Sanshiro by Natsume Soseki is a novel about Japanese masculinity in which Sanshiro, our hero, comes to terms with his role as a college-educated man fSanshiro by Natsume Soseki is a novel about Japanese masculinity in which Sanshiro, our hero, comes to terms with his role as a college-educated man from the country. Sanshiro is a Modern(ist) hero who develops a heightened sense of self-consciousness as a result of the industrialized and urbane environment of higher education in the city, a confusing confrontation with “unintelligible” Western literary artifacts that seem important in Japanese education, and from his indomitable fear of women. In the city, Sanshiro finds himself among flowers with “no fragrance to speak of.” The lectures that he initially painstakingly transcribes come to “neither cheer nor depress him,” and he is “quite unable to determine whether they were boring or not.” In fact, he comes to find it “strangely pleasant that he could not understand the lecture.” This period of Japanese history is referred to as a time in which “a freedom of the mind” is necessary and desirable through education. For this reason, Sanshiro reads his literature closely but “when he asked himself what he read, there was nothing. There was so much nothing, it was funny.” His journey to become an academic becomes meaningful due to its meaninglessness. Sanshiro “could not say he felt satisfied, but neither was he totally unsatisfied.” He is positioned in the lukewarm existence of a Modern hero who straddles — often confusedly — disparate states of being.
Such a contradictory journey leads Sanshiro, of course, to a different — perhaps somewhat related — journey of finding love. The novel begins with an embarrassing encounter with a “dark” woman on the train who weasels her way into his hotel room in order to, apparently, have a sexual encounter after much staring-down. After putting herself in Sanshiro’s way in just about every way imaginable, the woman observes, “You’re quite a coward, aren’t you?” Sanshiro thinks and over-thinks whether he should approach the willing woman. After an uneventful night together, he reflections that “He should have tried to go a little farther. But he was afraid. She called him a coward when they parted, and it shocked him, as though a twenty-three-year-old weakness had been revealed at a single blow.” He comes to the conclusion that “desire is a frightening thing.” Women, really, are frightening things for Sanshiro as we learn through his similar, unproductive affair with Mineko.
Mineko is a Modern Japanese woman who has the license to wear mismatched sandals, bright kimonos, and to give her money to whomever she pleases. She scares Sanshiro but also attracts him. For whatever reason, she likes Sanshiro — seems to want to marry him. Sanshiro wants to marry Mineko the “hypervillain,” too, but doesn’t. He has things to say but “cannot verbalize them” because “women are terrifying.” Mineko is disappointed and marries a very attractive friend of her brother’s. Sanshiro is disappointed and returns to his constant awareness of his body, which reflects the observations that he hears from Professor Hirota (a kind of academic hero) on his way to the city:
“‘We Japanese are sad-looking things next to them [Americans]. We can beat the Russians, we can become a ‘first class power,’ but it doesn’t make any difference. We still have the same faces, the same feeble little bodies.’m [...] Sanshiro had never expected to meet anyone like this after Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese war. The man was almost not Japanese, he felt.”
At first disgusted with Hirota’s observations about the Japanese male body, Sanshiro comes to think like-mindedly as he observes “the awareness that he was a youth of the new age had been strengthened [...] but nothing else had been strengthened; physically he was still the same.” This sense of Sanshiro’s physicality is contrasted with Mineko’s eventual husband, who is very attractive. Mineko marries the hot friend. Hirota, that all-admired “Great Darkness” doesn’t get a real position with the university.
Sanshiro ends with Sanshiro’s verdict that “Tokyo is not a very interesting place.” We are led to believe that Sanshiro, too, is uninteresting despite all the effort he has put in. His journey is disappointing. He hasn’t changed from the coward that he has been “since childhood.” We are left to acknowledge the role of the Japanese male — especially in contrast to the progressive Japanese female — is an impoverished enterprise. ...more
When I picked up a novel with a stunning title like Noli Me Tangere (Touch me Not), I expected to encounter a work dredged in corporeal, visceral expeWhen I picked up a novel with a stunning title like Noli Me Tangere (Touch me Not), I expected to encounter a work dredged in corporeal, visceral experience and language. I wanted a novel centered on the function of touch: human interaction, physicality, phenomenology, flesh. I didn’t get this in Jose Rizal’s incredible text, but I didn’t really feel disappointed in not getting what I wanted — because in some ways I received a more meaningful gift.
