Friday, June 15, 2012

Rationale: Afro-Asian Literature

This blog site compiles the required selections for English II - Afro-Asian Literature. This becomes the channel for the e-Class of the sophomore students as they delve deeper into the world and realms of Afro-Asian Literature. Moreover, the blogger gives credits and recognition to the authors of the selections.

The Spider's Thread by Akutagawa Ryunosuke

It so happens that one day the Lord Buddha is strolling alone on the shore of the lotus pond in Paradise. All the lotus blossoms blooming in the pond are globes of the whitest white and from the golden stamen in the center of each an indescribably pleasant fragrance issues forth abidingly over the adjacent area. Day is just dawning in Paradise.
In due course, the Lord Buddha pauses at the edge of the pond and beholds an unexpected sight between the lotus petals veiling the water’s surface. Since the depths of Hell lay directly below the lotus pond on Paradise, the scenery of Sanzu-no-kawa3 and Hari-no-yama4 can be clearly seen through the crystal-clear water just as if looking through a stereopticon.
Then, the single figure of a man, Kandata by name, squirming there in the depths of Hell along with other sinners, comes into the Lord Buddha’s gaze. This man Kandata is a murderer, an arsonist, and a master thief with numerous robberies to his credit. Yet, the Lord Buddha recalls that he had performed a single good deed. That is to say, once when Kandata was traveling through the middle of a dense forest he came upon a spider crawling along the roadside. Thereupon, he immediately raised his foot and was about to trample it to death. But, he suddenly reconsidered, saying, “Nay, nay, small though this spider be, there is no doubt that it too is a living being. Somehow or other it seems a shame to take its life for no reason.” In the end he spared the spider rather than killing it.
While observing the situation in Hell, the Lord Buddha remembers that this Kandata had spared the spider. And he decides that in return for having done just that one good deed he would, if he could, try to rescue this man from Hell. Luckily, he sees nearby a spider of Paradise spinning a beautiful silver web on a jade colored lotus petal. The Lord Buddha takes the spider’s thread gently into his hand and lowers it between the pure white lotus blossoms straight into the distant depths of Hell.
This is Chi-no-ike5 in the depths of Hell and along with other sinners Kandata is floating up to the surface and sinking back down over and over. No matter what direction one looks it is completely dark. And when one notices out there in that darkness the glow from the needles of the dreaded Hari-no-yama floating up vaguely into view, the feeling of helplessness is beyond description. Moreover, the surroundings are perfectly still, like the inside of a tomb. If a sound is to be heard, it is merely the faint sigh of some sinner. The sighs are faint because anyone who has fallen to this level of Hell is already so exhausted by the tortures of the other Hells that he or she no longer has even enough strength to cry out. Therefore, as one might expect, the master thief Kandata himself is unable to do anything but writhe, exactly like a frog caught in the throes of death, as he chokes on the blood of Chi-no-ike.
One day, however, something happens. Kandata happens to raise his head and spies in the sky above Chi-no-ike a silvery spider’s thread, a thin line shimmering in the silent darkness, gently descending toward him from the distant, distant firmament as though it were afraid to be seen by the eyes of men. Upon seeing it Kandata involuntarily claps his hands for joy. If he were to cling to this thread and climb it to its end, he would surely be able to escape from Hell. No, if all went well, he would even be able to enter Paradise. And were this to come to pass, he would never ever be driven up Hari-no-yama again, nor would he ever have to sink again in Chi-no-ike.
Having thought thusly, Kandata quickly takes firm hold of that spider’s thread with both hands and using all his might begins climbing up and up hand-over-hand. From long ago Kandata has been completely used to doing this sort of thing since he is a former master thief.
But because the distance between Hell and Paradise is some tens of thousands of ri,6try though he might, he is not able to ascend to the top easily. After climbing for a while, even Kandata finally tires; he is unable to continue for even one more pull on the thread. Having no other choice, he intends first to take a short rest. While hanging onto the thread he looks down on the distance below.
He sees that thanks to the efforts he spent climbing, Chi-no-ike, where he had just recently been, is now already hidden at the bottom of the darkness. He also sees that the faint glow of the terrifying Hari-no-yama is below him. If he were to continue at this pace, the escape from Hell just might not be as difficult as he had expected. Wrapping his hand around the spider’s thread, Kandata laughs in a voice unused during his years in Hell, “I’m saved! I’m saved at last!” Then he suddenly notices that below him on the spider’s thread, just like a line of ants, a countless number of sinners are following him, climbing up and up for all they are worth. When Kandata sees this, he momentarily freezes from shock and fear, his mouth agape and his eyes rolling in his head like an idiot. How could it be that this slender spider’s thread, seemingly strained even under the weight of just him alone, is able to support the weight of that many? By some chance were the thread to break, he, the egotistical Kandata who at great pains had climbed this far, and everyone else would plummet headlong back into Hell. For that to happen would be a disaster. But, even as he says this, sinners, not by the hundreds, nor even by the thousands, but in swarms, continue to crawl up from the bottom of the pitch dark Chi-no-ike and climb up the thin luminous spider’s thread in single file. If he doesn’t do something right away, the thread will break in two at the center and he will surely fall.
At this point, Kandata yells in a loud voice, “Hey you sinners. This spider’s thread is mine. Who the hell asked you to climb it? Get down! Get off it!” Just as he screams at the other sinners the spider’s thread, which till then had had nothing wrong with it, suddenly breaks with a snap right where Kandata is hanging. So, Kandata, too, is doomed. Without even time to cry out he goes flying through the air spinning like a top and in the wink of an eye plunges headfirst into the dark depths of Hell.
Afterwards, only the shortened spider’s thread from Paradise dangles there, glittering dimly in a sky void of both moon and stars.
The Lord Buddha stands on the shore of the lotus pond in Paradise having taken in everything from start to finish. When Kandata finally sinks like a rock to the bottom of Chi-no-ike he resumes strolling, his countenance seemingly creased with sadness. Seen through divine eyes, the Lord Buddha thought it wretched that Kandata’s compassionless heart led him to attempt to escape by himself and for such a heart falling back into Hell was just punishment.
The lotus blossoms in the lotus pond of Paradise, however, are not concerned in the least about what has happened. Those blossoms of the whitest white wave their cups around the divine feet of the Lord Buddha and from the golden stamen in the center of each an indescribably pleasant fragrance issues forth abidingly over the adjacent area. Noon draws near in Paradise.
The End

