Seeds in the Heart Summary
by Donald Keene

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Seeds in the Heart Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

As a critic and translator, Donald Keene has done more than any other individual to bring Japanese literature to American readers. Countless students and autodidacts first discovered Japanese writing in his pioneering anthologies. His book-length translations and critical studies have made some of the riches of Japanese literature accessible to those who cannot read Japanese, while hinting at the existence of much more for those who go on to master the language. With the publication of Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from the Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century, Keene concludes his most ambitious project: a personal survey of the entire span of Japanese literature. The first volume in this series, World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867, was published in 1976. The second and third volumes were published together in 1984 as Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era, with one volume devoted to fiction, the other to poetry, drama, and criticism. Now the series is complete.

Seeds in the Heart takes its title from one of the two prefaces to the Kokinsha, an anthology of poetry compiled by imperial decree at the beginning of the tenth century. “Japanese poetry has its seeds in the human heart,” the preface began. Many late-twentieth century readers will agree. Indeed, Keene’s book will provoke many, at least during the time of reading, to wonder why they have not devoted their lives to the study and appreciation of Japanese literature, so seductive is this history.

There is nothing complex about Keene’s approach to his subject. He has read, it seems, virtually everything that was written in Japan during the period of nearly one thousand years spanned by this volume. He describes the works and their authors, situating them briefly in their historical context, conveying something of their unique flavor, and assessing their contribution to Japanese literature. (This is not to imply that Keene is an “impressionistic” critic. On the contrary, he is a meticulous scholar, and the notes that follow each chapter give the reader a sense of the ongoing critical dialogue in Japan and the West.) At a time when byzantine theories dominate the academic study of literature, Keene has written a book from another era—doubly so, in that he is fascinated by the distinctive qualities of a particular national literature. That approach, once so common in literary criticism, has long been out of vogue, in part because in some quarters it is associated with discredited notions of race, culture, and the “spirit” or essence of a national group.

Unfazed by this verdict, Keene clearly relishes the big questions about the literature that has been his lifelong love. While he notes parallels and divergences between the development of Japanese literature and that of national literatures in the West (and elsewhere in Asia), these comparisons and contrasts serve primarily to highlight the Japaneseness of Japanese literature. At the same time, Keene stresses the extent to which many of the works he discusses, precisely because they are “rooted in the human heart,” speak to readers who are distant from them not only in time but also in language and culture.

Consider, for example, the genre known as zuihitsu, a term whose literal meaning is “following [the impulse of] the brush.” As Keene explains, “An essay in a book of zuihitsu may be no more than an intriguing sentence or two, or it may extend over several pages. In the end, after reading a series of seemingly unrelated anecdotes or impressions, we may nevertheless feel a great sense of intimacy with the writer.”

This genre, which has no real counterpart in the West, illustrates one of the most striking features of Japanese literature: its continuity. Just as large numbers of Japanese continue to write poetry in traditional forms, so the popularity of zuihitsu persists; “a bookstore in Tokyo today,” Keene observes, “is...

(The entire section is 1,253 words.)