The eternal inspiration of an open mind

Lafcadio Hearn is a leading figure in the world of opinion and critique. He is acclaimed as one of the world’s greatest prose stylists and the most influential authority of his generation on Japanese culture. Many countries – including Greece, Ireland, the USA and Japan – can justifiably lay claim to Hearn, an outstanding writer of the exotic and occult. But just who was Lafcadio Hearn? His adventurous personal story provides an answer. He was born Patricio Lafcadio Tessima Carlos Hearn on the Greek island of Lefkada, on June 27, 1850. His father, Charles Bush Hearn, was an Anglo-Irish surgeon-major in the British Army. His mother was Rosa Antoniou Kassimati, a Greek known for her beauty. Lafcadio’s parents divorced when he was 6; they both quickly remarried and abandoned their son, who was brought up by his aunt, Sarah Brenane, in Dublin. The personal tragedy of abandonment created in him an acute sensitivity and he would develop the reputation of always having a profound compassion for the disadvantaged. Travels At the age of 19 he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. Five years after his arrival there, he became a newspaper reporter. In 1877, he went to New Orleans to write a series of articles and remained there for 10 years. Having achieved some success with his literary translations and other works, he was hired by the Harper & Brothers publishing house. In 1890, he went to Japan for Harper’s, but – befriended by professor Basil Hall Chamberlain of Tokyo Imperial University – he quickly decided to remain there for the rest of his life. At Chamberlain’s encouragement, he moved to Matsue, where he taught English for 15 months. He then moved on to another teaching position on Kyushu Island, where he spent the next three years writing about local customs. In 1894, he took a position as a journalist with the English-language Kobe Chronicle. In 1896, under Chamberlain’s guidance once again, he began teaching English literature at Tokyo University, a post he would hold until 1903, while concurrently teaching at Waseda University. He died of heart failure at the age of 54, on September 26, 1904. During his short life, Hearn developed a uniquely powerful personality formed by some life-changing events. Though many of those events were of his choosing, his exposure to various religions was not. His father was a Protestant, his mother Greek Orthodox, his great-aunt Catholic. Despite all this «established religionism» – or perhaps because of it – the idea of pantheism entered young Lafcadio’s psyche when he was around 15. Later, upon his arrival in Japan, he was delighted to find that he could now exercise and explore his intuition of «God in All.» It was thus that Hearn entered Japanese culture and achieved an understanding of Japanese Buddhist thought with unprecedented speed for a Westerner. Though his family would give him a Buddhist funeral, Hearn never fully committed to Buddhism as such and remained skeptical about certain of its key doctrines – such as karma and rebirth. Even so, he passionately believed that Buddhism promoted greater harmony with daily life than did Christianity. Leaving to more «scholarly» and less imaginative writers the translation of Buddhist doctrines, Hearn nonetheless did as much as they did to help the spirit of Japanese Buddhism transmigrate to the West by preparing Western society for some fundamental acceptance of it. Multicultural In Cincinnati as a youth, Hearn’s life had centered on his marriage in 1870 to Alethea Foley, nicknamed Mattie, a mulatto African-American woman. Such interracial marriages were illegal there at the time and, when the «scandal» broke, his employment with the Enquirer was summarily terminated. His flight from Western materialism brought him to Japan, where he remained for the rest of his life. He married Setsu Koizumi, the daughter of a local Samurai family, assuming, upon gaining Japanese citizenship, the name Yakumo Koizumi. Hearn became the epitome of a personality bridging complementary cultures. Marrying first a woman of shunned mixed blood and subsequently the daughter of a Samurai, he embodied the essence and practice of open-mindedness, free of prejudice and any fixed mindset. Such a life teaches the essence of positive humanity, that there is no higher calling than tolerating and embracing «otherness» and diversity, that there is no more rewarding way of life than one spent pursuing creative truth, that there is no greater responsibility than holding the mirror of scrutiny and accountability up to society, that there is no greater challenge or mystery than a man’s attempt to merge his dream life with that of waking life. In opening his mind, Hearn opened his heart to humanity, which led him to peace within himself and, ultimately, with the world. Zen-Buddhism Hearn’s open mind identified with the philosophy of Zen-Buddhism, which proposes meditation as the key to a higher state of living. In essence, Zen is the authentic and pure condition of life, free of constraints, beliefs and doctrines. The pursuit of Zen is said to bring the freedom and joy of simple and eternal completion, of people truly being themselves. Zen is the awakening to the true self and the responsibility that such a condition creates. An exhibition opens at the art gallery at American College of Greece tomorrow and will run until May 28 about Hearn’s openness of spirit, which inspires the creative process of man’s expression of freedom, the power of such philosophy as applied in life. Hearn, then, the reasoning goes, must be close to all open-minded people. The philosophy behind this exhibition is to present Hearn as an ideal, firmly founded in tradition, aspiring to somehow forge a way forward, to bring the past forth to enhance our future. A considerable number of international artists have been invited to produce artworks inspired not only by «Japonisme» but also by what this exhibition celebrates: the open mind of Lafcadio Hearn. The results are varied, for, indeed, the artists’ individual responses to Hearn’s appearance, personality and contribution could only be pluralistic. Thus, it is that the artworks gathered in this exhibition evoke a special Zen-Buddhist sensibility, manifested in various creative expressions in pursuit of such aspired perfections as the cha-no-yu tea ceremony, sumi-e ink painting, budo martial arts, ikebana flower arrangement, togei pottery and haiku poetry. Those who come to this exhibition will identify as many aspects of Lafcadio Hearn as there are artists who have participated in this project. The artists’ varied responses to the legendary figure bring forth new facts, visions and myths about him. Thus is it revealed that Hearn was not just an historical person whose name resonates but also an emblem of open-mindedness throughout the world and for all time. (1) Megacles Rogakos is the art curator and historian at the American College of Greece in Athens. The exhibition «The Open Mind of Lafcadio Hearn» will be on show from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday.