April 1, 2010

Old words in new times


In fragment 252 of a book, Autobiographie, chapitre dix, I wrote the following:

Thus, approaching forty, the age when life becomes as delicate as dew, like a hunter building for himself a hut out of branches for the night, like the aging silkworm spinning its cocoon, I constructed a final shelter for my body. If I compare this dwelling with what was formerly mine, it’s truly a very tiny shack. In my declining years, my dwelling shrinks.

My present “house” covers a thirty-one square foot surface and is six feet high. Since I no longer need a stable home, its foundation is simply set on the ground. Thus I could easily move elsewhere if some unpleasantness arose. Presently I have paused in the scrub, near Villerough-la-Crémade: at noon I built a canopy, added a small terrace of reeds and, inside, against the western wall, in a niche I placed the portrait of Kamo no Chõmei, which I shift slightly each day, so that his face is lit by the rays of the setting sun. Above the sliding door, I install a small shelf where I put three volumes of poetry, my notebooks, and a pot of basil.

In the book, the description of the hermit’s retreat is protected by two other fragments (notebook “pages,” numbers 253 and 254) which are pages of silence, respectively:

page of silence, prose


page of silence, poetry

As a hermit, I place myself under the authority and example of Kamo no Chõmei, the poet-hermit of thirteenth-century Japan. The hut contains his portrait and the description itself is transposed from Chõmei’s own hut, site of his own seclusion after the great fire of Kyoto.

This fragment is written in a special style, invented by Chõmei, which he calls “old words in new times.”

Like other medieval Japanese poets, Chõmei has left behind his list of styles, the very one I chose to guide my own footsteps through the novel’s prose.

Chõmei’s choice was not accidental. Before his great “stylistic” decision (to live in seclusion), he was closely connected to a strange poetry enterprise, as secretary of the “poetry office” of Emperor Toba II, he was one of the chief compilers of the Shinkokinshu, the eighth imperial anthology, great “poem of poems” from which I drew one of the most constraint-bound visions for my Project.

Since The Great Fire of London was to be a story of the Project, this explains why I decided that it would be composed as a story in ten styles, in his honor.

The ten styles

(I) The choku tai, the style of “things as they are.”
(II) Rakki tai, the style for “mastering demons.”
(III) The Kamo no Chõmei style: the “old words in new times.”
(IV) The yugen, the “style of twilight.”
(V) The yoen, the “style of ethereal charm.”
(VI) The awareness of things, the mono no aware.
(VII) Sabi: rust; solitude.
(VIII) The ryohõ tai, “style of the double.”
(IX) Ushin: “deep feeling.”
(X) Koto shirarubeki yõ, “this should be,” muss es sein.

In the course of the preceding chapters (and in this very one here), I’ve already mentioned some of these styles, the yugen, the rakki tai, the “style of the double” (this indirectly by emphasizing the “double” nature of the photographs entitled Fez, and elsewhere; by double, I mean both an object (of thought, or of prose, or of poetry, or images), and its “style,” in this particular sense: it’s a double in the “style of the double”). This was to provide a perpetual resource for my novel, a trace of which remains in my present effort.

The interpretation given to these styles, transposed in haphazard fashion from medieval Japan to the nighttime bedroom of a mock hermit in the waning years of the twentieth century, was to be quite obviously an invention, I made a great effort to steep myself in my understanding of these styles (within the narrow limits of poetry, disregarding the religious dimension). I made a particular effort for style (VI), mono no aware, gathering under this title a French recreation of 143 poems selected from the imperial anthologies (this book also contains a selection entitled sabi (style VII)), but I know full well that I am a long way from clearly fathoming the original meaning (which moreover seems rather difficult to grasp nowadays even in Japan, if I can judge by commentators’ contradicting interpretations. In addition, each poet seems to have had his own interpretation of the styles, and even his own list: Chõmei’s is not Teika’s…) Therefore, I had rather blithely and obliviously appropriated this very suggestive division of the ways for approaching a prose-written reality (written in poetry as well, the poetry specific to the project.)

To each branch of The Great Fire of London there was to correspond, not a style, but rather a sort of characteristic “cocktail” of styles, composing a complex stylistic figure, governed by constraints. With this goal in mind I had forged myself a vision of each of the styles, based on the original examples I had been able to collect, but above all (rapidly abandoning this point of departure), based on a meditation focused chiefly on their names. Free to choose, I was able to test the invention of a thing by “deducting” it almost entirely from its name (and from a few elements of a “definite description,” like in the already mentioned case of the yugen). The totality of a prose narrative world would thus be divided up into areas dominated by a single style or a combination of styles, like colors.

- Jaques Roubaud, The Great Fire of London


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