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Natsume Soseki's Opium Dreams, Part 7: Once Upon a Time in Tokyo

Natsume Soseki in his study in Tokyo in 1914.

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 2012 at a premiere in Cannes, lead actors Robert de Niro, James Woods and Elizabeth McGovern spoke at the long-awaited re-release of a restored version of Sergio Leone's epic "Once Upon a Time in America." The re-release added back 22 minutes of cuts forced upon Leone by the producers (though a further 18 minutes still wait to be restored) and conformed more closely to Leone's original vision for the film. It was, in effect, a director's cut from beyond the grave.

    There's acute irony that a film which is a parable about artistic integrity dressed up as a gangster epic -- an angst-soaked dream of youthful artistic vision being raped and prostituted -- should eventually find itself becoming one of the most crudely violated and abused films in cinematic history. Entirely ignoring Leone's artistic vision, American distributors had vastly cut down the film's length and reordered the scene sequence, producing what one critic described as the worst film of the year. The same critic, when he later got to see Leone's original full-length cut in its original sequencing, described it as the best film of the decade.

    Natsume Soseki in 1896

    The gangster Noodles Aaronson reclines in his Chinese Theatre hideaway and dreams a dream of the future in which his best friend Max has betrayed him, seized his lover and sold himself out to Big Government. Now in the dream spaces of the future, Max wants Noodles to shoot him and when Noodles refuses to do so, Max appears to throw himself onto a passing dust cart. Is success really worth it if you sell out the artistic visions of youth, bastardize and make a prostitute of your talent? But better this than, like Noodles, to simply retreat into silent obscurity and not make anything of your talent at all?

    Natsume Soseki lay on his bed in London in 1901, with a request from his dominating friend Masaoka Shiki in Tokyo, to pen some desultory "sketching from life" account of his life overseas. He should do as Shiki wanted, follow his lead, as he had always done. But Soseki's eyes grazed the pages of Thomas de Quincey's "Confessions of an English Opium Eater" and he entered the world of de Quincey's Opium Dreams: his youthful misery, poverty and starvation in London, his sole "companion" being a young prostitute called Ann, his losing her and his lifelong quest for her in his Opium Dreams. Under the oppressive dominance of Wordsworth and the Romantic poets, opium was the magical passageway through which de Quincey could start the search for his true self and find his literary voice.

    Soseki too faintly began to dream of a future where he would break free from enslavement and speak with his own artistic voice, a world where he would "kill" his best friend, and steal that most beautiful figure of literature away from him. His only companion now was his abused house maid, Anne, but the day would come when his companions would be the greatest literary, scientific and philosophical minds in Japan -- Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Torahiko Terada, Tetsuro Watsuji to name just 3 out of more than 40 brilliant talents.

    When success descended upon Soseki, did he sell himself out to Big Government like Max in Leone's artistic dystopia? Soseki, the "literary psychopath," linked by novelist David Peace in "Patient X" to Jack the Ripper, had many truly terrifying aspects to his volcanic personality. His children's chief memory of him was that he was "kowai" ("frightening"). At one point he became so paranoid that he convinced himself that his long-suffering wife was playing cruel tricks on him and they had to separate for a time.

    But there was also an extraordinary strength and inspirational quality in the convictions of this "literary psychopath" that was utterly incorruptible. Government sanctions and academic titles meant nothing to him. When the Japanese government demanded that he submit an annual report of his academic progress in London, he famously filed a blank sheet of paper.

    Natsume Soseki in 1906

    The government later appointed him as lecturer in English literature at the University of Tokyo, taking over from an international celebrity, the writer Lafcadio Hearn. This was a hugely prestigious position. Yet Soseki did not hesitate to give it up as soon as he thought he could make a living as a popular newspaper novelist.

    When riding on the back of that popularity, the Japanese government announced that it would be giving him a "Doctors of Letters" award as part of an elite group, Soseki immediately turned it down. The government responded that the award was not *optional*, they were conferring it and it *had* to be accepted. Soseki dug his heels in and refused. No, no, no, no. There was no mechanism by which a free person could be made to accept such a thing.

    Academia was no good. Translation of the works of others represented a crushing of individuality. Big Government poking its nose into the world of literature was unacceptable. Soseki hadn't made a misery of his life -- metaphorically cut off parts of his soul -- for this.

    The only thing that mattered for Soseki was speaking with his own voice, not a voice imposed by the rules and constraints of others. The only judge that mattered was the individual reader. That is what literature was. That is why literature mattered -- that dialogue between writer and reader across space, across cultures, across time.

    Soseki had not metaphorically killed his best friend and plunged himself into the naked terror of "literature" to end up as a prostitute.

    In the midst of his Opium Dreams, Soseki fumbled in London towards a concept, "jiko honi," which is, for me, the most important, significant concept in the whole of Japanese literature. More important than "mono no aware" (a sense of the transitory reality of things) prized by Heian ladies, far more powerful than the Buddhist concept of "yugen" (the so-called "deep awareness of the universe").

