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Study Guide: Ishikawa Jun’s “Form and Content in Writing” (1940)

Read the essay and answer the following questions.

1. Ishikawa makes several points about the differences between speech and writing.
Identify and explain each of these points. To what does he attribute their fundamental

2. Ishikawa seems to be advocating a notion of writing that is independent from speech.
Should we read his commentary as a critique of the notion/practice of genbun itchi?

3. In what ways has print technology (katsuji) altered our understanding/practice of
writing (calligraphy included)? Explain.

4. Describe Ishikawa’s view of kata (fixed models)? What has the impact of kata been
on the unfolding/development of writing?

5. How does Ishikawa posit the relation between the particular (i.e. national language)
and the universal? What does he see as the two necessary conditions for all written
languages? Why doesn’t Esperanto qualify as an authentic language in his view?

6. Consider the final two sentences of the first section. Where does Ishikawa situate
“meaning” in relation to “form” and “content”? How does this relate to his general
critique of content-centered/representational writing?

When a work is completed, the traces of the struggle of spirit that unfolded
there [within it] gain autonomy on the page as the image of a living script,
and this image is indivisibly related to what the work “means” as a whole.
And this image is precisely what constitutes the form of writing.

“Bunshō no keishiki to naiyō”; translation (by me) forthcoming. The essay was first
published on May 20 1940 in issue 3 of the journal Gendai Bunshō Kōza (Mikasa
shobō), and later included in A General View of Literature (Bungaku taigai; first edition:
Shōgakkan, 1942), a book-length collection of essays written between 1936 and 1942.

7. How does Ishikawa’s address the question “what to write and in what manner” (nani
o ika ni shite kaku)? How does he respond to some of the conventional answers to this
question? What alternative answer does he propose?

8. What does Ishikawa mean when he says “the written word has a pure and simple
nature […] insofar as it has washed itself clean of the physiology, the shinri
(psychology), and all other aspects and associations of the writer himself”? How does
this statement relate to his claim that writing is always already a depersonalized and
public act?

9. How does Ishikawa view the relation between “technique” and “artistic taste”? What
point is he trying to make by citing these two passages from Nishikawa Issōtei and
George Moore? Does Ishikawa agree with their points?

10. Explain Ishikawa’s view of the (corrupting) influence of poetry on prose writing.
What is Ishikawa’s purpose in quoting Pierre Louÿs’ letter to André Gide? How does
Ishikawa think writers should deploy rhythm into their writing/sentences?

11. The title of the first section is “That Which Kills Writing/That Which Animates the
Writing.” What are the factors that “kill” writing, what are the factors that “animate”
writing, according to Ishikawa?

12. Ishikawa cites three claims made by French naturalist Comte de Buffon
(1707-1788): “style is the man himself”; “truth is the only eternal thing”; and “[the
infinite number of truths contained in style] are just as useful—and perhaps more
useful—to the human spirit than those that make up the subject itself.” Which of the
three claims does Ishikawa agree with? What problems does he find in the other two
claims? How does this relate to Ishikawa’s general anti-naturalist/anti-mimetic

13. Ishikawa divides all existing writings into two types: “emaciated writing”
(hinjaku-gumi) and “insidious writing” (guretsu-gumi). Describe these two types. Can
you think of any examples of each type? Which of the two types of writing does
Ishikawa regard as superior? (Note: For the following eight questions, refer to these last
six paragraphs of the essay.)

