What is the central idea of Japanese culture — its main theme, in a single word? It may sound strange, but to me the answer is freedom. Japanese society may be bound by innumerable social restrictions, but the absence of such rules can be just as limiting as their presence. Left without guidance, it only becomes harder to discover who you really are.
Ueno Park, outside the University of Tokyo.
A pleasant late-December afternoon in 2009.
I imagine that the Japanese sense of freedom grew out of the Japanese landscape. Perhaps this photograph is completely ordinary, but if you ever have the occasion to feel the sunlight of a mild Japanese winter, you might look at it another way. The breeze is a bit chilly, but seems to be softened by the sun. Nature has an almost affectionate quality; colours are bright, the sky is huge and inviting. In such surroundings, of course one would want to sit in front of a rock garden for hours, basking in the gleams of sunshine reaching through the woods in the back. Here, even religious asceticism will have a certain Epicurean quality, all of the philosophy being an afterthought, invented much later to retroactively justify this first, immediate impulse.
I am not trying to claim that life in Japan has ever been particularly leisurely or comfortable. Its rural areas are just as full of disorder as its high-tech commercial districts — in fact, the omnipresent jumble of neon signs and advertisements in the latter fully reproduces the haphazard pile-up of houses, apparently made out of plywood and corrugated sheet metal, in the former. At the same time, I can see how the dreamy landscape, where mountain peaks appear to float up from thin air, the mild warm light, the deep blue sky and water might inspire a certain existential confidence. Such a vibrant, multi-dimensional world imparts vigor through the senses. Every breath one draws has a forceful reality. One can feel oneself to be the master of one’s existence, even without building up the external trappings of life. The luxury to simply let one’s thoughts be dispelled into the air can surely be called freedom. Imagine the culture that would be born of such a feeling.
View onto the Silver Pavilion (and, below it, Kyoto)
from the back of the temple grounds.
Perhaps every culture has a distinct central idea. For example, the theme of Russian culture is homecoming. When given a religious dimension, it becomes redemption, as seen in The Brothers Karamazov. But Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita is at best indifferent, at worst hostile to religion, yet it is filled with a very similar yearning to find some sort of home, even if it takes the form of total oblivion and one has to sell one’s soul to the devil for it — this is seen as a small price to pay to escape an increasingly cold and alien reality. This overwhelming, all-encompassing feeling cannot be reduced to something as simple as political oppression: Margarita, a trophy wife living in a luxurious apartment with a personal maid, is if anything a beneficiary rather than a victim of Soviet rule. And the same motif also resurfaced countless times in mainstream Soviet culture, for example in one of the theme songs to Seventeen Moments of Spring, a cultural touchstone of the 1970s:
The nightmare of war and espionage is a trial in which home is recaptured, or perhaps created. Paradoxically, this is the time when its existence is the most tangible — one sees the “gentle shore,” and it seems possible to reach it “at least someday.” There is no mere desire of the ego that can match the power of this dream.
Thus, when a Japanese author writes, in one of the high-water marks of Japanese literature, “As a child will, I loved my home; and when parted from it, there was a yearning for it in my heart. I was like a traveler who, no matter where he goes, never doubts that he will some day return to his place of birth,” (Kokoro, 134) to a Russian reader this way of looking at the world cannot but seem somewhat frivolous — the certainty of the Japanese that he ever had a home to begin with, and that he will be able to come back to it whenever he likes, begins to look childishly naive. It is only by taking this for granted that the Japanese is ever able to feel free. But then, to the Japanese, such an interpretation amounts to an admission of one’s own inadequacy.
And, while we’re at it, the theme of German culture is beauty. This was a people that embraced the musical innovations of Italy, but found that the way to perfect them was to completely remove all human language, leaving only the abstraction of pure sound, to be assembled on paper with the precision of a sculptor. The stereotyped German love for order is only a consequence of the beauty of a meticulously constructed harmony. Perhaps even classical German philosophy is primarily a kind of aesthetics — its true aim is to uncover the beauty of reason, and not its supposed power of explanation. Japanese culture has a similar appreciation of artifice, but expresses it through the evanescent medium of flowers and sand, or, in literature, through even more transitory (however intense) emotional states and impressions. The Japanese aesthetic is one of pure perception. Where German culture strives for an objective beauty, whose abstraction only makes it more permanent than physical reality, Japanese culture is absolutely subjective.
