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.

The best portions of this history are those in the second volume. There Kato contributes to the revaluation of Edo (immediately pre-modern) literature that has been going on recently in Japan and the United States.

Kato’s slim but extended volume on modern (post-1867) literature will seem too haphazard to any but the non-informed to get a good press. But the problem with this history begins with the first volume. Everyone would agree that the crucial early literary matters to consider include three great poetic collections: the Manyoshu (circa 760), the Kokinshu (circa 910-20), and the Shinkokinshu (circa 1206), along with the greatest work in the literature, The Tale of Genji (circa 1010?), ‘high’ linked poetry (Renga, 13th-17th century) and No (17th-19th century in present versions). Sad to say, only a person who already knows the subjects discussed (both in these and in other examples) is likely to profit from reading the first and third volumes. For one thing, only such a person will be able to make sense of much that is said. For another, only such a person will be able to sift fact from error. Much of what is said is quite bizarre, whether in the context of Japanese scholarship or as anything that might be told a foreign reader. I do not feel that the first and third volumes will be of any use to non-Japanese readers, and I wonder about Japanese.

In general, the translators provide a crisp, matter-of-fact version without nonsense. Don Sanderson seems to me to have done a very able job (Vols II and III). David Chibbett (Vol. I) is another matter. He (or the author) has apparently set the style for names. We are given Onono Komachi and Ariwarano Narihira, which is rather like Johann Wolfgang Vongoethe or Michel Demontaigne. Neither the original nor the translation gives enough care to Japanese criticism, the needs of a non-Japanese reader, or the ways of executing such an important enterprise.

The partial alternative to Kato in English is Donald Keene, who has published a counterpart to Kato’s Edo period volume. World within Walls is to be followed before long by two volumes on modern Japanese literature. Keene is not simply the most prolific of Western students of Japanese literature but also more widely ranging than all but a small number of Japanese. Perhaps A or B has done better than he on x, y or z. But only he has written so widely, and if one were set the impossible task of designating one person who had made Japanese literature a current subject of study in the West, it would be Keene. As the crowning if not final work of his career, he has undertaken to write, on his own, a multi-volume history of Japanese literature. His concept of that literature is less broad than Kato’s and wider than that of some others, including as it does poetry in Chinese by Japanese poets. The published volume is especially good on the later phases of linked verse and on Kabuki. If he has not pleased someone, let the displeased attempt as much. Unlike many other Western students, he has not simply offered a more or less elegant rehash of Japanese study. We eagerly await his forthcoming volumes on modern (post-1867) literature and what he will have to say about early literature.

Studies of modern literature have made great progress in recent years. A scholarly counterpart of one of Kato’s ‘turning-points’ was achieved by Masao Miyoshi in his Accomplices of Silence (1974). Exaggerated and belligerent though that book may have been, it has what is sadly wanting in most Western studies of Japanese literature: a thesis, an argument, a question. At times he seems to argue that the Japanese have no conception of self, on the evidence of the shosetsu (for which ‘novel’ is the inevitable but not wholly accurate translation). Like other fresh studies, Accomplices of Silence has irritated the complacent and has still to receive the sincerest form of flattery.

On the other hand, an alternative is possible, and it has been amply supplied by Makoto Ueda, whose Modern Japanese Writers (of shosetsu) appeared shortly after Miyoshi’s book. Ueda’s work is far more attentive to Japanese study than is Miyoshi’s, but it has no exact Japanese counterpart. Ueda is concerned with eight ‘writers’: Natsume Soseki, Nagai Kafu, Tanizaki Junichiro, Shiga Naoya, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Dazai Osamu, Kawabata Yasunari and Mishima Yukio. It is difficult to say whether these writers were chosen because some works of theirs have been translated into English. Other writers from Mori Ogai to Inoue Yasushi (and various women) might have been included.

It is striking that – in spite of the brevity of Japanese poems – the new volume is so much longer than the first. I think that I prefer the newer one. Its translations are most welcome (romanised versions are given in the back), as are its sources, although not as fully provided as for the earlier volume. Neither book is set forth as a literary history, but each (and the two together) may well be taken to provide what the Japanese are wont to call an account of ‘representative’ (daihyoteki) authors in historical sequence.

It seems appropriate to include a book of social history by one of the foremost translators of Japanese prose literature, Edward Seidensticker. To Seidensticker’s translations as well as his own genius, Kawabata Yasunari owed his Nobel Prize. To Seidensticker’s translation, we all owe a refreshed sense of The Tale of Genji. Low City, High City well illustrates in its matter as well as in its title the difficulties of easy translation, of readily getting across. The matter shows that only a very few Westerners seemed to have much notion of what was going on in Tokyo between 1865 or so and 1923, whereas the Japanese, in eagerness or revulsion, were all too aware of the West. The wealth of information and pictures (the dust-jacket is simply wonderful) shows Seidensticker much more Japanese than I have ever known him. The book reminds me of his Kafu the Scribbler (1965), both in its affection for Tokyo and for its evidence that literary students can write absorbing social history.

These excellent studies of Japanese literary and other history by no means exhaust what may be implied by ‘Japanese’, ‘literature’ and ‘history’. And I feel it necessary to refer to an as yet unpublished history of Japanese literature to draw out the full implications for our study of literary history in the West. This is Konishi Jinichi’s History of Japanese Literature. To say it plainly, this is a work in which I have an interest as editor of the first three volumes of the English version. It was Keene who first discovered Konishi, making him known to Robert Brower and myself when Keene wrote Brower that Konishi’s Nihon Bungakushi was by all odds the best going. We got the book, and in due course Konishi arrived to spend 15 months at Stanford (when Sir George Sansom was writing his history of Japan there). From Konishi’s elaboration and our collaboration a book appeared called Japanese Court Poetry. Using the knowledge (and filing system) of a lifetime, Konishi is writing a 600-page book a year. The five-volume history will be published in a unit in Japan, perhaps in 1986. The first volume in English should appear next summer.

