Lafcadio Hearn: The Meeting of Three Ways

IN his recent book, Kottō,1 as he calls it, Mr. Hearn has added another volume to the series of tales and essays in which he has attempted to interpret the illusive mystery of Oriental life through Western speech. The new venture rounds out what must be deemed one of the most extraordinary artistic achievements of modern days. For it is as an art of strange subtlety that we must regard his literary work, an art that, like some sympathetic menstruum, has fused into one compound three elements never before associated together.

In the mere manner and method of this art there is, to be sure, nothing mysterious. One recognizes immediately throughout his writing that sense of restraint joined with a power of after suggestion, which he has described as appertaining to Japanese poetry, but which is no less his own by native right. There is a term, ittakkiri, it seems, meaning “all gone,” or “entirely vanished,” which is applied contemptuously by the Japanese to verse that tells all and trusts nothing to the reader’s imagination. Their praise they reserve for compositions that leave in the mind the thrilling of a something unsaid. “Like the single stroke of a bell, the perfect poem should set murmuring and undulating, in the mind of the hearer, many a ghostly aftertone of long duration.” Now these ghostly reverberations are precisely the property of the simplest of Mr. Hearn’s pictures. Let him describe, for instance, the impression produced by walking down the deep canon of Broadway, between those vast structures, beautiful but sinister, where one feels depressed by the mere sensation of enormous creative life without sympathy and of unresting power without pity, — let him describe this terror of Broadway, and in a few words he shall set ringing within you long pulsations of emotion which reach down to the depths of experience. Or, let him relate by mere allusion the story of hearing a girl say “Good-night ” to some one parting from her in a London park, and there shall be awakened in your mind ghostly aftertones that bring back memories of the saddest separations and regrets of life. His art is the power of suggestion through perfect restraint.

But this self-restrained and suggestive style is merely the instrument, the manner so to speak, of his art. If we examine the actual substance of that art, we shall discover that it is borrowed from three perfectly distinct, in fact almost mutually destructive, philosophies, any one of which alone would afford material for the genius of an ordinary writer. He stands and proclaims his mysteries at the meeting of three ways. To the religious instinct of India, — Buddhism in particular, — which history has engrafted on the aesthetic sense of Japan, Mr. Hearn brings the interpreting spirit of Occidental science; and these three traditions are fused by the peculiar sympathies of his mind into one rich and novel compound, — a compound so rare as to have introduced into literature a psychological sensation unknown before. More than any other living author he has added a new thrill to our intellectual experience.

Of Japan, which gives the most obvious substratum to Mr. Hearn’s work, it has been said that her people, since the days of ancient Greece, are the only genuine artists of the world; and in a manner this is true. There was a depth and pregnancy in the Greek imagination which made of Greek art something far more universally significant than the frail loveliness of Japanese creation, but not the Greeks themselves surpassed, or even equaled, the Japanese in their all-embracing love of decorative beauty. To read the story of the daily life of these people, as recorded by Mr. Mortimer Menpes and other travelers, is to be brought into contact with a national temperament so far removed from Western comprehension as to seem to most of us a tale from fairyland. When, for instance, Mr. Menpes, with a Japanese friend, visited Danjuro, he found a single exquisite kakemono, or painting, displayed in the great actor’s chamber. On admiring its beauty, he was told by the friend that Danjuro had taken extraordinary pains to learn the precise character of his visitor’s taste, and only then had exhibited this particular picture. To the Japanese the hanging of a kakemono or the arranging of a bough of blossoms is a serious act of life. The placing of flowers is indeed an exact science, to the study of which a man may devote seven years, even fourteen years, before he will be acknowledged a master. Nature herself is subjected to this elaborate system of training, and often what in a Japanese landscape seems to a foreigner the exuberance of natural growth is really the work of patient human artifice.

And the same æsthetic delicacy, touched with artificiality if you will, pervades the literature of this people. We are accustomed, and rightly, to regard the Japanese as a nation of imitators. But their poetry, we are assured by Mr. Hearn, is the one original art which they have not borrowed from China, or from any other country; and nowhere better than in their poetry can we observe the swiftness and dexterity of their imagination and that exquisite reserve with its haunting echo in the memory. To reproduce in English the peculiar daintiness of these poems is, we are told and can well believe, quite an impossibility; but from the seemingly careless translations scattered through Mr. Hearn’s pages we do at least form some notion of their art in the original. Many of these stanzas are mere bits of folk-lore or the work of unknown singers, like this tiny picture of the cicada: —

“ Lo ! on the topmost pine, a solitary cicada
Vainly attempts to clasp one last red beam of sun.”

