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Rethinking Sōseki's theory
Karatani Kōjin Published online: 11 Feb 2008.

To cite this article: Karatani Kjin (2008) Rethinking Sōseki's theory, Japan Forum, 20:1, 9-15, DOI: 10.1080/09555800701796826 To link to this article:

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realism. haikai. either in the West or in Japan. Like Bakhtin. I noticed that Soseki ¯ was the same age when he began tackling his Theory of Literature in London.1080/09555800701796826 . This perspective assumed that modern literature was natural and selfevident and there were very few who problematized the form. My book was an attempt to show that modern literature in the West can in fact be interpreted as a historical system established in the middle of the nineteenth century. As I was teaching Meiji literature to American students. His theory was considered a mere prelude to his novels. loosely plotted realism of Laurence Sterne. 1907) was precisely a project to demonstrate this. this paper argues that in the preface to Bungakuron Soseki ¯ provides both an encomium to his dead friend Masaoka and a prescient announcement of the ‘end of literature’. This is why I referred to Soseki ¯ and his Theory of Literature from the beginning in Origins of Modern Japanese Literature. I remember the quiet excitement I felt then. Soseki ¯ recognizes something in early novelistic forms that would later be disciplined out. Needless to say. However. perceived 100 years early from his vantage point as a non-Western subject witnessing the ‘end of empire’ in London. shaseibun. Keywords: Natsume Soseki. One day. I was 34 years old at the time. ¯ Masaoka Shiki. Meiji literary history was usually taught from the perspective of how modern literature as established in the West had been accepted – or failed to be accepted – in Japan. no one paid attention to Japan Forum 20(1) 2008: 9–15 Copyright C 2008 BAJS ISSN: 0955–5803 print/1469–932X online DOI: 10. especially in France. Furthermore. It focuses on Soseki’s ¯ collaboration with Masaoka Shiki to revive haiku and the links that Soseki ¯ found between the haiku-related genre of shaseibun (literary sketches) and the grotesque. Soseki ¯ as a theorist was belittled at the time.1 At the time. I came to realize that Soseki ¯ is one of the few who had problematized modern literature and that his Theory of Literature (Bungakuron. Sterne It was in 1975 when I was teaching at Yale University that I began to envision the work Origins of Modern Japanese Literature (Karatani 1993 [1980]).Rethinking Soseki’s ¯ theory ¯ IN K A R ATA N I K OJ Downloaded by [Sookmyung Womens University] at 10:22 06 July 2013 Abstract: This paper builds on the discussion of Bungakuron in Origins of Modern Japanese Literature (1993).

1895). the fact that Soseki ¯ quit Tokyo Imperial University to work for the Asahi Shinbun newspaper startled people at the time. 1905–6). The criterion of literature is the criterion of haiku’ (Shiki 1930: 246. It is certain that this dead person was alive in Soseki’s ¯ mind. is perhaps his most representative work in the shaseibun form. This is. He writes: ‘Haiku is part of literature. first published in the haiku journal Hototogisu launched by Shiki. no matter how subtle and idiosyncratic it may seem. but started instead with its very form. or should be.10 Rethinking S¯ oseki’s theory it in America. In his Theory of Literature. For example. Clearly. characterized as it is by lack of plot and a form of satire that is peculiar to haikai-renga (comic linked verse). a form of prose derived from haiku). who died of tuberculosis at the age of 35 while Soseki ¯ was in London. When I think of it in this light. I will discuss the reasons for this later. the position of literature has entirely changed over the past thirty years. however. it is remarkable that I am now participating in a project to reconsider Soseki’s ¯ Theory of Literature together with American scholars. Soseki ¯ asked what literature is. but even in Japan. but it is understandable in view of the fact that Shiki had worked for the newspaper Nihon Shinbunsha. it is in fact a critique of realist writing. his theoretical aims and methodology were in fact similar to those of his long-time friend Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902). some of Soseki’s ¯ eccentric behavior can be attributed to his relationship with his dead friend. the criterion of art is the criterion of literature. However. Both Shiki and Poe imply that what makes poems poetic should be sought in their form. his goal was to supply a universal basis to specific genres of literature. in both general and comprehensive terms. Literature is part of art. not in their content. Therefore. He did not begin with the fact that haiku stemmed from a long history of haikai-renga. cause for celebration – and yet my happiness is tempered. but to sum them up briefly here. haiku and shaseibun. Masaoka Shiki gave haiku poetry a theoretical foundation in his General Principles of Haikai (Haikai taiy¯ o. While shaseibun may appear to be akin to realism. What he meant to say is that the traditional haiku should be considered from a universal viewpoint as part of art. cited in Karatani 1993: 74-5). Incidentally. Soseki’s ¯ I Am a Cat (Wagahai wa neko de aru. I stated in Origins of Modern Japanese Literature that Soseki’s ¯ project was an isolated case. The two writers shared a passionate interest in both literary theory and creative writing and collaborated on a project to revive haiku poetry in which they aimed to provide a theoretical basis for haiku and shaseibun (‘literary sketches’. Soseki ¯ sought the basis of shaseibun in a certain attitude toward the world and oneself: Downloaded by [Sookmyung Womens University] at 10:22 06 July 2013 . In many respects. The extremely short poetic form of haiku links with Edgar Allan Poe’s ideas in ‘The Poetic Principle’ (1849) in which he locates the definitive nature of poetry in its brevity (Eliot 1912). it may be said that Soseki’s ¯ Theory of Literature inherited the essence of Masaoka Shiki’s theory and developed it on a larger scale. that is. not only in Britain. the genres that he shared with Masaoka Shiki.

