content top

Lafcadio Hearn – Hellas meets Japan

Yannis Fikas, Ph.D

Professor of Philosophy, Director of Recruitment Development & Public Relations, New York College, Athens
e-mail: [email protected], nyc.gr

Lafcadio Hearn (June 27, 1850-September 26, 1904) was born in Lefkada (the origin of his name-the man of Lefkas), one of the Hellenic Ionian Islands. He was the son of Surgeon-Major Charles Buch Hearn from Ireland, who had been stationed in Lefkada during the British occupation of the islands, and Rosa Cassimati, a native of Cythera, another of the Ionian Islands. Lafcadio was brought up in Greece and Ireland. When he was two, Rosa and Lafcadio moved to Dublin. His parents quarreled and his mother eloped with a native of her own country and was not heard off again. His father remarried and Lafcadio was sent to live with a wealthy and highly eccentric great aunt. A few years later he was sent to Ushaw, a catholic school at Durham, where in later years he was remembered equally for his brilliance in English and his contempt of all authority. At seventeen he went to London, where he spent two years in such misery and poverty that in after life he almost never referred to that period. Before he was nineteen he went to America, making his way to Cincinnati where he remained eight years. In 1887 he set off for New Orleans and in March of the same year sailed for West Indies. In 1890 he moved to Japan where he spent the rest of his life teaching and writing. To Joseph Tunison, friend of his Cincinnati days, he wrote less than a month after his arrival.

“The country is …full of the strangest charm. Artistically it is one vast museum. Socially and naturally it is really a Fairyland. The first impression produced by the Japanese themselves is that of being among the kindest kind of fairies…. The religions seized my emotions at once, and absorbed them. I am steeped in Buddhism, a Buddhism totally unlike that of books- something infinitely tender, touching, naïf, beautiful. I mingle with the crowds of pilgrims to the great shrines; I ring the great bells; and burn incense –rods before the great smiling gods.”

The Japanese adventure of Lafkadio Hearn starts in Matsue in 1890. It continues in Kumamoto of Kyushu island, a port of Kobe near Kyoto, and ends in Tokyo, once known as Edo, the capital and seat of the imperial courtyard.

Lafkadio had a wide knowledge on subjects regarding ancient civilizations such as the Egyptian, the Roman and the Greek one. That knowledge made it easy for him to present his Japanese topics through the frequent use of parables with equivalent western topics.

Symbolic elements in the works of Lafkadio Hearn

  • The heart

The human heart is for Hearn the core which unites the opposites, leads humans to the essence of things, to their heart, beyond the world of senses and allows them to see things as they are, to moderate emotions, to choose the most valuable,  to act with justice. The heart of Hearn employs the logic which connects things and not the logic which separates them. Hearn manages to combine the opposites and complementary things with enthusiasm, courage and love. He combines harmoniously rational with poetry, mind with heart, which is the home of imagination, one of the main elements of the Japanese soul.

  • Ants and Butterflies

I find encouragement from the New Cambridge Natural History, which contains the following remarks by Professor David Sharp, concerning ants: “Observation has revealed the most remarkable phenomena in the lives of these insects. Indeed we can scarcely avoid the conclusion that they have acquired, in many respects, the art of living together in societies more perfectly than our own species has; and that they have anticipated us in the acquisition of some of the industries and arts that greatly facilitate social life”.

…Herbert Spencer goes considerably further than Professor Sharp showing us that ants are, in a very real sense, ethically as well as economically in advance of humanity – their lives being entirely devoted to altruistic ends.

Professor Sharp somewhat needlessly qualifies his praise of the ant with this cautious observation: “The competence of the ant is not like of man. It is devoted to the welfare of the species rather than to that of the individual, which is, as it were, sacrificed or specialized for the benefit of the community.”