The lengthy General Introduction to the first volume is an essai sur la méthode unique to literary histories as I know them. Among much else, Konishi asks what is meant by ‘Japanese’, by ‘literature’ and by ‘history’. His answer holds in part that the three units designate writing by Japanese or in Japanese or in Japan. He therefore includes, not only Japanese literature by Japanese, but Ryukyuan and Ainu literature, writing in Chinese by Japanese, and important translations into Japanese. In addition, he works comparatively between Japanese, Korean and Chinese literature, between primitive Japanese writing and that by modern primitives in other parts of the world. He redefines periods, and justifies his periodising along what he explicitly terms ideological lines (albeit he is politically conservative). The defining of terms continues into later volumes, Konishi always saying what he means by his terms and always seeking to use those contemporary with the writers discussed. Many pulses will race and heads be scratched over his postulations that nikki literature is not to be taken as diaries or memoirs but as accounts of or by a person told in the present tense (or non-perfect aspect), whereas a monogatari like The Tale of Genji is told in the past tense (perfect aspect).

Previous Japanese literary histories have sorely lacked Konishi’s questions and definitions. The same is true in England and the United States. Lacking a firm, conceptual bias, literary history has been an easy target. Its enemies could dismiss it because its practitioners were not all explicit about what they were doing or why. René Wellek is no doubt correct in holding that European literary-historical criticism begins in the 18th century, and Lawrence Lipking right that the arts were historically ordered in England at that time. It seems not to have been noticed that Dryden (‘Essay of Dramatic Poesy’ and much following) gave us our conception of a literary ‘age’ or ‘period’. The Puritans (they were his background) sought to go back to the prisca fides to remove the encrustations of idolatrous centuries. That effort, with millennial zeal and a widening as well as secularising of religious typology, led Puritans to conceive of their own time as a period as distinct as the age of David or Augustus. Dryden made the conception into one of literary periods and, in his prose and verse, used literature to define historical periods by many a progress piece (translatio studii). He offered those brief historical accounts of navigation (Annus Mirabilis), of English drama (Congreve poem), of painting (Kneller poem) etc. As many people in the West seek to revive literary history, they will be well advised to return to Dryden and to the 18th century. And they will certainly do well to ask, with Konishi, what their conceptions mean and define the terms they use. Without such explicit conceptualising, they cannot expect to arouse the faith of readers at a time (a historical period!) often hostile to historical understanding.

Japan, England and the United States do not encompass the world. In recent years there has been a resurgence of large-scale literary histories in Germany. Most are written by multiple authorship, but some have been done by single counterparts of Kato, Keene and Konishi. Why Germany should have led the way is not wholly clear. Perhaps its distinguished historical legacy from the last century is involved, perhaps its peculiar legacy from World War Two. But there is another likely explanation: the presence of Marxist critics. It is often difficult to know what an American or a Briton means in professing to be a Marxist, but any just usage entails a view of history. Other Germans (and non-Germans) besides the Konstanz group have found the need to pose quasi-Marxist, historical problems and to give non-Marxist answers, conceding the centrality of history. And of course literary history is a major enterprise of academicians who think of themselves as belonging to a Socialist bloc. When a group of us visited China last summer, we found that a major present aim is to rewrite histories of English and other non-Chinese literatures in a way independent of Soviet models.

Contemplating Derrida’s question about a history of silence and ‘Post-Structuralist’ efforts to silence history, one recalls Tacitus: ‘They make a desert and call it peace.’ Or another Roman, Propertius: ‘maxima de nihilo nescitur historia’ – which is no less pleasant to recall because Derrida’s ‘intertexuality’ does not include this bon mot. But even those barren theoretical fields seem historically arable. The several accounts of, let us say, deconstruction start off with Saussure and/or Heidegger, go on to figures like Derrida, and then to ‘the Yale School’. When we acquire a history of a movement mostly concerned to deny history, the ‘contradiction’ is plain. In fact we have had what are tantamount to histories of the careers to date of Derrida and J. Hillis Miller. It will take a great deal more such history, as James observed, to make even a little literature.

Plans are well underway for two histories of American literature. The shorter, and therefore the one likely to appear earlier, will be published by Columbia University Press and is under the general editorship of Emory Elliott (Princeton). The longer will be published by Cambridge University Press, and its general editor is Sacvan Bercovitch (Harvard). A flier about the latter justifies its enterprise as ‘partly to take account of literature published since the Second World War, but even more to reflect the new historical research and critical perspectives of the past three decades’. In writing to Elliott, Bercovitch makes clear how problematical, or how radical, must be a contemporary history of American literature. Both teams would do well to contemplate the issues in Konishi’s General Introduction.

Japanese literature is not simply Japanese rather than English, French or American. Of course it is that, and such differentiation is one of the justifications and burdens of historical study. But Japanese literature is also founded on very different presumptions from the mimetic, affective, expressive, anti-mimetic presumptions (to name the chief stages and continuities of Western literary history). The proper understanding of Japanese (or English) literature cannot rule out history or critical conception. And the study of ‘American’ or ‘English’ ‘literature’ will not be fully adequate until other major alternatives such as ‘Japanese’, ‘Chinese’ or ‘Indian’ are conjoined. Insistence on the importance of historical study of literature increases our responsibilities and will improve our harvest.