WLL Inaugural Symposium: October 10

WLL cordially invites BU faculty and students to join us as WLL faculty members share their research in progress.


Monday, October 10th at 10am. Located at Barrister’s Hall in the Sumner M. Redstone Building at 765 Commonwealth Ave.

Click here for the full event itinerary.

This paper explores a persistent pattern in Dostoevsky’s novels in which characters encounter their own distressing and suppressed memories in the minds of others. The paradigm of shared memory, I argue, is a key facet of Dostoevsky’s innovative and prescient concept of the psychic wound. Decades before the notion of trauma would gain any currency in European scientific inquiry, Dostoevsky explored the alternately debilitating, curative, fortifying, and even revelatory properties of the psychic wound upon the self. I shall trace the ways in which Dostoevsky’s spirituality developed in close connection to his notion of the wounds of the mind. The paper draws on 19th-century and contemporary concepts of trauma for theoretical context.

Proceeding from the performative notion of gender, the paper looks broadly at the treatment of male homosexuality in Murakami’s work and considers how the portrayal of homosexual characters has changed over the roughly thirty-five years of his writing career.

By close readings of a few texts I analyze descriptions of gay men and locate the characteristics (physical attributes, clothing, lifestyle, sexuality) that Murakami consistently ascribes to them. At the same time, I trace the slow evolution in the portrayal of homosexuals and the growing importance of gay characters in his fiction over time. I show that while the attitude towards homosexuals appears to become increasingly liberal over the years, most gay character descriptions remain somewhat stereotyped.  I suggest that these changes may be partly the result of Murakami’s long-term residence abroad, especially in the United States, which may have affected his earlier views, and that they may also represent an attempt to effect a change in the social perception of homosexuals and gay culture generally in Japan, a point that is supported by evidence drawn from some recent interviews the author has given.

Lastly, I examine the particular words used by Murakami to refer to homosexuals and the evolution of those terms in his works, as well as the radically different approaches to translation of derogatory terms as those appear in \in his translations of The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye.

In the Akedah, the account of the Binding of Isaac in Genesis 22, a dutiful father sacrifices a ram in place of the beloved son at the bidding of an angel; the text has become a foundational text, or primal scene of sacrifice in Western monotheism. Israeli writer Etgar Keret rewrites the Akedah in his short story “Breaking the Pig,” where a sensitive son rescues a beloved pig named “Pessachson,” or “son of Passover,” from his father’s hammer.  And in her dystopian novel Dolly City, Israeli author Orly Castel-Bloom hammers away at the Akedah from a maternal angle, crafting a shocking, surreal fable showing that mother’s urge to save and to sacrifice her son are two sides of one (psychotic) mentality.

Between the Bible and the two contemporary writers is Franz Kafka, the most important parable writer in modern literature.  Keret and Castel-Bloom are often compared to Kafka, due to their laconic style, gruesome images, and surreal plots and motifs.

My purpose in juxtaposing these three authors is to illuminate parabolic style in modernist and post-modern Jewish writing.  Parables originate in the Bible, we are told, to open the eyes, ears and hearts of the uneducated. But these simple stories are also enigmatic. Like Kafka’s doorkeeper, they stand before the law, but they also block the way in.  Therein lies their appeal to modernist writers.  Kafka, Keret, and Castel-Bloom evoke the texture or aura of the religious parable in order to create modern anti-parables for their times.  They break the form of the biblical animal parable (from the Akedah or the “Poor Man’s Ewe Lamb” in II Samuel) associated with patriarchal religion, co-opting the power, play, and deep wisdom of the ancient genre for their own times and purposes.

The paper presents a digital map of Natsume Sōseki’s trip to Kyoto in 1907 together with Soseki’s own spatial analysis of Kyoto in his first essay for the Asahi Newspaper, “Kyo ni tsukeru yūbe” (Arriving in Kyoto One evening). Sōseki’s essay depicts one path through Kyoto in 1907, overlaid with a second route traveled earlier with Masaoka Shiki, his close friend and poet who was by his second trip deceased. While seeming to engage in traditional travel writing modes, naming famous places and attaching at a poem at the end to memorialize his visit and his loss, his essay finds uncanny rather than comforting the apparent permanence of the spaces of Kyoto in the face of both crushing personal loss and the Japanese modernity itself. The presentation will show the digital maps that I have been creating and discuss the ways that this process has involved close reading the essay, direct observation of urban change, and new readings of Sōseki’s literary criticism. It has also led to specific changes in my translation of Sōseki’s essay. The talk will also touch on recent discussions surrounding the “digital humanities.”

Enrollment in the Japanese program at Boston University has increased by 50% largely due to the influx of students from East Asia. Although they quickly attain high Japanese proficiency, their lower English proficiency has been an issue in other courses.  The language and cultural issues of this demographic group were analyzed using a survey and follow-up interviews.  As expected, English proficiency issues were the primary problem for recent immigrants but these decrease over time.  However, an unexpected finding was that their cultural problems persist.  

