Ph.D. candidate, Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, University of California, Berkeley
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“Comic Feeling” (Kokkeikan) and the Narratology of Emotional Distance in Meian
In the fourth book of his Theory of Literature (Bungakuron), Sōseki asserts that the literary comic produces “no stably synthesized emotion” in its reader. This claim occurs during a discussion of associative “techniques” whereby, Sōseki argues, literature manifests narrative continuity by arousing a reader’s prior emotional responses to a text and modifying them through the introduction of new material; and while the comic itself receives little direct commentary, its inclusion among such techniques suggests that it may harbor grander implications for Sōseki’s theory of narrative than Bungakuron articulates. If narrative demands the recombinant emotional continuity Sōseki posits, and if the comic precludes emotional synthesis, how can the comic occur in narrative without threatening its cohesion? What implicit needs might the comic’s anti-synthesis fulfill in Sōseki’s narrative psychology?
This paper explores these questions through close analysis of Sōseki’s Meian, a novel whose protagonist, Tsuda, has a habit of defensively labeling any emotional experience that unsettles him as “comical” (kokkei). This occurs most suggestively in a late scene, where Tsuda raptly watches a past lover walk towards him only to halt a grammatically loose torrent of reverie by calling her movements comic. Here as elsewhere, this paper argues, Meian invokes the comic simultaneously as the name of an emotional state and as an admission that Tsuda’s emotional tumult exceeds naming’s synthesizing power and must simply be suppressed. By examining such scenes alongside Bungakuron, I ask whether the comic’s use as a name for the unnameable might not preserve narrative continuity, in Sōseki's model, by momentarily dispersing narrative’s accumulation of emotion—might not empower narrative futurity to continue drawing Tsuda and his lover closer together by interposing a psychological gap, or linguistic dullness, between them.