Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro (meaning heart, getting at the essence of something) is a deceptively simple story exploring egoism, generational conflict and death. It is a character study of shame written in the turbulent shift from the Meiji era of Japan, symbolised by the death of Emperor Meiji and the subsequent ritualistic suicide of General Nogi Maresuke. This historical sequence is explored as a background narrative, an expert instance of literary morphasis in which something kept out of central focus in a story is thereby rendered with more emphasis by the author. The foregrounded story is, then, an attempt to tease out the meaning of General Nogi’s drama. The book assumes a basic understanding of this backdrop and an appreciation for its ramifications: General Nogi fought in the Seinan (Russo-Japanese) War and was one of Imperial Japan’s national heroes, but he lost the Emperor’s banner during the Satsuma Rebellion and sought to reclaim his honour through suicide. He was ordered not to by his junshi (master), the Emperor, and consequently waited for the Emperor’s own death to enact his own. ‘When did he suffer greater agony,’ Soseki’s novel muses, ‘during those thirty-five years, or the moment when the sword entered his bowels?’
Kokoro has one of the best descriptions of reading distractedly, ‘Hurriedly, I began to turn the pages backwards, reading a sentence here and there. I tried desperately to pin down the words which seemed to dance before my eyes.’ This sense of haphazardly trying to get at something that is nonetheless impenetrable and beyond comprehension unifies the novel. The narrator is an innocent, mediocre student who befriends a man he only ever calls Sensei, ‘Whenever the memory of him comes back to me now, I find that I think of him as “Sensei” still. And with pen in hand, I cannot bring myself to write of him in any other way.’ The first parts of the novel focus on this student, his frustrating friendship with Sensei, his dying father and the conflict between his duties to family and conceited self-regard. The rest is conveyed in an epistolary letter from Sensei to the student that recounts the former’s story of guilt and doubles as a suicide note, ‘It was because he despised himself that he refused to accept openheartedly the intimacy of others. I feel great pity for him.’ There is irony, certainly deliberate, in the fact that despite being known only as Sensei and Student, the former fails to teach and the latter to learn.
Much of Sensei’s story is hinted in proleptic giveaways. We already know, beginning his confessional letter, much about Sensei’s sense of inferiority. ‘I am a lonely man,’ he admits to the Student. Because the story is retrospective the coming confession is directly implied by the student’s narration, ‘I could not know that there had been in Sensei’s life a frightening tragedy, inseparable from his love for his wife.’ The weight of tragic inevitability is constantly maintained. We also know that Sensei blames his own crime (as well as its ramifications), and by implication the moral weakness of the student, on modernity, ‘You see, loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egotistical selves.’ This critique of modernity is frequently articulated, ‘Why, one can say that in Tokyo today, there’s not a moment of quiet, day or night.’ What did Sensei do? I will leave that to you to discover, but on the success of his schemes he concluded, ‘Through cunning, I have won. But as a man, I have lost.’ It is clear by this point that he is not merely condemning himself as lacking some moral quality, but the age in which he lived and the Student’s inevitable future. Like most conservative fables, this is a deeply pessimistic story.