Jamee Indigo Eriksen

Joseph Holmes

Rachel Robbins

Michael Ursell

With Eyes Cast Down: Natural Imagery in the Works of two Culturally Dispossessed Authors


Joseph C. Holmes
San Francisco State University

Throughout our history as humans we have seen numerous examples of cultural and political hegemonies changing drastically and causing a sudden pseudo-deterritorialization of a people within their own homeland which can lead to significant anxiety. This loss or, at the very least, extreme revision of the individual’s experience within their society is manifest in the works of Japanese author Doppo Kunikida and Persian historian/poet Afzaladdin Badil (Ibrahim) ibn Ali Nadjar—who wrote under the name Khaqani (a Persian word meaning “regal”) during his affiliation with the ruling elite—through the use of imagery of nature. It is with the focus on nature that they are able to step back and look at their place in the new world order and to establish a new place within that order. Throughout his story 春の鳥 (The Bird of Spring), Kunkida situates the action in a lushly described and beautiful world which provides a sort of emotional escape from the difficulties of his characters' social world. On the other hand, Khaqani, in his Qasideh on the Palace at Ctesiphon—which, having no title, is referenced by its famous opening line “هان اي دل عبرت بين از ديده نظر كن هان” (“Oh, heart which looks to others’ lessons, make judgment on viewing (with your own eyes)!”1)—presents a natural world fairly void of comfort and escape. Instead, the “گرسنه چشم آخر” (“hungry eyed earth”) referenced in his Qasideh seems to thrive on pain and indifference towards its inhabitants’ past.

Around the time of Kunikida’s writing, the nation of Japan faced an onslaught of unprecedented changes. The feudal system that had maintained the Pax Tokugawa, which lasted for more than 250 years, was dismantled and a wave of freedom and responsibility descended upon the citizens of Japan with a swiftness that Basil Hall Chamberlain characterized as “old things pass(ing) away between a night and a morning” (Gordon 61). Kunikida’s story deals with a Sensei—to whom no further name is given—who attempts to help a young boy by the name of Rokuzo who lives with his uncle, Taguchi, and his mother. Taguchi is a former “家老” (“chief retainer” one of the highest ranks a samurai could obtain) who has taken in his sister and her two children—Rokuzo and his sister Oshige, who never appears in the story—because her husband gambled away their money and drank himself to death. To further complicate matters, we learn that Rokuzo, his sister and his mother are all “白智” (a word best translated as “congenital idiot” but literally meaning “white (clean) mind”) and it is precisely in light of the significant social reorganizations such as relative freedom in movement and occupation, the participation of women in society, and the compulsory education of all citizens that the anxiety and desperation of Kunikida’s characters is able to be experienced.

By 1904, the year he wrote 春の鳥 ("The Bird of Spring"), the Japanese way of life would have been unrecognizable to a citizen of just two decades earlier: from the manner of dress to socially advocated qualities, nothing had remained untouched by the Meiji reforms. The Opium Wars in China followed by the Russian, Dutch and American demands for trade made it clear to the Japanese that the world was now dominated by the West and their new acquaintances were not content to leave them to their strict isolationist practices. In the face of these challenges, the Japanese began a program rapid modernization overthrowing the Tokugawa regime in favor of the “more traditional” organization where all power emanates from the Emperor, dismantling the longstanding restrictions on personal liberties and opening all levels of public service to citizens based on education and merit; the new government went so far as to make “four years of elementary education compulsory for all children, boys and girls” with the stated objective that “in a village there shall be no house without learning, and in a house, no individual without learning” (Gordon 67). In a fairly short time, the vast majority of children were in obeisance with these rules and “the idea that one’s life course [...] should be open at the outset and should reflect one’s talent and efforts became one of Japan’s most fundamental and widely held social values” (Gordon 68).

