Narcissus

I read “On the Conduct of Lord Tadanao” when I was thirteen or fourteen, and though I’ve not had an opportunity to reread it since, I still remember the plot some twenty years later. It’s a strangely poignant tale.

A young feudal lord, an excellent swordsman, is in the habit of challenging his retainers to fencing matches. One night, after defeating all comers, he is strolling complacently through the garden when he overhears the following disconcerting words, whispered in a dark corner.

“His lordship has certainly improved. It’s much easier to let him win than it used to be.”

“Hah, hah, hah!”

The careless private banter of his retainers.

After overhearing these words, the young daimyo’s behavior changes dramatically. He goes mad from a desire to ascertain the Truth and challenges his retainers to fight him to the death. Even when using naked blades, however, the retainers decline to fight in earnest. The daimyo wins every match, and the retainers die one after another. His lordship becomes a raving lunatic and a fearsome tyrant. In the end his clan is abolished, and he himself is imprisoned.

This was the plot of the story, as best I can recall it, and I have never been able to forget that sword-wielding lord. From time to time I would think of him and sigh.

But recently a certain disturbing suspicion has caused me such anxiety that I've literally been losing sleep. Perhaps the young daimyo really was a peerless master of the sword. Maybe the retainers were not losing to him intentionally, but were simply no match for him. Those “unguarded” words in the garden may have been inspired by nothing more than the frustration of always losing. It’s possible. Are there not nights when even fools such as you and I, after parting with some illustrious mentor who has roundly disparaged our work, and feeling utterly overwhelmed by the lofty aims of that mentor’s passion and the correctness of his vision, let pass between us some such truly ignoble words as:

“The old fellow’s in awfully good spirits these days, isn’t he? I guess there’s no need to keep telling him how great he is.”

“Hah, hah, hah!”

It could happen. In terms of moral character, retainers are by nature inferior to their lords. The sentiment expressed by the vanquished swordsmen, then, might have been nothing more than a delusional rationalization, uttered to satisfy their own foul vanity. If so, how horrifying! His lordship went mad seeking the truth, when it had been in his grasp all along. I propose that he was, in fact, a past master of the sword. By no means did the retainers lose to him on purpose; they were simply no match for him. Which means that it was only right and natural that his lordship win and they lose, and there was no real justification for the trouble that arose or the subsequent tragedy. If his lordship had only had unshakable faith in his skill, perhaps there would have been no change in him whatsoever; all would have come to a peaceful conclusion. But it is said that geniuses are often unaware of their true worth. They can’t bring themselves to believe in their own powers. This is, perhaps, the source of their greatest anguish and the subject of their deepest prayers; but I, being a common man of mediocre ability, am in no position to offer any real insight on what geniuses are forced to endure. At any rate, it's clear that this lord of ours was unable to place absolute trust in his own skill. Though in fact he had all the superior ability of a true master, he went mad because of his inability to believe in it. No doubt the misfortune of being in the isolated and aloof position of daimyo had something to do with it too. It’s not the same for us tenement dwellers.

“Hey, I'm pretty good at this, don't you think?”

“Not really.”

“Oh.”

That’s all there is to it for us, but it’s not that easy if you’re a lord. And when I reflect on this, on his double misfortune in being both a genius and a nobleman, my anxiety only increases. I recently witnessed a similar tragedy in my own circle of acquaintances. As a result of what happened, I was involuntarily reminded of “On the Conduct of Lord Tadanao” and, suddenly one night, putting the pieces together and seized by a terrifying suspicion, I found myself so anxiety-ridden that I couldn't sleep. What if his lordship was, in fact, a wonderfully accomplished swordsman? But now it wasn’t that young daimyo who was the problem.

My Lord Tadanao was a woman of thirty-three years. And since my role may well have been that of the vassal who muttered that wretched expression of sour grapes in the garden, the story is all the more unbearable for me.

