Tag Archives: The Three-Cornered World

Natsume Soseki: Spring makes one drowsy…

26 Apr

One of my all time favourite novels is Natsume Soseki’s “The Three-Cornered World” originally published in 1906. It is an oasis of calmness, wisdom and meditative thoughts on nature and art. The story is told in the first person by the main character, a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who one day sets out on a journey to the mountains, in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. I already wrote a book review for this novel and also a post about the Beauty in every day life in relation to the narrator’s thoughts, but today, on this wonderful, warm, green April afternoon, I wanted to share a passage from the first chapter in which the narrator speaks of the beauties of spring, seeing the world from the poet’s point of view, sadness and sensitivity as related to being a poet. I also love the point that detaching yourself from the situation makes you see the true Beauty of it, if you observe your life from a detached point of view, it turns into a poetic experience, I do this all the time and it’s wonderful. And to accompany this spring mood, a few lovely paintings by Renoir.

Scene from Marie Antoinette (2006)

“Spring makes one drowsy. The cat forgets to chase the mouse; humans forget that they owe money. At times the presence of the soul itself is forgotten, and one sinks into a deep haze. But when I behold that distant field of mustard blossom, my eyes spring awake. When I hear the skylark’s voice, my soul grows clear and vivid within me. It is with its whole soul that the skylark sings, not merely with its throat. Surely there’s no expression of the soul’s motion in voice more vivacious and spirited than this. Ah, joy! And to think these thoughts, to taste this joy – this is poetry.

Renoir, Girls Picking Flowers in a Meadow, about 1890

“Shelley’s poem about the skylark immediately leaps to my mind. I try reciting it to myself, but I can remember only two or three verses. One of them goes

“We look before and after

And pine for what is not:

Our sincerest laughter

With some pain is fraught;

Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”

Yes indeed, no matter how joyful the poet may be, he cannot hope to sing his joy as the skylark does, with such passionate wholeheartedness, oblivious to all thought of before and after. In Chinese poetry one often finds suffering expressed as, for instance, “a hundredweight of sorrows,” and similar expressions can be seen in Western poetry too of course, but for the non-poet, the poet’s hundredweight may well be a mere dram or so. It strikes me now that poets are great sufferers; they seem to have more than double the nervous sensitivity of the average person. They may experience exceptional joys, but their sorrows too are boundless. This being the case, it’s worth thinking twice before you become a poet….

Sorrows may be the poet’s unavoidable dark companion, but the spirit with which he listens to the skylark’s song holds not one jot of suffering. At the sight of the mustard blossoms too, the heart simply dances with delight. Likewise with dandelions, or cherry blossoms—but now I suddenly realize that in fact the cherries have disappeared from sight. Yes, here among these mountains, in immediate contact with the phenomena of the natural world, everything I see and hear is intriguing for me. No special suffering can arise from simply being beguiled like this—at worst, surely, it is tired legs and the fact that I can’t eat fine food.”

Renoir, Young Woman with a Japanese Umbrella, 1876

“But why is there no suffering here? Simply because I see this scenery as a picture; I read it as a set of poems. Seeing it thus, as painting or poetry, I have no desire to acquire the land and cultivate it, or to put a railway through it and make a profit. This scenery—scenery that adds nothing to the belly or the pocket—fills the heart with pleasure simply as scenery, and this is surely why there is neither suffering nor anxiety in the experience. This is why the power of nature is precious to us. Nature instantly forges the spirit to a pristine purity and elevates it to the realm of pure poetry. Love may be beautiful, filial piety may be a splendid thing, loyalty and patriotism may all be very fine. But when you yourself are in one of these positions, you find yourself sucked into the maelstrom of the situation’s complex pros and cons—blind to any beauty or fineness, you cannot perceive where the poetry of the situation may lie.