The average reader has a bad habit of regarding the “truths that make up
the subject” to be the only content matter of a work, believing that as long as
the main topic is interesting, then form is only secondary—as though the
written word were merely a vehicle for the expedient transport of content.
But in fact these “truths that make up the subject” account only for the
conscious content of the written text; and any writing that is comprised
solely of such content—regardless of how extraordinary that content may
be—is what I call emaciated writing. A criticism one often hears about such
works is that they fail to move, even if their subject matter is quite
extraordinary. In fact, most of what has been so painstakingly rendered into
writing fits this description—and indeed would have been better off
delivered as a talk at some college. Strictly speaking, writing is that which
cannot be spoken. At the other end of the spectrum are those books
that—although people find them engrossing—even a dog would turn his
nose up at them. And when pressed for comment, the readers of these books,
careful not to sound overzealous, say that such works are lacking in terms of
content—only to admit after a flash of critical insight that they do find them
interesting/stimulating, burying their noses back into it. Such works I refer to
as insidious writing. Odd as it may sound, even such books qualify as
writing. And it is around these two types that a rancorous debate/quibble/tiff
about literary value will presently ensue.
The words of one soundly composed line will perforce propel the line’s
movement. Only within this flow of moving words can writing acquire its
life and rhythm (which is its life-breath). Within these pliant and
ever-changing words all the secrets of writing lie. Here Buffon discovered
the living image of writing; and, recognizing that each word itself constituted
a “piece of the truth,” he hailed literary style as something “useful to the
human spirit.” In short, these “infinite pieces of the truth” account for
writing’s unconscious content. And the more abundant such content is, the
more beautiful the work will be. That a string of words printed on the page
by a total stranger can arouse/prompt/induce in/elicit from us a thrill or
appeal to our reason is a direct effect of this unconscious content. Works that
are devoid of such content cannot be regarded as authentic writing. Such
works are unworthy of our attention, even if their content matter emits the
scent of something that vaguely corresponds to these “truths that make up
the subject.” If the style of writing is inadequate [overly sparse], the main
subject matter will have all been for naught. On the other hand, there are
those writers who are convinced that they can turn out sentences with their
arms or legs; and their works, although wholly lacking in content, are all the
more formidable when produced for money and spun/woven with these
“[infinite] pieces of the truth.” The interesting/stimulating but
insidious/obscene kind of writing I just mentioned is an example of this type.
Yet these works too invariably fall short of being “most useful to the human
In short, the general laws of writing/écriture refuse to accept either of
these two deformities. But this is not a problem since the emaciated type
(hinjaku-gumi) was already disqualified on the opening move, and the
insidious type (guretsu-gumi) simply roamed about [forage along] in search
of that indispensible thing—i.e. that secret that can bring writing into
being—while putting on a skillful performance that is no mean feat.
Regrettably, it is widely believed that this is where a technique for writing
lies. But this was merely a pitfall at the side of the road—road that leads to
the exquisite world of écriture—into which man inevitably had to stumble.
And so these two truths—conscious content and unconscious
content—together constitute the composite reality of the written work that is
both situated/embedded within our real world and a microcosm that moves
of its own accord. (I’m referring now to neither of the deformed types of
writing but to a full-fledged and mature écriture.) And what is “literary style,”
then, if not the face/aspect/eidos of this miniature world that emerges within
the flow of written words? Although I [just] made the distinction between
the two types of content, they are less strangers living under the same roof
with backs turned to one another than an assimilated unit [organic unity]
existing in tightly-knit mutual dependence, and so the moment you start
treating form and content as discrete entities, you lose sight of them both.
This deformed configuration—of the emaciated and insidious types—was
clearly the result of our having regarded form and content as separate. But
whereas the [philosophic economic political] “truths that make up the
subject” exist avant la lettre, and whereas the writer stuffs his work with
whatever materials—be they ideological or moral or anything else—he can
scrounge up, the unconscious content will emerge only from within the flow
of written words. For only this class of content can lend the written text its
gravity, and the stories one often hears about god coming to the rescue or the
devil having a hand in the work’s genesis attest precisely to its presence.
Moreover it is only within this unconscious content that a beauty [aesthetics]
of writing can be found. This unrivaled substance—stuff most “useful to the
human spirit”—that forever flickers in the liminal space where the writer’s
own mental calculations are forever off mark is precisely the part of writing
so exquisite as to make one shudder.
Can we not envisage, then, a world of writing that is comprised entirely
of such exquisite stuff—that is, a mode of writing that forges its total reality
entirely out of unconscious content? Earlier I noted that the written word has
a pure and simple nature [temper]. It is pure and simple insofar as it has
washed itself clean of the physiology, the ego-psyche/mentality, and all other
aspects and associations of the writer himself. Even the most poorly written
words will never, thank god, directly convey the stink of their creator. This
thing that clambers its way into the text under the name [philosophic
economic political] “truths that make up the subject” is always something
anterior to writing; and so long as it is prompted into the work by the
author’s own psyche/mentality, the author’s shinri [subjective
economy/psychology] and his subject matter will always exist in dubious
relationship. You may wonder, then, if the words to be written are even
capable of expelling this suspicious intruder known as the “truths that make
up the subject.” But let me assure you—they most certainly are! (Doubt me
not on this!) And when they do, by what momentum will these words that
have booted out their commander move? By seishin
[spirit/geist/mind/wit/espirit]. (We need not concern ourselves here with
those skeptics who insist there is no such thing as spirit/geist.) To be sure,
spirit/geist existed in the past too. But this spirit/geist stood atop some lofty
height from which it simply issued forth commands to writers and
dispatched ideas as its surrogates, never exposing itself to the machinery of
language. In the literature of the future, this vagrant known as the “the main
subject” shall be expelled; spirit (seishin) will slide its way into the work and
merge itself with words; and words and spirit will move together in vigorous
unison until they rupture together into a thousand pieces. The exerted spirit
will manifest itself within this stream of words, instigating the stream’s
movement and illuminating it with life. At this point the content of such an
écriture will be equal to the quantity of the spirit exerted and sustained
therein; and its form will be the aggregate effect of the exerted words.
Exertion/effort/labors, you see, always proceeds far apace of the written
word, and this is precisely what enables writing to achieve its autonomy as a
living thing. At this point writing will have become beauty incarnate, a world
untroubled by foul aesthetic concerns.
People will wonder whether anything so wonderful can really exist in all
the world. But they do not see for the planks in their own eyes. For this thing
we call prose is precisely what I am describing. No need to organize a search
party to track it down—just open up any novel (shōsetsu). (I would only
advise against reading shoddy ones.) As everyone knows, novels are works
written in prose and according to the modus operandi of prose. What remains
for us now to discuss, then, is not writing in general but the novel. From the
standpoint of literature, discussions of writing are generally limited to
questions of style; from the standpoint of the novel, they are a mere matter of
hygienics. It seems we have now confirmed [born witness to] the sound
hypothesis that any discussion of écriture will ultimately run up against the
subject of the novel.