Akutagawa Ryunosuke

Akutagawa Ryunosuke 1892–-1927
(Born Niihara Ryunosuke) Japanese short story writer, novelist, poet, translator, and critic.
Akutagawa is considered one of the foremost writers of Japan's modern era, a period that began in 1868 under the rule of the Emperor Meiji. His works, particularly his short stories, contributed greatly to his generation's thoughtful consideration of such issues as the function and merits of different literary genres and the artist's role in contemporary Japanese society. They also proved instrumental in extricating Japanese literature from what critics consider the morass of gossip and tedious didacticism into which it had fallen before the Meiji Restoration.
Biographical Information
Akutagawa was born in Irifunecho, a district within Tokyo. His father was the enterprising owner of five dairies by the time Akutagawa was born. Shortly after Akutagawa's birth, his mother, who suffered from mental illness, lapsed into a schizophrenic state from which she never recovered. Memories of his mother's insanity and the resulting fear that he may have inherited her mental condition preyed upon Akutagawa his entire life; these factors also strongly influenced his writing, often serving as themes in his fiction. After his mother's death, his mother's elder brother and his wife, who gave the boy their family name, Akutagawa, adopted him. His adoptive parents had remained largely untouched by Western culture, and they instilled in him a reverence for Japanese traditions, particularly in literature. Akutagawa developed a fondness for ancient legends and tales of the grotesque, both of which later figured significantly in his work. However, he was a voracious reader, and by the time he reached middle school he was reading the works of Henrik Ibsen, Rudyard Kipling, and Anatole France, among others. Akutagawa attended Tokyo Imperial University, where he excelled in his studies of English literature, translated many Western works, and became active in publishing a student-produced literary periodical, as well as regularly participating in a discussion group conducted by the renowned novelist Natsume S√áseki. Akutagawa had begun publishing short stories in periodicals by the time he graduated in 1916, and he was widely acclaimed as one of the brightest newcomers on the literary scene. He accepted a part-time teaching position at the Naval Academy at Yokosuka, meanwhile strengthening his reputation during 1917 by publishing his stories in various magazines and in two collections. In 1918 Akutagawa married the niece of a friend he had known since childhood; in the same year he also entered into a contract with a Japanese newspaper to publish his fiction. This enabled him to resign his post at the Naval Academy and devote himself entirely to his writing. In 1921 Akutagawa was sent to China by his newspaper as an “overseas observer,” an assignment that proved to be a turning point in his life. Never having enjoyed sound health, he suffered during his travels from a number of debilitating illnesses that left him weakened, depressed, and helpless to combat a developing mental illness brought on by fears of a deterioration similar to his mother's. His writing, which up to this point was firmly rooted in history and legend, grew introspective and autobiographical. Akutagawa's fear of madness became obsessive, and he sought temporary respite from both psychological and physical troubles through the use of drugs. Following the mental breakdown of a close friend, Akutagawa committed suicide in 1927.
Major Works of Short Fiction
While Akutagawa did not confine himself to any particular genre during his career, his greatest work was done in the short story form. He consistently attempted to examine predictable and universal patterns of human behavior, and to depict those natural aspirations and illusions that transcend barriers of space and time. Conflicts between the natural inclinations of human beings and the demands imposed by ordered societies, as well as humanity's struggle with baser propensities, echo throughout Akutagawa's works. For example, “Rashomon,” which has come to be synonymous with its author's name in part because of the 1950 film version by director Kurosawa Akira, depicts the moral collapse of a man driven to assault and thievery by the horror he witnesses in a society that has itself collapsed and lives by the savage morality of expediency. In this story Akutagawa portrayed the psychological drama of humanity caught in the confrontation between circumstantial chaos and structured morality, an approach unceasingly fascinating to him, in one of the ancient settings he had always found so effective as dramatic background. His second volume of short stories, Tobako tu akuma(1917; Tobacco and the Devil), featured stories set in medieval Japan and drew heavily on Asian legends in form and theme. “Kumo no Ito” (“The Spider's Thread”) deals allegorically with one man's pervasive egoism, a flaw that proves fatal both to himself and to others. While Akutagawa's subjects constitute faithful representations of both the grim and the foolish aspects of human behavior, they are not always devoid of humor. “Hana” (“The Nose”), one of Akutagawa's best-known stories, addresses egoism by relating the predicament of a Buddhist monk who has succeeded in shortening his enormous nose, the bane of his existence and, as he sees it, the impediment to his social acceptance, but his vanity is penalized by disfigurement of his face and coldness from his peers.
Critical Reception
After his death Akutagawa was largely neglected in Japan by critics who considered his style affected and his poetic approach to fiction overly refined—as evidenced, for example, in his subtle characterization. If not for the lively interest of a Western audience, which was removed from Japanese literary debate and which found in his work a fresh Eastern perspective on dilemmas long familiar in Western literature, Akutagawa might have been completely forgotten. The history of Akutagawa's critical reception is far more complex; due to neglect by Western readers of the later stories, and a tendency in Japan to rate the author's efforts purely in terms of personal preference, more comprehensive critical estimations of Akutagawa's career were largely nonexistent for a time. However, more recent commentators have found that Akutagawa's stories are skillfully written and demonstrate scope unrestricted to his own time and culture, and for that reason widened the dimensions of their genre and helped make short stories a more important part of Japanese literature. Through his early work as a translator and his later concern with important critical issues, he helped introduce and foster the tradition of the European novel in his own country, where, according to some critics, the novel form might otherwise have degenerated. Far from being dismayed by the differences between East and West, Akutagawa used them as sources for both the content and spirit of his work; the result was a significant achievement in the development of modern Japanese literature.