Kusada Shizuko, wife of Kusada Sôbei. I was taken aback to learn that this woman had suddenly left her home, declaring herself a genius. The Kusada family and my own were not related by blood, but we had been rather closely associated for two or three generations. “Closely associated”—it sounds fine to put it that way, but it would be more accurate to say that the members of my family were occasionally granted the privilege of visiting the Kusada home. The Kusada fortune and so-called social standing were on an entirely different level from our own. It was as if our family were deigned the honor, if you will, of associating with them. In other words, the relationship was not unlike that between retainers and their lords. Sôbei, the current head of his family, was still young—over forty, to be sure, but young to be in such a position. After graduating from the economics department at Tokyo Imperial University, he had gone to France, where he passed four or five years at his leisure. Shortly after his return to Japan he married Shizuko, the only daughter of a family that was distantly related to his own (and was, as it turned out, soon to be ruined by bankruptcy). The couple got along well, and theirs was what one could call a happy home, made even more so by the addition of a daughter, whom they named Hariko (making use of the characters for “Paris”). Sôbei was a dashing, modern sort of man—tall and imposingly handsome and always smiling. He owned a large collection of Western paintings, seeming proudest of a depiction of racehorses by Degas, but he was not one to assume the air of a man with superior taste and rarely even discussed art. He was, in short, a gentleman of the first order, and he showed up for work every day at his own bank. Sôbei had become head of the household when his father passed away six years ago.

His wife . . . well, rather than relate biographical details, it might be quicker to describe a certain small incident involving his wife and myself that occurred a while back. It was during the New Year’s holiday three years ago that I visited the Kusada home to pay my respects. As friends of mine occasionally point out, I am a man who regards the world with a somewhat jaundiced eye. This tendency seems to have become even more pronounced since a certain situation eight years ago resulted in my being cut off by my family and forced to live in virtual destitution. Constantly wary of insults, I led a life as tenuous and desperate as that of an autumn leaf shivering in the wind—not to mention indescribably depraved. I rarely visited the Kusadas. My mother and elder brothers still called on them frequently, but I didn’t. Until my higher school days I too would often drop in for a casual visit, but I developed an antipathy to doing so once I entered university. The Kusadas were fine people, but I no longer wanted to call on them, having begun to subscribe to the rather simplistic line of thought that all rich people were despicable. Why, then, did I decide to pay the Kusadas a New Year’s visit three years ago? You can put it all down to my own lack of character. In December of the preceding year I had received, out of the blue, a letter of invitation from Mrs. Kusada.

"We haven’t seen you for quite some time now. Please pay us a visit during the upcoming New Year’s vacation. My husband, too, is anxious to see you. He and I are both avid readers of your work."

The final sentence is what went to my head. I’m ashamed to admit it. At that time, my stories had begun to sell somewhat. I confess that I was full of myself. It was a dangerous period. And it was in this puffed-up state that I received Mrs. Kusada’s letter telling me that she and her husband were readers of mine—it was too much. Snickering to myself, I wrote a juicy reply to the effect that I was extremely grateful to receive their gracious invitation, et cetera, et cetera, and on the first day of the year, I jauntily set out for the Kusada home, only to bring upon myself a shame as devastating as a bullet between the eyes.

I was given a warm reception. To each of the other visitors who'd come to pay their respects, I was introduced as “the popular writer.” Far from taking offense, I began to contemplate that perhaps I had become a popular writer. What more can I say. It was pitiful. I got drunk. Very drunk. Sôbei drank with me, but drink as he might he evinced not the slightest alteration. He sat across from me timidly forcing himself to smile as I regaled them all with my views on literature.

“Madam,” I said, riding my elation and holding a cup out to Kusada’s wife. “Won’t you have some?”

“I don’t partake.”

Her tone was so stern and cold that it cut to the marrow of my bones. The words dripped with a fathomless scorn. I was floored. I avoided a scene by simply smiling wryly and muttering, “Ah, forgive me. Guess I’ve had a few too many.” But my blood boiled.

