The Japan Times
January 19, 2000


Lafcadio Hearn: interpreter of two disparate worlds

Special to The Japan Times


He created an illusion and lived his days and nights within its confines. That illusion was his Japan. He found in Japan the ideal coupling of the cerebral and the sensual, mingled and indistinguishable, the one constantly recharging the other and affording him the inspiration to write.

He came at a time when virtually all foreigners were here to instruct, pontificate and lord themselves over the Oriental upstart; yet he himself came solely to learn, to fossick, to discover what his temperament had taught him was beautiful and potent in the human spirit. Fresh off the ship in 1890, he wrote of the Japanese to his friend and subsequent biographer Elizabeth Bisland, "I believe that their art is as far in advance of our art as old Greek art was superior to that of the earliest European art-groupings. We are barbarians! I do not merely think these things: I am as sure of them as of death. I only wish I could be reincarnated in some little Japanese baby, so that I could see and feel the world as beautifully as a Japanese brain does."

It was hard for Japanese to resist such blatant adoration, focused as it was on their sheer uniqueness. One hundred and fifty years have passed since the birth of Patrick Lafcadio Hearn. This orphan of Europe — transported at age 19 to the United States and later, aged nearly 40, to Japan — found in this country what he had been seeking everywhere: a sanctuary for his imagination. In the decades following his death in Tokyo in 1904, the Japanese crowned him with their ultimate laurel; he became their "gaijin" laureate, the single greatest interpreter, in their eyes, of their inmost cultural secrets.

Even today, Hearn is considered in this country the foreigner who understood the Japanese in the most profound way. Yet he is forgotten in the West, a footnote on the faded pages of exotica. What was the nature of this man, as wanderer, as nonnative informant of the fiendish details of American and Japanese lore (let's not forget that Hearn was to some extent a chronicler of American mores as well as Japanese)? And what were the circumstances that led to such a gap between Japanese and Western perceptions of this dutifully forlorn eccentric?

Out of place and time

There were many factors that allowed Hearn to feel immediately at home in Meiji Japan, stemming as much from the circumstances of his birth and his early years of newspaper apprenticeship as from the peculiar realities of a country in the throes of grossly accelerated progress. He was a man abandoned by family, a man who had never felt a part of a social entity anywhere, a man so intensely withdrawn that he had at times preferred the company of a corpse in the morgue to that of a living human.

In Dublin, he had been a little dark boy left by his parents to be reared by a pious great-aunt. In England, he had been a sensitive, short-statured adolescent, as different a type as you could get in the Yorkshire countryside, thrown on the mercies of stern, dogmatic teachers. In London, he had been miserably down-and-out, a scavenger in the markets, a young man absolutely isolated, terrified by the squalor that seemed always to be on the verge of engulfing him. Half-Irish and half-Greek, in both appearance and disposition very much not the Englishman, he was lost in location and, what would prove to be more important, in time.

Then, suddenly, there was America, where he found his way to Cincinnati and a job at a newspaper. He styled himself into a reporter, but hardly the kind that the country sought out or nurtured: fit, perhaps, for writing police reports, a scandal chaser, a grubber along the Rue Morgue, not at all your "go west, young man" type. Here, and later in New Orleans, he lived often in rooms that also accommodated blacks. He was of their class there, and he did not entertain the prejudices toward people of color that virtually all white Americans harbored.

Post-Civil War America was steeped in the rhetoric of a theoretical egalitarian ideal. In reality, little had changed for the nonwhite population either North or South. Hearn identified with color, saw himself as a mixture of races. This alone marginalized him in his chosen field of journalism. Americans were themselves, like the Japanese of the Meiji era, on a journey of self-discovery. In an America that was forging a cultural identity separate from Europe's — just as Japan was about to forge an identity separate from the rest of Asia's — how could there be a place for a man of such bizarre and ambiguous cultural identities?

