Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) is usually voted Japan’s greatest writer, and until recently his face even graced his country’s currency. His influence within Japan has been enormous and so has his reputation. He is locally included among the world’s greatest novelists, and no less an authority than Dr. Takeo Doi pronounced him the equal of Freud “in the sharpness and depth of his psychological observations.”
This being so, almost everything considered major by the author has already been translated, often several times over. There remain, however, those works hitherto considered minor. Among these are the three essays (only one of them previously translated) here found in these two new Tuttle collections.
“The Heredity of Taste” (“Shumi no Iden,” 1906, earlier translated by Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson in 1973) is here called “Soseki’s only anti-war work,” but it is also an exercise in Soseki’s early style, one that has been called “light, even whimsical.”
This, the last of seven stories published under the title of “Yokyoshu (Drifting in Space)” is, as Donald Keene has stated of the collection itself, “tinged with an element of unreality that imparts a depth and beauty beyond the intrinsic interest of their plots.”
“The Philosophical Foundations of Literature” (“Bungei no Tetsugakuteki Kiso,” 1907) began as a lecture — one that had several purposes, including, says Ingar Brodey in her introduction, that of “encountering Soseki’s personality in action. That he is presenting perceptions rather than analysis — that he is an artist rather than a philosopher.”
In a carefully digressive style, cultivating the impression of a kind of spontaneous order, Soseki faithfully follows a very Meiji-assumption, here phrased by the late Jun Eto, that “the creation of a new civilization would bring together the best features of East and West, while remaining Japanese at its core.”
As in “The Heredity of Taste,” Western offerings include the thought of Herbert Spencer and William James, the stylistics of the beloved Lawrence Sterne, as well as the whimsicalities of Charles Lamb and Thomas de Quincey, and the carefully off-hand manner of the playful gesaku writings of old Edo.
Whether this balance was or was not achieved in the finished work (the essay became twice as long as the speech), one agrees with Angela Yiu’s observation that Soseki’s “critical voice, the one of logic and reason, is constantly overshadowed or subverted by his poetic voice, the one of spontaneity and passion even in its darkest tone.”
This is true as well of “My Individualism” (“Watakushi no Kojin Shugi,” 1914), which also originated as a lecture, one delivered to an audience of undergraduates at the Peers’ School in Tokyo. The first section describes his discovery while in England that he had as much right to his own opinions about English literature as did an Englishman. This was still not an idea commonly accepted (and still isn’t in some universities) and constituted one statement of individuality.
However, Soseki’s essay continues, his kind of individualism was not, as some supposed, a threat to the nation or even a negation of nationalism. Rather it was an insistence that each man should have the right to follow his own wishes, providing that he also fulfilled his duties as a citizen.
This kind of measured individualism is perhaps not so bold as some expected. Keene has said that “the content of this lecture was undoubtedly influenced by the fact that Soseki was addressing an audience consisting of young members of the aristocracy.” Also this was 1914 and “Soseki perhaps felt disinclined to arouse the ire of the nationalists by any more positive statement of the claims of individualism.”
What is evident is the earnestness of this, as well as all the rest of Soseki’s instructive writing. And his winning obstinacy — it was he who once told Ryunosuke Akutagawa to push on with his writing, without complaint and steadily as an ox.
After reading these three earnest works one feels as did Shiga Naoya who, after having heard Soseki talk about the philosophical foundations of literature wrote in his diary: “Mr. Natsume’s talk was characteristically stiff and somber, but I gained much from it.”
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