To grasp this, you must put yourself in the disinterested position of an outside observer, who has the leisurely perspective to be able to comprehend it. A play is interesting, a novel is appealing, precisely because you are a third-person observer of the drama. The person whose interest is engaged by a play or novel has left self-interest temporarily behind. For the space of time that he reads or watches, he is himself a poet.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Girls in the Grass Arranging a Bouquet, 1890

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Young Girl in the Garden at Mezy, 1891

Beauty in the Everyday – Turner and Okyo (Natsume Soseki’s The Three-Cornered World)

22 Mar

“We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart.”

(Soseki, The Three-Cornered World)

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844

One of my all time favourite novels is Natsume Soseki’s “The Three-Cornered World” originally published in 1906. It is an oasis of calmness, wisdom and meditative thoughts on nature and art. The story is told in the first person by the main character, a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who one day sets out on a journey to the mountains, in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. He stays at a hot spring resort where he is the only guest. One moonlit night he hears a woman singing in the garden. This mysterious beauty, called Nami, captures his imagination, not in a romantic but in an artistic way. The simple plot where nothing much happens is great because the true beauty of the novel can shine through: the poetic, zen-like writing which transports the viewer in a meditative state. The original title of the book is “Kusamakura” which literally means “Grass Pillow”, and the term in Japanese carries a symbolic meaning, implying a journey without a specific destination. Instead of dynamic events and exciting adventures, the narrator ponders on what it actually means to be an artist and the bliss of being in the state of inspiration:

I suppose you could say that the artist is one who lives in a three-cornered world, in which the corner that the average person would call “common sense” has been sheared off from the ordinary four-square world that the normal inhabit. For this reason, be it in nature or in human affairs, the artist will see the glitter of priceless jewels of art in places where the common herd fears to tread. The vulgar mind terms it “romanticizing,” but it is no such thing. In fact, the phenomenal world has always contained that scintillating radiance that artists find there. It’s just that eyes blinded by worldly passions cannot see the true nature of reality. Inextricable entanglements bind us to everyday success and failure and by ardent hopes – and so we pass by unheeding, until a Turner reveals for us in his paintings the splendour of the steam train, or an Okyo gives us the beauty of the ghost.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, View of Takanawa Ushimachi under a Shrouded Moon, 1879

The narrator portrays the artist, himself included, as a person who is here to show others the beauty around them which they would otherwise be unaware of. The artist is the one who, through his art, tells people to stop and take a look at the wondrous, whimsical and beautiful things in the world around us. The narrator chose two interesting artists to illustrate his point; British Romanticist Turner and an eighteenth century Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Maruyama Okyo. I love it when novels reference other things, it’s like a springboard from one source of inspiration to another. Turner’s grandiose and awe-inspiring canvases, filled with golden lightness and dreamy mists, usually portray sunsets or historical events, but in the painting referenced by the narrator, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway”, painted in 1844, near the very end of the painter’s life, the subject is something completely modern and everyday; a train. Just imagine the excitement, awe and fear with which the Victorians looked at trains. I dare say I look at them at the same way too, even today. Trains are fascinatingly fast and frightening in their speed and yet they also seem vintage in some way because it seems more romantical to travel by train than by bus. Turner captured the train’s speed and cloud of fog with the same brilliance that he had previously devoted himself to historical scenes, which shows that he approached two very different motifs with the same ardour and with the same patient search for beauty that any artist has. Soseki lived in England for two years, just before this novel was published and it’s very likely he had seen this painting in person. I’ve also included here a Japanese artist Kiyochika’s exploration of the train-motif in a more direct way than Turner, but still carrying its own beauty.

Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795), The Ghost of Oyuki, 1750

Another example the narrator gives is a painting of a ghost by the artist Maruyama Okyo. The narrator doesn’t mention a specific painting, but with a little research makes it clear that Soseki is referring to Okyo’s famous ink on silk painting which shows the female yurei or the traditional Japanese ghost of his lover Oyuki. It is a poignant portrait of a dead beloved which came from intense sadness and longing, almost a century before Poe wrote of similar themes in his poems and short stories. The ghost-girl Oyuki was Okyo’s mistress who worked in the Tominaga Geisha house and died young. Looking at the dates, I see now that Okyo was just seventeen years old at the time, wow, what a deep, profound and melancholy gesture… This sad event must have shaped his life in one way or another, and it has certainly shaped the way the Japanese, even today, see a female ghost, as a creature in white clothes, pale face, dark hair falling like weeping willow branches and ending in faint, thin lines, and lower body and feet disappearing. So simple, yet so poignant and sweetly melancholy.

Vincent van Gogh, Shoes, 1888

Another example which isn’t mentioned in the novel, but goes with the narrator’s idea; Vincent van Gogh’s “portrait” of his old, dirty, worn out shoes. The motif, when spoken out loud, seems laughable and not even remotely worthy of being painted, but van Gogh painted this pair of shoes with the same passionate approach that he had for his landscape, wheat fields and sunflowers, look at the careful brushwork and wild patches of colour. If Van Gogh didn’t paint his old shoes as his artist mission to show us beauty around us, we would never have known just what beauty lies in them.

The Three-Cornered World (Kusamakura) by Natsume Soseki

25 Feb

Last February I read Natsume Soseki’s book “The Thee-Cornered World” for the first time and it left a deep impression on me so I decided to read it again this month, and spread the word of its beauty.

Hashiguchi Goyo, Hot Springs Inn

The story is told in the first person. The main character is a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who set on a journey to the mountains in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. He stays at a hot spring resort where he is the only guest. One moonlit night he hears a woman singing in the garden. This mysterious beauty, called Nami, captures his imagination, but not in a romantic but in an artistic way. The plot is simple and the story is not a dynamic one full of events and exciting adventures. Instead, Soseki fills the pages with essay-like meditations on art and nature as the narrator tries to explain to us and himself what is means to be an artist and the bliss of being in the state of inspiration.

Another thing, the narrator loves Percy Shelley’s poetry and is infatuated with John Everett Millais’ painting “Ophelia”, especially with her face expression which he think reveals a body not suffering, but finding serenity in death. The narrator puts an emphasis on the sensitivity to beauty around you, whether it’s a pale face of a beautiful woman, a shoji paper, crimson camellia petals on a surface of a dark lake, a cherry tree in bloom or the gentle rays of sun coming into the room. Contemplation gives birth to moments of inspiration, and throughout the novel the narrator composes haiku poems and dreams of painting a perfect painting; not on canvas but in his imagination because he thinks being an artist is a state of mind rather than a skill or an occupation. To put it simply, if you like the narrator and his world views, you will enjoy the novel as well. The book invites the reader to stillness and sweet contemplation of beauties around you.

The original title of the book is “Kusamakura” which literally means “Grass Pillow”, and the term in Japanese carries a symbolic meaning, implying a journey without a specific destination. Another translation of the book is “The Three-Cornered World”, which comes from this quote:

“I suppose you could say that the artist is one who lives in a three-cornered world, in which the corner that the average person would call “common sense” has been sheared off from the ordinary four-square world that the normal inhabit.”

The quote continues: “For this reason, be it in nature or in human affairs, the artist will see the glitter of priceless jewels of art in places where the common herd fears to tread. The vulgar mind terms it “romanticizing,” but it is no such thing. In fact, the phenomenal world has always contained that scintillating radiance that artists find there. It’s just that eyes blinded by worldly passions cannot see the true nature of reality. Inextricable entanglements bind us to everyday success and failure and by ardent hopes – and so we pass by unheeding, until a Turner reveals for us in his paintings the splendour of the steam train, or an Okyo gives us the beauty of the ghost.”

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1852

Here is a beautiful dialogue between the narrator and Nami, in the ninth chapter:

“Where were you, in fact? The abbot was asking about it, guessing you must have gone off for a walk again.”

