My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Back in the 1950s, Donald Keene thought he had to apologize to his Anglophone readers, in his “Translator’s Introduction,” for this classic 1947 Japanese novel’s not being “Japanese” enough—for dealing in urban alienation, radical politics, and existential despair rather than cherry blossoms and the floating world:
If, however, we do not wish to resemble the Frenchman who finds the detective story the only worthwhile part of American literature, we must also be willing to read Japanese novels in which a modern (by modern I mean Western) intelligence is at work.
Leaving aside Keene’s perhaps presumptuous equation of “modern” with “Western” (isn’t Asian influence a definitive feature of aesthetic modernity in the West?), it’s true that No Longer Human fits quite clearly into a lineage of European fiction narrated by socially superfluous young men who expectorate their rage and hate at a meaningless society and even more meaningless universe in bitter diaries or obsessive monologues: Notes from Underground, Hunger, Nausea, The Stranger. Osamu Dazai’s final and supposedly autobiographical novel, completed before his suicide at age 38, does offer its own unique contributions to this lineage, however.
For one thing, there is Dazai’s brilliant framing device. The novel’s antihero, Oba Yozo, narrates the bulk of the novel in the form of three notebooks recounting his childhood, his college years, and his abortive adulthood. But this account of his own life is bookended by a prologue and an epilogue written by an unnamed man who has found the notebooks, along with three photos of Yozo corresponding to the era of his life described in each notebook.
The prologue is a brilliantly disorienting ekphrasis of the three photographs of Yozo. In each, the narrator perceives an ostensibly happy boy or normal man, but one whose image produces “a sensation of complete artificiality.” He concludes the prologue, “I have never seen such an inscrutable face on a man.” This paradoxical mismatch between superficial appearance and apparent essence is conveyed by the modern technique of photography, which discloses ontology through a technological process rather than by the intervention of the artist’s sensibility as in painting—a fit introduction to a novel that leaves no traditional or spiritual view of the human unscathed.
The narrative proper begins with Yozo’s description of his early experience with another modern technology:
I was born in a village in the Northeast, and it wasn’t until I was quite big that I saw my first train. I climbed up and down the station bridge, quite unaware that its function was to permit people to cross from one track to another. I was convinced that the bridge had been provided to lend an exotic touch and to make the station premises a place of pleasant diversity, like some foreign playground. I remained under this delusion for quite a long time, and it was for me a very refined amusement indeed to climb up and down the bridge. I thought that it was one of the most elegant services provided by the railways. When later I discovered that the bridge was nothing more than a utilitarian device, I lost all interest in it.
The deadening banality of the merely useful strikes an aesthetic note, as if Yozo will turn out to be a figure like Huysmans’s Jean Des Esseintes, who seeks in amoral beauty an exit from the functional ugliness of the modern world. But Yozo will put his aesthetic gifts to a very different end: he uses them in childhood to “clown” and in adulthood to simulate a pacific normality, even as he sinks deeper and deeper into alcoholism, drug addiction, and self-destructiveness. Why this spiral into self-annihilation? Because at no point in his life has Yozo understood his fellow humans. “I still have no idea what it is that makes human beings tick,” he confides, “I have always felt as if I were suffering in hell.”
No etiology for this condition is given in the novel; it seems to have been with Yozo since birth. Other characters in the novel will blame his businessman father for his later degradation, and contemporary readers might fix on his sexual abuse, which he communicates only in circumlocutions, by his well-off family’s servants:
Already by that time I had been taught a lamentable thing by the maids and menservants; I was being corrupted. I now think that to perpetrate such a thing on a small child is the ugliest, vilest, crudest crime a human being can commit. But I endured it. I even felt as if it enabled me to see one more particular aspect of human beings. I smiled in my weakness.
But this quest to explain Yozo rationally partakes of psychology, which the novel will go on to discredit as mere social convenience. As with today’s prevalent view that tragedy might be remedied by “therapy,” as if there were any talking cure (short of religious conversion) for the accurate perception that the universe has no pre-given significance, mere psychology evades the horror of the question. When Yozo is institutionalized late in the narrative, he refuses the label psychological science applies to him, and, like modern writers as diverse as Machado de Assis, Virginia Woolf, and Thomas Pynchon, asserts that psychological diagnosis is only a matter of social convention and control:
I was no longer a criminal—I was a lunatic. But no, I was definitely not mad. I have never been mad for even an instant. They say, I know, that most lunatics claim the same thing. What it amounts to is that people who get put into this asylum are crazy, and those who don’t are normal.
But Yozo does not rebel against the sick society that calls him sick; he offers no resistance, no Pynchonian counterforce, to its self-serving arbitrariness of definition. Perceiving life as a war of all against all (“Society…is the struggle between one individual and another, a then-and-there struggle, in which the immediate triumph is everything”), he doesn’t resent people for fighting for their own interests. But he himself remains absolutely passive. Even in the passage on his abuse given above, he portrays his victimization as a symptom of his endemically docile existential condition. Throughout the novel Yozo will, out of kinship, only be able to sympathize with weakness, because he experiences himself as without strength.
