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Disappointment

Emerson’s essay on Goethe makes for a disappointing conclusion to Representative Men. Though the Sweden­borg essay is but ho-hum, the remainder scintillates. The introductory essay and the essays on Plato yield crucial insights into Emerson’s conception of genius. The essays on Montaigne and Napoleon open up the skepticisms at the heart of Emerson’s philosophy. The concept of “waste stock” in the essay on Shakespeare offers profounder insight into how to read Emerson than any other source I know. But the essay on Goethe, the writer, seems to offer little of substance. Perhaps this speaks more to the mood in which I read it than to the essay itself—I am in no position to say. This post, my initial reaction, must reflect my disappointment.

At the end of the essay, Emerson lumps together Napoleon and Goethe as “being both representatives of the impatience and reaction of nature against the morgue of conventions.” (761) If there is a fatal flaw in the essay, it is that the entire essay resides in this morgue, hardly struggling against it. There is no motion of thought, merely a going through the motions. There is no animation, no vitality. There are dead letters only.

The trouble is that Emerson at every term voices consistent Emersonian themes—the selectivity of genius, the inevitability of partiality, the necessity to connect what one reads to one’s own experience—but in a way that lacks connection. What makes Emerson thrilling is the move from one thought to another, the way he refuses to rest on what he has said, but constantly reevaluates it, rephrases it, reconceives it. The ideas are, in a way, the vessels through which Emerson’s thought runs. They give it shape, but what stimulates is the thought and not the container. Here there is only the container, and not the thought.

But Emerson does diagnose his own failings well, though he does not say that is what he is doing. One of the classic Emersonian themes is the dangerous relationship humans have to their pasts: our former actions threaten to make us slaves. (I treated this at some length here.) That recurs in this essay.

Men’s actions are too strong for them. Show me a man who has acted, and who has not been the victim and slave of his action. What they have done commits and enforces them to do the same again. The first act, which was to be an experiment, becomes a sacrament. (749)

So too with this essay. Emerson has, in what came before, laid out his themes. Now he must repeat them. But the experiment is lost, and the essay becomes sacrament, the enforced repetition of his past. Emerson has become a slave to his own thought. “There is no spirit, but repetition, which is anti-spiritual.” (749)

An example will help illustrate this. Many of the essays in Representative Men follow a similar trajectory: first high praise, then a rapid reversal and criticism. There are variations: the Swedenborg essay devotes more space to condemnation than to praise, the Montaigne essay has little condemnation because Montaigne barely finds his way into the essay, and the Napoleon essay has a certain cold distance even in its praise. The purest example of the form is the Shakespeare essay—I examined Emerson’s use of the reversal here. The essay on Goethe, too, contains such a reversal. Within the essay, however, it feels unmotivated. Here is where the reversal occurs:

The old Eternal Genius who built the world has confided himself more to this man than to any other. I dare not say that Goethe ascended to the highest grounds from which genius has spoken. (758)

These two sentences are probably not enough to give the sense fully, but they at least hint at the abruptness of the change, the complete switch from one thought to the next, without any apparent ground. This is perhaps because the only ground is this: I had better not praise him too much. I had better show his partiality—not to do so would be unworthy of my name, that is, my past.

This disjointedness is, funnily enough, one of the grounds on which Emerson criticizes Goethe. Though Goethe is representative of the writer, he is incomplete as the writer. The writer, for Emerson, has really three tasks: to receive facts and experiences, to select among them those that are worthy, and to organize them. Goethe succeeds at the first two, but not at the third.

He is fragmentary; a writer of occasional poems, and of an encyclopædia of sentences. When he sits down to write a drama or a tale, he collects and sorts his observations from a hundred sides, and combines them into the body as fitly as he can. A great deal refuses to incorporate: this he adds loosely, as letters of the parties, leaves from their journals, or the like. A great deal still is left that will not find any place. This the bookbinder alone can give any cohesion to… (760)

I have read but little Goethe, and so can say nothing about the accuracy of the charge. It applies, however, to Emerson’s essay. Emerson has many wise observations—they are the observations he has made elsewhere. But they cannot find a place. They do not sit together, except physically, thanks to the bookbinder. As thoughts, they sit distant, alone, uncommunicating.

Does Plato see his Republic as detailing a utopian society?