That is light enough in English, but even one entirely ignorant of the Japanese language can see that, in comparison with the rhythm of the original,2 it is like the step of a quadruped compared with the fluttering of a moth. It contains only sixteen syllables in the original; and, indeed, all these poems are wrought into the brief compass of a stanza, like certain fragile little vases painted inside and out which are so highly prized by connoisseurs. Yet these tiny word-paintings, by virtue of their cunning restraint, are capable at times of gathering into their loveliness echoes of emotion as wide-reaching as love and as deep as the grave.

To have been able to convey through the coarser medium of English prose something of this aesthetic grace, this deftness of touch, and this suggestiveness of restraint, would in itself deserve no slight praise. But beneath all this artistic delicacy lies some reminiscence of India’s austere religious thought, a sense of the nothingness of life strangely exiled among this people of graceful artists, yet still more strangely assimilated by them ; and this, too, Mr. Hearn has been able to reproduce. We feel this shadow of India’s faith lurking in the sunshine of many of the lightest of the stanzas, — a touch of swift exotic poignancy, if nothing more. We feel it still more strongly in such poems as these, which are inspired by the consciousness of endless change and of unceasing birth and death and again birth:

“ All things change, we are told, in this world of change and sorrow;
But love’s way never changes of promising never to change.”
“ Even the knot of the rope tying our boats together
Knotted was long ago by some love in a former birth.”

Endless change, a ceaseless coming and going, and the past throwing its shadows on into the future, — that is the very essence of Hindu philosophy; but how the tone of this philosophy has itself become altered in passing from the valley of the Ganges to the decorated island of the Mikado! Over and over again Buddha repeats the essential law of being, that all things are made up of constituent parts and are subject to flux and change, that all things are impermanent. It is the “All things pass and nothing abides ” of the Greek philosopher, deepened with the intensity of emotion, that makes of philosophy a religion. In this ever revolving wheel of existence one fact only is certain, karma, the law of cause and effect, which declares that every present state is the effect of some previous act, and that every present act must inevitably bear its fruit in some future state. As a man soweth so shall he reap. We are indeed the creatures of a fate which we ourselves have builded by the deeds of a former life. We are bound in chains which we ourselves have riveted. Yet still our desires are free, and as our desires shape themselves, so we act and build up our coming fate, our karma; and as our desires abnegate themselves, so we cease to act and become liberated from the world. Endless change subject to the law of cause and effect, — not even our personality remains constant in this meaningless flux, for it too is made up of constituent parts, and is dissolved at death as the body is dissolved, leaving only its karma to build up the new personality with the new body. From the perception of this universal impermanence springs the socalled “Truth ” of Buddhism, that sorrow is the attribute of all existence. Birth is sorrow, old age is sorrow, death is sorrow, every desire of the heart is sorrow ; and the mission of Buddha was to deliver men out of the bondage of this sorrow as from the peril of a burning house. The song of victory uttered by Gotama when the great enlightenment shone upon him, and he became the Buddha, was the cry of a man who has escaped a great evil.

But because the Buddhist so dwells on the impermanence and sorrow of existence, he is not therefore properly called a pessimist. On the contrary, the one predominant note of Buddhism is joy, for it too is a gospel of glad tidings. The builders who rear these prison houses of life are nothing other than the desires of our own hearts, and these we may control though all else is beyond our power. To the worldly this teaching of Buddha may seem wrapped in pessimistic gloom, for deliverance to them must be only another name for annihilation; but to the spiritually minded it brought ineffable joy, for they knew that deliverance meant the passing out of the bondage of personality into a freedom of whose nature no tongue could speak. It is an austere faith, hardly suited, in its purer form, for the sentimental and vacillating, — austere in its recognition of sorrow, austere in its teaching of spiritual joy.

Yet the wonderful adaptability of Buddhism is shown by its acceptance among the Japanese, certainly of all peoples the most dissimilar in temperament to the ancient Hindus. Here the brooding of the Hindu over the law of impermanence melts into the peculiar sensitiveness to fleeting impressions so characteristic of the Japanese, and the delicacy of their æsthetic taste is enhanced by this half-understood spiritual insight. And it deepens their temperament: I think that the feeling awakened by all these dainty stanzas of something not said but only hinted, that the avoidance of ittakkiri to which Mr. Hearn alludes, the echoing reverberations that haunt us after the single stroke of the bell, are due to the residuum of Hindu philosophy left in these vases of Japanese art. “Buddhism,” writes Mr. Hearn, “taught that nature was a dream, an illusion, a phantasmagoria; but it also taught men [men of Japan, he should say] how to seize the fleeting impressions of that dream, and how to interpret them in relation to the highest truth.”