Educators should focus on increasing the intercultural knowledge by teaching the language and cultural skills of the target language.  This talk will discuss the details of the study and propose strategies to better prepare students for functioning in foreign language environments.

Modern Arabic literature is usually studied against one of three backgrounds: the classical Arab literary heritage, contemporary Arab social change, or “the West.” While these approaches are useful, they do not suffice, because world literary flows are complicated. Cultures are not separable wholes. Good writers tend to read widely and voraciously, responding to sources old and new, in the original and in translation, from the colonizer’s canon and elsewhere. Geopolitical factors help determine what “world literature” looks like at each place and time: French and Anglo-American literatures have not always been dominant. For Arab intellectuals, an equally important source has been Russia. Throughout the twentieth century, Russian literature from Tolstoy to Mayakovsky provided models that helped Egyptian, Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian writers develop their ideas and styles. Even beyond any particular author or book, the idea of Russia (and then the Soviet Union) was a potent exemplar: a civilization that appeared to have overtaken Europe while keeping its cultural integrity and distinctiveness. Yet Russian literary models were not adopted blindly; Arab writers (especially those who had personally traveled to Russia) took only what served them, reshaping it to suit their ends. This presentation shows why it is fruitful to recover the history of Arab-Russian cultural connections and why failing to do so makes it easy to misunderstand and stereotype Arab cultural production. It then turns to three completely different Arab appropriations of a single Russian work, Leo Tolstoy’s controversial Kreutzer Sonata. Published by Palestinian (or Palestinian Israeli) writers in 1903, 1960, and 2012, respectively, these three works demonstrate that any discussion of cultural influences needs to consider the motives of the influencee. A hyperconservative Russian pro-chastity diatribe might seem an unlikely vehicle for Arab literary modernization projects. All the more reason to ask what local itches Kreutzer scratched, what hungers it fed, and what rhetorical and artistic resources it provided at three very different moments in modern Arab literary history.

I would like to try to use recent work on a topos linked with cinema’s early reception – that of the “credulous spectator,” often figured in early film and film lore as the country bumpkin or “rube” who runs from the oncoming train or from the wet of onscreen waves, who misperceives the projected image as real and tries to enter the story “by attempting to grasp the images on the screen, by reacting to them physically, by joining the characters on the screen, in order to interfere with an ongoing action, or by looking behind the image to discover what is hidden or kept out of sight”[1] – to parse certain aesthetic practices characteristic of Renaissance Europe (composition and publication of emblems and imprese) and Edo Japan (renga competitions and other sociable aesthetic practices) as ludic negotiations of cultural capital at major historical thresholds of media change. Discounting as urban mythology the thought that such “rube films” as Edwin O. Porter’s Uncle Josh at the Movie Theater (1902) accurately represent early viewer reactions to film, Thomas Elsaesser has suggested that instead they “articulate a meta-level of self-reference in order to ‘discipline’ their audience – not by showing them how not to behave, i.e. by way of a negative example, by shaming and proscription, but rather […] by allowing them to enjoy their own superior form of spectatorship, even if that superiority is achieved at the price of self-censorship and self-restraint.”[2] I aim to read this as a form of play that may be broadly characteristic of intellectual elites belonging to rising merchant classes at historical moments in which social flux is accompanied and affected by radical changes in media technology and patterns of communication. Eiko Ikegami[3] has made a similar argument regarding the social function of renga (linked poetry) competitions in Edo Japan under changing media conditions, while Santō Kyōden’s buffoonish character Enjirō in the popular kibyōshi Playboy, Roasted a la Edo (1785) seems very much an Edo-era Uncle Josh type, and I suspect that the fashion of designing and publishing emblems and imprese in 15th– and 16th-century Europe had sociologically comparable origins (Cervantes’s Don Quixote, whose adventures appear sometimes to echo plates from Spanish emblem books, might be a relevant Uncle Josh, or perhaps I can find an Italian example)[4].

[1] Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994), 25-30; Thomas Elsaesser, “Archaeologies of Interactivity: Early Cinema, Narrative and Spectatorship,” in Ligensa and Kreimeier, eds., Film 1900, 15; also Elsaesser, “Discipline Through Diegesis: The Rube Film between ‘Attractions’ and ‘Narrative Integration’,” in Wanda Strauven, ed., The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded (Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2006), 205-23.

[2] Elsaesser, “Archaeologies of Interactivity,” 16.

[3] Eiko Ikegawa, Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Origins of Japanese Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005).

[4] Marisa Alvarez, Ut pictura poesis: Hacia una investigación de Cervantes, Don Quijote y los emblemas (Ph. Diss., Georgetown U., 1988).