I intend this (rather briefer) post to be a companion to my discussion of book I of Plato’s Republic, part of an ongoing attempt to read the work with an eye to its dramatic structure and not just its explicit philosophical content. My answer to the title question is simple: no. My purpose here is primarily the negative purpose of establishing that negative conclusion. I will make some attempt at a positive account of what Plato is doing, if not setting out a utopia, but I confess in advance that it will be terribly partial and unsatisfying. My only defense is that I have not yet finished Republic—this post and the last are both reports of my interpretation of Republic as I read it, and they do not consider the whole work. I am using the Waterfield translation (published by Oxford in their World’s Classics series), and I will be focusing on what Waterfield designates as chapter 4 of the work.

My argument that Plato does not intend us to treat Republic as simply a vision of a utopian society has three prongs. First, we should consider how Socrates justifies his attempt to construct an ideal society. After Thrasymachus leaves, Socrates begins a discussion with Glaucon and Adeimantus, who explicitly play devil’s advocate by giving an extended defense of Thrasymachus’ position. They are (rightly) dissatisfied with Socrates’ rebuttal of Thrasymachus, and so try to goad him into a better response. Chapter 2 consists of this challenge. At the start of chapter 3, Socrates sets about responding, and his first move is to suggest, “morality can be a property of whole communities as well as of individuals” (368e). Socrates’ intent is to explore morality in a community as if it is a larger (and hence more easily discernable) example of morality than morality in an individual, on the assumption that both are by and large the same. So, throughout the discussion, we need to keep in mind that Socrates is describing the republic with an eye toward the moral individual. This by itself does not indicate that Plato does not intend Republic to be a portrait of a legitimate utopia, but it does imply that Plato is constructing this utopia for some other purpose—it is a means to an end. This allows us to see that even if we do not take it seriously as a utopia, it may still have some other purpose. The ultimate value of the book does not lie in the tenability of Socrates’ utopia as an actual way of organizing society. Thus I can turn to my second and third reasons confident that I will not be undermining the worth of Republic as a whole.

These other two reasons, which do the real work, take the form of a double dissociation: (a) Plato has Socrates dissociate himself from the community he is detailing, and (b) Plato dissociates himself from this community. In this way Plato twice places himself at a remove from the utopia he has Socrates describe, and, as readers, we should respect this distance.

The first dissociation is accomplished very simply. Plato, at multiple points, has Socrates attribute the argument that he is making to Adeimantus. In discussing how poets should portray the behavior of humans and the gods, Socrates says, “According to your argument, we should disallow this type of passage” (389a). Interestingly, Adeimantus responds with the following: “Yes, if you want to attribute the argument to me” (389a). Neither Socrates nor Adeimantus wants full credit for the argument, though both seem to agree at every point. Later, Socrates again attributes the argument to Adeimantus: “So what you’re saying, if I’m getting it right…” (396b). Socrates is in this way making it clear that the argument is not his own.

This could, perhaps, be put down simply to Socrates’ trademark false modesty, but I think there is more to it, and this may perhaps be seen by considering the second dissociation: Plato’s own. Of the many aspects of poetry and other art discussed in chapter 4, the most interesting is the condemnation of representational art in favor of narrative art. Representational art is that in which the author “represents” other people by speaking in their voice: instead of merely remarking (i.e. narrating) that so-and-so prayed, the author presents the actual words of the prayer. In narrative art, the author relates events solely in his own voice. Authors may, of course, combine the two.

The upshot of the discussion of these two artistic styles is the following: art should be primarily narrative, but representation of good men doing good things is allowable. It is interesting, then, that Plato’s art is purely representational. Apparently, Plato has no place in his own republic. Nor can this fact be glossed over by suggesting that Plato is at least representing Socrates’ voice, and Socrates is surely a good man. We need only look back to the first chapter, in which Socrates spars with Thrasymachus, to see Plato representing a sophist engaging in sophistry, and to show him being especially petty. Plato’s own art does not live up to the supposedly ideal community he describes.

This dissociation goes further. One presupposition of the discussion throughout Republic is that each person is best suited for a single job, and should not engage in multiple activities, for then he will do each less well. Indeed, this is part of the argument against representational art: it requires adopting multiple voices, a form of engaging in multiple activities. Leaving aside the absurdity of the premise (which obvious absurdity should make us question Plato’s genuine adherence to it, given that Plato wasn’t stupid), we can see Plato’s own work as embodying a rejection of it.

