AsiaNow Speaks with Michael K. Bourdaghs

Michael K. Bourdaghs is Robert S. Ingersoll Professor in East Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago, and author of A Fictional Commons: Natsume Sōseki and the Properties of Modern Literature, published by Duke University Press and winner of the 2023 Honorable Mention, John Whitney Hall Prize.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

My book rethinks the fiction and literary theories of Natsume Sōseki, often celebrated as Japan’s greatest modern novelist, as a kind of creative and critical response to the rise in Meiji Japan of the modern property regime, taken up as a legal system, a conceptual and scholarly problem, a framework for thinking about selfhood, and a set of everyday embodied practices. In more general terms, I try to explore in the book the ways literature as an intellectual and artistic pursuit engages productively and playfully with the dominant structures of modern society—including how it can provide a site for imagining alternative realities to the world in which we live. I pursue my argument through close readings of a large number of Sōseki’s works, readings that put them into dialogue with scholars and theorists from his day (William James, Marcel Mauss, and Motora Yūjirō for example) and from ours (Karatani Kōjin, Jacques Derrida, and C.B. Macpherson, among others).

What inspired you to research this topic?

The project is in a way my own attempt to answer the question, what is literature and what can it do? Sōseki seemed like an excellent instance for pursuing this. I’d always been interested in him as a writer. In fact, I wrote my senior thesis at Macalester College on Botchan. But I’d been a bit reluctant to pursue serious research on him: I was afraid that doing so might take one of the greatest pleasures in my life and turn it into work, something that I had to do. So I approached this project with some caution. I’m happy to report that at its conclusion, I find my passion for reading Sōseki intact.

I remember quite specifically the moment when the project came into clear focus in my mind, sometime around 1998 or 1999. I had been thinking about the intense engagement Sōseki had with the work of William James, and I came across a brief comment in Walter Benn Michael’s The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism about James’s thought being an instance of what Macpherson calls “possessive individualism.” On the same afternoon, I was working on the translation I edited of Kamei Hideo’s Transformations of Sensibility: The Phenomenology of Meiji Literature and came across a passage that talked about how Meiji-era intellectuals in Japan used the development of a European-style private property system as a yardstick for measuring the degree of civilization attained by a given society. A lightbulb went on over my head as I connected those two passages to the fact that virtually all of Sōseki’s novels revolve directly or indirectly around property disputes. I also quickly realized that this also connected to his own basic ideas about what literature should be in both theory and practice.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

The project took much, much longer than I’d anticipated at the start. I did the core research for the book at Tōhoku University, where Sōseki’s personal library is preserved, back in 2000-1, and at the time thought I’d finish the book in two or three years. It ended up taking twenty years. In part, this was because other projects intervened to distract me—among them a co-translation with Joseph Murphy, Atsuko Ueda and others of Sōseki’s remarkable literary criticism, including his 1907 Theory of Literature, an attempt to construct a fully scientific theory of literature that would be valid in all times and all places. I also got slowed down because in my mind the project expanded to include the problem of world literature, which is very relevant to Sōseki’s own attempt to theorize literature. I started mapping out chapters, for example, that would read his work in tandem with contemporary figures like Rabindranath Tagore, Gertrude Stein, and W.E.B. DuBois. I published some of that material in the form of articles, but in the end I decided to go back to my original conception for the book. Some of my ideas about Sōseki and world literature did get included in the book, though, mainly in the concluding chapter.  

What is the strangest/funniest/most outrageous/most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

The endnotes of my book are full of these surprising little anecdotes that I discovered along the way—that, for example, a wax cylinder recording of Sōseki’s voice was made but that the owner of the only copy loved listening to it so much that he played it obsessively until the grooves on the wax were completely worn down. Now the audio is completely lost, despite the recent efforts by scientists to recover the audio track from the cylinder using digital analysis. Or that Sōseki in London ended up living (in one of his residences) just a few blocks from where Sigmund Freud would settle in after fleeing from Vienna after the Nazi takeover three decades later. It supposedly became known as the J and J neighborhood: Japanese and Jews.

And in tackling Sōseki, one is always overwhelmed by the enormous amount of scholarship and criticism that has been done on him in Japan. In chapter three of the book, I take up the strange figure of a walking stick that the hero in To the Spring Equinox and Beyond receives as a gift. As I started to look into the previous scholarship on this, I was shocked to find that an entire book had been published on the topic of the walking sticks that show up in Sōseki’s novels. But maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, after all.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

Relatively late in my project, I came across Brenna Bhandar’s The Colonial Life of Properties: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership (Duke University Press, 2018), which was enormously helpful in clarifying my own thoughts. And although it probably amounts to blowing my own horn a bit, Karatani Kōjin’s The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange (Duke University Press, 2014), which I translated and is one of the side projects that delayed the publication of A Fictional Commons, was very useful. Finally, I’d mention the delights I discovered in going over Sōseki’s own marginal comments and underlinings from the books in his personal library: he left behind the record of a careful and sometimes snarky reader.

Finally, what has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, scholar, professor, or person living in the world?

I’m inspired by the wave of recent scholarship that is reminding us of Japan’s deep connections to the rest of Asia, connections that remained vital even after 1945, as well as by the recent flood of new scholarship and translations that are finally letting us see the crucial importance of leftist political activism and thought in modern Japan. My current project is a study of Cold War culture in Japan that tries to show how Japan after 1945 was an active participant in all three of the “worlds” of the Cold War order—the First World of the liberal capitalist countries, the Second World of the socialist bloc, and the Third World of the decolonization and nonaligned movements. I hope it will contribute to these new and important directions in scholarship on Japan.