A JAPANESE DEFENCE OF LAFCADlO HEARN
BIOGRAPHY is a kind of "apology" at best, and more often it appears when it is not called for. We are led usually more into dark than into light by it, and are bound to grope under it. Certainly it is a biographer's bad taste to force on us his unsympathetic opinion, and it is sad to read the quick operation of his own mind reflected in his book. It is true that we see more of Dr. George M. Gould in his "Concerning Lafcadio Hearn "* than of Hearn himself; it is really a pity, I dare say, for him to make such an awful exposure of himself through Hearn. It does harm to the author himself, while not helping general literature whatever. In truth, you cannot understand anything more than you are worthy to understand; [20>] Dr. Gould was mistaken to think that sympathy is cowardice; indeed, narrow-mindedness is often taken for bravery. After all, how far can one man understand another? You must have another Hearn to understand and appreciate Lafcadio Hearn. And what a difference between Hearn and Dr. Gould! He has no right, I should like to say, to appear as Hearn's biographer; and such a book as he has published cannot dare, I think, to justify its existence. However, I do not mean that his book is outrageous altogether; in fact, it gives us many a point which makes us reflect and even acknowledge as a flash of truth. I always think that any biographer should write a book which he could publish even when his subject still lives. And I should like to ask Dr. Gould if his book is such a biography. I have not a few reasons to believe that his book is not only a treason against Hearn but a blasphemy against literature. Forgive my hot words! His denunciation of Hearn is at the same time a denunciation of Japan and "the vapid and even pitiful childishness of semi-barbaric Orientalism" as he said somewhere. I, as a Japanese, cannot accept such words in silence. (But Hearn is now in the blessed state of Death where silence is a golden [21>] weapon with which lie will gracefully conquer Dr. Gould's attack. I believe he will soon be sorry for his book.) I ever noticed that the so-called "weaknesses" of Hearn which are said to be a menace to society and life in the West are quite often but the beauty and even strength of the East; and it is the part of kindness to see him under his best light. It 'would be still kinder to keep silent and not talk about his "worse self," Supposing he had it, and let him speak for himself with his own books.
I believe that the process of physiological psychology is not a proper vehicle of art for any biographer; its pointed sharpness following all the time after every detail—how much does detail count, I wonder—leaves the most important part of the general effect untouched. And you will find it is not a real picture at all when it is done. I see a similar case with a beginner's art always, which goes astray into a maze when he regards details as a sole guidance. And Hearn's personality reminds me of Some picture which, at close hand, might appear to be merely a dirty mass of paints, but from a little distance turns to be an enchanting picture; he may have been impossible (he had, however, every reason to act impossible [22>] as he appeared); but from his seeming impossibility, I cannot help observing that his real self which is not without charm and beauty hovered and flapped as a grey mist of silence. To be his biographer, you should be a man of shadow and echo like Hearn as Dr. Gould said, whose voidness of mind will prove to be the power of mirroring with his real personality. You must understand with a sheer impulse but not with a brain such a personality as Hearn's who walked the mountains from summit to summit; any ordinary measure will be found unfit. To make allowances for him is only a way of blessing.
I have many a reason of joy for living in Japan. Here personality is not talked of so much, and gossip is only a little short of crime, and silence is poetry and virtue. (We never talk of Hearn's personality here; it is enough to have his books). It is said in Japan that any bad man has a right to become a hotoke or Buddha, and that death is emancipation; I am sure that even Hearn as a Japanese must have become a hotoke now sleeping in his beloved Zoshigaya; and we have only to burn incense before his grave and read a sutra, if we cannot say anything good about him in public. [23>] Indeed, to keep silence is better than praise. But it is perfectly appalling to observe in the Western countries that when one dies his friends have to rush to print his private letters and even an unexpected person volunteers to speak as "his best friend," and presumes to write his biography. I agree with Dr. Gould that the publication of Hearn's letters by Elisabeth Bisland (the Life and Letters of Lafcadio Hearn) was a sad affair; I believe that, not only Hearn's letters, but anybody's private letters except when they speak to the public through their channels should not be printed. They are only charming when they are kept privately; but they become quite often a nuisance when they are brought out to the public gaze. Their sacredness should be protected; and how often that shrine of sacredness has been stamped to the ground in the West! Such a practice would make any one, not only one of a Sensitive cast of mind, hold back his spontaneity in his correspondence, and appear always in his best air of formalism which means death to the private exchange of thought and fancy. The informal exposure of one's weakness is a delightful part of a private letter; and exaggeration is a beauty of it. I think that Hearn's letters are a [24>] sort of confession of his worse self (according to Dr. Gould) by virtue of which confession he was unconsciously finding a way of spiritual exaltation; they are like the shell of a cicada the shedding of which is a course of evolution; they were for Hearn a life and a prayer. It is said in Japan that true confession, however bad it be, is divine the best respect to pay it is to forget. I am sure that nobody has a right to publish it as if it were his own property. And what shall I say of the real nature of Dr. Gould's "friendship" with Hearn in publishing his book which is nothing but an emphasis over Miss Bisland's already sad undertaking? He doubted Hearn's consciousness of mind and his magnanimity; and I should like to doubt the same things of Dr. Gould. As he said somewhere, it is a perfectly thankless task
- Mrs. Hearn said to me she used to keep his letters in his drawer for two or
three days at least, when Hearn asked her to mail them, as she found quite
frequently he wrote a letter of very warm coloring in spite of himself,
since his blood boiled unnecessarily for any slight matter, and that he felt
awfully sorry afterward for writing it. "Did you mail my letter? Not yet? I
am so glad," he would say when she gave him back the letter which he had
asked her to mail, and he was then found, Mrs. Hearn said, tearing it to
[25>] to write such a book; and why did he hazard himself with it? And what will the world gain from his book? Hearn was right, I think, to say that he would rather trust his enemies than his friends. It is an old Chinese saying that it is a heavenly lot to succeed in gaining one real friend in your whole life; and the saddest thing with Hearn was that he had none. It is true that his scepticism of human nature deprived him of such fortune; however, I believe with him that solitude is a far greater blessing, and a golden castle where the merciful goddess of Silence protects you. Any criticism which has no breath of respect has no right to its existence; that breath is the fundamental qualification for any biography. To see Dr. Gould's failure in his book is only to behold Hearn soaring out magnificently in Silence; it is rather a pity for Dr. Gould I am sure that Mrs. Hearn would never accept any money from him; I read in his preface that the excess of money accruing from the book beyond the expense of publication will be sent to her. The book is no slight attack upon Mrs. Hearn who keeps a cherished memory of her dead husband; and what benefit will he gain from inviting Hearn's children to distrust their father?