This rejection becomes explicit when Plato has Socrates say, “In fact, the same people can’t be competent comic actors and also competent tragic actors” (395a). This should be compared to the end of Symposium, in which Socrates argues that in fact the best comic playwright must also be a great tragic playwright. Waterfield, in his notes to Symposium, suggests that Plato may be drawing attention to the fact that Symposium combines both the burlesque of comedy and the seriousness of tragedy. Indeed, in the speeches on love, the tragic playwright gives a half-comedic speech, while the comic playwright tells a rather tragic tale. This strikes me as precisely right: Plato’s work is an embodiment of the meeting of tragedy and comedy—precisely what he rules out in Republic. So, again, Plato’s own work seems to be just the sort of art that his utopia would never allow. Waterfield, in his notes to Symposium, remarks on this incompatibility between Socrates’ arguments in Symposium and in Republic, but does not go further than noting it. I think it is quite significant, however: it is a method Plato uses to dissociate himself from the content of his utopia.

If Plato, in his Republic, is not in fact detailing his ideal society, just what is Plato doing? Beyond what is implied by my first argument (that Plato is hoping to elucidate individual morality in some fashion), I honestly do not know, at least not yet. But what has struck me most vividly about the discussion in chapter 4 is how much Socrates’ proposals designed to ensure that people are educated to act within reason look like mere indoctrination. It seems to me that, in the utopia Socrates describes, people never have any need to reason themselves, because they never confront anything contrary to reason. But what is reason if it is not something that people do? The eminently reasonable society of Plato’s Republic seems not to deserve the epithet at all. It is not unreasonable—reason simply plays little role at all. Plato’s Republic (the text), as opposed to his republic (the society), functions in precisely the opposite way: by presenting sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly flawed arguments in the course of a discussion, and by dissociating himself from these arguments in crucial ways, Plato forces the reader to come to an understanding of the issues on her own. Plato does not indoctrinate.

Hence, while I have not yet finished the text and cannot quite say what, exactly, it is good for, I can fairly confidently assert that Plato’s Republic is infinitely preferable to Plato’s republic.

Categories: Drama, Literature, Philosophy, Plato Tags:

How Socrates’ failure grounds Plato’s success in Republic, Book I

2012/12/28 2 comments

The first book of Plato’s Republic, read carefully, serves as a much-needed reminder that there is more to Plato than an obsession with comparing morality to various crafts. Plato was not just a philosopher but also a dramatist, and the two aspects of his work are, I think, inseparable. Reading Plato solely for the arguments in his work entails missing the subtle self-critiques of those arguments, critiques that are rarely made explicit. Rather, they appear in the dramatic flow of the dialogues.

Frequently, the nature of the conversation is itself an example of the points being made—an example, or a critique. Book I of Republic contains both, one obvious and one subtler. Near the beginning, Socrates is quizzing Cephalus, a rich, old man, about how he has remained happy in old age, and the role that money has played. Cephalus at one point says, “It’ll make me happy if I leave these sons of mine not less, but a little more than I inherited” (330b, Waterfield translation). A noble sentiment, and when Cephalus is called away to “attend to the ceremony” (331d), his son Polemarchus begins discussing with Socrates a point Socrates was beginning to dispute when Cephalus left. Plato makes it explicit that Polemarchus has “inherited the discussion” (331e). The very shape of the dialogue, then, exemplifies Cephalus’ point. He has succeeded in leaving behind more than he started with, for now Polemarchus and Socrates have a topic to discuss. Since Plato of course values discussion and philosophy more than money, it indicates that Cephalus truly lives up to his own ideals. Even though Cephalus thinks about the issue in terms of money, he manifests this virtue in other areas as well.

My real interest here, however, is not in Cephalus. Socrates’ discussion with Cephalus is a preliminary to his discussion with Polemarchus, which is itself in many ways a preliminary to his discussion with Thrasymachus. On the surface, that discussion looks something like this: Thrasymachus, the sophist, bursts into the discussion and makes a claim about morality (that it is the advantage of the stronger party) that goes against everything Socrates stands for. Socrates twists him in knots, leading him to clarify his position: the strong are immoral and seek their own advantage, while the weak are moral and disadvantage themselves while working to the advantage of the strong. It is better to be immoral than moral—if one is strong enough. Socrates again proceeds to twist him in knots, until finally Thrasymachus starts pouting and disengages from the discussion, agreeing with everything Socrates says (though he in fact disagrees), and generally being a sore loser. By all appearances, Socrates has thoroughly defeated Thrasymachus. And while it is not terribly difficult to poke holes in Socrates’ arguments, simply in virtue of his childish behavior, Thrasymachus has lost.

