Most of us, when we feel sad, assume there is a cause for our sadness. Often there is, and the feeling can then be addressed, diagnosed, resolved. But what about sadness without a cause? This is the terrain of melancholy and, while melancholy has a rich and varied history in the West, it takes on unique forms in Japan, imbued with a sense of the impermanence of passing time.
In the history of modern Japanese literature, the author to have comprehended this most fully is Haruo Sato, in his 1918 novella “Gloom in the Country” (“Denen no Yuutsu”; published in English by the University of Hawaii Press as “The Sick Rose”). An instant sensation when it was first released, this was one of several works by Sato that characterized a shift in Japanese literature often aligned with the Taisho Era (1912 — 1926).
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Western influences were absorbed and transformed within the framework of Japanese aesthetics, but a newfound sense of disenchantment emerged during the Taisho Era, producing innovative literary works that were in every way chimeras — that is, “modern.”
Though Sato’s work influenced Japanese authors such as Masuji Ibuse, Osamu Dazai, and Shusaku Endo, he is little known in the West, which is surprising considering the extent to which he drew inspiration from Blake, Goethe and Baudelaire.
Sato’s novella contains only the barest traces of plot and character. Its anti-naturalist, anti-realist bent is expressed in fragmented, haphazard episodes brimming with lush, arabesque descriptions of both inner states and the outside world. When it first appeared, “Gloom in the Country” quickly became associated with aestheticism, pessimism and the culture of decadence that had been imported from 19th-century Europe. But Sato also borrows a great deal from the ghostly tales of Akinari Ueda, as well as from the tradition of “recluse literature,” exemplified by Kamo no Chomei’s “Hojoki” (“Account of a Ten-Foot Square Hut”).
“Gloom in the Country” follows an unnamed narrator — a failed writer — as he moves with his actress wife and their two Akita dogs to a house in the countryside. But what begins as a romantic idealization of pastoral living quickly turns sour: the house is in disrepair, weeds consume the garden flowers, the dogs howl incessantly at night, insects infest the house, neighbors pester the couple and it rains nonstop for months. Soon the narrator abandons writing altogether. Gradually boredom, fatigue and listlessness set in — then insomnia.
As the romanticism of country life fades away, other, more menacing feelings emerge. During a storm, the narrator eerily describes the night sky: “The wind dropped unnoticed, but the clouds raced toward the south with appalling power. From large phantasmal rifts in the gaping jet-black clouds that scattered fine rain as they passed, the moon shone coldly on them.”
In another scene, the narrator spends hours engrossed in the abandoned, overgrown garden next to the house, with its myriad imperfections and irregularities, its strange combination of growth and decay: “The whole garden, the lush leaves and branches of the varied trees and grasses, wore the gloom of tangled hair hanging from a madman’s leaden brow.”
Ever so gradually, the surrounding environment seeps into the consciousness of the narrator, producing a strange kind of melancholy in which inner and outer states become commingled and confused. The twilight day drenched in rain, mud and moss becomes saturated with an impersonal sorrow, while the narrator himself becomes as impassive and impersonal as the stones and trees outside. There are even extended passages where, quite literally, nothing happens; nothing except the stillness of late afternoon, the gulf of the starless night sky, the absence of any desire to do anything — nothing, except each moment, in all its indifference.
The term the narrator uses for this strange state is “gloom,” which Sato has the narrator repeat in a kind of obsessive, lyrical cadence.
“A gloomy world, a groaning world, a world where spirits wander. Were my eyes made for such a world? … A gloomy window in a gloomy room looked out on a gloomy, abandoned garden. … The place where I now live is not in the world of the living, nor so to speak is it the land of the dead. Isn’t it a netherworld between the two?”
Sato’s 1922 companion novella, “Tokai No Yuutsu” (“Gloom in the City”) covers similar ground, but in reverse, where the narrator repeatedly struggles — and fails — to find equanimity in the frenetic, solipsistic vortex of city living. Neither nostalgic nor prophetic, Sato’s characters find themselves not particularly impressed with the new world and equally bored with the old. Disaffections abound. This double refusal struck a chord with the generation that emerged in the Taisho Era, which was as weary of the future as it was of the past.
There is a sense in which Sato’s two novellas of gloom are really aesthetic treatises, meditations on the often opaque relationship between the individual and their environment, the gulf between the human being and the world into which it is thrown, the passage from “doing nothing” to “nothing to do.” In an essay written around the same time, Sato uses the Japanese term furyu (conventionally translated as “elegance”) to describe this gulf. But elegance is not just about the aesthetics of graceful form or style; for Sato, elegance is the recognition of “the grievous reality of the contrast between the infinity of nature and the minuteness of human beings.” Neither joy nor despair, elegance resolves them both into one: “The joy of sadness. The joy of weariness with life.”
Taken together, Sato’s novellas “Gloom in the Country” and “Gloom in the City” form a topography of melancholy, offering detailed descriptions of this impersonal sadness as it is manifest in people, places and things. Sato’s emphasis on the impersonal — the melancholy of forests, cities and climate — makes these works as poignant for us today as they were for Japan in the early 20th century.
This is the fourth article in a series on pessimism in Japanese literature. Eugene Thacker is the author of “In The Dust Of This Planet” (Zero Books, 2011) and “Cosmic Pessimism” (Univocal, 2015).