The anxiety of Rokuzo’s family was exacerbated by further changes which saw the once powerful and wealthy Samurai, such as Taguchi, stripped of their governmental salaries in exchange for nearly worthless bonds; the Samurai’s “annual incomes fell by anywhere from 10 to 75 percent.” As a further disgrace, the permission to wear their swords, long considered a sign of power and prestige in Japan, was restricted to “soldiers and policemen,” which put the untested Samurai of the period in the extremely awkward social position of having to relinquish the only tangible honor that they had and this hereditary aristocracy suddenly found themselves in a world that only recognized and rewarded demonstrable talent and merit (Gordon 65). To complicate matters, the changes were being made by the government that the samurai, themselves, had helped put back into power. Unlike in the history of Western revolutions, it was through the actions of the aristocracy that the reigns of Japan were taken from the Tokugawa bakufu who, it was felt, were guilty of “impoverishing the people and dishonoring the emperor” with their agreement to Opium War style unequal treaties with Western powers (Gordon 51). The reinstatement of the Emperor Meiji and a government where power rested on his legitimacy led to the disbanding of the old power structure that had kept the Samurai comfortable and respected due solely to the station of their birth.

With the loss of his heritegial prestige and guaranteed income, Rokuzo’s only means of advancement was education; something of which he was demonstrably incapable. He and his sister had attended school for a short while but “他の生徒と同時に教えることは出来ず、徒に他の腕白生徒の嘲弄の道具になるばかりですから...退学をさした” (Kunikida 239) (“It was not possible to teach [them] together with the other students, (they) had recently become the unfortunate aim of other, mischievous ruffians’ pranks and therefore. . . they were withdrawn from school”). Even in the new order, Oshige was only expected to keep house and marry well, so the withdrawal from school did not hamper her social advancement—or at least maintenance—opportunities as it did for Rokuzo.

This central difficulty of the story being so intimately tied to the societal realities of the time in which it was written would rightly lead one to expect the author to focus, heavily, upon these new conditions. The young Sensei, as a representative of the modern Meiji mentality, does endeavor to educate Rokuzo: regularly having him accompany him on his walks and, in the beginning, trying to use pebbles to teach him to count. Rokuzo remains incapable of understanding numbers and seems content to chase after birds—all of which he calls “烏” (“crow” or “raven”) though the Sensei had attempted to teach him their proper names—and run around the mountain and ruins around his home.

The descriptions of the mountain and the castle’s remains are given significance with sweeping descriptions of their beauty and the narrator even commenting that to see the “数百年斧を入れたことのない鬱たる染林” (“melancholy, painted wood, into which an ax had not entered in about 100 years”)  filled one with “昔のばす哀れなさま” (Kunikida 234) (“a state of great pathos for times past”). In this way, Kunikida demonstrates an understanding of viewing the natural world as the first step in drawing his characters, and readers, toward their collective past. Using the image of a forest, untouched by man-made tools for about a century, the author transcends the many changes which had left the world around the reader seemingly unrecognizable. He is, in this way, offering the reader a world in which things do not change, a world in which continuity and maintenance of the status quo is neither seen as stagnation, nor as a source of dishonor, but as an admirable trait and one that denotes beauty and the potentially transcendent power of mere existence.

By focusing on the natural surroundings, Kunikida is able to take Rokuzo outside the social realities of Meiji era Japan and situate him within the real realities of Japan the nation, his homeland and the homeland of the original audience. It is precisely through this divorcing of the young man from the larger social structure within which he was expected to live, and under the auspices of which he will probably suffer, that Kunikida is able to elevate him to the status of “天使” (“Angel”). After considerable consternation at Rokuzo’s inability to learn to count to ten, Sensei is wandering the mountain alone when he hears a voice singing and sees Rokuzo astride the wall of the old castle and

空の色、日の光、古い城あと、そして少年、まるで絵です。少年は天使 です。この時私の目には、六蔵が白痴とはどうしても見えませんでし た。白痴と天使、なんという哀れな対照でしょう。しかし私はこの時、白痴ながらも少年はやはり自然の子であるかと、つくづく感じました. (Kunikida 243-4)

(The color of the sky, the shining of the sun, the remains of the castle, and the boy, all together were quite a picture. The boy is an angel. In my present view, Rokuzo I couldn’t seem to see any retardation in Rokuzo. An idiot and an angel, it seems hopelessly contradictory, but at this time, I felt with all my being that though he was a congenital idiot, this young boy was truly an angel.)

