Topographies of Value in Natsume Sōseki

Topographies of Value in Natsume Sōseki

Timothy Van Compernolle - Associate Professor of Japanese, Amherst College

Monday, October 8, 2012 - 5:00pm to 6:30pm
Room 202, Henry R. Luce Hall See map
34 Hillhouse Avenue
New Haven, CT 6511

Natsume Sōseki, Japan’s most canonical modern novelist, wrote a loose trilogy of works between 1908 and 1910: Sanshirō, And Then, and The Gate. The author organizes each narrative around the borrowing and lending of money, the exchange of gifts, and, more generally, around the motifs of reciprocity and circulation. After mapping the exchange of objects and money in the three novels, I develop a framework for analyzing this aspect of Sōseki’s fiction by extending anthropological theories of the gift into the literary-critical domain of narratology. This approach shows that Sōseki’s fictional world represents a novelistic grappling with what has genuine worth in a society in which money threatens to make everything equivalent. Sōseki’s fictional world also reveals a society in which a modern ideology of social mobility instrumentalizes social relations, placing value only on those forms of human connection that help one advance up the social ladder. His protagonists seek out objects of non-instrumental value, thus yielding their distinctive moral hue, at once didactic and nuanced.

Timothy Van Compernolle obtained his Ph.D. in Japanese literature from the University of Michigan in 2001 and has been a visiting researcher at a number of institutions in Japan. He is currently an Associate Professor of Japanese at Amherst College. His research interests encompass the middle of the eighteenth century through the 1930s. This is a period of immense upheaval in Japan, one that witnesses the rise of a commercial economy, the encounter with the West, the audacious program of modernization implemented in the wake of the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and the transformation of the country by the forces of industrialization and urbanization. His early research centered on the pioneering woman writer Higuchi Ichiyō, which resulted in the monograph The Uses of Memory: The Critique of Modernity in the Fiction of Higuchi Ichiyō (Harvard University Asia Center, 2006). Professor Van Compernolle’s current book project, Struggling Upward: Worldly Success and the Japanese Novel, takes up the role played by new discourses on social mobility in the formation of the spatial imagination of the modern novel. One chapter has appeared in print as an independent essay: “A Utopia of Self-Help: Imagining Rural Japan in the Meiji-Era Novels of Ambition” (Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 2010). A future project, tentatively titled Celluloid Metaphors: Japanese Literature in the Age of Cinema, will seek to uncover the connections between literature and new technological cultural forms, especially the cinema, during the 1920s and 30s.