…But as we shall presently see, the conditions of ant-society that most deserve our attention are the ethical conditions; and these are beyond human criticism, since they realize that ideal of moral evolution described by Mr. Spencer as a “state in which egoism and altruism are so conciliated that one merges into the other”. That is to say, a state in which the only possible pleasure is the pleasure of unselfish action.

The intelligence of the little creature in meeting and overcoming difficulties of a totally new kind, and in adapting itself to conditions entirely foreign to its experience, proves a considerable power of independent thinking… A greedy ant, a sensual ant, an ant capable of any of the seven deadly sins, or even of a small venial sin, is unimaginable… No human being, as now constituted, could cultivate a mental habit so impeccably practical as that of the ant.  (Lafcadio Hearn, Kwaidan, Stories and Studies of Strange Things, Tokyo, Shimbi Shoin, Ltd.,pp..217-222, 1932).

The dream of Akinoshuke

Most of the Kwaidan Tales have been taken from old Japanese books such as Yaso-Kidan, Bukkyo-Hyakkwa-Zensho, Kokon  Chomonshu, Tama-Sudare, and Hyaku-Monogatari. Some of the stories may have a Chinese origin: the very remarkable “Dream of Akinosuke”, for example, is certainly from a Chinese source. But the Japanese story-teller, in every case, has so much recolored and reshaped his borrowing as to naturalize it…

“Indeed, you saw strange things. We also saw something strange while you were napping. A little yellow butterfly was fluttering over your face for a moment or two; and we watched it. Then it alighted on the ground beside you, close to the tree; and almost as soon as it alighted there, a big, big ant came out of a hole, and seized it and pulled it down into the hole. Just before you woke up, we saw that very butterfly come out of the hole again, and flutter over your face as before. And then it suddenly disappeared: we don’t know where it went.”

“Perhaps it was Akinisuke’s soul” the other goshi said; “certainly I thought I saw it fly into his mouth…But, even if that butterfly was Akinosuke’s soul, the fact would not explain his dream.”

“The ants might explain it”, returned the first speaker. “Ants are queer beings-possibly goblins…Anyhow, there is a big ant’s nest under this cedar-tree.”… ”. (Lafcadio Hearn, Kwaidan, Stories and Studies of Strange Things, Tokyo, Shimbi Shoin, Ltd.,pp..149-150, 1932).

          Ants, like bees and corn-ears are symbols used as well by the ancient Greek civilization. Ιn the ancient Greek mythology, according to legend, the king of Athens, Cephalus, sought the assistance of the king of Aegina, Aeacus, in the war against the king of Crete, Minos. Aeacus willingly replied that he has enough soldiers to protect both his own kingdom and that of Athens. These soldiers were the gift of Zeus who, according to tradition, transformed the ants into soldiers because the island had become depopulated.  Aeacus had a vision one night: thousands of ants, bearing seeds in their mouths, were climbing up a beech tree. The dream came true and Zeus transformed the ants into soldiers and citizens of Aegina. These soldiers were called Myrmidons and they made up Aeacus’ loyal army and new people, the new race that settled in deserted Aegina. The characteristics of this new race that succeeded the one before it were persistence, laboriousness, and bravery. The king of Athens, Cephalus, was free to choose from among these citizens of Aegina. The grandchildren of Aeacus, Achilles, son of Peleus, and Aeas, son of Telamon, became the best known heroes of the Trojan War.

Ants in Japanese and Greek cultures represent the fighting spirit that liberates soul (butterfly) from the earthly world (Cocoon). This fighting spirit together with the creative imagination and the action within a frame of ethics constitute the deepest levels of the soul. Creative imagination elevates the soul from the world of the five senses, the present, to be in contact with a better world, the future. Contemplation allows the future to become present and live now what other people will live in the future.

However, in Japanese belief, a butterfly may be the soul of a dead person as well as of a living person. Indeed it is a custom of souls to take butterfly-shape in order to announce the fact of their final departure from the body. (Lafcadio Hearn, Kwaidan, Stories and Studies of Strange Things, Tokyo, Shimbi Shoin, Ltd. P.182, 1932).

