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Natsume Soseki's Opium Dreams, Part Four: The Terror

Jack the Ripper depicted as a phantom stalking Whitechapel, London, in 1888.

A Psychodrama in Seven Acts

    By Damian Flanagan


    Widely regarded as the greatest figure of modern Japanese literature, the novelist Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) has inspired many hundreds of books of critical analysis. Yet the true Soseki was a far more psychologically complex, savagely intense and haunted figure -- a man on the cusp of madness and despair -- than traditional accounts would have us believe. In this series, Damian Flanagan traces how his late-flowering but extraordinarily prolific and wide-ranging literary career began in London as he took inspiration from the opium-fuelled dreams of Thomas de Quincey, asserted his own artistic independence and gradually set about creating his own dream-like recreation of the modern world.

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    In his 2018 novel, "Patient X," describing the life of the noted Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, author David Peace includes a standout chapter depicting Natsume Soseki in London. Along with many aspiring artists, the young Akutagawa would later become a "disciple" ("deshi") of the older Soseki, who exerted a profound influence upon him and encouraged his earliest writings before Soseki's untimely death in 1916.

    Peace astutely perceived that what happened to Soseki in London in 1900-1902 affected not only Soseki, but also all that subsequent generation of literary figures, including Akutagawa, who came under Soseki's tutelage and influence.

    Ryunosuke Akutagawa

    In "Patient X," Peace has Soseki passing to Akutagawa as both a keepsake and a kind of poisoned chalice the empty biscuit box from which he once ate biscuits on a London park bench to save meal money, so that he could buy books, books, books. A complete, all-engulfing obsession with the pursuit of literature -- ahead of everything else and even at the cost of absolute self-destruction -- was passed from one writer to the other, symbolized by that damnable biscuit tin. Akutagawa was one of a string of noted Japanese writers who killed himself while still young.

    In "Patient X," the chapter exploring the life of Soseki in London sees him wandering somnambulant in the fog until he is approached by a mysterious stranger.

    Peace was telling me that he based some elements of this on materials in my 2005 book, "The Tower of London and other Stories," which brought together all Soseki's writings on Britain. There was the 1901 piece, "Letter from London," which purported to describe Soseki's actual life in the boarding houses at the time, together with later dream-like memories of wandering lost in fog, taking refuge from the bitter cold in the sudden Mediterranean-like warmth of a theatre, climbing up to the third floor retreat of his literary tutor William Craig, or observing the psychologically disturbing interpersonal relationships of his boarding houses. But Peace fuses these disparate materials with many other literary and historical elements in his own uniquely interesting gothic way.

    At the end of my book, I appended a fantasy piece called "The Yellow Lodger," by a popular post-war author called Yamada Futaro that imagined a meeting between Soseki and Sherlock Holmes. I noted that such a piece took its place alongside other pastiche Sherlock Holmes novels that imagined encounters between the great detective and Sigmund Freud or Jack the Ripper.

    Walter Sickert in 1911

    Perhaps stimulated by this and blending in much of the factual material about Soseki in London, David Peace imagined a coming together of Jack the Ripper and Soseki. Soseki's mysterious companion is a painter resembling Walter Sickert -- whom some writers have sensationally claimed to be Jack the Ripper. The painter in David's story is called "Nemo" ("No one" in Latin), a name Odysseus gave himself in his wanderings, and which was later used by Jules Verne for the name of his mysterious, homeless, wandering Captain Nemo.

    In "Patient X," Soseki recounts how he encounters the strange painter on London's foggy streets and is taken by him to a cheap boarding house room in Whitechapel -- where the Jack the Ripper murders occurred -- and where it now seems like something terrifying might play out.

    But now comes the twist... for the literary imaginings of the boarding house where Jack the Ripper once lived are here fused with the dream-like memories of Soseki's own boarding houses. In "Patient X," the landlady of the Jack the Ripper boarding house is named "Mrs. Bunting" in an allusion to the 1913 novel "The Lodger," based on the Whitechapel murders of 1888. But she is depicted as Soseki's own former landlady, recalled in a 1909 piece called "Lodgings".

    Ivor Novello as the lodger in Alfred Hitchcock's 1926 thriller, "The Lodger: A Tale of London Fog," based on the novel "The Lodger."

    The boarding house room in the story is conveyed by Peace using some of the description given by Soseki of time spent in a friend's room in his own former boarding house, a friend whom Soseki revisited a few months after leaving the house.

