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Comparative Literature Studies 39.4 (2002) 386-408

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"Western" Lyricism and the Uses of Theory in Premodern Japanese Literature

Michael Sugimoto

Because the liberal arts college where I teach promotes interdisciplinarity, the Japanese literature courses are offered in a department of foreign languages and literature, as well as in programs devoted to the study of Asian societies and the predominantly Western humanities. However, beyond the bureaucratic gestures to overcome disciplinary limits, the production of knowledge continues to be regulated by geopolitical area, the overriding framework being that the non-West remains largely particularized as an object of anthropological study researched by the West, which retains the interpretive position as the subject of knowledge in the humanities. 1

Within this context, the reading of critical, theoretical texts provides a strategy, forging disciplinary links within the academic division-of-labor, as well as working against resilient perceptions of Japanese culture as the quintessential land of nature. 2 Presented without intellectual pretense or the dismissal of affective response to the literary text, carefully chosen articles invite students to question the categories that suppress comparative work both between academic fields and also between normative categories established within a single discipline, such as the literary distinction between prose and poetry, whether occurring within the classroom or scholarly criticism.

In these critiques, I find that nationalism, and modernization in particular, surface as the unspoken organizing principles that govern the analysis of premodern works of Japanese literature. While intellectual critique in the context of the undergraduate core curriculum undoubtedly comes with limits, nonetheless, critical literary studies can help produce knowledge that exceeds the parameters of both academic fields and area studies within the [End Page 386] institution, thereby, promoting the usefulness of literature and restoring the critical moment of the literary text. 3

Lyricism and Western Metaphysics

What we mean by lyric [. . .] has within it, in its 'purest' form, the quality of a break or rupture. The subjective being that makes itself heard in lyric poetry [. . .] has, so to speak, lost nature and seeks to recreate it [. . .] through descent into the subjective being itself. (Adorno 59)
       The most sublime lyric works, therefore, are those in which the subject, without a trace of his material being, intones in language until the voice of language itself is heard. The subject's forgetting himself, his abandoning himself to language as if devoting himself completely to an object—this and the direct spontaneity of his expression are the same. (Adorno 62)

Attempting a materialist art history, Adorno critiques lyric poetry as a reified art form linked to the rise of the modern bourgeois individual. 4 In other words, the standard view of lyric poetry—as the subjective expression of an individual's inner being—is linked to a social theory concerning the alienated condition of atomized individuals in capitalist societies, thus revealing a material base to the experience of art. In the disenchanted world of modernity, individualism signifies refuge in poetry as an art lack use value or social utility. Adorno's "break" or "rupture" describes the development of a modern consciousness, a deliberate wrenching away from the constraints of a "premodern" world of collective community, ritual and religion. In this light, lyric poetry signifies the "inwardness" (a concept by which Adorno also critiques Kierkegaard) of the bourgeois subject who, having no social or political relevance, surrenders to a condition of self-reflection, thus representing a kind of "failure," not triumph, of the Western tradition.

Exploring the problem of lyricism, I would like to discuss the work of a range of critics particularly prominent in the field of premodern Japanese literature, such as, Jin'ichi Konishi, Robert Brower, Earl Miner, Ian Levy, Haruo Shirane, and Mark Morris. Some of these critics offer an apologetics for premodern Japanese literature, by raising arguments for its superior nature; in the end, affirming the canon's "lyricism" as an overcoming of several key Western dualisms: subject/object; vehicle/tenor; language/meaning; spirit/materiality; and public/private. Rather than a position of failure, premodern Japanese literature is presented as an instance of ontological...


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