Now for Spinoza, Neville Bennett

Nobel Prize for literature 

Recently I met Oe Kenzaburo, the Japanese novelist who won this year’s Nobel Prize for literature. To the envy of a group of bystanders, Mr Oe spoke to me and autographed my “meishi” or business card. It’s an artistic artefact.

Perhaps Mr Oe has a message for New Zealand literature: he would encourage the maintenance and development of its values, but he might also challenge it to enrich its techniques by learning from other languages and literatures. (But hearing Oe talk makes one conscious of a higher dimension. Forget the message! Ecce homo – regard a man of prodigious output and humility; try to appreciate the cosmopolitan learning of this man. Study him for what he is. Perhaps also design frameworks wherein he could be read by students.)

One should not allow Oe’s Japaneseness to be a barrier: his career has much in common with that of many western intellectuals. Even I share broadly the following characteristics. He was brought up in a village which nurtured a culture invalidated by war and rapid economic change, steeped himself in French literature, was left of centre in politics, opposed the location of nuclear weapons in his country and criticised a numbing alliance with the United States.

Oe and I are also fathers of a handicapped child. Oe had a handicapped son, whom the doctors wanted to let die, but Oe persisted in nurturing his brain-damaged child. His bitterness and frustration are powerfully exposed in his best-known novel A Personal Matter (1964). “Bird”, the protagonist, responds to his deformed child by getting fired from his job for drunkenness, takes a mistress and plots the baby’s death with her. At the last moment he changes his mind and accepts his responsibilities. The dark poetic qualities of the novel were recognised by the award of the Shicho Literary Prize (Japan’s most prestigious award).

Subsequently, Oe novels were laden with bitterness and pessimism. The works reveal a protagonist slightly older, more emblematic and more conscious of his distress, more obsessed with death and rebirth. (Two other leading novelists of Oe’s generation committed suicide.) But as his son Hikari (now aged 31) found a diversion in music, Oe’s mood has lightened. Hikari has speech difficulties and suffers autistic attacks but has found a world in music, where he remains incommunicado for long periods before sharing his penetrating insights. He is now a famous arranger and composer. On the surface, at least, Oe has become somewhat reconciled to Hikari’s affliction.

If Hikari’s ailment was one of Oe’s driving demons, another was the loss of his “ethical inheritance”. Born in 1935, Oe was raised in the village of Ehime prefecture. His mother and grandmother were an endless source of lore and myths for an unusually receptive child. But the boundaries of his childhood world were abruptly obliterated by the A-bombs and Allied occupation in 1945. Of the caesura of the Emperor addressing the notion for the first time in a radio broadcast to confirm the surrender, Oe recalls:

being confused and disappointed that the Emperor had spoken in a human voice, no different from any adult’s – we looked at one another, no one spoke. How could we believe that an august presence of such awful power had become an ordinary human being … “

Small wonder that Oe and his generation were bewildered. Throughout the war a part of each day in every Japanese school was devoted to a terrible litany. The ethics teacher would call the boys to the front of the class and demand of them one by one what they would do if the Emperor commanded them to die. Shaking with fright, the child would answer: “I would die, sir, I would rip open my belly and die.” Students passed the imperial portrait with their eyes to the ground, afraid their eyeballs would explode if they looked His Imperial Majesty in the face. And Kenzaburo Oe had a recurring dream in which the Emperor “swooped out of the sky like a bird, his body covered with white feathers”.

The war destroyed his ethical inheritance, leaving a gaping void. Life seemed empty and enervating. Where could one find meaning and purpose? Perhaps not in “democracy” and an alien-imposed constitution. Oe’s heroes react to the void by wandering past the frontiers of respectability in to a dark wilderness of sex, violence and political fanaticism. Usually the hero ultimately finds what he is looking for and it destroys him.

Thus in The Silent Cry two brothers return to a village in the forest in a representation of a spiritual return to the author’s youth. The brothers are dissimilar, representing objectivity and subjectivity, inhibition and exuberance, reality and heroic falsehood. In successive events each refines their posture, and the gulf between them grows. As Mitsusaburo leaves the village, confident of his triumph over his brother, he is shown a mask of his brother. Not a death mask, but one used in a festival drama. Mitsusaburo realises that it is his brother who will leave a mark on history and that the mask is the birth of a myth (note: Brewer). Mitsusaburo feels a violent separation from his brother and their village. He is liberated at the cost of alienation from the past and the discovery that his objectivity is not real “truth”.