Though, if the author hints at nature as a place where anxiogenic progress can be halted and yield beauty in the face of difficulty, and where even the least of us can be transformed into a divine being, he equally rejects the potential for a nebulous middle ground existence in which a character may inhabit both worlds. Shortly after Rokuzo is deemed an angel in the culmination of Kunikida’s reverie for nature, he is found dead at the foot of the wall where we first met him and at his fresh grave to the north of the mountain, his mother says that “六は死んだほうが幸富で御座いますよ” (Kunikida 247) (“Roku(zo)’s death is for the best”). No definitive explanation for Rokuzo’s death is ever given, though the conjecture that he was attempting to fly like the birds he so loved and accidentally jumped off the edge of the wall is offered by the Sensei. Indeed, the reader is hard pressed to come up with a different explanation. In all his dealings with the stone wall, the young man is demonstrated as not only fearless, but peerlessly adept. In our first introduction to him, he is shown to “手をかけて猿のように登りはじめました” (Kunikida, 236) (“begin climbing (the wall) by hand like a monkey”). The Sensei is shocked with the ease at which Rokuzo scales the ivy growing along the wall, and the reader certainly is not given any reason to worry about Rokuzo’s adeptness in handling the wall. The explanation not only seems plausible to the reader—who was privy to this monkey-like climbing ability—but to the young boy’s mother who further validates it by noting that “’ハイ、六は鳥が好きでしたよ.鳥を見ると自分の両手をこう広げて、こうして’と母親は鳥の羽ばたきの真似をして、’こうして其処らを飛び歩きましたよ ’” (Kunikida 247-8) (“Yes, Roku(zo) loved birds. Whenever he saw a bird he would spread his arms wide like this and doing this’ the mother flapped her arms in imitation of a bird’s wings, ‘doing this, he would run around flying’”). However, this brings to bear a very disconcerting question in the mind of the reader. Up to now, nature had been a source of escape, liberation, and transcendence but it is due to his celebration of nature and his attempts to unite with it that Rokuzo meets his death. Kunikida seems to be putting forth the idea that ultimate escape into nature requires the sacrifice of your life in society. In this case, the physical form must also be ultimately united with nature for the psychic, spiritual and emotional liberty promised by such a romantic ideal to be fully realized.

Almost 8 centuries earlier, Khaqani provides a drastically contradicting view of the natural world in response to nostalgia for his history. In the vassal state of Shirvan (roughly present day Azerbaijan) of the Seljuk Empire, the Citizens were working to reconcile the Islamic/Arab world in which they now lived, with the pride of having been one of the great civilizations of history. At the height of its splendor the Sassanid Empire stretched from northern Egypt and Libya to the Punjab region of India and managed to fight off the great Roman Empire before its ultimate defeat by the newly reinvigorated Arab-Muslims in the mid 7th century. With the conquest came the implementation and spread of the newly founded Islamic faith and the expatriation of the native Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. For the first time in history, Persians were expected to look to a foreign power for their understanding of the world around them. Five times each day the new faith required that its adherents turn to face Mecca, a city on the Red Sea coast of present day Saudi Arabia, and bow in reverence to a God who was foreign to them and according to Muslim tradition, around the third week of the twelfth month of the Muslim calendar, all Muslims who are “physically and financially able to do so” are obliged to travel to the same city and perform a series of rites “which are of Abrahamic origin” (Zahid). It was on this obligatory pilgrimage to a foreign land that Khaqani, the son of a Christian woman, wrote his famous تحفه العراقين (The Gift of Two Iraqs, referencing the difference between the “Persian Iraq” and the “Arab-Muslim Iraq”) and the Qasideh on the Palace at Ctesiphon. The Palace at Ctesiphon (ایوانِ مداین literally “Palace of the Maiden”) was the pride of the Sassanid Empire and the “apex of their administrative system.” The fall of Mada’en/Ctesiphon marked a significant loss to the Sassanid empire which looked to Iraq as “about one-third of their annual tax revenues” and had lost “the royal treasure, substantial military forces that perished defending Iraq, and the leadership of many high ranking nobles” (Morony).

