Monday, 20 February 2017

Natsume Soseki: Literary Revolutionary or "Ego" Maniac?

I've noticed I am sometimes cited in articles about the great Japanese author Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) - particularly in this, the 150th anniversary of his birth. Last month there was an article about the Soseki android which quoted me in connection with Soseki's experiences in London and last week ran a lengthy feature and I was referred to as a proponent of Soseki on the world stage.

It's always nice to get a mention in these pieces, but I have to slightly shake my head at the way, in pieces originally written in Japanese, all the tropes about Soseki being a writer obsessed with "egoism" and striving to transcend "self-centredness" in his final works are often repeated.

The article on about Soseki ("Japan's Foremost Modern Novelist") - translated from Japanese into English, French, Russian and Spanish (there have been 1800 shares in Spanish alone) - firmly tells you that he was an author obsessed with "egoism". What it should tell you is that the Japanese - struggling with their Confucian traditions - are fascinated with the subject of "egoism" and project their own obsessions onto their "readings" of Soseki.

What "egoism" means in this context is that Soseki is treated as the embodiment of traditional self-sacrificing Japanese values attempting to come to terms with the rampant individualism of Europe and America whose influence was sweeping across Japan in the early 20th century. Soseki in other words is meant to offer a quintessentially agonized "Japanese" response to "Western" self-centred modernity.

I used to regard this "reading" of Soseki as the hopelessly antiquated perspective of conservative, unimaginative commentators from 50 years ago, bolstered by bureaucrats at the Japanese Ministry of Education determined to foist their old-fashioned Confucian values on the populace at all costs.

In the youthful enthusiasm of my thirties, I was determined to show how banal such ideas were. Soseki was in fact, I fervently argued, a literary revolutionary and a radical - his literary genius lay in the fact that he synthesized the cutting edge psychological ideas of William James with the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and the satire of Swift and Sterne. He was fascinated by the connections between dream, memory and our perception of the present; between the ways visual art and literature interconnect; he wished to apply the latest scientific and sociological theories to literature.

I even published a couple of books in Japanese, "The Natsume Soseki the Japanese Don't Know" (pictured right) and "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" to show that the prevailing Japanese notions of Soseki being obsessed with "egoism" and "self-centredness" were nonsense. And, predictably, they sank almost without trace... At about the same time, the Korean-Japanese writer Kang Sang-jung published a book about Soseki called "The Power of Wavering". It sold over a million copies. Its theme? Soseki was a writer obsessed with egoism...

These days, older and wiser, rather than seeing the whole "Soseki and egoism" trope as a nefarious plot of the conservative establishment, I simply recognize it as something which has deep appeal in Japan.

Soseki was a highly intellectual writer, hugely well-read and channelling diverse Western influences as well as numerous Japanese and Chinese influences (rakugo comic monologues, Noh theatre, haiku and Chinese poetry among them). In Japan his career is usually described as having two movements: a "humorous" early phase (1904-1908) that encompassed comedies such as "Botchan" and "I am a Cat"; and a second "serious" phase from 1909 to 1916 which covers his supposed "egoism" obsession culminating in such works as "The Wayfarer" and "Kokoro".

In fact, looked at another way, the chief characteristic of Soseki's early phase is not so much "humour" as an obsessive contemplation of the connections between visual and literary art; and the chief characteristic of the second phase is a wrestling with German philosophical ideas. But for the general readership in Japan - largely unfamiliar with the mostly British art and German philosophy that Soseki was contemplating - it's not surprising that those works become "read" in an entirely different fashion.

"Egoism" is a subject of keen interest in Japan, particularly when they think of the Meiji era, when Japan was opening itself up to Western influences. In the previous Edo period, the age of the "samurai" (literally, "one who serves"), the ideal had been to give yourself up in devotion to your feudal lord. But in the social revolution of the Meiji era (1868-1912), completely new Westernized concepts of "self" were created. Soseki has become enshrined in Japan as the author who contemplates the perils of this modern "egoism".

Naturally, as a man of the Meiji era, Soseki does indeed, on occasion, touch upon these subjects such as in his public talk "My Individualism" (1914). But in most of his novels "egoism" is no more an accurate description of his subject than applying it pointlessly to any author would be (Is "Hamlet" a study in "egoism"? Is "Moby Dick"? Or "Don Quixote"?)

My point here is not to argue the toss about a specific interpretation of Soseki but to show how certain cultures perceive particular writers in often bizarrely fixed terms. We are I think always aware that if we read a writer in translation then we miss many of the nuances and flavour of the original, and that is surely true. But we also tend to think that the nation from which a writer has sprung is likely to have far greater insight into him or her than amateurish interlopers from overseas. Yet the reality is that when you read the critical "readings" of the Japanese on Soseki - while they are superlative on untangling Japanese influences - they often throw far more light on the nature of the Japanese themselves than they actually offer insight on Soseki.

When I published my books in Japanese on Soseki, I would be amused to read online discussions along the lines of "Can foreigners actually understand Soseki?" The acute irony is that a writer like Soseki - steeped in so many ways in Western culture and philosophical thought - is one that the Japanese themselves have the greatest difficulty in fully understanding.

But the broader point is to always bear in mind that national perceptions of authors are necessarily limited. Shakespeare has had a far more thrilling and diverse career in Germany, Japan and countries around the world than he has ever had in Britain. One of the most unfortunate tendencies of recent years (perhaps under the fear of "cultural appropriation") is that foreign authors are often introduced in stilted introductions by someone from the culture from which they sprang. Such notions - sincere in intention - are deeply mistaken.

By all means aspire to read authors in their native tongues and listen to what the critical consensus on them in their homeland is. But also do not forget to apply the utmost scepticism to such "readings".

In this anniversary year, there have been a variety of events, writing competitions and newspaper features which aspire to project Soseki as a "world author". Yet too often this "world-wide projection" is perceived in terms of translation into foreign languages and comparison of Soseki with other great world writers as a point of national pride. A far harder concept for the Japanese to grasp is to understand how their traditional readings of Soseki might be, well, mis-readings. The "globalization" of an author consists not just in exporting indigenous critical ideas, but in the homeland having the courage to revise their own traditions and let go of the concept of "ownership" of even their most-beloved national author.

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