Sunday, June 9, 2013

No Longer Human

As he would have been first to admit, by ordinary standards Osamu Dazai (1909 - 1948) was not what most of us would call a "decent" man. In the words of poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth, his was an "extremely disorganized" life. Though for sure the adjective applies, Rexroth might as accurately have said "supremely" or even "magnificently," for Dazai's life was nothing less than a monument of disorganization, a litany of self-inflicted wounds and disasters culminating in not only his own but two other suicides.

Born Shuji Tsushima (he acquired his pseudonym in 1933) to an upper-class Japanese family, from an early age Dazai demonstrated a precocious talent for writing. He was a diligent student and seemed bound for success. Things took a turn for the worse, however, starting in 1927 when his literary hero, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, committed suicide. He started neglecting his studies. Before long the pattern of Dazai's life was established, with him failing at school, squandering his allowance on alcohol and prostitutes, dabbling in Marxism, and courting—symbiotically—women and suicide.

You would not expect all of this "disorganization" to add up to a career of any sort, let alone that of a distinguished and remarkable author whose works are considered to be classics of Japanese literature, and for whom a prestigious literary prize is named. But that only goes to show that—when it comes to artists in general and in particular to literary artists—"ordinary standards" don't apply.

If I single out literary artists, it's because unlike (say) Picasso whose personal flaws and disasters were relevant to his art only insofar as they distorted its subjects, Dazai made his flaws the very subject of his art. So closely do his novels and short stories hew to his personal defeats, disasters, disgraces and debacles, reading them one gets the ominous feeling that he lived as he did at least partially to furnish himself with a subject, namely dissolution; namely his own. At times he seems to revel in and even to relish that dissolution, as if it were a drug that—like the heroin he started taking in his twenties—he couldn't resist, not because it made him feel good, but because it made him feel human, which is to say, flawed. Dazai could only access his humanity, or at any rate his literary personae, through his personal failings.  Hence his addiction, one that led him to seek ever greater depths of dissolution. Yet his personal failings were his artistic triumph.

Nowhere is this more evident than in his masterpiece, No Longer Human, the last novel Dazai wrote, and which was being published in serialization when its thirty nine year-old author committed suicide in June of 1948. Ranked as one of the all-time bestsellers of Japanese fiction, the novel, structured as a series of notebooks bequeathed by their author to a bar hostess he met as a younger man, tells the story to age twenty-seven of Oba Yozo, a young man almost entirely out of sync with society as well as with his own feelings, a man who lives in dread of exposing his "true self" to others, and therefore cannot be fully human. Incapable of comprehending social protocols and signals, and therefore unable to engage successfully in "normal" relationships, instead he adopts the postures of a buffoon, an amusingly cheerful facade by way of which he hides his deep anxieties and growing sense of alienation. Meanwhile he neglects his studies, falls under the influence of a callow, bar-hopping dilettante, engages prostitutes, and disappoints and disgraces his family until at last they cut him off. Throughout the narrative women play the Janus-face role of damning angels, always there to rescue Oba while simultaneously dooming him (as in the case of the pharmacist who, moved by his pleas, tears, and kisses, generously supplies him with a new addiction: heroin) to ever deeper levels of damnation. But in "helping" Oba his women likewise pay a price, including one death by drowning in a failed double-suicide (he survives).

All of this sounds—and is—fairly gruesome, the more so when one considers that in almost every facet the novel is autobiographical, indeed, it's hard to find much fiction in it. Some even maintain that Dazai wrote it as a sort of last will and testimony, having intended to commit suicide once it was completed.

We'll never know for sure. But that the book is remarkable is something to be certain of. What makes it so in part is its utterly beguiling frankness, a frankness that somehow avoids bitterness and self-pity while not lacking in rancor or humor. For all his failings, despite a monstrous contempt for society's norms (which strike the narrator as entirely fatuous), Oba emerges as a likable though pitiable character. He is in fact quite charming. Here, from the First Notebook:
I can't even guess myself what it must be to live the life of a human being.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 the other. 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 I later discovered that the bridge was nothing more than a utilitarian device, I lost all interest in it.
By way of his apparent innocence it's hard not to fall in love with this narrator. In first encountering this passage, most readers will be unaware that, like his doomed-dooming women, we're being seduced into a gruesome contract: we are about to "fall for" (an expression that makes the protagonist tremble) a monster. Thus disarmed, one notebook later without prejudice or judgment we read:
I never could think of prostitutes as human beings or even as women. They seemed more like imbeciles or lunatics. But in their arms I felt absolute security. I could sleep soundly. It was pathetic how utterly devoid of greed they really were. And perhaps because they felt for me something like an affinity for their kind, these prostitutes always showed me a natural friendliness which never became oppressive. Friendliness with no ulterior motive, friendliness stripped of high-pressure salesmanship, for someone who might never come again. Some nights I saw these imbecile, lunatic prostitutes with the halo of Mary.
And no wonder, since the prostitutes assume the role of mother to this full-grown infant who, like all infants, recognizes only his own severely circumscribed needs and discomforts, and who is embraced and desired mainly for his helplessness. Dazai's great skill here—or that of his narrator—is his ability to turn us all into mothers or big-hearted prostitutes. Like all charming men, he seduces through his inner child. In real life such charmers are reprehensible; on the page they're irresistible.

At times Oba's inability to connect properly with others seems not only pathological but neurological; we could be reading the notebooks of an autistic, but with a special brand of autism: an autistic plagued by feelings of shame, guilt, and resentment. The complete dissociation of a personality yet capable of feeling is the book's unique subject. Is it, after all, called No Longer Human (in Donald Keene's translation Disqualified From Being Human), and it lives unsparingly up to its title. By the end of the three notebooks the "disqualification," we are told, is complete. By implication nothing remains for the notebook keeper but to throw himself into the nearest river.