There is more to the story, however. We should not be so fast to think that Socrates has won. (I suppose I should mention in passing another reason: Socrates himself would not consider winning to be important, but only arriving at truth, or at least at a recognition of one’s own ignorance.) We can see this by comparing Socrates’ discussion with Polemarchus to his battle with Thrasymachus. At the very beginning of the dialogue, Socrates is approached by Polemarchus and others, who make the friendly threat that he is outnumbered and so has to do as they say (which is just to accompany them). Socrates suggests that he might convince them to let him leave, but they respond that they won’t listen to him, and that it is “impossible” (327c) to convince someone who won’t listen. This underscores the obvious truth that dialogue only works with willing, open participants. Once Thrasymachus closes himself off, dialogue thus becomes impossible, and while Socrates continues to make an argument (conclusion: “immorality is never more rewarding than morality” 354a), really we should think about what is going on as the mere spinning of idle wheels. Socrates establishes that Thrasymachus is wrong, but it doesn’t mean anything because in doing so he hasn’t really engaged with Thrasymachus at all.

Waterfield, in his helpful notes, points out that this discussion is unlike most discussions that occur in Plato’s dialogues, in which Socrates and his interlocutors share the assumption that morality is good, and go on to attempt to discover what, exactly, morality is. In this discussion, on the other hand, Thrasymachus challenges this core assumption (note to 348e). So this discussion is in that sense quite unlike Plato’s standard fare. The conclusion of Book I is Plato’s usual starting place: Socrates has established that morality is superior to immorality, but he still doesn’t “know what morality actually is” (354c). But, because this usual starting point is able to be established only because Thrasymachus in effect drops out of the discussion, replaced by a mere yes-man with Thrasymachus’ face, Plato in fact forces us to ask to what extent Socrates’ starting point can be established, and to what extent it must merely be shared. (I am reminded here of Aristotle’s claim, at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, that he only intends to speak to those who have been brought up to appreciate fine and just things, for only with them will his investigation get off the ground. One might see Plato here as, in a cleverer way, making the same sort of point in Republic Book I. I will have more to say about this at the end of the post.)

Socrates and Thrasymachus are so far apart in their starting assumptions that discussion literally becomes impossible for them. Even before Thrasymachus shuts off, he accuses Socrates of being a bully and of picking on the least important parts of his view to make it look more ridiculous than it actually is—and Thrasymachus is by and large right in these criticisms. Even when Thrasymachus is engaged, they are talking past each other much more than actually having a proper dialogue. Considered against this backdrop, Socrates’ arguments aren’t worth much.

This is especially so because of Socrates’ method. Socrates frequently makes arguments that adopt the assumptions of his interlocutors, in order to show that there are flaws and tensions internal to their positions, and this occasion is no exception. (Gadamer discusses this method helpfully in his essay on Plato’s Lysis, found in his Dialogue and Dialectic. Gadamer’s magnificent method of reading Plato deserves mention also for inspiring by example my reading of Republic here.) One of Thrasymachus’ assumptions is that immorality is superior to morality because it leads to material advantages. Socrates, too, adopts this assumption—it is central to his attempts to show that immorality leads to discord and morality to concord. Thus, when Socrates purports to show that morality is always more rewarding than immorality, he has only shown that morality is more socially advantageous than immorality, a conclusion far too utilitarian to really be what Plato is ultimately after (which would be showing that morality is good for its own sake). At one point in the Lysis, Socrates describes the bad as out of kilter with themselves—this is the conclusion that Socrates is really after here. But he has only shown that immorality makes one out of kilter with other people, not with oneself. Establishing this could perhaps be helpful for showing a tension internal to Thrasymachus’ position, but since Thrasymachus isn’t really present anymore, it’s hard to say that Socrates has accomplished much of anything.

Indeed, the closest thing to a satisfactory argument against Thrasymachus in Book I is not anything Socrates says, but the differences in their character. Thrasymachus is petty and a sore loser; Socrates is interested in discussion and knowledge. At the same time, however, Thrasymachus is wiser than Socrates in just this respect: he recognizes the futility of their discussion, whereas Socrates doesn’t, and keeps it going even after Thrasymachus disengages. Socrates thus could learn from Thrasymachus a lesson about the dialectical art for which he is so famous.

In this sense, then, Socrates has not defeated Thrasymachus in argument—he has simply been better behaved. Here, however, we might be puzzled: just why is Plato doing this, if the end point is so unsatisfactory. To understand why, we need to dig deeper, looking at the shape of the discussion in another light. Just as Socrates’ exchange with Cephalus itself embodied certain points raised in the discussion, so too does the shape of Socrates’ quarrel with Thrasymachus show Thrasymachus’ position in action—and in a way that reflects how impoverished it is.

