Monday, April 06, 2009

Dr. Johnson in Japan

For a Cub Scout project my 8-year-old has been recording the temperatures at 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. The thermometer hangs on the trunk of a fir in the backyard, and most days last week it was stuck in the 40s. Something happened Saturday. The morning reading was 32 degrees (frost on the car windows); the evening, 55 degrees (daffodils, dandelions). On Sunday, it was 69 by mid-afternoon: The kids wore shorts and rode bikes, fat red buds burst on the maples – more reliable confirmations of spring’s arrival than the vernal equinox.

Three-hundred twenty years ago last week, early in another spring, Matsuo Bashō left Edo (old Tokyo) with his friend and disciple Sora and started a nine-month journey through the highlands north of the capital. They shifted westward to the coast of the Japan Sea and turned inland again toward Lake Biwa, near Kyoto. Bashō’s account of the first half of the journey is titled Oku-no-hosomichi, translated by Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu as Back Roads to Far Towns (Mushinsha, 1968). Our library has a lovely first edition with the Japanese text facing the English, and watercolors by Hayakawa Ikutada. The passage corresponding to April 5 reads, in part:

“Dense, a long way through the valley, pine and cedar thick massed, moss oozing, Uzuki [April: “lit. month of the U flower,” notes Corman] sky chilly. Where the ten views ended, crossed a bridge and entered by temple gate.”

But for the temple gate, Bashō might be writing of our neighborhood. In a haiku from the same passage, he includes a woodpecker, such as we have hammering daily on our house:

“even woodpecker
can’t break into this hut
summer grove”

Corman, an American who lived for much of his life in Japan (he died in Kyoto, age 79, in 2004), is a gracious host. His introduction and notes are useful and learned, and he often cites Western cognates for Japanese words, ideas and customs. For instance, Bashō catalogs the possessions he carries on the journey, including “unavoidable hanamuke, etc., somehow hard to let go of, part of the trouble in travelling inevitably.” Corman defines hanamuke as “farewell gifts” – the presents his friends and admirers gave him as he was leaving Edo. In a note at the end of the text, Corman quotes Samuel Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands in connection with hanamuke:

“…it is not to be imagined without experience, how in climbing crags, and treading bogs, and winding through narrow and obstructed passages, a little bulk will hinder, and a little weight burthen; or how often a man that has pleased himself at home with his own resolution, will, in the hour of darkness and fatigue, be content to leave behind him every thing but himself.”

Corman cites a ragbag of Western writers – Callimachus, Leopardi, Louis Zukofsky, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Martin Buber, Pound – but none so often as Johnson, who emerges as an unexpected sub-theme in the commentary. When Bashō visits the ruins of a castle at Maruyama he writes:

“At bottom, ruins of main gate, etc., and seeing them so, eyes fill, and at old temple hard-by, family graves. Tombs of young wives of two sons most felt. The story of their heroism, though women, has come down, sleeve at my eyes.”

Corman glosses “the story of their heroism” like this:

“Cf. Johnson again in his travels with Boswell (which have many interesting overlays with Bashō’s journal and the differences also tell much): `To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish, if it were possible. Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses; whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings. Far from me and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue. That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona’!”

Basho’s generous inclusion of poems by Sora and others in Back Roads to Far Towns elicits from Corman a passage from Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare (1765):

“Parts are not to be examined till the whole has been surveyed; there is a kind of intellectual remoteness necessary for the comprehension of any great work in its full design and in its true proportions; a close approach shows the smaller niceties, but the beauty of the whole is discerned no longer.”

Corman is the sort of scholar/critic I prize, independent and polymathic, one who makes connections across space and time, in the manner of Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport (whose “Fifth-Seven Views of Fujiyama” includes Bashō’s journey among its storylines). This is from Corman’s introduction:

“Most of [Bashō’s] poetry (and it is within the tradition which he himself was shaping) evokes a context and wants one. The poems are not isolated instances of lyricism, but cries of their occasions, of some one intently passing through a world, often arrested by the momentary nature of things within an unfathomable `order.’”


Ed Baker said...

I also havwe a copy of this first 1968 ediion a real beautiful production it is in its original cardboard slip-case..

this book is in a Bellvue library?

I have old friends in Bellvue... Jamie and Michelle Brownlow..

cheers, Ed

Bettina Snyder said...

My thoughts exactly: they really have such a treasure at the Bellevue Library? Sounds wonderful indeed.
Your way of combing the every day of your own life with the things you read is very endearing, Mr.Kurp.