JAPANESE AESTHETICS: THE CONSTRUCTION OF MEANING

By Michele Marra
Philosophy East and West
Volume 45, Number 3
July 1995
P.367-386
(C) by University of Hawai'i Press


P.367 Recently, much has been made in the West of poststructuralist modes of interpretation that challenge the comforting stability of hermeneutical practices grounded in metaphysical explanations of reality. The great debate between the French and German inheritors of the Enlightenment has polarized the European and American fields of interpretation between a staunch opposition to the acceptance of definable meanings and a stern resistance to the dismantling of the concept of "presence" that for centuries has been at the core of Western epistemology. The twentieth-century rhetorical attack on the alleged rationality of the Platonic-Aristotelian-Cartesian-Hegelian scheme of things has vehemently resurrected the powerful antirationalist bent of the Sophist movement that, in the fifth century B.C., was reduced to a silence that thereafter led to its neglect. Although to the contemporary Western observer this mostly French renewal of nondialectical thinking might have come as a surprising phenomenon, it is my contention that the Japanese response to the postmodern debate has been softened by an inscription of the same conflict within the boundaries of its premodern culture. It is the purpose of this essay to show the role played in medieval Japan(1) by self-contradictory modes of interpretation that privilege both the fluidity of Becoming and the metaphysical presence of Being. Void and Nothingness When we observe the map of the contemporary process of capital accumulation, we cannot fail to notice a concerted effort by unpretentious structures of economic/political manipulation to draw a chart of dispersal in which the consumer is led to believe in his/her own personal empowerment. Individuals are needed as potential buyers at a time when monarchs, states, and national boundaries obstruct the free flow of exchange that make markets the undisputed lawmakers of the late twentieth century. This rising to "power" of consumers from different cultural backgrounds makes any concept of authority that is not directly invested in the alleged "choice" of the individual problematic. The truth is with the consumer, and there are as many truths as there are consumers. In fact, truth seems to reside more with the variety of constantly changing products that challenge consumers by confronting their "bourgeois integrity" with an alleged freedom to choose whatever they desire. Rather than being alienated, the subject is fragmented, like the frenetic buyer in a mall whose main anxiety derives from the puzzlement of selecting which brand from which store on which occasion. The commodity's disposable nature justifies consumers' lack of commitment and P.368 the unsteadiness of their convictions, which, far from being a source of continuing concern that still remains for the people of modernity, are the marks of updatedness, sophistication, and "liberation."(2) In spite of the bleak potential for its writing a new page of false consciousness, what we today call postmodernism cannot be denied the merit of continuing the unfinished business of modernism: to reject the transparency of a master history in which truth unfolds along the lines of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, and which a Cartesian subject constructs in binary opposition and Hegelian synthetic processes. The demise of grand narratives challenges the unitarian view of history that has made the masters of the written word the undisputable makers of human destiny. The pluralization of histories has made societies less transparent and less willing to accept the notion of an objective reality whose frame of reference is grounded in the unverifiable fable of the metaphysical world.(3) The Nietzschean Ubermensch is finally finding a concretization in the person of postmodernity, who, by accepting the tragedy of the demise of "truth" and by resuming the anti-Socratic philosophy of belittled Sophists, denies the existence of permanent, stable, "metaphysical" truths and essences. In spite of a multiplicity of interpretative strategies, the current debate on the postmodern focuses on how to dismantle epistemological categories that restrict the human mind within the closed boundaries of a metalanguage that fails to explain itself, let alone the object of its speculation. Nietzsche's murder of the reassuring myth of stability and meaning, as well as Heidegger's concept of the human fluctuation between belonging and loss, deprives humanity of a "scientific" apparatus that might provide legitimation to the process of thinking. If the main target of postmodernism is the dismantling of Western epistemology, non-Western cultures whose premodern world has developed independent of Western influences should well be positioned to claim their status of postmodernity ante-litteram. This is exactly what is currently occurring among Japanese intellectuals, for whom postmodernism is as new as the beginning of their civilization. For example, Karatani Kojin (b. 1941), a leading voice in contemporary Japan, argues that in his country the postmodern questioning of modernity was contemporaneous with the importation from the West of modernity in the second half of the nineteenth century. The invocation of traditional practices resisting the country's "blind" acceptance of modernism, modernity, and modernization can reasonably open the doors to postmodernity, provided that premodern conditions satisfy the postmodern requirement of deliverance from metaphysics. Given the impact that Buddhism had on medieval Japanese culture, Karatani is free to argue that the rejection of the dualities of one and many, inner and outer, subject and object, and mind and body has been at the core of P.369 Japan's philosophical tradition since time immemorial. Quoting from the distinguished writer Mori Ogai (1862-1922), he points out the postmodern nature of the Japanese subject, "a bundle of subjectivities" determined more by circumstances than by an appropriation of the Cartesian mind. Karatani argues that the lack of an original metaphysical apparatus explains the preeminence in Japan of the process of becoming (naru) over an absent presence of Being. The Japanese cultural tradition, he continues, has unfolded "naturally" and free of any metaphysical rationalism, from the time Buddhist thinkers developed the theory of impermanence (mujo) until the dismissal of rational categories on the part of the eighteenth-century philosopher Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801).