Thrasymachus, recall, views morality as behavior of the weak acting to the advantage of the strong—those strong enough to compel them to be moral. The strong, on the other hand, work to their own advantage, without regard for others. We have already seen that Socrates and Thrasymachus, by the end of Book I, are no longer engaging one another in true discussion—which requires that both parties be equal and open to what the other has to say (as we saw at the beginning of Book I). If what we have is not dialogue, however, what is it? Plato here is very clever: what we see is an interaction between two very unequal participants: Socrates, the stronger, and Thrasymachus, the weaker, the yes-man. Moreover, Socrates is explicitly working only for his own edification at this point—Thrasymachus is merely treating him “to all the food I still need to be satisfied” (352b). The situation is thus this: the dialectically stronger (Socrates) is working to his own advantage without consideration of the other party, while the weaker (Thrasymachus) is serving the advantage of the stronger. The discussion has transformed from dialogue to an embodiment of Thrasymachus’ picture of morality.

What can we learn from this? If Thrasymachus is right in his picture of morality, then the situation should work out in Socrates’ favor, and to Thrasymachus’ disadvantage. The latter certainly happens: Thrasymachus, as noted, comes across as a whiner and a sore loser. But, as explored above, Socrates does not end up very well off, either: he winds up establishing a position that is not the one he ultimately wants to establish, and because Thrasymachus is no longer engaged in the discussion, Socrates has really accomplished nothing. Of course, the sophists were famous for valuing “winning” debates over arriving at the truth, so it is probable that Thrasymachus would (grudgingly) view Socrates as the winner in the discussion—though only because Socrates is a “bully”. (As Thrasymachus says, “The point is that immorality has a bad name because people are afraid of being at the receiving end of it, not of doing it.” 344c) Socrates, however, cannot consider himself as having achieved what he wished to achieve.

Further, at one point in the dialogue (before Thrasymachus shuts off), Thrasymachus makes the point that “no professional makes mistakes: a mistake is due to a failure of knowledge, and for as long as that lasts he is not a professional” (340e). Because Socrates is making mistakes (by not recognizing the dialectical situation, and how it impacts his ability to employ his usual method), he cannot be considered a professional, cannot be considered as the truly stronger party.

This is, I think, Plato’s aim in setting up the discussion in this way. By allowing the dialogue to degenerate into an embodiment of Thrasymachus’ ideal of the stronger lording over the weaker, to the advantage of the stronger and the disadvantage of the weaker, Plato shows that, in such a situation, there is no one who can really be considered the stronger at all. Thrasymachus’ position—which Socrates does not defeat by argument—defeats itself when put into practice.

But ought we be convinced by this display? I noted that, from Thrasymachus’ point of view, Socrates could be considered the stronger party: he has browbeaten Thrasymachus into submission and has, by public lights, “won” the debate. Thrasymachus, being a sophist, can only see this as victory. So it looks like a stalemate. Thrasymachus’ view, when put into practice, proves internally consistent. But Socrates, engaged in the search for truth rather than in the attempt to win public acclaim for his debating skill, cannot employ Thrasymachus’ methods.

In this sense, then, Plato leaves us in a position akin to that of Aristotle that I mentioned above. Someone interested in winning debates may plausibly adopt a Thrasymachian view in which the stronger force the weaker to acquiesce. What Plato has shown, however, is that if one is interested in the search for truth, if what one cares about is not winning but gaining wisdom, then one simply cannot be Thrasymachian. Plato has not established that one ought to prefer truth to victory. What he has established is that the search for truth is not a struggle for dominance, for power over others. That is an accomplishment, since—one would hope—anyone who reads Plato does so because of an interest in truth.

Independently of the soundness of his arguments, the very shape of Republic Book I cuts off the possibility that Socrates has achieved his aims. Plato turns this fact on its head, however, by using Socrates’ mistakes to paint a vividly negative portrait of Thrasymachus’ views. Not through argument—Plato shows them in action, thereby revealing their emptiness. A sophist would not be persuaded, would necessarily miss the point, but then a sophist would never be open to Plato regardless. After all, as we saw at the very beginning, you cannot convince someone who will not listen. Those who are engaged in the struggle for wisdom, on the other hand, are warmly invited to the rest of Republic.

Addendum 2013.01.07: 300 pages later, after a winding discussion, Plato finally returns to the question addressed so unsatisfyingly in chapter 1. Socrates proposes that the interlocutors “remind ourselves of the original assertion which started us off on our journey here” (588b). And after gaining Glaucon’s assent, Socrates goes on to say, “Well, now that we’ve decided what effect moral and immoral conduct have… we can engage him in conversation.” He is saying this in explicit reference to the assertion of chapter 2, which was defended by Glaucon, but we have to recall that Glaucon was there simply pushing Thrasymachus’ objection further. My argument has been that Socrates in a very deep sense failed to engage with Thrasymachus and Thrasymachus’ position, and I take this claim to be Plato explicitly acknowledging what was previously “hidden” in the structure of chapter 1’s “dialogue”. At the end of chapter 1 and the start of chapter 2, Socrates really was not in a position to engage with the Thrasymachian view. Only after much discussion has this become possible.

