Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

From "The Modern Athenium"

(August 14, 1897)*


 

The world," says Herbert Spencer, "is not governed by ideas, but by feelings, to which ideas serve only as guides."

This sentence is quoted by Mr. Lafcadio Hearn in "The Idea of PreŽxistence," one of the essays of his recent volume, "Kokoro"; and it reminds us that, like our friend M. Maurice Maeterlinck and so many other writers of the present day, he is turning his attention more and more to the inner life and its concerns. Indeed, the secondary title of his book is "Hints and Echoes of Japanese Inner Life"; and in a brief note he explains:

"The papers composing this volume treat of the inner rather than of the outer life of Japan, for which reason they have been grouped under the title 'Kokoro' (heart)..This word signifies also mind, in the emotional sense; courage, resolve, sentiment, affection, and inner meaning-just as we say in English, 'the heart of things.'"

Mr. Lafcadio Hearn began to make himself known as a writer some years ago now in New Orleans, if I mistake not. Two of his books, both brief romantic stories, "Yuma" and "Chita," were tales of the islands of the Gulf coast; while a third was a series of descriptive papers on the Islands of Martinique. All of this work was distinguished by a very original style-subtile, vivid, rich and scrupulous to a degree. Without any of the overweighting which word painting is too apt to acquire, it was yet full of the warmth and luxuriance of the tropics; and it had at the same time the keenest delicacy of discrimination, the widest human sympathy, giving us a product at once gorgeous and fine. Those pictures of the West Indies are not surpassed by any papers of travel in American literature; they show the devoted hand and the seeing eye of the born artist; and they marked the writer at once as a grave observer of life and a loving craftsman of most exceptional powers. They were finished and beautiful in themselves, and they gave promises which have since been amply fulfilled.

It was fitting that one who could look upon the varied world with such serene penetration should find his way to Japan, that fabulous island where the Western horizon is lost in the sea-line of the Far East. There is a people of subtlest mind and ripest civilization, very alien to ours in thought and habit, little understood, and piquing the dullest curiosity. Mr. Lafcadio Hearn became a teacher of English in one of the Japanese universities; and if his services to that country have been half as great in helping it to an understanding of Western ideas, as they have to America in helping us to understand Japan and the Orient, he is an educator indeed. I do not mean for a moment that the Japanese are to be perverted to our standard; heaven forbid! but only that they should come to have a clear and just view of Western progress, with all its power and its shame.

In international criticism we have had more than one able book. Emerson's "English Traits" will come first to mind, of course, as a masterpiece of open-minded interpretation; and one cannot help placing beside it, as a work of rare insight and dispassionate sympathy, Mr. W.C. Brownell's volume on France and the French ("French Traits" it is called, if I recollect aright). Here were instances in which thorough scholarship and luminous understanding were brought to bear upon a foreign people, and American literature was enriched by two pieces of criticism, above praise for their fairness and comprehension. I think of hardly any other effort of our people comparable to these studies, except Mr. Hearn's admirable interpretations of Japan. His first fruits of labor in that new field were embodied in two large volumes, "Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan;" this has since been supplemented by "Out of the East," and the present "Kokoro;" making, as a whole, a most fascinating series of portraits, studies, and sketches of these masters of the East.

They are not books, perhaps, which will have an immediately great circulation, they are too good for that; there is too much care bestowed upon them; they contain too much real thought; this is their virtue. But they must remain unsurpassed for a long time, as the only rendering of Japanese ideas for Anglo-American minds; and among educated persons one would expect them to receive an instant recognition,-barring, of course, our conservative sectarians, who will hardly open their minds to truth at variance with their prejudice.

Since the publication of "Chita," "Yuma" and the Martinique sketches, Mr. Hearn's style has changed considerably; it has changed, as his attention has gradually been drawn more and more from outward things and the beauty of the world to momentous questions of the inner life-problems of philosophy and religion-concerns of the very heart and spirit of humanity. Here, without having anything in common, either as to matter or methods, he is at one with Maurice Maeterlinck and all symbolists; he is a contributor, however modest, to the larger religious feeling of the future.

And just as Mr. Maeterlinck's aim, either in his plays or his essays, is to turn our thought constantly to the constant needs of the soul, and to explore its half-discovered dominions, so Mr. Hearn's purpose seems to have become, to interpret and explain the hidden spiritual life of one of the peoples of the earth.

To this difficult task he has brought, as I have implied, a faculty of observation trained with nicest care, an unfettered love of truth, and a style at once simple and searching. If we could only bring ourselves to that judicial attitude, that unbiased habit of mind, where alone any critical suggestions can be entertained, or any creation of the beautiful rightly appreciated! There are many surprises awaiting the honest reader of these studies; he will not only find a people whose civilization is older than his own, whose manners are superior, whose morality is more gentle, whose religion is more rational; he will find a people of much greater plasticity, intellectual freedom and adaptability than his own warrior breed.

The most practical part of the book is the comparison instituted between the Japanese and ourselves as regards productive power in the trades and industry. It is shown pretty conclusively that the ability of all Oriental nations to underlive our own will effectually prevent any permanent and dominating establishment of Occidental races among them. Japan has welcomed foreigners to her shores of late because she could learn something from them; of all their business methods, their scientific and military knowledge she was ignorant. But now that she has acquired these, she can readily dispense with the aliens. And the fact that the cost of living is so much less for a Japanese than for one of our race leaves us at their mercy when the war of competition begins. Our conquering commercialism will be beaten at its own game, not because we are weaker than they, but because we are stronger; because their frugality, patience and thrift enable them to underlive us at every point. An invasion of America by an Oriental race we can well imagine; we have had to confront it in Chinese immigration; and we perceive exactly where its strength lies. But such an invasion of China or Japan by Americans would be out of the question. Our greater strength, our skill, our genius for organization, our commercial prestige, would avail us nothing; we could not compete for a moment with Orientals in the struggle for existence on their own soil. As a matter of fact, we are told that the foreign settlements in Japan are already beginning to feel discouragement and that they are losing control of trade. The Japanese are not to be conquered either by arms or commerce. The racial genius for adaptability has enabled them to build and equip one of the finest navies in the world within a few years, and it has also made them learn from their foreign settlers the force of commercial competition. In material prosperity, then, we are likely to find the Japanese very sharp rivals; while in matters of the spiritual life their influence will be more silent, but possibly no less powerful. In the realm of science alone, perhaps, shall we remain for some time their masters.

Meanwhile there are many spheres of activity in which we might well be content to become their modest students. And whether we adopt any of their noble philosophy and refined ethical standards or not, we may very well broaden our minds by a generous study of their civilization.


Untitled "The Modern Athenium," Boston Evening Transcript, Aug. 14, 1897 [back]