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Gender and National Literature: Heian Texts in the Constructions of Japanese Modernity. By Tomiko Yoda. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004. xvi + 277 pp.
How to read from contemporary perspectives ancient literary works that have been identified as essential to a canon is an especially vexing problem. On the one hand, interpreting a classical text by way of current theories on how literature represents the formation of ideology--as seen, for example, in the construction of gender, or in the conception of subjectivity or national identity--always runs the risk of either distorting or rendering invisible the historical contexts that determined the production of the text. On the other hand, such a concern with contextualization assumes that an interpretation must to some degree privilege the originary, canonical status of the text in order to be accurate, as though reading from a contemporary point of view were somehow less valid than approaching the text from a deeply historicized perspective. This concern, then, is critically and ethically constricting, analogous to the insistence that older forms of music, to be fully appreciated, must be played on instruments contemporary to their moment of composition and experienced in cold, drafty churches.
The paradox of the historical position of the reader is most apparent in those instances, such as translating or reading works from a much earlier age, where cultural, linguistic, and conceptual differences establish a noticeable divide between …