Tag Archives: train

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.

Ryunosuke Akutagawa – Mandarin Oranges

26 Jan

Last year when I published a post with the story The Good Faith of Wei Sheng by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) many of you seemed to like it, so I decided to share another one I loved. The story I am sharing with you today, Mandarin Oranges, is less lyrical and more realistic, but it possesses a strength that culminates in the very end with a sentence that I couldn’t forget even after a year of reading the story: It was not until then that I could forget for a while the inexplicable fatigue and weariness, and the obscurity, lowness and boredom of life.

I accompanied the story with beautiful paintings of Victorian flower girls and poor children, which, in my view, suits the mood of the story. I am not an expert in Japanese art to find the Japanese art to follow the story.

Augustus Edwin Mulready, The Flower Girl, 1872

It was a cloudy winter evening.

I was sitting at the end of the seat in the second class car.  The train was to leave Yokosuka for Tokyo and I was waiting absentmindedly for a whistle to blow.

As is not usual,  there were no passengers except me in the car,  which had already been lit inside.

Looking out at the platform,  I didn’t see any persons who came for a send-off; only a puppy was sometimes barking sadly in the cage.

Strangely enough, such bleak scenery fit my feeling of that time.

Inexplicable fatigue and weariness were casting their shadow in my mind like the cloudy sky threatening to snow.

I kept both my hands in my overcoat pocket;  I didn’t have much strength even to take an evening newspaper out of it to read.

Meanwhile, a whistle blew to signal the departure.

Thomas Benjamin Kennington, The Pinch of Poverty, 1892

Having a slight peace of mind, with my head against the window frame, I was expecting half-heartedly that the station before my eyes would start moving backward trailingly.

But prior to it, I had hardly heard a loud noise of wooden clogs from the gate accompanied by the conductor’s abuse, when I saw a girl in her early teens open the door and come in hurriedly.  At the very moment the train swayed heavily once and moved off slowly.

Each pillar on the platform, a water-wagon for a locomotive looking as if left behind, and a porter thanking his customer for the tip —-they lingered but soon fell behind the smoke blown against the windows.

Feeling relieved at last , I opened my heavy eyelids and gave my first serious glance at the girl seated in front of me while I was lighting a cigarette.

She was a typical bumpkin with ichogaeshi-styled dry hair and chapped cheeks so flushed as to look strange.

She hang loosely a spring-green colored woolen muffler over her knees, and on them lay a package covered with furoshiki.

She held it in her frostbitten hands, in one of which she also clasped tightly a ticket for the third class car.

I disliked her vulgar looks.

I was disgusted by her dirty clothes.

And I was displeased by her senselessness of not being able to tell the second class car from the third class car.

So after I lit a cigarette, I took the newspaper out of my pocket and spread it on my knees, for one thing, to forget about her.

Vilko Šeferov, 1928

Then suddenly the light lit on the newspaper changed; it had come from outside, but now it came from the ceiling, making the types of the newspaper appear clearly before my eyes.

Needless to say, the train was entering the first of the several tunnels on the Yokosuka Line.

When I looked over the newspaper under the electric light, I found nothing but routine incidents occurring in the world, which were there to console my gloom.

Treaty of Versailles, weddings, bribery, obituary — I ran my eyes over these dreary articles almost mechanically,  under the illusion that the moment the train entered the tunnel in the opposite direction

However, I could not but be aware of the girl sitting in front of me, personifying the vulgar reality.

This train passing through the tunnel, this bumpkin girl, this evening newspaper filled with routine articles— weren’t they all symbols?   Didn’t they all symbolize obscurity, lowness and boredom of life?

Coming to feel everything was worthless, I threw away the half-read newspaper and closed my eyes as if dead.  I began to doze with my head against the window frame.

Several minutes had passed.

Augustus Edwin Mulready, Little Flower Sellers, 1887

Suddenly I felt as if I had been threatened by something and I looked around in spite of myself and found the girl, who had changed her seat from my opposite to my side, trying to open the window eagerly.

But it seemed that the heavy window would not open up against her wishes.

The chapped cheeks became all the more flushed and some sniffles accompanied with a low breathless noise reached my ears constantly.

It certainly aroused some sympathy of mine.

But it was obvious that the train was right on the point of another tunnel by seeing the mountains on both sides, where dry grass were reflected by twilight,  approaching the train window.

Nevertheless, the girl was trying to drop open the window which was closed on purpose.

I couldn’t understand what forced her to do so.

No, I could not but think she was doing out of caprice.

So, with hostility deep inside toward her, coldheartedly I was watching her struggling to open the window with those frostbitten hands, hoping that her attempt would never succeed forever.

Then the train rushed into the tunnel with an appalling noise, at which moment the  window was dropped open at last.

And the air , as dark as melted soot, came in through the square opening and , turning into suffocating thick smoke, began to fill the car.

Claude Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train, 1877

Having a naturally weak throat, I tried but failed to put a handkerchief over my face in time not to be bathed with the smoke.  Consequently, I was made to cough so violently that I could hardly breathe.

But the girl seemed not to care about me and looked hard in the direction the train went,  making a long neck out of the window with her hair blown in the wind in the dark.

When I saw her in the smoke and the electric light,  it was getting brighter and brighter outside the window, from which the cold smell of soil, dry grass and water flew in; otherwise I would have scolded the strange girl without waiting for her excuse and ordered her to close the window though I had been relieved of coughs at last by that time.

Aleksander Gierymski, Jewess with Oranges, 1880-81

But having gone through the tunnel smoothly, the train was coming near the crossing on the outskirts of a poor town lying among the mountains covered with dry grass.

Near the crossing were shabby cramped houses with thatched and tiled roofs.

And in the dusk was fluttering languidly a white flag, which would be waved by a gateman.

It was when I thought the train had passed through the tunnel at last that I saw three red cheeked boys standing closely together in a line behind the fence of the crossing.

They were all as short as if they were held down by the cloudy sky.

And all of them were wearing kimono of the same color as the gloomy scenery of the outskirts town.

They had no sooner raised their hands at the same time, while looking up at the train passing, than they bent their little neck backward and gave an incomprehensible cry with all their might.

Then it happened.

William J. McCloskey (1859–1941), Wrapped Oranges, 1889

The girl,  who had leant half her body out of a window, stretched her frostbitten hand and shook it vigorously.  Then some five or six mikan, so beautifully sunny-orange colored as to make one happy, showered down on the boys who had seen the train off.

The unexpected scene took my breath away.

And I understood everything at once.

The girl, who was likely to be on the way to her new employer, threw some mikan out of her kimono pocket to reward her brothers who came all the way to the crossing to see her off.

The crossing of the outskirts town in the dusk, the three children cheering like little birds, and the bright color of mikan falling around them – all of them had gone by in a blink.

Henry Walton, The Market Girl, 1776-77

But the scene had been printed on my mind so clearly in a heartrending way.

And I realize a strange feeling of something cheerful also sprang up from there.

I raised my head confidently and gazed at the girl as if she were another person.

Before I noticed, she had sat on the seat before me again , with her chapped cheeks buried in her spring-green colored woolen muffler.

In her hand, which held a big furoshiki, she clasped tightly the ticket for the third class car.

It was not until then that I could forget for a while the inexplicable fatigue and weariness, and the obscurity, lowness and boredom of life.”

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*mikan, the fruit the girl is giving away, is of Asian origin, also translated as satsuma mandarin, satsuma orange, tangerine and cold hardy mandarin, hence the title.