(I could go on — the theme of French culture is ambition, best shown in the French national epic, The Three Musketeers. But that is a discussion for another time.)
On the outskirts of Kyoto.
(Am I a butterfly dreaming I’m a man?)
Japanese culture is extremely literary, and Japanese is one of a very small number of languages rich enough to have sustained a world-class literature, which emerged very late and very suddenly. Medieval epics and haiku poems, chrysanthemums and samurai swords, are actually only of peripheral significance to Japanese culture — perhaps a few such documents may stand out in some way, but for the most part they will always be secondary to classical Chinese culture, which set the intellectual standard for all of East Asia for several hundred years. Japanese culture found its first and true expression in modern Japanese literature, which emerged practically overnight as a phenomenon of global importance in the 1900s, and likewise perished in an instant, in 1970, with the death of Yukio Mishima.
Once it had been born, the Japanese literary world flourished, growing in complexity and ambition and eventually producing several brilliant, world-class novelists, as well as a larger group of secondary, but often interesting and distinctive writers and poets. But the creation of this world was largely the work of a single man: Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), an unassuming middle-class English teacher who decided to become a novelist at age 38, achieved instant nationwide fame, and thereafter wrote about one novel per year until his untimely death from a stomach ulcer. Soseki’s impact in Japan is analogous to that of Pushkin in Russia — both of them single-handedly transformed their respective national cultures, giving them the philological depth needed to formulate and express increasingly complex ideas. Essentially they brought their languages to life, and the fact that this life still continues despite all odds is a testament to their genius.
Soseki was an unwanted child, given up for adoption in infancy and brought back into the family many years later, after his talents had become evident. He attended good schools in Tokyo and studied well; perhaps his background was privileged compared to the majority of the population, but he was never meant to be part of the elite. The path that was intended for him was that of an upper-middle-class specialist who would work himself to death in the service of his country, with a few modest domestic comforts as compensation. After graduating from university, he took a job teaching English in the countryside (an experience he later satirized in one of his novels). The school recommended him for a government fellowship to study abroad; he spent two years in England, mostly as a shut-in, finally reaching a state of nervous collapse and returning to Japan without even the written report that the government required.
The trip, however, was not a failure: back in Japan, Soseki converted it into a teaching position at what is now the University of Tokyo, also taking a second job at a nearby high school (his middle-class background showed in his pragmatic attitude toward money). He made up for his lack of immersion in Western culture by spending all of his time in England reading — he brought several hundred books back home, having spent virtually his entire stipend on them, often at the expense of food. His extreme isolation in England brought about a heightened introspection, from which he emerged with an encyclopedic knowledge of literature (or at least literature that was available in English) and a deep interest in its inner workings. Before beginning his career as a novelist, he wrote a series of lectures for a course that he called “Theory of Literature.” Whatever the value of this material, it shows that, when he started writing, it was after a long period of intense thought and curiosity about the meaning and purpose of writing, and thus, to some extent, of language itself.
Soseki’s first novel came into being almost by accident. He wrote a short story called “I Am A Cat” for a literary magazine published by a friend — a breezy, comic diversion on the surface with wry undertones beneath, in which a nameless cat makes satirical observations about his owner, a mediocre academic who is deliberately made to resemble Soseki himself. The story was so popular that Soseki wrote nine additional installments and eventually published the whole thing as a single book. Of all his work, I Am A Cat probably shows the most overt Western influence, with a chatty, non sequitur-filled narrative style that he probably picked up from Sterne or Swift. In fact, Western culture is directly present in the novel, since the cat’s owner and many of his friends do their best to appear up to date on all the latest intellectual fashions, in order to flaunt them in public with the utmost cynicism:
I Am A Cat, Chapter 1
Naturally, Soseki has not escaped the comic-book treatment.
But I Am A Cat wears it well enough.
