A JAPANESE APPRECIATION OF LAFCADIO HEARN
To my visionary eyes appear simultaneously the two half-nocturnal figures, Lafcadio Hearn and Akinari Uyeda (who died on the sixth of Bunkwa, that is, in 1810), shining sad, yet steadfast, like two silver stars, each in his own shrine of solitude. The former's allegiance to the latter was expressed by his translation of the two stories from Uyeda's Ugetsu Monogatari, "Kikka no Yaku," or "Of a Promise Kept," and "Muwo no Rigio," or "The Story of Kogi, the Priest," in A Japanese Miscellany.
The gray-colored region of solitude was a triumph for them, not a defeat, by any means; they found life in silence, and a ghost's virtue in shadow and whisper. They slowly walked following after a beckoning hand, half vision, half [2>] reality; they placed their single-minded confidence on the dream-breast of spirit. The world and people they wished and tried to elude, these were for them too physical altogether. However, Uyeda's hatred of the people and the world was not so sharp-tongued as Hearn's; it may be from the reason that a hundred years ago, in Japan as in other countries, the impression received from the times was not so vulgar and bold as to-day, and the interruptions which pass nowadays under the hypocritical name of sociableness did not flap in the air so wantonly.
Uyeda wrote a sort or Zuihitsu ("Following the Pen") of his own life, or confession called Tandai Shoshin Roku; and he remarked somewhere in it: "I am keeping my life which I do not particularly value, by eating barley, and drinking hot water with parched rice steeped in it. I lived some twelve or thirteen years with money which I received from a publisher, now ten ryos and then fifteen ryos. But as I can do nothing now, I have only to wait for my own death, and in the meantime I drink boiled tea." Tea was his favorite, while saké, tobacco (though these two Hearn liked, tobacco in particular being his passion), literary men, and rich men, were the [3>] four things he bitterly despised. And he lived to the good old age of seventy-eight. I always think, for more than one reason, that Hearn would have been another Akinari Uyeda, if he had been born in Japan a century ago; the difference between them, it seems to me, is the difference of age and circumstances. It was a coincidence, however, that their lives were unhappy from childhood. Uyeda was left an orphan, being the son of a geisha, and like Hearn he was obliged to undergo the baptism of tears. It might be said to be due to the kindness of this age that Hearn was brought over the Pacific to seek his kingdom of beauty. Indeed, a Columbus has to sail west—is it east ?—for his ideal as for the sun. It was fortunate for Japan that she had him when she needed such a one; and Hearn too reached Japan just at the right time. Poor Akinari had no west to sail to, and had to bury himself in his little tea-house, very often to curse the people, and some-times to invite some angel or god to sip tea with him and forget the world.
Hearn ended his "Horai" in the book of Kwaidan thus:—
- "Evil winds from the west are blowing over Horai; and the magical
atmosphere, alas! is [4>] shrinking away before them. It lingers now in
patches only, and bands,—like those long bright bands of cloud that trail
across the landscapes of Japanese painters. Under these shreds of the elfish
vapor you still can find Horai—but not else-where. . . . Remember that
Horai is also called Shinkiro, which signifies Mirage, — the Vision is the
Intangible. And the Vision is fading, — never again to appear save in
pictures and poems and dreams."
Suppose fate had not brought him to Tokyo? I have, however, a reason or two for saying that this city of horrid impression, too, did for him no small service; indeed, the greatest service, as I dare say, which marked his work distinctly, although he did not notice it, as it seemed, and even [5>] thought the reverse. Old Japan of the province shook his frail body terribly with the might of charm, and his extreme sensitiveness made him uneasy, and even doubtful of his qualification to see Japan with a Japanese mind, as he prayed. It is true that his foreign origin flickered as a broken smoke, at his desire to be changed into a a Japanese. He was more restless, in fact, when he was more impressed by Old Japan. But one day, coming to Tokyo,—where the old faith and beauty, which grew marvelously from the ground like a blossoming cherry-tree through the spring mist, had tottered and even fallen, and the people chose foreign things and thoughts ("Carpets-pianos — windows — curtains — brass bands — churches! How I hate them!! And white shirts! — and yofuku!" Hearn wrote to his friend),—he at once awoke to the recognition of his own worth, and began to believe himself more Japanese than any other Japanese. And it gave him a great confidence in himself which he could not dare claim before; and that confidence gave to his later work the deliberation strange and positive, and the translucence milky and soft. And it spoke in perfect accord with the sweet glamour of Old Japan, where the sea of reality [6>] and the sky of vision melted into one blue eternity,—the land of ghosts.