(4) Although Karatnni's characterization of the Buddhist strategy of decentering, which reads a major stream of premodern Japanese thought in a postmodern light, is undoubtedly accurate, the presence of Motoori among the beacons of postmodernity is at best suspicious, given his leaning toward the reinstatement in Japanese epistemology of a metaphysical world that was part of a tradition no less prominent than its more postmodern counterpart. The presence in the Japanese philosophical tradition of what has been called "weak thought"(5)--the relativism of a continuously decentered philosophy of absence--implies rather than denies a "stronger" philosophy of Being that already made its apparently contradictory appearance within the Buddhist deconstructive stream. This metaphysics of presence reappeared during the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), when Japanese scholars were faced with a redifinition of representation as the linkage between ontology and its metaphysical ground--what has come to be known as "the spirit of representation" (kotodama). Before dealing with the hermeneutics of presence, however, let me examine a few features of Japanese antirationalism. "Weak Thought": Poetic Representations. There is some sort of commensurability between Nietzsche's proclamation of the death of God and the Zen patriarch's exhortation to kill the Buddha.(6) Both imply that if the construction of external authority (myth) does not die of natural causes, it is imperative for humankind to bring its life to a quick end. In both Nictzsche's nihilism and the East Asian monistic philosophy, ultimate values are superfluous inasmuch as they block the march toward knowledge by introducing a comforting and gratuitous end to the potential of change. Reality is a fable whose "appearance" is by no means any less real or unreal than the ontos on of what we take to be "scientifically" true. Nietzsche spelled it out clearly in the Twilight of the Idols: "The characteristics which have been assigned to the 'real being' of things are the characteristics of non-being, of nothingness--the 'real P.370 world' has been constructed out of the contradiction to the actual world: an apparent world indeed, insofar as it is no more than a moral-optical illusion."(7) As long as people insist upon reading the fabulistic experience of reality as "truth," they cannot be freed from the metaphysics of theology/ teleology, whose ground Heidegger exhorted to discard in order to be able to "jump into the abyss." Once the foundation of Being has been ungrounded, Being starts making sense as the constitutive possibility of not-being any longer. Heidegger, who strenuously searched for a method to get rid of metaphysics--without, however, sacrificing Being on the Nietzschean altar of the anti-Christ--argued that Being cannot be thought of as presence, since the only organ that can actualize it--thought---remembers Being as what has already disappeared (an-denken), a void moment of absence. Being is a trace of past words, a message transmitted (Uberlieferung) from generation to generation of mortal entities; it is contained in the process of becoming, and identifies with the fleeting rhythm of existence, nothingness.(8) Gianni Vattimo calls this exit from the metaphysical dimension "weak ontology, " an acceptance-convalescence-distortion in which "the metaphysical concepts of subject and object, or more correctly reality and truth-ground, lose their weight." In this lightened version of postmodernity, the split between truth and fiction/information/image is in some way reconciled by a human swinging (schwingend) in a lightened/ enlightened reality.(9) No one in the West has been more sensible to the distortions of metalanguage than the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, whose essays "Force and Signification" and "Structure, Sign, and Play" are devoted to showing the metaphoricity and circularity of all structural discourses. The logic/rationalism of metaphysics that informs all predetermined interpretative practices introduces into metalanguage the "truth" that one wants to find in a text already, before approaching the object of interpretation. The use of metalanguage is, then, reduced to a series of metaphorical and self-reflexive props without which the mind loses its ability to conceptualize. The Derridean process of deconstruction challenges the interpreter to pause on the opacity of metalanguage and meditate on the metaphoricaI/metaphysical plays characterizing interpretative practices. Derrida is indebted to Nietzsche when he moves from logic to rhetoric by subjecting to rhetorical analysis the metaphorical movement from image to concept.(10) The deconstructive practice that suspends the metaphysical correspondence among mind, meaning, and the method allegedly uniting them was not unknown to the Buddhist philosophical tradition, which characterized truth as an insight into a nondifferentiating and non-objectifying wisdom (praj~naa) that frees the interpreter from the danger of P.371 thinking of categories as absolutes. This nameless and formless reality stretching beyond the well-known boundaries of conceptualization has engaged the sharpest minds of Asia in the definition of what language can hardly name and concepts can hardly describe: Naagaarjuna (ca. A.D. 100-200) calls it `suunyataa (emptiness), Chuang Tzu (between 399 and 295 B.C.) refers to it as wu (nonbeing), and Lao Tzu (sixth century B.C.) calls it the tao (way). The American scholar Thomas Kasulis challenger this defiance of conceptualization by using the image of the hollow interior of a bell. Once the bell is struck, the observer expects a sound to come from it, but, Kasulis inquires, does the sound come "from the metal casting or from the emptiness inside"? He argues that no sound would be possible without either the hollow interior or the casting, so that "for the bell to resound, both the Being and the Nonbeing of the bell are necessary."(11) The grasping of the interrelatedness of opposites requires in Zen meditational practices a particular training of the mind called mushin, or no-mind, which introduces the practitioner to a mental stage preceding the formation of meaning. The medieval Japanese philosopher Dogen (1200-1253) called this privileged access to enlightenment "without thinking" (hishiryo) , which he distinguished from both "thinking" (shiryo) and "not-thinking" (fushiryo) . The peculiarity of "without thinking" is its nonconceptual and prereflective mode of consciousness, which makes the individual perceive reality as it is (genjokoan), without letting consciousness and the construction of categories intervene in the modification and distortion of reality. Experience then precedes the conceptual categorization of reality, which the mind scrutinizes as the coming into consciousness of past conditions. Prereflective experience avoids the distortion operated by the reflection of reality on the mirror of the mind.