WHR December 2011
A Study of Basho
The Way Of The Text
The first haibun of Narrow Road begins by evoking layers of wave-like returns. The first line—The months and days are wayfarers – is an intertextual reference to the Chinese poet Li Po, who proposed, in startling imagery, that life is but a dream, floating in the light and shadows of hundreds of generations. As Li Po looks back upon the continuance of ancestral influences, Basho looks back upon Li Po, as one of his poetic ancestors. The reference itself, with its ambiguous insight engages the tensions of the Metaxy.
Basho’s use of Li Po and other Chinese poets suggests that the nature of intertextuality and Zoka needs further clarification. According to Barnhill (34):
There are different ways of conceiving intertextuality. In a broad sense of the term, the influence of one text or writer on another and allusions to older texts are kinds of intertextuality. However, as Haruo Shirane has pointed out, contemporary approaches to intertextuality do not depend on the discovery of direct influence or reference. Rather, they involve the articulation of the cultural context within which a writer or text should be read, a context that helps to define the meaning or the text.
Basho did not see Japanese and Chinese poetics as separate poetics nor did he separate them from his journey. They were entwined through their Zoka spirit, just as the artistic mediums of expression were seen as one spirit.
Following Basho’s spirit by finding the equivalent understandings in our own Western philosophies of being: such is the metaxy. The journey is indeed universal, intracosmic and transcultural.
These generations of travellers, which Basho identifies with, are focused upon within the second movement of poem:
Those who float all their lives on a boat or reach their old age leading a horse by the bit make travel out of each day and inhabit travel.
Here we have a generalised ‘those’ who spend their floating lives travelling and in search of travel: their names are symbols of their travel, of their searching. The reference to the boat and then the horse are reminiscent of the previously cited allusion to Saigyo and the traveller-poet aesthetic (those that travel along the trails to discover insight into the Way); also, the reference is to those peasant workers who spend their lives travelling between regions, upon the ocean and rivers, or through the mountains passes. Both “groups” –sages and labourers– inhabit travel: journeying is their way of life; passing between regions is a way of life; they are symbolic of the journey, as well as the physically active participators of their journeys, in the In-between. Thus Basho confirms the universality of the journey/search.
The universality of the search is also symbolized in the line, ‘[m]any in the past also died while travelling,’ although vague in nature, is most probably a reference to Saigyo, who did in fact die whilst travelling. Such an act mirrors the paradoxical nature of the journey and hence the tension of the metaxical journey: while the journey of his life did end, the quest upon which Saigyo was embarked and which he is identified with was never finished because it was/is unfinishable. Both the aesthetic journey and the literary journey continued, to be entered upon by others (in this case Basho), despite the poet’s physical death. For Basho, Saigyo’s end is a return: an intertextual, aesthetic reaching back into the presence of the past. Four hundred years after Basho’s death, we readers can still continue the journey stretching back nearly a thousand years, by returning to Basho. We are afloat upon the path without finality and closure.
Such a simple declarative—many died while travelling – can also have grave personal overtones. One can infer that Basho foresees his own death upon his approaching journey. The qualifying ‘also’ is telling of such a projective motif. It is as if he is intending to set out on his journey, his quest for the Way, and not physically return to the Basho Hut. He is aligning himself with the ancient traveller poets, the journey of insight which stretches beyond mortality (toward the universal journey). Thus aligned, and already in the realisation that there is no definable, reachable goal of ultimate knowledge, of definitive is-ness, he is resigned to explore the nature of journey, of the Metaxy, yielding to the pull of the Beyond. Searching, however, is not a futile act. It is a gift, a liberation and can be joyous. Such an understanding of the participatory depths of things is an appreciation of true beauty.
The poem continues:
In which year it was I do not recall, but I, too, began to be lured by the wind like a fragmentary cloud and have since been unable to resist wanderlust, roaming out to the seashores.
Given his desire to define himself in terms of the journey, the quest permeates and pervades his past, while allowing us to understand that the journey we as readers are currently starting, or are just about to start (for this particular poem hangs in the tension of anticipation) is not Basho’s first. Basho has already travelled extensively before setting out on the “road to the north country.” The Narrow Road becomes one of the journeys overlapping with his previous journeys, within the frame of his life journey and his continuance of the aesthetic of the quest.
The self-reflective simile of the fragmented cloud being lured by the wind reveals how this desire is beyond direct expression, but can only be alluded to through the “meaning” that emanates from between the images in the metaphorical comparison: him, poet / clouds / wind.
The Shirakawa Barrier
The next movement of the poem brings the reader to the recognisable, temporal frame of the previous year:
Last fall, I swept aside old cobwebs in my closet as spring began and haze rose in the sky, I longed to walk beyond Shirakawa Barrier and, possessed and deranged by the distracting deity and enticed by the guardian deity of the road, I was unable to concentrate on anything.
The search for his place in the Metaxy has become obsessive, the pull of the Beyond irresistible. The cobwebs reflect the passing of time, as it takes time for spiders to spin them (therefore it took time for the spiders in Basho’s hut to fashion those cobwebs) and they are then literally swept away: an image of renewal and then sudden destruction, all in the face of decay, the dilapidated hut. This specific and active image then folds quickly into the textual and literal past as within a clause we have progressed from fall to winter to spring. Such a time-lapse syntactical illusion collapses the passing seasons, which reflect the infinite progression / return of the temporal world, held within the specifics of a given year, into floating, yet, paradoxically ordered memories.
