The Shadow of Perfection: Kawabata (Part II)

by Kenneth Champeon, May 6, 2005 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

In The Quiet American, the Englishman Fowler says that his "deepest sexual experience" had been "lying in bed early one morning and watching a woman in a red dressing-gown brush her hair." Kawabata might have answered that it was having a young girl tie his necktie for him. Feminists will tell you with a straight face and little proof that a necktie, being a long thing enjoyed by men, is a phallic symbol. It is actually an evolved napkin, so perhaps the feminists are of no help in explaining the tantalizing tie-tying appearing in Beauty and Sadness and The Sound of the Mountain.

In the latter book, Shingo "quite give[s] himself up to" his daughter-in-law Kikuko as she fumbles with his so-called phallus, while in the former the young girl Otoko "handled [Oki's] necktie gently, though she seemed to be having trouble with it." (!) There is something erotic about this normally dull domestic exercise, but perhaps it has more to do with the necessary but sexually charged proximity of tier and tied. Or perhaps we are dealing again with the eroticism of age differences, or of strangulation. In any case, it's fairly clear that the author once had his tie tied, and never forgot it.

Women will probably not enjoy Kawabata as much as lads do. Just as early Western visitors to Japan were shocked by the Japanese penchant for nude bathing, so modern Western women will be shocked by Kawabata's male-dominated world. Mistresses and massage parlors and geisha girls are rife. Nabokov wrote only one Lolita; Kawabata wrote a handful. But inequality is not misogyny perforce. In the Middle Ages in Europe, women were kept in the pantry by the husbands but placed on pedestals by the bards. The loss of one has meant the loss of the other. Pretended chumminess or plain indifference has replaced love/hate. Kawabata, in contrast, is obsessed with women in the chivalric sense, and his portraits of them evince a painter's delicacy, a psychologist's incisiveness, and a man's unrepentant love. That said, he did create his fair share of femmes fatales, like the beautiful and scheming Keiko of Beauty and Sadness.

The most compelling and disturbing of Kawabata's Lolitas is The Lake. It begins with a kind of acte gratuite: the stalker Gimpei discovers that a woman he had been following has dropped (or hit him with - neither party is certain) her bag, which is found to contain 200,000 yen. Next we find Gimpei in a "Turkish bath" (the translator's way, apparently, of describing Asian-style massage parlors.) Gimpei gets a rubdown and chats up a storm. Slowly we realize that he is painfully lonely and possibly quite insane. We've all revealed secrets to "unpaid therapists" like hairdressers and checkout clerks, but Gimpei, sounding for all the world like an articulate Holden Caulfield, strains this relationship when he tells the masseuse:

"This may sound strange, but I'm telling you the truth. Have you ever had that experience...a feeling of profound regret after passing some stranger in the street? I've had it often. I think to myself, 'What a delightful looking person!' or 'What a beautiful woman!' or 'I've never seen anyone quite as attractive as that before.' It happens when I'm strolling around the streets, or sitting next to a stranger in the theater or walking down the steps to a concert hall. But once they've gone, I know I'll probably never meet them again in my life.... One can't stop and suddenly speak to a complete stranger, can one? Perhaps that's life, but when it happens I could die of sadness. I feel somehow drained and empty. I want to follow them to the ends of the earth, but I can't. The only way to chase a person that way is to kill him."

No doubt the masseuse hopes Gimpei does not find her particularly attractive. In any case, here beauty does not cause sadness because Gimpei cannot possess it; he can't even say hello to it. In civilized society, one often cannot speak truth, act upon impulse, or even, as the bumper sticker has it, "perform random acts of kindness." This is why people become writers of fiction. It is also why people become insane.

Gimpei's nymphet is his student. That is, until word gets out and Gimpei loses his job in disgrace. The affair proceeds bumpily until Gimpei finally loses his first and only love. When he tries to recapture the old magic by pursuing another schoolgirl, the real crack-up begins. He talks to himself; he hallucinates; he throws himself tumbling down hills as though he were being assaulted; he obsesses about the ugliness of his feet. He is both pathetic and disgusting, and the novel ends - as Kawabata's often do - with a suggestion that nothing in life is ever resolved. Gimpei picks up a prostitute, gets her stinking drunk, suggests that they.... you know. But as they near the hotel, Gimpei dumps the girl, she throws stones at him, and he retires to his room to look, once again, at his feet. "His ankle," the novel concludes, "had turned faintly red." Unable to connect with the women he adores, Gimpei settles for those he abhors, until the contrast becomes ghastly, unbearable.

I said above that Kawabata was deeply concerned with human sensuality, of which this kind of sordid sexuality is only a small part. For Kawabata, looking at flowers seems to be every bit as gratifying as courting lovers. His knowledge of flora is encyclopedic and his love for them deeply affecting. Flowers, of course, are the ultimate symbols of ephemeral beauty. They bloom, reproduce, die; and the only reason they are beautiful is to attract others to them, sometimes in vain. Their beauty is squandered on callous Nature, sadly.

In the novel Thousand Cranes, Kawabata deals with the apotheosis of the Japanese aesthetic, the tea ceremony, with its formality, its fastidiousness, its employment of the centuries-old works of esteemed potters. The tea ceremony itself is a subject to be arduously learned, much as one would learn music. But just as knowledge of music is no longer essential in these decadent days of MP3s and so-called "home entertainment systems" (formerly known as "people"), so too is tea-making no longer essential in post-war Japan. Kikuji, the protagonist of Thousand Cranes, is concerned about the ceremony only because he wishes to honor the memory of his departed father, a tea aficionado. When Kikuji can't sleep, he does not resort to Zen meditation, but to "sedatives with sake." Hiroshima, in other words, was not the only thing destroyed by the war.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Kawabata's writings is that they are almost completely without contemporary dates, names, places, historical events. We hear about the "war," but it could be any war; we read of a few conquering Americans and their euphemistic "amusement quarter," but the Americans are faceless. One could write a screenplay version of, say, Beauty and Sadness, and set it just about anywhere or in any time without having to change much. This is its virtue. Great literature, said Faulkner, is about the "human heart in conflict with itself." Everything else is garbage, i.e. news. For this reason, Kawabata will probably outlast his fellow Nobel Laureates Mishima and Oe, more rooted in their time and place. Kawabata's writings express Faulkner's highest virtue, endurance; or, as Kawabata himself put it, "a sense of having struggled and somehow lived on."

- The End -

Books by Yasunari Kawabata reviewed for this article:

House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories, Kodansha, 1980.
The Lake, Kodansha, 1978.
Thousand Cranes, Vintage International, 1996.
The Sound of the Mountain, Vintage International, 1996.

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