Naturally, Hearn was drawn south, to what he saw as a languid and decadent lifestyle. A refuge for the defeated spirit, the South proved to be a place where Hearn, cultural underdog himself, could lick his wounds with the best of them. Eventually, he was drawn still farther south, to St. Pierre on the island of Martinique.

He didn't settle in St. Pierre. He missed the intellectual life of the north. Hearn was, after all, a fanatic bookworm and self-proclaimed polemicist. He was no Paul Gauguin. The torpid pace of life in the tropics — particularly the Francophone tropics where he felt in danger of losing his command of English style — was not, in the end, the cup of tea of a man with a hyperactive mind.

In St. Pierre, and again after he returned to New Orleans, he fell seriously ill with a fever that must have weakened his heart and led, eventually, to his death. Reporting work had all but evaporated. Hearn's relations with his publishers in New York seemed tenuous at best. In 1879, he opened a restaurant with a partner. (Hearn's interest in food was deep and abiding. A Creole cookbook compiled and written by him is still extant. In fact, his greatest nostalgia of all, during the years he forfeited to a bland Japanese diet, might have been for the pungent food of New Orleans.) He had put up $100, a good two months' salary, but his partner absconded with cash and cook, leaving Hearn holding the pot in the defunct eatery that he had named prophetically, The Hard Times.

And then came the windfall ... and Hearn found himself on a ship bound for, of all places, Japan. It is assumed by many, Japanese and non-Japanese alike, that Hearn reinvented himself at this point in his life, that the moment he set foot on the planks of the Yokohama dock a new, enhanced individual was born, the single-minded author replacing the dilettante reporter. This rendering of his life and career suits the Japanese interpretation of him as a major literary figure Actually, had he possessed a genuine literary gift, his career would surely have taken flight in America and his works would have survived as American literary achievements — in the language then were written in.

The sad truth is that Lafcadio Hearn lacked originality. His own few works of fiction, written before his departure for Japan, are run-of-the-mill, late-19th century extended vignettes, of interest now, as then, only for the strangeness of their locations. In his prime, Hearn was a story reteller of genius, a writer with an instinctive knack for grasping the essence of another culture's spirituality legends, rituals and myths. The underlying reason for this, I feel, is his personal, if subconscious, refusal to identify with the Anglo-Celtic cultures of his youth and early manhood. Hearn represented no country in an era when authors were seen as conduits for their countries' souls. The Japanese may believe that he identified with Japan, but that was not the case, either — at least, not in his own mind. He was prepared to give a voice to any culture that was not associated with Western institutions of church or state.

That he came to Japan at a time when the Japanese were eagerly embracing the West in all its industrial and imperialistic trappings (although rejecting its monolithic religion) gives rise to the essential paradox of Lafcadio Hearn: He became the interpreter of a Japanese soul that the Japanese themselves were loath to expose or recognize until, once safely modernized, they could take it up. again and rediscover him as the emperor of their bruised nostalgia.

Who was Lafcadio Hearn?

He was born on the Greek island of Lefkas in 1850. His mother, Rosa, was an illiterate local who was spotted by his father, Charles, a surgeon in the British Army. The Hearn family of Dublin were well-to-do Protestant Irish, and it was to that city that Lafcadio was taken by his mother when he was 2 years old. Charles, in the meantime, off at sea, did not accompany them, and, in fact, the couple was not reunited for some two years. His parents were soon to be divorced. Rosa returned to Greece heavily pregnant, giving birth to another boy, James, in her home country. Lafcadio never saw his parents again and never met his brother. (His father died at sea in 1866.)

He was brought up by his great-aunt Sarah Brenane, a fervent convert to Catholicism, in Rathmines, a fashionable suburb of Dublin to this day, and sent eventually to a parochial school near Durham, England. It was here — taking the brunt of austere and doctrinaire training by martinet schoolmasters and of the most conventional bullying by his peers — that "Paddy" (as Irish males were wont to be called by the English) took refuge in two things that would later stand him in good stead: his physical prowess and his refractive imagination. As an adult, he stood just 160 cm high, but his well-developed muscles, timidity's armor, protected him. Painfully introverted, he resisted the encroachments of conventional wisdom, the deforming loss of sight in one eye following an accident during a game at school only exacerbated his shyness. In particular, he came to feel that no woman of his own kind would look favorably on him, with his exophthalmic stare and his gloomy perception of the twisted realities of human nature.

