Mushanokoji's Good Natured Man

Mushanokoji’s Good Natured Man 21 (Addendum 8: Imagination)

Here is the final instalment of the first complete English translation of Saneatsu Mushanokoji’s Good Natured Man (1911), aka Good Natured Person, acknowledged prototype of the Japanese autobiographical genre of shishosetsu or I-novel. Recall that the narrative-proper concluded eight instalments ago: the internalized account of the narrator’s obsessive, unrequited love. The object of this obsession, a neighbourhood schoolgirl, refused his mediated overtures and married another.

Subsequently, eight ‘addenda’ to the novel draw the situation through increasing degrees of subjectivity, standing as fictional pieces (poetry, fiction, dramatic scenes) written by the narrator’s “I” character (who is known generally as Jibun, the Japanese word for “oneself’). It is as though Jibun attempts to come to terms with his rejection through these imaginative flights—largely exercises in wish-fulfillment. In this final dramaticule, at a further internalized remove, a further manifestation of Jibun is confronted with his critical rejection as an artist.

Jibun’s final utterance ironically undermines the status of his “objective” narrative. It is as definitive, succinct, and enigmatic an exemplar of the “unreliable narrator” as Samuel Beckett’s narrator Molloy:

But in the end I understood this language. I understood it, I understand it, all wrong perhaps. That is not what matters. It told me to write the report. Does this mean I am freer now than I was? I do not know. I shall learn. Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.

Beckett, Molloy (1951, Fr.; 1955, Engl.)

The two atmospheric images appearing in this instalment are paintings by Ryusei Kishida (1891-1929): Namazu Bozu (1922) and Seated Portrait of Reiko with a Doll (1920), Kishida was a close friend of Mushanokoji’s, who introduced him to fauvist and cubist styles.


Imagination

Sister [the younger of the two characters]: My brother, I read a review of your recent exhibition in today’s newspaper.

Brother:  [a little surprised.] Yes, it came out. What did you think of it, Okiyo?

Sister: I was delighted.

Brother: Why were you pleased to see such a bad review?

Sister: The critic probably said such things because your works are too refined for him to understand. Reading the review made me realize how great an artist you are.

Brother: Thank you, but I found it terribly disheartening.

Sister: Why?

Brother: Because I cannot be any good if my art is seen like that.

Sister: You have said that people will be critical of your paintings when you exhibit them, because they would fail to understand their merit.

Brother: I did indeed say that, but my detractor came from a totally unforseen direction, denouncing me on points I had not anticipated. He said I was superficial, mere novelty, frivolous, trivial. I’m clumsy and don’t know how to hold a brush, the colours are tasteless, it’s not art. If the attack had been head on, I would have managed it. But it was from behind, from a source I did not expect. I was unsettled because the critic is well-known and impartial. If my work looks like that to him, then I begin to doubt the power of my own mind and personality.

Sister: That’s not right. Surely there are others who are impressed by your paintings.

Brother: There are two types of people who admired them: close friends and dilettantes who know nothing about art.

Sister: Did you not once tell me that dilettantes understand better, because they are not trapped in dogma?

Brother: However, they may be intimidated by ostentation.

Sister: Ostentation?

Brother: Perhaps in some of the more unconventional touches.

Sister: I used to think he was a discerning critic, because you, my brother, have praised him in the past, but after seeing this review, I believe he is rather ordinary.

Brother: What makes you say that?

Sister: He does not understand the essence of your work. He is unable to discriminate between superficial and fundamental dynamics, so he finds your paintings frivolous.

Brother: I don’t believe they were. I painted every stroke with all my heart, sent all my strength into the tip of my brush. My best efforts may simply be weaker than I thought.

Sister: It’s annoying how he criticizes your paintings for being fanciful or mere novelty. Where exactly are they fanciful? How merely novel?

Brother: When I painted them, I had rejected the idea of novelty. I realized I was different from others in certain ways, but had no interest in what was considered new or old. I adopted themes  that were faithful to my personality, themes to which I could devote all my strength. Whether they were novel or old-fashioned was not my concern. Still, I wonder whether the reason others see them that way is because I am not strong enough of a painter.

Sister: Nonsense, that is not true. The conclusion comes from his own coarseness. I despised him when I saw the part where he says, “Urayama is proud of his outdated paintings, thinking they have something new.”

Brother: I had no such thought when I was painting, being totally immersed, but when I exhibited them, I did notice some innovative features, and felt a sense of satisfaction in them.

Sister: It is not about themes, it is an art of self-expression, just as you have often said. I am proud of you for not being concerned with such things.

Brother: It would be nothing if I agreed with the way you see it, but I have a little more faith in those who are criticizing me. But I doubt myself.

Sister: Why?

Brother: Is it not pathetic that works in which I have expressed the power of my personality so frankly can be seen as mere trivia?

Sister: This critic’s preconceived notions got in his way.

Brother: I cannot consider him so obtuse.

Sister: You are mistaken. He is nobody great—he knows nothing beyond the superficial.

Brother: It would be good if that were true.

Sister: The very fact that he sees your mannerisms as borrowings is proof. He is not someone who understands the fundamentals, and you ought not to doubt yourself based on criticisms made by someone like that.

Brother: But when three or four impartial people attack me in the same way, it really seems to be true, and I start to fear that my own judgement stems from egotism.

Sister: It is odd to see such a variety of people make the same sorts of criticisms as in today’s newspaper. Why didn’t you show me the review?

Brother: I hated the thought of your losing faith in me. [Smiles.]

Sister: Do you really think criticism like this would make me lose confidence in you? Do you want to deceive me into keeping my faith in you? That really is weak.

Brother: The truth is, I am strong. I despise the people who deride my paintings just as you do, but I fear it is because of my ego.

Sister: Not at all. No matter how many people malign you, I believe you will prevail in the end.

Brother: Why should I believe you?

Sister: I don’t know why either, but I am absolutely certain that time will tell. You will feel better if we talk about ridicule like this.

Brother, I agree—when I don’t talk about it, I am even more forlorn, believing I am mediocre.

Sister: Why are you so afraid of the criticism of strangers?

Brother: Perhaps because I feel I’ll never be able to become detached and look at myself objectively, But anyway, I suppose that is a job for a stranger.

Sister: Perhaps, but some day you will know your true value.

Brother: Sometimes that’s exactly what I worry about.

Sister: Wouldn’t it be best to be taken at your true value?

Brother: Yes, it’s true, but perhaps I overvalue myself.

Sister: I don’t know about that. Me, I think you need to value yourself more highly.

Brother: Thank you, Okiyo, you don’t know how my spirits have risen now that you are here. How desolate I would be without you. How bleak it is when I lose faith in myself and you are not here. If I am ever able to paint something of enduring value, it will be thanks to you.

Sister: That is not so.

Brother: No, it really is true.

Sister: If you think that of me, I am grateful.

Brother: I am determined to follow my own path unwaveringly. Even if I have the slightest hope of success, I am going to aim for it.

Sister: You must, you really must! I am so delighted to be born the sister of a man like you.

Brother: {In tears.] I weep for joy!

Sister: [Tearfully.] So do I!

Brother: If you were not here, how I would miss you.

* * *

When he came to write this, he felt better, but wept, having neither a sister nor a lover.

The end (October, 43rd year of Meiji, 1910)


English translation of Saneatsu Mushanokoji’s Omedetakihito (1910) by Michael Guest © 2022

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