Buddhism when it passed over to Japan came into contact with the national religion of Shinto, a kind of ancestorworship, which taught that the world of the living was directly governed by the world of the dead. On this popular belief the doctrine of karma was readily engrafted, and the two flourished henceforth side by side. Faith in the protecting presence of ancestors and faith in the present efficacy of our own multitudinous preëxistence were inextricably confused. To the Japanese Buddhist the past does not die, but lives on without end, involving the present in an infinite web of invisible influences such as are incomprehensible to the Western mind.

And the Indian horror of impermanence and the rapture of deliverance have suffered like transformation with their causes. First of all, the sharp contrast between the horror and the joy is lightened. The sorrow fades to a fanciful feeling of regret for the beauty of the passing moment, — the same regret that speaks through a thousand Western songs such as Herrick’s “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” and Freneau’s “The frail duration of a flower,” but touched here in Japanese poetry with a little mystery and made more insistent by some echo of Hindu brooding. And the joy, severed from its spiritual sustenance, loses its high ecstasy and becomes almost indistinguishable from regret. Sorrow, too, and joy are impermanent, and the enlightened mind dwells lingeringly and fondly on each fair moment garnered from the waste of Time. Here is no longer the spiritual exaltation, the dhyâna, of the Indian monk, but the charmed impressions of the artist. The religion of the Ganges has assumed in Japan the mask of aesthetic emotionalism.

Now all this refinement of emotionalism Mr. Hearn by his peculiar artistic temperament has been able to reproduce almost miraculously in the coarser fibre of English. But more particularly he has sought to interpret the deeper influence of India on Japan, — the thoughts and images in which the subtlety of the Japanese has been turned aside into a strange psychology of the weird. One may suppose that some tendency to mingle grace and beauty with haunting suggestions was inherent in the Japanese temper from the beginning, but certainly the peculiar tone of weirdness that runs through most of the tales that Mr. Hearn has translated is not the product of Japan alone. Nor is it purely Hindu : the literature of India includes much that is grotesque but hardly a touch of the weird or ghostly, for its religious tone is too austere, and lacks the suggestive symbolism which that quality demands. Out of the blending of the stern sense of impermanence and karma with the sensuous beauty of Japan there arises this new feeling of the weird. How intimately the two tempers are blended, and how rare their product is, may be seen in such sketches as that called Ingwa-banashi, A Tale of Karma.

Had it been that Mr. Hearn’s art sufficed only to reproduce the delicacy and the ghostliness of Japanese tales, he would have performed a notable but scarcely an extraordinary service to letters. But into the study of these byways of Oriental literature he has carried a third element, the dominant idea of Occidental science ; and this element he has blended with Hindu religion and Japanese aestheticism in a combination as bewildering as it is voluptuous. In this triple union lies his real claim to high originality.

Now it is a fact well known to those who have studied Buddhism at its genuine sources that our modern conception of evolution fits into Buddhist psychology more readily and completely than into any dogmatic theology of the West. It is natural, therefore, that the only Western authors quoted freely by Mr. Hearn in support of his Oriental meditations should be Huxley and Herbert Spencer. For the most part these allusions to Western science are merely made in passing. But in one essay, that on The Idea of Preëxistence, he endeavors with something of philosophic system to develop the harmony between evolution and the Buddhist conception of previous existences, a conception which, as he shows, has little in common with the crude form of metempsychosis embodied by Wordsworth in such poems as Fidelity and Intimations of Immortality. To justify his theory he turns to Professor Huxley and quotes these words: “None but very hasty thinkers will reject it on the ground of inherent absurdity. Like the doctrine of evolution itself, that of transmigration has its roots in the world of reality ; and it may claim such support as the great argument from analogy is capable of supplying. ”