Through this experience, Soseki found that he enjoyed writing; practically without trying, he acquired a large audience and even a clique of young literary-minded followers. The success of I Am A Cat and the next couple of books eventually led the Asahi Shimbun (to this day, the second-largest circulating newspaper in the world) to hire Soseki as a full-time writer, paying him a high salary for the exclusive right to serialize his work, regardless of the quantity or content. In 1907, Soseki quit both of his teaching jobs and wrote a demonstratively sarcastic column about it as his first newspaper publication:
(Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings, 157)
From that moment until his death in 1916, he worked at a furious pace. An entire lifetime — a complete career, with distinct early and late phases, unsuccessful experiments as well as masterpieces, novels as well as poems, sketches, essays, and travelogues — was compressed into nine years. And even this short time was largely borrowed: in 1910, while working on The Gate, he almost died from a stomach hemorrhage. After that, he was in constant physical pain.
Although Soseki was fastidious about his finances (well, he did have seven children to feed), he did not actively seek to increase his wealth or social status through his literary success. He left it up to the newspaper to promote his work — when they asked him to advertise the title of his next novel, he asked one of his disciples to make one up and submit it on his behalf, then discovered next morning that it was The Gate. More seriously, he turned down multiple attempts by the government to honour him, first refusing an invitation to a banquet by members of the Imperial family, and then rejecting an honorary doctoral degree without any reason — that is to say, the reason was that “I have no desire to be awarded a doctorate,” which Soseki not only stated in writing but also published in the Asahi. A Westerner might be tempted to read some sort of political motive into this, but while Soseki may have occasionally felt some ambivalence about Japanese imperialism, in his everyday life he expressed the usual patriotic sentiments and certainly had no interest in making any kind of political statement.
There was, however, no guarantee that the government would agree to see his motives that way; his reaction could easily have been seen as an affront to the Emperor, which indeed is what it was. The fact that he got away with it completely unscathed demonstrates the profoundly literary nature of Japanese culture. This militaristic empire, with all of its voracious appetites, found it perfectly natural to politely follow a cranky middle-aged writer from room to room, pleading with him to accept a diploma, mailing it to him even after he had publicly refused it, and then pretending not to notice when he mailed it back. The representative of the Ministry of Education literally wrote, “I beg for your understanding in this matter.” Perhaps Japanese and Russian culture are similar in this respect — Stalin, too, phoned Bulgakov (a pariah and former White Army member) and politely asked if there was anything he could do to help.
I Am A Cat turned out to be atypical of Soseki’s work. Some of his later books still have comic or satirical touches, but he was quickly bored with mere social commentary. The English influence in I Am A Cat also turned out to be misleading, since his later work has no resemblance to English or any other kind of 19th-century literature. Soseki’s real style is very modern — very concise (only I Am A Cat and Light and Darkness go far over 300 pages) and almost entirely free of dependence on plot, dramatic situation, or external conflict. Its most striking quality is its absolute open-endedness, which set the tone for all of Japanese literature. Kawabata’s jarring, sudden endings are clearly derived from Soseki; virtually every major Japanese novelist uses the total lack of a resolution as the source of the work’s dramatic impact. Soseki likes to simply end in mid-scene, leaving an unresolved impression that lingers in the reader’s mind, sometimes forever. One might say that his novels are collections of such unfinished scenes. He stubbornly refuses to allow anything to happen, even more than other Japanese writers — his characters talk about mundane things (often about money) and their thinking usually reflects, and is limited by, their everyday life. Sharp images sometimes appear in his writing, but where in Kawabata they take on a life of their own, becoming overloaded with sensuality, reaching painful levels of ornateness, in Soseki they are far more understated and quickly dissolve. Yet, by the end of each of Soseki’s novels, it feels as if a massive, life-changing event has occurred. It is just not always clear what it was.
Early in his career (that is to say, in 1906, just before taking the Asahi job), Soseki wrote a short novel called Kusamakura, which literally means “pillow of grass” but is sometimes known in English as The Three-Cornered World. In this work, plotless even by Soseki’s standard, an artist of about thirty years of age decides to go on a hike across the countryside in order to get away from city life and hopefully find some new inspiration. The novel opens thus (page numbers from 2002 edition by Peter Owen):
(Three-Cornered World, 12)
This is only the beginning of an extended soliloquy that takes up the entire first chapter. Eventually, the protagonist reaches a village on the other side of the mountain, but even then, what dialogue there is serves as punctuation between long, unhurried reflections. Most of these are focused on art and aesthetics; the protagonist does not reveal much about himself beyond various momentary sensations that he experiences during his trip. However, he is clearly knowledgeable about both Western and Asian culture, and talks about 19th-century English paintings and classical Chinese poems with equal confidence, while contributing many Chinese-style poems of his own. (In Japan, Soseki is also known as a prominent if not brilliant poet.)
