- Courtly Visions: The Ise Stories and the Politics of Cultural Appropriation by Joshua S. Mostow
For such a canonical text as The Ise Stories (Ise monogatari, tenth century), that very poetic collection of terse tales woven around “a man” presumed to be the ninth-century courtier Ariwara no Narihira, there is not as much written about it in English or in other European languages as one might expect. Especially when compared to studies of The Tale of Genji, there is curiously little discussion of it. That said, the last two decades or so have seen a slow increase in the number of studies, largely focusing on reception histories and canon formation. Now we have a stunning addition with Joshua Mostow’s latest book, Courtly Visions, a study that traces the different visualizations of The Ise Stories over several centuries. Its power is in the first place visual: “lavishly illustrated” does not begin to describe the book, but what makes the images so gratifying is that they are at the core of the book’s argumentation. This is very much a book about images, the interplay between image and text, and images as text. The eight chapters that form the main section of Mostow’s book are arranged chronologically and cover the late ninth century through the first half of the seventeenth century. An epilogue touches upon usages of The Ise Stories through the remainder of the early modern and modern eras.
The material treated is diverse; what holds it together, beyond the formal aspect of visuality, is Mostow’s approach to it. His operative term is “cultural appropriation,” a concept that “always entails the use of cultural forms seen as belonging to a relatively marginal or disempowered group by a relatively more dominant social group” (p. 5). Indeed, the term is usually employed in a context of political readings of cultural behavior and as such seems to fit Mostow’s stated aim “to show how these illustrations of the Ise functioned in their socio-political context—to suggest, in other words, what such images meant to their audiences” (pp. 203–204). However, Courtly Visions employs the term in a specific way: in addition to steering away from the often-implied condemnation that cultural appropriation is usually a bad thing, Mostow also avoids implying that the early Heian court cult of Narihira and miyabi (courtliness) was somehow a cultural element of an oppressed people. Rather it is the other way round: different groups of readers use or read the text in ways that liberate them, set them apart, or symbolize their access to a cultural element once denied to them. Mostow sketches his notion of cultural appropriation in an idiom that consciously suggests quite violent behavior, using language such as “hijacking,” “wrest … away,” and “this circle was … broken” (p. 6). But certainly “appropriation” does emphasize agency, and his stated discomfort with terms such as “reception” or “canon formation” is understandable, even if most of us agree that “reception history,” for example, does allow for the usages of texts in ways that this book analyzes. [End Page 289]
The eight main chapters of Courtly Visions can be thought of as constituting three parts. The first of these parts is chapter 1 (“The Romance of the Picture: Screen-Pictures, Screen-Poems, and the Ise monogatari”), which, like an overture inverting its opera’s musical theme, goes into a discussion—more or less begun in English with Richard Bowring’s seminal article from 1992—of how The Ise Stories relates to screen paintings and the practice of uta-gatari (or poem telling, that is, the creation of stories around poems).1 Mostow takes Bowring and other scholars to task on a number of points (“Bowring’s is argument by metonymy,” p. 19), but essentially his object of critique is the idea, so attractive to many of us, that The Ise Stories’ episodes were created from pictures. So, to paraphrase the Book of John, in the beginning was the text, itself emerging from other texts. What...