Fathers, Sons, Holy Ghosts

This post is in response to a friend who asked about the portrayal of father/son relationships in Japanese literature and specifically what I thoguht about Oe Kenzaburo in this regard. Here is my dashed-off response:

One thing I think is important specifically to Japan regarding the representation of father/son synamics is the role of the Emperor, especially after the 1868 “Restoration” of him into symbolic status as a kind of “father" of Japan (and link to the Sun goddess) as a part of creating the nation state and legitimizing the displacement of the Shogunate. This was when the idea of novels and literature in the explicitly Western sense took hold, and classics from the classical Imperial court were popularized and used as a basis for “Japanese” literary aesthetics.

The Tale of Genji thus became canonized as the “first” novel of Japan (and, by some estimations, the world!); it is a story of succession, parentage, and legitimate vs. illegitimate rule. A father-Emperor commits the indiscretion of loving the wrong mistress too much and produces a shining (that’s part of his name-“Hikaru”) son who should be next in line due to his idealized qualities but who isn’t. Genji’s mom dies and the Emperor loves Genji explicitly as a replacement/memento of her, but makes him a commoner because a Korean seer predicted that a Genji-as-Emperor would plunge Japan into chaos; Genji embarks on a series of love affairs in and around the court with women who remind him of his dead mother, until he gets a mistress of his father’s pregnant and the son becomes Emperor himself. Another affair leads to his self-imposed, though temporary, exile. His true successor in the narrative is a son who is not a son but the product of an affair of one of his own wives; this is phrased as a type of karmic return, since his own father is being succeeded by a son who is Genji's. This "son" is named Kaoru, ("Scent") as opposed to Hikaru ("Light"), and is a pale reflection of his "father" as he somewhat aimlessly emulates his romantic conquests after Genji's death in the final, unfinished sections of the Tale.

The incestuous overtones of this have not been ignored by the modern Japanese literary canon, and Tanizaki, for one, makes the implied mother/son incest of Genji into a recurring theme (one story, named for a chapter in the Genji, involves the protagonist peeping on a stepmother who resembles his dead real mother so much he cannot differentiate between them as she pumps her breasts into a glass; upon discovery, she offers him a glassful). The idea of a too-intimate relationship between Japanese mothers and their sons (and anxiety about the sons’ resultant “weakness” and “infantilism”) has become a cliché of not only literature but social theory/anthropology, most famously Takeo Doi’s Anatomy of Dependence. Women writers with a feminist slant have a tendency to exalt in portrayals of abusive mothering as a way to subvert the coercive demand at the heart of this cliché (Kono Taeko’s “Toddler-hunting” is a good/extreme example of this; a less overt but no less unsettling one is Ogawa Yoko’s “Pregnancy Diary,” which was translated in the New Yorker.

Fathers, on the other hand, are treated as a political problem more often than not, as ways of dealing with the implications of imperial power and succession in the context of modernity and the traumas of history. For example, Natsume Soseki’s hyper-canonical Kokoro (1914) is narrated by a callow college student who scorns his real father’s provincialism and idolizes a substitute father named “Sensei” [teacher] who is depressive and guilt-ridden over a crime he committed in the past that is implied to be associated with money and selfishness, indicators that he is betraying“traditional" values by being too caught up in the present – his tragedy is his living fully in neither, existing instead in a space (and a marriage – the crime was committed for the hand of a woman) defined by the betrayal itself. The story takes place as the first modern Emperor, Meiji, dies; the protagonist’s ailing father reads the news of one of Meiji’s most loyal and famous subjects, General Nogi, has killed himself (and his wife, of course) out of loyalty and his own condition becomes significantly worse in sympathy. At his father's bedside, the protagonist receives a letter from Sensei that is actually a suicide note, explaining the past crimes that feed his depression. The protagonist leaves his ailing father and reads the lengthy note on the train he takes to go back to Sensei (the note takes up a third of the book and is its last chapter). The novel ends with him on the train, reading, and neither his father’s or Sensei’s death is ultimately certain.

The father/son dynamic is defined as the transmission of the burden of history, both in the grand and personal senses of the term. As Sensei begins his note to the protagonist:

In the end, you asked me to spread my past like a picture scroll before your eyes. Then, for the first time, I respected you. I was moved by your decision, albeit discourteous in expression, to grasp something that was alive within my soul. You wished to cut open my heart and see the blood flow. I was then still alive. I did not want to die. That is why I refused you and postponed the granting of your wish to another day. Now, I myself am about to cut open my own heart, and drench your face with my blood. And I shall be satisfied if, when my heart stops beating, a new life lodges itself in your breast.

I read Oe in relation to this, but it is important to factor in the complicated role of Emperors and fathers who have been shown to be culpable, human, even criminal in the context of WWII’s aftermath. Young male Japanese writers like Oe see themselves as sons splashed with tainted blood from diseased hearts, and their literature is full of self-loathing young men finding themselves confronting fathers who seem like liars or worse as they spout new propaganda received from the occupying American presence, words that diametrical oppose what was said by the same fathers and Emperors during wartime. Everything is ugly, deformed, all-too-corporeal, haunted by the shining Emperors and shining Genjis the fascist imperial state promised even as the current Emperor declares himself a human, his war a mistake; how can any son of his shine? Oe’s early fictions, like “Seventeen,” explore this conundrum with bracing, graphic, and deliberately disgusting verve. Eventually, Oe’s humanism seems to finds its basis in the space that opens up between the abject reality and shining ideals of being this kind of boy, this kind of son; there are no easy answers, but facing the truth of the situation becomes an ethical act.

And when he does grow up, he produces a son of his own, and it is a moment of trauma, a “personal matter” that throws this political conundrum into unbearable relief. His developmentally disabled son seems to alternate for him between being yet another symbol of his own compromised flesh with its brutish desires and inability to articulate (remember all the animal imagery?) and being a symbol of a hope, a way out, an alternative to the competing rhetorics of fleshy realism and ruthless, shining, fascist beauty. His son, after all, is bad at talking but good at music, as it turns out. Maybe what Japan needs is a way out of language itself; after all, Japanese is, mythologically, a possession of the Emperor.

As Oe has gotten older, this understanding of his son has become increasingly sentimentalized even as his humanistic rhetoric has become more hackneyed and his fiction has become riddled with repetitive and disturbing invocations of a shining, youthful male savior (named Gii in Somersault) whose strength will save Japan from the weakness and abjection of its adults through becoming a “myth,” a “New Man.” I feel this as a betrayal of sorts of the fearlessness of his earlier work, and of A Personal Matter itself. It's almost cartoonishly grotesque that the abstract, historical, and inevitable counterpart to his sentimentalized son would turn out to be yet another holy ghost, and one that smells an awful lot like Mishima.

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