Reading Soseki: a great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft

Without seeing Glenn Gould’s 37 pages of notes on Kusa Makura (Three-cornered world) — the book became something of an obsession for him — it is hard to guess what it was that he loved about it.  Did he like the reflections on the similarities and differences of poetry and painting?  (But Lessing’s Laocoon has already made it amply plain that nothing interesting can be said about the matter:  the two can not be any more usefully or meaningfully compared than recreational swimming and differential equations can).  Did he believe in the existence of moral or artistic truth?  (But what on earth is an “artistic truth”?)  Or did Gould really think the work accurately represented the process of the creation of a work of art? (I find it unconvincing, probably because Soseki was not a painter and therefore had no clue what he was writing about).  

All of Kusa makura‘s hero’s reflections on art are 19th century claptrap and can only bore and exhaust someone like me who knows that a great artist is no more (and no less) than someone in extraordinary control of his craft; that great art has nothing to do with moral truth, or artistic truth, or any otherwise truth, but everything to do with technique; that it need not describe or discuss or reveal human feelings at all only manipulate successfully the human cognitive system; and who, like me, does not believe that a great artist either is or needs to be spiritually different from “most people” (which the novel repeatedly claims, “as an artist I am more sensitive” etc.).  GIGO (“garbage in garbage out”) describes the meditations of Kusa makura rather well:  starting out from false first principles one can only arrive at nonsense conclusions. It describes our modern art theory, too:  what wonder we have the art we do given that we had started out with all that nonsense?

Soseki’s meditations on art aside, several sections of the novel are extraordinarily beautiful, and its last chapter is absolutely breathtaking.  In English, this beauty owes as much to the translator (Alan Turney) as it does to the original:  much of it is verbal; consider how beautifully this poem is translated:

Your obi worked loose and flutters in the breeze,
But once again ’tis for pretence and not spring’s passion it unwinds.
The maker’s name, though woven into silk,
Is, like your heart, unreadable.

But there is also that special je ne se quoi aspect of it — that it infuses the reader with a profound sadness on the one hand and on the other urges him to out the book down and reflect.  (Magic Mountain has the same effect and, not surprisingly, it was Gould’s other most favorite novel).  That the chapter portrays a universal archetype — the departure of a soldier — has more to do with its impact than one is at first inclined to believe.

Readig Soseki: a matter of a single image, a very few words

She had tied the red obi around her waist with a simplicity which suggested a young girl’s indifference as to whether or not it enhanced her charms. Carrying an old fashioned taper in her hand, she had led me to the bathhouse now this way now that, around the bend after bend along what appeared to be passageways, and down flights of stairs. In front of me all the time were that same obi and that same taper, and it seemed as though we were going along the same passage and down the same staircase again and again. Already I had the feeling of being a painted figure moving along on a canvass.”

Natsume Soseki, Kusa Makura (The three-cornered world), III, 40-41


Kusa makura is an introspective novel. The first chapter is indicative of the rest: it starts with the sentence: “Going up a mountain track, I feel to thinking” and the rest are the hero’s thoughts. This is a very attractive structure for someone like me – more interested in the internal life of men than in what actually happened (the action is always the same – she wants him, but she does not want her back, or the other way around).

The thoughts themselves are rather disappointing: they illustrate the disarming lack of training in rigorous thinking rather typical of all exclusively humanist training; and even if the total lack of familiarity with recent advances in psychology and cognitive science are forgivable (after tall the book was written in 1906), the most serious problem with all these introspections is that the novel describes the internal life of a man of around 30. Think about it:  when is the last time someone aged 30 has had anything interesting to say to you?

Yet, to me, reading Kusa Makura has been a remarkable experience — and this entirely on the strength of the passage I quote above. The hero arrives at a remote guesthouse in the mountains; it is night-time; and the maid – the sole person in the whole house as far as he can tell – is taking him to the mineral bath somewhere at the bottom of the house. This image – the red obi, the taper, the going down and down endless narrow passages and stairways in the moving globe of flickering light and the altered state of mind of having entered a painting. There is much reflection on painting in the book, but this is the only one that matters: yes, there is that state of mind one enters into when looking at paintings, a moment of endlessly suspended time.

It is almost as if the entire novel – all those pages, all those chapters – were needed only to provide the setting for that single image, like all that twisty metal which holds the one object of any worth, the jewel.  Much art is that way: the slow, repetitive, mesmerizing overture is needed to put the audience in the mood, to sensitize them, so that they may be ready to receive what you have to tell them. 

Which may well be a matter of a single image, a very few words.

At fifty, there isn’t enough time left to do them sequentially


Bettines letzte Liebschaften shows the now 50-ish Bettina von Arnim — once made famous by her youthful correspondence with Goethe and now an established cultural figure — traveling several hundred miles through a snow-storm to meet her youthful poet-correspondent, in hope of consummating the heretofore epistolographical affair. Once tete-a-tete in his quarters, the poet begins to duck, evade and change the subject, and when he is finally openly pinned down to declare himself, denies volubly that he finds her too old (not an ageist, he) but claims that his erstwhile passion died in response to reports of Bettina’s similar attempts made recently on two other youthful poets. She admits she has made such attempts, but says they are over and claims now to live only for him – to no avail. Take aways (as they say in college):

1.  Youthful poets are happy to “do a Bettina” – i.e. establish their fame by way of amorous correspondence with senior high profile poets/poetesses – but their eagerness for literary achievement may not necessarily extend to acts of physical self-sacrifice. And:

2.  Fiftyish established poetesses (and poets) – when he wrote it, Dieter Kuehn – no, not the East German footballer who is the only German of that name with an English wikipedia entry – was fiftyish himself – become desperate enough to follow every lead, several at once. Time is running out, there isn’t enough of it left to do them sequentially.

