Saturday, July 26, 2014

Silence

Silence. Sometimes sought after, but in reality almost certainly feared - the absence of not just sound but voice. Silence is often associated with divine encounter - the neptic tradition of the Philokalia comes to mind - but also and perhaps more accurately with abandonment, divine or otherwise. I recently read Shusaku Endo's Silence, a remarkable work, dwelling on the theme of abandonment in the context of the extirpation of Kakure Kirishitan communities in Tokagawa Japan. Many resilient families survived and eventually came out of hiding in the liberalization in the mid-19th century, but the persecutions were terrible. Their story is deeply moving (sufficiently so that over time I find myself drawn to devotion to the image of Maria-Kannon). Endo's novel was not without controversy but remains one of the great literary accomplishments of the 20th century.

In fact, the reason for this post is a kind of double entendre on silence: the relative silence in literate western circles with respect to Japanese literature of the past century. Over the last month, I realized that virtually no one I had spoken with had read a single Japanese novel. Yet, like Russia of the 19th century, Japan produced a concentration of great writers and great novelists in the last 20th century that is set apart: the forces of of profound national changes (and defeat) created the crucible of great art. That art carries the distinctive aesthetic sense of Japan - a kind of openness of form, but is necessarily the carrier of universal, humanistic themes.

Endo is a writer in the post war period - the so-called third generation, and in my view the last of the wave of great Japanese literature. Read him. But don't stop - perhaps don't start - there. The early 20th century work of Natsume Soseki are a product of the Meiji period. In my view, Soseki is not only a father of Japenese literature but one of the greatest figures of world literature taken as a whole - I am a Cat remains one of my very favorite novels. Two troubling post-war novels by Yukio Mishima merit attention - Confessions of a Mask and the Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea, both I would characterize broadly as existential masterpieces. The topic of identity in the face of westernization is also a moving theme in Osamu Dazai's No Longer Human. I hardly mean this as a complete survey - something in any case I am not qualified to provide -just a pointer toward something broader and important.

My encounter with contemporary Japanese literature - albeit limited - has been less impactful (I want to like Haruki Murakami in the same way I want to like Victor Pelevin, but both make me think of the distorted echo of something far better). And again like Russia, it is difficult to know what to make of Japan today - where its future will lead, whether it will see a cultural resurgence or decline. It is certain that its roots are deep and I hope she finds a way to draw on them and to flourish.


2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Try Yasunari Kawabata. I've read so many of his novels, and they portray the silence you speak of. I also love Murakami, but Kawabata didn't like him, either. -xl

4:06 PM  
Blogger Greg Pavlik said...

Yes, Kawabata is outstanding. I was thinking of doing a followup post on Japanese cinema, which really is in a class by itself - I was just thinking of the film adaptation of Snow Country today by coincidence...

4:39 PM  

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