[26>] I see not only a few places where Dr. Gould has over-stepped the fence of his own discretion.
We had enough sadness in Poe already, who was over-colored and even blackened only to make, perhaps on the part of his biographers, a terribly romantic figure out of him; I always believe that he was awfully misunderstood. And I do not see any wisdom at all in making another Poe out of Hearn. Here in Japan we do not make an art of biography-writing; and I wish that such a modern fashion of the West may never invade our Japanese literature. And I think that English literature would be ten times better off without it too. It is easy to say in writing that a man has no morality, and that he was an apostle of morbidity; but you know well that nobody could be so in the absolute. What Dr. Gould said about Hearn of the days in Cincinnati, New Orleans and Martinique may be true; but you must remember that he spent his best years as a writer in Japan where the calm, grey atmosphere clearly distilled his character; it was in Japan where he could find his home and the perfect ease of mind which marvellously blossomed in his Japanese books. You must judge him as a Hearn in Japan. Doubtless it was no small joy for him not to be [27>] observed too closely for his unbecoming physical appearance in Japan, where we do not make much of it. He may have been poverty-stricken in his American days; and his utter unfamiliarity with any sympathetic air, I believe, made him act wantonly in spite of himself; and we know there is a certain period of youth, also, when we think it rather wonderful to say and act something which might be criticized as immoral and materialistic; in fact, wickedness appears more grand. But it is only the sin of youth which will pass away when one finds his own place and soul; and they came to Hearn in Japan where he was respected as a teacher, and even materially well off; in fact, much richer than his fellow teachers. I do not understand what Dr. Gould means by the word "uneducated"; it is nothing but his superstition to think that education can only be reached through a college door. I know few writers have loved books and anything beautiful so passionately as Hearn; it is his greatness not to display his scholarliness; in truth, he soared out of it. We say here in Japan: Miso no miso kusaki wa miso ni arazu. (The bean sauce which smells bean sauce too much is not the best kind of bean sauce.) And what a strong smell [28>] of psychology Dr. Gould's book sends forth! Hearn's most important merit is that he remained marvelously in the state of simplicity of the ancient age, and of vision which is charmingly far-away, in this composite age where the oppression of reality is rather unbearable. To be not a Christian does not mean necessarily to be religionless; most Japanese are not Christians. And Hearn placed Art above any religion of the world, and through its light we must judge him. Above all, I find such a difficulty to understand what Dr. Gould means by Hearn 's "absolute lack of practical sexual virtue"; I know, however, that he was, at least, loyal to a Japanese woman whose bosom of love yielded him the secret key by which he was enabled to enter into the inner beauty and life of Japan. In fact there's no other writer who has sung so nobly of the Japanese woman. And I have no word to say if Dr. Gould says that he would never believe what Hearn said of her, and thinks it is merely a piece of literature.
I admit that he was not loyal in his friendship except toward a few persons; but his action had his own justification. And it is to pity rather than to blame that he thought it only the way to [29>] protect his own silence and self from disturbance; I believe he must have been thinking that the books he wrote were nothing but the precious gifts which he won from being somewhat disloyal to his friends, and from his solitude. And I should say that we must be thankful for it. There has been question of his conscious intention; but who could write so many books without it? He must be judged as a writer, not under any other shade; and it is your kindness and respect to him to make him appear in his best light.
The Japanese writer and poet whose turn of thought is philosophical craves to attain the state of voidness of mind, not the passive voidness, but the active voidness by whose power you can grasp the true beauty and color of things honestly; it is its virtue to make you perfectly assimilate with them. He had no imagination perhaps to build a plot and situation like a novelist; but his imagination was the highest kind which transports you at once into the transcendental magic. And I am told that he had no imagination whatever. How can one who has no deeper touch of imagination see such a story and dream like Hearn's? And again I am told that he was no product of his environment; but if he was not, I wonder how [30>] he could make himself at home in Japan, and become a Japanese writer as he was.
After all, what Dr. Gould pronounced his points of weakness from his dissection table are the very things that we regard and cherish as his sources of power and romanticism. And perhaps he too may be one of his enemies who is doing no small service to him. The one who loses by "Concerning Lafcadio Hearn" is not Hearn, but Dr. Gould himself.
* "Concerning Lafcadio Hearn" published by George W. Jacobs snd Company, Philadelphia, 1908; also published by T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1909.