Why write?

To please Andrew —————-


Her last letter to me ended with the usual exhortation for me to please write.  You do it so well, she said, it is all so interesting, you tell us all those things we ignoramuses don’t know.  [Tricky words from a university professor, published novelist, and someone rather famous in her own country — especially when such words are addressed to someone entirely unknown, anonymous, and without credentials].

Ah, yes, well, thank you.   I guess all those years of traveling and reading, of living an odd lifestyle in all sorts of odd places where other people who share my interests do not usually go, let alone live, have not been entirely in vain…  why, given the gift of the lifestyle, of the first-hand experience, it would have been proof of utter imbecility of me if I did not make at least some independent observations…  so perhaps I did figure out a thing or two which may not have occurred to others, not because those others are dim, but because these things simply could not have occurred to them — because there haven’t been there, they haven’t seen what I have seen.  So perhaps I do have something to say, however insignificant it may be.

But I don’t seem able to explain it — no one seems to understand what I think I am trying to explain…  or even notice that it just might be any way important.  Or care.  The fault must be entirely mine, of course — if a speaker isn’t getting through to a crowd, it isn’t the crowd’s fault — but the truth is that I am no longer worried about it… it doesn’t seem to matter to me anymore if anyone does understand.  Or care.

I do write, of course — like you, I have been writing all my life.  I have been writing as an aid in thinking — I don’t seem to understand what I think until I see what I write —  but I have never cared to be published, for some odd reason I have never been ambitious that way. It just doesn’t seem such a big deal to me to be on a book shelf or to be mentioned in a newspaper or in a book review.  (I was once a fashion model; my mother kept all the magazines and calendars in which I featured, but I trashed them all the moment I received them. If anything, I was embarrassed by them).

It is true that at one point I did publish a successful blog and that when I did it, at the time, I did go out of my way to promote it.  But I didn’t do it for fame or to shine or to exist (some people seem to exist only to the extent that they exist in other people’s minds, but I have always felt secure in the knowledge that I exist, even on five-day solitary hikes in the mountains):  I did it because I imagined that the internet, then young, offered a way for like minds to meet, to find each other, to talk.  In the end I am not sure that I succeeded in proving that:  I am not sure I really found any “like” minds…  I know I found plenty enough “unlike” minds.  I have met others, too, who have been gentle and generous — like you — but, I repeat, even in those cases I don’t think I have met any “like” minds.

If anything, talking to people on that blog about art and literature I have discovered what I have been discovering all my life, that I don’t really understand other people.  A scientist-philosopher once published a huge hit of a paper in which he argued that we (“we, cognitive scientists”, that is) could never understand what it was like to be a bat on account of the animal’s unique sensory system (echolocation).  Be that as it may, I find that I cannot imagine what it is like to be other people!

I have spent the last two years reading memoirs and letters of many prominent thinkers and I have discovered that their likes and dislikes, their desires and ambitions and fears were all very odd to me — as was the way they reasoned about them.  I am sure the feeling is mutual and this disparity, this gulf, is one reason perhaps why I seem unable to explain myself; and the conviction of the vastness of this gulf, now stronger then ever, is the main reason why I no longer try to explain.  I mean…  if by some miracle I managed to convince someone that the theory of art he has learned in art 101 and which everyone seems to accept and which fuels all the furious production and all the auction house bidding and all the museum building and going… if I convinced someone that there was something fundamentally wrong with that theory…  that it was only a plausibly sounding falsehood…  and, if response to all my argument, a light lit up in their heads saying “aha!”, would they really understand that which I am trying to say?  Or would they understand something completely different and would I have any clue as to what they got out of the conversation?

And — why should I worry about that at all?


The rabid bird, maniacalis maniacalis

I used to be scared stiff when going to a barber that I might happen on one who’d slit my throat. A perfectly normal barber who suddenly got this weird idea into his head and who’s been unable to shake it. This idea simply glued to his head, it glued to his brain. He’s struggled with it but there’s no way: the idea has completely possessed his mind, it took hold of his mind: the seed had fallen on his brain. He’d been walking down the street of his home town one gray, ordinary morning and just then there flew overhead that bird with the Latin name maniacalis maniacalis and of unfathomable flight paths. That bird with the manic habit of opening his rabid beak and spitting out, vomiting out that rabid seed from his rabid crop; and this thing, this rabid seed, fell upon the head of the innocent barber who just happened to be walking there. It fell on his brain, its fertile soil, and there, on his head, it grew:  this rabid plant of the same genus as the bird, maniacalis maniacalis, a rabidly lush flora, her stalks sprayed out, they engulfed the head, wrapped around it tight, and one day, when that day comes, the Day of Flowering, there, on the barbers head a bood-red flower will bloom, and a moment later it will bloom again when the barber draws his razor’s blade across his customers throat. First, a flower bursting out of the customer’s throat, and right after – out of the barbers head, the same flower, with petals exactly the same hue. Out of my throat that first flower – my throat because it just happened to be me sitting there, in that chair, on that throne throne, all in blood. It was me who happened to arrive in this town that day, and come to this barbers shop, and on this very day, the Day of Flowering. The barber, with a Cesarian cut slits the bud of my Adam’s apple, the red flower blooms, it bursts straight up, blood squirts on the barber’s head, that head, leaning over me, in my chair.

I studied this matter at great length over the years: of all the several thousand barbers scattered across our beautiful land, could not one of them get into his head this idea, this as the French say, idee fixe, get it in there and – sprout?

And all that meditating had filled my mouth with fear.