Literature and Its Main Divisions

Literature's Three main divisions

When most people speak of literature they may be talking about short stories, novels, poems, verse, odes, plays, tragedies, even limericks.  This wide variety of terms describing types of literature, at first, appears overwhelming.  However figuring all of this out is simplified when you take into account that the menagerie of types begins with three major paradigms:  prose, poetry, and drama.
Prose is derived from a Latin root word, prosa, that means "straightforward" (other scholars argue that the root for "prose" is proversa oratio, which means " straightforward discourse."  Prose is generally defined as direct, common language presented in a straightforward manner.  A victim of identity by negation, prose is frequently defined as "that which is not poetry."  Prose demonstrates  purposeful grammatic design in that it is constructed strategically by the author to create specific meaning.  Prose also contains plot and the attendant narrative structures of plot.
In most cultures, prose narrative tends to appear after a culture has developed verse.   Prose genres are many and varied, ranging from science fiction to romance.  The major generic divisions of prose are:
  • novel - A lengthy fictional prose narrative.
  • novella - A fictional prose narrative ranging from 50 to 100 pages, most common in science fiction and detective fiction.
  • short story - a brief fictional prose narrative.
  • anecdote -  A very brief account of some interesting, usually humorous, event.
Poetry, from the Greek poetes which means "doer" or "creator," is a catch-all term that is applied to any form of rhythmical or   metrical composition.    While poetry is considered to be a subset of verse (and also considered to be superior to verse) both are rhythmical/metrical.  What distinguishes poetry from verse is its "imaginative quality, intricate structure, serious or lofty subject matter, or noble purpose."   Most culture's first serious literary works are poetry (In Western tradition, we need look only as far as Homer and Hesiod).   The purposes of poetry are said to include:
1.     A didactic purpose, meaning that it aims to instruct the reader.
2.     Unique insight that is not available in other genres.
3.     To provide pleasure to the reader.
4.     To uplift the reader to some higher insight or meaning.
Drama, is simply a work that is written to be performed on stage by actors.  From the Greek dran, meaning "to do," drama is thought to have developed from ancient religious ceremonies.  For instance, Greek comedy is traced to ancient fertility rites.  Tragedy (which comes from the Greek word for "goat song") can be traced back to sacrificial rituals. 
The term play has come to mean drama written exclusively for performance, while the "loftier" term drama, is commonly reserved for works that are considered to be more serious works.