Reading “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Matsuo Basho


I was reading the blog of the New York Times Review of Books and came across a particularly interesting article about author and translator Bill Porter (“Finding Zen and Book Contracts in Beijing“). In it the writer talks about Porter’s growing popularity in China given not only the burgeoning middle class that is able to purchase real books (as compared to bootlegs) but also the novelty of a Zen Buddhist Westerner wandering around interviewing recluses.

One bit that stood out to me was in regards to his next major project:

Someone asked Porter about his next project, one that finally got him a Guggenheim last year, after seven failed applications. Porter explained how he is going to visit twenty locations in China associated with poetry and write about them, linking each to a poem or moment in a poet’s life. To which the questioner clasped his hands in a traditional greeting and said: “Respect.”

I’m not sure if it was a deliberate reference to Matsuo Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (~1694), but it was the first thing to come to my mind. Having only read passages, which is a point of shame since it is only about 46 pages), I have had the pleasure of spending the evening reading it (translated from the Japanese by Nobuyuki Yuasa) and thought I would offer some thoughts on it. The excitement of Basho’s

Days and months are travellers [sic] of eternity. So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth till they succumb to the weight of years, spend every minute of their loves traveling. There are a great number of ancients, too, who died on the road. I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind — filled with a strong desire to wander (97, from the 1966 Penguin edition).

As he rests for the winter as soon as “the spring mist begun to rise over the field” that he wishes to return to the road.

The gods seemed to have possessed my soul and turned it inside out, and roadside images seemed to invite me from every corner, so that it was impossible for me to stay idle at home (97).

Thus unable to resist the yearning of his heart he sets out for a three thousand mile journey that will take him across Japan, visiting shrines and sights that constitute the political, historical and artistic culture of the land. Along the way he converses with other poets, writes and leaves to the wind his own haikus. Given translation some are obviously better than others. Studying the isolated hermitage of one of his teachers, Basho observes that “Even the woodpeckers/ Have left it untouched,/ This tiny cottage/ In a summer grove” (104). Elsewhere, studying a chestnut tree, he writes, “The chestnut by the eaves/ In magnificent bloom/ passes unnoticed/ By the men of this world” (108).”

Perhaps my favorite passage is when Basho comes upon the ruins of the Fujiwara family’s home (“Mount Kinkei alone retained it’s original shape”), a family that was responsible for – centuries earlier – a supposed golden age of the north.

[M]any a feat of chivalrous valor was repeated here during the short span of the three generations, but both the actors and the deeds have long been dead and passed into oblivion. When a country is defeated, there remain only mountains and rivers, and a ruined castle in spring only grasses thrive. I sat down on my hat and wept bitterly till I almost forgot time.

A thicket of summer grass
Is all that remains
Of the dreams and ambitions
Of ancient warriors

At this point the poem “Ozymandias” comes to mind – while we may laugh at the arrogance of a king overstating his legacy, what else are we to do but weep when History brings even the best to shambles?

In many ways The Narrow Road to the Deep North is not just a travel diary detailing the personal growth of an individual, but as a major classical Japanese text it is about the growth of a culture, what it cherished and how it viewed itself. Holistically, Basho’s most popular work seeks to discover how these narratives – both then and now – are inevitably intertwined.

In other words, it’s On the Road long before there was ever Kerouac.

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