Living as though dead: the dark power of Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro

The intertwining themes of living dishonorably and dying honorably form the linchpin of Natsume Sōseki’s dark and desolate landmark 1914 novel, Kokoro (Heart). Consumed by guilt of possibly causing his best friend’s suicide in decades prior, the unnamed protagonist Sensei (or literally, ‘Teacher’) takes his own life ‘for the spirit of the Meiji’. In Kokoro, the novel’s ending and of life itself is the real story. Deaths of historical ‘real’ people suddenly make a deus ex machina appearance in the novel’s climax. The death of the Meiji emperor in 1912 results in a domino effect of other deaths. It was a signal to Sensei that he too should die, taking the Meiji era and its conflicting values with him. Following the emperor’s death, his military chief, General Nogi would in turn take his own life in an archaic way that would be the stuff of Western Orientalist images of Japanese peculiarity. In his imperial sati, General Nogi replaced his Western-style military uniform with a samurai armour and committed the act of seppuku, a type of ritual disembowelment, in front of the Meiji emperor’s portrait. In ‘following his master’, General Nogi had accomplished junshi, an honourable death.

Scholars of modern Japanese literature have debated and speculated on the more plausible reasons why the Meiji man, Sensei, committed suicide. Was it for dishonorable reasons (modern individualist selfishness) or honorable ones (to follow one’s master in death)? By Westernised and contemporary sensibilities, suicide, however abysmal its symbolic power, provokes disapproval in the living. In fact, the ‘incomprehensibility’ of suicide in Kokoro is the crux of discussions I have conducted in my Sunday classes on World Literature in the past three years with my Masters students. The genius of Kokoro is how the internal conflict of the central character, Sensei, would mirror those of his own generation who were raised during the Meiji Restoration of unfettered uptake of all things modern and European. As a Meiji man himself, born a year before the beginning of the Meiji era, Sōseki argued that Japan was shocked into change and struggled to reconcile with the human effects of a nation in rapid transition:

“People say that Japan was awakened thirty years ago, but it was awakened by a fire-bell and jumped out of bed. It was not a genuine awakening but a totally confused one. Japan has tried to absorb Western culture in a hurry and as a result has not had time to digest it. Japan must be truly awakened as regards to literature, politics, business, and all other areas” (Sōseki, 16 March 1902)

Living an unsatisfactory life and suffering are the recurring cornerstones that furnish the subtextual conflict of what it means to be a Meiji man – torn in different directions by the allure and promise of modernity and the anchor of tradition. Sensei is the classical Meiji man: highly educated and comfortable with making friends white people. He even drinks black tea. His demeanour piques the interest of a young man, also nameless, who in his first person narrative will be the only interlocutor to Sensei’s internal suffering. They develop a deep friendship built on abstract discussions on loneliness that plagues the zeitgeist:

“You see, loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egotistical selves”

Sensei had contemplated long about death but would not confide in his wife the cause of his depression. He was convinced that the suicide of his best friend is morally attributed to his cunning acquisition of the woman they both desired and whom Sensei would later marry but could not cherish in a loving relationship. The tragedies in his young adult life and lifelong guilt would arise from the constraints of tradition (of not talking about love with peers and confronting the object of one’s desires) yet mired by the modern appeal of individualistic competition and acquisition. Like a sleepwalking zombie immune to the zest of life, he resolved to continue ‘living as though dead’. Plunged into such psychological suffering, there is really no difference between living and being dead.

The final reveal – an announcement that Sensei has finally decided to die – arrives in a long letter addressed to his young friend. In it Sensei divulges his painful childhood, the powerful bond between him and his best friend, the tragic lead-up to the latter’s death, and how he must live with the pain of guilt for the rest of his life. There are hints that the death of the Meiji emperor and the ritual suicide of General Nogi may have capitulated his suicidal ideation. When the young man finishes reading the letter, its author will be dead. There is an open-endedness in both narrative arc and morality in the novel’s ending that signaled something new and modernist for Japanese readers of the early 20th century. The novel closes with the end of Sensei’s letter in the young man’s hands, contemporaneous with the reader of the novel who speculates on what the young protagonist will do next. Will the spirit of the Meiji era claim the young man as its next victim?

Literary discussion on suicide in literature tends to bring the writer’s suicide into focus. But in the case of Natsume Sōseki, he was no Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, or even Yukio Mishima. Kokoro would be his darkest novel after books lighter in mood; I am a Cat (1905) and Botchan (1906). Trained to be one Japan’s first university lecturers and scholars of Shakespeare and English literature, Sōseki became disillusioned with academia within a few years of teaching. Sōseki turned instead to journalism and became the country’s first professional novelist. His rise as a literary giant was forged alongside the emergence of the modern Japanese literati, the bundan and kokubungaku, Japanese literature as an academic discipline. Salons took place in the homes of much respected authors and patrons of the arts. Sōseki himself held court in such salons in his own home.

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A novel published originally in serialised form in the Asahi Shimbun, Kokoro’s preoccupations with suffering and alienation would mirror the life and career of the author himself. The introspective quality of Sōseki’s scholarly work on ‘literature’ parallels the psychological if elliptical preoccupations in Kokoro. In 1900, Soseki left his young family for a two year visit in London to study English literature. His sojourn to the West became both a personal and intellectual discovery of the Japanese self in relation to the Western world. While studying in University College London, he became depressed and oppressed by the alienation of a new arrival unfamiliar with a foreign world. His diminutive stature added to the exoticised reception by the English people he met who were perhaps themselves did not know what to make of a bookish Asian man on an intellectual mission.

He returned to Japan to continue to wrestle with the theory of literature in an approach that would be best called proto postcolonial. However, Sōseki had undertaken a scholarly project of discussing the production of modern Japanese literature that he was himself party to when the theory of ‘literature’ itself was still alien to his contemporaries and readers. In the first decade of the 20th century, his intellectual project was, as Kojin Karatani puts it, ‘a flower that bloomed out of season and therefore left no seed.’ The writing of Kokoro was precipitated by episodes of illness and a brush with death. Soseki suffered from a chronic stomach illness then nearly died from cerebral anaemia; events that jolted him into considering the “living experience with death”

What continues to haunt me is how simultaneously universal and truly of its time Kokoro is. It offers readers unfamiliar with modern Japanese literature a fresh respect for the introspective pause in everyday life to consider changing times and attitudes. Such an introspective pause is ever more necessary now when attention deficits plague so many. But Sōseki offers a pessimistic view on social change and the human cost to live up to expectations that change demands. Though the long-lasting effect of Kokoro is its meditation on life, death, and suffering that erases the boundary that separates the two. Rather than a void and antithesis of all that we can understand and experience, death visits upon the living and leaves its indelible mark on the body and mind.

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