In Greek mythology butterflies were considered to be symbols of the soul, as well. The Mycenaeans depicted symbolically the weighing of the soul in the underworld with butterflies on the disks of golden balances. (National Archaeological Museum of Athens, Grave III, Mycenae, Grave Circle A, 16th century BC).

  • The  island of immortals

The presentation of mountain Hōrai in Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, focuses more on the atmosphere of the place, which is said to be made up of «quintillions of quintillions» of souls. Breathing in these souls is said to grant one all of the perceptions and knowledge of these ancient souls.

Blue vision of depth lost in height-sea and sky interblending through luminous haze. The day is of spring, and the hour morning.

Only sky and sea- one azure enormity… In the fore, ripples are catching a silvery light, and threads of foam are swirling. But a little further off no motion is visible, nor anything save color: dim warm blue of water widening away to melt into blue of air. Horizon there is none: only distance soaring into space-infinite concavity hollowing before you, and hugely arching above you- the color deepening with the height. But far in the midway-blue there hangs a faint, faint vision of palace towers, with high roofs horned and curved like moons- some shadowing of splendor strange and old, illuminated by a sunshine soft as memory.

…What I have thus been trying to describe is a kakemono- that is to say, a Japanese painting on silk, suspended to the wall of my alcove; and the name of it is Shinkiro, which signifies “Mirage”. But the shapes of the mirage are unmistakable. Those are the glimmering portals of Horai the blest; and those are the moony roofs of the Palace of the Dragon-King; and the fashion of them(though limned by a Japanese brush of to-day) is the fashion of things Chinese, twenty-one hundred years ago…

Thus much is told of the place in the Chinese books of that time:

In Horai there is neither death nor pain; and there is no winter. The flowers in that place never fade, and the fruits never fail…

Nevertheless there are wonderful things in Horai; and the most wonderful of all has not been mentioned by any Chinese writer. I mean the atmosphere of Horai. It is an atmosphere peculiar to the place; and because of it, the sunshine-in Horai is whiter than any other sunshine- a milky light that never dazzles- astonishingly clear, but very soft. This atmosphere is not of our human period: it is enormously old, so old that I feel afraid when I try to think how old it is; and is not a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen. It is not made of air at all, but of ghost- the substance of quintillions of quintillions of generations of souls blended into one immense translucency-souls of people who thought in ways never resembling our ways. Whatever mortal man inhales that atmosphere, he takes into his blood the thrilling of these spirits; and they change the senses within him-reshaping his notions of Space and Time-so that he can see only as they used to see, and feel only as they used to feel, and think only as they used to think. Soft as sleep are these changes of sense; (Lafcadio Hearn, Kwaidan, Stories and Studies of Strange Things, Tokyo, Shimbi Shoin, Ltd.,pp..169-172, 1932).

References to similar legendary fictional places are made in the traditions of the Chinese and the Tibetans such as the mythical place of Shangri-La, the miraculous garden, where the loti never close their petals. According to the Egyptian traditions, the souls of the dead live in an area between the earthly and the celestial world, which is called Duat and is considered to be the realm of the god Osiris, whereas Amenti is the celestial Nile where the “boats” of million years float.

In ancient Greek literature, Homer believed that man could face during a life time two deaths (Οδύσσεια, Diaxronikes  Ekdoseis, Athens, 1998, p. 141)  Ungodly men that being alive you shall go to Hades , that you shall have two deaths, and the others only know one.

