Sunday, March 10, 2013

building me temples and pagodas

This blurb on the inner flap says that the ur-theme of the Heike is transience -- "the fleeting nature of power and glory" -- the writer of the blurb taking into consideration the deaths of so many warriors and aristocrats, the dissolution of the incredible and nuanced Heike strength, the more-than-a-few references to Japan as a collection of "scattered millet grains" as if the nation is in danger of being licked up by a chicken, the characters comparing their lives to dewdrops, the assessment of passing tears in the sleeves of the aristocrats' robes, "they moistened their sleeves" (again and again), the number of buildings burnt, a statue of the Buddha accidentally melted, the capital shifted to Fukuhara then shifted back, the characters who renounce the world to become monks, nuns, or suicides, the multiplicity of rivers and sea-waves that need to be crossed; and the story is horrified by the opposite of this idea, Kiyomori's recalcitrant stubbornness, immobile and determined man, glaring at the skulls in his garden, not running away from the giant trickster face, and even the agony of his burning fatal illness will not stop him wanting Yoritomo's head.

"Never mind building me temples and pagodas,
never mind pious prayers for me once I am gone.
No, I want Yoritomo's head off and hung before my grave,
that is the only commemoration I wish."
What profoundly sinful words!

His stubbornness is not natural. But it might not be wrong to say that the Heike is in awe of him as Paradise Lost is in awe of Satan.

And yet the structure of the book in Royall Tyler's translation is steady, not fleeting or changeable, it stays around exerting its pressure on events, which are never allowed to wander away from the centre. The parasol stories can be romances or tragedies, they might involve a crowd in a city, they might describe lovers reciting poetry in a still garden at night (one parasol can be the opposite of another, is the point I'm making), but they are always relevant to the Heike clan or its enemies the Genji (they are in sympathy, these parasols, the mask changes but the purpose always keeps the same face).

Not one of the characters is immune to the gravity of the book. It binds them to its planetary surface. It bears them in the field of its momentum. Their transience is not transience for the reader, who sees them fixed by this gravitational pull. The reader's feeling for transience is being inhibited by the form of the book while it is being piqued by the events and language in same book, this Venus fly trap that tongues me in by talking about things passing, exciting movements, but it keeps me there so that it can survive and endure, and not suffer that dewdrop life itself, not pass away, so it becomes a TV show, it becomes a film, it becomes a book in translation, it becomes a kabuki play and another kabuki play, it draws "on all the technology around," as Hugh Kenner wrote once about Homer: "Homer is the West's six trillion dollar man. For two millennia and a half at least we have kept him alive and vigorous with an increasingly complex and costly life-support system that from earliest times has drawn on all the technology around" (which comes from his essay Ezra Pound and Homer). The reader enters that machinery.

Here's a picture: a book is a door, a small metal door into the side of a machine, into an engine, it is the petrol cap, the reader unscrews the front cover, the reader pours themselves in, the machine keep growling, the characters revive in their two dimensions, they go through it all again, the reader is three-dimensional, they can see into the guts of the two-dimensional character-animals, the story is on another plane, no one knows the name of this plane, no one has a number for this plane; the book stays still and feeds.

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