Friday, April 25, 2014

2014 Classic #4

Kokoro – Lafcadio Hearn

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries journalist Lafacdio Hearn published magazine pieces on Japanese life and folklore. These articles were collected in books such as Kokoro.

For fear of being embarrassed for lack of literary taste, I don’t want to be caught reading Hearn because of his arts for art’s sake, fin de siècle prose. Ornate. Needless hard words. Word order funny. In the piece A Street Singer, he writes as the ugly blind samisen player plays, “A tenderness invisible seemed to gather and quiver about us.” And more: “For out of those ugly disfigured lips there gushed and rippled a miracle of a voice—young, deep, unutterably touching in its penetrating sweetness. ‘Woman or wood-fairy?’ queried a bystander.” Yish. So many “sensations of places and of times forgotten” and things intangible and evanescent and ineffable that rolling our eyes, we readily believe one of his favorite writers was Poe.

I feel embarrassed at not being more skeptical after I find out that reporters I believed have played fast and loose with the facts. Hearn kicks off Kokoro with the story that Hearn says he saw with his own eyes. At a train station, a killer is confronted with the four-year-old son of his victim. The killer breaks down in repentance, providing proof of, Hearn asserts, "that potential love of children which is so large a part of the soul of every Japanese." A Japanese scholar, Ōta Yuzō, looked up the original newspaper accounts of this incident. He reports that the killer did not address the boy, gave only a curt apology to the widow, and generally acted with as little remorse as the cold-blooded thugs that have shot somebody to get an iPhone.

That otherwise bright people believe woo-woo such as the collective unconscious is embarrassing. Years before he arrived in Japan at the age of 40, Hearn came under the influence of the philosophy of Herbert Spencer. A Lamarckist of sorts, Hearn considered genetic memory to be a fusion of memory and heredity. Kokoro is dotted with numinous, preternatural notions like this:

·         How deeply-reaching into the life of the race some of these sensations are, such as the pleasure in odors and in colors, Grant Allen has most effectively suggested in his "Physiological Aesthetics," and in his charming treatise on the Color-Sense.

·         Scientifically we know that within one tiny living cell may be stored up the whole life of a race,—the sum of all the past sensation of millions of years; perhaps even (who knows?) of millions of dead planets.

·         The strength of Japan, like the strength of her ancient faith, needs little material display: both exist where the deepest real power of any great people exists,—in the Race Ghost.

·         The explanation [of acceptance of impermancy] is in the race character,—a race character in more ways than one the very opposite of our own.

·         Well, the emotion of beauty, like all of our emotions, is certainly the inherited product of unimaginably countless experiences in an immeasurable past.

Millions of dead planets. The Race Ghost. As an ex-Jungian, I blush.

Clearly, I feel acute embarrassment when I see others embarrassing themselves in ways in which I embarrassed myself in the past. Not just me. Any sojourner who has lived and studied or worked in a foreign country for a couple of years has gone through the same stages Hearn went through.

First is initial excitement and infatuation. For Hearn, everything Japanese was polite, graceful, quaint, small, tidy, tastefully artistic, as well as clean and smelling like a gardenia. But we squirm when we recall our first reactions to a new place were just as smitten, with a tendency to gush as Hearn did in the above story about the killer.

Second is culture shock. For Hearn, it was maddening that traditional Japan was being mindlessly Occidentalized. Hearn frankly states, “I confess to being one of those who believe that the human heart, even in the history of a race, may be worth infinitely more than the human intellect, and that it will sooner or later prove itself infinitely better able to answer all the cruel enigmas of the Sphinx of Life.” I for one shudder a bit when I recall my youthful romanticism, nostalgic for times long past, places to flee where I didn’t have to worry about finding a job in the downsizing Eighties.

Third is the realization that the local people exhibit all the strengths and faults, commonsense and quirks of folks back in the old hometown. After about four years in Japan, Hearn was writing to his friend Basil Hall Chamberlain (a much more clear-minded observer of Japan): "Lowell says the Japanese have no individuality. I wish he had to teach here for a year, and he would discover some of the most extraordinary individualities he ever saw." Having taught in Japan for six years myself (1986 - 92), I can only agree whole-heartedly that is better – in the sense of easier on the stomach – to accept people and places as they are.

As I grow older, I consider the will to avoid embarrassment to be a motivator in life. Not as strong as greed, lust, love and hate. But strong enough to make people procrastinate out of fear of failure and its perceived damage to self-confidence and reputation.

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