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)