The Dilemma of the Modern in Japanese Fiction. Dennis Washburn

Washburn, Dennis. The Dilemma of the Modern in Japanese Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Washburn attempts to detach the term “modern” from 20th century western literary or artistic modernism, westernization, technological change by attempting to create a universalized notion of the modern that (he acknowledges in the Epilogue) is in part built on Paul de Man’s argument that “the appeal of modernity haunts all literature.” (266) There is a classical sense of the modern that is related to mutability (mujo, mappo, and ukiyo). He looks at Genji, Chomei’s Hojoki, Saikaku’s Ukiyozoshi as taking place at three historical junctures when “needs to redefine selfhood in terms of a contradictory sense of present and past, ephemerality and permanence, gave rise to highly self-conscious narratives.” He’s been criticized for not historicizing these works enough, though: yes, Saikaku’s work “confronts the same dilemma found in Genji monogatari and Hojoki in its awareness of the contingency and impermanence of human existence, and it presents that dilemma in a similarly dialectic form that pits individual experience and passion against tradition and conventional behavior” (58) but this is a rather broad definition of what constitutes a confrontation of the modern, and the uses of the word ‘modern’ seem to become indistinct or almost unusable.  Many of his terms are similarly unfixed from their own histories.  He wants to free the word from being read as westernization, but in doing so he creates a generic word that doesn’t have a historical specificity.  However, there is something to be gained by this, as he is able to read non-Meiji texts as attempting ideological work, reinstating their uniqueness too. By choosing to look at the range of authors, he destabilizes (in part three) the fixation of other scholars on maintaining the shishosetsu/non-shishosetsu divide (suggesting instead shishosetsu is part of a variety of strategies of radical literary experimentation on the part of Toson, Homei, Soseki, Ogai and Kafu).


About kathrynpagel

Working on my PhD in Japanese literature, visual studies, and new media.
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