There was more to come. Devoid of the will to drink any more, I decided to have at the food. The shellfish broth was delicious. I was busily prying the little bits of meat out of the shells and slurping them down, when I heard the wife give a small cry of surprise.

“Goodness!” she said. “Are you sure it’s wise to eat those things?” It was an unstudied reaction, with no sarcasm intended.

The bowl and chopsticks nearly slipped from my hands. This species of shellfish, shijimi, were not for eating. You were supposed to drink the broth only. The tiny clams were merely there to lend flavor. Poor people eat the meat, but people of taste and refinement consider it impure and throw it out. Now that I thought about it, the shijimi were indeed foul-looking things—like shrunken belly buttons. I was unable to make any reply at all. That her voice had been one of innocent surprise, was the hardest blow. If she had said it in a tone that revealed a deliberate putting on of airs, I would have been quick to respond. But it was a tone of pure and artless astonishment, and I was thoroughly unmanned. The parvenu popular writer sat with head bowed over his bowl and chopsticks, unable to say a word. Tears welled up in my eyes. The humiliation was as great as any I’ve ever experienced. I haven’t been back to the Kusada house since that night. In fact, I make a point of not visiting any wealthy person’s home. I returned to my impoverished, drab little life with a stubborn vengeance.

Then, in September of last year, an unexpected caller appeared at the entrance to my squalid hut. It was Kusada Sôbei.

“Shizuko isn’t here, is she?” he said.

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“What happened?” I said. It was clear that something had. “My place is a mess. Let’s take a walk.” I didn’t want him to see how shabby my living quarters were.

He nodded grimly and followed me to the street.

A short walk brought us to Inokashira Park. Sôbei spoke as we strolled beneath the trees.

“It’s not good. I’ve really bungled things this time. The medicine was too powerful.” He told me his wife had left him. The reason she’d left was truly ludicrous. Her parents’ fortunes had collapsed some years before, and ever since then, she’d been strangely cold and formal toward him. She seemed to regard the fall of her house as a tremendous disgrace, and the more he tried to comfort her, telling her that it didn’t really matter, the more distant and bitter she seemed. Hearing this, I thought of that New Year’s meeting and the singularly grim chilliness of her “I don’t partake.” I was still in higher school when Shizuko married Sôbei, and I had spoken with the bride during my frequent visits, and once even went to the cinema with her. In those days she was decidedly not a person to speak in a tone of voice that would pierce your bones. She was always laughing, so cheerful she seemed almost frivolous. When I came face to face with her at New Year’s after so long, I was stunned to see the change, even before I heard her speak. Now I realized what must have been behind the transformation.

“Hysterical, is she?” I said with a snortlike laugh. Sôbei didn’t seem to notice the contemptuousness of my remark. He was deep in serious thought.

“At any rate, I’m to blame,” he said. “I went overboard in praising her. The medicine worked too well.”

He’d tried to console his wife by having her learn Western-style painting. Once a week he sent her to the studio of a respected but talentless artist, a man nearing sixty who called himself Nakaizumi Kasen. Then came the accolades. Sôbei was joined by the students that frequented the Nakaizumi studio, and the throngs of visitors to the Kusada house, in lavishing praise on the wife’s paintings, whipping her into such a frenzy that she ended up leaving home, deliriously declaring herself a genius. It was hard to listen to all this without bursting out laughing. I saw what Sôbei meant about the medicine working too well. It was an absurd farce, of a sort common among the rich.

“When did she take wing?” I asked, with no attempt to hide my scorn for his missus.

“Yesterday.”

“Oh, well. Nothing to get so worked up about, is there? My wife often leaves and spends the night at her family’s house—when I’ve been drinking too much, for example.”

“But this is different. Shizuko says she wants to live a free life, as an artist. And she took a large amount of money with her.”

“A large amount?”

“Rather large, yes.”

I figured that for a man as wealthy as Sôbei, “rather large” might mean five or even ten thousand yen.

“That’s not good.” For the first time I began to take an interest in the story. The poor are incapable of remaining indifferent when the talk turns to money.

