Concrete Actions, Abstract Ideas01/22/2018 - By: Ben Flebbe
I want to write on a tangential strain for a bit. I want to connect the dots on how we turn an account into a story. More broadly, I want to talk about the “conversion rate” between abstract and concrete actions. Seno is a perfect case study.
Seno was so exemplary of Tale of the Heike because of its construction of a story. Taken on its own, the chapter Seno is an engaging piece. I recently wrote, “For Trekkies out there, Tale of the Heike is like a Cardassian enigma tale: the trick isn’t to figure out who’s guilty, because everyone is guilty. The trick is to figure out who is guilty of what. The Tale ALWAYS rewards asking ‘Why?” …as long as you ask the right ‘Why?'” And Seno the story is not unique in how it constructs a story over temporally disconnected chapters. Seno appears primarily as a guard and foot soldier over multiple chapters. Only mentioned in passing, once even only appearing in a list. But the situations Seno appears in before the chapter we recount create a story: Seno is the guard of Kiyomori’s favorite grandson. Then, Seno is sent to discipline some unruly monks. Later, Seno is captured in a battle. But Seno’s captor chose to enslave instead of behead them, because of Seno’s renown. If you care to trawl databases of Japanese plays, you’ll find that Seno even appears in an anecdote of an earlier part of the Tale, as the villain of the story, Kiyomori’s sadistic and unwavering minion.
Seno crosses the river.
I trained in college as a historian, and treating the Tale as a primary source was a treat. I found myself without a college’s resources – no JSTOR, no professor, and no peers to consult. So in a story of one hundred ninety-one chapters, why spend a whole one on a character that appears a total of seven times? The answer is twofold: first, that Seno is an exemplar; second, Seno is not unique as an exemplar. When you read Seno’s story removing all the chapters in-between, you find out that Seno’s characteristics are that they are a) utterly loyal, b) a brilliant tactician, c) discrete. In these ways Seno is a samurai epitomized, but in Seno’s own way, with specific strengths. But Seno is not the only epitome of a samurai. In fact, the Tale has some two-hundred odd characters, each with their own story. We want to introduce you to as many of them as you let us.
Converting Actions into Ideas
But anyway, the point is this: by adding in the Seno chapter, Tale of the Heike turns a minor, throwaway character into a star. For a chapter. And what the Tale does, over and over, is reward asking questions. It has a high conversion rate between the actions the Tale describes and the ideas it touches on. We might wonder what caused a famine, forgetting the stampeding army three chapters earlier. As readers, we might forget that two enemies battling to the death have met in battle years before. We might wonder why one combatant chooses to fight in water instead of land… until we recall they had lost the last fight on land, and they were a superior swimmer. And when we establish the details of actions and the forces behind them, we can begin to ask more abstract questions on top of them. Questions like, “What is loyalty?”, “What is a samurai’s duty to family and lord?”, and “What is honor?” And finally, we can begin to reach the ultimate questions of the chapter: “Why did Seno die? What did Seno die for? And what did it all mean?” But we’ll leave that to you.
By: Ben Flebbe
Co-Founder of Peers of Menard
Ben spends his days vacillating between insight and incoherence.