Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Natsume Soseki's Opium Dreams, Part 5: On a street in Arles

Vincent Van Gogh, "Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear," 1889.

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.

    * * * * *

    Winding his way like a wounded Minotaur, blood seeping in a crimson stream through his kerchief and falling in drops upon his shirt, Vincent ruefully reflected that if he could step out of himself and see his own form under the canopy of infinite starry sky, this would probably make a damn good painting. But he had to keep going, and take his present of his severed ear to the local brothel.

    Why did Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear? Was it an act of self-hatred and partial self-destruction? The art critic Waldemar Januszczak has convincingly argued that van Gogh was prompted by the spectacle of the bull fights held in Arles, where at the end of the grisly, inevitable contest, the ear of the felled bull was cut off in triumph by the matador. Van Gogh, Januszczak argued, saw himself as the sacrificial bull.

    That's partially true, I'm sure. But I see the severing of the ear as a symbol of a more general enslavement. It had been general practice for centuries to cut the ear off rebellious slaves in the Caribbean and beyond. Van Gogh careered mentally between daring artistic adventures -- the forceful breaking of conventions and the solitary exploration of visions unlike any that had been painted before -- and retreating into crippling self-doubt, loneliness and paranoia. An almost religious ecstasy in his own artistic abilities swung like a metronome blade to the opposite pole of fatal self-doubt and self-hatred in the face of public rejection and indifference to his work.

    It's less however the actual severing of the ear, but what van Gogh does with it that captures my interest. He took the symbol of his own defeat, sacrifice and submission to a local brothel, where he gave it to a maid. Van Gogh was standing amidst a long line of tormented, frustrated artists -- from Thomas De Quincey in "Confessions of an English Opium Eater" to Sergio Leone in "Once Upon a Time in America" -- who projected onto an innocent figure surrounded by a world of defilement their screaming sense of indignation at the world's failure to truly recognize them. They represented through the figure of a prostitute societal pressure to abase themselves away from their true artistic calling.

    Natsume Soseki, the greatest of all Japanese literary artists, lying on his bed in London in 1901 and, stimulated by De Quincey's description of his prostitute companion Ann, sketched into existence the unattractive house maid Annie Penn as his "companion": his own symbolic representation of his intellectual abasement.

    Soseki was covertly raising the flags of literary rebellion against the person -- his best friend the poet Masaoka Shiki -- to whom his first literary work "Letter from London" was nominally addressed. But Soseki too careened wildly between forceful big ideas about what art could achieve and a counter swing of crippling self-doubt and paranoia, pushing him to the very brink of mental collapse.

    If I was to tell you that there was a connection between this and van Gogh severing parts of his anatomy in 1888, you might think it a bit of a stretch, but the two things are not just vaguely connected. The product of both artists' moments of self-crisis would one day be fused together in a memorable piece of Japanese cinema.

    The synergy between madness and explosive creativity in the lives of van Gogh and Soseki had both intriguing parallels and sharp differences. Both men's artistic careers lasted little more than 10 years. In that short period, van Gogh produced close to 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings, which for the mathematically curious works out at a rate of around four pieces of art every week.

    Soseki too would become an artistic machine, writing literary classics like "Botchan" and "Kusamakura" in a mere two weeks each. He wrote daily installments of his literary novels, serialized in newspapers, at an unforgiving pace, so much so that he was in the middle of writing his longest novel when he died in 1916.

    What divided Soseki and van Gogh was the moment in their careers when madness and nervous collapse assailed them. In van Gogh's case it was at the end of his artistic career, following the production of thousands of works that had gone mostly unappreciated by the public at large. In Soseki's case, the madness, the paranoia and black moods came at the beginning of his artistic career, when he described himself as if trapped in a sack and trying to cut himself out with a knife.

    As Soseki observed in one of his essays, true art is something which flows out of the consciousness of its creator, and whether it meets public approval and recognition or not is often a matter of chance. To bend your art merely to gain public approval was, it seemed, the path of prostitution, not becoming to a truly great literary artist. That was easy to say, but then Soseki was fortunate enough to find wild popularity for his first full-length novel, "I am a Cat," largely because the public mistook for light comedy what was in fact often a savage satire on the darkest recesses of the human psyche. But misunderstood or not, Soseki, unlike van Gogh, found a way to cut himself out of the bag.

    William Holman Hunt, "The Hireling Shepherd," 1851.

    It's relatively little known that Van Gogh had a passionate love of literature -- he adored the novels of Charles Dickens in particular. In turn, Soseki had an obsessive interest in painting and the visual arts. His literary visions were suffused with themes and scenes heavily influenced by the visual artists that took his interest, from British Pre-Raphaelite painters to contemporary Japanese artists.

    Soseki made the protagonist of his magnificent novel of 1906, "Kusamakura" (also translated as "The Three Cornered World"), a painter contemplating how he could paint a revolutionary type of art. Then in 1908, Soseki penned a beautiful novel called "Sanshiro" that was explicitly a "fine art novel." A portrait of the novel's heroine Mineko is being painted as the story unfolds, and Soseki infused the novel with a dream-like ambience, interweaving reality, dreams and dream-like imagery inspired by haunting paintings like William Holman Hunt's "The Hireling Shepherd."

    In the same year, he penned another fantastically beautiful and experimental work, "Ten Dreams," that addressed on the literary page his own deepest fears and anxieties amidst the intense imagery of paintings. There was a vibrant colour, a loveliness, an underlying unease about Soseki's Dreams that connects to the extraordinary van Gogh paintings of his final years. Was there a means by which these two high water marks of inter-connected art could be fused together?

    Indeed there was -- a new artistic form, cinema, combining both literature and painting, in the hands of a master director could finally explore how the dreams of van Gogh and Natsume Soseki began to intersect. And I shall dive into that next week.


    (This is Part 5 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).

    Also in The Mainichi

    The Mainichi on social media