Elsewhere he quotes from Herbert Spencer to show how the notion of impermanence also invades our Western evolutional philosophy. But the parallel in this respect is at once apt and misleading. To Mr. Spencer and all the spokesmen of science, it is the impermanent sphere of phenomena that is alone knowable, whereas the permanent Reality hidden from the eyes is the great Unknowable. To the Buddhist, on the contrary, all impermanence is wrapped in illusion, as indeed the very meaning of the word would seem to imply; whereas the permanent Reality, though inexpressible, is alone knowable. The difference is of great importance when we come to consider the effect of interpreting Japanese ideas in Occidental terms. It even seems that Mr. Hearn himself is not aware of the gulf set between these two methods of viewing the world, and that consequently he has never measured the full originality of this realm of sensation which his art has opened by spanning a bridge between the two. In the fusion of Mr. Hearn’s thought the world of impermanent phenomena is at once knowable and unknowable: it is the reality of Western cognition, and therefore is invested with an intensity of influence and fullness of meaning impossible to an Oriental writer; and at the same time it is the unreality of Eastern philosophy, and hence is involved in illusion and subtle shadows into which it threatens momentarily to melt away. It is a realm of half reality, this phenomenal world, a realm of mingled spirit and matter, seeming now to tantalize the eyes with colors of unimaginable beauty that fade away when we gaze on them too intently, and again to promise the Soul that one long sought word which shall solve the riddle of her existence in this land of exile. It is a new symbolism that troubles while it illumines. It leads the artist to dwell on the weirder, more impalpable phases of Japanese literature, and to lend to these subconscious motives a force of realism which they could not possess in the original. From this union with science the Oriental belief in the indwelling of the past now receives a vividness of present actuality that dissolves the Soul into ghostly intimacy with the mystic unexplored background of life. As a consequence of this new sense of impermanence and of this new realism lent to the indwelling past, all the primitive emotions of the heart are translated into a strange language, which, when once it lays hold of the imagination, carries us into a region of dreams akin to that world which our psychologists dimly call the subliminal or subconscious. The far-reaching results of this psychology on literature it is not easy to foresee. Mr. Hearn has nowhere treated systematically this new interpretation of human emotions, but by bringing together scattered passages from his essays we may form some notion of its scope and efficacy.

Beauty itself, which forms the essence of Mr. Hearn’s art and of all true art, receives a new content from this union of the East and the West. So standing before a picture of nude beauty we might, in our author’s words, question its meaning. That nudity which is divine, which is the abstract of beauty absolute, — what power, we ask, resides within it or within the beholder that causes this shock of astonishment and delight, not unmixed with melancholy ? The longer one looks, the more the wonder grows, since there appears no line, or part of a line, whose beauty does not surpass all memory of things seen. Plato explained the shock of beauty as being the Soul’s sudden halfremembrance of the World of Divine Ideas: “They who see here any image or resemblance of the things which are there receive a shock like a thunderbolt, and are, after a manner, taken out of themselves.” The positive psychology of Spencer declares in our own day that the most powerful of human passions, first love, when it makes its appearance, is absolutely antecedent to all individual experience. Thus do ancient thought and modern — metaphysics and science — accord in recognizing that the first deep sensation of human beauty known to the individual is not individual at all. Must not the same truth hold of that shock which supreme art gives ? The emotion of beauty, like all our emotions, is certainly the inherited product of unimaginably countless experiences in an immeasurable past. In every aesthetic sensation is the stirring of trillions of trillions of ghostly memories buried in the magical soil of the brain. And each man carries within him an ideal of beauty which is but an infinite composite of dead perceptions of form, color, grace, once dear to look upon. It is dormant, this ideal, — potential in essence, — cannot be evoked at will before the imagination; but it may light up electrically at any perception by the living outer sense of some vague affinity. Then is felt that weird, sad, delicious thrill, which accompanies the sudden backward-flowing of the tides of life and time.

So, again, to follow Mr. Hearn, it is easy to infer how this perception of the indwelling of the past gives a wonderful significance to the thralldom of love, — to first love most of all, when the shock of emotion comes untroubled by worldly calculations of the present. What is the glamour, we ask with our author, that blinds the lover in its sweet bewildering light when first he meets the woman of his involuntary choice ? Whose the witchcraft ? Is it any power in the living idol ? Rather it is the power of the dead within the idolater. The dead cast the spell. Theirs the shock in the lover’s heart; theirs the electric shiver that tingled through his veins at the first touch of one girl’s hand. We look into the eyes of love and it is as though, through some intense and sudden stimulation of vital being, we had obtained — for one supercelestial moment — the glimpse of a reality, never before imagined, and never again to be revealed. There is, indeed, an illusion. We seem to view the divine; but this divine itself, whereby we are dazzled and duped, is a ghost. Our mortal sight pierces beyond the surface of the present into profundities of myriads of years, — pierces beyond the mask of life into the enormous night of death. For a moment we are made aware of a beauty and a mystery and a depth unutterable: then the Veil falls again forever. The splendor of the eyes that we worship belongs to them only as brightness to the morning star. It is a reflex from beyond the shadow of the Now, — a ghost light of vanished suns. Unknowingly within that maiden gaze we meet the gaze of eyes more countless than the hosts of heaven, — eyes otherwhere passed into darkness and dust.