The first line of his Qasideh, as a poetic reference to the heart of the Persian people, who have come to take their learning and approach to the world from the Arab-Muslim invaders, not only addresses the poem to his fellow Persians, but qualifies them as inherently culturally dispossessed. Their heart “learns from others’ lessons” rather than seeing “with its own eyes.” Furthermore, the location, the Palace of Ctesiphon, is of particular and bittersweet importance to a Persian and historian such as Khaqani because its destruction marked the effective downfall of the Sassanid Empire to the Arab-Muslim invaders. It was on this very spot that Khaqani’s cultural history changed violently, and forever, and it is with this spirit which he calls for his reader to

يك ره ز ره دجله منزل به مدائن كن
وز ديده دوم دجله بر خاك مدائن ران
بر دجله گري نونو، وزديده زكوتش ده
گرچه لب دريا هست از دجله زكوه استان
(Once you are on the road of the Tigris, make a stop at Ctesiphon,
And with the sight of it, let a second Tigris flow onto
Ctesiphon’s soil.
Weep anew for the Tigris and with the site, give your
Even though the shore takes “zakah” from the Tigris.)

Here we see a considerably different appeal to natural imagery than that of Kunikida. The Tigris is represented as offering “zakah” to the land, and the reader is urged to offer a second Tigris’ worth of tears as a “zakah” to the Tigris. In the Islamic faith, the Zakah is “the annual payment of a fortieth of one's capital, excluding such items as primary residence, car and professional tools” (Zahid) and is obligatory based on the belief that all things belong to God and are merely held by man in trust. It is seen as one of the five “Pillars of Faith” that a Muslim calculates and offers up this zakah yearly. Beyond the zakah is the sadaqa-h which is roughly translated as “voluntary giving.” In contrast with the zakah—which, in its obligatory and calculable nature could be considered as synonymous with the Christian concept of a “tithe”—the sadaqa-h is not required and it is preferred that it be done in private—synonymous to the Jewish Tsdaka. Khaqani, here, is not calling upon the Persian peoples to voluntarily offer up a tearful offering to the Palace at Ctesiphon, but to give what is seen as its required due. He is stating that tears enough to cause a second Tigris—a river of considerable size and length—to flow on the soil is merely one fortieth of the tears owned by his people in the face of their faded glory. He is also saying that these tears should not be wept silently and in hiding, but should be openly poured out in the spirit of doing one’s duty. Beyond all of this, he is, in referencing an annual alms-giving ritual, setting up a secondary “hajj” for the Persian people. He has created another pilgrimage that his countrymen should endeavor to perform every year and has made this a holy obligation of the highest possible order. Ingeniously intermingling the Muslim faith of his contemporary society and the historically pertinent sites of his native culture, Khaqani turns one onto, if not quite against, the other and leaves the reader to reconcile their coexistence.

At this point we must note a significant, albeit circumspect, parallel in the imagery of tears being offered up at a place of historical significance. In his opening description of the setting, Kunikida describes “城山” (“Castle Mountain”) as a “大木暗く茂った山 [...] 昔は天主閣の建っていた所が平地になっていつしか姫小松まばらにおいたち、夏草 すきまなく茂り. . .” (“mountain which was dark with thick growth of large trees [...] The place where the palace stood long ago had become level ground and at some point small white pines had grown up and the ground was lush with summer grass”) he then goes on to state that “時 は秋の末” (Kunikida 234) (“the time was the end of Fall”) which strikes the reader as an odd time for “summer grasses” to be growing. In fact, this is a reference to a very famous Haiku by Matsuo Basho: 夏草や / 兵共が / 夢の跡 (Summer grass, yea! / Soldiers (of long ago) / The remains of dreams [Yamamoto 2:37]).

