As I sit here in Ohio, on May 1, 2020, somehow the world has become more surreal and dreamlike,
than "awake." In what we should be experiencing as the gorgeous, sunny days of spring, we are instead freezing cold, with pasty-white skies and rain
six days a week. Meanwhile the "real" news becomes more and more bizarre every day. But what makes it even more disturbing is that the vast
majority of the population thinks everything is "normal" and that they are awake. Are we? Or is it all just a dream?
Natsume Sōseki, was an important Japanese author whose short life spanned from 1867 to 1916. According to Wikipedia, he was "often considered the greatest writer in modern Japanese history." In this 1908 collection, called Ten Nights of Dreams by Wikipedia and considered by many to be autobiographical, Natsume Sōseki blurs the borders between waking and dreaming experience. In the interesting Introduction by Susan Napier, she says:
"Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious," proclaimed Sigmund Freud, suggesting that we find hidden aspects of ourselves through dreaming. But in the case of Natsume Sōseki's beautiful and eerie fantasy collection, Ten Nights Dreaming, we might perhaps ask, "Whose unconscious do you mean? Is it Sōseki the writer's unconscious? Or is it the collective unconscious of Japan at a crossroads moment in its history? Or could it even be the reader's own unconscious, because this collection of dreams stirs and provokes us in complex and memorable ways each time we read it?
Indeed, all of the above. And since we all have a terrible and traumatic history on this planet,
either physical, or through past lives, we find that, especially now, all that has been long-stored in our bodies and souls seems to be being dredged up and
projected into the world in the most horrific ways.
This very short Dover edition, which also contains the short story, The Cat's Grave, is only 65 pages long and can be read in one sitting but shouldn't be. Or else read, then pondered, then read again. I found much here to which I could relate. Natsume Sōseki's own life was filled with struggles and massive unhappiness, beginning with his childhood. According to this volume, his parents, who were "aged" (really, what we would consider middle-aged) when he was born. In their embarrassment, they gave him to another, younger family to raise. When he returned home, he was taught that his parent were his grandparents, for a while until a maid whispered the truth one night.
Natsume Sōseki (Natsume is the family name), was very intelligent, especially in languages. He mastered Chinese and English, and was encouraged to be a writer by the poet and author, Masaoka Shiki. Natsume Sōseki later became a teacher at Matsuyama Middle School in Shikoku, the second-smallest of the five main Japanese Islands. It was the inspiration for the humorous novel, Botchan, which I have read, and which is the only book of his available at Project Gutenberg, which I highly recommend reading. It is disappointing that more of his works are not available in digitized form.
In 1900, the Japanese Government sent Sōseki to study in Great Britain as "Japan's first Japanese English literary scholar," according to Wikipedia. He was pretty miserable there, too. He later returned to Japan, where he became a successful writer and person, but never a happy one. Though Wikipedia does not mention it, he was also married, and was not happy in that either. Susan Napier points out dreams that symbolize entrapment and sexuality, which she believes were also symbolic of his relationships. Why is it that so many of the world's most gifted people are also the most unhappy ones?
One other point I want to make is that these stories also reflect the tumultuous era in Japan, known as the Meiji, which ran from 1868 to 1912, roughly the years in which Sōseki was alive. This was the period of modernization in Japan, moving from a feudal society, to one that was, and still is highly advanced in technology, adopting Western "scientific, technological, philosophical, political, legal, and aesthetic ideas." This, of course, caused great disruption among the people of Japan, and let me point out that, especially the technology impact, is now disrupting the entire world. When one replaces technology for spiritual enlightenment, the results are never beneficial for life. Now I will tell just a little about each dream, and they are all very short.
The First Night
Here, the dreamer is with a dying woman with clear black eyes, which allow him to see his own reflection. He does not believe she is dying. She requests that he bury her by digging a hole with a large oyster shell, then using a fallen fragment of a star to mark her grave. She asks that he wait by the grave and she will return. It all happens as she said, so he begins his wait, which he seems unable to avoid. He begins counting the rising and setting of the sun, but loses count, until a green shoot appears from under the stone. It is a lily, and he kisses the cold, white, fragrant petals. He looks up and sees the dawn star, and knows that one hundred years have passed.
The Second Night
Okay, so the first one was really "dreamlike," but what about this? A samurai in a Zen temple has just left the oshō, (head priest). The samurai hates him. He has insulted him telling him he should have reached satori (enlightenment), because he is a samurai, but he has not. He feels for the dagger under his cushion. He wants to kill the oshō, but cannot do it before he reaches satori. He is determined to become enlightened within the next hour. (It does not work that way, does it?) If he does not reach enlightenment, he will kill himself instead. His mind begins to "warp." Then the clock strikes the hour. Yeah, I think many of us are experiencing this feeling about now, and this dream certainly is on the edge of reality.
The Third Night
But what about this one? As we all seem to be experiencing events from the past lately, (though most are unaware of that), this dream is on the edge of reality. A man carries a six-year old boy on his back, whom he believes is his son, and who is blind, but he knows nothing else about him. The child, however, speaks like an adult, and, though blind, leads him along the path to a woods. The man is thinking he wants to dump this kid, but when they come to a certain tree, the child reminds his father that that was the place he murdered him one hundred years ago. The father remembers and the boy becomes suddenly as heavy as a stone statue. I think this one can be interpreted many ways for different people, but obviously, for Sōseki it was referring to his own parents' rejection of him.
The Fourth Night
This one, like The Second Night, involves someone who believes he can do something, but is unable to make it happen. In this case it is an old man, somewhat drunk, who believes he can make his towel become a snake. The dreamer is a child, who also believes it will happen. Other children, too, surround the man as he plays his flute, but the towel remains a towel. He finally puts it back in the box, and says it will turn into a snake now. He begins to walk away, into the river until he is completely submerged, and never reappears.
The Fifth Night
In this strange dream which takes place in ancient Japan, a man is captured by the enemy. His captor gives him the choice of life or death, but since life would mean surrender, he chooses death, But he requests one last word with the woman he loves. The enemy gives him until the cock crows. Meanwhile, his love has jumped upon her horse, and is riding frantically. But Amanojaku, (a malicious female figure in Japanese folklore), makes her hear the sound of the cock, and she lets go the reins. She and the horse pitch forward into the deep crevice.
The Sixth Night
Here is one that blurs the lines between waking and dreaming. The famous sculptor, Unkei, is carving the Two Benevolent Kings at the main gate of the Tokyo temple Gokoku-ji, in modern times, that is, Sōseki's era. A bunch of bored rickshaw drivers stand around waiting for passengers, meanwhile making inane conversations, as is typical of those not being particularly educated or intelligent. The dreamer, knowing that Unkei has been long-dead, wonders, but still observes, fascinated at how he strikes the chisel and the forms magically appear. An intelligent young man comments that the forms are already in the wood, he simply is freeing them. The dreamer, excited, goes home and begins to chisel his own wood, waiting for a sculpture to appear, which it does not, and he comes to the conclusion that the Two Benevolent Kings were not buried in Meiji trees. I have actually heard that comment before about gifted sculptors, who simply free the sculpture from where it is trapped.
The Seventh Night
This one is absolutely real! The dreamer is aboard the ship and terribly lonely. No one speaks, nor does he know where the ship is going. He tries to ask but people seem unconcerned. Most of the people seem foreign. His loneliness and misery finally come to a head, and he is resolved to jump overboard. But the moment he jumps, he feels regret and tries to undo his action, which he cannot. I think a great many of us are feeling this way these days. For Sōseki, it must have symbolized his time in England, and probably in his own country, too, in general, feeling like an outcast, with no one and nowhere to fit in. This theme, in the books I am reading lately, seems to be showing up frequently. And in real life. I think a good many of us feel like we are on a ship floating in the night without a captain.
The Eighth Night
As many dreams are, this one is perhaps the most surreal. A man is in a barber shop facing a mirror in which he can view other parts of the shop and also see what is going on in the street outside the window. He sees familiar faces and vendors, or hears sounds but cannot see their source. He sees a disheveled geisha, then his barber appears and begins to work on him. The barber asks if he has seen the goldfish peddler, which he has not. He then notices a woman behind the pay screen. She seems to have one hundred ten-yen bills, but no matter how many she counts, the same number remain in the stack. When he leaves the barber shop, he sees the goldfish vendor by the door, with all varieties of goldfish, but the man never moves.
The Ninth Night
Of all of them this and The Seventh Night seem absolutely real. A mother with a two-year-old child awaits the return of her samurai husband. At night, she takes the child to the shrine of Hachiman-gū, the patron of warriors. She then secures the little one to the railing of the shrine's porch, while she walks the forty-yard path of stone one hundred times, saying her prayers. She does not know that her husband is already dead. The dreamer says this was told to him by his mother in a dream.
The Tenth Night
Sōseki ends his dream cycle with one that is humorous, sexual and very gross. Shōtarō has finally returned after seven days, very week and ill, and the prognosis is not good. Known for his idleness and habit of wasting his time watching the ladies, a wealthy lady buys a basket of fruit in the shop where Shōtarō stands. He offers to help her carry it, so off they go. But she takes him on a very long train ride, which ends at a high meadow, ending in a cliff. She tells him to jump, and if he does not, he will be licked by a pig. Soon a pig comes along and Shōtarō pushes it over the cliff with his cane. And then another and another and another, until, after six nights and seven days, he cannot go on, and a pig licks him. He collapses, and returns home very ill, Ken-san warns against excessive woman-watching, and meanwhile eyes Shōtarō's Panama hat, which will no doubt be his soon.
The book concludes with a very short story called The Cat's Grave, about the death of the family cat who starred in his first published book, I Am a Cat. The cat is now old and sickly, and the older and sicker it gets, the more the family ignores it, which I found appalling. It finally dies, but then the wife and children memorialize it, the wife placing flowers and food on the grave every month on the anniversary of its death. I could not help but wonder if this was Sōseki commenting that perhaps his own wife and child, or children would honor him more if he were dead. But that's just a guess, and I have not been able to find enough about his personal life to be sure.
In all this is a very compelling work, which I am going to keep within reach for a few more days, in order to browse it again, and discover deeper meanings in these fascinating little pieces, of which the possibilities are probably endless. Highly recommended.
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