Wednesday, August 23

Lives of the Edo Poets

Nagai Kafû (1879-1959) wrote Shitaya sôwa in the late 1920’s, after the great Kantô earthquake had burned up most of what was left of old Tokyo. It’s an account of Washizu Kidô (Kafû’s maternal grandfather) and Ônuma Chinzan, two poets who were active in the mid-19th century. For Kafû, they seem to represent a culture lost in the modernization initiatives of his own lifetime, and this nostalgia is perhaps the only force holding together the book, which is essentially a piecemeal of biographical fragments Kafû has been able to dig out about the two men, arranged in roughly chronological order.
This nostalgia sometimes leads Kafû to start complaining about the declining character of this modern Taishô era, rather unbecoming for
Japan’s first translator of Nana. However, this sort of speechifying is luckily scarce. Instead we get passages where Kafû tries to rather show us just what we are missing, what it is he feels driven to search through family archives and temple records to reassemble:


It’s pretty rare to find a poem of Chinzan’s that doesn’t use the word “wine” somewhere. This year [1843], Chinzan wrote a long piece called “The Drunkard’s Song” for the monk Baichi. In the preface he wrote, “I’m the sort of fellow that, whenever I drink a bit too much, I can’t remember a thing afterward. Abbot Baichi of the temple I’m staying at allows liqueur every night. He lights the lamp and puzzles over rhymes, and I sit beside him and pour the wine. Whenever he comes up with a couplet he asks my opinion, but I get so drunk I can’t follow him, and my answer is sometimes to a different question all together. However in his kindness the abbot has never blamed me for this. After I come to my senses I’m quite ashamed of myself, so I’ve written this ‘Drunkard’s Song’, both to apologize to the abbot and to relieve my humiliation.” When I read this preface I was struck by a feeling of unspeakable purity, for I saw clearly before me the image of a mountain monastery where an old monk kneels and unfurls a scroll, while a young poet with wine cup in hand sits across from him under the lamplight.

There’s something appealing, I think for Kafû as well, about this sort of idealized literati lifestyle that both (a) appears (ostensibly) to have continued largely unchanged for more than a thousand years from Li Po to Rai San’yô and (b) somehow became something completely out of reach for a writer in the early 20th century.

On a side note, Kafû was apparently inspired to do this sort of archival work by similar books of Mori Ôgai’s, whom Kafû deeply admired. I really find this pairing fascinating, they seem to relate to society in completely opposite ways, but they must have had something in common (apart from apparently each having abandoned a foreign mistress to return to Japan of course).


Blogger Beholdmyswarthyface said...

Very charming and informative post. I hope you'll post more about Kafu in the future. Regards, Beholdmyswarthyface

10/16/2009 2:11 AM  

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