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Implacable merger of aesthetic and political

by David Burleigh

“Trespasses” may be a puzzling term (if you grew up with the Lord’s Prayer), but in a foreword to this selection of writings by Masao Miyoshi (1928-2009), Frederic Jameson speaks of the “Victorianist who turns into a Japanologist” and of the “implacable unification of the aesthetic and the political” in his work, which gives some idea of the range of these remarkable essays. Miyoshi grew up in Tokyo during Japan’s imperial ambition and defeat, then became a professor of English Literature in California, where he experienced the Vietnam War protests, later turning to re-examine the literature of his own country.

TRESPASSES: Selected Writings, by Masao Miyoshi. Duke University Press, 2010, 344 pp., $26.95 (paper)

The first essay in the book, “Literary Elaborations,” was specially written for this volume and rehearses the concerns of Miyoshi’s later thought. The title is misleading, because it is not primarily about literature at all, but about the author’s deep concern over the future of the university, mainly in his adopted country, the United States, though it resonates far beyond. Tracing the history of the modern institution, he contends that the academic faculty have now become “experts rather than authorities,” and work in a system in which “deviation is disallowed.”

There is much food for thought here and Miyoshi, always searching and provocative, asks the right questions. Funding, especially from the corporate world, now dictates the direction of much of the technological research being carried out, leaving the humanities “enervated.”

Since the corporate impulse, manifested in the “transnational” corporations that have replaced the earlier “multinational” ones, is entirely profit-driven, we now live in a world dominated by “consumerism,” which is gradually destroying the planet that we live on.

The answer, as Miyoshi sensed it, is to open up an entirely new area of research, into what he calls “environmental justice studies.” A change in the whole focus of education is, he maintains, “the only way to reverse our disastrous course towards the end of human civilisation.”

The essays that follow trace the writer’s varied interests back through a selection from his published work. After becoming an expert on Victorian literature, he then explored some of the differences between his country of residence, and his country of origin, trying to understand the presence, or absence, of a sense of self on opposite sides of the Pacific.

The “conspicuous absence of the speculative habit” among Japanese writers, particularly evident in the diaries of those first who traveled overseas, Miyoshi takes to be indicative of a different consciousness. He also astutely places some blame for the vacuum in which literary criticism in Japan subsequently developed on the lack of serious dialogue or engagement by critics in the West. His ability to see a question from both cultural perspectives is refreshing, and produces some unusual insights. It also forces him to consider the larger issues, quite fearlessly.

He has much to say about translation, and offers a detailed riposte to one of his own critics, and glancingly examines contemporary Japan, before turning once more to the major problems that preoccupied him, especially in education.

Because “[e]nvironmentally the earth has reached the point of no return,” much of what we now study is irrelevant, he says. The “basis of national literatures and cultures is very much hollowed out, as the nation-state declines” in a world driven by economic imperatives. It follows then that the “humanities as they are now constituted in academia are no longer … warranted.” Miyoshi offers these views in the penultimate essay, “Ivory Tower in Escrow,” but directs us toward a possible solution in the final piece, “Turn to the Planet.”

Even “multiculturalism” can be seen, Miyoshi emphasizes, as an abdication of responsibility in a postcolonial context. Rather than continue along a path on which even “comparative literature” is “an oxymoron,” he aligns himself with the values of Noam Chomsky, to whom the book is dedicated: A call for some kind of justice in a world increasingly dominated by wealth-accruing forces, in which, as he maintains, wealth and resources are being steadily transferred from the poor to the rich.

One particular bete noire of the writer is Thomas Malthus, whose 19th century theories of population growth were highly influential. Our task today, instead of being exclusionist, is “to discover the sense of true totality that includes everyone in the world.”

The planet that we live on is shared, and so we must learn to share our responsibility for it. It is something that poets and other writers have already begun to say too, though it is already getting late. Even without us, the planet will continue.

In a long interview appended to the end of the book, Miyoshi talks about his life experience, and how it relates to his thought. In one telling episode, he describes a visit to Japan with some other intellectuals, but concludes that the ideas that they aired were not listened to: “Japanese intellectuals, diasporic or otherwise, have no influence in the political realm.”

It is a disheartening conclusion, though it may be true.