Border-Crossing Through Word and Image: Gods, Poetry, and Topography

Haruo Shirane (Columbia University)
Pre-modern Literature
Torre B, Piso 2, Sala T7
Start time:
1 September, 2017 at 9:00
Session slots:

Short abstract:

In premodern Japan the human world coexisted with other worlds, of the dead, of gods, of nature. How did one cross the borders between these worlds? The panel shows the significance of border-crossing and the language and tropes associated with border-crossing in poetry, prose, and performance.

Long abstract:

One of the major features of premodern Japanese cosmology was the coexistence of the everyday human world with various other worlds: that of the dead, the world of gods (kami), the sphere of buddhas, the realm of nature (animals, plants, mountains, waters), and the provinces, which were radically different from the capital and the court. Crossing the borders between the world of humans and those other worlds represented a major shift. Some major literary figures such as Saigyo, the medieval waka poet, became known as cultural border-crossers. How then were those borders represented? How did one cross those borders? What kind of poetry, prose, or performance did these border-crossers produce? As Kaneoka Rie argues, two key words in understanding the representation of topographical borders was hashi and saka, with hashi representing a vertical bridge (rather than the horizontal bridge) and saka indicating a border rather than a slope (as it does today). Hirano Tae shows that classical poetry (waka) became a major means of communication between humans and deities, with kami and buddhas sending oracles in the form of waka, and humans making offerings in the form of poetry and kagura uta (sacred chants performed before the god). Yoshino Tomomi examines the rhetoric and tropes used by Saigyō, showing how his poetry directly addresses and anthropomorphizes nature, ultimately taking the viewpoint of nature and revealing a sympathetic perspective of the other. Haruo Shirane, in his role as discussant, will note the key role of performers (storytellers, actors, dancers) as a key intermediary between humans and gods, buddhas, and the spirits of the dead, as a means of prayer (of summoning and asking for blessing), of welcoming and entertaining, of consolation and pacification, and of expulsion and purification. By looking at a range of key genres (prose, poetry, and performance), the panel will show the nature of these premodern borders as well as the significance of border-crossing and the language and tropes associated with border-crossing.