The brevity of the haiku is not formal; the haiku is not a rich thought reduced to a brief form, but a brief event which immediately finds its proper form.
The haiku reproduces the designating gesture of the child pointing at whatever it is (the haiku shows no partiality for the subject), merely saying: that!
-- Roland Barthes
Since his death in 1980, Roland Barthes’s reputation as an influential thinker and a great writer has continued to grow. His works on semiotics and literary theories have exerted a major impact on aspiring scholars and laymen alike. In 1970, he published a slim yet influential “travel book” on Japanese culture, Empire of Signs. 1 In it, he wrote about Japanese food, such as obento, sukiyaki, upscale tempura restaurants, and about his adventures into puzzling, centerless Tokyo with its numerous train stations and pachinko parlors. He also wrote about his fascination with flower arranging, people bowing instead of shaking hands, gift packaging, Bunraku, haiku, calligraphy, and facial physiognomy. One of the well-explored ideas about Japanese cultural phenomena is his discussion of haiku, to which he dedicated almost one-sixth of the book (pp. 69-84). Since the publication of the book, Barthes’s view of haiku has been well received among haiku critics and poets, as well as his readers of literary theory and criticism.
In his introduction to The Essential Haiku, Robert Hass writes that:
They [Basho's, Buson's, and Issa's haiku] have a quality of actuality, of the moment seized on and rendered purely, and because of this they seem to elude being either traditional images of nature or ideas about it. The formal reason for this mysteriousness is that they don’t usually generalize their images . . . what was left was the irreducible mysteriousness of the images themselves. The French writer Roland Barthes speaks of . . . the haiku’s “breach of meaning” and is able to make a post-modern case for them as deconstructions and subversions of cultural certainties. This case can be made, but the silence of haiku, its wordlessness, also has its roots in Buddhist culture, especially in Zen . . . Zen provided people training in how to stand aside and leave the meaning-making activity of the ego to its own devices. Not resisting it, but seeing it as another phenomenal thing . . .2
In his essay on tanka and Tawara Machi, Eiji Sekine further explores Barthes’s view on haiku and emphasizes, “[Barthes] thinks that the haiku is essentially the same as Zen koan and that it exercises freedom from clinging to meaning . . . the West moistens everything with meaning.” 3 He also thinks “Barthes’s understanding of haiku as snapshots of a thing as ‘event’ is important and correct.” 4 In order to extend Barthes’s line of thought in his own way, Sekine examines Basho’s frog haiku by contrasting it with Arthur Rimbaud’s and William Wordsworth’s nature poems, and he concludes that:
Both Rimbaud and Wordsworth assume that the described moments are special because they reveal life’s ultimate meanings (eternity, divine intervention). In other words, nature is worthy to talk about insofar as it symbolizes something deep and metaphysical that transcends reality’s physical surface. In Basho’s poem, the described moment is not connected with life’s conclusive meaning. Instead, it stresses that something has happened at the described moment and he reconstructs the moment as interactions among articulately simplified components of the happening …The haiku thus shows appreciation for small mysteries, which one is constantly exposed to as a series of small yet inspiring incidents in everyday reality. 5
Generally speaking, both Hass and Sekine capture the key notions of Barthes’s view of haiku described in Empire of Signs: relating haiku to the Zen project of confounding the fixed categories of language, and reading it as a breach of meaning, an exemption from the Western compulsion to commentary. These notions are widespread and inscribed on the minds of haiku poets and readers, but what do they really mean in the contexts of Empire of Signs, his other writings, and his view of Zen Buddhism? Furthermore, does his view of haiku help deepen our understanding of the poetics of haiku? In the following passages, I’ll try to answer these questions in my essay.