    "Van Gogh's Chair" by Vincent van Gogh, 1888

    "Jiko honi" means that you base all your writings on your own unique, individualized conceptualization of the world. Not on that of the artistic mood of the age, not on that of a racial or national group, not on what a government wants, not on what a university wants, not on what your family or even your best friend wants. You yourself are your own artistic mirror on the world, and when the world is refracted through your prism -- with an infinity of mental connections and uniquely different influences impacting on you -- you will produce things which radiate your unique light.

    If you can do that -- if like van Gogh you can paint every object in the world around you in a manner that makes its style unmistakably your own with a dream-like clarity, then you have reached the summit of art.

    His artistic "betrayal" of his best friend Masaoka Shiki as he raised his own banner of literary ambition was a cause of subsequent lifelong neurosis and guilt to Soseki the man. He sublimated that obsession in his literary works with a frequent theme of betrayal between close friends and love triangles. In his public utterances he transferred all his sense of humiliation about his degradation in London to a safe exterior object: the British. English literature had oppressed him, he claimed. He would have liked to luxuriate more in the world of East Asian poetry. Living in London was like being a poodle amongst a pack of wolves, he wrote, while not admitting that he was the fiercest wolf of them all.

    Natsume Soseki on the veranda at his home in Tokyo, July 1915.

    But the greatest falsehood was not openly admitting that it was actually London and English literature that liberated Soseki's artistic genius. It was no accident that the power of "jiko honi" came to Soseki amid his Opium Dreams in London. While superficially he appeared to be reacting against British Imperialism and the worldwide dominance of English, at a far more profound level, Soseki was feeding off centuries-old British traditions of liberty and robust individualism. In elite Japan, for centuries the highest moral virtue, even at the price of instantaneous death, had been absolute submission to a master: the way of the samurai.

    Soseki learnt from the often insufferable British that the only true "master" was the sincerity of your own vision and individualized way of seeing the world. It's telling that in the year of his death, 1916, Soseki began to observe the world caught up in the maelstrom of World War I and yet what most caught his eye was something that passed unnoticed by so many other observers.

    When Britain entered the war, they were the only major combatant that relied entirely on a volunteer army. Alone amongst the major nations, Britain had never resorted to military conscription in their entire history. But now, in 1916, as their life-and-death struggle with Germany intensified, they had been required to introduce conscription, something utterly anathema to the nation's proud libertarian traditions.

    Britain -- the great imperialist -- was also paradoxically the last redoubt of "jiko honi," a place where you could still make your own choices and not have them inflicted upon you. Even if they won the war, Soseki realized, the British had lost something precious when they sacrificed individual liberty to the dictates of the nation.

    What would have happened if Soseki's Opium Dream had not ended with his untimely death in December 1916 at the age of 49? Was there an alternative reality awaiting both him and Japan if he had lived? Could Japan have in any way resisted the descent into militaristic authoritarianism that overwhelmed the nation in the 1930s and caused misery for hundreds of millions across Asia?

    It's unsure that the life of a single person can significantly sway the life of an entire nation, but Soseki represented a major beacon of untouchable, anti-establishment, free-thinking libertarianism in the world of early 20th century Japan. His influence on some of the major thinkers of the land, who all called him "sensei," was powerful and his death deprived both them and Japan of someone with the mental strength to resist the sudden lurches of government and culture.

    If Thomas de Quincey spent the rest of his life searching in his Opium Dreams for his beloved Ann, then Japan's greatest intellectuals and the nation as a whole spent many decades searching in their dreams for Soseki. After his death, his Complete Works became huge bestsellers for his disciple Shigeo Iwanami and made the fortunes of his Iwanami Shoten publishing house.

    After the disaster of World War II, the nation once again, fumbling for its sense of self in the ruins, turned to Soseki and the novels became bestsellers once more. In the 1980s the government put his face on Japan's banknotes and the universities quoted his texts more than any other writer in their entrance exams. (Utter self-serving ignorance and nonsense, Soseki would probably have thought.) Books and controversial papers about him flowed out in the hundreds and thousands.

    Sergio Leone's gangster classic, "Once Upon a Time in America," has still not quite been restored to the full length the director envisaged. Those "lost" 18 minutes are still being fought over and will hopefully be added for another re-release at a future date. The full story of Leone's extraordinary parable on artistic ambition and degradation has not yet reached its final chapter.

    The uncovering of the true face of Soseki -- the literary maverick, the literary slave, the anti-slaver, the liar, the best-friend-killer, the ripper, the literary psychopath, the liberal, the beacon of free thinking, the artist, the painter, the Opium Dreamer -- continues. Surrounding his beloved Ann in his Opium Dreams, Thomas de Quincey, discovered her to his joy in the midst of "Asiatic hordes": if De Quincey had looked more closely, he would have seen seated at the feet of that abused, lost and beloved young prostitute and gazing towards her were men like Vincent van Gogh, Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone and the man known to history simply as "Soseki."


    (This is Part 7 of a 7-part series. Thank you for diving into Natsume Soseki's Opium Dreams)


    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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