(12) Reality is then perceived in its phenomenological aspect of constant transformation (mujo), which resists reduction to the grammatical rules of logic and rejects the grammaticalization of conceptual categories. Let me use another eloquent example taken from Thomas Kasulis: Even if thought A (a flower) occurs to you, as long as it is not followed by thought B (is beautiful) no significance such as A is B (a flower is beautiful) is formed. Neither is it something which could be taken in the sense of A which is B (beautiful flower). Then, even if thought A does occur in your head, as long as you don't continue the thought, A stands before the formation of meaning. It is meaningless, and in that condition will disappear as consciousness flows on.(13) The logical links of the chain of existence are broken and nothing exists but experience before the stage of consciousness--the flower or the sound of the bell uncontaminated by the presence of a viewer or a P.372 listener. Language reconstructs experience by putting in grammatical form the results of retrospective analysis. Therefore, by reducing experience to conceptual categories, language fails to represent reality, whose portrayal falls prey to distortion and error, since language cannot catch the immediacy of experience. This reminds us of Nietrsche's theory of metaphorization, which results from the fact that things cannot be known in themselves since "the chemical analysis of the process of knowledge reveals that this is nothing but a series of metaphors."(14) If language must freeze on the page the absence of a fleeting and nonconceptualizable moment, error becomes the inevitable necessity in order for one to escape the burden of metaphysics (i.e., "thinking/not thinking"). East Asian philosophies have paid unusual attention to the problem of naming and the arbitrariness of all signifiers. We may recall the famous beginning of Lao Tzu's Tao-te ching: "the way is not the way people think of; names are not what people take names to be."(15) As a product of human consciousness, reality cannot ground itself in the stability of meaning, which, on the contrary, is relative and illusory. This perception of reality, which was shared by Taoists and Buddhists alike, further discredits linguistic activity as a temporary means to represent what in reality fails to prove its own existence. In Japan, philosophers of a major Buddhist school known as Tendai called the arbitrary linkage between sign and object "temporary specification" (kemyo), the fabrication of an imaginary relationship between the object and its naming as a tool for the organization of knowledge. Buddhists argued that since there is no truth in representation, what we take as reality is nothing but the product of "a worldly logic" (zokutai), while Buddhist truth (shintai) cannot become an object of representation. This explains the resistance that language encountered among many Buddhist practitioners--mainly members of the Zen school--whose teachings were transmitted experientially from mind to mind (master to disciple) rather than entrusted to the written page. The Buddhist justification of language occurred at the metaphorical level, where a privileged kind of language--namely poetic--came to be accepted as a "skillful device" (hoben) to supplement the contingent, illusory logic of ordinary language. The medieval poet Fujiwara Shunzei (1114-1204) stated that reality was the product of poetry and textualization. The perception of external reality was not informed by the impression of nature on the viewer's mind; it was rather the result of poetic representation. According to Shunzei, colors and fragrances were not located in nature, but in the poet's words. As he stated in his poetic treatise, the Korai Fuuteisho, "without poetry, although we might be able to pay our respects to the cherry blossoms in spring and admire the maples in autumn, no one would be able to distinguish [i.e., to understand] their color and fragrance."(16) Far from considering the perception of external reality to be the P.373 result of a passive reception of the natural world, Shunzei explained it as the active product of the poet's creative power, which becomes an experiential form of knowledge at the time of textual reception. The movement of the poet's heart (kokoro) corresponds to this moment of authorial creation, which the Japanese aesthetician Amagasaki Akira (b. 1947) calls "poetic subjectivity" (shiteki shukan).(17) According to Amagasaki, the reception of poetry is a transfer to the reader of "poetic subjectivity," whose reiteration Shunzei calls "the way of poetry" (uta no michi). It would be a mistake, however, to visualize such a "way" as a material structure of presence: we must, in fact, remember that the eye (or common subjectivity) cannot see it, since Shunzei's "way" is a process resulting from overexposure to poetic subjectivity rather than a localizable activity. Borrowing from the language of a major scripture of the Tendai school, the Mo-ho chi-kuan (Jpn Makashikan, Great Concentration and Insight) by the Chinese philosopher Chih-i (538-597), Shunzei described this process as a bracketing or stopping (shi) of the daily practice of conceptualization, expression, and language (gengo dodan) in favor of envisioning (kan) a reality that nothing shares with the illusory, temporary, ordinary world as perceived by the common subject. Shunzei's association of the "way of poetry" with the "Buddhist way" (hotoke no michi) freed poetic activity from the presence of a metaphysical ground, inscribing the production and reception of poetry within a spiral of emptiness and void. The title of his major theoretical work, Korai fuuteisho (Excerpts from the Poetic Body from the Past to the Present Time), refers to the role played by poetry as the textual reproduction of the three bodies of void, temporariness, and the middle (kukechu no santai). Shunzei was quoting from the Tendai theory of the "Three Truths" (santai), also known as the "Three Views" (sankan).