First of all, Empire of Signs is generally viewed as part of Roland Barthes’s “post-structuralist” phrase in which his main concern for explaining systems of sign is overtaken by “a desire to disrupt and decenter their authority.” 6 As Rolf J. Goebel rightly points out in “Japan as Western Text,” the book’s “philosophical context is the deconstructive critique of the Western concepts of transcendental truth, determinate meaning, and epistemologically transparent language.” 7 One of the main notions he employs in the book is that of the text: “freed from the origin of authorial intention, related to an infinitude of other discourses and cultural codes, the text, as a centerless network of free-floating signifiers, offers an irreducible plurality of meanings to be realized by the productive reader… to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases -- reason, science, law.” 8 Empire of Signs is the realization of the above-mentioned theoretical concept, and he “transforms what the innocent tourist would call objective reality particles of Japan into a self-referential network of linguistic signification.” 9
Secondly, reading Japan as text provides Barthes “a temporary and tentative escape from Eurocentric ideology and writing practices steeped in the tradition of Western metaphysics.” 10 He focuses mainly on the “signs” of Japan rather than on the “real” Japan, making this very clear from the onset that for him Japan is a “fictive nation” (p. 7), a semiotic system. Japan provides him an exercise to experience cultural differences on an abstract level, one in which it is the operations of signs as much as their content that is of primary concern. For him, “the real Japan becomes a mere support for the sign, one in which ‘the inscription obliterates the wall’” (p. 108). 11 Japanese culture becomes “a diagram of the semiotic process, one whose heuristic value in semiotic terms is enhanced by the underlying void:” 12
…[t]he public place is a series of instantaneous events which accede to the notable in a flash so vivid, so tenuous that the sign does away with itself before any particular signified has had time to ‘take.’ One might say that an age-old technique permits the landscape or the spectacle to produce itself, to occur in a pure significance, abrupt, empty, like a fracture. Empire of signs? Yes, if it is understood that these signs are empty and that the ritual is without a god (p. 108).
In Barthes’s adventures in this empire of signs, every cultural product is explored not only for the difference from its Western counterpart, but also for the way it throws light on the semantic void underlying it. The most exciting example for him is the haiku. 13
Thirdly, after contextualizing Empire of Signs in its relationship to Barthes’s other writings, we can now turn our attention to his well-received view of haiku. In the chapter entitled “The Breach of Meaning,” Barthes writes, “for [Westerners], poetry is ordinarily the signifier of the ‘diffuse,’ of the ‘ineffable,’ of the ’sensitive,’ it is the class of impressions which are unclassifiable; [Westerners] speak of ‘concentrated emotion,’ of sincere notation of a privileged moment” (p. 71). Conversely, “The haiku has this rather phantasmagoric property: that [Westerners] always suppose [Westerners themselves] can write such things easily… [Westerners] tell [themselves]: what could be more accessible to spontaneous writing than this (by Buson)
It is evening, in autumn,
All I can think of
Is my parents.
The haiku wakens [the] desire” (p. 69) of being a writer inside Western readers because it frees them from the rhetorical labor of Western literature. Moreover, he emphasizes that “the West moistens everything with meaning, like an authoritarian religion which imposes baptism on entire peoples; the objects of language (made out of speech) are obviously de jure converts: the first meaning of the system summons, metonymically, the second meaning of discourse, and this summon has the value of a universal obligation” (p. 70). Readers of the book up to this point at which this statement appears will notice that his simile is theologically motivated, “for he thinks that the Western problem of meaning is a specifically Christian inheritance, one that depends on the Christian ‘metaphysics of the person’… through Christianity, the problem of meaning, of making it and finding it, confronts Westerners as imposition… finding and making all of life meaningful is not an option; it is a duty.” 14
On the contrary, “while being quite intelligible, the haiku means nothing, … it seems open to meaning in a particularly available, serviceable way -- the way of a polite host who lets you make yourself at home with all your preferences, your values, your symbols intact; the haiku’s absence… suggests subornation, a breach, in short the major covetousness, that of meaning” (pp. 69-70). For Barthes, the haiku is an arrangement of related words or signs that share little of the governing meaning construction in Western sign systems. In his view, the haiku “seems to afford in profusion, cheaply and made to order… scarcely a few words, an image, a sentiment -- where [Western] literature ordinarily requires a poem, a development or (in the genres of brevity) a chiseled thought” (p. 70).
