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  • What Sort of a Stone Was Sōseki?How to Become Who You Are Not
  • Tawada Yōko (bio)
    Translated by J. Keith Vincent (bio)

We agreed that I would speak in Japanese today. So I am relieved not to have to pronounce difficult English words, cramming my tongue against my palate in uncomfortable ways, while ruddering both sides of my tongue to the left and the right. Of course it is not easy to give a lecture in Japanese either. Since a lecture is spoken rather than written, one has to use the polite "desu-masu" style, and this slows everything down.1 Your thoughts want to race ahead, but these sociable words keep bowing and apologizing to the audience, so that your thoughts can't quite get out of the gate. Natsume Sōseki and his generation of writers worked hard to unite the spoken and written languages (genbun'itchi), but today's written Japanese has once again drifted away from spoken language, opening a gap between them. Of course, this situation makes us writers happy. Depending on how we skirt this gap, new styles of writing emerge.


I would like to begin by thinking about the name Sōseki. There are lots of people I like whose names end in the word "stone" like Sōseki's does. "Stone" is stein in German, so this list includes Gertrude Stein, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Albert Einstein, and Frankenstein. For me, Sōseki has always belonged to this collection of stones. And yet we should also remember that the word "stone" (石) only made it into Sōseki's name because a certain person a very long time ago meant to say water, but said "stone" by mistake.

In China there was once a statesman named Sūn Chǔ. One day, he meant to say to a friend, "I'll pillow my head on the rocks and gargle in the stream," meaning that he intended to retire to the country. But instead, he misdelivered the phrase and said, "I'll gargle with rocks and pillow my head on the stream." When the friend pointed out his mistake the stubborn Sūn Chǔ replied: "The reason for pillowing on the stream is to wash my ears; the reason for gargling stones is to clean my teeth." The name Sōseki [End Page 12] (漱石) derives from this story, and means "stone gargler."2 When I first learned this story in high school, I loved this image of using a pillow made of water and gargling with a collection of stones. It appealed to my love for the surreal. Just by switching the positions of the words, you create a space that doesn't exist in reality. And this is not true only of words. You can also arrange a collection of stones in such a way that it looks like a garden with water running through it. So what kind of garden was Sōseki's garden of stones?

I read Hasumi Shigehiko's 1978 book on Sōseki as an undergraduate, and it gave me a little shock.3 Until then, I had no experience of reading for motifs, and no experience reading language like Hasumi's, which was anything but straightforward. But thanks to Hasumi, I started noticing water images everywhere in Sōseki. Scholars must of course develop the habit of looking for images as they read, but we writers have to be careful not to let this become a habit. I don't think I am the only writer who feels that as soon as I start thinking consciously about motifs, it becomes impossible to write. It's wonderful when the same motif appears repeatedly without the writer noticing. But if the motif is so obvious that the writer does notice it, it is usually better to cut it. When a writer employs motifs intentionally, it's like a corporation stationing a pretty girl on the street corner to market a new product.

In Sōseki's case important scenes are often accompanied by water images, but we don't feel as if the author has put them there intentionally. Rather, it is as if the water has flowed...


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pp. 12-23
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