Oe left his own village to go first to a university and then for lengthy residence abroad, perhaps in a quest for truth, perhaps to find a new world literature to fill the void of his ethical inheritance. At university he became a spokesman for his generation. His short stories won the Akutagata Prize (the most important award for “new writers”) before his graduation. He also became the leader of left-wing intellectuals opposed to an alliance with the United States and also to Japan’s rearmament. His first novel Pluck the Flowers, Shoot the Kids poured contempt upon mere economic growth, which brought materialism without values. And always there were references to Hiroshima which he still feels Japan has not understood. His recent speech made reference to the need for “compensation” for Japanese are all “victims”. I asked a philosopher if he was indignant about the atom bomb, like fellow writer Ibuse (“the act of a vicious bully”) but she said his stance was “sentimental”. If my philosopher is incorrect, Oe could become the focus of a nationalist stance against the United States.

His public lecture was at the opening of the high-powered Kyoto Conference on Japanese Studies on October 17. The presence of about 15 film crews was testimony to his importance. That conference was marked by tedious sessions on the Japanese identity. I was not alone in detecting a hardening attitude of Japanese intellectuals to American criticism of their trade policy. I believe their patience is coming to an end. One eminent American guru told me the second Pacific war had begun.

Oe has impeccable credentials as an anti-American symbol. (I am not suggesting he would want to become a leader.) In the crucial 1959-60 period he did seek the limelight. The novel Our Age dismissed capitalist prosperity and, after campaigning vainly against the United States treaty, Oe ostentatiously visited Beijing (meeting Mao) and the Soviet Union, before travelling extensively in France (Sartre is an influence), Germany and Mexico.

Although Oe’s “fellow-travelling” offended many people at the height of the Cold War, he retained a loyal readership. His output was amazing. In 1963 alone he published three novels: Screams, The Pervert, and Hiroshima Notes. The public’s interest was demonstrated in 1968 when a new six-volume edition of his Collected Works sold 900,000. The critics have been more wary. One likened reading his novels to a bout of toothache. Others dislike his western manner. “Reeking of butter”, he assaults the established cannons of established taste. Translators say he treads a thin line between “artful rebellion and unruliness”. He challenges vagueness and violates the Japanese language’s natural rhythms and pushes “the meaning of words to their furthest limits”.

There is no sign that Oe will mitigate his forthright views. The politicians fawn upon him: Prime Minister Murayama says he is “the pride of the Japanese people”. But Oe rejected Japan’s Order of Culture and may do politically incorrect things. In 1975 he went on a hunger strike to protest the arrest of dissident poet Kim Chi Hu in Seoul. Friends were apprehensive of his Nobel award acceptance speech. Predictably he did not rhapsodise about Japan’s beauty as Kawabata did in 1968. “I’d like,” he said, “to speak of Japanese life today including its pain and suffering”. He also stressed the principle of eternal peace: Japan must renounce war power.

But Oe told the 1994 Kyoto conference that he is looking for a world language inside a world literature. One could then perceive Oe’s erudition. His profound study of Rabelais’s and Erasmus’s conversation in Latin, his rapid references to Sartre, Mann, Tolstoy and Milan Kundera; the rich texture of his familiarity with world writers can perhaps only be understood by the erudite intellectuals of Japan, Korea and China or the moving-spirits of the PEN club.

My thoughts flitted to settle upon New Zealand graduates in literature. Are not their courses segmented into English, New Zealand, Maori, Commonwealth, American, French, German, Russian, Japanese and so on? Are comparative studies impossible? And, Oe laments, will scholars ever go beyond learning “necessary and insufficient” foreign languages?

Oe has devoted years to the study of Latin but his hopes of self-learning are frustrated by the necessity of writing to earn a living. Now he has won NZ$1.5 million, he intends quickly to finish his current novel (The Flaming Green Tree), thumb his nose at the critics and spend a few years reading Spinoza. He will write more, only if he can create a “new form of writing”. His message then is simple, nurture your own cultural tradition, but reach out to other cultures and peoples for ideas and a language that can challenge one’s own inheritance.


Neville Bennett lectures in Japanese history at Canterbury University.


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