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The Poetics of Motoori Norinaga: A Hermeneutical Journey
July 9, 2009

I do a lot of research when writing my novels. This fascinating book by Michael F. Marra provided much background material for Oh!.

Motoori Norinaga, born in 1730, is one of Japan?s most respected intellectuals who focused largely on defining Japanese cultural and literary aesthetics (poetics). Besides his scholarly studies and writing on literature, poetry, art, and language, he was also an early archeologist and practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine. Professor Marra?s book is the translation of Norinaga?s travel journal, ?The Sedge Hat Diary,? and several of his seminal essays.

Literary and cultural aesthetics are dense and complex topics, and ancient Japanese sensibilities are particularly difficult to grasp. Marra?s deft translation and his accompanying notes help to make these topics more accessible than many scholarly texts. Norinaga?s works will mostly be of interest to cultural scholars and poets, but also to historians, anthropologists, psychologists, literary theorists, and writers with an interest in Japan.

The subtitle ?A hermeneutical journey? refers to the purpose of Norinaga?s travels and his observations and analyses in ?The Sedge Hat Diary.? His journey follows the rich tradition of wandering poets and monks, traveling to discover insights into their country, nature, and themselves. Wearing a traveler?s hat woven from sedge - a tough pond grass - Norinaga?s two-week roundtrip journey takes him from Matsusaka in Ise to Yoshino, the most famous spot in Japan to view cherry blossoms.

Along the way, Norinaga records the prosaic details of a traveler: the weather, the accommodations, the terrain. He also points out the history of the villages, the shrines, and other points of interest. Along the way he writes poetry and recalls poems written by others who have traversed the paths. In this sense, his journey is analytical.

Besides the diary, Norinaga?s essays provide a more direct look at his poetics as well as his thoughts and even his prejudices toward subjects such as art. One of the most essays details Norinaga?s greatest and most well-known contribution. ?On Mono no Aware? which is literally translated as ?things of emotional response? and referring to moments of intense emotional awareness. On of its main sources is the sadness and transient nature of beauty ? cherry blossoms, for example. Norinaga also looked deeply into the source human emotions.

Norinaga especially referred to The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari) and Myriad Leaves (Man?y?sh?), the oldest collection of Japanese poems, as examples of written works that depended on mono no aware. Genji was written in the eleventh century by Murasaki Shikibu, the court name of the author, a woman distantly related to the powerful Fujiwara family who ruled Japan in the name of Heian-period emperors. Genji is largely about the romantic encounters of ?the shining prince,? and is rich with poetic metaphors of longing, passion and sadness. Genji is one of the world?s first novels, as we know the genre today. In it, the word aware appears on average once per page?a total of 1,044 times. The poems in the Myriad Leaves, some 4,500 of them collected over more than 130 years ending in the middle of the eighth century, are mostly love poems. At the time they were written, men and women had much more of an equal status, at least compared with the later feudal period. Open expression of emotion was not frowned upon as it was later.

Norinaga lived a long, productive life, dying in 1801 aged 71. He had many disciples who continued his work. While he wrote two hundred years ago about topics many centuries old at the time, he is still respected and continues to be relevant today. In many ways his ideas are surprisingly modern.

COMMENTS

Number of comments: 2
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Lee Witte
I wondered where the concept of 'mono no aware' came from.

Gail
Thanks for letting us know about this book. I just requested a copy through interlibrary loan.

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