(18) The first truth, known as the truth of void (kuutai) introduces what today we would call a poststructural model of representation inasmuch as everything is posited as a relative existence open to an uninterrupted process of deconstruction, the product of an arbitrary sign whose meaning results from a deferring movement of difference. The fallacy of naming is a fiction that promotes aberrant forms of communication that are discredited by the decentered truth that "everything is void, matter is void, void is matter." The simplistic or mimetic view that takes the sign to be the represented object corresponds to the second truth, or temporary truth (ketai), according to which everything is posited as presence in spife of its simply temporary existence. The potential for the specification of reality precedes what we take to be definitively specified on account of our faulty senses. The third and median truth (chuutai) mediates the rupture between absence (kuu) and presence (ke), ungrounding them both and presenting them as the supreme moment of undecidability. As in the process of Buddhist enlightenment, the poetic act entails P.374 the potentiality for the ideation of a deconstructible reality that denies the presence of what appears to be. Shunzei gives the example of utamakura or "pillow-poems"--foundation verses that established the language and imagery expected to be employed by poets while representing famous scenic spots--as producers of a textual reality much more powerful than the immediate result of the poet's direct experience. Poets were expected to have their experiences molded by the poetic tradition and were strongly forbidden to inject into their descriptions the details of the "real"--that is, temporary--view. Each viewer became a poet when confronted by the "actual" scene, inasmuch as his perception was immediately modified by textual knowledge. If required to write another poem on his vision, he would have to avoid the illusion of temporariness, concentrating instead on quoting from the autonomous sphere of textuality that was sharply removed from the world as commonly experienced. Similar to Buddhist experience, in this textual world, cherry blossoms do not scatter like snow, nor does snow fall like cherry blossoms. Instead, the poet creates a reality in which the reader is reminded that cherry blossoms are snow, and vice versa. The poem's form (sugata) produces, justifies, and treasures the para doxes of a decentered truth that refuses to accept the idea that flowers cannot dissolve into snow, or that snow cannot solidify into flowers. Rather than represent "beautiful flowers" as poets had done in the past, Shunzei creates a reality in which "beautiful flowers" speak the impossibility of representation. If we feel that, in spite of his claims to the need of overcoming the structural and linguistic limits of poetry, Shunzei was still tied to the conventions of poetic diction and rules of composition, his son Teika (1162-1241) delivered the final blow to the concept of poetic structure. Teika's erasure of linguistic rationality from the poetic act made him a very controversial figure in the cultural world of medieval Japan. His concept of poetry as an activity independent of the contextual reality of court life put him in open conflict with Retired Emperor Go-Toba (r. 1183-1198), for whom the poetic act was essentially a means of political legitimation. The charge of intellectual arrogance that Go-Toba moved against Teika in his Go-Toba in gokuuden (Ex-Emperor Go-Toba's Secret Teachigs) was mainly motivated by Teika's resistance to acknowledging the dependence of good poetry on the poet's social status. The emperor knew that high social credentials were paramount to the success of a poem, whose popularity was bound to be guaranteed by the author's political power. Teika's opposition to the concept of popular judgment resulted from his conviction that only a person versed in the "way of poetry" was qualified to formulate a judgment, no matter what may have been his or her social standing. As a matter of fact, Teika's approach to poetry was no less political than the one privileged by his P.375 imperial patron inasmuch as Teika supported the idea that monopolistic rights must be detained by private families whose major business was, as in the case of his own Mikohidari house, the legitimation of poetic lineages. Teika himself, however, challenged the idea of transmission by working on the creation of a poetic style known as the "Mysterious Style of Depth" (yuugentai), which Go-Toba warned young poets to stay away from because of its being inimitable. While relying on "ancient expressions" (furuki kotoba), by which he meant the words used in the first three imperial collections--the Kokinshuu (905) , the Gosenshuu (956), and the Shuuishuu (1055)--Teika stressed the need "to search for a new heart" (atarashiki kokoro)(19) in order to create the ecart (mezurashiki, metomaru) or surplus of meaning required of poetic language. Teika achieved this "new heart" by breaking the logical order of words and by creating ambiguity in the poem's syntactical patterns so as to interrupt the flow of signification. We can see this from the following poem: Samushiro ya The narrow mat, how cold! Matsu yo no aki no The waiting night autumnal Kaze fukete Wind wearing on/blowing Tsuki o katashiku Spreading one fold of the moon Uji no Hashihime The Bridge Princess of uji.(20) It would be hard to start detecting a preliminary meaning without first referring to the source of Teika's variation (honkadori), a poem by Teika himself that says: Samushiro ni On a narrow mat Koromo katashiki One fold of her dress spread Koyoi mo ya Tonight again: Ware o matsuran She'll be waiting for me Uji no Hashihime The Bridge Princess of Uji.(21) By going back and forth between source and variation, several images can be visualized, such as the night wearing on while the woman is waiting for her lover, the setting moon, the cold wind blowing on the Uji river, and the white moon shining on the robe of Hashihime--only half of which she has spread, since she knows that her beloved will fail again to appear. However, the peculiarity of the variation consists in the dispersal of signification that Teika achieves either by taking full advantage of the denotative richness of the Japanese language, or by creating grammatical mistakes that deprive interpretation on a logical grounding. In the first case the word samushiro indicates both the "cold season" and the "straw mat," without any need on the poet's part for linguistic specification. In the second, the expression kaze fukete (wind wearing on) is grammatically incorrect since kaze (wind) usually accompanies fukite (to P.376 blow), while fukete (to wear on) rather indicates the night (yo fukete), which is thus silently implied by Teika's purposeful mistake. Teika cuts his poems off from the process of interpretation by insisting on the impossibility of hermeneutical practices that claim to reconstruct an alleged original meaning. His poems are built to resist interpretative closure, as Amagasaki Akira has demonstrated by focusing on the following poem: Aki sugite The fall is over Nao urameshiki And here I am feeling bitter Asaborake In the early morning light: Sera yuku kumo mo Even the clouds streaming the sky Uchishiguretsutsu Turn into the rain of wintery storms. The hermeneutic task is made desperate by the proliferation of meaning that