14. On what grounds does Ishikawa ultimately reject both of these
“deformities”—hinjaku-gumi and guretsu-gumi? What alternative “third way” does he
propose? Explain.

15. Ishikawa posits that there are two types of content (naiyō): “conscious content” and
“unconscious content.” Explain these two types. How are they related? How does this
passage relate to Ishikawa’s general anti-content-centric/anti-naturalist orientation?

16. Does Ishikawa think it is possible to write something that is completely free of
“conscious content”—that is, which consists only of “unconscious content”? If so, what
would this kind of writing look like, and from what source—seishin or shinri—would it
spring? Explain. (Note: seishin/spirit and shinri/mentality are key terms in Ishikawa’s
lexicon; you will want to pay special attention to these binary terms in his writings.)

17. Explain as much as you can about Ishikawa’s use of the terms “spirit” (seishin) and
psyche/mentality (shinri). In what ways is “spirit” antithetical to “psyche/mentality”
(shinri)? Which does Ishikawa prefer? How does Ishikawa contrast “spirit” today from

IJZ, xx, xx.
what it used to be in the ancient past? How does he describe the interaction between
spirit and language/words in this “third way” mode of writing? How does he explain the
interaction between spirit and (unconscious) content?

18. What does Ishikawa mean when he says that “conscious content” always exists
“avant la lettre”?

19. In what form/medium does Ishikawa expect this “third way” mode of writing to