I, as a Japanese, have to oppose those who will rate first the enthusiasm and fire of his earlier work; it is true that it had them, but they were so scattered, and often too free. His spendthrift habit in thought and art went too far, frequently, even for us. And remember that we are rather spoiled children only too glad to be admired. I believe that in his later work shone his golden light which was old as a spring in Horai; its slowness was poetry, and its reticence was a blessing. However, he wrote to his friend from "Tokyo, this detestable Tokyo" "To think of art or time or eternity in the dead waste and muddle of this mass is difficult. The Holy Ghost of the poets is not in Tokyo. . . . In this horrid Tokyo I feel like a cicada:— I am caged, and can't sing. Sometimes I wonder whether I shall ever be able to sing any more,—except at night?—like a bell-insect which has only one note." Are we not glad to have him singing his one real Japanese note of a bell-insect of night in his later work? He must have noticed himself, I am sure, after he had written such a letter, that he was wrong, and I believe that [7>] he must have been more pleased in not receiving any inspiration from without, because his own soul would find it easier to shine out from within, as a pearl of five colors or a firefly with a lyrical flash. He threw the world and people out, and shut himself in his own sanctum, as you have to close the shojis after you have burned incense to keep its odor. Indeed he had the most lovely incense of love with Old Japan which he had to protect from the evil winds; and he was afraid that the magical atmosphere of his vision might be disturbed. His only desire was to be left alone with the dreams of his Horai; and the dreams themselves were ghosts, under whose spell he wove the silvery threads of the Ideal, and wrote the books with a strange thrill which nobody else could ever feel.
He left some eight books that were written even after he settled in Tokyo; they were the utmost that could be expected of him, and perhaps he pressed himself too harshly to produce them. I know that writing for him was no light work; he wrote the books with life and blood, a monument builded by his own hands. He was like a cuckoo which is said to die spitting blood and song. Like incense before the Bud- [8>] dhist altar, which had to burn itself up, he passed away.
It was entirely proper for Hearn to break away from any social organization ("a proof of weakness—not a combination of force," to quote his words) where one's poor little time is foolishly wasted, and to build for himself a castle of solitude and silence where nobody should be admitted. Indeed, life was too short for him, as "literature was a very serious and sacred thing,—not an amusement, not a thing to trifle and play with." I agree with him when he wrote to a friend: "My friends are much more dangerous than my enemies. These latter—with infinite subtlety—spin webs to keep me out of places where I hate to go. . . . and they help me so much by their unconscious aid that I almost love them. They help me to maintain the isolation absolutely essential to thinking. Blessed be my enemies, and forever honored all them that hate me!" And it will make the reason clear why he broke away from his friends of former days, and bolted his door right against their faces. Almost nobody was admitted in his home in his last days. It seems to me, however, to have been a piece of cruelty on Hearn's part [9>] that Masanobu Otani, one of his students of the Matsue days, and his literary secretary in later years, who helped in furnishing material for his books, could not also have been made an exception. And it is said that only upon their third call did Hearn admit the representatives of the literature classes of the university, who wanted his own opinion before they could properly appeal to the president to allow Hearn to stay with them in the university.
The university students uttered a deep lamentation when he was asked to resign. His distinguished personality, expressed through the emotional beauty of English literature, impressed their minds tenderly yet forcefully. It was their delight to see his somewhat bending body, under an old, large-rimmed soft hat like that of a Korean, carrying his heavy books, wrapped in a purple furoshiki. He never entered the professors' room, but walked slowly and meditatively by the lake of the university garden, and often sat on a stone by the water, and smoked a Japanese natamame pipe. The students did not dare to come nearer to him for fear lest they might disturb his solitude, but admired him from a distance as if he were some old china vase which might be [10>] broken even by a single touch. But it was almost amazing to hear his clear and unreserved voice in the class-room, which made the students at once feel quite at home. I believe that he was not an unsociable man originally, but he valued his work as more important. And it may be that the students did not disturb him much; or, perhaps, his foreign blood gave him a strong feeling of responsibility so that he tried not to look unhappy and selfish. He was eloquent, it is said, and he never used any note-book, as his beautiful language of appreciation was left to flow out from his heart upon an author whom he happened to speak of. Not long ago, I had a chance to see a note-book of Kaworu Osanai, one of his former students in the university, and to-day one of the younger novelists, in which I read his verbal beauty. To show his art in the classroom, let me copy out his language of paraphrase for "Was never voice of ours could say," etc., of Geoge Meredith's poem on the lark:—
- "There never was a human poet in our world which could speak the innermost
thoughts of the human heart in the most beautiful way possible—as that bird
speaks all its heart in the sweetest possible manner. And even if there were
such a human voice, it would not be able to speak to all hearts alike — as
that bird can. For wisdom comes to us, poor human beings, only when we are
getting old—when our blood is growing chill, and when we do not care to
sing. On the other hand, in the time of our youth, when we want to
sing—want to write beautiful poetry — then we are too impulsive, too
passionate, too selfish, to sing a perfect song. We think too much about
ourselves; and that makes us insincere. But there is no insincerity in that
bird.—Oh! if we could but utter the truth of our heart as he can! There is
no selfishness in the song of that bird, nothing of individual desire: such
a song is indeed like the song of a Seraph, the highest of angels — So pure
is it, so untouched by the least personal quality. Only such an impersonal
song is indeed suited to express the gratitude of all life to that great
Giver of Life—the sun. And that is just what that song does express-one
voice speaking for millions of creatures—and no one of all those millions
feeling in the least envious of the singer, but all, on the contrary, loving
him for uttering their joy of heart well."
