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  • Measuring Feeling as Theory of LiteratureRomanticism and the Performance of Genre in Natsume Sōseki’s Kusamakura and Critical Writings
  • Daniel Poch (bio)

Natsume Sōseki 夏目漱石 (1867–1916) is widely thought of today as one of the greatest novelists of modern Japan, but it is less well known that throughout his writing career he was highly ambivalent, if not suspicious, of the novel (shōsetsu 小説) and may not have even thought of himself as a novelist. Largely under the influence of Western models, this new genre had become widely accepted as the literary norm in Japan by the early twentieth century.1 But its dominance challenged the understanding of literature as defined by traditional Japanese letters (bun 文), which included especially classical Chinese-style poetry and prose (kanshibun 漢詩文) but also waka 和歌 (thirty-one-syllable Japanese-style verse).2 These genres had defined the parameters of high-class Japanese literacy for more than a millennium and were still very much alive well into the late Meiji period. A proficient practitioner of kanshi 漢詩 (classical Chinese-style verse) and haiku [End Page 1] (seventeen-syllable Japanese-style verse) throughout his career, Sōseki was steeped in the aesthetic sensibility of traditional poetry.3 It is unsurprising, therefore, that when he began experimenting with literary prose in the early 1900s, influenced by his friend and poetic mentor Masaoka Shiki 正岡子規 (1867–1902), he labeled his narratives not as novels but as shaseibun 写生文 (sketch writing)—a type of prose Sōseki considered inherently poetic. An early masterpiece by Sōseki in this category is the acclaimed Wagahai wa neko de aru 我輩は猫である (I Am a Cat; 1905–1906).4

In his short essay Shaseibun 写生文 (On Sketch Writing; 1907), Sōseki defines the genre as a type of prose more akin to haiku poetry than to the novel.5 He explains that shaseibun writings, unlike novels, are largely devoid of plot and instead focus exclusively on objective observation. The most important difference that Sōseki highlights, however, is with regard to what he calls the “inner state” (shinteki jōtai 心的状態) of novelist and shaseibun author, respectively. He argues that the novelist is strongly affected by, or drawn into, his or her characters and their emotions. The shaseibun author, on the contrary, exhibits a gentle and humorous detachment that resembles the stance taken by a parent toward a child. Even if the child cries, Sōseki remarks, a good parent does not cry with the child. Similarly, the shaseibun author observes and describes (or “sketches”) his or her figures and their emotions—their love, their tears, their greed—not coldly, but with amused interest, unlike the novelist, who passionately sheds tears together with his or her characters.6 In short, Sōseki envisions the shaseibun genre in emotional terms as a type of prose writing that allows for more affective distance from the narrated world and its emotions than does the novel.

“Human emotion” (ninjō 人情) is a key concern in Sōseki’s essay and, as I will argue, his broader literary and theoretical project. The term “ninjō” was an important critical concept in Meiji-period discussions of the novel. It figures notably in the seminal treatise Shōsetsu shinzui 小説神髄 (The Essence of the Novel; 1885–1886), by influential literary critic and novelist Tsubouchi Shōyō 坪内逍遥 (1859–1935), which famously declares that the novel’s focus should be on the depiction of “human emotion” (ninjō) and “social manners” (setai 世態).7 Although ninjō could traditionally [End Page 2] denote a broader range of emotions, Shōyō used the term primarily in reference to male-female love and desire.8 His definition of the novel’s content was of great importance in shaping the subsequent development and understanding of the genre in Meiji Japan. Literary historian Hiraoka Toshio 平岡敏夫 has aptly labeled the Japanese novels widely read in the late 1880s and 1890s in the wake of Shōyō’s literary reform as “novels of human emotion and social manners” (ninjō setai shōsetsu 人情世態小説)—that is to say, novels that revolved around plots of love and sentiment, often in connection with the depiction of social problems.9 It was these novels— including Tokutomi Roka’s 徳富蘆花 (Kenjirō 健次郎; 1868–1927) Hototogisu 不如帰 (Cuckoo; 1898–1899...