And if we turn to another and purer form of love, it is the same force we behold. So long as we supposed the woman soul one in itself,—a something specially created to fit one particular physical being, — the beauty and the wonder of mother-love could never be fully revealed to us. But with deeper knowledge we must perceive that the inherited love of numberless millions of dead mothers has been treasured up in one life; that only thus can be interpreted the infinite sweetness of the speech which the infant hears, — the infinite tenderness of the look of caress which meets its gaze.

So, too, when we listen to the harmonies of instrumental music or the melody of the human voice, there arises a strange emotion within us which seems to magnify us out of ourselves into some expanse of illimitable experiences, to lift us above the present cares of our petty life into some vast concern, — so vast that the soul is lost between the wonderings of divine hope and divine fear. Great music is a psychical storm, agitating to fathomless depths the mystery of the past within us. Or we might say that it is a prodigious incantation. There are tones that call up all ghosts of youth and joy and tenderness; there are tones that evoke all phantom pain of perished passion; there are tones that resurrect all dead sensations of majesty and might and glory, — all expired exultations, — all forgotten magnanimities. Well may the influence of music seem inexplicable to the man who idly dreams that his life began less than a hundred years ago! He who has been initiated into the truth knows that to every ripple of melody, to every billow of harmony, there answers within him, out of the Sea of Death and Birth, some eddying immeasurable of ancient pleasure and pain.

Genius itself, the master of music and poetry and all art that enlarges mortal life, genius itself is nothing other than the reverberation of this enormous past on the sounding board of some human intelligence, so finely wrought as to send forth in purity the echoed tones which from a grosser soul come forth deadened and confused by the clashing of the man’s individual impulses.

Is it not proper to say, after reading such passages as these, that Mr. Hearn has introduced a new element of psychology into literature? We are indeed living in the past, we who foolishly cry out that the past is dead. In one remarkable study of the emotions awakened by the baying of a gaunt white hound, Mr. Hearn shows how even the very beasts whom we despise as unreasoning and unremembering are filled with an inarticulate sense of this dark backward and abysm of time, whose shadow falls on their sensitive souls with the chill of a vague dread, — dread, I say, for it must begin to be evident that this new psychology is fraught with meanings that may well trouble and awe the student.

In the ghostly residuum of these psychological meditations we may perceive a vision dimly foreshadowing itself which mankind for centuries, nay, for thousands of years, has striven half unwittingly to keep veiled. I do not know, but it seems to me that the foreboding of this dreaded disclosure may account for many things in the obscure history of the race, for the long struggle of religion against the observations of science which to-day we are wont to slur over as only a superficial struggle after all. In the haunting fear of this disclosure I seem to see an explanation, if not a justification, of the obscurantism of the early church, of the bitter feud with Galileo and the burning of Giordano Bruno, of the recent hostility to Darwinism, and even of the presentday attempt to invalidate the significance of this long contest. For what room is left for the boasted isolation and spirituality of man, what meaning remains in the consolations and ministry of religion, if at last, in spite of all, the Veil is to be withdrawn from the memory of consciousness, and we become aware of all the hideous past of monstrous life in the world as we are aware of the doings of yesterday, — if we are to live over again in memory the passions, the wallowing desires, the enormous battles of our far-away human ancestors and of the bestial creation which preceded them ? Some such tenor of discovery has, it seems to me, haunted the human race dimly through all the vicissitudes of its history; and now in these essays and tales, whose substance is so strangely mingled together out of the austere dreams of India and the subtle beauty of Japan and the relentless science of Europe, I read vaguely the interpretation of many things which hitherto were quite dark.

Paul Elmer More.

“ Sémi hitotsu
Matsu no vū-hi wo
  1. Kottō. By LAFCADIO HEARN. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1902.