Having read Pilipino literature before and not walking away fully satisfied, I struggled to understand fiction from this very underrepresented country. Rizal’s novel put Pilipino literature on the map for me as a force of exemplary fiction. Rizal absolutely ATTACKS…well…everything in this work. In fact, I have rarely seen such blatant and unapologetic interrogation of major social and cultural institutions in a work of fiction. In Touch, Rizal problematizes it all: medicine, religion and clergy, government, love, education. There are some moments that had me holding my breath because what Rizal suggests is so unfathomable, so dark, that I couldn’t actually believe I was reading it. For example, the clergy’s treatment of the two poor brothers was — in a word — unnamable. I gulped down tears and felt truly angered by the possibility that Rizal was writing from what he knew in the Philippines. I want to be clear here: I nearly vomited. There was so much disgusting insinuation in this novel that I couldn’t close my eyes to it: Rizal paints a picture that you hate seeing but that you cannot pull your eyes from.
The novel has a power that I haven’t encountered a long time. That power doesn’t rest with the narrative style (which vacillates strangely and ineffectively). It also, for me, doesn’t originate from its hero, Ibarra. Ibarra is a weak hero who struggles to stand for anything much. The narrator is actually the hero of Rizal’s tale, and perhaps Maria Clara who refuses to participate when she doesn’t believe in the institution (such as marriage without love). The relationship between Ibarra and Maria Clara was the triumph of the novel, and I liked that it never comes to fruition. Unlike so many of the issues Rizal brings to the table, the love story is not problematized as a disgusting enterprise. It is criticized, instead, as an impossible one.
One reason that the love seems so impossible because, despite the title of this novel, TOUCH is missing from the pages of this fiction. The institutions seem untouchable; yet, so do the characters — and not in a theoretical way: in a physical way. There is no (appropriate, loving) touching here. I craved that. With so much violence, I longed for it more than anything else in Rizal’s piece. But he is relentless and unkind; he won’t allow that kind of touching. And by doing so, he touched me. ...more
Mary Hays is an eighteenth-century author obsessed with proving that she -- like her romantic contemporaries -- can use highfaluting language as an arMary Hays is an eighteenth-century author obsessed with proving that she -- like her romantic contemporaries -- can use highfaluting language as an argument for virtue: her own virtue. Memoirs of Emma Courtney is not an easy read although it is short, but the pay-offs are big. My jaw was hanging down to my feet from practically the first page. I have rarely -- never? -- encountered such a female heroine in English literature in my oh-so-many dimly-lit reading escapades of reading frenzies.
At first, there is nothing really astonishing about Emma Courtney, a well-read, imaginative orphan who blames her heightened sensibilities on her education. You think, of course, of Victoria de Lauredani or Oliphant's Hester, or Isabel Gilbert. Except, there never was such a sentimental heroine in all of human existence. Marianne Dashwood, stand back!
When I learned about the "cult of sensibility" in my "Making Sex" class at Clark University many years ago I wish that Professor Kasmer had made me read Hays's novel. There never was such a clear exploration of sentimentality, such a over-the-top articulation of the power of a girl gone wild with emotion. Hays's novel, which is often in an epistolary style, becomes repetitive and excessive as Courtney actually makes her obsessive love apparent to a young man she has only seen in a portrait, stuffing a letter into his hand before he departs his mother's estate, where Courtney is hiding out from her cruel caregivers.
I was shocked. Never before have I read of a woman from the eighteenth century who is so bold as to confess her plump lust and love for a man. But she goes on to expound about her passion many times over yet Hays never calls into question her heroine's virtue. Contrarily, Hays insists, like Courtney, that she is an exemplar of virtue and is blameless of the havoc wreaked on characters, including a man she marries to rescue herself from poverty.
The novel was not pleasant to read: overwrought. Yet, reading this novel is a must for anyone interesting in gender play during this time in England. I was floored. Here is a heroine -- virtuous, no less -- who throws herself at a married man, drives a husband to suicide, neglects her daughter for love, and blatantly tells off her elders and superiors (men, no less). To say that Courtney is "a romantic enthusiast" as she "melts into tears" at every turn, is a bit of an understatement. She won't leave the object of her passion alone, stalking him endlessly until I had a headache. She practically masturbates herself through the whole novel. Three cheers. (But not enough cheering to make up for writing and style, unfortunately.)...more