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Natsume Soseki’s Pre-Raphaelite dreams

by Damian Flanagan

Contributing Writer

In 1900, the future novelist Natsume Soseki — then a scholar of English literature — arrived in London to commence two years of study abroad. Back in Japan, his best friend, the renowned haiku poet Masaoka Shiki, had — as explained in the first installment of this series — adopted the painterly concept of “sketching from life” as a means of injecting fresh realism into haiku and tanka poetry. Now prose writers, too, Soseki included, were being encouraged by Shiki’s circle to “sketch from life.”

Soseki dutifully created his first prose work entitled “Letter from London,” an invaluable portrait of his boarding house life in London around Easter 1901. He was requested to do more “sketching from life,” but his pen fell silent as he claimed to be too busy with research.

“Sketching from life” did not appear to inspire Soseki in quite the same way as it did Shiki — and there was a reason for this. As Soseki exhaustively analyzed in his subsequent “Theory of Literature” (“Bungakuron”), literature seemed to him to be not just about describing the world around him, but also about the myriad literary techniques and styles that could be applied to the subject matter.

Soseki needed to forge his own path, but he, too, looked to painting for inspiration. He had a passionate interest in the visual arts — from traditional Japanese artists to modern Western-style painters and the French impressionists. But above all, it was British art, in particular the art of the Pre-Raphaelites, that fascinated him.

Two Pre-Raphaelite subjects caught his eye. One was John Everett Millais’ famous portrait of “Ophelia” in which a beautiful girl is depicted drowning with an expression of serenity. The other was William Holman Hunt’s depictions of “The Lady of Shalott,” based on the poem by Alfred Tennyson. In these pictures, the lady weaves a tapestry of the world that she perceives not directly but through a magical mirror.

Literature as well, Soseki realized, was the world refracted through the “mirror” of human consciousness, a consciousness teeming with memories, dreams, fears and cognitive associations.

In his subsequent works, he repeatedly alluded to these key Pre-Raphaelite pictures. His 1905 story “The Shallot Dew” (“Kairoko”) includes his own literary recreation of “The Lady of Shalott” and in his 1906 masterpiece “Kusamakura” (“Pillow of Grass,” translated as “The Three Cornered World”), an artist struggles to paint a portrait of a bewitching woman whom he mentally associates with “Ophelia” and who is also strongly connected to “The Lady of Shalott.”

Combining the influences of these two subjects, Soseki planted at the heart of “Kusamakura” a central location called the Mirror Pond. When the painter observes the pond and its surroundings, he concludes that it would be easier to paint the reflections in the pond — itself a kind of framed picture — rather than draw the exterior world seen directly.

In his 1906 novel “Nowaki,” Soseki depicts a struggling writer who goes to a park to observe the flowers because he wishes to “sketch from life,” but is advised that his time would be better spent at home observing the pictures of Holman Hunt, a clue as to what Soseki was himself doing.

The painting he seems to have chosen for his inspiration was “The Hireling Shepherd” by Holman Hunt, a study of sexual desire, sin and transgression with dark intimations of mortality.

In Hunt’s painting, an erotically charged shepherd and shepherdess observe a death’s head moth as a kind of foreplay while neglecting their duty of looking after the sheep, some of whom have broke bounds, crossed a stream and entered a wheat field.
. The painting abounds in symbols of poison: Wheat is poisonous to sheep, as is the apple that the shepherdess feeds to the lamb on her lap.

Soseki took the symbolism of this painting and threaded it into the tapestry of ideas in his 1908 masterpiece “Sanshiro,” in which a painting of a young woman is created and which contains as its central milieu another mirror-like pond, the so-called Sanshiro Pond at Tokyo University.

Hunt had appended to his painting a line from “King Lear,” referring to a shepherd’s “minikin mouth,” and alluding to this, Soseki called his heroine Mineko, while Sanshiro’s surname is Ogawa (“stream”). When they sit down together by a stream in a romantic scene, Mineko suddenly utters the key words in English “stray sheep” which becomes the refrain throughout the novel.

Later Mineko sends a postcard to Sanshiro in which she depicts herself and Sanshiro as two stray sheep by a stream. On the other side of the stream, corresponding to Hunt’s poisonous wheat field, is a devil of a “type seen in Western painting.” Like “The Hireling Shepherd,” the theme of “Sanshiro” is both the danger of being erotically led astray (becoming a “stray sheep”) and of imbibing poisonous fruit.

At the same time as “The Hireling Shepherd” was achieving literary apotheosis in Japan, the art of Holman Hunt was receiving outpourings of unprecedented worldwide popularity. When Hunt’s religious painting “The Light of the World” went on a tour of the British Empire in 1905-07, extraordinary crowds packed the art galleries to see the single painting.

Yet these were artworks that belonged to a movement from the middle of the previous century. In Paris, a young Pablo Picasso had already passed from his Blue Period and along with George Braque was revolutionizing ways of seeing with the advent of cubism. New waves of artistic modernity were about to come crashing on Japanese shores and, as I will show in this space next month, a new generation of Japanese authors would respond with Japan’s own strikingly modernist literature.

This is part two of a four-part series titled “How the Visual Arts Have Shaped Japan’s Literature.” Part three will be on Dec. 3.