Man's original sin is his ego - such is Sōseki Natsume's main theme of his unfinished novel Light and Dark, (Meian, 1917), who considered that egoism is the deep-rooted origin of all evils, proliferating like a weed in the rush of modern existence.
Sōseki's 'Meian' characters are ordinary Meiji people living ordinary but claustrophobic daily lives, utterly self absorbed, plagued by pettiness and selfish desires; provoked to constant streams of verbal and psychological battles: emphasizing the flaws of marriage, love and interpersonal relationships. Sōseki laid bare the human failings of pride, self-love and disingenuousness in his novel that is fundamentally about perception, a study in human relations, a satire of the artifices of the Meiji period. He plied his characters with the darkness of selfishness, abject isolation, insincerity, distrust, egoism; contrasting those with the lightness of hope, self awareness, truth, revelation, authenticity, visualizing a more illuminating human condition.
At the heart of Light and Dark are Yoshio and O-Nobu Tsuda, a young educated and middle-class couple, recently married and considered to be happy. In exploring (Yoshio)Tsuda's and O-Nobu's characters (the peripheral cast are treated similarly), Sōseki tested the binds of marriage as well as the flexibility of their love (or the suffocating effect of it ).
Tsuda takes the stage in a plot that turns out to be disappointingly spare of action, and as the title suggests - holds a full spectrum of contrasting images. He is made to be sick, both spiritually as well as physically, opening the story with the need for surgery to remove a growth*. An unlikable man, he embodies the typical male of the period in the old-fashioned treatment of his more modern wife. Tsuda's egoism springs from an Old World background: he views himself highly, his right to live a lofty lifestyle and have the freedom to pursue his own desires are solidly planted.
Men of old with an immovable sense of duty never allowed themselves to be smitten.
Tsuda regards his wife's complete attention to his personal comfort as his entitlement. He sees no need to be honest or giving in his relationship with O-Nubu. Sometimes he attempted to mollify her. At other times he felt rebellious and wanted to escape. In either case he was always aware at the back of his consciousness, of a feeling that amounted to disparagement:
I can't be wasting all my time with a woman like you - I have things to do for myself.
O-Nobu is a modern woman of the day. She falls in love with Yoshio ( baffling) and marries him almost immediately. She considers herself as 'mistress to her own affairs,' aiming to prove her worthiness and determined to make her marriage a success - a conviction obviously challenged by the stark reality of her marital unhappiness, and her failure to recognize her own egocentric actions as contributing factors. Her struggle to understand and connect to a man like Tsuda is a concern that plagues most relationships.
O-Nobu found herself thinking of Tsuda as a self-centered man. Despite the fact that she extended to him from morning to night what she intended to be the fullest extent of kindness and consideration she was capable of, was there no limit to the sacrifice her husband required?
Is a husband nothing more than a sponge who exists solely to soak up a wife's tenderness?
The novel is a yin and yang minefield, more complex of a read than expected, unprepared as I was at the time I slugged through it. Undeniably, Sōseki possessed the masterful brushstrokes for exquisite imagery and subtle illusions, keeping true to his Zen aesthetics. His portrait of nature, full of beauty and harmonious relationships that are at once asymmetrical and yet maintain a balance, attracted me to this book. Admittedly, my own flawed vision blurred Light and Dark: for me, it was leaden with ambiguities and overshadowed by vague dialogue. Its slow moving narrative and insufferable cast fail to clearly bring to light the deeper concepts recessed in the plot.
An unfinished work due to the untimely death of the author, Light and Dark abruptly ended, unsatisfyingly. Surely, Sōseki's intent was to bring a resolution for O-Nobo and Yoshio, a compromise based on the knowledge of oneself, a realization of one's own limitations, and the letting go of ego.
* ( the translator is unsure of the nature of the illness, only that Tsuda needs surgical repair. In any case, the allegorical setting is laid ).
Fans of Japanese Literature would still enjoy this work which needed much more patience than I possessed ( although by the time I reviewed it, I suppose I came to appreciate it better ).
Light and Dark represents Sōseki’s effort to put in perspective, through his unique approach to fiction, the rapidly changing dynamics of Japanese society and culture during the Meiji period (1868–1912), of a well-ordered society rushing too quickly toward a modernized Japan. Sōseki saw the erosion of fundamental truths as expressed in traditional Japanese myth and Zen Buddhist teachings as well as fundamental truths of the human condition. In his works, Sōseki constructed fictional characters to articulate his belief that modernization is necessary for Japan’s survival, but, when it occurs too quickly, such change is unhealthy and threatens individual happiness. Sōseki viewed that slower movement over time and space was critical to human development and the attainment of happiness.