Unreliable Self, Vulnerability to Change, Existential Anxiety

The following are excerpts from Natsume Soseki‘s work. These struck a chord with me. I started looking more into his work after reading his last unfinished novel, Light and Darkness.

The only consistent thing about people is their bodies. And because our bodies stay the same, most of us are content to assume that our minds do, too, that we go on being the selves we were, even when we do today the exact opposite of what we did yesterday. When the question of responsibility comes up and we are accused of breaking faith, why is it that none of us even thinks to reply, “Well, that’s because my personality is nothing but a bunch of memories; I’m just a mess inside”? . . .Having witnessed the reeling, irregular activity of my fragmented soul, I must conclude from a thoroughly impartial view of the real me that there is nothing so unreliable as man. For anyone aware of his own soul, promises and solemn vows are an impossibility.

 These days, I don’t believe any more in the existence of “character [seikaku].” Novelists congratulate themselves on their creation of this kind of “character” or that kind of “character,” and readers pretend to talk knowingly about “character,” but all it amounts to is that the writers are enjoying themselves writing lies and the readers are enjoying themselves reading lies. In fact, there is no such thing as character, something fixed and final. The real thing is something that novelists don’t know how to write about. Or, if they tried, the end result would never be a novel. Real people are strangely difficult to make sense out of.

 The problem for Soseki’s introspective protagonists, then, is that they understand the fragility of human nature, the ease with which good becomes evil, the difficulty of observing the change, and the consequent insecurity that underlies all human relationships.

 And I believe that for me to change like this is the very thing that makes me human…. Careful consideration shows us that human character changes by the hour. The process of change is entirely normal, and it is just as normal for con- tradictions to arise as the process goes on. There are, in other words, many con- tradictions in human character-so many, in fact, that it makes no difference whether we conclude that character exists or doesn’t exist. . . . People often used to complain to me that I was full of contradictions . . . which led me to worry that I couldn’t pass for an ordinary human being. . . but when I tried observing myself, I found no need whatever to reform. This was the real me, and it was all that made me human. I then observed other people, only to find that they were made just like me. . . . The complaints they brought to me could just as well have been brought to them.

 As always, the miners were looking down at me from their barracks, chin on hand. Their faces, which before had filled me with such loathing, now seemed like clay dolls’ heads. They were not ugly, not frightening, not hateful. They were just faces, as the face of the most beautiful woman in Japan is just a face. And I was ex- actly like these men, a human being of flesh and bone, entirely ordinary and entirely meaningless.

 There is one thing we ought to keep in mind in the study of man. Namely, that a human being placed in particular circumstances has the abili- ty and the right to do just the opposite of what the circumstances dictate.


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