Five mysterious, anonymous figures discuss the passing of our protagonist, the onion skins of imagined identity ritualistically peeled away. An ironic tone stems, on the one hand, from the premise of living entities speaking of what truly may not be known to them, perhaps in a sense the ultimate solitary moment in an individual’s experience; and on the other, from the vaguely supernatural characteristics with which Mushanokoji endows them.
The scare quotes on ‘our acquaintance’ further pronounce the subtle irony and distancing. The translation of the Japanese あいつ/aitsu might be as well ‘that guy’ or ‘that chap,’ ‘our friend’ or even simply ‘he’: there is a degree of affectionate familiarity, but an implicit distancing as well—’that fellow (over there)’. While preserving those senses, the term ‘Our acquaintance’ seems more in keeping with the irony and formality of the piece.
For the allusion to Hannele, see The Assumption of Hannele: A Dream Poem (1892) in The Dramatic Works of Gerhart Hauptmann, Vol. 4: Symbolic and Legendary Dramas, in which a neglected peasant girl in a state of delerium experiences being welcomed into heaven.
The illustrations added to the post are i) an image of a skeleton doing zen meditation (zazen), while floating on the sea, painted by Maruyama Okyo in 1787, kept at Daijoji Temple, Hyogo, Japan, and ii) Crow and Willow Tree (1887) by Kawanabe Kyosai, held by the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York.
A Dead Friend
A: ‘Our acquaintance’ thought himself a genius.
B: ‘Our acquaintance’ intended to live to be eighty.
C: ‘Our acquaintance’ wanted to create a family with his beloved.
D: Believed himself the happiest man alive.
A: He was thinking about his future until the moment of death.
E: But he really seemed to know he was going to die.
A: I wonder…
E: No, I believe so. When I visited him in Kamakura, ‘our acquaintance’ gave me that lonely smile of his and said, “I’m afraid I am going to die. I feel it often these days. I try to convince myself it is not true, because I am still not working, but it doesn’t do me any good. Many good people have died young. But until the moment comes, I will never believe it will happen to me, and I have never thought it would, not even since becoming ill with this disease.”
D: That is true.
E: Then I said that it was the same for me, and laughing scornfully, he answered that it might be so, but to a different degree, that strong people are not able to be touched so acutely by the question of death, and that the matter of dying or not dying cannot dominate their minds for long.
E: When he said this to me, I looked at him thoughtlessly, and seeing his skin and bones, I too realized he would die sooner or later.
A: We will all die sooner or later.
E: Please don’t quibble. The degree is different. I had no choice other than to change the subject, so I asked him casually what it was he wanted.
E: Again he laughed desolately, then enquired what it was I wanted. I asked him if he was working, and he shook his head. “What is it you want?” I asked again.
E: “I want to be cared for by you-know-who,” he laughed.
E: I told him, “That is not in my power, I cannot do that.” He said that even if it were, he would refuse. Strongly I replied, “Why?” He said, “I have pulmonary tuberculosis.” He laughed and said, “If she cared for me, I would want to kiss her.”
C: It’s tragic, isn’t it?
E: More wretched than tragic. ‘Our acquaintance’ changed his tone of voice and said he was somewhat sad to leave this world without knowing whether she loved him or not, and now it was fortunate for her that his love had not yet been fulfilled. But unfortunate for him. ‘I will die without knowing the true joys of life,’ he said.
E: I said something like, perhaps you may not die, but he only laughed scornfully and said, “Thank you, but your kindness is misplaced. I am not such an optimist, not quite such a good-natured man. I can see you think I am going to die. I am only trying to talk as much as I can to *make you remember who I am*. I am actually quite superstitious about my own mortality. I don’t want you to feel sorry for me now, for I still consider myself a hero.”
E: I told him that he should not let himself get angry, and if he wanted to avoid that, he should just listen to what I had to say. Then ‘our acquaintance’ said a lot of things to me.
“My greatest wish,” he said, “is to be visited from time to time by my first beloved, as well as by you-know-who. The first beloved can come with her husband, and the other with her mother. I want them to visit me from time to time, without any risk to their name or wellbeing. I could never explain that to someone I loved. I just want to have an innocent talk, forget about death, and be happy for a time. It’s good to speak to you like this. Occasionally I become ecstatic, but I am lonely. Moreover, I cannot help but get irrational, obsessed with death, fall into drunken reverie, but it’s all a fantasy, something impossible, yet I am an optimist and feel therefore that my first love, or the later one, will hear that I am dying and come to visit me.” So saying, he laughed sadly.
I said, “Why not write to them?” He said, “No, I can’t do that, tempting as it is. Anyway, if I wrote, they would refuse, but I wonder whether, unasked, they might not simply come. It would be a great consolation to me when I died. Like Hannele, I might die dreaming of the two of them.” And he laughed.
A: Did the two of them come to his home before he died?
E: How could they possibly?
D: I wonder whether he might have died dreaming of the two of them?
B: How can one know such a thing?
E: But I heard it was a comfortable death.
C: Surely he suffered.
A: Must have been agonizing.
B: Because he was excessively attached to life. But it’s all the same when you die, isn’t it?
E: Is it the same?
A: It’s the same, isn’t it?
E: Probably, I suppose.
End (November, 42nd year of Meiji, 1909)
English translation of Saneatsu Mushanokoji’s Omedetakihito (1910) by Michael Guest © 2022
Categories: Mushanokoji's Good Natured Man
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