Mori Ogai, Youth and Other Stories, ed. J. Thomas Rimer. University of Hawaii Press, 1994.
Mori Ogai (1862-1922) is best known in the West as the author of Vita Sexualis (1909), a tepid sexual Bildungsroman, and Gan (Wild Geese, 1915), the poignant tale of a kept woman who pines for a dashing student. Gan is awkwardly constructed and unsatisfactorily developed, yet it seems to be Mori’s one triumph as a writer of fiction. Its very clumsiness makes it linger in memory as an enigmatic glimpse of a vanished period, a relic of stifled longings. The rest of Mori’s fiction contains no particularly memorable figure or situation. The three stories written in 1890-91, shortly after Mori’s return from study in Germany, are casual experiments, tending to florid melodrama, with marked personal feeling only in the first, Maihime (The Dancing Girl), based on Mori’s abortive romance with a German girl, who followed him to Japan in vain. Utakata no ki (A Sad Tale) is a peculiar rigmarole, in which a Japanese student is privy to the mystery of Ludwig of Bavaria’s mysterious drowning in the Starnbergersee. The same wishful desire to associate Japanese with higher circles of European society underlies Fumizukai (The Courier), in which a high-born dame confides to the young Japanese narrator her disgust at the system of arranged marriages in the European aristocracy.
The cluster of stories composed between 1909 and 1913 reveal a more mature and subtle mind. They are half-essayistic soundings of Mori’s painful situation as a cultural broker, torn between the aspirations of European modernity and the constraints of Japanese tradition. Taken individually these are rather insubstantial pieces, revealing no real capacity for sustained imaginative narration. But read together as a set, as the present volume allows, they are an interesting social and historical document, and they indicate the tensions of Japanese culture in the period more openly than do the elaborate narratives of Natsume Sôseki.
Both the earlier and the later stories reveal a desire to graft onto one another elements of European and of Japanese culture. But in most cases the graft does not take; there is always some gap or discrepancy between the two strands. This lack of fit is seen in Sakazuki (Cups), in which a group of Japanese girls, gathering at a well, are joined by a French maiden who seems to have strayed from a Maeterlinck play; refusing their silver cups inscribed with the word `Nature, she drinks from a small blackened cup, uttering a cryptic hexameter: `Mon verre n’est pas grand mais je bois dans mon verre’(a quotation from Musset). This is supposed to be an allegorical defence of symbolisme against naturalism. Whatever the significance of the French girl and her cup, imaginatively her appearance falls flat. It is hard not to think of Kawabata Yasunari when reading this story; his success in creating an indigenous Japanese symbolist style shows up Mori’s bookishness; yet Kawabata succeeded only by renouncing his experiments in a more avant-garde European style, as in the story Suishô (Crystal).
Why do the European and Japanese elements not blend more effectively in Mori’s fiction? Is it because the two cultures are so heterogeneous? Or because Mori was forcing Japanese culture to integrate elements which it was not prepared to absorb? Or because his representation of Europe remains rather stereotyped and bookish? Or because of some woodenness in his narrative technique. Students of Mori might find a fruitful topic for research here. His difficulties are relevant to the continuing malaise within the assimilation of Western culture in Japan.
The later stories reveal Mori’s wide and clear vision of the achievements of Europe in both the arts and the sciences, his desire to emulate these achievements in his own country and language, and his disillusionment on finding that the obstacles to be faced were far greater than he had expected. In several of the stories the narrator becomes a detached bystander, reflecting Mori’s own experience: confined to a provincial culture which thwarted the full growth of his powers, his bright ideas and critical tongue won him demotion at the hands of envious colleagues, and exile in Kyushu; his initial success in the literary world was succeeded by decades in limbo, as a somewhat outdated figure who was taken for granted. Though never flagging in his administrative duties and literary composition, he was dogged by a sense of futility. But he discovered in his own frustration a symptom of the wider crisis of Japanese culture. This crisis had three dimensions: (1) the difficulty of absorbing the massive impact of Western thought - giants like Ibsen and Nietzsche were interpreted in a warped and diminishing way in their Japanese reception; (2) the devastating impact of the West on traditional Japanese beliefs, values, and behavior; (3) the regressive, anti-intellectualist chauvinism which was emerging in reaction to these problems of assimilation.
