In Praise of History

Earl Miner

  • A History of Japanese Literature. Vol. I: The First Thousand Years by Shuichi Kato, translated by David Chibbett
    Macmillan, 319 pp, £20.00, September 1979, ISBN 0 333 19882 4
  • A History of Japanese Literature. Vol. II: The Years of Isolation by Shuichi Kato, translated by Don Sanderson
    Macmillan, 230 pp, £20.00, October 1983, ISBN 0 333 22088 9
  • A History of Japanese Literature. Vol. III: The Modern Years by Shuichi Kato, translated by Don Sanderson
    Macmillan, 307 pp, £20.00, October 1983, ISBN 0 333 34133 3
  • World within Walls by Donald Keene
    Secker, 624 pp, £15.00, January 1977, ISBN 0 436 23266 9
  • Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature by Makoto Ueda
    Stanford, 451 pp, $28.50, September 1983, ISBN 0 8047 1166 6
  • Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake by Edward Seidensticker
    Allen Lane, 302 pp, £16.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 7139 1597 8

It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.

            Henry James, Life of Hawthorne

But, first of all, is there a history of silence?

   Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference

Literary history? Can there still be people who believe in it – or them: literature, history, literary history? Are not all texts on the same level, just texts? Is history not something synchronic, merely a different way of talking about language? The views implied by these rhetorical questions seem wrong to many people, myself included. But I feel compelled to say that an unexamined, unfalsifiable historicism is as unpersuasive as an unexamined, unfalsifiable textuality. Any kind of human knowledge is difficult to acquire and yet more difficult to justify, whether the kind is theoretical and enables us to assimilate and homogenise, or historical, enabling us to differentiate and relate.

The books under review here are useful precisely for alienating our concerns with European and American views and evidence. By attending to very different histories, we may understand our own better. The place to begin seems to be the sheer fact that these literary histories exist. There are no contemporary counterparts in English about English or American literature. We have seen histories of the Elizabethan theatre audience or of the ‘Auden generation’, but pantascopic historians of the whole of a literature have long been asleep so soundly as to pass for dead. The last full-scale history of English literature that anybody has bothered over was David Daiches’s two-volume Critical History of English Literature. When it appeared, in 1960, it was thought gallant but defeated.

For a successful history of English from a single pen, we must no doubt go back to Saintsbury, who is still readable. There is also Legouis and Cazamian. But the two serviceable histories are written by Americans. As long ago as 1948, Malone, Baugh, Brooke and Chew brought out A Literary History of England in nearly 1700 good-sized pages. In the same year we had the fruits of an editorial board headed by Spiller, Thorp, Johnson and Canby, with a large number of contributors to a Literary History of the United States in three volumes. The Oxford History of English Literature exists, but with no joint effort by its separate authors. That, on the historical side, is the history of a silence.

The historical illiteracy of our time is not confined to textualists, repetitive semioticians or the currently-featured symphony of French horns. It is shared by many literary historians themselves. As E.H. Gombrich put it, there is no innocent eye. Or, there is no transparent method or object of study. The very word ‘history’ is not simple. For although it is founded on a realist presumption, it designates not one thing but several. ‘History’ is primal event, what we presume to occur in time and place. It is also an account of the primal and almost always an account based on previous accounts. Who now has direct access to the French Revolution or Noah’s flood?

Kato Shuichi is only one of several Japanese individuals who have been writing large-scale histories of Japanese literature (although the committee approach is more common). There is no dearth of Japanese literary histories in Japanese. If the Western nerve for literary history has failed, the Japanese has resembled the reflexive. Whether whole or partial, by a single author or by many, Japanese literary history has continued without interruption. (Biography, on the other hand, has been less practised than in the West, where it seems to have become a substitute for the ‘classical realistic novel’.) Kato’s History is both a translation and a small extension of his two-volume Nihon Bungaku Josetsu (An Introduction to the History of Japanese Literature) – both are rare Japanese books in having an index.

An untutored reader will be baffled by Kato’s conception of literature. Issues dividing Buddhists or Confucianists along with matters of polity occupy Kato as much as do poetry, prose narrative and drama. The explanation lies in the bungaku of the Japanese title as opposed to the ‘literature’ of the English. Bungaku refers to ‘letters’ in a very wide sense that is not restricted to poetry, prose narratives or drama. Treatises are involved. Bungaku also involves the study of literature along with literature as normally conceived in the West. In that respect it involves ‘comparative literature’ in being a kind of study. Nobody writes in ‘comparative’. On the other hand, bungaku is not textuality or generalised écriture. It involves a positivistic if not wholly Gradgrindian love of ‘facts’, of detail.

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