And he continues to stress that reading of the haiku is invested by the Western commentators with “a symbolic charge.” If one of Japanese poets, such as Joko, writes:
How many people
Have crossed the Seta bridge
Through the autumn rain!
[The Westerner] perceives the image of fleeting time” (p. 71). Subsequently, he quotes Basho’s ever-famous frog haiku and criticizes that Western commentators only want to see in this poem “a syllogical design in three tenses (rise, suspension, conclusion)” (p. 71) and fail to see that the poem may invite readers to stop commenting.
Barthes’s polemic against the Western misreading of haiku is an implicit attack on its hermeneutical tradition: “Deciphering, normalizing, or tautological, the ways of interpretation, intended in the West to pierce meaning, i.e., to get into it by breaking and entering . . . cannot help failing the haiku; for the work of reading which is attached to it is to suspend language, not to provoke it. . .” (p. 72). At the end of the chapter, he compares reading haiku with working on a Zen koan, and emphasizes the difficulty and necessity of this enterprise recognized by the haiku master Basho (p.72):
How admirable he is
Who does not think “Life is ephemeral”
When he sees a flash of lightning!
Fourthly, for Barthes, haiku writing is not intended to propose messages, and any sense or meaning deduced from it comes as an accident, as a side effect, or as he puts it, is exempted. 15 The haiku as an exercise in exemption from meaning is merely the “literary branch” of Zen Buddhism (p. 74). In the chapter entitled “Exemption from Meaning,” which mainly is his philosophical musings on Zen Buddhism and its relationship with language, emptiness and meaning, he stresses that Zen baffles the logical categories operative in Western thinking and recommends to avoid assertion, negation, ambiguity, and ambivalence, which have the effect of destroying the linguistic paradigm as “[Western] structural linguistics has framed it (A -- not A -- neither A nor not A [zero degree] -- A and not A [complex degree])” (p. 73). In his view, “the Buddhist way is precisely that of the obstructed meaning…all of Zen, of which the haiku is merely the literary branch, appears as an enormous praxis destined to halt language… to empty out, to stupefy, to dry up the soul’s incoercible babble; and perhaps what Zen calls satori… is no more than a panic suspension of language, the blank which erases in us the reign of the Codes, the breach of that internal recitation which constitutes our person” (pp. 74-5).
Barthes thinks that haiku “functions at least with a view to obtain a flat language, which nothing grounds on superimposed layers of meaning” (p. 74), and that Bashô’s frog haiku embodies this idea perfectly: “there is a moment when language ceases (a moment obtained by dint of many exercises), and it is this echoless breach which institutes at once the truth of Zen and the form -- brief and empty -- of the haiku” (p. 74). Because of his recognition of the emptiness of forms that is Buddhist reality, Barthes idealizes in the haiku this Buddhist notion of emptiness. When reading haiku, all that one can do with it is to scrutinize it, as recommended to the Zen apprentice who is working on a koan. He is told “not to solve it, as if it had a meaning, nor even to perceive its absurdity (which is still a meaning), but to ruminate it until ‘the tooth falls out’” (p. 74). As an alternative to Western thinking, although proposing such a radical blockage of sense-making structures, Zen Buddhism teaches its practitioners to meditate on the sign as sign, not as meaning but as an operation just like working on a koan.