The discussion of art in Three-Cornered World is characterized by considerable freedom of judgment. The protagonist is not shy about his opinions: “I have no complaint to make about classical Greek sculpture, but whenever I see one of those nude paintings which seem to have become the lifeblood of contemporary French art, I feel that somehow it is lacking in refinement, for it is obvious that the artist has gone to extremes to express the beauty of uncovered flesh… I know that in covering up the human body one is concealing a thing of beauty, and yet to leave it uncovered makes it common. The modern painters of nudes are not even content with reproducing as it is the body they have deprived of attire, but thrust it to a nauseating extent on to the clothed world round about… When art is carried to such lengths, it debases itself by coercing the people who look at it.” (106) This is simultaneously a statement of personal aesthetic taste, a brief but incisive critical review, and a more abstract philosophical generalization about the interaction between art and its viewers. Soseki also expressed the same critical outlook outside the novel — for example, just one year after Three-Cornered World, he gave a lecture at Tokyo Art College, later published under the title “Philosophical Foundations of the Literary Arts,” in which he criticized Maupassant’s short story “The Necklace” as follows:
(Theory of Literature, 195-196)
Perhaps Soseki has yet to be properly appreciated as a critic. When you think about it, this cuts to Maupassant’s essence as a writer — he was, indeed, absolutely devoid of sympathy, and all his moralism, his pretension of exposing the “hypocrisy” of the French bourgeoisie, was nothing more than a heavy-handed cover for his sneering contempt. The same can be said for much of French literature, for all of its virtues. Soseki here demonstrates a much greater ability to look at the world through the eyes of a completely different person. Japanese literature was fortunate to have had his capacity for understanding at its source; as a result, even Mishima’s outlandish inhumanity was philologically forced into a certain latitude of thought.
Within The Three-Cornered World, on a superficial level, these critical excursions serve to motivate a broad defense of Asian art, in contrast with these examples of Western narrow-mindedness. In writing, “Since the vast majority of Western painters only take a fleeting glance at the substantial world…very few of them would be able to express so ethereal a sense on canvas,” Soseki is obviously asserting the independence and intrinsic value of Asian aesthetics. But he is also helping his readers find the language with which to express this same notion for themselves; he is creating an articulation of Asian aesthetics that is rich and complex enough to withstand the assault of Western philosophy and take root on home soil. The originality of this cultural program is metaphorically paralleled by the protagonist’s artistic ambition: “It is unfortunate that the type of feeling which Sessyu and Buson strove so hard to convey tends to be over simple, and is lacking in variety. From the point of view of technique, I could not of course hope to equal such great masters, yet the feeling I wished to depict was slightly more complex than theirs.” (Three-Cornered World, 91) The modesty of the word “slightly” notwithstanding, in effect the classical masters (and, by extension, the entirety of classical Asian culture) have been made into instruments for building Soseki’s world. They may command reverence, but they have no authority. Whenever traditional culture makes the slightest suggestion of imposing bounds on the protagonist, it immediately becomes an object of ridicule: “There is nobody as ostentatious, or as persuaded of his own refinement of taste as the man who performs the tea-ceremony. He deliberately reduces the wide world of poetry to the most cramped and limiting proportions… Moreover he approaches the ceremony with unnecessary awe and respect, and goes into ecstasies as he drinks the frothy tea.” (68)
The tea ceremony is the central image of Kawabata’s best novel.
But in his world, poetry could no longer survive
outside “cramped and limiting proportions.”