For instance. It is noteworthy that Soseki ¯ found in Sterne the attitude of shaseibun. we should add Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Sentimental Journey as outstanding examples of shaseibun. In Rabelais’ Gargantua et Pantagruel. and plot-less shaseibun derived from haiku in Meiji Japan. It is not mere conceit for Soseki ¯ to have found parallels between Sterne’s novels. According to Freud. It is that of a parent toward a child. there appears to be nothing written with this kind of mental disposition among the works which have been hailed as Western masterpieces throughout the world.: 55). Consequently. Sterne’s novels were aberrations. It is not that of the wise man regarding the fools. Nor is it that of a man regarding a woman or a woman regarding a man. Bakhtin maintains that Sterne’s Tristam Shandy was ‘a peculiar transposition of Rabelais’ and Cervantes’ world concept into the subjective language of the new age’.Karatani K¯ ojin 11 In narrating human affairs. He writes: This mental disposition is in every way that of haiku. 16: 55) However. The writer of shaseibun. He also argued that this popular carnivalesque sense of the world found in Renaissance literature subsequently withered. he then goes on to cite Dickens’s Pickwick Papers. He would later be highly evaluated by the twentiethcentury modernist movement. the attitude of the writer of shaseibun is not like that of a nobleman surveying the lowly. as if that pain were petty and negligible. Bakhtin’s remarks on Laurence Sterne deserve attention. It was hard to revive grotesque realism in a Western Europe where the agrarian community had already been dissolved by the market economy. Soseki ¯ states that shaseibun is a Japanese product derived from haiku. a carnivalesque sense of the world in which the hierarchy of the social order is reversed through the laughter of the populace. 16: 48–56. In this regard. Fielding’s Tom Jones and Cervantes’ Don Quixote as examples of ‘works in which this attitude is evident to a certain degree’ (ibid. transposed. Sterne’s Downloaded by [Sookmyung Womens University] at 10:22 06 July 2013 . that is to say. From the perspective of the literary canon established in the nineteenth century. although Soseki ¯ for some reason does not mention them here. Here. (SZ 1907. is not an adult looking at children. but that it was revived in the pre-romantic period. one in which the folk laughter of the Renaissance was reduced to the forms of humor. Freud used the same metaphor to explain ‘humor’. Within the limits of my own rather shallow knowledge. but this did not take place until after Soseki’s ¯ stay in London. irony and sarcasm (Bakhtin 1968: 36–7). which deconstruct the British novel that was taking shape in the late eighteenth century. humor is generated when the superego (adult) encourages the suffering ego (child) by urging it to ignore its pain. cited in Karatani 1993: 180–1) This is not an attitude peculiar to haikai-renga. It is not a Western import that arrived in Yokohama after drifting across the seas. (SZ 1907. albeit in a subjective form – that is. Bakhtin found a grotesque realism. with Sterne’s Tristam Shandy.

