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Rendering the unsayable: unnatural acts of narration in koan literature

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Abstract

A narrative approach to Zen texts remains largely under-researched due to the fact that Zen enlightenment is claimed to be a direct, unmediated experience beyond words. This article attempts to explore how literary Zen renders the unsayable by drawing on unnatural narrative theory. Because the unnatural proliferates in koan texts, an exploration of their narrative mode may expect to do justice to their literary expressiveness. The article begins by examining the narrativity of literary Zen and then explains why it correlates with a high degree of unnaturalness. Koan is employed to transcend mimetic norms in order to elicit “great doubt” (疑情) from its recipients. Therefore, an unnatural narrative approach is tested primarily on koan cases selected from two classic collections, The Blue Cliff Record and Gateless Gate. The middle investigates how unnatural acts of narration, particularly in the form of characters’ recalcitrant behaviors, violate logical possibilities, accounting for the hidden methods of Zen storytelling. Furthermore, we propose “unnaturalizing reading strategies” for approaching the unnatural acts that permeate koan narration. The end explains why we need to accord more attention to the relationship between koan stories and their recipients, especially the role that recipients play in experiencing the unnatural elements. It attests to the fact that studying unnatural strategies of narration in literary Zen might open up a new avenue for understanding Zen way of rendering the unsayable. It not only enhances the applicability of unnatural narratology, but also provides ready means to appreciate koan literature in a broad sense.

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Wu, A. Rendering the unsayable: unnatural acts of narration in koan literature. Neohelicon 50, 273–290 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11059-022-00652-y

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