Natsume, Soseki. Kokoro, (The Heart) (1914).

(adapted from Kumiko Sato's web page:

http://www.personal.psu.edu/staff/k/x/kxs334/academic/fiction/natsume_kokoro.html

Summary

The narrator "I," a college student, comes to know a man during vacation in Kamakura. He calls the man "sensei," because he respects the man's sharp insight in things. Sensei always looks sorrowful. The narrator wants to know the secret source of the sorrow sensei keeps in his mind, but sensei never reveals it. Sensei observes the narrator well, and points out that the narrator is expecting affection from him but he can never give that sort of secure feeling to the narrator. In summer after graduation, the narrator returns home because his father fell ill. He has not found a job yet, and as recommended by his mother, he writes a letter to sensei asking for any connection of available jobs. This summer, the Meiji emperor dies, and General Nogi follows the emperor on the day of the imperial funeral, as the most loyal servant of the emperor. The condition of the narrator's father worsens, and now seems to be in a critical condition. At this point, a letter from sensei arrives. The letter has no mention of jobs, as the narrator expected, but is actually a confession by sensei, which has the length of a book. Sensei writes: when he was young, he fell in love with a beautiful daughter of the widow owner of the boarding house where he used to live. His best friend, K, also came to live in the same house. K confessed his secret love of the young lady, but sensei himself could not tell his own feeling to his friend. K was a smart, frank man who had rich knowledge of religion. As the lady seemed to like K, sensei tried to indirectly stand in the way, by saying to K, "how stupid it is to get involved with those who never progress." This was what K himself said in contempt of the stupidity of women. Sensei, on the other hand, secretly asked the widow to allow him to marry her daughter. She permitted the marriage, and her daughter agreed. Three days after K learned of this fact, he committed suicide. Sensei believed that he caused his friend's death. The beautiful lady is his wife now, but he has never been able to erase the sense of guilt and loneliness because of the secret. It seems that he, too, will die after the emperor, because the Meiji era (1969-1911), which represented his generation's spirit, is now gone with the emperor. I's father is ill and on the verge of death as well, and General Nogi's suicide features in the narrative as well, so all of the patriarch's seem to be dying in this novel. We read in the text of all the darkness and the ominous sound of the canons firing as the funeral for the Emperor is held. Clearly, the text is "about" the end of something.

 

Comments

This is a little unbalanced confession novel. If it does not have the narrative frame that contains Sensei's confession, it is apparently one of the modern Japanese novels that focuses on the question of the modern subject. What characterizes Sensei as the modern subject is, first, the ritual of confession. It is discussed in my note on Mishima's Confessions of a Mask. Second, loneliness. The loneliness, in connection with the ritual of confession, creates the inner self that can never be understood by others--thus, the essential loneliness of the subject. Sensei is attracted by the idea of death (suicide), when he realizes that even his wife, his most beloved and closest to him, cannot understand his inner consciousness, nor he can tell her why. Sensei gropes for "understanding" by confessing his sin to the narrator, but only in exchange of life. Karatani Kojin (Origins of Modern Japanese Literature) points out that the ideological production of the "modern" took place in the Meiji era.

Sensei also says that his life should end with the death of the Meji emperor, not because he is loyal to the emperor but because he could only be "represented" by this particular age called Meiji. What does it mean? As Sensei suggests, his suicide is not compensation of his sin he commited to his friend K, but because he knew that K was the future of himself. What matters to Sensei is thus not the reason for K's suicide but the very impossibility of understanding K's suicide--even death cannot compensate for the deep gap lying between the inner self of the modern subject and the exterior facts and interpretations.

The reason Karatani locates the birth of the modern subject in Meiji era is that Meiji is the period when Genbun-itchi, the conformity of written and spoken language, became rooted enough for people to forget the system of the conformity itself and feel as if this reality depicted in the new language has been the reality of a universal humanity. Genbun-itchi was also the adoptation of realistism in writing, following the Western tradition of mimesis, for now human speech and narrative descriptions can be represented in language that is easily accessible. It was within this system, this new mode of the conformed realist language that the modern subject found its interior self-awareness. Sensei is, so to speak, very conscious of this system of the inner self, and cannot help putting himself into the system. It may be the feeling Soseki himself had, probably, since Sensei seems to be born in the same year as Soseki himself. The narrator (not the narrator of Sensei's Testament), as opposed to the character Sensei, is a very detached, characterless narrator. His personal life is mentioned everywhere, especially his father's death, but his narrative is extremely flat and shallow, in contrast to the rich, emotional narrative of Sensei's confession. The young narrator employs the already established system of realism, in a matter-of-fact style. One example is that dialogues are directly quoted as dialogues in the young narrator's part, while Sensei narrativizes dialoguess into his subjective first-peron narrative. To me, this young narrator seems to have no trouble trusting the reality of his words. Sensei is much less assured.

 

Kumiko Sato

10/12/1999

NOTE (from Loftus): Sensei's lack of certainty referred to above is clearly a central feature of Kokoro. Characters are anxious, existence seems contingent. Consider how much of the language of the text is given over to interiority. We read about Sensei being "frightened," gripped with fear, turning rigid, experiencing paralysis, feeling trapped and dead-ended in his life. He talks about his shame, his humiliation, his "whole body began to tremble" as he stands transfixed, staring at K.: "It was then that the great shadow that would fo ever darken the course of my life spread before my mind's eye." (229) Darkness is certainly something else which runs through the text. Sensei writes about how "fear gripped my heart," and how even when he was getting married, he notes that"over my happiness there loomed a black shdow" (236). All this is very much the language of interiority, the language of the mind reflecting on its own self and its processes. But also, about understanding pain and loneliness, dealing with the fact that "A dark shadow seemed always to be following me." Is this the language, and hence the fate, of the new modern Meiji person in Japan (and elsewhere)? Is "modernity" a condition that involves introspection, relfection, and, in the end, profound loneliness? This may be what Soseki is trying to tell us.

I have also long believed that Kokoro can be read as a cautionary tale. By this, I mean that Soseki aims to show his readers how society works if it becomes an open competition with everyone acting according to their own self interest. Social Darwinism, which made quite an impact on Japan through the writings of Herbert Spencer, suggested that this is the way the world works. In order to become modern, Japan needed to release the popular energies of its people, and see that these energies are dedicated to the cause of building a rich and powerful nation. Soseki understands this and doesn't really question the necessity of doing this; but he does want his readers to think about the costs of living this way, setting up one's society on these terms. Don't forget that Soseki was steeped in Chinese thought and his remarks on Individualism suggest that he had grave revervations about unbridled individual freedom. See here for his lecture on this topic. With freedom, should come responsibility. Sensei writes in his Testament about becoming more "aggressive" toward K, and becoming more "dogmatic" in order to defend himself. (192) But thirty-some pages later, he will feel deep remorse for the way he conducted himself: "Through cunning, I have won. But as a man, I have lost." (228) He felt ashamed but his pride and his fear of being humilated prevented him from speaking directly to K. So how or what had he lost "as a man" as a result of his victory through "cunning?" He had acted in his own self-interest; he had protected what he felt he needed to defend, and he came out on top, I guess you could say. But at what cost?