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Revisiting Natsume Sōseki’s Theory of Literature

Posted in Books,Fiction,Japanese literature,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the December 27th, 2011

Last week the University of Tokyo’s Center for Philosophy hosted a symposium on “Globalizing Natsume Sōseki’s Theory of Literature,” commemorating the publication of the English translation of Bungakuron (1907), Sōseki’s remarkable attempt to construct a fully scientific theory of “literature” complete with mathematical formulas and graphs, one that was supposed to be valid at all times and in all places.

In her talk, Noami Mariko (University of Tokyo) spoke on the role of emotion (small f) in Sōseki’s theory, in particular the indirect experience of emotion by the reader of fiction, tracing through the ways Sōseki put this theory into practice in his 1912 novel, Until the Spring Equinox and Beyond. Joseph Murphy (University of Florida) also explored the relation of Sōseki’s (F+f) formula to his fiction, especially the early story “Tower of London,” and talked about the missing, perhaps subconscious, possibility of (non-F, non-f) as an implicit possible permutation of the formula.

In the afternoon sessions, Atsuko Ueda (Princeton University) situated Bungakuron in the context of late nineteenth century literary histories, as well as the tradition of rhetoric studies that Soseki relied on–and the implications his transcending the categories of national language and national literature holds for contemporary area studies scholarship. Saitō Mareshi (University of Tokyo) raised the question of what kagaku means in the context of Bungakuron: science or discipline? He also traced Sōseki’s use of keywords from the Chinese literati tradition of rhetoric, looking in particular at what was at stake in Sōseki’s switch from that vocabulary to the mathematical language of (F+f). I followed with a talk exploring Bungakuron as a theory of world literature, reading Sōseki against his contemporary Rabindranath Tagore, as well as Pascale Casanova’s more recent attempt to theorize a “world republic of literature.” The final speaker, Komori Yōichi (University of Tokyo), explored the specific scientific contexts on the work, noting its connections to early twentieth century atomic theory, as well as the productive gesture Sōseki made in creating a horizon in which embodied sense perception and intellectual understanding were synthesized into a single entity within the bracketed space of (F+f).

We had lively discussions throughout the day, and the symposium was very well attended. My thanks to the organizers, my co-presenters, and to all who participated.

In the meanwhile, the Modern Language Association has announced that the volume has won the 2011 Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Scholarly Study of Literature. From the award citation:

Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings, by Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916), provides English language readers with major critical works by Japan’s foremost novelist of the twentieth century. Sōseki aspired to a grand and systematic explanation of literature, focusing on literature’s effects on readers. Based on the cognitive psychology of his day, his account explores how the content of the literary work generates emotional responses. Michael K. Bourdaghs, Atsuko Ueda, and Joseph A. Murphy have done a superb job of supplying the contextual information necessary for today’s non-Japanese reader to appreciate the subtlety and significance of Sōseki’s work.

On top of that, the Japan Times newspaper has just named it one of the “Best Books of 2011.” It’s gratifying to see this project, begun with my colleagues six or seven years ago, reach fruition in this way. Our goal from the start was to get people reading and talking about this remarkable book, and it feels like we’ve accomplished that.

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