A few years ago I had arranged to meet up with a girl I was loosely dating. I liked her a lot, but as she is a DJ, who works late nights, seeing each other was not easy. I had agreed to go to the club she was playing at that night and wait for her to finish, which would be something like 3am. As I didn’t want to spend the entire night stood at the side of the DJ booth waiting for her I asked my brother if he wanted to join me. I explained why I wanted to go out, I assured him that I would be free most of the night until 3am, and offered to pay for all his drinks. He agreed, and so we got ready and left our apartment around 9pm, to have a few drinks before we made our way to the club. However, in the first pub I noticed that my brother was spending a lot of time on his phone. When we had finished our drinks, I asked if he wanted another, and at this point he declined and started to groan theatrically, holding his stomach. He told me that he needed to go outside for some air. It was clear to me that he was playacting, so I offered to accompany him. He was not best pleased.
Outside, he kept taking exaggerated breaths as though he was going to be sick, and, as I wasn’t taking the hint, eventually he told me he was so ill he needed to go home. I said that was fine, but pointed out that I didn’t believe him and that if he was faking an illness to go off and meet some friend[s] I wouldn’t easily forgive him. He maintained that he was very unwell and therefore I let him leave. I stayed in the bar for a while, had another drink, and then, after texting my girl to say I might be late or not make it at all, decided to go home and see if my brother was ok. Of course, the apartment was empty. By this stage, I was so disgusted and tired of the whole situation I decided not to go out again. Then, in the early hours of the morning my brother rolled in, extremely inebriated. He had, as I suspected, left me to go and meet up with some friends. Our relationship hasn’t been the same since. Call it an overreaction if you like, but I can’t tolerate deceitfulness.
It is possibly unfair, and an exaggeration, but I see my brother as a kind of poster boy for the modern age [the above anecdote is only one example out of thousands]. My generation has been raised to believe that you are important, that what you want is what really matters; we are encouraged to indulge ourselves, to choose ourselves if ever faced with a two courses of action, one of which will benefit someone else and one that will benefit the great me. Qualities like honour, sacrifice, duty etc are becoming increasingly rare. Of course, I am not perfect in this regard, I am not completely selfless, but I am not absolutely self-interested either. I believe that it is important to have integrity, and to be able to see outside of oneself. Unfortunately, I see less and less of this with each new generation.
“No matter how full one’s head might be with the image of greatness, one was useless, I found out, unless one was a worthy man first.”
These concerns of mine are, I believe, one reason why Japanese literature resonates with me so much, as a sizable number of their most acclaimed authors, including the one under review here, wrote extensively about the tension between modern and traditional values, attitudes and behaviour. Indeed, the protagonists in Natsume Soseki’s best novels are usually indolent and self-obsessed young men who find themselves at odds with their parents and the disappearing or declining ‘old’ ways of life. This is certainly true of his most famous work, Kokoro, whose title can be roughly translated as heart. That title has a two-fold significance: heart as in love, which plays an important role in the text, and the heart of the matter. The matter being what we have been discussing, i.e. the changing face of Japan.
The novel is split into three sections, the first of which centres on the relationship between an older man, Sensei, and a young student who narrates the action. The student, whose name is never revealed, is away from his family, first at college and then at university in Tokyo. Like Daisuke in Soseki’s And Then, he is the archetypal modern Japanese. He is introverted, bored and unmotivated; he does study for his diploma, but leaves it until the last minute and doesn’t appear to value it, when he has been awarded it, in the way that his parents do. I call these protagonists of Soseki’s superfluous men because they have no direction, no goal towards which they are striving. The student, like many of us, goes to university, not with a career in mind, or even to learn, but because it is something to do. In fact, he values Sensei – whose acquaintance he makes almost by stalking him – more than his lectures or books.
