Lafcadio Hearn to Basil Hall Chamberlain
May 30, 1893.
Your criticism about my idea of a volume of stories delights me.
But I am not insensible to the comic side. I want the best of anything I can get in that direction. I want it, however, under reservations.
In the "Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan"* I think you will find something more than pathos. I think you may have found something more than the minor key even in the West Indian Sketches. But--besides the fact that I know the narrow limitations of my own power, I have an artistic theory about comedy.
For sincere work I think comedy should always be very close to tears,--as it is in real life. Shadow and sun make the picture. The strongest possible pathos is created by the use of comedy in the proper time and place.
But it is very hard to do this. Those who have been able to do it well are the giants. Take Heine's work; what is the nervous power of it; surely, aside from mere verbal art and fancy, it is in this very thing. He amuses, caresses, brings tears; then with a lightning flash of sarcasm lie illuminates the bitter gulfs. Or the mockery first, and then the pathos. I don't think the Elizabethan writers knew this art; they had to introduce fools and mad people to off-set tragedy. It seems to me an art yet undeveloped. Most men can work safely only in one direction,--having but one faculty powerfully developed. Heine had two;--but he was only half alive in his best years. I think myself a book all in one key is weak. I should like to venture at work in two. But I am small. I am groping and don't know. All I can say is,--Any and every suggestion I can get during the next two years will be gold and diamonds.
The little follies, the childish errors, the blunders and mistakes of life, do not however make me laugh. I cannot laugh at the real,--unless it's offensive. Rather all these things seem to me infinitely pathetic; the comedy of them is the tragedy played by human children before the Unknown. In an artistic sketch, I think the comedy ought not to provoke more than a smile. But hard and fast rules are out of the question. And what would the Japanese say? They don't understand. I once ventured a jest in Izumo about the ancient Gods,--in the presence of one who did not believe. It was an innocent jest, too,--not derogatory to the Gods. But,--well, I never tried it again; not even when I heard much racier jests made by the same person.
I am not good, I fear, like you. I do not always give gentle answers, which is a sign of strength, but nasty ones, which is a sign of weakness. However, I have lately effected a compromise with myself. I think this way:--"Assuredly, the people who ask you so impertinently to do things for money, conceive that money is an all-fired great consideration with you,--because it is with them. To undeceive them would injure their feelings,--stab them in the only place where they have any feelings. Wherefore it were more Christian to answer them according to their kind. An answer of this sort cannot satisfy them altogether, but it will teach them respect for you."
Therefore when I am asked, for example, to write letters for a particular sort of patronizing newspaper, "I am very grateful, dear Sir, for your kindly appreciation of my work, and for your courteous offer. In answer to your question about terms, I may say, that, although now unusually occupied, I hope to find time to write you a few letters on the following conditions: One thousand dollars in gold per letter,--to be paid in each case in advance,--by draft on London,--and copyright of letters to be secured in the name of my publishers, at your expense,--which, of course, will be trifling. Trusting, my dear sir, etc."
Now, if they really agree to the terms, they would be worth the while. If they don't, it is all the same,--except that they will see even an author loves money, and esteems himself at the right value. Of course, that is only me. You ought to charge enormous rates, and you might get them. Some years ago in New York, when there was no Russian Secretary, a Russian document had to be translated in a hurry. There was only one man in New York then who could do the work, and the man knew it. The legend is that he charged $10,000 and got it. If you write a perfumery ad. in Chinese for those people you ought to charge enough to elevate the price of the perfume bottles 150 p. c. ? ? ? The fun of all this is that I, who write it, can't get any big prices for anything yet. By dint of pretended scorn, perhaps some day I shall get a gold mine all to myself.
Best wishes ever and thanks,
*Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894 Houghton Mifflin) - 2 vols. 1000 sets in green; (1894 Osgood McIlvaine) - 2 vols
-from The Japanese Letters of Lafcadio Hearn edited with an introduction by Elizabeth Bisland (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1910) p. 99-102.