he needed to justify his ideas theoretically. yet. Bakhtin writes. Haikai implies something humorous and obscene. ¯ but by Shiki’s time the ‘Basho¯ school style’ had decayed into closed-off guilds governed by masters and a spirit that sought above all ‘preordained harmony’. but it withered when the Tokugawa regime was established in the sixteenth century. with haikai becoming gentrified and the free association of renga being transformed into yet another feudal guild. grotesque realism was revived in nineteenth-century Russia by Gogol. . to borrow his own metaphor. unlike Lu Xun or Garcia Marquez whose works appeared after the acceptance of modernism. as well as something that is frequently subversive of social hierarchies.12 Rethinking S¯ oseki’s theory works are deemed an expression of a subjective sense of the world. or rather an expression of an overly acute self-consciousness. However.Limited to the area of the private. But Bakhtin acknowledges that the Renaissance sense of the world is retrieved here. and then by Dostoevsky who. though in a subjective form. Shaseibun has its origin not just in early modern haiku. . and the high point of this summit is Rabelais’ novel. as the feudal system fell into decline. however. it gained power among the populace in the form of haikai-renga. According to Bakhtin. In many ways. It may be said that Basho ¯ (1644–94) tried to restore the haikai-esque spirit of haiku by splitting off haiku into a distinct genre of its own and rejecting the guild structure of renga. To be more specific. this is because it stemmed from haikai-renga. though. It is Masaoka Shiki who attempted to reform haiku radically in the Meiji period. ‘a rather sharp descent starts’ and ‘it loses its essential link with a universal outlook. Basho’s ¯ innovations. he was an innovator just like Basho. renga (linked verse) has a long history stretching back to ancient times. ‘The sixteenth century represents the summit in the history of laughter. . It goes without saying that Shiki Downloaded by [Sookmyung Womens University] at 10:22 06 July 2013 . eighteenth-century humor is deprived of its historical color’ (Bakhtin 1968: 101). became just another mannerism. This does not mean simply that it was started by haiku poets such as Masaoka Shiki and himself. Soseki ¯ argues that shaseibun is derived from haiku. Grotesque realism. The same thing can be said of Soseki’s ¯ writing. came out from under Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’. Lu Xun in China or Gabriel Garc´ ıa M´ arquez in Colombia resulted from the persistence of a feudal agrarian community. the so-called ‘Basho-school ¯ style’. it is important to note that surrealism is a product of modernism. Gogol’s works are often labeled as precursors to surrealism. Dostoevsky’s works are essentially different from the subjective and psychological type of modern novel. because they retain ‘the carnivalesque sense of the world’.’ After this. Haikai-renga was popular among the rising bourgeois class (manufacturers). but in the haikai-renga of the fifteenth century. It was initially an aristocratic genre that saw increasing refinement and gentrification. If shaseibun retains a carnivalesque sense of the world. In the fifteenth century. However. While such works were not part of the literary mainstream in Europe. The same is true of haikai-renga. whether we are looking at Gogol in Russia.

I don’t like to do what I am not interested in. Furthermore. but it will be of a kind alien to the literature I have an interest in. I had previously overlooked his use of certain words. In fact. Thirty years ago. Let me quote it again. but shaseibun as grotesque realism. These authors are defined as postmodern. Shiki’s reforms extended into tanka poetry as well as prose writing – that is. this renaissance did not last long and by the 1990s it began to lose its social and intellectual impact. I was aware of the end of modern literature. In fact. I resolved to devote a year or more to the first stage of my research on this problem. Having said this. The truly haikai-esque remained not with these disciples. I felt none of the excitement that I had had before: it was more like writing my own last will and testament. Re-reading Soseki’s ¯ preface to the Theory of Literature. I was determined. but I don’t care. one that had been repressed by the established literary canons. so to speak. What he sought was not shaseibun as realism. Downloaded by [Sookmyung Womens University] at 10:22 06 July 2013 . However.Karatani K¯ ojin 13 rejected this sort of guild and sought once again the ‘haikai-esque’. thus rejecting Basho’s ¯ authority. I have other things I want to do. although I had quoted a passage from it. While I revised it with considerable interest. a variety of genres of novels appeared. I may be wrong. Murakami Ryu ¯ (1952–). shaseibun. as with Basho’s ¯ death. however. but for me. I noticed that. Murakami Haruki (1949–) and Takahashi Genichiro ¯ (1951–). However. Soseki ¯ argued that eighteenth-century English literature was the Western counterpart of shaseibun. The death of Nakagami Kenji in 1992 was possibly symbolic of the death of modern literature in Japan. this was not so much the end of modern literature as it was indicative of the emergence of a new kind of literature. an ending that was nothing more than an ending. However. there is something else I must mention. shaseibun once again became flat realism associated with a feudal guild. they seem to be harking back to an earlier kind of literature – the Renaissance literature for which Soseki ¯ had sought a theoretical basis. to solve the problem of defining the nature of literature. Actually I have gotten divorced from literature. But when Shiki died and Takahama Kyoshi (1874–1959) succeeded him. when I was writing Origins of Modern Japanese Literature. This was a death that harbored no future possibilities. last year I had to re-visit my book Origins of Modern Japanese Literature to edit it for a new edition of my works. thus expanding the concept to a more universal phenomenon than seeing it as something unique to Japanese literature. as a scholar of English literature. This was a genuine renaissance of literature and I had my eyes on it as I wrote my Origins of Modern Japanese Literature. something called ‘literature’ may last and even prosper. Soseki’s ¯ Theory of Literature was written in order properly to evaluate and recover what had been laid aside from the mainstream of modern literature. including those by writers such as Nakagami Kenji (1946–92). in this work. Generally we notice the origin of something only when it is about to end. but rather with Soseki’s ¯ writings.