Sensei is a kind of misanthrope, who has withdrawn from a world “so full of freedom, independence, and our own egoistical selves.” The closest word to Sensei, in meaning, in English is teacher; it is someone who is respected and knowledgeable. It is the young man who gives him this title, and so it is clear that the student is looking for guidance [although Sensei himself says that the boy is lonely and looking for love]. In this way, perhaps Soseki is saying that young people, living in times where morality and values are less certain, where freedom is almost absolute, need help or direction. It is, I think, the case that the more freedom one has the more lost or confused one can feel, that freedom is actually something that we find very difficult to cope with [this is, in fact, the clichéd modern dilemma]. In light of all this, it is not difficult to see the older man as having a symbolic function in the novel; he is, in this scenario, representative of the old or traditional world. Yet, while that might be true to a certain extent, his character is more complex than it appears to be initially.
As one progresses through the opening section, it becomes clear that Sensei is harbouring a secret, that something happened to him long ago to make him the way that he is. One would expect that this revelation [which comes in the final section] would involve him being mistreated, would involve some confrontation with the modern, selfish, dishonourable approach to life. And that is, at least partly, the case. As a young man Sensei was cheated out of his inheritance by his uncle after the death of his parents. As with Balzac, money, or more specifically a lack of it, plays a major part in Soseki’s novels [the idea of being relieved of an inheritance comes up again in The Gate]. Is Soseki saying that an obsession with money is a disease particular to the new Japan? Perhaps, although I think he was making a point about how there are no truly good or bad people, that our values are reliant upon circumstances, that, for example, if you have the opportunity to steal then you will. We return again to the idea of freedom. I don’t know enough about Japanese history, but maybe it is the case that prior to the Meiji era [when the novel is set] there was a strict moral prescriptivism that prevented these kinds of acts.
“You seem to be under the impression that there is a special breed of bad humans. There is no such thing as a stereotype bad man in this world. Under normal conditions, everybody is more or less good, or, at least, ordinary. But tempt them, and they may suddenly change. That is what is so frightening about men.”
In any case, if this was all that had happened to Sensei then his character would not be particularly engaging. What makes him fascinating is that he, in a sense, embodies the conflict that Soseki was writing about, because he himself does something that is considered dishonourable. I won’t go into details about what exactly that is, but it is certainly something that these days would likely barely raise an eyebrow. Sensei, however, is severely damaged by it, to the extent that it dominates, and ruins, his life. This is the sense of honour that we have previously touched upon, which is for us, and for Soseki’s modern Japan, disappearing. Yes, Sensei does wrong, but he feels overwhelmingly guilty about it, and, ultimately, he takes his own life [not much of a spoiler as we know Sensei is dead within a few pages of the book], as a way of atoning for his behaviour. There is something about the Japanese idea of honour suicide that I find extraordinarily attractive. I wouldn’t be party to it myself, but to give up your life as a way of trying to make amends is very powerful. One could see Sensei, then, as someone who is both modern and traditional; he errs in a way that is consistent with the outlook of Soseki’s contemporary Japan – i.e. he is prepared to tread on someone else to get what he wants, is prepared to exercise his freedom – but responds to this dishonourable act in a way that is consistent with the Samurai code; it is, in effect, an act of nobility that is out of step with the times.
[General Akashi Gidayu preparing to commit seppuku after losing a battle for his master in 1582]
Outside of all this modern vs traditional stuff, Soseki touches upon other [albeit related] themes. One is that of the city and the provinces. The student’s parents live in a village, and one is, somewhat ungenerously, given the impression that village life is old-fashioned, even backward. As for the parents, they note immediately that Tokyo has had an effect upon their returning son. Yet, even here, the provincial is, essentially, a symbol of the traditional, from which the student is trying to escape. Likewise, death, which plays a major role in Kokoro, and the tension between generations, could both be seen to suggest change or the ending of an era. Finally, what of love? I wrote earlier that it is central to the novel, but have as yet said very little about it. Partly that is to do with spoilers, but it is also because I am not sure how it relates to Soseki’s most obvious preoccupations. In his three greatest novels – Kokoro, The Gate and And Then – love could be said to be both a blessing and a curse. Indeed, in my favourite line, Sensei asks the student “do you know what it feels like to be tied down by long, black hair?” Is he saying that love in the modern age is also problematic, confusing, and difficult? If so, I guess he got that right too.