Bashō, Valéry, and the real meaning
If there is one thing I learned from Ueda’s book, it’s that haiku have a lot of readings.
And I don’t mean fancy deconstrutivist readings of modern experimental no-kigo haiku. These are classic commentaries by classic scholars of the most classic of haiku authors; they have as much weight of Authority as it’s conceivable. And it quickly becomes clear that there’s no one true meaning one could appeal to.
Such an observation isn’t at all controversial in literary circles, but the general public remains attached to an essentialist hermeneutics. They argue a lot about what Bashō really meant with this or that verse. Not only the question is unanswerable, but in any case why should Bashō’s intention matter for anything? If I write a silly pun, no one would care if I really meant it to be a thoughtful critic of contemporary social constructions; what I wrote is still a silly pun. What a work actually is doesn’t change based on what someone once wished it was. Meaning only makes sense as an interaction between reader and work; therefore, any work has an infinite of meanings.
Perhaps one reason non-lit people are so attached to the concept of “true meaning” is the structure of our educational institutions, with its emphasis on exams and grading and correct answers that’s so absurdly inadequate for any sort of art or humanities study—indeed, it’s on many levels inadequate even for science or math. Perhaps another reason is a slippery slope fallacy—people seem to take “an infinite of meanings” to mean “all meanings”, which would render all works the same and therefore is evidently false. But this is fear of a strawman; no literary theorist ever made that claim, not even Derrida, not Lyotard, no one.
The literary theorist I’m very into, at this moment, is Paul Valéry. Valéry has this notion of literature as a pair of related but distinct actions (the work being just part of the means for the actions to exist; without the actions, the work is no more than an inanimate object). In the act of creation, the work stands as an endpoint and a lighthouse of sorts. It’s a very long and troublesome process, starting way before the creator wields her pen or keyboard; and during this period (that Nietzsche called “gestational”) the rough, phantom idea of a work will help the creator edit his own thoughts, rejecting some, exploring others, nudging his mind in this or that direction, stalking some unseen insight patiently like a hunter or photographer (thus Valéry’s claim that “all poets are critics”—notice he himself was a major poet, and a major critic). The act of literary creation is one method for the writer to manage is own thoughts, to direct somewhat the normally uncontrollable flow of his internal monologue. The resulting text is just the trace left at the end, when the process has exhausted itself.
(Aside: If you consider that there’s no reason to privilege the “final” snapshot of the work and that any work will have other, earlier traces, you’ll arrive naturally to genetic criticism, of which Valéry was a precursor and influence.)
The act of reading, by contrast, is very short and high-bandwidth. That huge creation-process is concentrated in a few lines delivered to the reader’s mind (and body!) in but moments. All that order and structure therefore seems wonderful and miraculous, and the writer something of a genius or superman. (Many writers have remarked on the huge gap between the impressive reasoning & polished language of his published books and his messy, random, unremarkable everyday thoughts). In opposition to the act of writing, and whatever be effect the reader gets from the work, the act of reading itself is just a starting point. Reading will launch or nudge or force or invite trains of thought that will be very different from the author’s thoughts that originally left this work as a trace. How could they not be? It’s another person. No one’s internal voice is the same, not even of the same person in two occasions.
Concrete example: My act of reading of Valéry has induced very long internal monologues in my mind, which have mixed with the thought-flows generated from Ueda’s book (itself a trace of numerous traces of thought-flows generated on several critics by Bashō’s traces, and of the effect all those traces had on Ueda). When I decided to write a blog post, I forced myself to filter out a lot of pointless stuff, to cut off many hanging threads, and to find a hopefully interesting pattern of mental movement to deposit here. The effects this will have in the monologue of my readers (assuming someone reads this) is unpredictable to me, and in any case it’s besides the point.
I find it interesting to compare this model of literature with Bashō’s life and work. Haiku is clearly written much faster than most literature, faster than the novels and poetry books that Valéry presumably had in mind (even if we don’t count extravagances like Saikaku’s tens of thousands of (non-literary) haiku made in a single day). But I think Valéry is still valid; the process just happens at a different level. The Bashō-style haijin consciously directs the creative labor to his own self, in body and mind; she intentionally sharpens herself into a haiku-making machine, so to speak. Bashō’s ascetism, hard travels, cultivated friends, his dedication to the arts is the haiku-making process. Having achieved a state of cultured sensibility, the haiku will just arise (comparatively) naturally, like the proverbial koto-no-ha (“leaves of words”) that come from the heart when it’s moved, “not unlike a frog’s song arise from the frog’s own nature”. Valéry’s long process of creation is there; it’s only that the goal of changing the writer is made even more explicit. A haijin is someone who sets up an environment where haiku happens, and the pivotal element of that environment (and main object of work) is the very haijin.
(I should stress that “comparatively” to avoid misunderstandings—haiku is still literary creation; which is to say, it’s not effortless or thoughtless. There are numerous commentaries by Bashō himself and by his disciples, as well as genetic evidence, showing that they worried about word-choice, rhythm, phrasing; that they edited, fixed, and laboured like any other writer. The æsthetic ideal of koto-no-ha can be misleading. There are some who think Bashō would only compose “honestly”, “directly from life”, but I think these people must be fooling themselves—there are many examples in Bashō’s work where he clearly describes the creation of fictions, without showing any guilt about it. But that’s not even the problem. Literature and art is such that its subject must be fiction even when it’s real. Without artistic distance there could be no art—you can’t write a poem about a flower while being impressed by the flower; one has to sit down and recall (therefore recreate, therefore falsify) the experience. As Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa famously put it, “The poet is a faker / who’s so good at his act, / he even fakes the pain ∕ of pain he feels in fact”.)