Categories: Drama, Literature, Philosophy, Plato Tags:

An Experimental Interpretation of Izutsu

While writing the end of my previous post about Izutsu, I had the thought that part two of Izutsu might be the monk’s dream, and that the monk might even be Narihira himself. In this post, I explore that possibility. I did not sit down and plan this post. Most of what I wrote I figured out as I was writing (the closest to planning I got was that sometimes my thoughts got ahead of my fingers). I am not committed to the final position I ended up in, though I do think it is a more plausible explanation than any other I’ve considered. Whether I am right or not, the experience deepened my appreciation for the unity and beauty of the play’s rich imagery, and solidified it as one of my favorite works of art. I begin the analysis by looking at part two, the impetus for this interpretation. Then I shall examine the ways this interpretation clashes with part one. I end by exploring the possibility of reconciling these clashes.

Part two begins with the following speech by the monk:

The night hour grows late:

about the temple hangs a moon

about the temple hangs a moon

to restore the past: with robe reversed

I prepare to dream, and, briefly pillowed,

lie down upon a bed of moss

lie down upon a bed of moss.

Then we have the final lines spoken in the play (by the Well-Cradle Lady): “the dream has broken into waking / the dream breaks into day.” That these lines bookend the second part seems to suggest that the majority of that section is the monk’s dream. Moreover, I am tempted to think that, if this is the case, then the monk must be Narihira. In his footnote to the monk’s opening speech, Tyler states, “Gazing at the moon brought back memories of the past, and sleeping with one’s robes inside out brought dreams of one’s beloved.” This provides strong temptation to interpret part two of the play as Narihira dreaming of his beloved, the Well-Cradle Lady. Two further considerations augment this line of thought. First, the Well-Cradle Lady spends much of part two reminiscing—her recollections of poems she shared with Narihira are interspersed with her present actions. Thus we have a dream of Narihira’s beloved (because he reversed his robes) with an emphasis on episodes in their shared past (because he was gazing at the moon).

Second, the structure of part two is dramatically different from that of part one. In part one, the monk and the lady interact—after brief soliloquies from both of them, the remainder of the first half consists of them talking to one another. Part two, on the other hand, can be neatly split into two parts. The first is the monk’s opening speech. Immediately after that ends, the Well-Cradle Lady enters. The remainder of the second half consists solely of her talking (and the chorus singing for her). This strongly suggests to me that the action of part two is Narihira dreaming of his beloved. Indeed, after writing out the evidence for this interpretation, I find it hard to see how part two could be interpreted otherwise, at least considered in isolation.

Such an interpretation of course has massive ramifications for understanding the play as a whole. For one, it recasts part two as being primarily about Narihira’s attempt to confront his past, rather than about the Well-Cradle Lady’s attempt to confront hers. (Although, I do not know how the Japanese of the time felt dreams related to reality, so it is possible conceptually that Narihira’s dream is of a real episode. In this case, part two would beautifully explore both of their struggles.) Moreover, in my first post, I remarked that this interpretation would radically recontextualize the ending. I did not really understand the full import of the ending then; nor do I feel like I do now (though I will offer an interpretation later in this post). In order to get clearer about the ending, I will need to examine the relationship between the two parts. This, however, raises some interesting difficulties for my interpretation.

On the surface, the first half of Izutsu seems to flatly contradict my interpretation of part two. It seems impossible that the monk could be Narihira. There are three key reasons for this. First, the monk’s behavior and knowledge is incompatible with him being Narihira. In his speech to open the play, he says, “Someone told me, when I inquired, that this temple is called Ariwara temple.” But Narihira built Ariwara temple at the site of the well, so why would the monk need to inquire about what it is called? Moreover, at the end of this speech, the monk says, “I will comfort those two lovers / I will comfort that fond pair.” Surely this suggests that he is not part of that pair.

Once the lady enters, her discussions with the monk further suggest that he is not Narihira. He continually asks her for information about Narihira, as if he knows their story in its essentials, but not necessarily in detail (and this, too, is suggested by his opening speech). Moreover, if he is Narihira, then it is difficult to understand why both parties fail to recognize one another. Indeed, the monk’s final line in the first half (sung for him by the chorus) is a request for the lady to “Please let me know your name.” If this were the reunion of two lovers, it is implausible to think that neither would recognize the other.

