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Thursday, September 1, 2016

Theme and Tone in Kokoro




The title of Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro was translated by Lafcadio Hearn as “the heart of things,” but it is not entirely clear what exactly lies at that heart. Is it is collective experience of history that governs the events of the novel, or rather does each individual have a separate inner heart shaped by individual tendencies and experiences? Or is there a single and unchanging “heart of things” for all human experience in all ages. The judgment can only be made by comparing “hearts,” yet how can one gain access to another’s innermost core?

These questions suggest a set of thematic preoccupations to which nearly every text of any length is susceptible. Since all writing occurs within a social context which never fails to leave its traces, a historical reading is available even if the text does not explicitly engage social questions. A psychological reading may always be adduced analyzing the writer of not the fictional characters or persona for the simple reason that all literature is composed by a human mind. Taking the largest perspective, a general philosophical view may generally be inferred as well, since every “take on reality” suggests an entire world-view. A fourth approach is also almost universally available. Since every text is made of words, it always suggests implications about the nature of language and writing. These possibilities are all evident in Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro.

The book [1] was published in 1914 Japan during a time of transition. Emperor Meiji had died two years earlier, and the loyal Gen. Nogi shortly thereafter committed suicide, marking the end of an era. Japan had turned toward the West since Meiji’s accession to the throne in 1868. The samurai behind the throne reorganized society in basic ways seeking to modernize with the goal of becoming a power like the European colonial nations who had obliged Japan to sign markedly unequal treaties. The period was marked by this considerable sympathetic interest in Western culture as well as reaction from writers like Okakura. [2]

These historical events are specifically mentioned in the novel and the challenge of Western culture is consistently in the background. Apart from the consistent internal details that reflect the changes Japan was experiencing such as when the narrator first sees Sensei in the company of a European, the very form of the novel is consciously European. Soseki was well-qualified to introduce the foreign style as he had lived in the U.K. and had succeeded Hearn as professor of English literature at Tokyo Imperial University.

Sensei explicitly associates his suicide with his loyalty to the spirit of the Meiji era. He felt he had outlived his time and tells his young friend we belong to different eras. He calls out the word “Junshi! Junshi!” (246) in what seems an ecstatic anticipation of his own death. The death of Gen. Nogi provides the final sufficient impetus for his own suicide. The narrator’s highly conformist traditional father had also identified with both the emperor’s illness (90) and as death approaches, he says to Gen. Nogi, “I am coming soon.” (117) Continuing life might seem bleak to one like Sensei to whom “loneliness is the price we pay for being born in this modern age.” (30)

Much comment on the book thus begins with a view of it as a marker of cultural change, the records of a consciousness adrift, unable to embrace the old assumptions and yet equally ambivalent about European values. Yet, significant though suicide may be in Japanese culture, it is most commonly approached from the viewpoint of abnormal psychology. One might consider Sensei and the narrator a pair of linked case studies of depressives. Sensei is habitually melancholy, noting that he is a lonely man (14) who must resort to sake for temporary cheer. (16) He feels he is suffering a “divine punishment (17) for which he is himself to blame. (39) Though he feels the narrator needs love (25-6), Sensei is unhappy in his marriage though he thinks they “should be” (22) the happiest of couples. He accounts for his isolation by saying, “I don’t trust myself. And not trusting myself, I can hardly trust others.” (30) As a result, he is a “misanthrope.” (149) One might trace the similarities between Sensei, K, and the narrator as a study in comparative depression.

The narrator’s father, on the other hand, though stricken with a terminal illness, is comforted by his conventional views and better able to cope with his suffering. Clearly, the individual’s belief system plays a role in reaction to vicissitudes. Sensei means “teacher,” and the narrator clearly feels his friend possesses extraordinary qualities that justify his discipleship. To his young friend “Sensei . . .was primarily a thinker.” (3) Like an ancient sage, Sensei lives in a frugal manner, thinking he does not “have the right to expect anything of the world,” for the most part in “complete obscurity,” (22) withdrawn from the world, hardly sparing any warmth even in the company of his devoted younger friend. He is “weary of the world.” (37) His alienation is certainly a keynote of twentieth century European culture more akin to Prufrock’s malaise or Beckett’s immobile heroine in Happy Days than to the heroes of the Chushingura. His testament begins by saying (like Camus) that death is the only issue. (125) His smile while speaking of mortality (103) is a reflection of his sense of its absurdity.

At times Sensei seems almost like one of the Buddhist or Daoist sages of antiquity due to his reserve, his evasive or noncommittal answers, and his life of “complete obscurity.” (22) Yet he never achieves the acceptance that could bring tranquility. He calls himself “an ethical creature” (128) yet he blames his weakness for his failure to live up to his own standards. He respects the narrator’s inquisitiveness while trying to “grasp something that was alive within my soul.” Though he had sought to lead a life free of any obligations, (127) he found that impossible. Through his writing Sensei can “cut open my own heart, and drench your face with my blood.” (129) Through sharing his suffering and inadequacy, he hopes to find some redemption in a link with another other than his relation with his wife which is only cool and formal.

Sensei says that he composed his testament to help his young friend “and others to understand even a part of what we are.” (247) In this way words on a page represent “heart” and influence lived experience. Had the text never have existed, the meaning of the storyteller’s life would have evanesced. Without the label Meiji and the newspaper accounts of the emperor and Gen. Nogi, the passing era could hardly have maintained its distinctness and emotive power. Without the term junshi, would K’s suicide or his have occurred? Yet this serious issue is instantly ironized. Sensei has no sooner provided his functional excuse for writing than he compares his production to a painter’s who, by an effort of will, prolonged his own life long enough to produce a work titled Illusion.

Some critics have chosen to emphasize one or another of these three thematic territories: the historical/social, the psychological, or the philosophical, but the reason their discussions have proven inconclusive is that all are correct. [3] The three possibilities are all united by the tone of helpless resignation whether it arises from an individual’s inability to halt history, personal pathologies either inborn or acquired through trauma, or a stark and forbidding quasi-existentialist position. The genius of metaphor (and figurative speech in general) is, in fact, specifically the transferability of a paradigm across varied realms, generating a rich polysemy. Were literature to bear meaning no more dense and complex than other forms of discourse, there would be no point to poetry.


1. I used the paperback 1967 Gateway edition from Henry Regnery translated by Edwin McClellan. Page numbers in parentheses refer to that edition.

2. Kakuzo Okakura is best known for his Book of Tea. His nationalist sympathies are evident in his The Ideals of the East and The Awakening of Japan.


3. See Eto Jun, “A Japanese Meiji Intellectual” in Essays on Natsume Sōseki's Works. Japanese Ministry of Education (1970) for a psycho-historical-philosophical reading.

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