    In "The Lodger," the landlady Mrs. Bunting suspects that her former lodger was the Ripper and, in the phantasmagoria of "Patient X," Mrs. Bunting intimates that time has gone backwards and the Ripper has returned ("I heard him, heard him, walking backwards up the stairs"). The dreamscapes of "Patient X" are a world where Soseki "had awoken from my own nightmare into the nightmare of another man, another country."

    The painter Nemo -- a fusion of Sickert, the Ripper and Captain Nemo -- now "steers" Soseki up stairs that resemble "a ladder on a ship" into his enormous, dimly-lit attic studio, "half barn, half church," filled with the clutter of a hundred junk shops and a skylight. We have reached the realm of creative imagination, where a thousand influences, memories and associations coalesce with the deepest fears and desires into new artistic expression.

    "Jack the Ripper's Bedroom" by Walter Sickert (1907).

    But Soseki sees no paintings and is instead handed a biscuit tin containing mere sketches, "seventeen scraps." Soseki looks at them and hands them back and expresses regret that the painter sees such disturbing things. He is then asked whether he does not. The biscuit tin is a reference to the tin out of which Soseki ate biscuits on a park bench in London.

    In a final fusion, Nemo -- the painter, the Ripper, the explorer of submerged worlds -- merges with Soseki himself. Nemo has taken Soseki out of the realm of alienated London wanderings and welcomed him into the terrifying, pathologically compulsive realm of artistic creation. In the currents of this dreamscape, Soseki is being "suffocated, in English dreams" in his own boarding house room, complete with the empty biscuit tin on his bedside table and pillows with which he has often wept himself to sleep.

    Soseki had indeed gradually become a kind of unhinged "literary psychopath," prepared to savagely sacrifice himself and others in the pursuit of his literary ambitions. Why else would a man have travelled halfway round the world, leaving behind all his family and friends, to live in half-poverty in a country he hated? The "ripper" Soseki teeters on the brink of insanity, howling like a wolf, as unsettling in his own way as any real-world killer.

    Soseki has a reputation in Japan as the avuncular author of such books as "I am a Cat" (far more famous for its comical title than its oft-disturbing contents). But the real Soseki was in some respects closer to the "ripper," brutalizing himself and lashing out unpredictably at others, while firmly believing that he had "killed" his best friend by revolting against him and usurping his literary crown.

    I find Peace's depiction of Soseki-as-ripper highly stimulating and psychologically true. Yet there are ways in which it was accurate even beyond the knowledge of Peace or me at the time "Patient X" was published. For Jack the Ripper was after all first and foremost a killer of prostitutes -- a misogynist seeming to kill sex workers because of something he deeply hated within himself -- and as I have referenced in this series, when a writer invokes prostitutes, they often use the trope as a symbol of the abasement of their own talent.

    This was certainly the case with Thomas de Quincey, who created the character of the young prostitute, Ann, his "companion" in "Confessions of an English Opium Eater," as a reflection of society's own abysmal treatment of his literary gifts.

    Inspired by de Quincey, Soseki's first tentative literary steps -- by which he hoped to "kill" the dominating influence of his best friend Masaoka Shiki and break free -- was by means of creating another "companion" called Ann, a brutalized, unintelligent worker with slurred speech. She was his stand-in for de Quincey's prostitute, a devastating embodiment of Soseki's failure to connect to anyone in London who could appreciate his intellectual brilliance. The "ripper" Soseki summoned her into being and then killed her off as he switched boarding houses.

    (Cover image courtesy of Damian Flanagan/Peter Owen Publishers)

    Hiring prostitutes in the Victorian and Edwardian eras was known in Japanese as "jigoku-kai," literally "buying hell." Soseki noted at one of his earlier boarding houses that "buying hell" was virtually the only thing one of the other Japanese lodgers ever talked about. Soseki wrote of himself, however, "I may be in a dive, but I have never kept company with prostitutes or conversed with streetwalkers."

    As far as we know, this was indeed not something that Soseki did during his time in London (though Soseki was a very slippery character and things are often not as they first seem). However, an obsessive interest in the concept of "hell" runs like a seam through much of Soseki's writings. His first completely novelized piece "The Tower of London" (1905) depicts a visit to the Tower like a Dantesque descent into the underworld, and he returned to the theme in his 1907 novel "The Miner," in which a Japanese mine is depicted like a modern-day hell, where the miners who emerge from it spend all their money on prostitutes. Leaving hell to buy hell.

