The Aesthetics of Strangeness: Eccentricity and Madness in Early Modern Japan
282pp. July 2013
The Aesthetics of Strangeness: Eccentricity and Madness in Early Modern Japan
Author: Brecher, W. Puck;
Eccentric artists are “the vagaries of humanity” that inhabit the deviant underside of Japanese society: This was the conclusion drawn by pre–World War II commentators on most early modern Japanese artists. Postwar scholarship, as it searched for evidence of Japan’s modern roots, concluded the opposite: The eccentric, mad, and strange are moral exemplars, paragons of virtue, and shining hallmarks of modern consciousness. In recent years, the pendulum has swung again, this time in favor of viewing these oddballs as failures and dropouts without lasting cultural significance. This work corrects the disciplinary (and exclusionary) nature of such interpretations by reconsidering the sudden and dramatic emergence of aesthetic eccentricity during the Edo period (1600–1868). It explains how, throughout the period, eccentricity (ki) and madness (kyō) developed and proliferated as subcultural aesthetics. By excavating several generations of early modern Japan’s eccentric artists, it demonstrates that individualism and strangeness carried considerable moral and cultural value. Indeed, Edo society fetishized various marginal personae—the recluse, the loser, the depraved, the outsider, the saint, the mad genius—as local heroes and paragons of moral virtue. This book concludes that a confluence of intellectual, aesthetic, and social conditions enabled multiple concurrent heterodoxies to crystallize around strangeness as a prominent cultural force in Japanese society.

A study of impressive historical and disciplinary breadth, The Aesthetics of Strangeness also makes extensive use of primary sources, many previously overlooked in existing English scholarship. Its coverage of the entire Edo period and engagement with both Chinese and native Japanese traditions reinterprets Edo-period tastes and perceptions of normalcy. By wedding art history to intellectual history, literature, aesthetics, and cultural practice, W. Puck Brecher strives for a broadly interdisciplinary perspective on this topic. Readers will discover that the individuals that form the backbone of his study lend credence to a new interpretation of Edo-period culture: a growing valuation of eccentricity within artistic and intellectual circles that exerted indelible impacts on mainstream society. The Aesthetics of Strangeness demystifies this emergent paradigm by illuminating the conditions and tensions under which certain rubrics of strangeness— ki and kyō particularly—were appointed as aesthetic criteria. Its revision of early modern Japanese culture constitutes an important contribution to the field.

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“In this book Puck Brecher reinterprets the significance of Tokugawa-era eccentrics, offering a new perspective on them as historical figures. He argues that, although they were not political players, eccentrics were sources of artistic creativity and vehicles for the transmission of important socio-cultural values from elite to commoner culture. The stories of individual eccentrics, about whom little has been published in English, are so engagingly told that the book should attract an audience beyond specialists.” —Philip C. Brown, The Ohio State University

The Aesthetics of Strangeness is an exemplary study that promises to reorient our received understanding of a crucial epoch in the cultural history of Japan. Centering on the tropes of eccentricity, strangeness, and madness and the manner of their evocation in the intellectual, cultural, and artistic life of the Tokugawa era, Puck Brecher has produced a critically sophisticated and intellectually rigorous exploration of representative figures and their response to the changing temper of the times. His commitment to interdisciplinary scholarship, coupled with a keen understanding of the complex synergies at work within Tokugawa society, makes for a richly ‘problematized’ and deeply informative study that I found engaging and satisfying from start to finish.” —Marvin Marcus, Washington University, St. Louis
Author: Brecher, W. Puck;
W. Puck Brecher is assistant professor of Japanese at Washington State University.