Finally, and most damningly, Narihira is dead. “His grave preserves the past. / The man is gone, yet Narihira’s / trace still lingers, even now / his fame lives on the lips of those / who speak of him” (the lines alternate between the monk and the lady). This seems to be the final nail in the coffin: it is hard to argue that the monk is Narihira when Narihira’s grave is right nearby. Does this then leave me in an intractable position? Am I stuck with an interpretation that fits part two too perfectly to be wrong, but against which part one screams in opposition? It seems so.

However, some features of Izutsu‘s first half suggest the possibility that the two may be reconcilable. In part one, not all is as it immediately seems. At multiple points, it is stressed that the relationship between Narihira and the Well-Cradle Lady took place long ago. “he whose memory still lingers here lived so very long ago.” So long ago, in fact, that the lady says, “No one now could have any tie with him at all.” Dews “moisten the ancient grave.” And yet, while Narihira’s death is a thing of the past, the woman in the first half, who we find out is Narihira’s lover, is—a young woman. How could she be young if she is the lover of someone long dead? The best explanation is that she is some sort of spirit. This fits very well with the end of part one: “into the well-cradle she slips and is gone.” That she disappears into the well-cradle suggests that she is not a corporeal human.

With this now in mind, I think the way toward reconciling the two halves is illuminated. I believe that, if the monk is Narihira reincarnated, then the seeming problems I raised can be comfortably explained. From the outset, though, I have to say that I don’t know much about the role of reincarnation in 15th century Japanese Buddhism, so I could be way off the mark. If, however, this account is compatible with 15th century Japanese Buddhism, then I find it quite compelling. It explains why the monk was drawn to Ariwara temple, and why he was so intrigued by the story of the Well-Cradle Lady. Unbeknownst to him, he was discovering his own past. Moreover, there is no reason to expect the Well-Cradle Lady to recognize him, or for him to recognize her (although this could explain why her spirit appeared to him specifically). Likewise, there is no reason to expect to know the details of his past life, and so his relative ignorance is understandable.

This interpretation also helps clear up the role of awakening in the play. Tyler notes that the movement of the moon in the line, “the moon / at dawn sets in the western hills,” echoes “the journey of the soul towards Amida’s Western Paradise.” This line comes directly after the woman says, “He [Amida] shall illumine, for so He promised.” Awakening, the dawn, and illumination are thus connected to arrival at Amida’s Western Paradise. In this light, Narihira (reincarnated as the monk) must confront his past as part of his spiritual journey. He must learn how his actions impacted, even tormented his former lover, must learn to sympathize with her, before this journey can be completed.

This interpretation, I think, stands or falls based on the extent of the violence it does to 15th century Japanese Buddhism and culture. If that violence is small, then I think it may have unified some seemingly conflicting aspects of the play. Even if the violence is great and the interpretation suspect, engaging in this analysis has only deepened my appreciation for the unparalleled beauty of Izutsu.

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A Naive Perspective on Memory and Recollection in Izutsu

2011/09/02 1 comment

I feel compelled to preface this commentary by noting that I have only ever read two Nō dramas, Ama (The Diver) and Izutsu (The Well-Cradle), both translated by Royall Tyler and found in his collection Japanese Nō Dramas (Penguin Classics). I read both in the past four days (Ama once, Izutsu three times). My interest in the form comes from Ayuo’s gorgeous album Izutsu, which adapts the story to a sort of Japanese “folk opera,” and all of my knowledge of Nō drama comes from Tyler’s introductions (to the collection as a whole, and to the specific plays), the two plays I read, and some superficial browsing of Wikipedia. In short, my credentials for talking about these plays are minimal, and I have no idea how applicable what I say will be to Nō drama as a whole.

My goal here is to explore why Izutsu had such a profound impact on me each time I read it. While I enjoyed Ama a great deal, and expect to enjoy it even more when I re-read it, Izutsu captivated me like few works of art have—already I’m tempted to call it the most beautiful work of art I’ve engaged with, and to rank it among my favorite works of art in any medium. I think the key reason for this has to do with the connection of the form of the drama to the story. In both Ama and Izutsu, the action is set well after the central story, and we learn about the story through recollection. My understanding is that this is fairly standard in Nō drama. What is so compelling about Izutsu is the way that this convention is threaded throughout the play, pervading the imagery and mood at every point. That the story is recollected is not a mere genre standard, used because that’s just how Nō is written; it is essential to the emotional import of the play. This is true of Ama to, to be sure, but (at least in my limited experience with it) in a much less pervasive way.

