‘Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings’ by Natsume Sōseki (Review)

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Natsume Sōseki, the biggest figure in ‘modern’ Japanese literature, and the shelf holding his works of fiction is filling up nicely (having just wandered over to count them, I can confirm that there are seventeen books there!).  Of course, the more you read of a writer’s work, the more you’re tempted to broaden your horizons, so when I heard of a collection of Natsume’s theoretical writing, published a few years back by a rather familiar publisher, I was keen to add it to my little library.  I’m not going to lie to you, though – this isn’t a book for the casual reader…

Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings (review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press and Australian distributor Footprint Books) is an academic work edited and translated by Michael K. Bourdaghs, Atsuko Ueda and Joseph A. Murphy, bringing together a selection of Natsume’s writings on the study of literature.  In the introduction, they set out the ideas behind the writer’s ‘ten-year plan’, his decision to move his focus away from simply reading English-language literature and absorbing the views of native critics and instead to devote his career to outlining his own theory of literature.  Sadly, life and literature prevented him from bringing his concept to complete fruition, but he did publish several works of literary theory, and several of them are included here.

The first half of the book focuses on the work Theory of Literature, the writer’s first attempt to tie together all his ideas on literary theory.  In his preface, Natsume briefly mentions his unhappy two-year stay in London (also discussed in the collection The Tower of London), over the course of which he came to the following realisation:

Of course, my knowledge of English was not particularly deep, but I did not believe it to be inferior to my knowledge of classical Chinese.  For my sense of like and dislike between the two to be so widely divergent despite my having roughly equal scholarly abilities must mean that the two were of utterly different natures.  In other words, what is called “literature” in the realm of  the Chinese classics and what is called “literature” in English must belong to different categories and cannot be subsumed under a single definition.
p.44 (Columbia University Press, 2010)

This thought gave him the courage to ‘lock away’ his books and begin outlining his own theory – and what a theory…

One can perhaps approach the form of literary substance with the expression (F + f).  F here indicates the impressions or ideas at the focal point of consciousness, while f signifies the emotions that attend them.  In this case, the formula stated above signifies impressions and ideas in two aspects, that is to say, as a compound of cognitive factor F (“large F”), and the emotional factor f (“small f”). (p.52)

Natsume had a deep interest in science, counting many scientists among his friends, and part of his theory was an attempt to bring science into the study of literature, hence his central theme of (F + f), explaining why some writing is literary and some isn’t.

However, the writer is well aware of the differences between science and literature and explores the way science focuses on the parts, rather than the whole.  He also claims that where science focuses on the what and how, literature is more interested in the why.  An idea he returns to frequently is the way in which while scientific truth is constant, literary truth changes depending on the time and place.

This idea is discussed in the greatest detail in the later chapters, where he moves into the area of sociology in attempting to explain how tastes change.  Returning to his original point of shifting focuses and his ‘wave’ theory of cycles, he discusses the different perceptions of the mediocre, the talented and the genius,  explaining how it is that the talented gets the plaudits: they’re just far enough ahead – but still in view – of the mediocre to impress them (a theory explaining the success of middle-brow lit, perhaps?).  Sadly, the genius is slightly less successful in Natsume’s view:

He is not concerned with greatness or obstinacy or stupidity.  He is moved to accomplish what he does only by the awesome power of his consciousness.  For this reason, if you have something to fear from the genius’s self-realization, do not try to warn him, do not oppose him, and do not ridicule him.  Do not waste your effort needlessly.  You must simply take him by surprise and club him to death. (p.136)

Ouch.  The scary thing about this is that it could come straight from a dictator’s handbook…

The second half of the book introduces the reader to an assortment of other texts, most taking a slightly different approach.  There’s a short statement the writer published defending his controversial move from academia to contracted work for the Asahi newspaper (which is basically five pages saying ‘more money, less work, more free time – what’s not to like?’) and a micro-piece denouncing ‘isms’, in particular ‘realism’ (whose dogmatic supporters Natsume had little time for).  Slightly more meaty is the preface to Literary Criticism, a later work building on Theory of Literature, in which the writer draws the reader’s attention to the distinction between literature (the object studied) and literary criticism (the tool or method of study).  It seems obvious to us now, but at the start of the twentieth-century in Japan, the idea was perhaps a little more radical.

Some of the more readable pieces in the collection are to be found in the transcripts of a couple of guest lectures the writer gave.  The first, ‘Philosophical Foundations of the Literary Arts’, took place at Tokyo Art College and is full of musings on philosophy, the division between the self and the object, and the nature of consciousness and our drive for a continuity of self (I wonder if that’s what the artists were looking for…).  Perhaps more interestingly for his audience, Natsume also focuses here on technique, in particular its importance and its limitations.

The final piece included here is perhaps the best-known.  ‘My Individualism’ (translated by Jay Rubin) is a famous rambling lecture from 1911 on how the writer (at the height of his success) got to his lofty position in life.  The second half of the talk develops his ideas on individualism, stressing two main ideas: your right to be yourself and your duty to let others do the same.  Once again, it seems rather obvious to us, but in a country with a very different cultural background (and which would be swept up by nationalist fervour within a few short years), this was probably a rather controversial theory.  Then again, if we look around at the world today, we might consider Natsume to still be ahead of his time…

Today’s choice is definitely a book of two halves.  Theory of Literature is dense and didactic, and would probably stump the average reader.  With no real background in literary theory, it’s hard to judge if what is included here is useful, outdated or simply made-up – as appealing as (F + f) may be to some, it reminds me most of the page Robin Williams makes his students rip out of their textbooks in Dead Poets Society.  At this point, it’s hard to imagine Natsume being very popular in his time at the university.

Yet the actual lectures are very different, and most enjoyable, full of mock humility and the dry humour readers of his fiction will be very familiar with:

Now, recently I quit my position at the university, and my friends all like to laugh at me because I lie on the verandah and take afternoon naps.  In fact, it may not be laughter as much as it is envy.  Well, yes, I do take the occasional afternoon nap.  And that is not all: I take the occasional morning nap and evening nap, too.  Yet if, while lying there, I devote myself to thinking about the way to realize some important ideal, then I may well be doing something more important than all those self-proclaimed national treasures who spend hours being carried around in their cars, racing with the streetcars.  When I am lying down, I am not simply lying down.  I am lying down in order to think about important matters.  Unfortunately, I have not yet managed to reach any great conclusions. (p.212)

The idea of the artist as a thinker with no obligation to actually do anything with those thoughts is an idea I recognise from Kusamakura – and one I’ve used myself (unfortunately, my wife rarely buys it…).

Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings certainly won’t be for everyone, but those who have enjoyed the writer’s fiction may appreciate a look inside his literary tool box.  However, as fascinating as that might be, Natsume’s at his best here when he moves away from pure theory and applies it to examples (e.g. Shakespeare, Pope, Austen – he’s very complimentary to Saint Jane).  Even if you don’t get all that he says about theory, reading this collection will give you a wider appreciation of a great writer – and hopefully have you looking for more of his fiction, too 🙂


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