After his great-aunt fell on hard times, Hearn was forced to leave school and go to London, where he lived for a time with a maid who had once worked in the Dublin household. Then, when he was 19, came the opportunity to go to America. Hearn's reputation as a reporter in America has been exaggerated on both sides of the Pacific. It is true that he was locally acclaimed for his reporting of crimes and scandals. His imagination was ignited by the kind of demonic detail that newspaper readers begged for then, as they do now. But in Cincinnati he was active on what was, at the time, the fringe of American culture. Ohio had been the West. The term Middle West did not gain currency until the end of the century. But the defeat of the South had sent refugees to Chicago, giving prominence to that city as a new center of commerce. In addition, the Gold Rush had triggered massive emigration to California, which, now a state of the Union, was establishing itself as the new western frontier.

As for New Orleans, the city had prospered in the years leading up to mid-century, the Mississippi steamboats having transformed it into a major banking and trading metropolis. Tobacco, sugar and, especially, cotton were transported from plantations down-river to New Orleans, then on to markets around the world. But Hearn was there some 20 years after the South's defeat, which had brought with it the downfall of the one institution that had supported those three primary industries: slavery. The New Orleans that Hearn saw was a has-been town of mixed races and colorful tales, a perfect match for his own temperament and talents.

In America, he was drawn to detail and esoterica. His letters and writings are full of anecdotes and ditties, words, songs, phrases and explanations of eerie customs intertwined with long-lost beliefs. This is where the pre-Japan Hearn and the Hearn that the Japanese so deeply admire merge, in his ability to record the features of a place's subculture as if testifying to the locals' own lack of interest in it. Hearn is forever atop his own little steamboat, running upstream, as if seeking the source of things, while the masses are scrambling past him, in whatever vehicles they can muster, toward a future goal called progress that he would, till the day he died refuse to see as anything but a false destiny.

What is past or passing

This, then, set the stage for Hearn's arrival in Japan. He came to write the kind of reportage for which he had gained a modest reputation in the Eastern states of America. He had nearly starved in New Orleans, had briefly traveled north to see some old friends, whose meager hospitality failed to impress him, and then set out on his final and most sublime journey. Through the good offices of Professor Basil Hall Chamberlain of Tokyo University, who was to help him get a position six years later in Tokyo as well, he landed a job teaching English at a middle school in the provincial coastal town of Matsue.

Hearn spent little more than a single year there, but it is with Matsue that he is still most closely associated in the Japanese mind — and rightly so. His view of Japan was set in its mold there, changing in the future only in the variety of its glazes. In Matsue he cast himself as a collector of miscellany, the same kind of transcriber of local mentalities that he had been in America. He was drawn to everything that the Japanese were tossing away, countless bits of information on cultural mores and religious ritual, from the gestures of Bon dances, Buddhist festivals, pipe stems for males and females to the number of flickers made by an excited Japanese firefly. He was interested in ceremonial food, dress, poetry, music, geisha, philosophy, flora and fauna, suicide, the Japanese smile, the Japanese tear, the Japanese sigh. Name a field of study of traditional art or life and Lafcadio Hearn was intrigued by it, swept away by it. He is the founding father of the school of Japanese uniqueness, the fountain that provides the spiritual and aesthetic nourishment, in flow whenever turned on, that Japanese people require to convince themselves that they are more than the sum of their borrowed and mechanically transformed parts.

