FIGURES OF DESIRE: Wordplay, Spirit Possession, Fantasy, Madness and Mourning in Japanese Noh Plays, by Etsuko Terasaki. Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2002, 329 pp., with monochrome plates, $60 (cloth).

Noh texts are usually seen as mere aids for performance. They are routinely denied recognition as autonomous and important literary productions. Yet, maintains the author of this interesting reevaluation, “no literature in the world can surpass these plays’ unique brilliance, and beauty.”

There is obviously much more to the text of noh than a mere descriptive analysis of the synopsis. Yet, as several authorities have stated: “Noh is not literature . . . it is an oral tradition, and performance itself is the only way in which Noh exists.” This acceptance of performance over textual analysis has, however, resulted in some oddities.

Why, wonders Etsuko Terasaki, is the performance of the shite, the role of one of the actors, considered so important that the role of the waki (equally necessary) is downgraded to secondary. Why is the shite so privileged at the expense of other roles, that is has dominated and “mystified” critical opinion? This kind of reading (“linear, monolithic”) so typical of noh scholars, deprives, she says, the text of its wealth and meaning.

Why is the wealth of allusion, of quotation, so denied? Noh text is not a mere collage of historical gatherings. It is a poetic drama, no less than any others. This ought be understood. To teach us, Terasaki examines six noh texts, all of which are attributed to the the 14th-century playwrights we now know as Kan’ami and Zeami, the “founders” of the noh theater. The plays are “Jinen Koji,” “Sotoba Komachi,” “Kayoi Komachi,” “Motomezuka,” “Matsukaze,” and “Eguchi.”

Terasaki’s methods are quite eclectic but together they present what she calls “a tropological analysis of the texts.” She explains her aims. “These topics include the ideological totalization of Buddhism as the religious-cultural authority; the performative aspects of the text that subvert such an ideological-cognitive thrust; the rhetorical function of reincarnation and prosopopoeia as other, and the priests’ most crucial act of apostrophizing the ghost, acting as a link between the living and the dead; the literal and figural dimensions of the tropes and the dynamics of the conscious and the unconscious of the character’s psyche.”

“Tropes,” “conscious,” “unconscious” — she uses terms of which her authors were innocent. They had not read the theories of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Paul de Man, or Jacques Derrida, all of whom she often calls in to support this idea or that. To be sure, in any contemporary academic analysis modern theory is used to illuminate nonmodern texts, even if the theory (Freud’s for example) is now largely merely theoretical.

Terasaki herself plainly states that her book is not written to present theories but, at the same time, one wishes there was less use of, in particular, French poststructural theory. To be sure, these still loom large in American academe (Terasaki is at Cornell University) and any professor must show familiarity with such authorities. Hence perhaps the long quotes from these authorities and noh texts being subjected to their Procrustion rigors.

However, there are other and more literary ways to explicate and Terasaki uses these as well. Her theme is important, her intent is impeccable, and her style can be limpid.

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