There is a kind of moral ugliness that, without being quite evil, may be even more repellant than evil because evil — genuine evil — has, sometimes, a certain romantic appeal. You can admire the villain’s strength, or courage, or dash, or reckless defiance of that which we all, sometimes, wish we could defy — the smug, complacent society that bears down on the individual with all its stifling weight and ruthless indifference.
More repugnant than evil is a quality aptly named vileness. Individuals who embody its most insidious form are guilty of no crime, are respectable and respected members of society, support their families, work diligently for their employers, are promoted, honored, esteemed — and hateful.
Novelist Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909) captures their essence in the opening paragraph of “Ukigumo” (“Drifting Cloud”). Published in 1889, it is considered Japan’s first “modern” novel. “A swirling mass of men,” the narrator observes, “stream out of (Tokyo’s) Kanda gate, marching first in ant-like formation, then scuttling busily off in every direction. Each and every one of these fine gentlemen is primarily interested in getting enough to eat.”
The vile character, the vile demeanor, the vile act, are staples of modern literature. Earlier literature shied away from them. “The Tale of Genji,” for example — the world’s first, quite possibly longest, arguably greatest novel, written a millennium ago by court lady Murasaki Shikibu — portrays 430-odd characters, not one of whom is vile. The worst you can say about the worst of them is that they are “insensitive.” They are not poets, they know nothing of the poignant beauty and sadness of things. Too bad for them, and certainly the world would be the better for their absence, but a little laughter at their expense blunts whatever small sting they wield.
Murasaki Shikibu, and pre-modern authors in general, preferred to focus on the good in people, idealizing it with little regard for humdrum, unideal reality. When her peaceful, refined, aristocratic era faded in the late 12th century, the warrior society that replaced it, for all its bellicose crudity, inherited that tendency at least, and one of its most famous war tales is of a hard-bitten old soldier shedding tears of remorse over having to kill a beautiful enemy youth — a curious variation, in this most un-Christian time and place, on the Christian injunction to “love your enemy.”
Vileness — cringing, unctuous sycophancy to those above in the hope of career advancement; shrill, merciless bullying of those below as a sign that one’s career has advanced — is an unfortunate concomitant of social mobility, of which ancient society knew little. What ancient society did know was absolute fear of absolute power. It hardly brought out the best in people. Historian Donald Keene, in “Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion,” describes a reign of terror under Shogun Ashikaga Yoshinori (ruled 1429-41): “(Yoshinori’s) first response to any act that seemed disloyal was an order to kill. When the heads of his enemies were sent to the capital, he personally inspected them. … Although they had been pickled in sake, in the intense heat of the Kyoto summer their features had decomposed … The nobles had little desire to participate in the head inspection or even to get a glimpse of the unspeakably horrible sight, but they hurried to the spot … each trying to be among the first to offer congratulations and fearful of incurring the shogun’s wrath if he arrived late.”
In the warrior culture that dominated Japan for 600 years until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, no quality was more esteemed than sincerity — not even loyalty. Saigo Takamori (1828-77) characterized the sincere man as “he who cares nothing about his life, nor about his fame, nor about rank or money.” Only such a man, he said, “will undergo every hardship with his companions in order to carry out great work for the country.” Saigo himself, leader of a high-minded but doomed rebellion against the infant Meiji government, proved his sincerity on the battlefield, ritually disemboweling himself as defeat closed in.
The scene Futabatei describes in “Ukigumo” with such loathing would have occurred barely a decade after Saigo’s death. The Meiji Restoration flung Japan headlong out of its traditional culture into modern times. Sincerity and the other samurai virtues had no place here. Among Futabatei’s “swirling mass of men” — bureaucrats at quitting time, heroes of the new age — is young Noboru, whose name defines him — it means “to climb.” He’ll do anything to advance his career — toady, flatter, obey stupid orders, laugh at stupid jokes — anything. Far from being ashamed, he boasts of it, knowing the ambition it reflects will boost his chances with a certain young lady who would make a good match.
Saigo personifies the pre-modern spirit, Noboru the modern. Imagine Noboru 20 years later. Futabatei’s successor as a chronicler of (among other things) smiling hatefulness is Shimazaki Toson (1872-1943). His novel “Hakai” (“The Broken Commandment,” 1906) is set in rural, mountainous Shinshu (present-day Nagano Prefecture). A subplot involves a genial little conspiracy by school administrators to get rid of a young teacher whose crime, in their eyes, is his dedication and popularity. They are jealous. Their surgery is successful; the young man is driven out. The children troop into the principal’s office to protest.
The principal is the Noboru type grown middle-aged. His education philosophy is: “Rules are rules.” “In recognition of meritorious service,” reads the gold medal he has just won. “Now listen, all of you,” he tells the children. “However much I myself may want to keep Segawa-sensei on” — this after having played the leading role in axing him — “I can do nothing … I understand how you feel. Go home, all of you, and be sure you don’t neglect your studies. The most important thing for you is (to) study” — and grow up to be worthy servants of a new and rising nation, like himself, and like Noboru.
Next month’s installment of The Living Past on Dec. 11 will resume the story of Saigo Takamori. Michael Hoffman’s new book, “Other Worlds,” has just been released.