defers all potential interpretations, and makes the poem unintelligible. On a first reading, the poem above could easily be interpreted as a simple scenic description announcing the end of autumn and the arrival of winter. The metaphoricity of the storm would then refer to the tears of the narrator, who, for some unexplained reason, falls victim to bitterness. To stress the metaphorical aspect of the poem at the expense of the literal would also determine a shift in interpretation inasmuch as Teika's poem could then be taken as a human response to nature: the sudden disappearance of the lovely colors under the heavy storms provokes the narrator's depression at the sight of the intimidating clouds. The validity of these two superficial interpretations, however, is immediately called into question as the reader realizes that the poem's second and third verses are variations of a well-known poem from the Goshuuishuu, an imperial collection completed in 1086: Akenureba Since the day has broken off Kururu mono to wa It will become dark again, Shirinagara I know it, and yet Nao urameshiki This early morning light Asaborake ka na That makes me feel so bitter!(22) In this poem the narrator expresses his bitterness at the early light of morning that reminds him/her of the time when lovers must separate. The interpretation of Teika's poem, therefore, must be reviewed in the light of this variation to mean that finally the morning--a sad time for lovers--has come to remind the narrator that, no matter how temporary it might be, the present separation is the cause of her deep sadness. Far from providing any consolation, the natural setting contributes to an aggravation of the poet's depression at the sight of the winter storms, tears, announcing the end of autumn. A further interpretative displacement, however, follows the fact that the original poem from the Goshuuishuu P.377 includes a reference to a legend made famous by the Chinese poet Li Po (772-846.). According to this legend, King Hsiang saw himself in a dream exchanging amorous vows with the goddess of Sorceress Mountain (Mount Wu). When the time came to say farewell, the goddess confessed that she dwelled on a hill south of the mountain, where she used to transmogrify into a cloud each morning and into rain every evening. When the king woke up, he realized that the woman had told him the truth, and, as a result, he ordered that a shrine be built for the goddess. This reference opens a further possibility in the hermeneutics of Teika's poem, since the allusion to the Chinese legend points at an unfulfillable love, a love that has ended forever. This would also explain the first word in the poem, aki; besides indicating "autumn," it can also be taken to mean "to get tired of someone," with particular regard to romantic occasions. Then we could attempt the following provisional interpretation: "It is early morning, and although I have just been abandoned by my lover, who has finally gotten tired of me, I cannot forget the night spent with him. The clouds in the sky keep reminding me of him, and bitter tears stream down my cheeks." However, this is bound to remain a temporary interpretation whose displacement is guaranteed by the hermeneutical process itself, should we decide to continue searching for further deferrals and ruptures.(23) While Fujiwara Shunzei considered reality the textual product of poetry, Teika denied the existence of any relationship between the poetic act and external reality, whether the Buddhist realm of enlightened absence or the presence of the historical world. His style was strongly opposed by members of more conservative poetic schools, who labeled Teika's poems "Zen-like mad verses" (darumashuu) because of their resistance to interpretation The medieval poet and theorist Kamo no Chomei (1153-1216) applauded Teika's poetry as an example of surplus of signification deriving from an outburst of the poet's heart (yojo), whose wordless articulation (kotoba ni arawarenu yojo) catches a form of reality that the eye cannot see (sugata ni mienu keiki).(24) According to Chomei, with Teika's poetic performance, the silence of absence is more powerful than the presence of rationally explicable concepts, and leads the reader to an experience of yuugen, the ability to be moved by "the view of a late autumn sky where no color can be seen and no voice can be heard."(25) This style Teika called "Body with Heart" (ushintai) in a poetic treatise, the Maigetsusho, in which Teika strongly opposed the practice followed by poets in the past of privileging the arid logic of representation (kotowari). The Disclosure of Being "Strong Thought": The Spirit of Representation (Kotodama). The Western epistemological tradition of legitimizing knowledge by grounding it in P.378 transcendence has been strongly resisted by exponents of "weak thought" through the centuries. Although it might be difficult for the postmodern person to imagine the shocking impact that Gorgia's argument--"that nothing exists, that even if anything does exist it is inapprehensible by man, and even if it were apprehensible it would be impossible to communicate"(26)--had on a culture that hardly welcomed the appearance of a treatise titled On the Nonexistent, Or On Nature, we are all too well aware of the not always benign reaction of intellectuals, not to mention the "common" reader, to the antirational challenge of a Jacques Derrida. We can easily define the Western philosophical tradition as a variation on the theme of reality and other, visible and invisible, speakable and unspeakable, with the first term firmly grounded in the second and a single, clear mirror dividing the two. We might think, for example, of Plotinus' (A.D. 204/5-270) aesthetic concept of beauty as the mirroring of the invisible that is revealed--and not represented, as Plato had argued, with a patent reference to the imperfection of all imitations--by the artist's ability to capture the original form. Plotinus' theory implied the concept of emanation (tolma) of reality from a transcendental being that is made of the One (to hen) beyond all conception of knowledge, the mind (nous), the divine knower who is one with the object of his knowledge (noeta), and all-soul (psyche), the principle of life. Plotinus argued that since reality attempts to recapture its primal source and, at the same time, its emanation, beauty is the mirror reflecting the One onto reality. Art, therefore, acquired a revelatory purpose.