Friday, December 14, 2007

Loneliness Thickens

[Lafcadio Hearn to Ellwood Hendrick]

Tokyo, May 1897.

Dear E. H.,

I have been reading your last over and over again--because it is very pretty indeed, one of the very prettiest letters I ever read. There is altogether something so deliciously assured about it--so full of happy confidence, that I feel quite comfortable and jolly about you. . . notwithstanding the fact that I am tolerably sure you will be taken utterly away from me in the end. For this shall a man leave not only his friend, but his father and his mother,--saith the Sacred Book. You know that particular passage makes the Japanese mad,--but not quite so mad as the observation: "Unless a man shall hate his father and his mother," etc., which has knocked the wind out of much missionary enterprise.

I can't write much more about yourself, because I don't know anything yet. So I shall talk about Tokyo.

As you know, I have been somewhat idle--for a month at least. And the loneliness thickens. And certain gentlemen make it a rule to spit upon the ground with a loud noise when I pass by. I believe the trick is not confined to the Occident, having found Japanese skillful at it; but these be nevertheless manners of Heidelberg doctors! Nevertheless, it won't work.

But really the conditions are very queer. I felt instinctively before going to Tokyo, that I was going into a world of intrigue; but what a world I had no conception. The foreign element appears to live in a condition of perpetual panic. Everybody is infinitely afraid of everybody else, afraid to speak not only their minds, but to speak about anything except irrelevant matters, and then only in a certain formal tone sanctioned by custom. They huddle together sometimes at parties, and talk all together loudly about nothing,--like people in the expectation of a possible catastrophe, or like folks making a noise to drive away ghosts, or fear of ghosts. Somebody, quite accidentally, observes--or rather drops an observation about facts. Instantly there is a scattering away from that man as from dynamites. He is isolated for several weeks by common consent. Then he goes to work to reform a group of his own. Gradually he collects one--and rival groups are formed. But presently someone in another party or chat talks about something as it ought to be. Bangfizz--chaos and confusion. Then all the groups unite to isolate that wicked tongue. The man is dangerous--an intriguer--ha! And so on--ad lib.

This is panic, pure and simple, and the selfishness of panic. But there is some reason for it--considering the class of minds. We are all in Japan living over earthquakes. Nothing is stable. All Japanese officialdom is perpetually in flux,--nothing but the throne is even temporarily fixed; and the direction of the currents depends much upon force of intrigue. They shift, like currents in the sea, off a coast of tides. But the side currents penetrate everywhere, and clapotent all corners, and swirl round the writing-stool of the smallest clerk,--whose pen trembles with continual fear for his wife's and babies' rice. Being good or clever or generous or popular or the best man for the place counts for very little. Intrigue has nothing at all to do with qualities. Popularity in the biggest sense has, of course, some value, but only the value depending upon certain alternations of rhythm of outs-and-ins. That's all.

. . .And I--am as a flea in a washbowl. My best chance is to lie quiet and wait the coming of events. I hope to see Europe, with my boy, some day.

Well, this is only private history to amuse E. H. to make Western by contrast to Eastern life seem more beautiful to him.


-from Lafcadio Hearn: Letters from Tokyo translated and edited by M. Otani (Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1920) p. 46-54.

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