Honkadori and the Immensity of Intertextual Space

Honkadori is a concept of Japanese poetics introduced in the 12th century, several hundred years before the development of Noh.  It describes a practice of including images or lines from classic poetry in a new poem, in such a way that the new poem reverberates with the atmosphere of the old.  Donald Keene’s magisterial Seeds in the Heart, a survey of Japanese literature through the sixteenth century, contains the following example of a poem from the Kokinshu:

Like a white cloud that
Has been cut loose from the peak
By the blowing wind,
Has your heart, cut off from me,
Turned completely unfeeling

And the following example from a later anthology, the Shin Kokinshu

When the floating bridge
Of dreams of a night in spring
Was interrupted,
In the sky a bank of clouds
Was taking leave of the peak.

Notice that the second poem, in isolation, could be read as a seasonal reflection, while a reader familiar with the first poem will suspect, in the image of clouds leaving the peak in the second, an allusion to lost love.  Suspect, rather than know:  honkadori is less a key to interpretation than the deliberate creation of tension between an older work and a newer one. 

Such borrowings depend on and manipulate the phenomenon of intertextuality:  the reading of a text is understood to be conditioned by other texts one already knows.  Our experience of a work is, of course, also affected by a great range of cultural experiences not acquired by reading.  Thus, my Daughtering in the Age of Alzheimer’s post resulted from seeing the National Theatre cinemacast of King Lear and recognizing, in Derek Jacobi’s portrayal, a person dear to me who was shattered by dementia in the last years of his life.  Within the context of the Soulographie project, which concerns itself with modern genocides, the story of Lear and Cordelia interacts with narratives of twentieth-century racial and tribal conflict. 

Is Cordelia an adaptation of King Lear narrowed to Cordelia’s point of view, or does the appropriation of Shakespeare’s text primarily provide context or overtones to a new work? 

Lear and Cordelia in Prison by William Blake (Tate Gallery)

According to the first reading, Cordelia is about a king’s daughter who became a warrior:  her father’s story–his pride, degradation, and despair–presses on her heart as she recalls her own acts.  Almost every traditional Noh play is of this type, an intimate study of one character from an earlier literary classic. 

"Her sword notwithstanding, she is scarcely a symbol of power" - Arthur Edward Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot

According to the second reading, Cordelia is about a warrior who was a king’s daughter:  the play reflects a culture in which war is sanctioned as a means of asserting personal or familial claims but inevitably drags into its vortex entire tribes or populations bound by fealty or alliance. Cordelia admits her complicity in the ruin of a world.

For a new play, Cordelia contains very little new language.  Roughly 90% of the script is assembled from King Lear, and the remaining 10% is a retelling of the plot of that play by the Fool.  But in Noh, a considerable part of the story is told visually, rather than verbally.  The riddle of meaning is resolved largely outside the text.

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One Response to Honkadori and the Immensity of Intertextual Space

  1. Pingback: Honkadori | ragandboneshop1

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