Here we see the distance between Dazai’s fiction and contemporary narratives of the superfluous man, such as Todd Phillips’s Joker, whose delusional hero might have been saved by a good therapist and the love of Zazie Beetz, and who in any case manages in his mental illness to lead, however inadvertently, a legitimate social rebellion. On the absolutist terms offered by No Longer Human, this naturalistic faith in secular salvation, whether through psychology, love, or politics (or, for that matter, money and social status), is all nonsense.
Yozo discloses in a later passage that it was a female servant who abused him in childhood; he expresses his inability to understand women; he destroys, without trying to, several women’s lives; and he fantasizes near the end of the novel, following his second suicide attempt, of “going somewhere where there aren’t any women”—but women are almost preternaturally drawn to him throughout his life, and it is only women for whom he feels anything like love and affection, especially the poor and desperate. And it is, correspondingly, only women who can truly hurt him.
[M]y conclusion was that though women appear to belong to the same species as man, they are actually quite different creatures, and these incomprehensible, insidious beings have, fantastic as it seems, always looked after me.
Unlike the tradition of nihilist misogyny à la Schopenhauer, No Longer Human gives us something more original and unsettling: not the male nihilist as lonely hero of the void, but the male nihilist as feminized, and therefore forced into hapless and disastrous solidarity with womankind by the unfeeling universe.
This innovation on cosmic sexism will hardly cheer the novel’s feminist readers, but then Yozo dismisses modern political -isms even more thoroughly than he dispatches psychology and love. Contrast No Longer Human with Sartre’s Nausea: readers familiar with Sartre’s biography will know that Marxism, the science of godless humanity’s self-salvation, waits offstage as the creed that will save the Existentialist from mere nihilism. (Christianity played a similar role in the prior century for Dostoevsky.) Yet when Yozo is brought by a college friend to a communist reading group, he sees through Marxism’s crypto-religious adulteration of materialism with transcendence right away:
I was introduced to the “comrades” and obliged to buy a pamphlet. I then heard a lecture on Marxian economics delivered by an extraordinarily ugly young man, the guest of honor. Everything he said seemed exceedingly obvious, and undoubtedly true, but I felt sure that something more obscure, more frightening lurked in the hearts of human beings. Greed did not cover it, nor did vanity. Nor was it simply a combination of lust and greed. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I felt that there was something inexplicable at the bottom of human society which was not reducible to economics. Terrified as I was by this weird element, I assented to materialism as naturally as water finding its own level. But materialism could not free me from my dread of human beings; I could not feel the joy of hope a man experiences when he opens his eyes on young leaves.
This combination of a totally passive hero with a totally thorough nihilism differentiates No Longer Human from its precursors, which do seem to find some route back to humanity in the end, even if only through the strength of their narrator’s voices—a strength Yozo lacks.
Corresponding to the novel’s anti-metaphysic is its anti-style, as far as one can tell in translation anyway. The narrative has no texture whatever. We read of Yozo’s time in a house, in several apartments, in school, at a university, in bars; yet none of these interiors is ever described even minimally. Yozo’s only reliable job in his adult life is as a cartoonist, first for children’s magazines and then for pornography—a “career” trajectory portrayed as a long falling-away from his adolescent gift for painting—but he never draws his life for us. At best we get defamiliarizing effects that suggest the world as seen from a great and uncomprehending distance, as when Yozo spies on the seduction of his young wife:
A small window opened over my room, through which I could see the interior. The light was lit and two animals were visible.
In most novels, this lack of texture would be a flaw—I thought it was in the comparatively richer Nausea—but it is so fit to Dazai’s thematic purpose that I can hardly complain, even if I didn’t personally enjoy it. I confess that this is not enough novel for me, but I can appreciate the admirable rigor that earned it its classic status in Japan and its cult eminence in the West.
In an epilogue, the narrator of the prologue returns to tell us of his conversation with a woman who knew Yozo. She concludes, “he was a good boy, an angel.” While this goes too far—he certainly causes his family, friends, and lovers to suffer on his account—the novel’s indirect characterization (the objective action, the testimony of other characters) does tend to present Yozo as the soul of politeness. Suffering under compulsions he himself does not understand, he nevertheless rarely behaves with willful cruelty; and, as Keene points out in his introduction, he often tries to do the right thing according to ethical norms he cannot comprehend.
Yozo’s “goodness” is the novel’s ultimate, crushing paradox, one that does strike me, despite Keene’s disclaimer about the novel’s Western qualities, as foreign to a monotheistic tradition for which Satan is always a ready archetype of the dissident. An unholy saint of amoral passivity, Yozo concludes his account of himself proclaiming indifferently, “Everything passes.” He sees the universe for the void that it is, and still denies himself the glamor, the pleasure, the aesthetic sublime of revolt.