By Tania Bhattacharya
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In the second and concluding instalment of my two-part series on notable western personalities who had contributed to the peoples of the Orient, I will focus on an individual who came from an international background, himself. Unlike the preceding biography of Satyanand (nee Samuel) Stokes, which was published in the earlier article, our second Occidental Samaritan cannot be compartmentalized and summed up, seamlessly. Stokes’ life was by comparison simpler and linear; he travelled East, made India his home, made the upliftment and freedom of Indians his life’s goal, and brought himself close to the natives through a local marriage and family. The books Stokes wrote have evaded criticism as well, precisely because they do not lend themselves to interpretation. What you see, is what you get.
Read The First Part Here: https://www.newsgram.com/occidental-heroes-oriental-lands
KOIZUMI YAKUMO HEARN
Lafcadio Hearn’s legacy has not been as fortunate, as Stokes’. To begin with, his childhood and youth were not as glamorous as the description of ‘international’ may evoke. Rather, those were troubling times for the young Hearn. His father had been an army surgeon of Irish ancestry, Charles Bush Hearn, while his mother was a local Greek woman from Cythera named Rosa Kassimatis. He was named after the island on which he was born, Lefkada; a place which Ovid mentions as being the location of the suicide of the legendary female Greek poet, Sappho.
Hearn had only begun forming an attachment to the island of his birth, when his father returned from Ireland, to take his wife and son with him to Dublin. It would be the boy’s first experience of rootlessness, a feature that would recur throughout much of his growing years. Rosa, Hearn’s birth mother, was frequented by mental ailments, and when he was four, returned to Greece, never to visit Ireland again. The young Lafcadio was raised by his paternal great-aunt Sarah Holmes Brenane, in Dublin, though in name only, as the hands-on approach did not seem to suit her. Instead, his formal weaning was left to the Celtic tutor Catherine Costello. In a letter written to William Butler Yeats many moons hence, Hearn had confessed his love for supernatural tales and Irish folklore, attributing it to the storytelling of his nurse, Costello.
As a youth, Hearn was enrolled in a seminary, where a cricketing incident, left him blind in the left eye. Subsequent photographs of this Occidental figure, have him, only showing us his good eye, the right one. It was also during his youth, that the aunt whose ward he was, Sarah Holmes, suffered bankruptcy, a time, when the teenage boy, was left to his own devices, prowling the streets of Dublin as a penniless vagabond, in the company of burglars, and prostitutes. Fearing that his association with disreputable elements of society was affecting his family’s heritage, Hearn’s father had ultimately arranged for the boy, to go to Cincinnati in the United States.
Many aspects of Lafcadio Hearn’s early life, are shrouded in mist. He himself refused to fully divulge the details of say, his supposed French schooling as a teenager. Author Nina Kennard in her ‘Lafcadio Hearn’ published in 2011, elaborates on this, stating that he was at the L’Institution ecclésiastique in Yvetot, Normandy, where he may have learnt some French. Other sources assign him as a student of a Jesuit seminary in Northern France. Still others, place him at an academy for boys, in Paris. In any case, it is believed that Hearn imbibed a love for the Classics, through his days at the Ecclesiastique.
Having made the New World his temporary home, the future novelist, would accrue a small fortune through his calling in the business of the Arts and Literature. It was also in the United States, that he married for the first time. She was an African-American woman, descended from slaves, by the name of Alethea Foley. The marriage soon broke down, and Hearn found himself in New Orleans, where he developed a fascination for Creole, a culture that rose out of the miscegenation of the African, French, and Native American ones. It is a little known fact that Lafcadio Hearn, prior to becoming a towering figure in Japanese literary circles, had produced the first Creole cookbook! Creole had driven him to make explorations in the world of African shamanism, titled voodoo. In other words, this Occidental hero, was truly a man of many parts, one of which, was being a veritable necromancer.
A significant portion of Lafcadio Hearn’s life was spent in Cincinnati, where he first worked menial jobs, and then had to contribute articles to news publications without receiving a remuneration. In time, he would rise to the position of staff writer. Much of his efforts were spent in the translation of French books, and in establishing his own journal, named ‘Ye Giglampz’, something that was inspired as much from burlesque, as it was from literature.
Around 1884-85, when he was a reporter for the New Orleans World Fair, Hearn had his first brush with Japanese culture. His love affair with that country began after he had obtained a copy of Basil Hall Chamberlain’s Ko-ji-Ki, which was an English language translation of the Japanese myths founded in the eighth century. Percival Lowell’s book The Soul Of The Far East, played an additional role in endearing Nippon to Hearn.
At the age of thirty nine, our Japanophile, finally arrived in the country that had enraptured him through its books. Initially, it was a work appointment, given his position as a correspondent with Harper’s Weekly, but in a duration of months, he would escape his professional responsibility in the matter, trading it for a sustained stay in the new country. His first view of her, would be of Mount Fuji, from the deck of Abyssinia, the ship that was to bring him to her shores. The Irish-Greek writer and correspondent, had alighted at the port city of Yokohama.
Back in Cincinnati, on the cover of Ko-ji-Ki, had been a map that depicted the worldview of the ancient Japanese mythos. The portrayal had been the perception of the Idzumo Legendary Cycle. Idzumo, or Izumo, was the setting for the mythology of olden Nippon, and expectedly, Hearn was delighted, to have found a home in Matsue, next to the place.
His tenure as a school-teacher with the Shimane Prefectural Common Middle School, brought him closer to understanding the Japanese polytheistic doctrine. The post there, had been managed with a little help from both, Hattori Ichizo a bureaucrat with the Japanese Ministry of Education and Basil Hall Chamberlain, himself.
