Thursday, December 13, 2007

Lafcadio Caged

[Lafcadio Hearn to Ellwood Hendrick]

Tokyo, August, 1897.

Dear Hendrick,

. . . The other night I got into a little-known part of Tokyo,--a street all ablaze with lanterns about thirty feet high, painted with weird devices. And I was interested especially by the insect-sellers. I bought a number of cages full of night-singing insects, and am now trying to make a study of the subjects. The noise made by these creatures is very much more extraordinary than you could imagine; but the habit of keeping them is not merely due to a love of the noise itself. No: it is because these little orchestras give to city-dwellers the feeling of the delight of being in the country,--the sense of woods and hills and flowing water and starry nights and sweet air. Fireflies are caged for the same reason.

This is a refinement of sensation, is it not?--only a poetical people could have imagined the luxury of buying summer-voices to make for them the illusion of nature where there is only dust and mud. Notice also that singers are night-singers. It is no use to cage the cicadae: they remain silent in a cage, and die.

In this horrid Tokyo I feel like a cicada:--I am caged, and can't sing. Sometimes I wonder whether I shall ever be able to sing any more,--except at night?--like a bell-insect which has only one note.

What more and more impresses me every year is the degree to which the writer is a creature of circumstance. If he can make the circumstance, like a Kipling or a Stevenson, he can go on forever. Otherwise he is likely to exhaust every motive in short order, to the same extent that he depends on outer influence.

One thing you will have to do,--that is, to take extremely good care of yourself for somebody else's sake. Which redounds to my benefit; for I really don't know what I should do without that occasional wind of sympathy wherewith your letters refresh me. I keep telling my wife that it would be ever so much better to leave Tokyo, and dwell in the country, at a very much smaller salary, and have peace of mind. She says that nowhere could I have any peace of mind until I become a Buddha, and that with patience we can become independent. This is good; and my few Japanese friends tell me the same thing. But perhaps the influence from 40 Kilby Street, Boston, is the most powerful and saving of all.

An earthquake and several other things (I hate earthquakes) interrupted this letter. It is awfully dull, I know--forgive its flatness. . . . . .

Ever, dear H., your

-from Lafcadio Hearn: Letters from Tokyo translated and edited by M. Otani (Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1920) p. 76-80.

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