For Barthes, “the brevity of the haiku is not formal; the haiku is not a rich thought reduced to a brief form, but a brief event which immediately finds its proper form” (p. 75). Unlike Western literature that transforms the impression of an event into description, “the haiku never describes; its art is counter-descriptive, to the degree that each state of thing is immediately, stubbornly, victoriously converted into a fragile essence of appearance… the haiku… corresponds to the Buddhist Mu, to the Zen satori, which is not all the illuminative descent of God, but ‘awakening to the fact,’ apprehension of the thing as event and not as substance” (p. 78). Therefore, Barthes emphasizes that “the measurement of language is what the Westerner is most unfit for…all his rhetoric obliges him to make signifier and signified disproportionate” (p. 75). The accuracy of haiku has less to do with an exact description of reality, and more to do with an adequation of signifier and signified (pp. 75-6).
Finally, throughout the book, Barthes successfully sustains a comparison between “Japan” and “the West,” one that opens up “the possibility of a difference… in the propriety of symbolic systems” (pp. 3-4) between these two places. In particular, he tries to demonstrate that these two systems work differently and orient themselves differently towards meaning. The different attitudes towards meaning become clear in the chapters titled “The Breach of Meaning” and “Exemption from meaning,” as I have explained in the contexts of Empire of Signs, his other writings, and his view of Zen Buddhism. In these two chapters, he proves to us that Japanese haiku, like Zen koans, does not insist on signs bearing meanings in the way that the West does. Following his line of thought, we discover that Japan is an empire of empty signs by virtue of its difference from the West, which is an empire of meaning. 16 One of the most important things about his portrayal of Japanese culture in general and of haiku in particular is not if he makes convincing arguments about haiku or if he gets Japan right. It is that from the beginning of the book he already establishes that the Japan he talks about is a Japan he constructs semiotically, a foil to draw out what lies behind the obsession with meaning in the West.
In his view, unlike Western literature that “requires a poem, a development or (in the genres of brevity) a chiseled thought (p. 70), the haiku can write on any kind of incidental and insignificant subjects (“the haiku shows no partiality for the subject”) (p. 83), deliberates Western readers from the burden of meaning (especially religious) and a “long rhetorical labor” (p. 70), and uses “scarcely a few words, an image, a sentiment” (p. 70) to establish what he calls “the vision without commentary” (p. 82). “This vision (the word is still too Western) is in fact entirely private; what is abolished is not meaning but any notion of finality” (p. 82). Any sense or meaning deduced from it comes as an accident or a side effect; meaning in the haiku is “only a flash, a slash of light: When the light of sense goes out, but with a flash that has revealed the invisible world, Shakespeare wrote; but the haiku’s flash illuminates, reveals nothing” (p. 83). The haiku is like the child’s designating gesture pointing at whatever it is, “merely saying: that!” (p. 83). Through his semiotic reading of Japanese culture as text, I believe that Roland Barthes offers his readers an enriched understanding of haiku aesthetics from a cross-cultural and interdisciplinary perspective.
First published in the bi-monthly column, “Haiku, A Looking Bird, “ of Haijinx, April, 2010;
Reprinted in Haiku Reality
1 Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.
2 Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashô, Buson, and Issa, New York: Ecco, 1994, pp. xv-xvi.
3 Eiji Sekine, “On the Tanka and Tawara Mach,” Simply Haiku, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Autumn, 2006), accessed at http://bit.ly/geKh5k
6 Peter Trifonas, Barthes and the Empire of Signs, UK: Icon Books, 2001, p. 3.
7 Rolf J. Goebel, “Japan as Western Text: Roland Barthes, Richard Gordon Smith, and Lafcadio Hearn,” Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 30, No. 2 (1993), p. 189.
8 Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text,” Image, Musk, Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath, New York: Hill and Wang, 1977, 155-64. For anyone who is interested in this notion, one can get a succinct summary at http://bit.ly/fIIk85
9 See Barthes and Heath, p. 147.
10 See Goebel, p. 189.
11 Ibid, p. 190.
12 David H. T. Scott, Semiologies of Travel: From Gautier to Baudrillard, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 38.
15 Matthew Eric Engelke and Matt Tomlinson, The Limits of Meaning: Case Studies in the Anthropology of Christianity, New York: Berghahn Books, 2006, p. 212.
16 See Scott, p. 39.