Monday, February 07, 2005

Fool’s Paradise

In my last comment, I alluded to the best known of Basho’s haikus in a rare attempt to connect with actual readers, who are more likely to have heard about the crow and the frog than other examples. Part of the point of reading a book like Ueda’s Basho and His Interpreters, however, is to wander away from the usual guided tour and get a slightly better idea what Basho’s oeuvre is like in itself. The poems that strike a Western reader as Zen-like exemplify a by now thoroughly domesticated variety of the exotic, at least for a West coast kid like me who grew up in the heyday of the Beats; but many of Basho’s poems are rather like 19th Century vers de societe or classical epigrams and most of them depend for their full effect on literary echoes inaudible to outsiders or historical and geographic references. Ueda’s book has another virtue. Because he quotes several Japanese interpretations of each poem, his book reveals that their obscurity is not simply a function of cultural distance. The locals aren’t sure what they mean either. One might expect that different readers would have differing takes on the metaphysical implications of such brief and allusive verses, but the literal meaning is not settled either. We shouldn’t make the school kid assumption that the grown ups have the answers in the answer book, even to something as tractable as the plain sense of seventeen syllables.

Old men often become indecent, showing less and less respect for cherished vanities like the fantasy that people have attained, if not the truth, then at least a stable consensus of error. As a matter of fact very little is ever really settled, but I suppose it’s a bit malicious of me to enjoy rubbing it in. Since I’m not that old yet, I guess it must be precocity.

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