Marra, Michele. The Aesthetics of Discontent: Politics and Reclusion in Medieval Japanese Literature.
Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991.

The oppressive autocracy of medieval Japan, the stylized court, and the contrived social order was offset among the intelligentsia by the inheritance of Chinese Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Because that intelligentsia could neither openly criticize the emperor and his court nor in good conscience participate with any sense of fealty, approximations to reclusion emerged. The cultivation of a life style expressing a desire for reclusion and of ways of creating reclusion became a solution.

The art, literature, and domestic habits of medieval Japan became expressions of an "aesthetics of discontent." This book examines this phenomenon in the literature of the period. The author provides a fascinating look at the entire social context of reclusion.

The six chapters of this intriguing study focus on several ways in which an aesthetics of reclusion evolved, often in a subtle manner that could be dismissed from a realpolitik standpoint as not efficacious. Literature is seldom viewed as a force for political and social change, and the creativity of the oppressed is usually ignored by history unless blood is shed. Thomas Carlyle's dictum that history is the story of great personalities has reigned for a long time.

But in the last fifty years, not only the study of history has changed to accommodate social elements but the study of literature, too, has rehabilitated meaning and thought as well as creativity and genre. All this legitimizes the study of reclusion east and west, pointing to reclusion, eremitism, and solitude as not mere eccentricities but as a path to resolving the innate contradictions of society and politics.

Author Marra sets out these parameters in a concise introduction, identifying four modes of discontent in medieval Japanese literature: 1) allusion, 2) contextual reinterpretation, 3) rejection, and 4) allusive variation.

Allusion is used in the body of literature known as the Taketori Monogaturi. The compiler of these tales  refutes the ultimate pretension to power: the emperor's claim to be a Buddha, trying to co-opt religion and morality under his authoritarian and arbitrary rule. These tales show that because no human being can achieve perfection (as in Confucianism) or immortality (as in religious Taoism), then the emperor's claim is a fraud. As Marra states

The Taketori's compiler emphasizes the illusory nature of the power in the hands of the mocked political center. The fact that the allusions are made to courtiers living two centuries before the time of the tale's version ... allows the compiler to escape the rigors of censorship.

In Chapter 2, the compilers of another genre -- the Ise Monogatori or Tales of Ise -- develop the concept of miyabi or courtliness to its logical degree. The ideal past with its virtuous court figures is deliberately but obliquely contrasted to the present decadence. The ancient values challenge modern government, and the preservation of the important documents of the past constitute an aesthetic critique of the present while positing an aesthetic realm forgotten by the present government and court.

By depicting these values in stories offered as folktales, miyabi becomes a spiritual and intellectual state of mind, a freedom of mind that embraces all the arts as timeless and transcending modern times and values. To dramatize the perfections of antiquity, the tales depict the past as a politicized, ethereal world bordering on utopian fiction. But in fact that world is the embodiment of Buddhism and the thought inherited from Chinese values.

What are these values? Loyalty, simplicity, aesthetic refinement or elegance, an elegance more sophisticated than the counterpart medieval Europe, perhaps. Most importantly is the inclusion of the virtue of reclusion.

Because of the social and political dangers of advocating reclusion, however, that topic remains in the realm of self and possibly within a circle of trusted friends. Reclusion cannot be openly advocated. Because of this secrecy, reclusion and allusions to reclusion lead to a sense of paradox and the artificiality of yearning for the past or hoping for social change in the present.

A typical theme in the Ise Monogatori is the forbidden love of commoner for noble, where a man without social distinction loves a woman separated by court and class from his affections. The man is an embodiment of virtues, the woman is a physical ideal but a shallow and thoughtless personality. Each person is shielded from reality by the contrived illusions of society. What the compiler presents are models: the intelligent outsider who covets tempting but hollow power is an aesthetic model for nature, art, and reclusion as antidote.

The Ise Monogatori theme leads directly to a couple of the most interesting chapters, for here we see the evolution of the aesthetics of discontent more clearly as the crisis of empire unfolds.

In Chapter 3, the Konjaku Monogatari includes a variety of reclusive techniques, highlighted by the story translated as "The Lady Who Admired Vermin," or rather, "Insects," specifically caterpillars. This story appears in translation in many anthologies of Japanese literature, but without the helpful analysis Marra provides in seeing the proper context of the tale.

