I am constantly surprised by the fact that anyone reads my posts, particularly because I tend to neglect this space. I started this blog purely as a spot to write about the texts that I read – whether they are fiction or non-fiction – and that I feel deserve some recognition that they maybe don’t get. Initially, a lot of what I focused on was Japanese literature specifically, or at least directly related to Japanese studies in some way. However, through my exposure to more contemporary works through Instagram, I’ve strayed away from my focus as of late. Though I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing, I decided to return to the literature that I love; partially because I am rereading this specific text again, but also because I know that the readers who tend to end up on here are probably drawn in by my work on Japanese literature. And what could possibly be more ‘Japanese’ than Natsume Sōseki’s* こころ (Kokoro)?
[*NB: Some of you may be wondering why we refer to Sōseki as Sōseki when in the Japanese naming system we always place the family name (Natsume) before the first name (Sōseki). By this logic, we should be referring to Sōseki as Natsume, right? Well Natsume Sōseki is actually his pen name and whenever a Japanese author uses a pen name, we use the name they chose since that was the name that they, the author, chose for themselves. The same thing is true for other authors for example, Mori Ōgai – the family name is Mori, but we refer to him as Ōgai, because that is the name he selected.]
If you’ve come across Japanese literature in any capacity, you have probably encountered Sōseki and, by extension, the text that is considered his master work: こころ. I have had the opportunity to read this novel in both Japanese and in English and I will say that I think it is worth reading for anyone who has an interest in Japanese literature, specifically, and the Asian novel more broadly. However, I am less interested in providing a synopsis or a review of the text here. Instead, I want to discuss what it feels like to constantly return to Sōseki and こころ. As I mentioned earlier, I am rereading this text for a seminar and, initially, I was a bit annoyed. Inevitably, when you take a course on the Asian novel or on Japanese literature, you are constantly confronted by こころ. As someone who has also read a lot of Sōseki’s other novels, it feels repetitive (and even compulsive) to constantly return to this singular text and feed in to the mythos around it.
That being said, complaining only gets you so much satisfaction and, in the end, I realized that my peevishness with rereading こころ said a lot more about me than it did about Sōseki or the people who focus on his work. On a basic level, rereading something (even if you have do so numerous times) will always yield something beneficial if you go in with the right attitude. Since I was intimately familiar with the plot and the usual touchstones of the scholarship surrounding the text (generational divides, ennui at the end of Meiji, the homosocial/homosexual undertones of 私/先生, the role of women in male-male relationships, etc.), I wanted to find something new in the text.
I realized that my readings of the text had, until then, been of a very literary persuasion – trying to establish larger connections between close readings of the text and the political/socio-cultural environment of the time. This was productive for a while, but I decided to focus on the writing itself; if Sōseki is always touted to be the epitome of Japanese literature (as he is often made out to be – even to the point of putting him on money), then I wanted to see it.
The first thing that caught my attention was the mystery surrounding the character of 先生 (sensei); the narrative voice (called 私 [watakushi] in the scholarship, since we don’t know his name) is fascinated by this mysterious individual he sees, initially, at a bathhouse. But there is nothing terribly interesting about 先生 when it really comes down to it – instead, readers are pulled along into the narrator’s curiosity. I remember being intrigued by the secret 先生 was clearly harboring, but I didn’t feel that my curiosity matched that of the narrator, so I ended up being more curious about why the narrator was curious about 先生. I think Sōseki’s ability to foster intrigue in the reader by omission, by insinuation, and through the overt curiosity mediated through another character is fantastic. One other key element to his style here is the fact that the novel was serialized in a newspaper. If you read the English translation, you will notice that each section or chapter (depending on your edition) is quite short; these sections are the original serialized chunks of narrative that appeared in the newspaper. Imagine maintaining that level of suspension and curiosity over such an extended period of time! Although I think there are definitely a lot of downfalls to this type of writing (each section ends in a sort of cliffhanger that one could imagine would make you want to buy the next day’s newspaper, but is less compelling when you can read the novel straight through, as we do now), I think that considering how serialization maybe even adds to the narrative is an interesting thought experiment.
The other thing I realized during this round of reading was the way that Sōseki works through certain themes in his writing. こころ happens to be one of his later works, published in 1914, but it delves into topics that appear often in his earlier works: tensions between city/country, the role of education, oscillations between comedy and melancholy,
digestion issues*, loneliness, generational divides, etc. The fact that he continues to work through these topics, often in different iterations and permutations, shows how he grappled with these things and how he attempted to make sense of his world through writing. Whether he was able to come to any solid conclusions is up to interpretation – but at the very least, his wrestling produced literature worth reading, which is something I think most authors hope for.
[* but actually though, Sōseki had major stomach/digestion issues, so a lot of his characters suffer the same ailment. I mean, they do say to write about what you know and that writing is a form of catharsis, so it makes sense.]
So what did a return to こころ do for me? Surprisingly – or possibly unsurprisingly – it made me realize why I enjoy Sōseki’s work and made me think twice about complaining about something so privileged: the ability to read texts, to interrogate and wrestle with them, to enjoy them again and again, and to do that as part of my daily life. The fact that I have been able to encounter Sōseki so many times, and on so many levels, is something not to take for granted.
It’s tempting to play the part of the expert when it comes to seminal texts we are familiar with, but to play this role simply for the sake of snobbishness is unproductive – and lame. And I suppose a return to Sōseki is just what I needed to remedy this issue.