Friday, February 24, 2012

The Heart of Japanese Literature

by Drew Martin
I am reading Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki, which was first published in 1914. Kokoro translates as the heart of things and is a beautiful book that is an ongoing dialogue between a student and an older man who first meet at the beach in Kamakura, the former capital of Japan. The book is simple in style, structure and setting, but it digs into the complexities of relationships and life. It reminds me quite a bit of the Phaedrus dialogue between Plato and Socrates. As the Phaedrus questions the use of writing, Kokoro questions reading:

My thesis momentarily forgotten, I spontaneously asked, Why aren’t you as interested in books as you used to be Sensei?

There’s no particular reason…I suppose it’s because I believe you don’t really become a finer person just by reading lots of books. And also…

What else?

Nothing else really. You see, in the old days I used to feel uncomfortable and ashamed whenever someone asked me a question I couldn’t answer, or when my ignorance was exposed in public somehow. These days, though, I’ve come to feel that there’s nothing particularly shameful about not knowing, so I don’t any longer have the urge to push myself to read. I’ve grown old, in a word.

I love the meaning of the imagery of a passage I read this morning:

Holding the tightly rolled diploma up to my eye like a telescope, I gazed through it, out over the world.