In point of fact that is what Dazai did. He threw himself not into a river but into the Tawagawa Canal near to his home. But being Dazai he didn't act alone: he took Tomai Yamazaki, a beautician and war widow, the mistress for whom he abandoned his second wife, with him. Their entwined waterlogged bodies were discovered on June 19, 1948, six days after they hurled themselves into the rain-swollen channel. To this day people wonder if it really was a double-suicide, whether in fact Tomai murdered him and then herself. Though no evidence supports this rumor, it has furnished plots for several novels and films. The one author who couldn't avail himself of this plot was Dazai himself. But God knows given the chance he'd have made something excellent out of it.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

On Making a Small Splash

Everything is a metaphor. The sharp edge of a knife, a shallow stream, that ache in your back or belly. Three days ago I bought a boat. A row boat, that's what I wanted, but not one of those bulky aluminum jobs favored by lifeguards at the Town Park. Nor was I interested in a racing skull, too tippy, and no room for passengers. A kayak or canoe wouldn't do. I'd rather row than paddle.

Wooden watercraft, no matter how small or simple, are expensive. Put the words "wood" and "water" together so they float, and you're talking real money. Even a used wooden row boat will set you back three grand—not counting freight. Then there's the weight problem. I wanted a boat I could handle alone, something under 50 pounds. That put the kibosh on wood. Yet I didn't want some mass-produced fiberglass or aluminum tub.

At last I found what I'd been searching for, a variation on an Adirondack guide boat designed and built by a man named Steve Kaulback out of his small Vermont shop. Called a "Vermont Packboat," it's a double-bowed, 12-foot boat with fixed bronze oarlocks and adjustable cane seats, perfect for leisurely lake rowing, though built for speed and good in rough water. While the hull (molded from a mixture of fiberglass and something called Kevlar) requires little maintenance, the cane seats and cherry gunwales give the boat its artisanal look. Complete with hand milled oars, at under $3,000, believe it or not, it was a bargain. In the parking lot of the Motel 6 where I met Steve and his trailer full of demo boats, I picked out a blue model and wrote him a check.

The lake I live on, Lake Sinclair, is 24 acres. That's a lot of lake. Most of the houses lining its shore are summer homes, others are occupied by retirees. Just about everyone has a boat. Fishing boats, power boats, pontoons, jet-skis. Next to fishing, waterskiing and tow riding are the two most popular activities. In two years here I've rarely seen anyone swim. Sightings of sailboats, kayaks, canoes, or other vessels not powered by motors are equally rare. Frankly, I don't understand it. Among the retirees especially you would think that small boats would be a popular form of relaxation and exercise. Nope. The only thing my fellow lake dwellers seem intent on exercising is power—not their own, but that of some big, loud, stinking, fuel-guzzling gasoline engine. The same people who work out in gyms and partake in aggressive physical sports are for reasons mysterious loathe to exercise on water. Rowing a boat is too damn peaceful; it doesn't properly engage their masculine aggressions. It lacks violence. It's too damned quiet. (True, fishing is just as quiet; but its silence is mitigated by the chance to capture and torture an innocent creature).

Something about rowing a boat goes against the status-quo. In an age of engine-powered aggression, it is an act of rebellion, of quiet insurrection. I feel that way about my writing. When agents reject me, they almost always say the same thing: that my books are "too quiet." One used the word "meditative," another said "brooding," a third said "reflective." Often these words are preceded by the adverb "too," though they need not be, since the fact of being "meditative" (or "reflective" or "brooding" or "quiet") is in itself damning; the current climate in commercial publishing simply won't permit it. Books that don't make a loud enough noise or a big enough splash, that aren't, in other words, driven by big, loud, stinking engines, are anathema to agents and editors, who cannot foist them on a public that likes its entertainment AGGRESSIVE. Here I am launching my gentle little row boats (read: "quiet books") into a sea of roaring, spluttering, screaming powerboats. I want to put up a sign saying "NO WAKE!" Alas, my fellow boaters have beat me to the punch: "NO OARS!" "NO MEDITATING!" "NO BROODING!"

Maritime rules give small boats the right-of-way. No such etiquette exists in commercial publishing, where "smaller boats" are routinely swamped by freighters, tankers, and cruise ships, not to speak of heavily-armed (with multi-city, multi-media publicity campaigns) frigates, cruisers, destroyers and dreadnoughts. Against commercial publishing's vast and powerful armada, what chance has a little row boat—however thoughtfully designed and beautifully constructed—got? Though when it comes to commerce or war it stands to reason that bigger, faster, more powerful vessels should triumph, how so when it comes to pleasure? The pleasure I get from rowing my boat is no less, I'm certain, than that derived from horsing around with a 300-horsepower engine, and may be greater, especially when fuel costs are tallied. And I get more exercise.

Yet here I am surrounded by motorboats, the water choppy with their crisscrossing wakes, trying to steer a course among them that won't get me swamped. If they see me at all, those in the other boats look upon me as a curiosity, at best something quaint out of the past, at worst an inconvenience that prevents them from pulling back on their throttles and giving full voice to their aggressions. That my little boat inhibits them is in itself a source of pleasure for me. If I can slow this world down just a little, if I can make it stop gunning its engines, if I can get it not only to slow down but maybe to stop and think—to meditate, to brood—then I'll have accomplished something.

It's what I've tried to do with my "quiet" books: to slow things down. That's one of the great things a good book can do. Publishers insist that "quiet books" don't sell. To which I say the reason they don't sell isn't that they're quiet, but because they are drowned out by engines so loud most people don't even notice they're there.