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This review appeared in Volume 1 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Succinct Signs

by Milena Dolezelová-Velingerová

Haiku East and West. A Semiogenetic Approach by Yoriko Yamada-Bochynek. Brockmeyer: Bochum. 1985. 581 pp.lSBN 3-883-39-404-1

Haiku, the ultimately succinct poetic genre that in its original form challenged the poet to express his unison with Nature in mere seventeen syllable-words, is a cultural wonder. Brought to its perfection by Matsuo Basho in mid-seventeenth century Japan, haiku flourished in its native land during the three following centuries and finally migrated to North America in the early years of this century. Since then, it has remained a permanent fixture of American as well as of Japanese modern culture.

Haiku is, paradoxically, a complex poetic form exactly because of its simplicity. Its restricted seventeen syllables are distributed in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables each, and originally the poet had also to follow a given thematic pattern: the first part of the poem contained an objective description of nature suggestive of one of the seasons, while the two remaining parts evoked a definite, though unstated, emotional response by the poet. However, it was also required that this subjective response must also express the Buddhist ideal of the oneness of Nature and man, so that the poet's ego was effaced and his momentary deep emotional experience of peculiar significance was verbalized again by an image from nature as in this famous haiku by Basho, in which he conveyed the essence of coming spring.

Furuike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto
12345 1234567 12345
The old pond:/ a frog jumps in/ a sound of water.

The intriguing character of haiku has invited a large number of studies that have attempted to explain the suggestive richness of haiku from various different perspectives: that of the language, ideogrammatic script, literary structure, Zen philosophy. Other studies have probed the success of this quintessential Japanese form in Occidental cultures. In this host of studies the book by Yamada-Bochynek, a young Japanese scholar settled in Germany, stands out conspicuously because of the particular strategy by which the author approached the subject; a Semiogenetic approach.

The semiogenetic approach differs substantially from typical semiotic research in literature. Instead of analyzing a literary phenomenon as an integral part of cultural communication, the author brings into focus the interaction of nature and culture, whereby communicative processes integrate cosmogenesis, biogenesis, psychogenesis, etc. Yamada thus adopts the strategy and the terminology of her mentor, Walter A. Koch, who assumes that the fundamental processes underlying all levels of evolution are identical. In his 1983 book Poetry and Science: Semiogenetic Twins -- Towards an Integrated Correspondence Theory of Poetic Structures, Koch presented a unifying semiotic model, in which all structures of the world are systematized according to the principle of ontogenetic and phylogenetic evolution: structure and process are not different phases of reality and/or sciences, but rather the two sides of a unitary field.

In the "Introductory Remarks" (pp. 1-11), Yamada delineates the domain of her study and points out that she will address the following five issues: 1. The text-situation as communication. 2. The semiotics of Zen culture, in which haiku in its original phase was embedded. 3. The semiotics of the poetry of haiku. 4. The poetgenesis of haiku encompassing both Japanese and American haiku. 5. The function of poetry as a type of problem-solving.

The book itself is then opened by an introduction with the title "Semiotics: the Theoretical Background" and is further divided into the following six chapters: "Participants in Texts as a Plurality of Texts"; "Texts as Signs"; "The Semiotics of Haiku"; "A Text-Typology of Haiku"; "A Text-Typology of Haiku in English"; and "Conclusion: A Comparison of Japanese and American Haiku". The book is closed by a chapter called "Excursus: Haiku as One Type of Simple Form: Directions of Further Research". The book concludes with an extensive bibliography and by an index of names.

The purpose of the lengthy (87 pages) theoretical introduction encompassing chapter 1 is to demonstrate that a wide array of human activities proceed through an identical, tripartite process--equilibrium, disequilibrium and mediation--which corresponds to processes in biological evolution. Thus, from the standpoint of biogenetic semiotics, both the sender and the receiver "structure, or 'semioticize' the text with which they are confronted according to their 'stored information', acquired through ontogenetic and phytogenetic development" (p.86). It follows that messages are encoded and decoded in "a process which always involves three stages: the symmetric phase (perception), the asymmetric phase (differentiation), and integration (encodation)" (ibid.).

In the core of the book chapter 2 to chapter 4 Yamada investigates haiku in the course of its development in Japan and its interdependence with Zen culture. She describes seven universal types of haiku, their structure, and the poetic qualities of haiku language. Of particular interest are Yamada's discussion of the relations of various concrete artistic manifestations of Zen culture with Buddhist Zen philosophy and its concept of cognition. Breaking free from the "curse of cognition", the human awareness of inevitable death, Zen philosophy consciously inhibits the abstract, Aristotelian mode of logic governed by the left cerebral hemisphere. In contrast, it resorts to problem-solving through motor activity enhancing the right-hemispheric mode of cognition and leading to the ultimate Zen experience--Satori or Enlightment, in which man effaces his ego and unifies with Nature.