[14>]To-day I turned to the book of my old diary, wherein I read my conversation with Mrs. Hearn which I had two or three days after Hearn's funeral. Let me copy out some part of it:—
"Mrs. Koizumi, your gardeners were moving away some of your garden trees. One of them told me that those trees were for his graveyard. Is it true?" I asked her.
"Oh! yes, Mr. Noguchi. He used to say that he could not live without trees. He had a strong passion for trees and flowers.
"I am trying to please him or his spirit, by moving some of them to his Zoshigaya cemetery, —some of his favorite trees. He loved the fir tree best, and also the bamboo. He was fond of the Oranda Genge (a sort of violet). I am hoping to have a green moss cover the ground yard, since he was devoted to it. How he loved to touch the soft velvety moss. However, he was never pleased to break anything when it was complete.. I thought at first he would not wish me to destroy the garden by taking off some trees, even for him.. But it was my second thought that told me he would rather wish to have the trees and flowers. familiar for many years than to have newly bought trees and flowers. So my gardeners have [15>] begun their work, You cannot imagine how he loved trees. There was one high cedar tree in the front garden of the Kobutera (his favorite temple). Some months ago the priests cut it down. 'What cruelty!' he cried. 'I feel as if my own arm were cut off. I shall never go there again'; and never again did he turn his steps toward his beloved temple."
It amuses me to read one of his earliest letters from Japan, that said: "Pretty to talk of my 'pen of fire.' I've lost it. Well, the fact is, it is no use here. There isn't any fire here. It is all soft, dreamy, quiet, pale, faint, gentle, hazy, vapory, visionary—a land where lotus is a common article of diet—and where there is scarcely any real summer. Even the seasons are feeble, ghostly things. Don't please imagine there are any tropics here. Ah! the tropics—they still pull at my heart-strings. Goodness! my real field was there in the Latin countries, in the West Indies and Spanish America: and my dream was to haunt the old crumbling Portuguese and Spanish cities, and steam up the Amazon and the Orinoco, and get romances nobody else could find. And I could have done it, and made books that would sell for twenty years."
[16>] He must be pleased now, I think, since, after all, he could write the books which will sell as long as Japan lives. The particulars which disappointed him at first were nothing but Japan's points of beauty and distinction. Any artist will tell you that he would be a flat failure in Japan if he could not use the bluish-gray skillfully. To understand and appreciate this land of azure,—this land of shadow and whisper, where memory and ghosts live as a living soul, — would take some long years for anybody of foreign origin.
Hearn remarked in his "Azure Psychology" that the power of preceiving blue will not be acquired until after the power of distinguishing red and green and yellow has already been gained. I believe that he was not highly advanced in his aesthetic perception, when he found himself first in Japan. It may be the magic and power of chance that he got married to a Japanese woman whose "gray-and-blue bosom" was The first thing he had to understand; in its sweetness he discovered the golden key to open the secret of Old Japan with every thrill of the delight of azure. There is no greater appreciation of Japan than "Azure Psychology," in his Exotics and Retrospectives; when he found some- [17>] thing of all the aspirations of the ancient faiths, and the power of the vanished gods, and the passion and the beauty of all the prayer ever uttered by lips of man" in the vision of luminous blue of Old Japan, I say, his heart thrilled with her real life of emotion and mystery.
We Japanese have been regenerated by his sudden magic, and baptized afresh under his transcendental rapture; in fact, the old romances which we had forgotten ages ago were brought again to quiver in the air, and the ancient beauty which we buried under the dust rose again with a strange yet new splendor. He made us shake the old robe of bias which we wore without knowing it, and gave us a sharp sensation of revival. However, what impressed us most was that he was a striking figure of protest. He wrote to Mr. Otani: "While this rage for wasting time in societies goes on there will be no new Japanese literature, no new drama, no new poetry—nothing good of any kind. Production will be made impossible, and only the common-place translation of foreign ideas. The meaning of time, the meaning of work, the sacredness of literature, are unknown to this generation." He was, indeed, the living proof of the power of [18>] solitude with which he tried to master these problems, and with which be succeeded.
And I incline to predict that our future generation will be glad to remember him as the writer of the "Story of Miminashi-Hoichi," the "Dream of Akinosuke," and others; behind the waving gossamer of those little stories his personality appears and disappears as the shiver of a ghost As Uyeda's Ugetsu Monogatari influenced the later writers like Bakin or others, so Hearn's books will come to be regarded in Japan as a sort of depth of inspiration.