Friday 14 August 2020

Kokoro: metaphors, similes, and impressionistic style

1/ Let’s talk about metaphors and similes in Kokoro
“Instinctively I dreamed about women as objects of desire, but these were merely vague fantasies with all the substance of a yearning for the fleeting clouds of spring.” (Ch.18) 
Is that not an interesting image? 
Now look at this moment—the narrator stays at Sensei’s house with the wife because Sensei has to go away and around this time, there are burglars in the neighbourhood; they talk about Sensei and his anguish, he tries to cheer her up but neither of them know the root of the problem: 
“Thus were the comforter and comforted equally at sea, adrift on shifting waves.” (Ch.20) 
There are not a lot of metaphors and similes in Kokoro—Soseki is not Flaubert—but when there’s one, it’s interesting. 

2/ Look at these lines: 
“Soft sunlight, of a kind rarely seen in winter, was shining through the study’s glass door onto the cloth draped over his desk. In this sunny room Sensei had set a metal basin containing water over the coals of a brazier, so that by inhaling the steam, he could soothe his lungs.” (Ch.21) 
In the previous blog post, I wrote that there wasn’t much description in Kokoro
But then something unusual happens (after the narrator finishes his thesis): 
“In the first days of summer, when the boughs of the late-flowering double cherries were misted with the first unfurling of green leaf, I finally achieved my freedom. Like a bird released from its cage, I spread my wings wide in delight and let my gaze roam over the world before me. I immediately went to visit Sensei. Along the way my eyes drank in the vivid sight of a citrus hedge, its white buds bursting forth from the blackened branches, and a pomegranate tree, the glistening yellowish leaves sprouting from its withered trunk and glowing softly in the sunlight. It was as if I were seeing such things for the first time.” (Ch.26) 
Because there has been so little description before, this becomes very effective, and I (almost) forgive Soseki for the bird-released-from-cage cliché. 
Chapter 26, in fact, is full of descriptions. Like this one of an empty house they wander into: 
“The sliding doors were all wide open, and there was no sign of life in the empty interior. The only movement was that of the goldfish that swam about in a large tub that stood by the eave.” (ibid.) 
It is done in a bare, impressionistic style—another writer might have taken several paragraphs to describe the place while Soseki only uses 2 sentences and the image of a goldfish to evoke its quietness. 
When I say chapter 26 is full of descriptions, I mean compared to before—the narrator never describes his own accommodation, his parents’ house, nor Sensei’s house (apart from a single sentence sketching the study). But the writing in Kokoro is not about describing as much as about evoking. Like this: 
“Azaleas bloomed all around us like flames.” (ibid.) 
This must be what critics mean when they compare Soseki’s style to haiku—he doesn’t describe everything, he evokes an image, a mood, a feeling. 

3/ The writing in Kokoro is bare, some may say economical. 
We don’t hear of the narrator’s parents, for example, until chapter 21, and it’s not until the following chapter do we know that he has an elder brother and a sister. They’re not mentioned until it’s necessary, but it feels natural—Kokoro is a sort of memoir, as the narrator looks back and writes about his friendship with Sensei. Everything else is secondary, even unimportant. 
Soseki strips it all down to its bare essentials. But sometimes I cannot help thinking, do we even have all the essentials? 
I don’t know what Sensei and his disciple generally talk about, nor what they do together. The narrator calls Sensei a philosopher, and now and then I get a glimpse of his thoughts, such as “love is a sin” (ch.13) or “the memory of having sat at someone’s feet will later make you want to trample him underfoot” (ch.14), but I don’t know what he thinks and how he views things, apart from a general distrust of the world and disgust with himself. I know that the narrator is drawn to Sensei, and prefers spending time with him than playing game with his own father, and I expect to get to know Sensei through his letter to the narrator later on in the novel, but at the moment, I’m not quite sure about how Sensei appears to the narrator and how he influences him. 
Put it this way, the character of Sensei is veiled by several layers of mist and the narrator once in a while gets a glimpse of something dark, hidden by the mist, but he doesn’t know what it is—the book is about his failure, at the time, to understand the older man’s moral anguish, and perhaps about his difficulty, at the present, in understanding him and his death. The novel focuses on those glimpses, so to speak, and captivates the reader’s attention with the mystery of Sensei’s dark past. 
However, the different conversations throughout the novel all seem to head towards that one thing (essentially serving the plot), and what gets lost is that I don’t know what the 2 characters generally talk about, why the narrator sees Sensei as a philosopher and an admirable man, and how he gets influenced by him. 
Now you may ask, what does it matter what they talk about? Am I missing the point? But here we have a young male student who doesn’t seem to have many friends and who feels attached to an older man, perhaps his father’s age, whom he regularly visits, so it’s natural to ask what they talk about and how they become close. He also tells us that Sensei influences him, so again I think it’s natural to ask influence in what way, and what Sensei is like as a thinker—how he views life and sees things, beyond that distrust, pessimism, and obsession with death. 
Perhaps the portrayal is meant to be impressionistic. Perhaps Sensei is meant to be opaque, because he is opaque to the narrator himself. 

4/ There is an obsession with death throughout Kokoro, but not in the sense of mono no aware as in The Tale of Genji. It is partly an awareness of human fragility (as in the case of the narrator’s father, who has a kidney disease), and partly an abnormal obsession with death and suicide (as in Sensei’s case). 

5/ I picked up Kokoro, thinking that it’s only about the generation gap between the narrator and Sensei, but there’s another: between him and his father, who lives in the country. This aspect, at the moment, seems more interesting, because the parents are conveyed more vividly. The narrator leaves home to study in Tokyo, only to come home and find his parents simple, boorish, and uncultured (unlike Sensei), without realising that he may have a degree but has no job, no direction in life, and is in some way a superfluous man (as in Russian novels). 
These chapters are exquisite, especially in the way Soseki handles the father’s reaction to his own illness—his fear, his personal association with the Emperor for also being ill (and dying from his health problems), his stubborn refusal to acknowledge the seriousness and fatality of his disease, followed by his attempts to accept it and come to terms with it. 
Amidst all this, the narrator sometimes seems conscious of what’s going on, and sometimes naïve and clueless. 

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