The basic plot of Izutsu is a simple love story. A girl and boy live next door to each other, and they play together around a well near their houses. They mark their heights against the protective railing around the well (the well-cradle, which “told / who was the taller”). As they grow older, they come to know “modesty / one toward the other.” The two marry, but their marriage is rocky. The man has to be gone for long stretches at a time, and has an affair with an empress. The woman likely also has “stumbled,” to use Tyler’s word. The action of the play is set around the well, where now stands the Ariwara temple, named after Ariwara no Narihira, the male lover. A woman, who we later found out is the “Well-Cradle Lady,” is visiting Narihira’s grave, where she meets and talks with a monk. It is through their interactions that we learn her story. Much of this is difficult to pull out of the play itself; in this regard Tyler’s introduction is extremely helpful. The play moves quickly, and presupposes prior knowledge of the stories upon which it builds.

The dominant image woven throughout Izutsu is that of the moon—most of the other images in the play are seen through the lens of the moon, and serve to augment this central image. According to one of Tyler’s footnotes, “Gazing at the moon brought back memories of the past.” The line that occasioned the footnote, “above the temple hangs a moon / to restore the past,” is part of the monk’s speech that opens the second half of the play, and immediately emphasizes the centrality of memory. The play is very much about the Well-Cradle Lady’s attempt to confront her past, and about the sort of person she has become as a result. Later, in part two, “a radiant moon shines” in the well, reflected in the water. Her past comes through clearly (is illuminated by the moon’s radiance), and she recalls a poem written by Narihira, which begins, “Is this not the moon / this spring / not the spring of old…?”

The recollection of this particular poem illustrates just how beautifully all of the play’s imagery interconnects. We learn in the first half that the play is set in autumn. According to Tyler, “[spring] blossoms and [autumn] moon sum up the delights of all the seasons.” The spring is a time of action, of blossoms; autumn is a time of remembrance and recollection. Moreover, these are put on an equal plane; only together do they “sum up the delights of all the seasons.” Remembrance of the events in one’s life is portrayed as of equal importance as the events themselves. The image of cherry blossoms recurs in part two, where the imagery is used to illustrate the Well-Cradle Lady’s willingness to wait for an absent husband to return, “pining / for one rare all year round.”

The well itself, which is of course also central to the play (quite literally, as all the action centers itself around the well on stage), is intimately tied together with the moon. Most obviously, it is a symbol from the Well-Cradle Lady’s childhood; it marks the beginning of the romance that defines her (in the context of this play). Growing up, the two children saw their reflections in the well; now, the well reflects only the moon and, in one of the play’s most poignant lines, the Well-Cradle Lady alone. “I see myself, yet still I love him!” The well also is used to characterize their relationship, which is “far from shallow,” and in their childhood, “their hearts’ waters knew no soundings.”

Finally, the moon establishes a night setting, and key to the play is this setting, and in particular the transition from night to dawn. The Well-Cradle Lady’s loneliness is artfully shown in the line, “Love, will you by night / cross these hills alone?” Regarding the transition from night to dawn, the first two glimpses of the moon we get are of the “sinking moon,” and of how “the moon at dawn sets.” The latter leads shortly to the line, repeated twice, “what sound will bring on awakening?” This line anchors the entire play, and only in the end do we see the answer. The end is worth quoting in full:

I see myself, yet still I love him!

Departed lover in phantom form,

a flower withered, all colour gone

but fragrant yet, Ariwara

Temple bell tolls in the dawn:

an ancient temple, loud with pines

where the wind sighs. Plantain-leaf frail,

the dream has broken into waking,

the dream breaks into day.

This is a staggering ending, and I have hardly come close to exhausting its significance or power. I truly don’t know for sure the importance of the tolling bell. Does it signify simply moving on? The Well-Cradle Lady’s understanding of the importance of recollection to her life? A sort of spiritual awakening? Probably it is some combination of these, and more that I have not thought of. I haven’t here delved into the role of dreams in the play, in part because that, too, is something I don’t fully understand yet. There is some suggestion in the play that the second half is the monk’s dream, which would radically recontextualize the ending. On such an interepretation, I am even tempted to think that the monk is Narihira—but exploring this possibility in depth is the subject of another post (one I hope to write soon).

I hope I have conveyed some sense of the masterful use of imagery in its connection with memory and recollection. Certainly I have not exhausted it. To give just one example of many, I did not discuss the imagery of pines in the play. Both the tree and the idea of pining (i.e. for a lost love) play key roles (I don’t know whether the wordplay exists also in the Japanese—in the English it is quite powerful). Despite being extraordinarily short, Izutsu is a wealth of riches.

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