Kusamakura – Natsume Soseki


“And when its difficulties intensify, you find yourself longing to leave that world and dwell in some easier one- and then, when you understand at last the difficulties will dog you wherever you may live, this is when poetry and art are born…”

For the very first time on a murky morning, I saw a set of colours come alive on the wall of my living room. The orderly row of comatose crayons suddenly sprang like a newborn foal twirling on the pasty canvass. Amid the angry voices of my parents I giggled as I indulged in my very first act of vandalism. The fiery red miraculously transformed into a royal shade of purple with the touch of blue, the yellow gave birth to orange when it embraced the stylish red. I was captivated by this odd-looking rainbow and then from that day onward, I scribbled and drew on every empty space found on paper, walls and even on my bare palms. The razor sharp pencil became a tyrant and I a lawless anarchist, each forming and defying the norms on their own terms. Over the years, common sense shackled my fearlessness and creativity became another tomb in my life. Soseki’s words made me realize that until now I had failed to distinguish the art that always shaped in front of me. It is not mandatory to entrust one’s thoughts to paper; art is right in front of you. In the assorted colours of your world, let your eyes be the naked canvass in which an artist’s creates a masterpiece, as you conjure the beauty of the world the mouth will sing a poet’s song and let your heart be the camera that garners and captures every purest sentiment from this sullied world. Art begins and ends with life. Life imparts art and nature embraces both of these elements. So, don’t be a pampered child who throws tantrums when things don’t go as planned, find a way where your sorrows simply melt in the abyss of happiness. Happiness had always been a ruthless stranger, thus do not drive it away for it rarely knocks on the door without any sorrowful repercussions. And, when no words seem to emerge or the brush trembles on the sight of the ghostly canvass, one is still the wealthiest of person, as he can view the human life through the eye of an artist in the realm of magnificent purity. After all “human world is not an easy place to live in.”

A young artist
Beauty flirts
On grass pillow………

The novel opens up in the midst of a philosophical exploration establishing an artist’s vocation in the quest to attain serenity and beauty in the evolving art. A young artist pointlessly walks into an isolated hot-spring village of Nakoi, to perceive a world that is detached from human sentiments that adulterates the purity of art. Soseki, stays true to the words of the artist when experiences are recorded first-handed and the magnetism of the attractive Nami-(the divorced daughter of the hot-spring inn establishment), somehow entices the young artist to evaluate his observations of life, art and its vulgarities.

“I’m a human and belong to the world of humans so for me the unhuman can last only so long no matter how much I enjoy it.”

Salvation from the vulgar world; it is actually possible? Will the mind ever obey the words of the mouth? As the young artist seeks salvation from the human world debating on ways to achieve a “non-emotional” and “unhuman” state that will not contaminate the pristine splendor of his art, Soseki carries out a literary experiment inferring that it is rather impossible to break away from the muddled emotions of humankind. Life eventually touches you irrespective to the resistance. The “smell of human” at end reeks from every pore of one’s body. Loneliness maybe an artist’s blessing, for the mind is more imaginative and powerful when silent, yet the darkness that follows the recluse may bring crudity in terms of excessiveness resulting in the death of beauty. Soseki emphasis how plays (Noh), poetry, novels, painting become alive with human feelings. A book is loved when its characters come alive in one’s room when every new sensation is attached to the dried ink making it flow through plethora of budding thoughts. A Noh drama has its own sensitivities emitting through the immense layers of make-up, amalgamating in to a perfect blend of raw human emotions and tranquility. For a solitary traveler, detachment from the human world could be blissful, but would this kind of non-attachment create an exquisiteness of an art. The painter who roamed the streets of the picturesque Nakoi desired to stray away from worldly emotions yet somehow the shadows never left him. To the artist’s surprise the echoes of the ongoing Russo-Japanese war was heard among the icy solitary mountains of the village. The air brought the metallic smell of the blood that was being spilled hundred miles away and the voices of guns being fired became stronger with the whistles of the steam engine, roaring to go, carrying one of its important passengers –Kyuichi, as he volunteered during the war. That is life and this very debate of detachment v/s attachment to human presence, portrayed Soseki’s melancholic quandary about changing times. Life had even touched Nami’s portrait and the cloistered Japanese culture.

“The artists is the one who lives in a “three cornered world” in which the corner that the average person would call “common sense” has been sheared off from the ordinary four-square world that the normally inhabit.”