    But the truest of all hells is the hell of the mind. In 1909 -- by which time he had become a Japanese national celebrity and beloved author -- Soseki mentally revisited the London lodging houses of 1901, depicting one of them as a living hell and planting at the heart of it another de Quinceyean prostitute substitute, a silent and vulnerable girl called "Agnes."

    Paul Kruger, president of the South African Republic, 1883-1900.

    In the dreamscape of "Lodgings," Soseki finds himself seated in a drawing room with his landlady, an "old maid" of age 25, a woman born under the Mediterranean sun now forced to live beneath London's gloomy skies. A wilting narcissus droops in a vase between them. The landlady lives alongside her German father -- her mother is dead -- and his son from a previous marriage, but relations between father and son are so poor that the son speaks to no one and slips into the house late at night in his socks, unnoticed by his father.

    The house is an uncomfortable mix of nationalities -- French, German, British, Japanese -- and non-blood ties. They sit together at dinner and Soseki observes the unattractive visage of the German father. It reminds him of the Boer leader Krueger, with whom the British were then at war. The next day while Soseki is speaking to the landlady, a young girl called Agnes, who helps with housework, quietly enters, bringing them toast. She is a girl of some 13 or 14 years of age. Soseki suddenly realizes that there is a resemblance between the son of the house and this maid, and senses some lurking dark secret. (Is the maid the son's love child or the father's love child? Exactly what has gone on is not made clear.)

    The atmosphere of the house is so unpleasant that Soseki decides to leave, but months later he returns to visit another Japanese lodger. As the front door opens, he sees the fragile figure of Agnes standing there and thinks that he has seen inside a vision of hell. He turns around and leaves.

    As I explained in my book, "The Tower of London and other stories," the reality of what happened in this boarding house was greatly at odds with the fictionalized treatment Soseki applied to it here. (The landlady, for example, was not born in France but Britain, although she was of French descent. Soseki also almost certainly left the house because it was too expensive rather than because of any poisonous atmosphere).

    The point however was that, rather like de Quincey searching for Ann and finding her in his "Asiatic Dreams," Soseki was actually seeking out disturbed aspects of his own personality in his "British Dreams." When in 1901 he had conjured into being his "companion" Annie Penn, he wanted to depict someone who could reflect his own frustration at the drudgery, loneliness and hardship of his own life, and his lack of status in British society.

    Natsume Soseki summoned into existence haunting, dream-like visions of London. Image courtesy of Damian Flanagan/Daiwa Foundation

    By 1909, those psychological concerns had shifted -- Soseki now had literary recognition, greater financial security and a growing family. But his deep-rooted anxieties about identity now reached back into his own childhood, when he was given as a baby to strangers and raised as their foster child. Soseki -- born as the 9th child to a father who was already 50 and a mother who was over 40 -- was regarded as an embarrassment to his parents. He was returned to the Natsume home at age 9, but still left to believe that his parents were his grandparents until one night a maid in the house whispered the truth to him.

    Soseki transferred this childhood unease about his identity to the maid Agnes from his dreamscapes of London, another figure he had abandoned in his ruthless pursuit of literary ambition. The climax of this stream of dream-like, semi-fictionalized memories comes with the depiction of his literary tutor, William Craig, a man who had so selflessly devoted himself to literature that he had given up academic positions and lived an absent-minded existence.

    Yet he had died with his life's work -- an all-encompassing Shakespeare Lexicon -- left unpublished and everything he had worked towards in danger of being turned into waste paper (the ultimate vision of hell for a literary monomaniac like Soseki).

    If your greatest nightmare, your greatest terror, is the agony of not having your literary voice heard -- of seeing your talent abased to the level of a prostitute (putting aside our modern discomfort with the "use" of the prostitute as a literary trope) -- then no wonder you turn yourself into someone prepared to sacrifice anything and anyone and destroy any constraints that stand in your way.

    Soseki had broken free and reclaimed in his dreams, like de Quincey, his "Ann," his prostituted sense of self. But Soseki's "Opium Dreams" were yet to fuse with the dreams of others and trigger yet further waves of artistic creation.


    (This is Part 4 of a 7-part series. The Mainichi will carry a new installment every Sunday until the end of the series.)


    Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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