Yamada perceives haiku, as well as other artistic manifestations of Zen philosophy (such as the tea ceremony, painting, calligraphy, flower arrangement, gardening, pottery, theatre and the Japanese code of martial arts) as a cultural product that is created and received by the sum of "stored information" provided in the culture. Consequently, the diversified artistic manifestations of Zen culture are explained as variable signifiers of a given, invariable signified Zen Buddhism. In congruence with the concrete, right-hemispheric mode of cognition, the texts of Zen culture, according to Yamada, are nonverbal, spatial, holistic, and visual, because the production and reception of such texts are governed by the right cerebral hemisphere. In the same vein, Zen culture employs signs that are indexical and iconic. How, then, does haiku as a verbal art, fit among the other, predominantly non-verbal arts of Zen culture?

Here, Yamada, draws to the attention the graphic quality of Chinese and Japanese ideograms which are, like visual signs, processed by the right cerebral hemisphere and which acquire also rhythmically patterned sound, when the poem is read aloud. The ultimate brevity is another manifestation of the predelection for non-verbal art in Zen Buddhist culture and the tripartite structure, solving the problem of the opposition between man and Nature, links haiku with Zen Buddhist culture on the philosophical level. I consider this section of Yamada's book eminently successful, because here she adroitly explains the isomorphical connection of all aspects of haiku (visual, phonic, verbal, biological and philosophical) and its correspondence with Zen culture.

In the last two chapters Yamada describes the evolution of the English written haiku in North America and compares Japanese and American haiku. This is an ideal opportunity to discuss rarely investigated problem of semiotics the interaction of two alien cultures in the modern era. This last part of the book is, however, less rewarding than expected.

Yamada rightly observes that haiku was received in America within two different frameworks of reference. In the initial period of transmigration, the American Imagists, notably Ezra Pound, did not take into account the philosophical dimensions of haiku. Their interest was stimulated solely by its provocative, colourful images and the superposition of two, objective and subjective, statements which are seemingly disjointed, but correlated by association. During the second period of acceptance, in the beginning of the 1950s, haiku was, however, perceived and created in the framework of a general interest for Zen culture and philosophy in America. In this later period, American haiku does not therefore substantially deviate from its original form, because it is not divorced from its philosophical progenitor.

But was haiku still haiku when written by the Imagists? What were the reasons why it was exactly this poetic genre, along with the Japanese ukiyo-e prints and Chinese ideograms that were found so vitally inspiring by the Imagists and other modern Occidental artists?

Yamada does not raise this important question and thus misses then an excellent opportunity to consider the role of a distant culture in the rise of modern Occidental poetry and art. Nor does she take into account the fact that, at the time of an intense encounter between previously unrelated cultures, the receiving culture cannot absorb the alien culture in toto.

The modern artist in revolt is therefore interested only in those constituents of the foreign culture which disturb the equilibrium of his own established culture. The artist's partial understanding or total misunderstanding of the aesthetics of the foreign culture indicates that it is the context of his own culture which directs his drive for change. Pound's adaptation of concise images of nature, "language in color", and his juxtaposition of two unrelated statements by association-the stylistic hallmarks of haiku--do not therefore result in American haiku, but in modern American poetry created in opposition to official Victorian poetry. The images of the Imagists were thus completely unrelated to Buddhist philosophy and instead, represented, in Pound's words, "an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time," superceding the traditional, ornamental images.

The rise of Imagist poetry therefore cor: responds with the triadic model of human activities. First, acquaintance with Japanese haiku disturbed the equilibrium of the indigenous culture, then it released creative energy from the disequilibrium brought about by a foreign element. In the final process, the Imagists' poems emerge as a mediation between the alien aesthetic features and the indigenous philosophical outlook.

Yamada's weighty book would have benefited greatly from pruning by a professional editor who could have turned a doctoral dissertation into a volume of interesting ideas with a sharper focus.

Milena Dolezelová-Velingerová is a Professor of Chinese literature at the University of Toronto and a member of the associated faculty of the Centre for Comparative Literature. She is the author of numerous articles on 20th century Chinese literature and her books include The Chinese Novel at the turn of the Century (1980) and A Selective Guide to Chinese Literature 1900-1949 (1986).


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