(27) The empathy with nature of mystics such as St. Francis and St. Bonaventure is another instance of the aesthetic relationship between reality and transcendence. The specular philosophy of St. Bonaventure likens the world to a mirror whose brightness derives from the reflection of divine wisdom. The degree of brightness, however, differs according to the distance from its source of the reflected object. The American aesthetician Monroe C. Beardsley describes these three degrees as follows: A "shadow" is a distant and confused representation of God, by means of certain properties but without specifying the type of causal relationship God has to it. A "vestige" is a distant but distinct representation of God; the vestige is a property of the created being that is related to God as its efficient, exemplary, or final cause. An "image" is a representation that is both distant and close; it is a property that acknowledges God not only as its cause but also as its object.(28) Far from being unknown in Japan, the metaphysical explanation of reality occupied the mind of many intellectuals during both the premodern and postmodern eras. A good example is provided by the seventeenth-century theoreticians who developed the concept of what P.379 is known today as "the spirit of things" (kotodama), an attempt to recapture the primal power of language to unveil the source of signification. A comparison between Japanese aesthetic theories developed before and after this time reveals a deep transformation in the meaning of one of the key concepts of the Japanese philosophy of art, the idea of the "way" (michi) . The beginning of the Tokugawa period witnessed an erosion of multidimensionality that reshaped the "way" into a unidimensional structure grounded in the human body, whose main function was thought to be the disclosure of metaphysical truth. Rather than being a source of epistemological strength as had been the case in previous centuries, the slippage or ecart between the sign and the object of representation became a source of deep anxiety as a result of the bifurcation between reality (what is) and ideal (what ought to be), that is, between what Japanese philosophers in 1600 referred to as the "way of daily life" and "the way of the heart." We may think of Motoori Norinaga, who diagnosed the cause of this illness in the Japanese importation from India, China, and Europe of alien epistemologies such as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity. As a treatment, Motoori recommended the recapturing of the transparency of the "way of the past" (inishie no michi), the ideal time of mythical coexistence when the sign, he argued, corresponded to the object in a univocal and unquestionable relationship. Motoori's thirty-year struggle to decipher the most ancient Japanese written document, the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters, A.D. 712), and to make it readable again, aimed at disclosing a primordial language whose aesthetic dimension (adagoto) left no room far any practical connotation (jitsuyo). The experience of such linguistic revelation Motoori called "the moving power of things" (mono no aware), the ability inherent in language to be moved by the scriptive trace of a cherry blossom, rather than to conceive of the cherry tree in its material aspect of firewood. The latter, Motoori noted, was the result of the representation of what he called "common words" (tada no kotoba), the signs conveying "reason" (kotowari), and "the meaning of things" (koto no i). Mono no aware, on the other hand, was the domain of "pattern words" (aya) that dressed the elegance of poetic forms, leading to the disclosure of the "heart of things." The study of the classics, particularly the linguistic patterns of the Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari), became with Motoori a shortcut to the actual experience of mono no aware that, far from being limited to a textual event, was asked to disclose the truth of external reality by restoring to humanity the transparency of nature. Textual experience was simply a door to the realization of mono no aware, mainly related to the awesome moment of "experiencing" (kansuru tokoro) what the philosopher Onishi Yoshinori (1888-1959) called the "excitement" (kando), G verehren) of the aesthetic adventure. P.380 However, in Motoori's philosophy, experience requires the presence of the rational understanding (wakimaeshiru) of external reality (mono no kokoro, koto no kokoro), what Onishi has labeled "intuition" (chokkan, G schauen).(29) The aesthetic awesomeness of aware cannot take place without the physiological intervention of the eye, whose vision makes the "excitement" possible. It also requires the life of the external object, whose presence, Motoori reminds his readers, was erroneously discarded by the aestheticians of the Kamakura (1192-1333) and Muromachi (1334-1573) periods. He stressed the need to be deeply acquainted with external reality, so as to become "experts" (tsujin) of the world, the knowledge of which takes place through the physicality of the human body. Motoori recorded in his Iso no Kami Sasamegoto that, "unless you get in touch (furezareba) with all elements of external reality, you will not know the heart of things."(30) The same thing he repeated in the Shibun yoryo, where he warned his readers "to get well acquainted with the things of this world (seken no koto o yoku shiri)."(31) Although the body was essential to the experience of aware, there was more than simple physicality to the knowledge of the "heart of things." A judgment of taste was required that screens the objects fit for such an experience, a kind of culinary knowledge that is more than conceptual inasmuch as it goes well beyond the horizon of epistemology. This privileged knowledge, or aesthetic knowledge--the taste of things--is accessed through the surplus of signification conveyed by "pattern words" that Motoori believed would bring humanity back to the Being of existence. Despite his publicized aversion to Buddhist philosophy, Motoori's theory of language is profoundly indebted to the work of philosophers belonging to a Buddhist school known as Shingon ("True Word"). Shingon philosophy constructs the universe as a symbolic expression (monji) and embodiment (samayashin) of the indestructible and timeless Absolute known in Buddhism as the "Dharma-body" (dharmakaaya) and represented by Dainichi Nyorai (Skt Mahaavairocana). A series of mental, verbal, and physical practices unites the cosmic level of Dainichi Nyorai to the microcosmic level of reality. This linkage was provided by the mental envisioning of reality (mandala), the verbal expression of sacred words (mantra) , and the enacting of sacred gestures (mudraa). Language, therefore, was the phonetic link to the Absolute Buddha as a potential vehicle for conveying the "true words" of the Absolute. Sacred words were thought to be pointers to the root of language, which was the root of reality as emanated from the body of the Buddha.