But this is not a book about art criticism. What really matters to the protagonist is his concept of a certain “artistic” state of mind:
(Three-Cornered World, 13)
When this passage appears, very early on, it reads like straightforward, innocuous praise of aesthetic sensation, which indeed anyone can experience to some extent. The reader is invited to set daily routine aside for just a little while; not only is it rewarding to open yourself up to art, but it will also make you happier in your everyday life. Indeed, Soseki himself once described his goal in writing Three-Cornered World as, “All I wanted was to leave the reader with a beautiful feeling in his mind.” Toward the end of the book, there is a more strongly-worded reprise of this idea:
(Three-Cornered World, 157-158)
This, however, suggests a curious second meaning, namely that the protagonist is actually not an artist at all. Like he says, he does not complete a single picture during his trip. In fact, he does not even start one; he never moves beyond contemplating possible subjects in his mind. Most of these, in turn, are little more than daydreams: “‘No, that’s no good,’ I thought, and immediately allowed my carefully built up picture to disintegrate.” (35) The book ends at the moment when he has finally thought of a perfect mental image, which can be read as an artistic triumph of sorts, but it is still quite ambiguous whether it will ever translate into any concrete action. But, in any case, if he is only able to “achieve a truly artistic frame of mind” during this getaway, it follows that he cannot feel any inspiration in his usual surroundings (in fact, his cheerful demeanour is overshadowed only by his surprisingly bitter words about Tokyo life). If he does not paint even here, while he is free from everyday concerns, then he certainly does not paint the rest of the time. Which means that, most likely, he has never produced even one painting in his life. It is quite telling that, while he discusses various plays that he watched and paintings that he saw, he never shares any memories of working on his own paintings.
This turn of events casts a certain comic irony on the entire book — perhaps our charming narrator has been an impostor all along. Well, one could say that he never claimed to be an authority on art. Even his strongest statements can always be viewed simply as personal opinions, momentary flights of fancy that happened to come to mind during a walk through the countryside. But his thoughts have too much substance (and take up too much of the book) to be written off in this way, and it seems strange to develop them so carefully and then have such an irresponsible person be their mouthpiece.
One explanation is that, at the time when The Three-Cornered World was written, there was simply no one in Japan who could speak on these subjects with the proper combination of authority and intellectual independence. This was not a problem that academic credentials or formal training could fix: “You cannot say, ‘This is a Japanese landscape,’ of a picture in which the artist has slavishly copied colour tones as they appear in French paintings, however much you admire French art. You must meet Nature face to face, studying her every shape and form from dawn to dusk, until such time as you feel that you have found the right colours.” (159) Because there was no real painter (again, “painter” being meant broadly) capable of such an enterprise, it must then fall to this non-painter — if not in reality, then at least in the mind. In the same way, it fell to Soseki, the middle-aged English professor with a second job, to transform overnight into the creator of Japanese literature.
But I wonder if that is all. The narrator has undertaken this trip to escape the confines of his daily life. The role of “painter” is the last remaining obligation to be cast off before total freedom can be attained. Once divested of the burden of purpose, thoughts suddenly seem to come as naturally as breathing. Thinking is like fresh air, solitude sharpens the impact that nature has on the senses. The moment feels extremely real, while years of life are readily forgotten. In this newfound sensation of awareness (not necessarily awareness itself, but the sensation of it), perhaps it is natural to feel — and to tell oneself — that one is a genius. Perhaps the reckless, confident feeling that one has “not the slightest inferiority to any artist, however great, who has ever lived” is just the first movement of individual consciousness.
Hakone, outside Tokyo:
“From time to time a gust of wind
would part the high curtain of cloud” (24)
Once awakened in this way, individuality soon becomes aware of the utterly accidental, fragile character of its existence: “Not only had my soul become so faint that I seemed far removed from all anxiety as to whether or not my strength would some day drain from me, but it had also risen above its usual state of mediocrity. When I say that it had become faint, I do not mean to imply that it had grown weaker in any way, but simply that it had become more tenuous.” (89) This feeling is far more daunting than simple fear of death, because consciousness is far more ephemeral than the physical body. You may be reasonably certain (one hopes) that you will be alive tomorrow — but will you still live with the same inspiration, will your thoughts flow with the same harmony? What if you lose this ability and never recover it? How will you be sure that you ever had it in the first place?