“Shizuko was always reading your stories, so I thought she might be at your house now, imposing on you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Why, I’m . . .” I was going to say “her enemy,” but seeing Sôbei so pale and dispirited when he was normally all smiles, I couldn't bring myself to utter the words.

We parted company at Kichijôji Station. As we were saying good-bye I smiled wryly and asked, “What are her paintings like, anyway?”

“They’re . . . different. She really does seem to have a certain genius.”

It was an unexpected reply. “Hmm,” was all I could say. The husband was as big a fool as his wife.

It was, I think, three days later that the lady genius appeared at my squalid shanty clutching a box of painting materials. She had on a coarse sort of work-smock. Her cheeks were so sunken it was uncanny, and her eyes seemed grotesquely large. But there remained about her, nonetheless, the dignified air of a lady of true refinement.

“Come on in,” I said in a deliberately rough way. “Where’ve you been? Your husband’s worried about you.”

“Are you an artist?” She stood where she was, on the cement floor of the entryway, but looked away as she muttered this question in that cold and haughty tone of hers.

“What is that supposed to mean? Come off it, will you? Mr. Kusada’s distraught over all this. Have you forgotten about Hariko?”

“I’m looking for an apartment,” she said, ignoring my words completely. “Do you know of any in this area?”

“Look, Missus, you’re not yourself, you know. People are going to laugh at you. Don’t go through with this.”

“I need a place to work, alone.” She remained perfectly unruffled. “Even a small house would be all right.”

“Your husband was kicking himself, saying the medicine worked too well. This is the twentieth century. There are no artists, and there are no geniuses.”

“You’re a vulgar sort, aren’t you?” She said it with a perfectly cool expression on her face. “Even Kusada understands better than you.”

When people insult me in my own home, my policy is to ask them to leave. There is one thing—just one—that I believe in. I don’t ask that everyone understand. But if you don’t like it, don’t come.

“Why are you here? Perhaps you should leave.”

“I will.” She smiled for a second. “Shall I show you my paintings?”

“Don’t bother. I have a pretty good idea what they’re like.”

“I see . . ." She peered at my face as if trying to bore a hole in it. “Good-bye,” she said.

And left.

What a mess. The woman, if I wasn’t mistaken, was the same age as I. She had a daughter of twelve or thirteen. Driven mad by flattery. And what can you say about the ones who did the flattering? It was an ugly affair all around. So much so that it actually frightened me.

Two months or so went by without any more visits from Shizuko, but during that time I received five or six letters from Sôbei. He seemed at his wit's end. Shizuko had settled into an apartment in Akasaka. At first she continued to commute faithfully to Nakaizumi’s studio, but eventually she began to hold the old painter in contempt and ceased, for the most part, to study her art. She would gather Nakaizumi’s young students at her apartment and frolic the night away, intoxicated with their fawning sycophancy. Sôbei, swallowing his pride, called at her apartment and pleaded with her to go home with him, but to no avail. Shizuko turned up her nose at him, her entourage of students attacked him as an enemy of the genius, and he was relieved of all the money he had on his person. He went to Shizuko’s place three times in all, and suffered the same mortifying experience each time. He'd now given up hope. Still, what about poor Hariko? What was Sôbei to do? For a man, it was “the most difficult, awkward position imaginable,” as this admirable, forty-something gentleman wrote in a letter to me. But I hadn’t forgotten the great disgrace I’d endured at his house. I have a vengeful streak that makes even me shudder at times. I just can’t forget an insult, and I hadn’t the slightest inclination to sympathize with the Kusadas over the misfortune that had now befallen them. Though Sôbei repeatedly beseeched me in his letters to try to persuade Shizuko to come to her senses, I did nothing. I wasn’t about to run errands for a rich man. I turned him down each time, explaining that I could hardly be of any use when his wife held me in such contempt.

It was a morning in early November, when the sasanqua in my garden were just beginning to bloom, that I received a letter from Shizuko.