W. Shiki explained this from the fact that haiku are so short that the total number of possible permutations and combinations of words that they can contain is limited. trans. XXVIII. And I vowed to explore the social factors that brought literature into this world and caused it to flourish or wither. 15: 9. Kaizosha. cited in Karatani 1993: 12) This time. The Harvard Classics. It seems a bit odd that Shiki. Bloomington. who after all launched a new haiku moment. Kodansha. New York: P. (SZ 1907. Shiki. Natsume. Mikhail (1968) Rabelais and His World. Unlike other writers of their own or of later generations. But when I re-read Soseki’s ¯ ‘Preface’. because the number of potential permutations and combinations is astronomical and virtually infinite in terms of human history. References Bakhtin. reprinted in S¯ oseki zensh¯ u 15. Masaoka (1930) Haikai taiy¯ o (General principles of haikai). Of course. Soseki’s ¯ words reminded me of Masaoka Shiki’s belief that haiku and tanka were doomed to extinction in the near future. I came to think that I should reconsider the end of modern literature as my last obligation to literature. to use Soseki’s ¯ words. Kojin ¯ (1980) Nihon kindai bungaku no kigen. The chapters of Origins of Modern Japanese Literature first appeared in installments in the literary journals Kikan Geijutsu and Gunz¯ o between 1978 and 1980 and were published in book form in 1980 (Karatani 1993 [1980]). I have divorced myself from literature. Soseki ¯ (1907) ‘Shaseibun’. Iwanami Shoten. Eliot. as I noted above. I vowed to probe the psychological origins of literature: what led to its appearance. they did not believe in the eternity of literature. altering my view of Soseki’s ¯ theoretical attempt. Charles. IN: Indiana University Press. Iwanami Shoten. development and decline. I suspect that Soseki ¯ may have sensed the end of literature. Durham. words like ‘decline’ and ‘wither’ drew my attention. That is why I have written this essay. trans. Downloaded by [Sookmyung Womens University] at 10:22 06 July 2013 Note 1. ¯ . For I believed that reading literature in order to understand the nature of literature was like washing blood with blood. H´ el` ene Iswolsky.14 Rethinking S¯ oseki’s theory I shut myself up in my room in my boarding house and packed all the works of literature I owned away in my wicker trunk. reprinted in S¯ oseki zensh¯ u 16. It may be said that Soseki ¯ shared this stance with Shiki. Collier & Son. —— (1907) ‘Preface’ (‘Jo’) to Bungakuron. (1912) Essays: English and American: Vol. his theory was wrong. would at the same time proclaim the inevitable extinction of haiku. reprinted in Shiki zensh¯ u 4. ¯ —— (1993 [1980]) Origins of Modern Japanese Literature.F. In any event. Karatani. Brett de Bary. But I think Shiki wanted to say that haiku would decline and wither because of psychological or social factors. NC: Duke University Press.

one of Japan’s most influential intellectual venues throughout the 1990s. He has spent time as visiting Professor of Japanese Literature at both Yale and Columbia Universities. He retired from teaching at Hosei University Japan in 2006. Downloaded by [Sookmyung Womens University] at 10:22 06 July 2013 . Work available in English includes Origins of Modern Japanese Literature (1993) Architecture as Metaphor: Language. but remains a prolific critic and activist.Karatani K¯ ojin 15 Karatani Kojin ¯ is a critic and activist in Japan and founding editor of Critical Space. Number. Money (1995) and Transcritique: On Kant and Marx (2003).