The subtleties of Buddhist paradox are presented in this story of the noble and eligible maiden who snubs court and culture to raise caterpillars, which, she argues, are future butterflies and worthy of admiration in their own right. Her serving women and potential suitors are aghast at her hobby, her neglect of cosmetics and grooming, yet they secretly respect her single-mindedness, tenacity, her immunity to criticism, her equanimity and insight. Ultimately, the young woman shames court and society as a premiere recluse.

But expressions of discontent among the spiritually-minded (and those who respect them) are no longer confined to a private life in the central middle ages of Japan. The monks fed up with not only the pretensions of emperor and court but also the institutional authorities in Buddhist temples and monasteries who collaborate with the government, quit the hierarchy and become wanderers, travelers, beggars, and hermits. At first only brave souls like the poet Saigyo did this, but the numbers increased, presenting a model of behavior and life-style over the centuries, culminating in the poet-monk-itinerate Basho.

But the first of the monks to do this required a pretext. The pretext was feigned madness. Here are some examples. A monk would insist on the literalness of the Buddha's message to own nothing and -- like St. Francis of Assisi --divest himself of clothes in the city square and quit the town for the mountains. Another would beg, shamefully, rather than dine at the monastery. Another would insult authorities publicly, risking life itself but knowing that to be punished would itself create scandal for the authorities. Still others would allow outrageous accusations to go unanswered, merely so that they would thereafter be ignored by court, temple, and public opinion. Indeed, some of the lies were fostered by the monks themselves.

With  Genpin Soshu and Zoga Shishin, we see the techniques of hidden identity and pretended evil. Kamo no Chomei, the famous author of Hojoki, an essay on his ten-foot square hermit's hut, compiled a collection of these "mad" monks, recluses, and hermits in Hosshishu, highlighting Genpin and Zoga. This is the subject of Chapter 4.

This chapter focuses on Kamo no Chomei and the science, so to speak, of reclusion as the ultimate and necessary response to the decadence and arbitrariness of power. Chomei transcends the ambiguities of miyabi for an outright justification of reclusion in the concept of mappo, the Last Age. Marra carefully explains the Buddhist teaching on time and Chomei's ironic view of active reclusion as a form of attachment. Chomei depoliticizes reclusion as a social device, a political activism, as a projection of ego. Instead, he returns reclusion to the pure realm of mind and spirit. Marra follows the personal fortune of Chomei, his fall from success, his own reclusion, and his reflective writings, to clarify the object of Hosshishu.

Chapter 5 concludes with a candid look at how these many texts interact and are to be interpreted. The chapter focuses on the role of women writers in exposing the degradation of women in court and society, as seen in the famous diary of Lady Nijo, the Towazugatori or Unrequested Story. The diarist follows the machinations of court families over the years, seeing the ambition of men as particularly malevolent, vain, and irreligious. Quoting Saigyo, she asks:

In spite of all the splendor
In which you dwelt long ago
What happened to your power
Now that you are dead,
My Lord?

The vanity of politics and worldly ambition is contrasted with the special burden undertaken by women. Quoting from the Genji, Lady Nijo writes:

I cannot tell whether these clouds
Are smoke mounting
from her pyre;
And yet the sky is overcast,
my heart filled with sorrow.

Lady Nijo's diary reflects her sense of alienation and aesthetic dissent in a special kind of reclusion. She speaks for all women of her time (and beyond) in seeing the ruinous ambitions of men culpable for the many sorrows of women, her own life being a studied search for balance.

Chapter 6 is a look at the eccentric reclusion of Yashida Kenko's Essays in Idleness, where a kind of epicurean notion of reclusion is proffered, at once skeptical, refined, and secular. Kenko is an aesthete, unashamedly acknowledging the painfulness of change mingled with its opportunity for insight. Idleness is conceived as an aesthetic wu-wei after Taoism, but also as a synthesis of culture, dissent, and reclusion, a mingling of the old miyabi with the new reality of his late (14th century) and heroless age.

The author has captured a unique view of reclusion in history in this work, offering many avenues for exploration. The book is not always easy reading, but it is so fruitful a study and so carefully researched that any number of interests -- especially in hermits, eremitism, and solitude -- will find thought-provoking avenues to pursue.