Anachronistic Selves: Personal Ambiguity in Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro There are many ambiguous issues that are engendered in Kokoro, but this essay will specifically focus on Emperor’s Meiji’s death and the personal ambiguity that the novel’s characters experience as a result. This essay argues that the ambiguity surrounding Sensei, K, and General Nogi’s suicides is not arbitrary. In fact, the ambiguity of ritual suicide in this text is historically linked to the instability aroused not only by the fall of the Meiji era, but also by the implicit tension between the modern and traditional ways of living in Japan at that time.
The tension between the modern and the traditional can be implicitly mapped to the geographical spaces of the city and the countryside, respectively. Both the narrator and Sensei, who are described to traverse between both of the aforementioned areas, seem to be the characters that experience the most internal conflict and ambiguity. The characters live in an age of transition, which renders those of an older generation (like Sensei) as anachronisms, and situates the younger generation (like the narrator) within an epistemological impasse in understanding the past.
Instead of providing answers, the progression of the text’s narrative poses more questions that arouse ambiguity—Sensei’s actions become increasingly perceived as strange as the novel progresses. However, while most of the novel’s ambiguities stem from the character’s self-consciousness of their own anachronistic statuses, the lack of resolution with regard to personal issues like Sensei’s love triangle and the narrator’s relationship with his father, also contribute to the overall sense of ambiguity in the novel.
Despite its status as a work of fiction, Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro is situated within the historical timeline of Emperor Meiji’s death. Emperor Meiji’s death marks the end of the Meiji era in Japan. The personal is rendered political here, where the microcosm of the individual emperor’s death affects the macrocosm of the Japanese nation state and its people. In response to his death, the people have become situated in a time of transition: this is where much of the text’s ambiguity stems from.
After receiving news of the emperor’s death, the narrator is described to hang a mourning flag outside his house. After visually “examin[ing] the effect” of the “flag and the black mourning strip” that “hung listlessly in the windless air”, the narrator imagines the scene of “the vast city stirring everywhere with movement in the midst of a great darkness” (Soseki 88). This ‘darkness’ can be interpreted to represent the instability of the changing times, as well as the epistemological impasse, the uncertainty of understanding that the narrator experiences at this stage of national transition.
Even Sensei’s house, described here as a “single point of light”, was imagined to “struggle blindly through the darkness”, “destined to soon blink out and disappear” (88). This darkness represents how “opaque” Sensei appears to the narrator, as well as the struggle that the narrator faces to “enter a place of clarity” with regard to understanding Sensei within the context of the changing times (94). Emperor Meiji’s death renders the emotional climate of Japan as dark and uncertain, and this sense of ambiguity at this time of transition will be further exacerbated after General Nogi’s suicide.
Even though Emperor Meiji’s death situates the text at a dark state of flux and transition, General Nogi’s suicide further contributes to the sense of ambiguity in the novel. General Nogi’s death functions as a device that raises Sensei’s awareness that his spirit is of the Meiji era that has already past with the Emperor’s death. Bargen describes General Nogi’s suicide as “anachronistic”, which might explain why his suicide (as well as the other characters’ suicides) might evoke ambiguous feelings from the narrator as well as the novel’s readers (Bargen qtd. in Salomon 115).
Anachronism is defined as “a person or a thing that is chronologically out of place; especially: one from a former age that is incongruous in the present (“Anachronism”). General Nogi’s act of suicide evokes traditional notions of Japanese identity that may not be consistent or understandable in a modern setting, as the act of “dying with your lord” was considered part of an “old style” (Soseki 231). Salomon writes that historically, General Nogi’s death “evoked the spirituality of a Japanese past that appeared distant after the transformations of the Meiji period” (Salomon 114).
The characters are not only situated in an era of transition, but General Nogi’s practice of ritual suicide brings further attention to the tension between the modern and the traditional. This establishes the older generation’s association with the past, rendering them superannuated. General Nogi’s death is not only an anachronism in itself, but it is an act that raises the older generation’s awareness that they are also anachronistically tied to the Meiji era that has already past.
Sensei acknowledges that the “spirit of the Meiji era had begun with [Emperor Meiji], so it had ended with his death” (Soseki 231). As a result, the people of Sensei’s generation seemed to be “doomed to linger on simply as anachronisms as long as [they] remained alive” (231). Both Emperor Meiji’s death and General Nogi’s ensuing suicide act as a catalyst that provokes people of the older generation like Sensei to become self-conscious of their existence as subjects of the previous era.
