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  • Kokoro and the Economic Imagination
  • Brian Hurley (bio)

In "The Sense of the Past," an essay included in The Liberal Imagination (1950), the literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote, "In the existence of every work of literature of the past, its historicity, its pastness, is a factor of great importance. […] Side by side with the formal elements of the work, and modifying these elements, there is the element of history, which, in any complete analysis, must be taken into account."1 In this spirit, the analysis that follows focuses on the confluence of literary sensibility and intellectual history which, I argue, flowed through Edwin McClellan's 1957 translation of Natsume Sōseki's novel Kokoro (1914).2 This approach is not without irony, though, because in evaluating the translation of the novel in terms of "its historicity, its pastness," we notice that it came from a context in the history of academic reading that set minimal store by the question of historicist contextualization itself. The conditions of possibility that gave rise to Sōseki's novel in early twentieth-century Japan do not seem to have been what guided McClellan's appreciation and translation of Kokoro. And what might be referred to in today's academic language as the contingent "constructedness" of social categories that appear in the text—such as the gendered construct of "masculinity," for example, and the class construct of "the bourgeois intellectual"—was anathema to the premise of a universal "human condition" that McClellan and his interlocutors in the 1950s explored. For them, Kokoro would have mattered as a "great book." It was a globally legible and universally relevant record of humanity whose deepest reverberations echoed across time and space without reference to their origins. The context that mattered in their reading of Kokoro was the context of being a human being.

This may sound like a politically apathetic form of reading.3 But in fact it was the opposite, and the purpose of this essay is to show how close reading the literary form of Kokoro can help us to sense how McClellan's interlocutors on the Cold War American right read the political form of liberal subjectivity in what they believed to [End Page 24] have been an undesigned world structured by the invisible hand of the free market. This approach begins with the observation that McClellan translated Kokoro before he became a professor of Japanese literature, and at a time when his closest intellectual contacts numbered among the most influential figures on the Cold War American right. When the translation appeared in 1957, his former mentor at Michigan State and close friend Russell Kirk had recently published The Conservative Mind (1953), a lengthy meditation on the history of conservative sentiments, which has been credited with helping to form the Cold War conservative movement. After working with Kirk, McClellan moved to the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. There, his advisor was Friedrich Hayek, the noted Austrian economist who was then leading the Mont Pèlerin Society, an international group of liberal intellectuals committed to the revitalization of free market thought, and who are sometimes counted among the earliest articulators of "neoliberalism."

The term "neoliberalism" has been used in all sorts of contexts, of course, but in the context of this essay, one of its resonances that I aim to amplify is that it identifies a peculiar mid-century conjuncture in the history of free market thought and liberal sentiment—a conjuncture out of which McClellan's Kokoro translation also emerged. When Hayek organized the Mont Pèlerin Society in 1947, he had in mind an organization that would rejuvenate liberalism not only as an economic and political rationality rooted in free market enterprise, but as a comprehensive and expansive form of imagination. The ravages of the Great Depression and the rise of the totalitarian menace during the global 1930s had signaled that the liberal promise of private freedom could be broken, and that the invisible hand of the free market could be replaced by the authoritarian hand of the fascist state. Even after the fall of the wartime regimes in Germany and Italy in 1945, Hayek sensed that the illiberal collectivist...


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