The I.B. course in English A Literature has a flexible syllabus with many choices left up to the teacher. Many, but not all. The rules for choosing are somewhat complicated, but their object is to ensure a syllabus that represents the possibilities of literature across time, place, and genre. This laudable goal runs into a problem: most students are of one place, and all are of one time.
One of the works on my syllabus is Matsuo Basho’s travel diary The Narrow Road to Oku. It happily satisfies many of the course’s criteria for variety of time, place, and genre, but for just these reasons—and others—it challenges students to meet it halfway. I think it important to get the students to take up this challenge. The classic rationale was given by Dr. Johnson as he visited the ruins of Iona: “[W]hatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings.” Flannery O’Connor had a more up-to-date formulation: “The fact that [non-modern] works do not present [the student] with the realities of his own time is all to the good. He is surrounded by the realities of his own time and he has no perspective whatever from which to view them. Like the college student who wrote in her paper on Lincoln that he went to the movies and got shot, many students go to college unaware that the world was not made yesterday.” Her exasperation with this state of cultural amnesia leads her elsewhere in this essay to the rather pungent assessment that “by the reverse evolutionary process children are too stupid now to enter the past imaginatively.” The reason for this regression, she says, is that “ours is the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning.”
O’Connor is severe, but her assessment must not be dismissed out of hand. Students unfamiliar with the historical and cultural terrain that surrounds a work new to them will, like the rigid adults they are growing into, tend to dismiss it and thereby secure their rigidity. They ask why they should work at understanding something new and strange when other things are ready to hand and beckon with their familiarity. The answer of a liberal education to this question is that understanding is liberating.
Like a history course, a course in literature, as part of a liberal education, will get students to enter the past and other terra incognita imaginatively. But it is not just the student who must have a look: the teacher must also try to make the new terrain less daunting than students first take it to be.
And there is much in Basho to puzzle over. Students familiar with the tradition of long Western poetry (and even comparatively long Chinese poetry) will be surprised and at times puzzled by haiku, a form so short it is almost over as it begins. Stranger yet is the undeniable pre-eminence Basho reportedly holds as a Japanese poet: how can a poem of just a few words be so highly admired? And there is the Problem of Action: where is it? Among the diary’s highlights are a temple famous for its silence, a helmet with a cricket under it, a grassy field where a castle used to be, and a bay with hundreds of islands sitting in it.
Ah, the bay! It is called Matsushima, and though Oku contains a haiku about it by his companion Sora, an apocryphal haiku attributed to Basho is more famous. At a loss for even the few words that a haiku requires, Basho was supposedly inspired by its beauty to have written
A-a-h, Matsushima, Ah!
It turns out that this poem and his famous poem (also not in Oku) about the old pond and the frog are a way into the aesthetic of minimal communication. My students found the many translations of the frog haiku fascinating, particularly the one by James Kirkup that goes
They would sometimes find themselves reciting “Ah! Matsushima!” with amusement. I knew I had them when I asked them whether they had heard “The Junk Food Haiku.” I then recited, “Ah! McDonald’s!/A-a-h…” and didn’t get any farther than that before the room exploded in a wave of desk-slapping hilarity and laughter. It turned out that most of them thought of a classmate of theirs, famous for his love of McDonald’s hamburgers, which he buys for lunch every day. The “poem” got back to him: that lunch hour he looked at me with a big grin on his face.
This goofiness must not be despised: it lightens the whole and helps to pace the study of kigo and kireji and other keys to understanding. So does the use of “slide” shows that let the students see briar roses and verbena and shinobuzuri cloth and sumi-e paintings. So does the use of activities done in groups, where students work together with each other rather than under the Dreary Shower, as Blake called us. In one they compare Basho’s arrival at Shirakawa and Dr. Johnson’s arrival at Icolmkill. In another they work up their own travelogue with haiku imitating Basho’s record of his visit to the grassy plain of Hiraizumi. And of course they have to prepare the “Interactive Oral Activities” required by the I.B. in its course syllabus. In these they handle historical, cultural, and literary issues having to do with Oku. Sometimes I feel like a ringmaster! At other times I recall a line of Walt Disney’s, in which he said his job was to buzz around the studio like a bee spreading pollen. But one way or another I feel that they end up entering Basho’s world imaginatively and, after an outsider’s fashion, coming to some kind of understanding of it. This opposite to stupidity is an advance in their dignity as thinking beings.