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  • The Affect that Disorients Kokoro
  • Reiko Abe Auestad (bio)

The only consistent thing about people is their bodies. And because our bodies stay the same, most of us are content to assume that our minds do, too—that we go on being the selves we were, even when we do today the exact opposite of what we did yesterday. When the question of responsibility comes up and we are accused of breaking faith, why is it that none of us even thinks to reply, "well, that's because my personality is nothing but a bunch of memories. I'm just a mess inside"?

Natsume Sōseki, The Miner (Kōfu, 1908)1

Why Kokoro Again?

As might be expected of someone growing up in Japan in the sixties, I first read Natsume Sōseki's Kokoro (1914) in a high-school textbook. I did not like it at all. Even though my reading of the novel has evolved over time, I have remained puzzled by the main character Sensei's excessive sense of guilt, which is supposed to lend the novel its moral weight, and I have never been convinced that Sensei's so called betrayal of his friend K justifies such strong self-condemnation. Is it so easy to see a causal mechanism behind Sensei's interactions with K and other characters, which led to K's tragic death? Isn't he pointing the finger at himself too hastily? Reading recent work on affect has reinforced my skepticism about the certitude of Sensei's moral judgment, and inspired me to write this essay. In this essay, I will argue that Kokoro is not a novel about how Sensei, a moral man, takes responsibility for his past actions. Rather, it is about how Sensei crafts a moralizing, emotion-laden narrative out of the chaos of his own affective responses in the past.

I use the term "affect" to mean a feeling or intensity that affects one's body but is not yet connected to anything meaningful, distinguishing it from emotion, which suggests [End Page 45] something that has been interpreted and given a meaningful content.2 Affective responses are therefore necessarily disorganized to begin with. It should also be noted that there is another, more social, collective pole in affect—the larger "structure of feeling" or Zeitgeist (consciousness of a generation) as Sōseki calls it in Theory of Literature (Bungakuron, 1907)—in which one's affective response is often embedded.3 It is the kind of feeling that a group of people with a common social denominator such as class, generation, education, and gender are likely to share. One can argue that this socially-conditioned, attitudinal affect is formed over time by social forces that restrain the free circulation of affects by shaping them into more socially acceptable forms. Most importantly, the two poles of affect, spontaneous affects arising in the individual and the more durational social ones, are continuous, even if they create tensions. They work together, as it were, to regulate and stabilize one's social life. The problem arises, however, when a form of social organization that supports the status quo, the patriarchical ie system in Kokoro,4 for example, encounters and collides with other social forms that have different principles, such as the ideology of love in marriage. The collision can create a mismatch between the two poles of affect, or within the social pole of affect, leading to conflicts with grave consequences, which is what happens in Sensei's case, as we will see later.5

Suffice it for the moment to note that both poles of affect have a social dimension, to the extent that they are triggered by outside forces, independently of one's conscious intention. Their trajectory, as they fold into or combine with other affects, is often unpredictable and contingent. In other words, Sensei's initial, disorderly affective responses to his friend K are understandable and perhaps inevitable, and not necessarily damning evidence of his "egotism" or moral failing, as he later convinces himself when he retroactively narrates his past. Rather than acknowledging this however, Sensei creates a moral narrative that is so powerful that it eventually drives him to...


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pp. 45-60
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