Hearn married Setsu Koizumi, moving to Kumamoto in late 1891 with her, her family and its thin entourage. Even this early, however, only a year and a half into his stay in Japan, Hearn was beginning to tire of his station. But contemplating leaving was one thing. It was already too late to do much about it. The birth of a son, Kazuo, to whom Hearn, at the expense of three children born subsequently, was profoundly devoted; his acquisition of Japanese citizenship and a Japanese name, Yakumo Koizumi; and the increasing burden of supporting his extended family — all these kept him in Japan. The main reason for his naturalization was his consideration for Setsu and Kazuo. Had he died a British subject in Japan, she could not have inherited his property. By becoming a Japanese, however, Hearn further isolated himself from the foreign community in Japan, which saw itself by virtue of birthright as a culturally superior body surrounded by aimless, copycat Orientals bent on the impossible: becoming their equals.

The mid-1890s found Hearn in Kobe, working for the Kobe Chronicle as an editorial writer. He was still idealizing Japan when he wrote to Chamberlain at the time, "The Japanese peasant is ten times more of a gentleman than a foreign merchant could ever learn to be." But this idealization did not apply to Japanese officials or any Japanese, for that matter, who supported modernization of his country. These Hearn despised more than ever, as he did the foreign missionaries who he believed had come to rob Japan of its true spirituality.

Hearn recognized that he was out of step with the reality of his adopted land. "I felt as never before," he wrote to Chamberlain from Kobe, "how utterly dead Old Japan is and how ugly New Japan is becoming. I thought, how useless to write about things which have ceased to exist."

He spent his last seven years in Japan in Tokyo, teaching first at Tokyo University and, in his final year, at Waseda. In Tokyo, more than ever, he felt as if he were a flower blossoming in defiance of the season. In his eyes, the capital represented for Japan what New York ("this beastly machinery") represented for America. He craved peace of mind and subtle riddles, the charm of things that had vanished for most people but whose outlines and shadows he saw so clearly. Tokyo was confusion and the aping of the most rotten aspects of Western civilization, beauty replaced by a mechanics run mad.

The shaping of a reputation

Hearn's death in 1904 was greeted with indifference by the few members of the foreign community who knew him. The Japanese had not yet adopted him as the native son of their forgotten past. In America, however, he had built himself quite a reputation as an interpreter of Japanese life. The popularity of Japan after the country's victory in the war with Russia helped enhance Hearn's position as one of the few Westerners who understood the workings of the Japanese mind. But it was not long before his reputation began to grow in Japan and wane in the West. This is where the gap opened that has only widened since.

The Japanese took up Hearn, exalting him because he was unlike the other Europeans who had come to Japan at the time. His rejection of the values of his English education and his journeyman's approach to and immersion in the subcultures of middle and southern America had prepared him well. He arrived in Japan immaculately designed to absorb precisely those elegant, moribund features of Japanese legend that the Japanese had no time for themselves. As such, he could be usefully recycled by the Japanese as a witness to their past whenever it was convenient for them to conjure it up. You see, they could say, we are not only equal to you Europeans in our technological prowess, we also have a spiritual base that is profound and mysterious.

And for the West? Hearn's legacy is that of an interpreter of all that is receding, an originator of the "tale of the vanishing Japan" that has dominated Western views of this country for the past 100 years. Foreigners are drawn to this Japan, taking on the Hearnian role of urging the Japanese to hold onto an elusive cultural identity that they have long abandoned. Yet if this model is true, Japan has been vanishing for so long it is a miracle there is anything left of the country at all.

This deep fissure in the two perceptions of Hearn and his legacy — a shining god on the one side and a minor transcriber of exotica on the other — has obscured the real Lafcadio Hearn from view. The man, an authentic outsider to any time and place, a complex individual who rejected his own civilization and his own century, a faithful representative only of his own bizarre and wonderful imagination, stands somewhere in the shadows far below.

Roger Pulvers is an author and theater director living in Kyoto. His latest novel, "The Dream of Lafcadio Hearn," will be published this spring in Japanese translation by Kodansha.

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