Soseki asserts that artists are madder and foolish as they romanticize nature with human affairs. Art mellows the severity of the human world. Soseki illustrates the paradigm of a heartbreak becoming the subject of an art. For an average man, Soseki asserts, heartbreak brings nothing but skepticism and agony, but for an artist who forgets the soreness and perceive the objectiveness of the heartbreak, encompasses the moments of empathy and wretchedness through literature and art. Thus, bringing a sort of emancipation to the heart that is suffering. Similarly, the process of penning a ‘haiku’ brings a sense of enlightenment. The 17-syllable marvel may look uncomplicated and dainty, yet it withholds the clandestine stories of several tears and pleasure. Fascinatingly, Soseki compares writing a poem or rather a haiku, to the tedious process of mixing the arrowroot gruel by chopsticks. Initially when the gruel is a mere liquid, the circular strokes of mixing seem rather effortless , but as the stirring continues and the two substances become viscous with each movement , the gruel transforms into a thick glue that ends up sticking the chopsticks together. That is how a poem is formed. Numerous loose emotions, thousands of blurry images stringing together, glues compactly the syllables into one solid picture. Isn’t Soseki a magnificent artist? He certainly speaks the language as his prose talks about every form of art, be it poems, prose, painting or music. Soseki questions the true obligation of a poet; he refers to Greek sculptures, the works of Oscar Wilde, compares the faces of old women to the mountain crone of Nagasawa Rosetsu’s painting, the prose of Tristram Shandy and the poems of the Orient to conclude that the obligation of an poet (or artist in general) is “to dissect his own corpse and reveal the symptoms of its illness to the world.” In a world where an artist is classified by their subjective and objective approach towards art, imparting life and translating the external mood onto the canvass, which is then designated as a “true artist”? Is it a person who resembling the Abbot of Kankaji views life without hindrance and fetches beauty from the most trivial situations in life or is it someone akin to the protagonist who has to take refuge in an isolated land where his poetry can sing the song of a skylark without fearing the deep crimson strokes of the camellia oozing out from the painting like blood on an icy wintry slope. Is it possible to be artist in a true sense without being subjected to the menace of detectives who tend to count people’s “farts”?

Why do we always read books from beginning to end? Why must the prologue always be read first? Why can’t the story begin from the middle and instead of comprehending the plot first, we appreciate the characters and then revolve the narrative around them? Art is formed in this haphazard way. It never begins with a preamble, it just needs one perfect emotion, one stroke, one note or one word and a whole world is build around it. Art is formed when the artist can ultimately say, “Ah, here it is! This is myself!” Art has always freely flown in the narrow lanes of the mind and heart that is the place where creativity flourishes in its embryonic stage. Nonetheless, as the world modernizes eradicating human slavery, the art in turn becomes a slave to prejudicial judgments, defending its freedom at every step in the society. If creativity has to be justified at every corner then is the artistic community committing a crime by exposing art to political scavengers? If every brush stroke, every poetic syllable, every written word is interrogated, then will art succumb to being a mere regulated display behind the glass door forever waiting for a stamp of approval? Soseki was troubled as his melancholy viewed the changing world through a glass door questioning whether Japanese traditions will be lost in the chaos of modernization, and true art will be lost among the malodorous farts.

“The world where falling in love requires marrying is a world where novels require reading from beginning to end.”

Life changes, old familiarity bring new lonesomeness as beauty is transient. If our shadows can bear the pain of its disappearance as the night falls only to find joy the next morning, why does man fear change and prefers to dwell in the shadows of an haunting past rather than embrace the joy of future? Although, Natsume Soseki spent several of his studying years abroad (London), his heart belonged to Japan and it’s embedded culture. Soseki came from a world where books were read from the middle and random passages. Akin to the novel’s protagonist, Soseki was apprehensive about the onset of the 20th century. The author’s derision to modernity can be unmistakably seen with his dismissal of nude art for lack of dreamy innocence that is perceived in the artistic depth of the Geishas and the annoyance for the train describing it to be “a serpent of civilization that comes slowly writhing along the glittering tracks, belching black smoke from its jaws.”

Reading these thoughts of the author, I infer that more than the advent of modernization (since Soseki did bring in quite a Western influence in his prose), he was skeptical about the state of the preservation of Japanese traditional art. I wonder what Soseki would think in today’s world where artists are thrown in jail or labour camps (Ai WeiWei) or have to resort to clandestine Banksy performances. Were Soseki’s inferences accurate when he concluded that “modern civilization gives each person his little patch of earth and tells him he may wake and sleep as he pleases on it, only to build iron railings around it and threaten us with dire consequences if we should put a foot outside this barrier?”. Has the modern world shackled the essence of art? Is a pure emotion of ‘pitying love’ susceptible of being exposed to the vulgarity of its world? Has art become so vulnerable that it can only sustain pristinely in a secluded atmosphere without being tainted by the human world? In the chaos of modernization and the ambivalent relationship to aged traditions, where does Soseki’s literary naturalist grass pillow stand among the terrains of human entanglement and realism? At a time when Japan was tumbling into a new world whilst being haunted by it traditional past, Natsume Soseki expressively penned the quandary of a country and its people trying to find a concrete place in between the two worlds.

“My aim on this journey is to leave behind the world of common emotions and achieve the transcendent state of an artist’s….”

In Japanese, the word ‘Kusa’ = grass and ‘Makura’ = pillow; resting on the aesthetics of nature in this haiku-style philosophical zephyr, Soseki’s prose(which he wrote in a week’s time) embodies a journey that not only encapsulates beauty of a timeless past but also an memorable experience of appreciating modernity and traditional complexities of art that stood on the periphery two entirely different centuries along with its artist.

Shadows of life
Three-cornered world
Soseki dreams…..



3 thoughts on “Kusamakura – Natsume Soseki

  1. Pingback: Kusamakura- Natsume Soseki | Les Reveries de Rowena

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