Mushanokoji’s brief digression into the contingency of existence is quite didactic. There is perhaps some Buddhist resonance in his ponderings on existential contingency, impermanence, and suffering. His recourse is, however, not towards the negation of self, nor to Buddha, but rather to a form of “hyper-subjectivisim” (Religions | Free Full-Text | Future Perfect: Tolstoy and the Structures of Agrarian-Buddhist Utopianism in Taishō Japan | HTML)
Such a gesture can be traced through the course of this narrative, which begins with the feelings of dissatisfaction or suffering that ensue from a character’s realization of the meaninglessness of his existence, given what he perceives as its utter basis in chance factors. The theme of ‘what if never born’ concerns not so much the physical process of birth, as the contingent nature of existence. Given all the possibilities, how does it happen that he as an individual self comes to inhabit a life? Why is he he and not someone else?
Yet again the story anticipates modern trends. Mushanokoji’s sympathetic character Toyo Nakata is almost reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s gentle existential ponderer, Mr. Palomar. The title phrase in translation, ‘What if never born?’— with the subject omitted just as in its natural Japanese grammatical form—almost evokes Beckett.
This post’s contextual-atmospheric images are hand-tinted photographs taken in 1870 by the photographer Shinichi Suzuki (1835-1918) for a monthly magazine, The Far East: a woman and child, and the famous giant buddha (daibutsu) at Kōtoku-in temple at Kamakura. They are both poignant and apposite—the latter in particular, showing random human beings resting like blossoms in Buddha’s lap.
What if never born?
“What if I had never been born?”
Toyo Nakata’s head began to aggravate him as he thought about this. He thinks of his birth as an accident, something experienced by chance, somewhat of a miracle. But he is unable to imagine himself as he was before he was born. He was not himself before he was born, or rather, before he was conceived in his mother’s womb, for then there was no such entity as himself. It seems obvious, but when he thinks about it this way, he feels a kind of pity or shame. He wants what he calls ‘himself’ to be inevitable. His individuality ought to be predestined by fate, to see the light of day at a precise hour and minute of May 12, 1886. Otherwise, he must consider his individuality as meaningless, that it arose at a moment’s notice. He knew what it was necessary to think, but he was not happy about it.
It seems to Toyo that his parent’s marriage was a coincidence. The births of his mother and father were a further series of coincidences, as were those of his paternal and maternal grandparents. It was also by chance they married each other.
He could not help but think that of all the millions of sperm in his father’s body, only a single one had come into the world, to become half his own body. The same could be said of each of his parents.
“If I had not been born, I would not be here.”
Toyo tried to accept this solution, but his head spun all the more.
“I would neither have been born nor exist in the cosmos. Perhaps someone else would have been born instead. That would be the more likely scenario.”
He grappled with the idea but it seemed to him far from the answer he sought. He was getting impatient.
“First of all, it is foolish to think such a thing. After all, I was born, was I not?”
He considered the proposition, but it was insufficient.
“Just too much of an accident,” he said to himself, but it did not help.
“Humanity may have significance, but individuality has none. It makes no difference whether you are born or not, it does not matter whether you live or die. It makes no great difference if you are someone else, if you are not born and another is born instead, who otherwise never would have been. Your parents will love the child as their own. Then that other child will give birth to its own child, one not born to you, and an individuality presently unborn in this world will be born instead of your offspring, who will now never come into being.”
Toyo’s mind was confused at the idea.
He felt frustrated, like a man who had been thrown into a riddle he was unable to solve, like someone who had tried unsuccessfully to untangle a tangled thread.
“I do not care!” he cried internally.
But his head was further muddled with a sense of regret over the still unsolved puzzle.
“If the earth had never come into being, then neither would I have been born.” Unable to keep still any longer he strode agitatedly around the room.
“If I had not been born, I would never have had this thought. I would never have walked. I would never have eaten. I would not breathe, nor go to school. She may never have loved. No pain, no sorrow, no happiness or joy. There would be nothing. Yet the earth would be the same as it is now. Still, I daresay she would have been born, and in that case would have loved another man.”
Toyo felt he was thinking the unthinkable, and it was arrogant of him to try solving this impossible mystery.
Impulsively, he put on his hat and went out into the street to distract himself. He saw many people who had been born with the same accidental experiences as he. Old people and children, men and women, beautiful people and ugly, fine ones and shabby, all of them walking around looking as if it were entirely natural they had been born.
Seeing this, he reflected that there were many others like himself. He calmed down a little and went to visit his friend, who was not home, so then he went to the house of his beloved.
When she saw Toyo she burst into a laugh, and so did he. The insoluble mystery evaporated. He lost himself for two hours while chatting with her.
On the way back home, he tried thinking again about what things would have been like had he never been born, but it did not seem to matter anymore. He was amused at himself for worrying about such a thing.
“You were born because you were born, were you not? If you had not been born, you would not have been. Instead of concerning yourself with that, you should think about how you can live your life happily!” he cried out in his heart, smiling. Then he hurried homeward, dreaming of the future family he would create with his beloved.
October Meiji 42 (1909)
English translation of Saneatsu Mushanokoji’s Omedetakihito (1910) by Michael Guest © 2022
Categories: Mushanokoji's Good Natured Man