One might be tempted to read a number of modern Korean literary works from the late 1910s and the early 1920s as case studies of mental disorders. This is not merely because the characters  of these works suffer from psychological or psychosomatic symptoms, but also because they often attempt to diagnose their own mental ills or those of others, using Western scientific terms in translation such as “singyŏng” (nerves), “p’yobon” (specimen), “singyŏng soeyak” (neurothenia), “uuljŭng” (depression), and “sep’o” (cells). Chronologically speaking, the appearance of Western scientific terms in Korean literature followed the colonial government’s medical reform initiatives in the early 1910s, including the opening of a new psychiatric unit in the Government-General Hospital. Yet these works offer little clue to how mental illnesses might have been perceived or treated during that time. I suggest rather that the form of medical case studies should be understood as a narrative device instead of as a credible historical source. As a literary technique, it allowed writers to explore questions about sexuality, the relationship between mind and body, and the varying dynamics between self and others through the mode of “realistic” thought experimentation. What interpretive possibilities does this narrative form then open up? Where might the “scientific” thought experiment seem to stall or fall back to a less than “reliable” method of inquiry?  To answer these questions, I will look at three short stories: Kim Tongin’s “Oh, You Faint-hearted Man!” (1919) and “The Wasteland” (1924), and Yŏm Sangsŏp’s “The Green Frog in the Specimen Room” (1921).

The haiku poet Masaoka Shiki and the novelist Natsume Soseki were both born in 1867, the year before the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, when Japan opened up to the West and began to emerge as a modern nation state. The two writers were close friends from their early 20s on, when they often traded commentaries on each other’s work, and composed poems in response to each other. But like most Japanese men of their generation, they first learned to read and compose poetry not in Japanese, but in classical Chinese. This early experience taught them to understand their own friendship in the language of the poets of the Tang dynasty (618-907) in China, such as Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu.

As Japan began its great historical shift “Away from Asia and Towards Europe (脱亜入欧) the two friends set out on two separate paths, each one representative of those taken by other writers of their generation: Soseki turned towards the West, becoming a scholar of British literature and Japan’s greatest modern novelist, and Shiki focused on the native Japanese poetic tradition, becoming modern Japan’s most influential haiku poet.  And yet both would continue to compose poetry in Chinese until the last years of their lives. Soseki and Shiki were thus not just Japanese writers, but world writers, working in multiple languages, and inhabiting multiple, criss-crossing literary worlds, each of which entailed vastly different modes of expression, of sociality, and intimacy.

Most scholarship to date on Soseki and Shiki, including my own, has focussed on Soseki’s novels and Shiki’s haiku. And yet it could be said that their work in Chinese forms the foundation not only of their friendship, but also of their subsequent literary careers. My own grasp of Chinese is rudimentary. But, taking courage from Margaret’s suggestion that “even a halting grasp of another language can shift your whole scholarly outlook,” I have started, slowly, to work my way through some of the Chinese poems and prose that Soseki and Shiki wrote to each other.  In this paper, I’ll share what I have found so far, and ask for help from colleagues in Chinese!


During the 1910s and 20s, Peking opera underwent a fundamental transformation from a performing art primarily driven by singing to one that included acting and dancing. Leading this new development were male actors playing female roles, with Mei Lanfang as the most outstanding example. The acknowledged sources on which these changes drew were the encounters with Western style opera, which in turn prompted a search for lost performance practices from the Chinese past as preserved in medieval Buddhist murals. The artistic and social values carrying these changes, however, suggest that Peking opera underwent a qualitative reconceptualization that involved a critical break with its past and shared the basic agenda of the modernist art movement.

The Peking Opera reform has thus to be seen as part of a wider modernist trend in the performing arts. The paper will trace the interaction of Peking opera with this trend between 1900 and the 1930s through three contact zones. The Paris sojourns of Mei Lanfang’s key guide Qi Rushan in 1911 and 1913 brought contact with the Paris theater scene. The visits to Japan by Mei Lanfang in 1919 and 1924, where he encountered a new kind of Kabuki which was also going through its own transformation led by now legendary actors such as Nakamura Jakuemon 中村雀右衛門, Nakamura Utaemon 中村歌右衛門 and his son; and finally the visit of the American modern dance group Denishawn to Beijing in 1925. Led by the founders of American modern dance Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn during their tour of the Far East, the group was invited by Mei Lanfang to perform on the same stage with him. As a result of that encounter, the group experimented with three of Mei Lanfang’s new operas “The king’s farewell to his consort,” “The heavenly maiden spreads flowers,” and “Daiyu buries the petals.”
This paper will explore the artistic transformation of Peking opera between the 1910s and the 1920s by focusing on the three areas of contact outline above. It will argue that the particular artistic innovation in Peking Opera can only be fully understood and appraised in the context of global cultural interaction. In light of this, it will also suggest that a new assessment of the modernist movement is needed that sees it as a global trend rather than simply a European phenomenon.

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