this is a good book; I'm glad to see American art historians writing about Buson. There are a lot of very useful illustrations--most of them different from the ones that James Cahill includes in The Lyric Journey. The writing in The Lyric Journey seems slightly more polished and smooth, however. There are some odd phrasings that suggest a rather quick editing job here. I wonder what that's all about.

He refers to Haruo Shirane as Shirane Haruo. I am sure that Professor Shirane would be too gracious to complain about this but since he's an American scholar, it seems it would be better to put things the other way around.

1. Characterization of Buson as both a magnet of media interest and someone whose complexities are misunderstood. I think that's fair. It's good that JR alludes to the some of paradoxes/contradictions that become apparent after you take a look at some of Buson's letters, and find out more about the details of his life.

2. Describes Buson as "first of all a poet." This is interesting, especially coming from an art historian. As a scholar of literature, I would say just the opposite, and I'm impressed by the difference in perspective. Professionally Buson was first of all a painter, and while the quality and quantity of his writing certainly justifies the impression that he must have made poetry the center of his life--he wrote over 2700 hokku, participated in over a hundred (published) linked verse sequences, and wrote a substantial amount of prose, especially prefaces for his and other people's collections, it's also possible to take the position that he was first of all a painter. His income came from painting. His major life choices (if that's not too crude an expression) were determined by his development as a painter--he decided to spend years in the Tôhoku area, then in Tango and Sanuki, in order to improve his painting skills and work with patrons. While he wrote plenty of haikai, haikai was not just a practice he engaged in for its own sake, but as a way of getting access to clients for his paintings. He didn't "reopen" the Yahantei school until he was in his 50s, and was a reluctant leader even then. The periods in his life when he was most active as a poet were also those in which he was most active as a painter, and there were times, like when he was in Tango in Sanuki, when his focus on painting was so intense that he wrote/preserved very little haikai at all. In other words, I would say that one could just as easily say that Buson was first of all a painter, although poetry was an important part of his work as a painter.

3. This is an interesting point: "The artistic and personal activities of Yosa Buson for the last two decades of his life can be explored more thoroughly than can those of any other artist of the Edo period (sic). Vast amounts of primary data have survived: more than 350 letters, thousands of published verses, several theoretical statements, comments about him written by others, and more than 800 paintings, many of them bearing informative inscriptions." The interesting point is "more....than....any other artist of the Edo period." Is it because writers are more apt to leave behind writing (=primary data) than painters?

4. JR calls Hayano Hajin one of Buson's main teachers, but then calls Hattori Nankaku his other main teacher. Many things I've read call this into question. They say that while there was no doubt that Buson was aware of Nankaku, consorted with his students, and might have known him, there is actually no written evidence for this. So while it's important to mention, and JR gives the reader a nice brief introduction to what Nankaku's all about, I wonder why he states this so definitely. If I read the sources he cites in the footnote, Yoshikawa Kojirô (Jinsai, Sorai, Norinaga) and Najita Tetsuo (Tokugawa Political Writings), it was a long time ago. Maybe I need to dust them off. Anyway, I'd be surprised if either of these writers actually said, "Nankaku was Buson's teacher."

5. I like JR's translations of studio names, etc., such as Three Fruits Society for Sankasha. Sometimes it sounds a little precious (Three Fruits Society is a good example) it doesn't hurt and readers want to know. Since we are giving the translation, it would be helpful to know more about the literary/historical sources of these expressions but maybe that's too much to ask.

6. I was eager for some more art-historian information about the reception of Buson's paintings during and after his lifetime, and JR gives us a couple of tiny paragraphs on this topic. It disappointed me, simply because I don't know much about it fervently wish I knew more, but there is little here to help me understand what happened to Buson's painting after he died, and for that matter before he died. This is really regrettable. Where else can the English speaking reader find out about this stuff? I understand that it's a short book, but it would go a long way to helping readers figure out where Buson belongs in Japanese art/cultural history as a whole.

7. The chapter section with the subheading "Haikai Poetry and the Scholar-Amateur Movement" is just fine, and helps to make the later discussions about the linkage between haikai comprehensible. I have no complaints about the hokku translations here. I noticed how exercised people at the HNA conference got over controversies like three lines or not, capitalization of first line or not, punctuation or not, but it doesn't worry me too much. Anyway, if the majority of readers of this book are HNA-type people, it might be an issue, but speaking for myself I'm just grateful that this book takes on Buson's art and poetry both, and don't see the need to get fussed over this kind of thing.

So that's the first section. To sum up--perfectly serviceable, if brief. Sort of Buson Lite.

Maybe I'll end this post here. Of course no one reads my little blog, and anyone who tries will be rewarded with an overwhelming urge to sleep or to move on to something else, but why worry about that? Anyway, the next bit will be above.