Plutarchus (c.45-120AD) describes the wanderings of the soul in the mythical realms of Demetra, Persephone and celestial Aphrodite. He believes that the Earth gave humans the body; the Moon gave the soul and the Sun the mind. During the first death, which takes place in the realm of Demetra, the man parts with his body. During the second death, which takes place in the realm of Persephone, the man parts with his soul. Hermes is present in both deaths, the earthly and the celestial one, as well. The first death violently removes the body from the soul. However, Persephone separates the soul from the mind little by little in a tranquil manner and gives birth to the mind which is the superior part of the man. Both deaths happen following the law of nature. Heimarmene (a goddess and the personification of fate/destiny) predetermines for each soul, with or without mind, to wander for a long time in an area located between the earth and the moon when it forsakes the body. The souls that are wrongful and impure suffer the punishment that their actions caused, while the souls that are good and virtuous are purified and banish the marks that occurred from the contact with the body. These souls live for a specified period in the meadows of Hades, which are areas of mild climate. Afterwards, as if they are returning to their homeland after a long wandering and exile, they feel great joy like the people who participate in sacred rituals and have mixed feelings of admiration and excitement. Plutarchus [943B] [943C] [943D].

  • The five elements of Nature

And Muso Kokushi found himself kneeling alone in the high grass, beside an ancient and moss-grown tomb, of the form called go-rinishi,  (literally, “five –circle or five zone stone”). A funeral monument consisting of five parts superimposed-each of a different form-symbolizing the five mystic elements: Ether, Fire, Air, Water, Earth, which seemed to be the tomb of a priest. (Lafcadio Hearn, Kwaidan, Stories and Studies of Strange Things, Tokyo, Shimbi Shoin, Ltd.,p.69, 1932).

          The Presocratic Philosophers believed that the four distinct elements of nature constitute the musical notes of nature within a tone of dynamic unity expressed by the fifth element, ether, which they called water, infinite (apeiron), mind (nous) or atom, though always attributing to them similar characteristics. They also believed that the four elements of nature – fire, air, water and earth – correspond to the four inferior levels of human personality; earth to the physical, water to the energy, air to the emotional and fire to the intellectual. Moreover, they believed that the particles of earth, water, air, fire and ether follow the five regular polyhedra as organizing principles. These polyhedra are also called ‘platonic solids’ because Plato (427-347 BC) wrote about them in Timaeus and associated each of the four classical elements with a regular solid. Earth was associated with the cube (hexahedron) that has six square faces and eight vertices; water with the regular icosahedron that has twenty equilateral triangles as faces and twelve vertices; air with the regular octahedron that has eight equilateral triangles as faces and six vertices; fire with the regular tetrahedron (pyramid) that has four equilateral triangles as faces and four vertices and ether with the regular dodecahedron that has twelve regular pentagons as faces and twenty vertices. Plato believed that God used the dodecahedron to create the whole universe in an artistic way. In Orphic tradition, these geometric polyhedra are the sacred toys of Zagreus Dionysus.

  • Individuality and personality

The short essay A drop of Dew is a metaphysical and poetic text, which reveals not only the creative imagination of Lakcadio Hearn but also his philosophic perceptions which correspond to the perceptions of the Presocratics and Epicurus as shown in the texts below.

There is no loss-because there is not any Self that can be lost. Whatsoever was, that you have been;- whatsoever is, that you are;- whatsoever will be, that you must become. Personality!- individuality!- the ghosts of a dream in a dream! Life infinite only there is; and all that appears to be is but the thrilling of it, -sun, moon, and stars, -earth, sky, and sea,-and Mind and Man, and Space and Time. All of them are shadows. The shadows come and go;- the Shadow-Maker shapes forever. (Lafcadio Hearn, Kotto, A drop of Dew, New York, The Macmillan Company, pp..176,177, 1927).

It is also known that the Presocratic Philosophers believed that the whole world is in eternal, perpetual motion; that it just mutates and that the personality associated with the four elements of nature is the shadow of the individuality that is associated with ether and the other two superior elements of nature which do not decay and do not cross. On the other hand, Epicurus claimed that the universe remains unchangeable because there is nothing else to which it could transform; and because there is nothing beyond the universe that could penetrate into it and alter it.