A Master of Patience

by Kenneth Champeon, May 3, 2005 | Destinations: Japan

"Seul le silence est grand; tout le reste est faiblesse." - Alfred de Vigny

* * *

Review of Natsume Soseki's Kokoro, Tuttle Publishing, 2000.

* * *

Perhaps no other suicide in literature is as gruesome and as deftly told as that of Cato the Younger in Plutarch's Lives. Cato stabs himself, his entrails tumble out, but he remains alive. When a physician tries to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, Cato pushes him away and rips out his own entrails. One could make a bad joke about Cato having a lot of guts. At any rate, his method of shuffling off the mortal coil shows a determination unmatched by our modern pill-poppers, alcoholics, and players of Russian Roulette. Cato wanted out.

The Romans' fondness for bloody exits is somewhat aberrant. The Greeks favored the hemlock, and once Western civilization became Christian, a willful exit became a sin. So did despair. Thus did Christianity command us all to be happy - a command that the realist ancients, who saw both good and bad in life, would have found absurd. Buddhism enjoins the taking of all life, and as a corollary, one's own life; yet it is to semi-Buddhist Japan that we must turn to find suicides that would not seem womanish to the manly men of ancient Rome.

It is also to Japan that we must turn to find literature not yet debased by long-windedness and ephemeral references to popular culture. Austerity is a quality of all Japanese art, whether it be culinary or literary. The more tasteless a Japanese dish, the more expensive it is. Japanese novels, meanwhile, are as refreshing and pure as a bowl of sake, and their effect on the mind as evanescent as the steam of a Tokyo bathhouse.

Consider as an example Natsume Soseki's Kokoro, or "the heart of things," a novel of rarefied prose and plot. A young man sans name meets an older man sans name. The elder is called Sensei, or "master." Sensei is diffident and reclusive, the young man impetuous and up-and-coming. At first, Sensei refuses the young man's overtures of friendship, but not out of contempt. "His curt and cold ways were not designed to express his dislike of me, but they were meant rather as a warning to me that I would not want him as a friend." Ultimately, they do become friends. Indeed, they become each other's only friends, and the young man comes to regard Sensei's cynical proclamations as gospel truth. "Loneliness," says the master, "is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egotistical selves." Cynical, but more pertinent with each day we spend marching blindly toward freedom. Sensei does not like people - all people, including himself. But he believes the young man to be that rare thing, sought by philosophers since Diogenes: a sincere man. Sensei also has a mysterious habit of going alone to a cemetery in order to place flowers on a certain grave. But he refuses to discuss the who and the why. The young man is intrigued, almost infatuated; he wants to plumb this sad but lofty soul. Instead, he graduates from university and must return home to tend to his chronically dying father.

This is the first half of the book. The second half is a letter from Sensei to the young man. Running an unbelievable 123 pages, the letter tells the story behind Sensei's disaffection. First, his family embezzles his inheritance. Then his best friend, whom Sensei calls 'K,' commits suicide - not as brutally as Cato does, but as bloodily. Incidentally, this 'K' business might remind you of Kafka, the protagonist of whose Castle was also named K. This is not the only similarity. The themes of alienation, the spare descriptions, the psychological emphasis - all these aspects of Kokoro are Kafkaesque. This may not be entirely coincidental: the two authors were roughly contemporary, both fin de siecle. But missing from Soseki is Kafka's sense of humor, his delight in the absurd. There is no delight in Kokoro, only an overwhelming and incurable weariness of life.

The problem with suicide is not that it throws away what lucky souls like to call the "gift of life." The problem is that it hurts other people, makes them feel guilty, and may even cause them to contemplate suicide too. So it is with Sensei. Only out of deference to his wife does he choose self-seclusion over self-immolation. Like the anti-hero of Conrad's Victory, he has "lived in such a way as to free [his] life of obligation." He distances himself from life because he is "not strong enough to bear the pains that it inflicts on one."

The lesson of Victory was that the world being corrupt, becoming attached to the world even in a seemingly benign way will ruin you. "He who forms a tie is lost," to paraphrase Conrad. The lesson of Kokoro is similarly bleak, but Sensei does not necessarily believe that the world, or mankind, are corrupt, only corruptible. "There is no such thing," he says, "as a stereotype bad man in this world," like the nasty Teuton of Victory. "Under normal conditions, everybody is more or less good, or, at least ordinary. But tempt them, and they may suddenly change. That is what is so frightening about men. One must always be on one's guard." Sensei's family was tempted by money, K by a woman, Sensei himself by liquor - and, finally, by Yama, the god of death.

There is nobility in Sensei's remove from life, just as there was nobility in Cato's departure from it. To an age in which anti-depressants and frequent confessions are quickly becoming the norm, their silent stoicism provides a refreshing corrective.

- The End -

* * * * *