Sunday, December 20, 2009

`Held in Many Hands'

“When I was in England, I was once laughed at because I invited someone for snow-viewing. At another time I described how deeply the feelings of Japanese are affected by the moon, and my listeners were only puzzled….I was invited to Scotland to stay at a palatial house. One day, when the master and I took a walk in the garden, I noted that the paths between the rows of trees were all thickly covered with moss. I offered a compliment, saying that these paths had magnificently acquired a look of age. Whereupon my host replied that he intended soon to get a gardener to scrape all this moss away.”

Here is a kindred soul, a cousin, a man whose company I could enjoy without effort. The most interesting people are attentive to the world. They see things, like Thoreau, Cather and Nabokov, all of whom noticed that shadowed snow is blue. Natsume Sōseki is my favorite among Japanese fiction writers because of his powers of observation, interior and exterior. He reminds me of Chekhov, and his novel Kokoro (1914) is as close to poetry as prose can aspire without turning conventionally “poetic.” In fact, his style is elegantly plain. Donald Keene quotes the passage above in The Pleasures of Japanese Literature (Columbia University Press, 1988). Sōseki was fluent in English, admired Shakespeare, Sterne and Meredith, and visited England in 1901-1903. I share his preference for moss-covered paths and anything that has “magnificently acquired a look of age.” Keene identifies this taste as characteristic of the Japanese aesthetic, and writes:

“The common Western craving for objects in mint condition, that look as if they were painted or sculpted the day before, tends to deprive antiques of their history; the Japanese prize the evidence that a work of art has been held in many hands.”

Not all Westerners shared the taste for pristine newness. Keene’s observation reminds me immediately of a passage in Charles Lamb’s “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading”:

“Thomson's Seasons, again, looks best (I maintain it) a little torn, and dog's-eared. How beautiful to a genuine lover of reading are the sullied leaves, and worn out appearance, nay, the very odour (beyond Russia), if we would not forget kind feelings in fastidiousness, of an old `Circulating Library’ Tom Jones, or Vicar of Wakefield! How they speak of the thousand thumbs, that have turned over their pages with delight! -- of the lone sempstress, whom they may have cheered (milliner, or harder-working mantuamaker) after her long day's needle-toil, running far into midnight, when she has snatched an hour, ill spared from sleep, to steep her cares, as in some Lethean cup, in spelling out their enchanting contents! Who would have them a whit less soiled? What better condition could we desire to see them in?”


mel u said...

Have you read Kusamakura yet?-it is my first and only Soseki to date-I agree concerning the beauty of the writing-this particular work is a largely an interior mononlogue on the nature of art and poetry and the reading life

Ms Baroque said...

Beautiful, beautiful. Lamb is so great. In every way.