The Heredity of Taste – Sōseki Natsume

The Heredity of Taste

Subtle glimpses of the Russo-Japanese War(1904-05) tiptoed through the melodious passages of Kusamakura(one of Sōseki’s finest works) illuminating Sōseki’s ambivalent outlook towards the war:-
“Civilization, having given individuals their freedom and turned them into wild beasts thereby, then maintains the peace by throwing these unfortunates behind bars. This isn’t real peace; it’s the peace of the zoo, where the tiger lies in his cage glaring out at the gaping sightseers. Should one bar of that cage come loose, the world would fall apart(Kusamakura)”.

The condescending civilization crushing the moral fiber of individualism, the very belief system it nurtures to hail victorious wars. The steam train serpentines its way through civilization shipping thousands of men, the roar of the train thundering the roar of a far distant war generating two worlds, the distance between increasing with the travelers and the consolation of those left behind. As if sketched in a book of incongruity, the chugging train, belching black smoke diminishes the incalculable nothingness between faces, amalgamating the two war-shaped worlds into one frenetic exploration for mislaid faces. The train at Shimbashi Station reveling in the exultant return of the soldiers, descending into madness and celebrations, the cries of “Banzai!” haunting the tears of buoyant eyes. The “serpent of civilization” transporting the fated victim of civilization, circumventing the peculiarity of human nature with circuitous agonistic construal. The idea of ‘pitying love’ nestled in the nascent individualism withstanding the authoritarian ethos of country plunged in war carefully played out in the discourse of socio-political and economic lives of Japanese populace categorizes Sōseki’s anti-war literature into the spiritual disposition of misplaced individuality amid the atrocities of war convalescing in meditative reflection and self-analysis of crucial aspects of human relationships exploring the psychological state of the manufactured circumstances. Sōseki’s prose is subtle, unruffled and yet when the written words conscientiously flow through the picturesque alleys of enlightening imagery, it emits sheer profundity. War, when it does not kill people, ages them.Sōseki questions the grand notion of patriotism dwelling in the legitimacy of human sacrifice? The worth and the magnitude of sacrifice made during war- futile or fruitful? Can honesty be compatible with daily life? Can the threads of sincerity of those few in socio-political power be compatible with thousands of life sacrifices in the name of the country? To die for nation, is it an earnest patriotic gesture or a mockery of individualism thriving in the folly of war and the psychosis of supremacy?

The enchanted gingko tree utterly bare, segregating the ethereal space between the living and the dead, silently watches the last of its golden leaves quivering through the air. The fallen leaves, never to be reattached to the radiant tree swirl beneath it. The profound calm of the stone graves entwined with lotus petals stretched into the quietude of the red pines at the temple entrance. Lost faces, wavering souls, no more hear the beleaguered voices consoling in sorrow and solitude. The feeble ray of foolish hope squirming the vision of “climb out of the ditch and return to your beloved ones”, muted by the chronic anguish “Kō-san wa agatte konai (Kō-san could not climb out of the ditch)”. A mother’s love, a lover’s conviction and bleak lives toppled in loneliness seep through the delicate fragrance of the chrysanthemums colliding against the harshness of a grave. The furrowed pages of a dusty diary exploring the phenomenon of hereditary, the forgotten path of ancestry tracing the mysteries of love and war in the tranquil gift of white chrysanthemums, the purity of beauty commemorating the fragile inheritance of love.

It is wrong to think that absolute tranquility demands a total absence of movement. It is when a single thing moves in a vast expanse of calm that we can perceive the tranquility that stretches beyond it.

Disconcerted by his friend’s death at Port Arthur, the narrator, a researcher of hereditary transmissions, chronicles the mourning process and explores the fragments of a binding love formulating quasi-scientific evolutionary psychosomatic theories tracing the genetic path of unfulfilled love in the Kawakami lineage.

Soldiers are part of war, and they are also the pure product of “the soul of Japan.”….Businessmen are useless to the nation, as are journalists and geishas—and, of course, people like me who spend their lives with their noses in books! Only these living monuments, who have let their beards grow long and who might almost be mistaken for tramps, are absolutely necessary. Not only do they represent the spirit of Japan, but, more than that, they embody a spirit common to all humanity.

