February 2013 Selection: Kokoro

At our February 5, 2013 meeting we will discuss David Gilmour’s selection:

Natsume Sōseki, Kokoro, first published in Japanese in 1914.

Various translations into English are available.

David Gilmour provides the following the following information about this selection for us to think about as we prepare for the discussion.
My hope is that reading Kokoro will be for us all a new experience in discussion and enjoyment of fictional literature. It might make more demands on intuition than on logic. If you feel somewhat at sea during the reading, that’s all right. Remember how you felt when you saw your first Ingmar Bergman film: what the heck’s that about? Or you were asked to construe an abstract expressionistic painting: construe what?

Rumi had some advice about being at sea:

Late, by myself, in the boat of myself,
no light and no land anywhere,
cloudcover thick, I try to stay
just above the surface, yet I’m already under
and living within the ocean.
[From The Essential Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks]

With the publication of Pico Iyer’s essay on the new translation of Soseki’s The Gate, (http://www.nybooks.com/shared/5e9e9f0bf706e27756fb4b1f1653311c) I felt a sense of wonder at the synchronicity of its appearance to describe much of the ambiguity and ambivalence about Japanese culture some of us readers might have sensed in reading Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro. It’s been decades, in my experience, since something so revealing about Soseki and his place in literature has come to public attention in a popular medium. Mostly one had to go to university press treatises and academic journals. Before Iyer’s essay, I was working on an introduction to explain some of the cultural and social peculiarities that might confront us in reading a novel with characters so restrained that little seemed to be happening. Now, relieved of a long essay, I will just mention that part of the interest in reading such a work as Kokoro is coming to grips with characters who behave so differently in their silent interior lives than the ones we are used to in our Western literature of doers. The Meiji Restoration opened the Japanese to new ways of living and being that they had no prior experience in managing—drives of the ego and ambition, development of an interior psychic reality, willingness to divulge and confess personal thoughts and secrets.
Poetic sensibilities at play:
“I could hear the cicadas singing outside. These were different from those that I had heard in the early part of summer. These were the little ones, the tsuku-tsuku-boshi. Every summer when I was home for the holidays, I would often sit and listen to the piercing song of the cicadas and find myself falling into a strangely sorrowful mood. It was as if sorrow crept into my heart with the cry of these insects. And I would stay absolutely still, thinking of my own loneliness.” (p. 99, McClellan translation)

Lying absolutely still, listening to cicadas–the little ones that go tsuku-tsuku-boshi–and falling into a passive state, feeling a strange sorrow, the cry of loneliness: this experience occurs in world where the virtues of idleness trump the virtues of activism, an interior world more attuned to David Abrams’ natural theology of the senses (Spell of the Sensuous). A character’s inner life, quite inexplicable in ordinary terms, was a mystery to others—friends, wives, children—and on first experience, on initial discovery, a mystery even to oneself.

Therefore, if you had questions about what is really going on, or what is the important focus of Soseki’s novel, you had a few mysteries to chew on. I remember in 1961 when I encountered the first-person surface reality of Albert Camus’s The Stranger, another story of very little happening to a character with very sparse interior emotions or thought, the feeling was: What am I supposed to pay attention to as I read this? I guess the answer was everything. It seemed a strange, new literature to me. For Soseki, the writing of a Western-styled novel was an experiment in literature. He wrote in contemporary Japanese as an esoteric scholar of English letters in a culture that did not know of contemporary literature as such, just as Japanese painters were inexperienced with the concept of landscape.

Here’s what Soseki wrote in his Theory of Literature:

“As a child I enjoyed studying the Chinese classics. Although the time I spent in this kind of study was not long, it was from the Chinese classics that I learned, however vaguely and obscurely, what literature was. In my heart, I hoped that it would be the same way when I read English literature, and that I would not begrudge giving my whole life, if that were necessary, to its study. I had years ahead of me. I cannot say that I lacked the time to study English literature. But what I resent is that despite my study, I never mastered it. When I graduated I was plagued by the fear that somehow I had been cheated by English literature.” [From “The Discovery of Landscape” by Karatani Kojin in Origins of Modern Japanese Literature (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 17-18.]

My wish is that the newness (mystery?) of Soseki’s characters in a changing world of a century ago, the newness of the style of storytelling, will interest and delight you. Look forward to hearing your thoughts, insights, and queries about your experience with another literature.

Note: If you have time to watch the movie suggested in Iyer’s critique, the Main Branch of Tacoma Public Library has a copy of it : Tokyo Story by director Ozu.

–David Gilmour (January 29th, 2013)


About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
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5 Responses to February 2013 Selection: Kokoro

  1. Richard Smaby says:

    Here is a link to a useful analysis of the historical context Kokoro, which also interprets one level of the novel in a way that makes sense to me. There are clearly other very interesting aspects to the novel, but I would like to suggest this link to everyone.


  2. Ron Boothe says:

    The film David mentions, Tokio Story (1953), is part of director Yasujiro Ozu’s series of post WWII films typically referred to as “Late Ozu”. Tokyo Twilight (1957) is probably my favorite. I also particularly like the first (I think) in this series, Late Spring (1949). His early Spring (1956) and Late Autumn (1963) are also very good.

    All of these films deal with alienation related to disruptions of family and social structure in 20th Century Japan. I had always assumed these stemmed solely from the fact that Japan was defeated in WWII. Now that I am reading Korkoro and the various commentaries related to it, I am realizing that the societal changes go much deeper than that, having roots in the changes to modernity from the Meiji period. Looking forward to our discussion of the book next week.

  3. David Gilmour says:

    Thank you Richard for the link. Of course, internet sites are popular media now, and much more popular than New York Time Review of Books. Silly me for keeping you all in the dark. I know explications and commentaries are legion out there in cyberspace. Some of the comments in the book store sites even give preferences on the proper translation to use. Not knowing the Japanese, I couldn’t say which is best, and I’d have to read and compare carefully to discover the best or better. I used the McClellan one that’s been around and in print for ages, but my wife and I are also reading Meredith McKinney’s in the recent Penguin edition. Interesting distinctions in styles and diction occur between the older one and the newer translation. For discussion’s sake, it might be good if our readers have chosen various translations.

    There are so many linklets–movies, quotes and, notes–in the link Richard sent out that it might keep you all busy till next Tuesday. I hope that you first have the experience of reading Kokoro, for its attempted “modernity,” novelty and unusual novel-ness, without consulting beforehand all the analyses available. The same goes for the movie Tokyo Story. I know it’s a common pattern today for people to read reviews and commentaries before one reads a book or views a movie–and I’ve read that enjoyment is not diminished by knowing much about a work–even climaxes and resolutions–before reading or viewing–but to appreciate and enjoy the alternate literary quality of Kokoro and the subtle otherness of Tokyo Story’s filmic narrative, I feel reading and viewing first, in innocence as it were, allows consciousness to dawn slowly and dramatically as one realizes what a peculiar cultural world the characters are coping with. In order to find one’s way through a dense fog, it’s important to find oneself first in the fog and experience fogginess. My psyche is still fogged in; I’m struggling to adjust to the mind-boggling multiplicity of choices available on the internet. — David

  4. Burk Ketcham says:


    The following haikus were composed during my reading of Kokoro. As you will observe, neither one relates to the major themes of the book. They just happen to have been inspired by an idea expressed or the style of Japanese expression;

    Small Pleasures

    Small pleasures
        Always available, but often
              Not observed or appreciated

    The Diploma

    Hours of study
         Finally a diploma
               Then many years in a box

    Submitted by: Burk Ketcham 2/5/13

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