The first paper of my Masterpieces of Japanese Literature course with the following topic:

Compare two aesthetic qualities discussed in this section. Using the texts respond to the following: How are the aesthetic qualities similar or different? Give examples of how each aesthetic quality is expressed. What factors contribute to the formation of the aesthetic quality? Compare one or more Japanese aesthetic qualities with one or more aesthetic qualities from your culture.

Within the aesthetics of Mono No Aware and Mujô three interrelated texts are pertinent. The prior concerns the Yügao story from “The Tale of Genji” and within the later both “An Account of My Hut” and “Essays in Idleness” are useful. Mono No Aware views the world as a beautiful, transient thing with the capability to bring about emotions. Mujô, in its simplest form, simply means “impermanence”, yet also characterizes the constant changing of the world. Between the three writings we can see two main relationships which exemplify how the aesthetics are similar and different. I’ll then further analyze these contrasts by implementing some historical backgrounds. Finally it will be shown that these ancient aesthetics simply cannot be compared with the scope of modern ones.

The first correlation involves a depiction of each authors ideal house. The issue is first discussed in a positive light by Murasaki Shikibu and Yoshida Kenkö. Shikibu’s character Genji remembers a song, no doubt influenced by Buddhist principles, that all should, “seek not in the wide world to find a home; but where you chance to rest, call that your house” (107). Kenkö’s Essays mirror this, further claiming that a house should also be clean, even if it is, according to both aesthetics, an entirely temporary entity (223). While obviously, “An Account of My Hut” has to do with Kamo No Chömei’s dwelling, it is interesting to note how his detachment from society leads to an inadvertent attachment to his home. He claims that, “only in a hut built for the moment can one live without fears”, yet seems only to escape from those whom would otherwise keep him safe (209).

This same idea of escaping fear is brought up as Genji’s lover, Yügao looks to the beauty inherent within the world, “[t]hey watched the sunset glowing in each other’s eyes, and in her wonder at his adorable beauty and tenderness she forgot all her fears” (121). For the Mujô authors, beauty is a much more solitary experience. Chömei’s story is very much self-centered, and his account of beauty parallels this as he states, “[m]y only desire for this life is to see the beauties of the season” (211). Kenkö has a view more correlative to the Mujô aesthetic, claiming simply that, “the beauty of life is its uncertainty” (232).

On this point all the authors seem to agree, favoring a flux over an unattainable constant. And though Genji might certainly have wanted his lover to live longer, he recognizes how fleeting life is; “I am as the moon that walks the sky not knowing what menace the cruel hills may hold in store; high though she sweeps, her light may suddenly be blotted out” (119).

Of course, with any great piece of literature it is important to look into the backgrounds of the authors themselves for insight as to how their writings were influenced. With our three authors the connections become quite clear. Shikibu, coming from the earliest, most stable period, writes in a similar upbeat and fictionalized fashion. Having no complaints with the current, stable system seems reason enough for writing fiction. Even by the time of its completion in 1021 there were still many years of peace and prosperity to be had before the decline of the era. With the transition into the Kamakura era came a further sense of detachment, a sentiment expressed through the pessimistic first part of Chömei’s story which recounts the endless tragedies which have ensued. He is led into seclusion to escape the grief of the world that’s been constantly changing for the worse. In the final Muromachi period the aesthetic is once again shifted towards reminiscing over the past and lost friendships. Kenkö claims that, “to feel that your friend, while you still remember the moving words you exchanged, is yet growing distant and living in a world apart—all this is sadder far than partings brought by death” (235).

In comparing these with modern aesthetics a complete breakdown is needed. Through modernization came globalization, and hence a confluence of often opposing aesthetics that have been subdued in order to co-exist and prosper. The resulting Post-Modernist movement left little objective qualities with which to quantify with any individual aesthetic of the past.

Keene, Donald. Anthology of Japanese Literature. Grove Press, New York. c1955.

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