These themes are touched on in a rather pungent way in Ka no yôni (As If). The protagonist is a reader of Vaihinger’s Die Philosophie des Als Ob (here mangled as Als Ab) and summarizes its argument on pp. 249-50. He transposes Vaihinger’s remark that Schleiermacher, `regarded God as if he were the Father’ (better: `as if he were a father’) to the Japanese context: `Confucius centuries ago said that when we worship the spirits of our ancestors we should do so as if they were really with us; that means we should worship them as if their spirits really did exist.’ The application limps a little; a crisis of moral and religious belief in a Japanese setting is already forestalled by centuries of tacit `as if’ thinking. The friend who replies: `For my part I leave such a monster alone, or if I do think about it at all, I don’t speak about it’ expresses a thoroughly Japanese attitude, easily admitting that `as if’ may be at the foundation of everything but refusing to make a song and dance about it. The protagonist finds this policy intellectually stifling: `I must think. If I were to think and not give utterance to my thoughts in a straightforward way, I should either have to say nothing or invent some lie.’ But he has to contend with society and family: `I should be labeled as a dangerous thinker. I don’t care what men say; I can fight them. But what I am afraid of it that my father won’t agree with me.’ The story ends effectively with an anguished sense of the problems he must face in challenging convention. The anguish has less to do with threatened beliefs than with the frustration of trying to sustain a Western critical discourse in a mental environment unreceptive to it.
In the last ten years of his life (1912-1922), Mori turned back to the Japanese past in a series of historical narrations which are generally considered his best work, and which are collected in a companion volume: The Historical Fiction of Mori Ogai, ed. David Dilworth and J. Thomas Rimer (University of Hawaii Press, 1991). One thinks of the analogous step back in Tanizaki’s career, through Tanizaki’s early writings had created a potent Japanese-European fantasy which eclipses Mori’s. Indeed, the chief interest of Mori today is not a strictly literary one. His pellucid style and his immense labors as a translator of European literature are of capital value less in themselves than as formative influences on twentieth century Japanese language and culture. In his medical career he attained the rank of Surgeon General in the Japanese army, and it may be that his reflections on medicine and hygiene have a significance analogous to that of his literary efforts. But it is not these achievements either, much as we must admire them, that make Mori a fascinating figure. It is his failure, rather, his lifelong sense of unresolved crisis, that makes him an indispensable point of reference for anyone who seeks a historical and psychological grasp of the dynamics of modern Japanese culture. He is the starting-point for the immense literary thematic of the tension between traditional Japan and the modern West, treated with such diversity by the leading twentieth century Japanese novelists. The standard work on this aspect is Richard John Bowring’s Mori Ogai and the modernization of Japanese culture (Cambridge University Press, 1979).
Bowring’s skill as a translator is evident in that work (compare his translation of a passage from `As If’ on pp. 190-1 with the far inferior version on p. 237 of the volume here reviewed) and in his four contributions to the present volume. Most of the translations here have been published previously; several of them should have been revised or replaced, notably those of Shoichi Ono and Sanford Goldstein, Gregg M. Sinclair and Kazo Suita, and Torao Taketomo; the latter date from 1918, and were perhaps retained for their historical interest. The new translations are mainly the work of James M. Vardaman, including the unfinished novel Kaijin (The Ashes of Destruction) in which Mori unsuccessfully tries to spice things up by introducing an enigmatic pistol-wielding boy-girl, and the playlet Kamen (Masks), in which a doctor invokes Nietzsche’s `beyond good and evil’ as he urges a tubercular patient to conceal his illness so as not to distress his mother - another odd hybridization of European ultra-modernity with traditional Japanese virtue.
Joseph S. O`Leary (The Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan 14, 1999)