I’m going deaf. As a result of drinking quantities of cheap liquor, I came down with tympanitis. The doctor said I went to him too late. When I boil water in a kettle, I can’t hear it hissing. The branches of the tree outside my window are waving in the wind, scattering their leaves, but the sound doesn't reach me. I won’t be able to hear properly again, ever. When people talk, it’s as if their voices are coming from underground. Soon I won’t be able to hear them at all. I never really realized before how lonely and frustrating deafness could be. When I go shopping, people who don’t know there’s anything wrong with my ears speak to me in a normal tone of voice, and I can’t understand a word they’re saying, and it makes me feel so wretched. To console myself, I think of famous people who went deaf, and somehow that helps me get through the day. Recently I keep thinking I’d like to die. Then I remember Hariko and tell myself I’ve got to persevere, to keep on living. I feared that weeping would only make my ears worse, so I kept holding back the tears, but two or three days ago I was unable to contain them any longer, and they all came flooding out. I felt a little better afterward. I’m somewhat resigned now to going deaf, but when it first started happening I was terrified. Several times each day I tap the iron hibachi with the tongs, to make sure I can hear the sound. Even when I awake in the middle of the night, I turn over on my stomach and tap on the hibachi. What a miserable sight I must make! I scrape the tatami with my fingernails—testing myself by deliberately choosing sounds that are difficult to hear. When someone comes to see me, I have them speak in a loud voice, then a quiet voice, hounding them with all these demands to test my hearing, sometimes for as long as an hour or two. That’s probably why not many people come to visit me any more. I’ve even stood out by the railroad tracks alone at night listening to the trains as they go by, right in front of me.

Now even the train seems about as loud as someone tearing a sheet of paper. Soon I won’t be able to hear even that much, I guess.

My health in general seems to have deteriorated. I have to change nightgowns as often as three times a night. They get soaked with perspiration. I tore up all the paintings I’ve done so far and threw them away. All of them. They weren’t any good. You were the only one who told me the truth. Everyone else was only flattering me.

I wanted to lead a life like yours, carefree even in poverty, the life of an artist. Go ahead and laugh. My family went bankrupt; my mother died shortly after, and Father fled to Hokkaido. It was difficult for me to remain in Kusada’s home when my own family had fallen apart. It was during that time that I started reading your work. I felt as if I’d discovered a new way of life, a new purpose for living. I too, like you, was now impoverished. I longed to meet you again. Three years ago, at New Year’s, seeing you after such a long time, I was truly happy. When I saw how you got as drunk as you pleased, I felt so envious I nearly despised you. This is the way to live, I thought. No affectation or pandering. But I wasn't an artist.

Then my husband suggested I take up painting, and I started going to Nakaizumi’s studio, because I believe and trust in my husband (and even now I love him very much). When everyone began praising my work so feverishly, it only puzzled me at first. But when even my husband started telling me, with a perfectly straight face, that I might possibly be a genius . . . well, what can I say? I have the highest regard for my husband’s eye for art, and his praise put me over the edge. I decided to begin living the life of an artist, as I’d been dreaming of, and left home. What a fool I am. I went to Hakone for two or three days with some fellow students, and while I was there I did a painting that I thought came out rather well. I wanted you to see it, and set out for your house feeling quite full of myself, only to meet with nothing but abuse. I felt so humiliated. I wanted to have you see my paintings, and praise them, and then I’d rent a room near your house and we could be friends, two destitute artists. I was out of my mind. When you rebuked me to my face, I came to my senses for the first time and realized what a fool I was. However much the young students lauded my work, I now realized that it was only superficial flattery, that behind my back they were sticking out their tongues at me. But I had already fallen beyond redemption. There was no turning back. I decided to see how low I could sink. I drank liquor every night and often partied with the young students till dawn. I started drinking cheap shochu and gin. What a pretentious fool.