Matsue, with its picturesque, natural beauty, reflected in the pristine waters of Lake Shinji, captivated the writer and became the origin of his formal introduction to Japanese literature, folk tales, and traditional horror. The vice-principal of the school he was teaching at, Nishida Sentaro, was a confidante, and quite empathetic of Hearn’s ideas. Having set up house in the city, the Irish-Greek author soon took up a mistress, Setsu. Setsu was descended from a long line of Samurai warriors, and she familiarized the author with many stories of her ancestors. These would later be introduced into Hearn’s novel Kwaidan. Combining a love for the paranormal, with adventurism, Kwaidan delves deep into the psyche of Japanese indigenous folklore, in a way not explored before. Always true to its Shinto moorings, the flash fiction digest, an anthology of about two dozen tales, has been a treasure-trove for horror fiction lovers down to present times.
Lafcadio Hearn earned enough respect from the hosts of his adopted homeland, that he became the first ever individual from the Occident, to have been personally received and feted, at the Izumo Taisha Shinto shrine, by its chief priest Senge Takanori. The sanctum sanctorum of Shinto shrines are referred to as ‘honden’. Hearn was allowed to enter the one that lay within Izumo Taisha. His introduction to the shrine was not by accident. It was the result of a yearning to gather a first-hand experience of the traditional Japanese mind. He would make two other visits there, with an identical purpose. Around the same time, he invested his money in building and maintaining a collection of amulets. Many of these were sent off to Chamberlain, who had expressed an interest in them. Some were addressed to a man he had much adulation for, the head of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, Edward Burnett Taylor.
A change of residence, especially one designated in a foreign country and culture, are bound to invite challenges in the area of gastronomy. Despite his love for everything Japanese, Hearn took time to acclimatize to the nation’s diet. Till the time that he did learn to appreciate the simplicity and delectability of her foods, he had his meals home-delivered by a chef from a western food bistro. One of his daily staples – milk – was left at his door by the milk delivery system which had been newly introduced in Matsue. Not just food, but Japan’s weather too, proved somewhat daunting for the author. It was a country that remained, for a large part of the year, in the grips of a debilitating winter, and Matsue, Hearn’s resident town, was quite affected by this. It seemed like a good idea to travel instead, during the cold months, and so, he would visit places like Kumamoto, Kobe, and Tokyo, for new experiences.
Yukio Mishima is arguably, post-war Japan’s most brilliant author. He had been a nationalist, and following the imposition of Article Nine by the Allied Powers on the native Japanese constitution which forbade the country from maintaining an indigenous defence force, had attempted to scrap the article through a number of means. Mishima was deeply resentful of his country’s efforts in westernizing itself. Hearn – a forbear Mishima thought highly of – had taken the same view of Japan decades earlier. As he watched its old ways get battered by the onslaughts of Europeanizing – a feature that had been missing from the landscape of safe, little Matsue – he had become disillusioned, and palliated his gushing; with a more serious and equitable approach to his writings on the country.
Six years into his naturalization as a citizen of Japan, Lafcadio Hearn had assumed a new name; that of Yakumo Koizumi. It was also during this time, that he had given precedence to his long-time attachment to Setsu, whom he married in 1896. In a letter to his friend Elwood Hendrick, he had explained, how Yakumo was an alternative for his beloved province of Izumo, or ‘The Place of issuing of Clouds’ as he had termed it. Following the changes Japanese society was bringing upon itself in the form of westernization, Koizumi found solace by immersing himself ever more deeply into the essence of the ‘kami’ (the gods and spirits of Japan). As he would listen to the ghost tales of Setsu, his storytelling abilities would morph into new forms.
Shinto, the native religion of Japan, is bereft of religious scriptures, having survived through the centuries based off oral traditions. Hearn found himself in agreement with the Shinto and indeed, wider polytheistic belief, that living people could attain divinity. This is what he illustrated in his work ‘Japan: An Attempt At Interpretation’. It would be his last. Ancestor worship and drawing a straight line between it and the Emperor, had become important to him. Yakumo Koizumi had come a long way, from his days as the petulant absconder from Jesuit school.
After the defeat of Japan at the close of the Second World War, an American military officer Bonner Fellers, would revive the spirit of Yakumo Koizumi Hearn, by researching his works, and establishing the concept of the Japanese Emperor’s divinity among his people. This crucial intervention, prevented the American-occupied country, from rootlessness, as it took to westernization more than ever. Among Lafcadio Hearn’s literary output, his tome ‘Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation’ along with ‘Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan’ are perhaps quite seminal, as reference points, to the western reader. He has earned cognomina such as ‘gendai no han’ (today’s Hearn) and ‘daino no han’ (the second Hearn) due to his popularity in his adopted homeland.
However, there has been criticism of Hearn by a number of scholars, some of it, harsh. One of them have been Rie Kudo Askew, a Japanese researcher. She has alleged that his love for Japan was conditional, and that he wished to return to the United States later in life; going on to state, that his marriage to Setsu had little to do with love, and was instead due to the inheritance involved. None of his original works are in Japanese; as he had been writing mainly for a western audience. Another assertion has been, that his grasp of native tradition, was dappled. It would suit us though, to leave aside his shortcomings and the dubious aspects of his timeline, for a different discussion.
Interest in Hearn has been revived of late, in certain circles of the West. This is warranted. After all, Lafcadio Hearn, is the Orient’s reply, to the likes of Lovecraft, Tolkien, and King!
[Disclaimer: The pictures used in the article are supplied by the author, NewsGram has no intention of infringing copyrights.]