The naming of the Shirakawa Barrier indicates a waypoint, a point at which to arrive at, in order to venture beyond it. The barrier is at once an ending and a beginning and, due to this paradoxical nature, it is neither. A kenotic spiral has been engaged, emptying the present, rendering it transparent for desire and the unimaginable Beyond.
The verb longs – I longed to walk beyond – reflects a desire that has been entertained for a long time, alluding to the notion that Basho has often imaginatively ventured past the barrier: a multitude of journeys and returns, held in the tension of desire, informed by his reflections upon previous physical journeys. The Shirakawa Barrier is also an utamakura—a sacred site in the metaxic journey.
Again, the Chinese intertextual “pole” of tension is also engaged through the imaginative-projective act of longing. According to Chinese poetic theory, poets, through their imaginative faculties, can take part in a spirit journey. I say take part, i.e. participate in, rather that purely create, because such places are often, as they are in this case, real (they are places within objective reality, too). However, they are real places sponsored by the imagination. They comprise an imaginative journey, but an imaginative return to real places. Barnhill says that “on the spirit journey, the poet can instantly encompass all time (in the Chinese sense of past and present) and space’ (39) via the spirit thought, the following of zoka.
In other haibun, such as An Account of Eighteen View Tower, or An Account of the Unreal Dwelling, Basho voyages to places of Chinese poetic lore, whereas here, he is returning to a native landscape. It is as if he is trying to ensure a balance between the Chinese and Japanese spirit, while maintaining a narrative tension. What I mean by this is that he engages a tension between longing, the imaginative journey, and the physical arrival that becomes later in the text, which is simultaneously a return: the tension between the becoming, what has come before and what is to come, flows through the text.
The Shirakawa Barrier has native intertextual and associative layers not merely attributed to Basho. Indeed, they stretch back further than the 17th Century. The barrier was ancient even in Basho’s time and once represented the border between the civilised world of the Yamamoto Japanese and the untamed regions of Oshu. At this checkpoint, a fort was erected to protect against the Emishi, or northern Barbarians. Sato describes the site in his introduction to Basho’s poetic sequence (19) :
A few centuries [after it was built] it apparently fell into disuse. By the eleventh century it had become an uta-makura that was supposed to evoke the sense that it was where civilisation and culture ended and what Joseph Conrad might have called the “heart of darkness” began.
There is little evidence to suggest that there were any remains of the barrier’s stockade, when Sora and Basho arrived at the site (an event which, interestingly forms a separate haibun in the sequence, illustrating the internal tension between imaginative return / transcendental journey and physical arrival), but the associative, symbolic nature of the barrier remains emphatic. The longing to pass into the wilderness, from the plains into the mountains, from the civilised world into the unknown, is symbolic of the aesthetic of journey, of adventure, which informs the text.
The barrier also has “narrative qualities” for the barrier also elicits a sense of danger. The reference to the deity of the road, a Shinto kamisama (god) adds layers of cultural and religious associations, but, again, also evokes a sense of danger, of phenomena upon the road ‘beyond our philosophies,’ beyond our understandings, from whom one must seek protection. This reinforces the concept of the entering of the wilderness, the haunt of Shinto gods.
By The Light Of The Moon
In the end I mended the rips in my pants, replaced hat strings, and, the moment I gave a moxa treatment to my kneecaps, I thought of the moon over Matsushima.
The moxa treatment anticipates and signifies the arduous nature of the road-not yet-travelled; anticipation of experiences to come, based on the knowledge of his age and previous travels. This physical-[immanent]-remembrance act is then brought into balance with the imaginative-projective act of envisioning the moon over Matsushima. This line is truly intriguing for it activates a number of poetic devices and tropes, which entangle within the concept of journey-return.
The moon is a kigo for autumn – the poem is “written” in May; the image is “before its time.” Consequently, the time between the “present” and the arrival at the islands has a quasi-definable dimension.
Matsushima is probably Japan’s second most revered utamakura (the first being Mt. Fuji). Its distance from Edo is well known. The moon and Matsushima are simultaneously occurring within Basho’s imagination: the two together direct us towards a poetic image so popular it is nearly cliché. A cliché, held and celebrated in the Japanese poetic tradition, but none-the-less luminous with reflective distance. This line again places the reader between the temporal-spatial and atemporal-aspatial, the immanent and transcendental, sensibilities of the poet-traveller. Such depth, with its anticipatory, participatory layers makes the image, for Basho and for the reader, beautiful, rather than merely picturesque.
Chiyo-ni would later use such a trope to win acclaim amongst her fellow poets with a poem about the anticipation of the autumn moon, rather than of the autumn moon itself. This evening! / since the crescent moon / I’ve been waiting (Patricia Donegan trans.). The essence of the scene’s beauty permeates between the lines, between the poet and image, rather than in the act of abandonment by the poet to, or into, the image. This is a key concept for appreciating the power of haibun.
(To Be Continued)