I won’t complain. I shall accept my punishment as gracefully as I can. Looking at the branches outside my window this evening, I could tell a strong wind was blowing, and now a driving rain has begun to fall. I can’t hear the rain, nor the wind. Nothing. It’s like a silent movie, and so lonely it’s frightening. You needn’t answer this letter. Please don’t bother yourself about me. I’m only writing you because I feel so dreadfully alone. You mustn’t think twice about it—about any of this.

The letter bore a return address. I set out at once. The apartment building looked respectable enough, but Shizuko’s room was something else. A six-mat space, empty except for a hibachi and a desk. The tatami was reddish-brown and damp, the room received little light, and the air bore a sickening odor, like rotting fruit. Shizuko was sitting by the window, smiling at me. There was still something beautiful about her face. She seemed to have gained a bit of weight since I’d last seen her, two months before, but there was something spooky about her eyes. They looked enervated, grayish and cloudy. They almost didn’t seem the eyes of a living person.

“This is crazy, you know!” I all but shouted. But Shizuko merely shook her head and smiled. Apparently she couldn’t hear at all now. I took a pad of paper from the desk and wrote, “Go back home” on it. I showed the paper to Shizuko, and we proceeded to engage in a written dialogue. Shizuko moved over to the desk beside me and fervently wrote her replies.

Go back home.

Sorry.

Just go back.

I can’t.

Why not?

I haven’t the right.

Your husband is waiting.

No, he isn’t.

Yes he is.

I can’t go back. I have erred.

Idiot. What are you going to do?

Sorry. I plan to work.

You need money?

I have money.

Show me your paintings.

There are none left.

Not even one?

No.

Suddenly I wanted to see her paintings. I had an odd presentiment that they were good, remarkably good. I felt sure of it, somehow.

Don’t you want to go on painting?

I’m ashamed to.

I bet you’re good.

Don’t patronize me.

I mean it. Maybe you are a genius

Stop it. Please leave.

I stood up with a grim smile. I had little choice but to go. Shizuko didn’t get up to see me out but sat staring blankly out the window.

I went to Nakaizumi’s studio that night.

“I want to see Shizuko’s work. Do you have any of her paintings here?”

“No,” the old painter said with a sad smile. “She herself tore them all up, you know. They showed real talent, too. Such a rash thing to do.”

“Stuff left unfinished, sketches . . . I’d like to see anything you might have.”

“Let me think.” The old fellow cocked his head. “I did have three of her sketches here, but she came the other day and tore them up right before my eyes. It seems someone criticized her work quite severely, and since then . . . Ah! Of course! There is one. Just one. My daughter still has a watercolor Shizuko did, if I’m not mistaken.”

The old artist left the room, coming back shortly with a single watercolor.

"Thank goodness,” he said. “My daughter cherishes this painting. It’s probably the only one left. I wouldn’t part with it for even ten thousand yen.”

“May I see it?”

It was a watercolor of long-stemmed narcissus flowers—about twenty of them artlessly arranged in a bucket. I took it in my hands, looked it over briefly, and ripped it to shreds.

“What are you doing!” The old painter was flabbergasted.

“It’s rubbish, for heaven’s sake. You and your people were just toadying to the rich lady. Thanks to which, Shizuko’s life is ruined. I’m the one who criticized her work.”

“It wasn’t such a bad painting as all that, was it?” the old man said, his confidence suddenly gone. “Of course, I don’t really understand the work of the young people these days. . . .”

I ripped the pieces up even smaller and fed them to the stove. I consider myself a man who knows painting. I believe I could teach even Sôbei a thing or two. By no means was this watercolor “rubbish.” In fact, it was brilliant. Why did I tear it up? I’ll let the reader conjecture about that. Sôbei took Shizuko back home. She committed suicide late that year. My anxiety only increased. That painting looked to be a true work of genius. And then, one night, I remembered the story of Lord Tadanao. A strange, unforeseen suspicion—that his lordship may in fact have been a peerless master of the sword—struck with such force that I found myself unable to sleep. Perhaps there still are artistic geniuses, even in the twentieth century.

Translation of “Suisen.” Translation copyright 2011 by Ralph McCarthy. All rights reserved.