Thursday, November 27, 2008

Mono no aware: what is it and where is it?

To start engaging The Remains of the Day with the civilisation exclusivity question and select Japanese concepts, we turn first to one of the most prevalent Japanese aesthetics: mono no aware. In this posting, I will explain and attempt to define mono no aware according to various critical sources as well as my understanding of our lecture notes. Then, I will cite examples of mono no aware in Ishiguro’s text before raising questions about the nature of this novel.

Mono no aware is an awareness of the poignant sadness of things. Sometimes translated as “pathos” instead of “sadness,” mono no aware is an acceptance that things, people, places, or circumstances, etc. are capable of expressing or evoking sadness. It is a Japanese aesthetic concept that can be traced back through the centuries to Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s use of aware in The Tale of Genji and Motoori Norinaga’s subsequent construction of the term mono no aware in critical analysis (more on Norinaga later...). In the meantime, here is what Mark Meli has to say about this concept’s “hermeneutic” or interpretation:

“The term ‘mono no aware’ has been often used by both Japanese and Westerners to exemplify an important aspect of what is seen as a traditional Japanese aesthetic consciousness, or bi-ishiki. In the spoken language, the component ‘aware’ depicts sorrow or misery; ‘mono no’ attributes this ‘aware’ to the things of the world, taken either in the particular or more usually the abstract sense. This literal sorrow or misery of things is taken often to signify a sad, fleeting beauty that is conspicuous in traditional Japanese cultural expressions” (Meli 60).

Mono no aware’s “sad, fleeting beauty” is most closely connected to the Japanese notion of transience (mujō) or sensing-impermanence (mujō-kan), “which claims that no thing in the world is permanent, that all things, both beautiful and painful, must inevitably pass away” (Meli 60). For instance, when one realizes the impermanence of something, one grows sad at the awareness of it passing away – almost as if one could feel or sense its passing.

Both of these terms (mono no aware specifically) merit more explanation. Meli details his approach:

“While investigating the history of such literary usage might indeed give us a clue as to why this term came to be so important, it would also lead to an unending accumulation of passages wherein the term is used in rather variant ways. Thus, a hermeneutic investigation into how the term has been explicitly theorized and interpreted, how certain thinkers have attempted to explicate its meaning and connect it with the Japanese literary tradition, seems to me a better approach” (Meli 60-61).

I highly recommend Meli’s article for a deeper understanding of how mono no aware is used in order to deduce its meaning (see the bibilography at the end of this blog for further articles and information). For my purposes here, however, I am going to give examples of mono no aware in The Remains of the Day as a method to consider the “Japanese-ness” of the text according to our Civilisation Exclusivity debate.

The strongest sense of mono no aware in Ishiguro’s novel is at the end. This is not to say that the concept doesn’t appear throughout the novel, but that Stevens takes a while to fully acknowledge both past and present events and thus become truly aware of the sadness of things. In the final chapter, Stevens recalls Miss Kenton reminiscing about Darlington Hall with him the day before. She philosophises about her life and says to him, “you get to thinking about a different life, a better life you might have had. For instance, I get to thinking about a life I may have had with you, Mr. Stevens” (239). In Stevens’ narrative, he writes of his reaction:

“I do not think I responded immediately, for it took me a moment or two to fully digest these words of Miss Kenton... their implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed – why should I not admit it? – at that moment, my heart was breaking” (239).

Stevens has spent nearly the entire novel recalling his glory days at Darlington Hall and emphasising, almost all the while, his encounters with Miss Kenton. Indeed, this is the only time where the text admits to any sort of romantic relationship between the two, and interestingly enough, it is Miss Kenton who mentions it and not Stevens himself. Now, he can say that he felt “sorrow” at Miss Kenton’s words but “at that moment,” he was probably not aware of his sadness because his emotions were hurt. In retrospect, Stevens is recoiling with regret at what-could-have-been if he and Miss Kenton had seized one of the many opportunities they had at romance.

These opportunities appear throughout Stevens’ memories of Miss Kenton. The fact that we recognize them as opportunities when Stevens does not is a further example of mono no aware – or rather, our awareness of the sadness of things. Ishiguro’s impressionistic mode of writing scatters sexual words throughout certain episodes to evoke the tension between Stevens and Miss Kenton. His word choice includes, “mounting”, “penetrating”, “considerable length”, “she came”, “ah, Miss Kenton” (78-79) and others. It is because of Ishiguro’s skill with language, subtext, and emotion that we feel mono no aware at particular times – cumulating in the final dialogue detailed above.

For more examples of mono no aware in The Remains of the Day, stay tuned to subsequent blog postings and/or comments. In the meantime, these examples show some of the ways in which this text is “Japanese”… but what about its Western aspects? To be continued…



skram said...

The passage on 239 ("my heart was breaking") is to me, definitely the most overt example of mono no aware in the text. Although the tone of the novel seems to elude to the poignant sadness of things, it is definitely at this moment that the aesthetic becomes most clear. Mujo kan also plays a big part here, as the transience of human relationships is emphasized, and as you mention Mel, the "what-could-have-been" is lamented.


skram said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
skram said...

I think an important part of gaining some added insight to "mono no aware" is learning where this concept originated from. Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) a literary and linguistic scholar invented the concept "mono no aware" to highlight a uniquely Japanese sensibility he found in literature.
Motoori is from the Edo Period (1603-1867) in which a great shift in the views of education took place. Formerly higher education was available to only Samurai and Buddhist priest, but this shift allowed for middle and upper class to also learn. Motoori being of the merchant class was one of the new generation of formal education.
He first studied medicine and was a practiced pediatrician in his home town of Matsusaka. However he had a great interest in japanese history and literature and was especially fond of "The Tale of Genji" and "Manayoshu". This lead him to study the Kojii which is the oldest living history of Japan. Motoori wanted to discover what was truly Japanese in both language and sensibility, and this desire is what lead him to give a name to "mono no aware".


skram said...

Let me take this opportunity to say something more about mujō-kan and mono no aware...

In Steven Heine’s article “From Rice Cultivation to Mind Contemplation: The Meaning of Impermanence in Japanese Religion” he cites Karaki Junzō, a literary historian who “trac[es] the conception of impermanence back to its origins” (Heine 377). Karaki argues, and Heine agrees, that mujo-kan is connected to mono no aware or, more specifically, its initial concept of aware as in The Tale of Genji: “the Genji emphasis on the emotion of aware, or an attitude of sensing-impermanence (mujō-kan), which clings to a sense of regret and remorse as the human subject deeply feels the dissolution of life all around it” (376-377).

In The Remains of the Day, the following episodes which evoke mujo-kan similarly do so for mono no aware. Towards the end of the novel, Stevens discusses the changes at Darlington Hall through the years (new ownership, no longer a place for international conferences, smaller staff, etc.) These changes mirror those in Stevens. Admittedly, he is getting older and errors have been appearing in his work. He writes, “I gave my best to Lord Darlington. I gave him the very best I had to give, and now – well – I find I do not have a great deal more left to give” (242). Time is passing, and even through the pathos (mono no aware) in his words, we see that Stevens is coming to terms with that. He says, regarding his talk with the man on the pier, “Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day” (244).

...But we don't feel sad here. When someone recognizes the sadness and transience of things together, there is no room for further sadness because the realization was the goal, and the sadness a step on the way (ie: Buddhist philosophy and notions of transience that Meli references in his article).