In his preface to the poem, Basho discusses overlooking an ancient battlefield where “國破れて、山河あり、城春にして草青みたり と、笠打敷て、時のうつるまで泪を落し待りぬ” (Yamamoto, 2:37) (“the country was rent apart, there is a mountain spring, in place of a spring castle I look upon green grass and, taking off my rain garments, immediately stand weeping”). Here, Basho is referencing a battlefield of the Genpei War between the Minamoto and Taiyo clans. This war resulted in the installation of the Kamakura Shogunate which signaled the end of the supremacy of the Emperor and saw the rise of the Shogun to national power and was immortalized in the平家物語 (Tale of the Heike) and numerous stories of the Battle of Dan-no-Ura. This set the stage for the Tokugawa Shogunate to unite the country and rule for over 250 years until the Meiji Restoration which, in effect, attempted to undo the effects of the outcome of the Genpei War.  With this, Basho directly offers the tears Khaqani requests and illustrates the profound effect of the sight/site of a significant turning point in one’s own history. Kunikida’s reference to this well known haiku and its equally important preface shows an intimate understanding of the importance of grief as the first step in the face of history, but where Kunikida then turns to the natural world of Japan as a sense of beauty and place of escape, Khaqani chooses a decidedly darker reaction to the land of his ancestors.

After the call for a lachrymose zakah, and a highly stylized celebration of the great power of the Persian Empire as it once stood, we read: 

گفتي كه كجار رفتند آن تاجوران اينك

 ز ايشان شكم خاك است آبستن جاويدان


 بس دير همي زايد آبستن خاك آري

دشوار بود زادن، نطفه ستدن آسان


خون دل شيرين است آن مي كه دهد رزبن

 ز آب و گل پرويز است آن خم كه نهد دهقان


 چندين تن جباران كاين خاك فرو خورده است

اين گرسنه چشم آخر هم سير نشد ز ايشان


از خون دل طفلان سرخاب رخ آميزد

(Khaqani) اين زال سپيد ابرو وين مام سيه پستان


(Where, you ask, have those crown-wearers gone?
The earth is ever pregnant with them.

Yes, the pregnant earth gives birth late;
Giving birth is difficult, conception easy.

That wine the vine gives is the blood of Shirin;
Of Parviz’s remains the village gentleman shapes the

However many tyrants it has devoured,
This hungry-eyed earth never becomes sated.

This white-browed mother with black sagging breasts
Makes her rouge with children’s heart’s blood. [Hillman 50])

This violent nature imagery speaks of not only bitterness towards the loss of the Empire, but also to a resignation to the cruelty of life. The world, and nature with it, is seen as indifferent to, and even hungry for, the destruction of mankind. Khaqani references wine, a drink once highly regarded in Persian literature but “haram” (“forbidden, unlawful”) under Islamic law, as the “blood of Shirin” taking a very familiar image to any reader of Persian literature, equating it with their cultural heritage and turning it against itself so that it is seen as requiring the sacrifice of great Persian heroes; heroes who are waiting to be born from the very earth where they died. Similarly, this equating of wine with the “blood of Shirin” hints at the fact that, in an Arab-Islamic world, the Persian history is considered defiled and forbidden. In a way, Khaqani gives an almost messianic stature to these great kings of the past and calls on his reader to wait, bitterly wait, for the earth to birth them again.

Time and again, Khaqani’s nature is presented to the reader with a moderately predictable image at the start, which is immediately turned on itself and reveals either indifference to the plight of humanity (“However many tyrants it has devoured / the hungry-eyed earth never becomes sated”) or with a downright cruelty towards its inhabitants (“This white-browed mother with black sagging breasts / Makes her rouge with children’s heart’s blood”) there does not seem to be even the incomplete escape of Kunikida’s nature in Khaqani’s, but there is still a sense of hope where Kunikida offers none. Khaqani does not outright reject the potential of coexistence of a “savior” or of one completely unbeholden to the social organization within which he is trying to understand his life and through the Messianic description of the great historical kings, Khaqani also uses nature to elevate humans to the status of supernatural or divine beings. His divine beings, however, do not actively coexist as Rokuzo attempted to do, but they exist in a kind of stasis, as unrealized personifications of potential which free the reader from the rhetorical struggle of justifying beings both inside and contrary to “the system” (i.e. society at large).  Another view of their existence is that they are purely in unity with nature: the realm of existence in question for them is not that of nature, it is that of society. Rather than a boy chasing after and misnaming birds, they are birds waiting to be chased and misnamed.

