Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Natsume Soseki's "Kusamakura" 『草枕』: Precursor to Abstract Expressionism?


Like Nagai Kafū's Bokutō kidan, Natsume Soseki's Kusamakura (1906)is a work that falls into that peculiar genre of diary-of-the-artist-in-the-process-of-creation. In this case, the diarist is a not a novelist, but a painter who has left the city for an unidentified, idyllic town where he loafs about, ruminating on various matters of life and art while considering possible subjects for his next painting. In this section, Chapter 6, Soseki's narrator is left alone in his room where he records in his diary various thoughts that seem to reveal some of the young Soseki's personal views on "Oriental" and "Occidental" aesthetics, and the differences he sees between them.

First, to Soseki's narrator the pleasures of art are to be found not in - to paraphrase - the pursuit, identification, and imitatation of distinct objects to which we then form attachments (i.e, the Western notion of representation), but rather in actually becoming the thing itself. The pleasure of the artist, Soseki has his narrator explain, "does not lie in becoming attached to things, but in becoming a part of them by a process of assimilation" (86). At first, this assimilation is one of artist and object, but its final result is an assimilation into nothingness, or mu (87-88). Whether or not Soseki's description is one characteristic of a general Eastern aesthetics, it is expressly different from traditional Western ways of thinking about artistic representation, which place a solid division between the representing self and the represented world.

One detects a bit of the Romantics’ influence, too, in Soseki's narrative, most noticably that of Wordsworth and Rousseau, both of whom shared with Soseki's narrator a similar notion of "spontaneous creation," or art whose creation is not at all dependent upon external stimuli. "I was simply being carried along in a trance," the narrator records. Like Rousseau in his “Fifth Walk,” Soseki's narrator cordons himself off from the world and retreats to his room at the village-inn, where, free of any external stimulus, he can create something out of this nothingness, from a tabula rasa, as it were (87-89).

Soseki's narrator then describes what he considers to be the two types of artists, meanwhile insisting that he fits into neither group, but is instead of a new, third type. The first type is propelled by and expresses the ego, while the second type is moved by and represents external realities. In both cases, there is an initial stimulus that drives the artist into action. Our narrator, however, claims not to be compelled by any such source, whether external or internal. Instead, to him art arises spontaneously out of this fusion between subject and object. It is through this process of assimilation that the work of art is produced.

The first two types of artists, he explains, "have one thing in common: they both wait for some definite outside stimulus before putting brush to canvas. In my case, however, there was no such clearly defined subject." This lack of an external object -- an objective correlative, if you will -- through which his expression can find its effective expedient (note that Soseki, a devoted adherent to the "practical nuisance," is ever mindful of the effectiveness of the expression) points toward a new type of art: abstract art, such as the Cubist and Futurist sorts which were in their nascent stage in Europe when Soseki wrote this work in 1906. "The real question," the narrator continues, "was what object could I find which embodied it [the internal emotion] to such a degree that others looking at my painting would be able to feel as nearly as possible the way I was feeling at that moment" (89).

But Soseki's narrator, not being able to find the appropriate object to effectively express the internal emotion, quits in frustration: "I could not give shape to my feelings" (92). He considers writing music, only to recall that he knows not the first thing about its formal components. He then tries his hand at poetry, but, while musing on Lessing's notions of poetry, is suddenly interrupted by the figure of a woman who appears to him as a shadow (women are more often shadows than they are women in Soseki's early works) whom, for reasons not made clear, "evil" was "overtaking."

(To be continued. . . )

[For a translation of『草枕』see Alan Turney's The Three-Cornered World.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article. For more on the subject, I recommend these other sources: see: writings of Wen Tung (11th century); works about Unkoku school painters, eg, Ike Taiga (landscape painter, 1723-1776); and the character sketches of Buson, Sesshu Toyo (15 century).

-HB