276 Followers
48 Following
Hoss

Monkeypanic

Kokoro

Kokoro - Sōseki Natsume, Edwin McClellan I love this book despite its flaws. What flaws? Well, a latent misogyny and the implication that poverty reflects a character failing, for starters, but the principle flaw for me was an aloof, distant, overly-formal narrator in the first 2/3 of the story. This nameless voice could have been very sympathetic if his delivery had been different. A lonely university student, insecure and uncertain about his future? I could have identified with him, if he had been more engaging. He could have been a Holden Caulfield or a Gene Forrester. Instead the Student (that's what I'm going to call him from now on) held me at arm's length, coldly reporting his father's death and his estranged relationship with an older brother, as if he were giving a deposition. No doubt some of this stiff stoicism reflects his upbringing in the Japan of 1914- a time and place that stood on a lot of formality, and which probably regarded grieving as so much emo handwringing, and friendly familiarity as disrespectful frivolity. A wisecracking Holden Caulfield would be out-of-place here. Still, I would have liked a more intimate bond with the narrator. Looking past that, this was a melancholy book that I could not put down. It grieves at human suffering without shaking its fists at the sky or cutting itself in the bathroom stall of some nightclub. The narration is infused with a tired resignation which strikes me as vaguely Buddhist, the same way Vonnegut’s phrase "So it goes" does. Kokoro is divided into three parts: in part one, Student befriends a retired professor he refers to as "Sensei" (i.e. "Teacher"). Part two follows recently-graduated Student back to his parents' modest rural home to his father's deathbed, and to settle the details of his inheritance with his estranged brother. Part three takes the form of a letter Sensei left for Student, to be opened after his death. That letter is far and away the most gripping part of the book, because Sensei's voice is much more relatable and intimate than Student‘s. Without spoiling too much, Sensei's story carries the book, and is a truly heartbreaking account of love and loss, friendship tested, regret and remorse. You know; the big stuff; the stuff that actually happens to everyday people, who then spend years dissecting and analyzing the events, playing them over in their minds, both as part of a healing process, and in an effort to learn whatever lessons their mistakes may hold. Who reading this review hasn't reflected back on some regrettable incident, years after the fact, imagining how it could have gone better? Who hasn't sat pondering, embarrassed with oneself over how indefensible some youthful outburst, indiscretion or impulsive act seems, looking back on it now with added experience and maturity? This is all part of living and growing, isn't it? The story here feels very real- that is to say it does not strike me as the least bit contrived, and it's all very sad, but I guess I really appreciate Kokoro for not feeling compelled to keep the tone upbeat, or to end the story with a happy resolution that has a neat bow on top. Life can feel like a mess sometimes. I haven't read Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-sided, but I think it is about the modern (and especially American) tendency to fetishize happiness to the exclusion of all other emotions. And that's really sick, because limiting oneself to a narrow band of feelings at the happy end of the spectrum is to deny a part of one's self and one's experiences, as if they don't have value; as if they don’t belong to the overall substance of who we are, or what our life has meant. I almost feel ridiculous writing this, as if maybe this is a straw man I'm putting out there just to knock down, but let me share some context here: the last couple months have seen a minor controversy in medicine, as proposed changes to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th Edition (DSM-5) have been leaked prior to its expected release later this year. The DSM provides Psychiatrists with guidelines on diagnosing psychiatric disorders. Unless the current controversy changes things, it looks like the new DSM will regard depressive symptoms as pathologic, regardless of context or duration. In other words, there will be no recognition of grieving as a normal human experience; if you're depressed on the day of a loved one's death, you'll be considered pathologically depressed, and in need of medication. It's a bit off-topic here, but shyness will apparently also no longer qualify as a normal condition. There is little doubt in my mind that the influence of psychotropic drug manufacturers has something to do with these changes, but that isn‘t what I want to discuss here. What's concerning is that a portion of the normal range of human emotions is under attack. Part of who we are is about to be pathologized, marginalized, stigmatized and medicated away. And for what? If this "war on sadness" (my expression) successfully puts a pharmaceutical smile on everybody's faces, and exterminates any trace of negativity from the population, can anybody honestly imagine that humankind will be the better for it? Koroko has been a wonderful book to read in the midst of this debate, because everything of interest on these pages is terribly tragic yet deeply fulfilling to read. There is substance here; and I don't want to be misunderstood as equating mopey self-pity with depth, because that's not what this book implies. These characters are richer, more interesting, more human for their suffering. Sensei's remorse, his regret at words left unsaid, are deeply human. Could somebody perpetually happy ever be this human? True: at some point, Sensei's remorse becomes pathologic, and he probably could have benefited from whatever assistance modern psychiatrists are qualified to offer. Finding that fine line between normal and disease is a challenge; a skill that psychiatrists spend years honing. The anticipated revisions in the DSM-5 suggest that Psychiatry as a profession has given up looking for that line, which is unfortunate. It's a disservice to patients, which strikes me -ironically- as a very sad development.