Japanese Marital Arts

by Kenneth Champeon, Nov 1, 2002 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

A rather threadbare couplet by Sir Walter Scott asks us to compare the product of a busy liar with the product of a confused spider: the "tangled web", in which the liar or the spider is ultimately caught. Lying is not so much immoral as it is impractical. On the other hand, a perfectly honest person ("No, honey, you don't look especially beautiful today") might soon find himself entirely alone. Our ability to lie, like our ability to laugh, seems to be one of the things that make human beings unique, and uniquely sinister.

Perhaps no other story employs deception so regularly and shamelessly as Soseki Natsume's Light and Darkness, widely acknowledged to be the best novel of modern Japan. And the majority of the lies revolve around the fact that Tsuda does not really love his new wife O-Nobu; he still loves Kiyoko, who is now married to another man.

Westerners in Asia are sometimes forewarned that they will ignore the concept of "face" at their peril. Possibly this is exaggeration, but it is easily seen that face and the also typically Asian aversion to confrontation can make a mockery of the truth and induce a mild paranoia. This nightmare world, in which not even family members can be trusted, is what Natsume so capably describes in this, his last - and unfinished - work.

Tsuda is ill and must undergo surgery that will keep him bedridden for several days. But his illness is more than physical. Though only recently married, he finds little pleasure in life: his idea of an evening's entertainment is pretending to pore over massive texts on economics, the dreary science. And he is broke. But his father refuses to send him any money. His only friend, such as he is, is a rather villainous loafer named Kobayashi, whose garrulousness, low morals, and self-loathing is reminiscent of a character out of Dostoevsky, whom, as it turns out, Kobayashi admires. Better, says Kobayashi, to be disliked than to be ignored.

O-Nobu is determined to make Tsuda love her and only her, and she has enormous resolve at her disposal. Tsuda's sister O-Hide takes a rather different approach to fidelity. Her husband is a womanizer, but she believes that men naturally distribute their affection among many women. The trick is to be at the top of the list. O-Nobu thinks not. And she thereby challenges the stereotype of the submissive Japanese woman. Even O-Hide is a tough cookie in her own way, and compared to them Tsuda is - literally and figuratively - supine, complaining of how O-Nobu defeats him with her attentions.

Natsume is also concerned more generally with whether men and women belong together at all. He offers a variation on the Platonic idea that the two sexes are attracted to each other because they were once two halves of a superhuman. The Oriental version of this theory is that of the yin (or female principle) and the yang (or male principle.) The two principles seek each other out because they are incomplete alone, and together they form a harmonious whole. In fairy tales. In reality, Natsume suggests, attraction soon becomes repulsion: "If a man is not separated from a woman he cannot attain peace." And neither can she.

Then again, neither can they attain peace when apart. When Tsuda first enters the hospital, O-Nobu is overcome with loneliness but she also welcomes a break from the daily grind. In a bitter moment she wonders whether "a husband's merely a kind of sponge existing only to soak up affection from his wife." She and Tsuda bicker about money and family like every couple; they are mutually suspicious; yet there is something binding them together. Perhaps it is not love, but greed, the survival instinct, or a wish to be loved. This leads to some complicated reflections on Tsuda's part. O-Nobu may visit the hospital. Tsuda "was not one to demand that she go. But he was one who would be offended if she did not. And yet this did not mean that he would be happy if she did go."

Light and Darkness has been called a study in egoism. O-Hide thinks that Tsuda is selfish. He agrees. But he believes that selfishness is "a general human characteristic rather than specifically one of his own." Sometimes we accuse others of selfishness precisely because we are not getting what we, selfishly, want from them. And what is more, society sometimes encourages us. A mother would not want a son to act selflessly if it might lead him to ruin. A man who gives away all his money is likely to be thought less a saint than a fool.

Tsuda's temptress in this regard is Mrs. Yoshikawa, his boss's wife, who encourages him to visit Kiyoko at a hot spring under the pretext of recuperating from his surgery. This would involve lying, once again, to his wife, and Tsuda is at first reluctant to do so. But Mrs. Yoshikawa eggs him on, saying that he should abandon "restraints" and "scruples"; and that his "habit of always thinking about things is a curse." Indeed. But to act without thinking is to risk immorality.

The issue is further complicated when face comes into play. Only face, Tsuda realizes, was "at the root of all his ethical views." Above all "he feared scandal." The desire to preserve one's reputation is selfish, but one's reputation is very much beyond one's control. And the little control one has is the power to deceive. "One had to tell lies," Tsuda thinks, "to be able to live." So he lies; visits Kiyoko; briefly lives.

Kiyoko is the "light" of Light and Darkness. But because Natsume died before completing his work, we become only slightly acquainted with her, and it is unclear whether she and Tsuda achieve a rapprochement. Ostensibly he has come not to praise her but to bury her, so that no regret continues to sour his marriage. But in her presence he is like Dante in the presence of Beatrice. Kiyoko is the antithesis of all the guile and grasping of Tsuda's world; she represents salvation. But it is as if The Divine Comedy had ended after the Purgatorio. The light is brief and the darkness long.

Russia and Japan are not normally thought of as cultural brethren, but their novels are very similar, especially with regard to their unrelenting bleakness. Apparently Natsume shares Kobayashi's admiration for Dostoevsky, and Natsume's translator V. H. Viglielmo compares the relationship between Tsuda and Kiyoko to that of Sonia and Raskolnikov of Crime and Punishment. Both authors can make us identify with even the most contemptible characters. Both to a certain degree glorify misery while nurturing some vision of beatitude. Both dwell on illness and pathology. Neither author writes with anything like mirth. But both authors show life as it can sometimes be: "a state," wrote Samuel Johnson, "in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed."

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Review of Soseki Natsume's Light and Darkness, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1981.

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