Ideas about how to study and understand cultural history—particularly literature—are rapidly changing as new digital archives and tools for searching them become available. This is not the first information age, however, to challenge ideas about how and why we value literature and the role numbers might play in this process. The Values in Numbers tells the longer history of this evolving global conversation from the perspective of Japan and maps its potential futures for the study of Japanese literature and world literature more broadly.
Popular American writer and speaker Natalie Goldberg, best known for her 1986 best-seller Writing Down the Bones, has been a student of Zen for thirty years. A wonderful storyteller, her writing is full of wisdom from Asia. Her new book is a pilgrimage to the places in Japan close to the heart of her favorite haiku poets.
A young lady surnamed Yu died after obsessively reading Tang Xianzu’s play, The Peony Pavilion. The Ming/Qing literary critic and editor Jin Shengtan, took to bed for four days after reading certain lines of the same play. The encounter with great literature produces an aesthetic shock, comparable to becoming lovestruck. Since Plato and Aristotle, western literary critics have pondered the significance of these emotions provoked by art. Li Qiancheng’s Transmutations of Desire describes how Chinese literary critics addressed this phenomenon, and composed some of the most compelling descriptions and explanations for it.
The texts that are examined in this study move in and out of different languages or are multilingual in their origins. Texts and authors do not move randomly; rather, they follow routes shaped by the history of contact between different nations of the transpacific.
The Hōjōki, written in 1212 by the Buddhist monk Kamo no Chōmei, is one of the most beloved works of medieval literature in Japan. The opening lines of his chronicle are familiar to most people:
The flow of the river never ceases
And the water never stays the same.
Bubbles float on the surface of pools,
Bursting, reforming, never lingering.
They’re like the people in the world and their dwellings.
The lineage novel flourished in Korea from the late seventeenth to the early twentieth century. These vast works unfold genealogically, tracing the lives of several generations. New storylines, often written by different authors, follow the lives of the descendants of the original protagonists, offering encyclopedic accounts of domestic life cycles and relationships. Elite women transcribed these texts—which span tens and even hundreds of volumes—in exquisite vernacular calligraphy and transmitted them through generations in their families.
The whimsicality and enchantment of this collection of Ossetian folk tales could best be captured in the seductive melodies of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s fairy tale operas and the evocative stagings of Leon Bakst or Ivan Bilibin. The Tales of the Narts go back deep into the well of time, to the age when the Scythians pastured their horses from the Danube to Gansu, and when the Chechens, Adyghe and Karbadians were forging iron swords in the crags of the Caucasus.