Anton Chekhov dramatized this crisis of personality with unnerving precision, in a short story titled “The Black Monk.” Kovrin, a young scholar of philosophy, is spending a summer in the countryside to rest after a period of intense intellectual activity. Given the freedom to work however he wants, he is overtaken by elevated, sublime feelings and spends days in this state: “He sat on the sofa and put his head in his hands, holding back the inexplicable joy that was filling his entire being, then again paced back and forth and sat down to work. But the ideas that he saw in the book did not satisfy. He wanted something gigantic, vast, overwhelming.” Before long, he has a peculiar vision of “a man of average height, bareheaded, barefoot and wearing dark clothes, like a beggar, and black eyebrows stood out sharply on his face, pale as though dead,” inspired by a local legend that he heard, about a wandering spirit with the appearance of a monk.
from “The Black Monk”
Unfortunately, Kovrin is not a genius, and his sense of his own greatness, of the magnitude of his self, is nothing more than a prelude to mental illness. After a year of treatment, he “recovers,” in the sense that he is no longer visited by the black monk, but the joy also bleeds out of his life: “Not noticing the luxurious flowers, he walked about the garden, sat on the bench, then went to the park; reaching the river, he came down and stood in thought, looking at the water. The gloomy pines with shaggy roots, which saw him so happy, joyful and energetic last year, now did not whisper to each other, but stood motionless and silent, as if they did not recognize him. And, indeed, his head is now shaved, his handsome long hair is gone, his stride is lethargic, his face is pale and stout compared to last summer.” Unable either to accept his failure as an individual or to recover the vibrant feeling of life, Kovrin is reduced to lashing out at those around him: “Why did you have me cured? Bromide, idleness, warm baths, supervision, the cowardly fear over every gulp, over every step — all of this will eventually turn me into an idiot. I was going mad, I had delusions of grandeur, but at least I was lively and even happy, I was interesting and original. Now I became more reasonable and respectable, but I am just like everyone else: I am a mediocrity, tired of living… How cruel you have been!” There is an additional layer of irony in the fact that Kovrin was only ever “interesting and original” by his own assertion.
But Japanese literature, though it does acknowledge that individuality can be destructive, rarely troubles itself with the possibility that it may be a delusion. Certainly this does not come up in The Three-Cornered World, a radiant book filled with the joy of awakening, like the fresh air, sunshine and mountain landscapes of its setting. But even so, our protagonist finds that the very perfection of his state of mind, the originality in which he believes so strongly, actually makes it more difficult to formulate a coherent message and communicate it to others: “I realized that it had been a mistake ever to try and turn such an abstract condition into a painting, and I put my pencil down.” (92) Furthermore, in order to even reach this state, he has to separate himself from others and force himself to see them as half-real images: “Since the whole object of my present trip was to distance myself from everyday human ties, and do my utmost to become an artist [So, after all, he isn’t one already? -FL], it was essential that I regard everything I saw as a picture, and all the people I met as though they were merely performers in a Noh drama, or characters in a poem.” (161) Thus, the truly aesthetic state of mind comes at the cost of empathy. Since individuality can only exist comfortably outside of “reality,” it soon finds itself with no place to go:
(Three-Cornered World, 181)
Having read Johan Huizinga’s In the Shadows of Tomorrow, we know the reason for this seeming contradiction. Japanese society did everything within its power to encourage individuality because Japan was embarking on a massive empire-building venture, and to do this in such a short span of time, it required a culture strong enough to match its political ambitions. But for that same reason, it was also necessary to keep tight control over the human beings who had been made conscious in this manner, which could not have been anything other than stifling to a ferocious individualist like Soseki. Unfortunately, the “imprisoning bars” that he perceives here are the price one pays for any sort of conscious existence at all. The alternative, as we now know, is the mute animal misery of the 21st century.
(Three-Cornered World, 144-145)
I see this passage as a prophetic metaphor of twentieth-century Japanese history — the creation of a sophisticated philological culture out of literally nothing, with nothing to its name, borrowing only a handful of arbitrarily chosen forms from the past and repurposing them with completely new meaning. A people capable of such a feat was bound to become intoxicated with freedom, and thereby destined for a bitter hangover. And everything that they created was bound to be just as transitory, discarded “with the rest of the rubbish.”
(Continuation: part 2.)