Losing the Name of Action

by Kenneth Champeon, Nov 21, 2006 | Destinations: Japan

"Before long a student at the art class was to initiate me into the mysteries of drink, cigarettes, prostitutes, pawnshops and left-wing thought."  A novel that can contain an admission such as this in passing must be an uncommonly wry and candid one.  You might also suppose that it is French.  Mais non:  it is Japanese, although to say this is to ignore the enormous influence French literature has had on contemporary Japanese writers.  In any case, the line comes from Osamu Dazai's No Longer Human, quite possibly the best and briefest literary expression of the nihilism characterizing post-War letters in the land of the rising sun.

Dazai has been compared to Rimbaud, whose A Season in Hell is a favorite among disgruntled undergraduates and Doors fans.  Dazai has also been called a precursor to Mishima, and with lines like "I have wished innumerable times that I might meet with a violent death," it is easy to imagine why.  But there is this one difference:  Dazai can be funny.  Mishima is sublime; he is seldom funny.

Yozo, the protagonist of Dazai's novel, invents a game that involves classifying a given noun as tragic or comic, much as one can call a noun masculine or feminine.  "This system decreed that steamship and steam engine were both tragic nouns, while streetcar and bus were comic.  Persons who failed to see why this was true were obviously unqualified to discuss art."  Yozo and his friend Horiki accuse each other of being extremely tragic nouns, and they are probably both correct.  But their creator may defy the dichotomy with his delicious gallows humor.

Yozo is a young man who - as guidance counselors are fond of saying - does not apply himself.  Despite a rich father, Yozo is chronically broke, and what little money he has he squanders on rice wine and women.  (As I type the previous sentence, I realize that it applies to a number of young males in Asian novels.)  Yozo pretends to study art, but he ends up drawing pornographic cartoons for money.  He claims to have loved only one woman, with whom he attempts to commit the quintessentially Japanese act of love suicide, by drowning, Ophelia-like.  He fails; she succeeds.

It gets worse.  Once married, Yozo suffers the rare misfortune of seeing his unsuspecting wife in the act of congress with another man.  Yet Yozo does not intervene.  Instead, he helps himself to a box of sleeping pills, washed down with fiery waters.  This may remind you less of Mishima's operatic gestures and more of the approach taken by Kenzaburo Oe.   Anyway, Yozo is committed to an insane asylum populated entirely by men, a perverse fruition of his wish that he go to a place without women, whom he unjustly blames for his problems.

What, then, is to blame?  Chiefly it is Yozo's admitted failure to understand "what makes human beings tick."  Although being an envious insomniac he does wonder whether women exist only to sleep, he rejects the depressing notion that people exist only to eat.  Because he does not understand people, he avoids them or acts clownishly in their presence.  Women, of course, adore him.  But he prefers the "idiotic" selflessness of prostitutes; he even compares them to the Virgin Mary.

When he discovers the charms of the social lubricant, there is no turning back.  But alcohol soon takes its ugly toll:  vomiting blood into the snow, he regards the darkly hilarious result: "a big rising-sun flag."  Advised to take morphine in lieu of booze, he promptly becomes addicted to morphine too.

Not one, but two characters suggest that Yozo's demise is due to his innate goodness, which prevents him from participating in the viciousness and dishonesty often required by survival or success.  Drugs dull his paralyzing belief that life itself "is the source of sin," and, well, a complete sham.  He dismisses his university as "the dumping grounds of distorted sexual desires."  Attending Communist meetings, he finds them to be "uproariously amusing", as his "comrades" humorlessly debate tautological theories.  When his father asks him what he would like for a present, he answers dejectedly, "Nothing."  He cannot bear melodramatic women, whose "excessively emotional words" fill him with "boredom at their banality and emptiness."  Wryly, he suggests that sweets are the best way to soothe a hysterical woman.

If Yozo is cold, he is also honest, and that is why he is ultimately pronounced insane.  Society can bear only so much truth.  And, as Donald Keene points out in his introduction to the work, the irony is that Yozo "records with devastating honesty his every transgression of a code of human conduct he cannot fathom."  He possesses a sinner's conscience but does not understand the basis of sin.

Like many prominent Japanese writers, Dazai seems more indebted to Dostoevsky than to his Japanese predecessors.  Yozo and Horiki play another word game that involves stating the antonyms or synonyms of unusual words.  The antonym of "flower", for example, is decided to be "woman", the synonym of which is "entrails".  (For the record, Yozo calls his games "despicable.")  Struggling to determine the antonym of "crime", Yozo muses thus:  "Just supposing Dostoievski ranged 'crime' and 'punishment' side by side not as synonyms but as antonyms.... I felt I was beginning to understand what lay at the bottom of the turbid, scum-covered pond, that chaos of Dostoievski's mind."  Presumably this is Yozo's way of saying that the world is unjust or unreasonable, for only in such a world could crime and punishment be incompatible.

The Japanese have developed a reputation as much for their uniqueness as for their excellence at imitation.  And imitation is perhaps simply more expeditious than following orders:  the Japanese are constantly being told what to do.  In trying to become a "respected" man -- "one who had succeeded almost completely in hoodwinking people" -- Yozo all but destroys himself.  In his quest to conform, he tragically attains the antonym of conformity: insanity.

Americans like to pat themselves on the back for having brought democracy and drive-thrus to post-War Japan.  They forget that the gift carried certain conditions, among them the humiliating presence of American troops in Okinawa and the desecration of the imperial family.  For centuries the Japanese had derived a moral code from allegiance to a Father-Emperor, much as the Russians had looked to God and Czar.  And so Japanese literature became aimless, anxious, angst-ridden: Russified.

Dazai makes only a few references to the war.  The silence is typical, and shame or horror is its probable explanation.  In the post-War period, people caught in a failing conversation often resorted "to questions about each other's experiences during the air raids."  Disqualified From Being Human is the literal translation of No Longer Human; and there may be no better disqualifier than war.

Yet Dazai, like Yozo, gives himself too little credit.  What is more human than to transform one's sorrow into art, or fiction?   Like Yozo, Dazai tried to drown himself in the company of a lover.  Unlike Yozo, he succeeded - in 1948.  Perhaps Yozo's simile comparing bloody puke and the rising sun was meant as a criticism of what he calls the "Japanese military clique," whose "rampage" could be erased no more by democracy and drive-thrus than by left-wing thought and booze.

 - The End -

Review of Osamu Dazai's No Longer Human, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1981. 

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