Sōseki reminds the reader of the chief fatality of war-‘the soldier’. Sōseki explicates the indispensable represented sprit of a country, the spirit of humanity , the “pure product of the war” and the prime bearer of the horrendous after-math war consequences emphasizing the value of a soldier bestowing utmost respect to those who bravely fight on and off the battlefield. Why shouldn’t we honor the soldiers more than the victories of the land? Why shouldn’t we honor the bereaved family left behind to endure a life-long torment? Koichi’s mother yearning for the impossibility of a possible daughter-in-law to shed a speck of her painful memories. A loving friend searching for a tanned face among the crowd. The numerous hopeful hearts anxiously waiting for the arrival of their loved ones. The worth of soldiers regardless of whether the triumphant flag was waved or they make it to the train station or find an eternal solace in a pitiless ditch ascends the scale of nobility admiring the mental discipline amid a war-zone, the inconceivable limits of their endurance and the magnitude of their sacrifice.

….there is not the slightest crumb of humanity in a war cry. The war cry is “Aaah!” In a war cry there is no sarcasm or common sense. It contains no good or evil. It is as devoid of falsehood as it is of any attempt to manipulate. It is, from beginning to end, only “Aaah!” The emotion that it crystalizes, explodes and sends out shock waves in all directions; that is what causes this “Aaah!” to resonate. It has not that sense of sinister augury conveyed in expressions like “Banzai!,” “Help!,” or even “I am going to kill you!” In other words, “Aaah!” is mind; “Aaah!” is soul; “Aaah!” is humanity; “Aaah!” is truth

The exuberance of “Banzai!” floats beyond the victorious headlines of a newspaper, the joyous emotion spilling on to the overwhelmed heart of a mother being caressed in the warmth of her son’s tearful eyes. The frantic loneliness and anguish of death drowned in the singular emotion of “May you live a thousand years!”. The calmness of such extreme declaration is distilled in the deadness of a war cry. The unfathomable and illimitable dimensions of a simple utterance simultaneously expressed by tens of thousands soldiers explodes the sense of ominous presage crystallizing the truth of staggered institution of life and death between the free world and war hell. The Heredity of Taste being the single anti-war text penned by Sōseki, confirms Japan’s maturity of a modern nation and yet, it juvenile egotistical hunger for sovereign supremacy at the cost of individualism. The Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) established Japan as a victorious nation enabling its entry into the world power domain. The singularity of a war cry resonating natural sincerity of shackled civilization raised numerous anti-war voices dominant in the Japanese literary scene. The loudest decibel resonated in the anti-war poem penned by one of Japan’s celebrated poet Yosano Akiko (1878-1942). Akiko’s motivation for writing came solely from a personal anguish, dedicated to her younger brother Soichi who was then in the Japanese army battling at Port Arthur. The overpowering heartfelt verses depict Sōseki’s own anti-war deliberations.

Beloved, You Must Not Die (Kimi Shinitamou koto nakare,1905)

Ah, my brother, I weep for you.
Beloved, you must not die
You, the last born,
And so most cherished-
did our parents teach you to grasp a sword,
to kill another man?
Did they bring you up to twenty-four
To murder, and then die?

You, proud master of an old store
in the merchant city of Sakai,
heir to your father’s name –
beloved, you must not die.
What is it to you whether
the walls of Port Arthur tumble or they stand?
Why should you care?
Such things are not in the laws of a merchant family.

Beloved, you , must not die,
How could our great Emperor,
whose wondrous heart is so deep,
not to battle himself
but still ask others top spill their blood,
to die like beasts,
and to think those deaths a glory?

Ah, my brother, you must not
die in a war.

Father dead last fall,
Mother in her grief had to face
the pain of your being drafted,
of being left alone to watch our home,
In this great and peaceful reign
her white hairs have increased.

Your new wife, young and lovely, lies
and weeps behind the shop curtains.
Have you forgotten her? Do you think of her?
Let alone after being wed less than ten months,
Think of her maiden heart!
Besides you, ah, who, in all the world can she rely on?
Beloved, you must not die!

** (the poem is translated by Dr. Janine Beichman and the excerpt is taken from ‘The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature: From 1945 to the Present (Modern Asian Literature Series) (vol. 2)’)



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