This Qasideh is not immediately recognizable as such due to its unusual nature within the broader tradition of Persian Literature. According to de Fouchcourt’s article in the Encyclopedia Iranica, the “aim of a writer of a qasideh [...] is to sing the praises of an individual [...] The poet draws on and enhances the patron’s historical reputation” and the poem itself

has a tripartite structure. The first part, the nasib. . . evokes the occasion for the poem. . . the central section is an ode to a prince or some other figure of secular or religious eminence. . . in the last part, the poet points to the great merits of his poem. . . and hints at what might be a fitting reward for his poetic product.(de Fouchcourt)

However, if analyzed along these lines, the “nasib” posits the occasion of traveling along the Tigris; which is something that his fellow Persians in what is present day Iran would have to do yearly on the journey from their homes to Mecca. The poem then goes on to praise the Palace of Ctesiphon. In this way, the Palace itself—which is a “figure of secular or religious eminence”—is cited as the patron of the poet and this section of the poem does “draw on and enhance the patron’s historical reputation.” In the third and final portion of the poem, traditionally where the poet sings their own praises, we find, instead, a description of the poem as a gift from a friend returning from a journey. Rather than hinting at an appropriate level of recompense for his poetic endeavors, he offers “سبحه ز گل سلمان” (“prayer-beads (made) from the clay of Salaman”) to his audience whom he addresses, for the first time, in the intimate, singular, and direct تو. This qasideh was not written for the “praise” (the literal meaning of “qasideh”) of an individual but of a place representing an entire people, it is only fitting that Khaqani can ask no better reward than that his readers “اين بحر بصيرت بين بي‌شربت ازو مگرر” (Khaqani) (“See this sea of insight, take from it a tonic”); or, more bluntly, “remember the Persians from whence you come.”

Throughout both works the authors turn and re-turn to the natural world as fundamentally disconnected from their societal existence. This disconnect between the “world of man” and the “world of nature” permits the reader to better analyze their position in one by momentarily stepping into the other, but we are reminded that there is constant danger from the fact of the immutability of our physical existence. In achieving complete unity with nature, one may be brought up to the level of a heavenly being, but must forfeit their earthly existence in the process. In the first essay of Ways of Seeing, John Berger notes that “when an image is presented as a work of art, the way people look at it is affected by a whole series of learnt assumptions about art,” but that

many of these assumptions no longer accord with the world as it is [...] out of tune with the present, these assumptions obscure the past [...] History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past [...] the past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act. (Berger 11)

The assumptions with which we approach the works must be critically analyzed when dealing with historical subjects and we must understand that it is by dipping their pens in this well that the authors draw a picture of the modern world which may or may not work for every individual. This mutability of perspective provides a framework within which the modern critical reader can more fully grasp the functioning of natural imagery within these two works and provides a guideline for further reading in the realm of culturally dispossessed people—a category into which members of every human society ever known has, at one time or another, fallen.

Works Cited

Berger, John, et al. Ways of Seeing. New York: Penguin Books, 1977. 

De Fouchecourt, Charles-Henri.| “Iran viii. (2. Classical Persian Literature).” Encyclopedia Iranica Online,
        2006. <http://www.iranica.com>. Path: Articles by Topic; Literature;IRAN; (2) Classical Persian

Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan from Tokugawa Times to the Present. New York: Oxford
         University Press, 2003.

Hillman, Michael C. Iranian Culture: a Persianist view. Boston: University Press of America, 1990.

Keall, E. J. “Ayvan (or Taq)-e Kesra.” Encyclopedia Iranica. 14 vols. 1989. December, 2008.

Khaqani. “هنگام عبور از مداين و ديدن طاق ك”. <http://www.persopedia.com>. ان اي دل عبرت بين از ديده نظر كن هان"
         December, 2008.

Kunikida, Doppo. “Haru no Tori.” Gyuuniku to Bareisho ∙ Shuuchuu Nikki. Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1923.

Morony, M. “Arab (ii. Arab conquest of Iran).” Encyclopedia Iranica. 14 vols. 1987. December, 2008.

Yamamoto, Takefuyu, comp. Basho Zenhaikai. [Collected Haiku of Basho]. 2 Vols. Tokyo: Kawade
        Shobo Shinsha, 1975.

Zahid, Ishaq. “The Five Pillars of Islam.” Islam 101. <http://www.islam101.com/dawah/pillars.html>.
        December, 2008

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