“Yes, I walked down to the Mirror Pool and back.”

“I’d like to go there sometime….”

“Please do.”

“Is it a good place to paint?”

“It’s a good place to drown yourself.”

“I don’t have any intention of doing that just yet.”

“I may do it quite soon.”

This joke is uncomfortably close to the bone for mere feminine banter, and I glance quickly at her face. She looks disconcertingly determined.

“Please paint a beautiful picture of me floating there – not lying there suffering, but drifting peacefully off to the other side of the world.”

“Eh?”

“Aha, that surprised you, didn’t it? I’ve surprised you, I’ve surprised you!”

She rises smoothly to her feet. Three paces take her across to the door where she turns and beams at me. I just sit there, lost in astonishment.

***

Hashiguchi Goyo, Woman at a Hot Spring Hotel, 1920

Also interesting, in one chapter the narrator is reading a Western book, but not from the first to the last page, but dipping in here and there, not following the plot but relishing in beauty of the words, and Nami finds it strange, but insists that he reads it to her out loud. The narrator says:

It’s because I’m an artist that I don’t need to read a novel from cover to cover. On the other hand, wherever I choose to dip in is interesting for me. Talking to you is interesting too. In fact, it’s so interesting that I’d like to talk to you every day while I’m staying here. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind falling in love with you. That would make it even more interesting. But we wouldn’t need to marry, no matter how in love with you I was. A world where falling in love requires marrying is a world where novels require reading from beginning to end.

Kyoto, photo by maco-nonch.

And now the quotes because, at least for me, sometimes the quote make me eager to read the book more than the plot:

As I climb the mountain path, I ponder –

If you work by reason, you grow rough-edged; if you choose to dip your oar into sentiment’s stream, it will sweep you away. Demanding your own way only serves to constrain you. However you look at it, the human world is not an easy place to live.

And when its difficulties intensify, you find yourself longing to leave that world and dwell in some easier one – and then, when you understand at last that difficulties will dog you wherever you may live, this is when poetry and art are born. (…) We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart.

“Sorrows may be the poet’s unavoidable dark companion, but the spirit with which he listens to the skylark’s song holds not one jot of suffering. At the sight of the mustard blossoms too, the heart simply dances with delight. Likewise with dandelions, or cherry blossoms.”

Photo found here.

“Yes, here among these mountains, in immediate contact with the phenomena of the natural world, everything I see and hear is intriguing for me.”

“In order to regain the poetic point of view on this occasion, I have only to set up before myself my own feelings, then take a step back from them and calmly, dispassionately investigate their true nature. The poet has an obligation to dissect his own corpse and reveal the symptoms of its illness to the world.”

“While we live in this world with its daily business, forced to walk the tightrope of profit and loss, true love is an empty thing, and the wealth before our eyes mere dust. The reputation we grasp at, the glory that we seize, is surely like the honey that the cunning bee will seem sweetly to brew only to leave his sting within it as he flies. What we call pleasure in fact contains all suffering because it arises from attachment. Only thanks to the existence of the poet and the painter are we able to imbibe the essence of this dualistic world, to taste the purity of its very bones and marrow. The artist feasts on mists, he sips the dew, appraising this hue and assessing that, and he does not lament the moment of death. The delight of artists lies not in attachment to objects but in taking the object into the self, becoming one with it. Once he has become the object, no space can be found on this vast earth of ours where he might stand firmly as himself. He has cast off the dust of the sullied self and became a traveller clad in tattered robes, drinking down the infinities of pure mountain winds.”

“I am floating there aimlessly (…) when from somewhere I hear the plucked notes of a shamisen. (…) But listening idly to the sound of those distant strings makes me wonderfully happy, laying here in a hot bath in a remote mountain village, my very soul adrift in the spring water on a quiet vernal evening, with the rain adding to the delight of the occasion.”

“Yet here this young man sits, beside an artist for whom the sole value of human life lies in dreaming.”