(32) A similar hermeneutical path was followed by the thinker Fujitani Mitsue (1768-1822), for whom also poetry was a means to the disclosure of Being. Like Motoori he considered the human patterns of individuation--self, will, desires, and passions--privileged components of P.381 human beings that Fujitani argued were known in ancient Japan as "the sacred" (kami). Rather than associating the senses with the potential production of evil, as Confucian thinkers had consistently argued, Fujitani described them as spiritual elements, hidden in the innermost part of the body (yuu), that made up what he called the "godly way" (shinto). Their power was confirmed by the fact that, if overregulated, the senses could destroy the body by causing illness, madness, or suicide. Fujitani distinguished the psychological aspect of the self from its bodily and physical expression (jindo), which was instead dominated by reason (kotowari). The "sacred" was contrasted to the "bodily" (hito), which Fujitani conceived as an external manifestation of the self (ken) regulated by social, ethical, and religious rules. The latter was responsible for the performance of the good and evil that resulted from the body's tendency either to observe or to break social conventions. Communication between the external, physical components of human beings occurred through daily language and daily actions that, by being unable to convey spiritual experiences of the self, Fujitani argued, ended up "killing god/the sacred" (koto to iu mono wa kami o korosu). A privileged language was required to disclose the inner self that he called "true words" (makoto) and "true acts" (mawaza), and whose location was to be found in the "way of poetry" (kado). This special language was alleged to heal the fracture between internal and external elements of human reality, and restore the "way of humanity" to the godliness of the "way of gods/senses." Fujitani referred to this special feature of poetic language as "reversed words" (togo or sakashimagoto) , which he explained in his Essentials of the Way of Poetry (Kado kyoyo) (1817) in the following terms: "Reversed words are like saying 'I do not go' when I actually go, and 'I do not see' when I actually see. Reversals are applicable to events as well as to feelings (jo). You do not reveal your thoughts; instead you build with words what you do not think. On purpose you invert the signification of words."(33) The power of poetic language, thus, resides in its ability to say something by not saying it, or to say it by pointing at something else, or even by its indicating the opposite of what the poet intends to say. In this respect Fujitani found two major rhetorical figures in metaphor and metonymy. In the first case, the metaphorical use of the word "flower" to indicate a person's life was expected to make the reader experience the transience of time that ordinary language could only catch as rational connotation. Likewise, metonymy was expected to highlight the "spiritual" side of experience, which would otherwise be confined to a dry, denotative linguistic pattern. Fujitani gives the example of the powerful eloquence of an expression like "I want to visit your house," which conveys much more strongly the desire to meet with someone than the more simple "I want to see you."(34) P.382 According to Fujitani, reversed words are the "spirit of things" (kotodama) hiding the presence of Being (kami); they are "true words" (makoto, written with the same characters as shingon) incorporating a spiritual presence (tama). Poetic language explodes conventional vocabularies beyond the constrictive field of denotation, informing the word with the formlessness of the noumenal/experiential. Kotodama is a language without words (fugen) that only a poet, a child, or a sage possesses. Poetry contains the hidden voice of Being (kakurimi) whose secrecy only the hermeneutical act can disclose.(35) Fujitani explained his method of hermeneutical recovery in what he called the "surface/underside/border theory" (omote ura sakai), according to which each word is made up of three meanings: (1) the apparent meaning that, in the case of the word for "pine tree, " for example, distinguishes that plant from the oak; (2) the excluded meaning of "oak" from which the pine tree is differentiated; and (3) the intended, symbolic meaning that, in the case of a pine tree in the East Asian tradition, would most certainly be the idea of "old age." The same scheme can easily be applied to sentences, in which case, according to Fujitani, the command "close the door!" would mean: (1) An order to close the door and not the window, (2) the fact that the door is open, and (3) the fact that the person issuing the order might be concerned with the cold or the noise coming from the outside. The third meaning--the "border meaning"--is the most problematic since it is the result of fallible conjecture. Once applied to the interpretation of poetry, Fujitani's theory argues that a poem (waka) includes three interpretative levels, culminating in the disclosure of Being. The first level is the expression of the poet's feelings at a particular time. The second indicates the undisclosed "other" of the poem, or what has been excluded from it. This is a key moment for the third and final disclosure of the internal conflict between the poet's innermost self and external reality. Fujitani provides several examples in the Light on the One Poem by a Hundred Poets (Hyakunin isshu tomoshibi), his reading of Fujiwara Teika's Hyakunin isshu. Following the lead of Amagasaki Akira, I will concentrate on the following poem by Sugawara no Michizane (845-903): Kono tabi wa For this travel Nusa mo toriaezu I could not offer the deity Tamukeyama The purifying paper: Momiji no nishiki Instead I will be presenting him Kami no manimani With the brocade of maples.