another favorite: on ōe kenzaburō

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Like many people, I find it really difficult to start writing. By now, I’m pretty familiar with how I approach writing: research a lot until you get to a point where you know (deep inside) that you need to actually sit down and start writing about all the ideas that you have been focusing on for ages during the research phrase. It’s hard to start writing, because I worry about covering all my bases — what if I read that one book that really, really makes my argument solid — and making an argument that is actually interesting. However, I’ve come to realize that we can always improve our bibliographies and that we can honestly never come to the end of the research period. But we have to start writing since we’ll only ever have an asymptotic relationship to a research saturation point.

One way that I’ve found that I can get the writing process started much more easily is by writing on here. There are far fewer stakes within this space and I can start playing around with the material that I’ve been looking at without worrying about formatting or an overall structure; I can just write! Since I have been focusing on Ōe Kenzaburō over the last few months, I thought I would take time and do a little feature on him since he is one of my favorite authors.

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When you mention Japanese literature to most readers, chances are that they know Ōe Kenzaburō if for no other reason than he is one of two Japanese authors who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature (which is a great reason to be known, let’s be honest!). Another biographical fact that often crops up is about his son, Hikari, who was born with a brain defect; the image of a son born with some sort of brain deformity is a recurring trope throughout Ōe and is something he manages to work through using writing. Ōe has also become well-known more recently — i.e. in the last few decades — for his political activism, particularly when it comes to his stance against nuclear warfare and the use of atomic bombs.  Although there is plenty to like about the man himself, I want to focus a little more on his writing and how elements of his political stance and his worldview appear in his work.

What I enjoy the most about Ōe is the political nature of his texts. When I mention the idea of “politics” in writing, what I am mainly focusing on is the way a text offers a societal critique, which prompts us to take some sort of action, even if the action is something as seemingly basic or passive as reflecting on how our society is currently. Ōe is great with his approach to social critique because he can look both at himself and his failures as an individual, but he can also be cuttingly critical of society as a whole; he is also unabashed in how brutally direct he can be with himself or society once he goes on the attack. Since he is part of the group of “pure postwar writers” — i.e. writers who were children during the time of the war, but were still old enough to be impacted by it during the war itself and afterwards –a lot of Ōe’s early writing is quite harsh and angry towards authority figures who, as many authors argue, led the country to destruction. One example would be his first novel written in 1958, 芽むしり仔撃ち (trans. into English as Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids), showcasing the cruel nature of adults in contrast to the adolescent boys who stumble upon a remote village while being evacuated from a reformatory school. Suspicion of both authority figures and of grand, totalizing narratives are two key elements of Ōe’s writing that I think he does so well.

Ōe’s experience of the war is tied to his tendency towards rejecting tradition and trying to force readers to confront the past by defamiliarizing readers from the stories we tell ourselves about our past. One way he does this is by using a very rough, jarring way of writing — particularly through the language itself and the images he uses. My favorite text to use as an example is his work Seventeen, which is probably the grossest story I have ever come across. The story is actually based on a real-life case of a young radical; just as Yukio Mishima uses the acolyte in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion as a jumping off point for his famous novel, Ōe recounts the right-wing radicalization of a young (seventeen year old) man. Rather than painting him as the noble, patriotic son of the nation that the Right made him out to be, Ōe reveals the impotent, frustrated impulses that propel the young man towards being a fanatic. The use of bodily imagery is really, really gross, but the point that Ōe is making in this short story is so smart that I can forgive how disgusting the story was. The story must have stuck a chord in the Right as well, as Ōe received nasty threats after the story was published.

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Unlike other authors, Mishima being a good example, Ōe refused to give into the notion of aestheticism or the desire to aestheticize things to remove the political elements inherently subsumed into debates of aesthetics. Reading Ōe was actually what gave me some sort of vocabulary for discussing why Mishima is such a complex figure for me — and I think it does boil down to the difference between how they believe literature impacts the world. Reiko Tachibana’s Narrative as Counter-culture does a great job of comparing the two men and why they stand so opposed in many instances:

“Having heard the news of [Mishima’s suicide] on the BBC in India, where he was attending a writer’s conference, Ōe did not hide his anger toward Mishima, who, Ōe felt, had “insulted all the Japanese [especially the postwar writers], who have chosen to survive the postwar days and live on in the present” (Matsuzaki, Democratto, 28). In his novel [みずから我が涙をぬぐいたまう日, or The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away], Ōe underscores his belief in the evil of the emperor system by deliberately choosing as his protagonist a person who, like Mishima, is possessed by the myth of the emperor…Ōe critiques Mishima’s worship of the emperor, who became “a kind of idol” through whom Mishima and others believed that they could accomplish their own fanatical goals.” (Tachibana, 162)

It’s important to note here that Ōe and Mishima knew each other and both published stories dealing with the same topic in the same month; while Ōe published Seventeen, Mishima published his famous Patriotism. In one, Ōe fights against the aestheticization of politics as a slippery slope whose “beauty” can obscure the violence that inherently runs through the fanaticism of the Right. In Mishima, you get a story whose language is absolutely beautiful (seriously, for all that Mishima rubs me the wrong way, his writing is stunning) but the glorification of ideas whose true meaning is deeply subsumed under notions of beauty. In other words, what I like so much about Ōe is that while Mishima is lauded for presenting the “beautiful” side of the Right, and whose belief system is often swept under the rug because he writes so well, Ōe cuts through the crap and shows what the real-world implications of that narrative is on the ground. If we aestheticize politics, then there is a change that politics becomes reduced to style and theatricality, which is exactly what is happening in the United States right now. If we think about literature, aesthetics, and politics in this manner, I think it becomes more clear why writers like Ōe are important as figures who can point to why rhetoric is dangerous if we let some types of language remain untethered. Trump, for instance, was just spectacle and rhetoric — until he was elected and that theatricality and rhetoric gained a greater opportunity of having societal or legal implications to hurt other people.

As someone who works with language and who partakes of language in her spare time, we can argue that the ways writers use language is more important to me than it may be for other people. So for some readers, Mishima is just an exotic writer whose ideas are interesting and whose ability to use language is simply beautiful; end of story. For me, it is difficult to divorce politics and aesthetics because I see them used together to such powerful effect both in the past (in what I study) and in the present (through what my eyes and ears are showing me). Ōe’s work espouses the type of worldview that I think is productive and beneficial, plus his main intention is to break apart the status quo and force readers to confront the past, as well as the ways that we relate to that past. This is an activity that we all need to participate in, whether on the individual level or on the societal level, and I think that Ōe does a great job of practicing what he preaches, too.

There have been books and books written on Ōe, so I could never hope to do his work justice in the space of a small blog post. If nothing else, I hope this post piqued your interest in Ōe and I hope that you put some of his work on your ‘To Be Read” lists in the future. If you are interested in some of the general ideas I touched on above, I suggest taking a look at the readings listed below.

Suggested Readings (English):

  • Narrative as Counter-culture: Postwar Writing in Germany and Japan by Reiko Tachibana
  • History and Repetition by Karatani Kōjin
  • Seventeen by Ōe Kenzaburō
  • The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away by Ōe Kenzaburō
  • Patriotism by Mishima Yukio
  • The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Mishima Yukio
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