The older generation’s sense of their own superannuation vis-a-vis the contemporary times has made them anxiously aware of their own anachronistic displacement in modern time and space. It is curious how the conditions of General Nogi’s suicide parallel Sensei’s suicide. After “two or three days” of discovering the reasons for General Nogi’s suicide, Sensei then decides to end his own life as well (Soseki 232).
Salomon writes that Nogi’s self-sacrifice had “challenged contemporary attitudes toward life, death, and personal responsibility”; this manifests in the novel, as Sensei becomes conscious of his own anachronistic self after Nogi’s suicide, provoking him into deciding to end his own life (Salomon 114). Despite the “long years [spent] yearning to die without finding a moment to do so”, Nogi’s suicide allows Sensei to engage in the act of suicide that he had been holding back from for a majority of his life (Soseki 232).
However, despite Sensei’s clear and rational expression of his determination to commit suicide through the letter he writes to the narrator, his motives still appear relatively unclear and ambiguous. While Sensei’s sense of displacement and anxiety has been argued to be brought forward due to the event of Emperor Meiji’s death as well as General Nogi’s suicide, it cannot be denied that Sensei’s sense of guilt still originates from what he perceives is his betrayal of K’s trust.
After K’s suicide, Sensei describes himself feeling “like a caged bear”, “tortured by the sensation that this black night might never end” (Soseki 218). This dark night that Sensei describes does not only refer to the literal darkness of the evening, but this darkness is also representative of the “moral darkness” of human life (123). K’s suicide was supposed to liberate Sensei from the love triangle that had initially been a threat to Sensei’s relationship with Ojosan. Instead, Sensei became even further isolated from Ojosan as he became caught within the trappings of his own guilt. Sensei’s freedom’ from K is not liberating, but ironically further isolates him from Ojosan, later his wife, of whose affections had engendered the two men’s rivalry in the first place. The multiplicity of references to moral darkness, as well as the contradictory notion of freedom that the narrative describes, are sources of the narrator’s (and also in mediation, the readers’) ambiguous understanding of the novel. Ultimately, despite the lack of clarity involved in Sensei, K, and Ojosan’s love triangle, Sensei still attributes the narrator’s lack of understanding of his situation towards the different generations they inhabit.
Sensei acknowledges that the narrator may not “fully grasp” his agenda, and pegs this to the “different eras” they belong to, or at least the different “individual natures” that they were inherently born with (Soseki 233). While the novel ends with Sensei’s acknowledgement of the narrator’s inability to reconcile or justify the values of the past onto a modern timeframe, he still hopes that this memoir might help those “who read it understand humanity better” (233).
While this reasoning suggests that Sensei’s grief originates from the human drama he experiences with relation to Ojosan and K, a larger extent of the novel’s ambiguity subversively derives from Sensei’s anxiety of the narrator’s inability to fully connect with the issues of a previous generation. Of course, this is not to say that all of the relationships between generations have been muddled after the Emperor’s death. As the novel geographically maps the traditional with the countryside, the narrator’s relationships with his parents situated in the countryside are revealed to be straightforward and hardly ambiguous.
The narrator finds that he still knows “everything about [his] father”, and even though his mother’s reasoning could “gr[o]w rather incoherent at times”, the discourse of the novel dismisses her as a pragmatic, if not simplistic woman, often “leaping into conclusions” (Soseki 94, 84, 102). It is only when Sensei’s letter arrives at the narrator’s country home, where it is described as “strange” (102). The narrator’s understanding of, and attitude towards his parents, when contrasted against his relationship with Sensei, further heightens the tension between the modern and the traditional.
This comparison suggests that not all members of the older generation are rendered as anachronisms in the novel—it is only when the geographical spaces of the city and countryside are traversed, (and in relation, when the ideologies of the traditional and modern collide), do ambiguities arise as a result. The novel’s historical context plays a major role in evoking the personal ambiguities experienced by characters caught in an era of transition. By historically situating Emperor Meiji’s death in the novel, Soseki renders characters like Sensei as an anachronism, a subject associated with an era that has already past.
The fall of the Meiji era acts not only as a framing device that is representative of Sensei’s displaced sense of self, but it also acts as a catalyst that raises Sensei’s self-awareness of his superannuation, therefore justifying his act of suicide. However, personal issues are also a source of ambiguity in the text—while these issues might resonate more strongly due to the first-person narrator of the novel, the novel still makes it explicit that these personal anxieties are tied to the burgeoning tension between the traditional and modern sensibilities in Japan at that time.
Ultimately, this essay argues that not all characters belonging to the older generation are rendered as anachronistic; it is only for a character like Sensei who traverses both the binary of the city and the country, as well as vacillates between the statuses of traditional and modern, will the darkness of human life and personal ambiguity plague the most.
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