(36) In addition to the literal meaning--the first level of interpretation--Fujitani reminds the reader of the extraordinary circumstances in which the poem was composed, as the reader can surmise from the fact that, had the poet planned his travel, he would have had plenty of time for the P.383 preparation of the customary offerings. The poet's inner desire to provide the deity with proper donations was thwarted by the fact that the travel in question is Michizane's trip into exile, and this prevents him from discharging his duties--the second interpretative level. The "border meaning" is the poet's profound resentment against the government at the thought that he has been deprived of his only chance to assure himself with divine protection during the dangerous trip to Dazaifu, on the island of Kyushu. According to Fujitani, the poet's anxiety results from the subjugation of the guts--the aesthetic sacred dimension--to the political rules of the body, or external reality. The poet penetrates and communicates with the inner self (kami) of the reader by dwelling within the "spirit of words" (kotodama), which awakens the reader to the truth of his real, "unidimensional" Being. Although they shared the common goal of engaging the Other and articulating a discourse on the topic of the invisible, the interpreters of yuugen and kotodama proceeded along different paths that are of cogent actuality to the contemporary debaters of postmodernity. While the theorists of the "deep and dark" (yuugen) undertook the challenging task of debunking metaphysics, the commentators of the "spirit of things" (kotodama) followed a hermeneutic strategy that, in spite of Heidegger's acrobatics of denial, never completely succeeded in silencing a resistant metaphysical ground. The struggle on the part of contemporary Japanese philosophers to "harmonize" the inconsistencies of the two systems into a native post-postmodern epistemology is far from complete.(37) "Weak thought" and "strong thought," however, continue to coexist in the works of contemporary thinkers while the possessing demon of metaphysical hermeneutics refuses to die in the postmodern land of the groundless Buddha. NOTES This essay was written under the auspices of a Japan Foundation grant that allowed me to do reseach in the Department of Aesthetics (Bigakka) of the University of Osaka from May to August 1993. I wish to thank Professor Kanbayashi Tsunemichi for his invaluable suggestions and for steering my research in the direction taken in the present essay. 1 - My use of the word "medieval" when applied to Japan follows the extended meaning provided by William R. LaFleur in his Karma of Words: Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1983), P.384 where "medieval" includes the Tokugawa period (1600-1868) have discussed this topic in my Representations of Power: The Literary Politics of Medieval Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993), pp. 154-155. 2 - For a critique of postmodernism see Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991). 3 - In response to the Marxist critique of postmodernism, the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo sees in the "chaos" of a fragmented subjectivity the seed of emancipation from the simplistic view of reality grounded in Creek metaphysics. See his La Societa Trasparente (Milan: Garzanti, 1989). 4 - Karatani Kojin, Hihyii to posuto modan (Tokyo: Fukutake Shoten, 1985), pp. 9-49. 5 - G. Vattimo and P. A. Rovatti, II Pensiero Debole (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1983). 6 - "You kill the Buddha if you meet him; you kill the ancient Masters if you meet them" (Zenkei Shibayama, ed., Zen Comments on the Mumonkan [San Francisco: Harper and Row, 19741), p. 29. 7 - Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ (1889; London: Penguin Books, 1990), p. 49. 8 - See Gianni Vattimo, La Fine della Modernita (Milan: Garzanti, 1985), pp. 27-38, 121-136. 9 - Ibid., p. 189. 10 - Both articles mentioned above appear in Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978). See also Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (1982; London and New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 78-83. 11 - T. P. Kasulis, Zen Action Zen Person (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1981), pp. 34-35. 12 - See also the analogous concept of "pure experience" developed by Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945) in the attempt to define the stage of nonreflective consciousness (Nishida Kitaro, An Inquiry into the Good, trans. Masao Abe and Christopher Ives [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990]). 13 - Kasulis, Zen Action Zen Person, p. 45. 14 - Vattimo, La Fine della Modernita, p. 175. 15 - Abe Yoshio et al., eds., Roshi, Soshi, Shinshaku kanbun taikei 7 (Tokyo: Meiji Shoin, 1966), p. 11. P.385 16 - Hashimoto Fumio et al., eds., Karonshuu, NKBZ 50 (Tokyo: Shogakukan, 1975), p. 273. 17 - Amagasaki Akira, Kacho no tsukai: Uta no michi no shigaku, Gendal bigaku sosho 7 (Tokyo: Keiso Shobd, 1983), p. 81. 18 - See the informed discussion by William R. LaFleur in his Karma of Words, pp. 80-106. 19 - See Teika's treatise, Eiga taigai, in Hashimoto et al., Karonshuu, pp. 493-494. 20 - Shinkokinshuu 420 (Kubota Jun, ed., Shin kokin wakashuu: Jo, SNKS 24 [Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1979], p. 150). 21 - Matsushita Daisaburd, ed., Zoku kokka taikan: Kashuu (Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten, 1958), p. 540, N. 33,836. See also Amagasaki, Kacho no tsukai, pp. 135-136. 22 - Goshuuishuu 672 (Fujimoto Kazue, ed., Goshuui Wakashuu 3, Kodansha Gakujutsu Bunko 586 [Tokyo: Kodansha, 1983], p. 98). 23 - See Amagasaki, Kacho no tsukai, pp. 136-138. 24 - Yanase Kazuo, Mumyosho zenko (Tokyo: Kato Chuudokan, 1980), p. 388. See also Hilda Kato, "The Mumyosho of Kamo no Chomei and Its Significance in Japanese Literature," Monumenta Nipponica 23(3-4) (1968): 408. 25 - Yanase, Mumyosho zenko, p. 388. See also Kato, "The Mumyosho of Kamo no Chomei," p. 408. 26 - George A. Kennedy, Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1980), p. 30-31. 27 - Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present: A Short History(1966; University, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1982), pp. 84-85. 28 - Ibid., p. 113. 29 - Onishi Yoshinori, Yuugen to aware (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1939), pp. 125-134; see also Amagasaki, Kacho no tsukai, pp. 222-241. 30 - Hino Tatsuo, ed., Motoori Norinaga shuu, SNKS 60 (Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1983), p. 445. 31 - Ibid., p. 87. 32 - See Thomas P. Kasulis, "The Origins of the Question: Four Traditional Japanese Philosophies of Language," in Eliot Deutsch, ed., Culture and Modernity: East-West Philosophical Perspectives (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991), pp. 213-226. P.386 33 - Miyake Kiyoshi, ed., Shinpen Fujitani Mitsue zenshuu, vol. 4 (Tokyo: Shibunkaku, 1986), p. 766. 34 - Ibid., p. 768. 35 - See the discussion on Fujitani by Isobe Tadamasa, Mujo no kozo: Kami no sekai, Kodansha gendai shinsho 450 (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1976), pp. 61-82. 36 - Miyake, Shinpen Fujitani Mitsue zenshuu, vol. 4, pp. 249-250; Amagasaki, Kacho no tsukai, pp. 260-261. 37 - See, for example, the interesting work of Sakabe Megumi (b. 1936) on language as a link between the transcendental and the intersubjective in the definition of a Japanese subject that is free of Cartesian dualities (Sakabe Megumi, Kamen no kaishakugaku (Tokyo: Tokyo Daigaku Shuppankai, 1976), and Kagami no naka no Nihongo: sono shiko no shujuso, Chikuma Library 22 (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, 1989).