The Shadow of Perfection: Kawabata (Part I)

by Kenneth Champeon, May 5, 2005 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

Before Wittgenstein arrived to spoil the party, artists used to populate shabby cafes asking questions like "What is beauty?" The Cambridge philosopher pointed out that "beauty" is merely a word, and talking a mere game played with words rather than with, say, Ping-Pong balls. Prior to this enervating revelation, Keats had said that beauty is truth; Stendhal that it is the "promise of happiness"; Rilke "the beginning of terror"; and Nietzsche, I believe, said that beauty makes you feel small. You see, the game was fun while it lasted, even if it didn't yield the "truth" that Wittgenstein helped to imprison forever in quotation marks.

Like no other, the late Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata (or Kawabata Yasunari, using the Japanese naming convention) associated beauty with sadness, and not simply because he wrote a novel called Beauty and Sadness. For him, the promise of happiness was never kept -- or, if kept, only fleetingly. To feel small was to feel sad, and the truth of beauty was ineffable. As for terror, see "strangulation" below. What separates our garrulous friends in shabby cafes from true artists is that true artists do not need to be told what beauty is, nor do they need to tell anybody else. They know it when they see it, and they can create it like a silkworm creates silk. Kawabata saw beauty in most of God's creations - animals, flowers, but especially women - as well as in man's creations - bells, paintings, and the Japanese tea ceremony. But in his sensibility, pleasure is never without a tincture of anguish; and in any case death is always threatening to erase what pure pleasures there were.

I have just read every work of Kawabata's available in the - fittingly enough - Japanese-owned Kinokuniya bookstore in Bangkok: three novels and a collection of shorter works. Having now read six of his books all together, I am tempted, after Shakespeare's Antony, to "stand up / And say to all the world 'This was an artist!'" Not a writer, merely - a dreary creature dragging his pen across the page before dropping off to sleep - but what Salinger called a "God-knower," a man gifted by visions of all that is wonderful or terrible (or both) about the human experience.

Stylistically, Kawabata has no obvious equivalent. He often writes in non sequiturs. Each sentence is a single brush stroke placed distantly from the ones before. Paragraphs very often contain only one sentence, and the sentences themselves are simple and contain simple words. It would be an insult to call this minimalism, and it has little relation to the stilted prose of Hemingway or Carver. It is closer to impressionism, without impressionism's sloppiness and nonsense. Let us just say that it is distinctly Japanese. Some examples from the novel The Sound of the Mountain:

"Shingo rubbed an itching eyebrow. Spring was near. He did not dislike awakening in the night as he had during the winter."

"He had not acted precisely out of consideration for Kikuko, although he had of course known that Shuichi would not be home for dinner. He had simply deleted Shuichi. At a grocery store further on he bought gingko nuts."

"He took up a magazine lying at his pillow. Then, the room being sultry, he got up, opened a shutter, and sat down beside it. The moon was bright. One of his daughter-in-law's dresses was hanging outside, unpleasantly grey."

With that precious "unpleasantly" Kawabata rises above minimalism: a mere minimalist would have left it out, and left it to us to flip through our books on color psychology to understand why the author chose to make the dress grey. Instead, no sooner are we shown a pleasantly bright moon than the unpleasantly grey dress ruins the mood. As Kawabata himself writes, "Happiness...might be just such a matter of the fleeting instant."

Many of Kawabata's characters are either old or seem older than they are. Shingo of The Sound of the Mountain is a tenderly created embodiment of all that is sad and silly about senility. His reply to many a declaration is "Oh?" - delicately hiding his indifference, or what Kafka called a "senile love for unbroken calm." On one occasion, Shingo accidentally pours his tea into an ashtray; on another, he asks his family to watch as the hairs on his head turn grey. He is mildly troubled by the sluggishness of his brain, and he suggests this charming remedy:

"I was thinking on the train - if only there were some way to get your head cleaned and refinished. Just chop it off - well, maybe that would be a little violent. Just detach it and hand it over to some university hospital as if you were handing over a bundle of laundry. 'Do this up for me, please,' you'd say."

Being old, Shingo worries not so much about himself as about his legacy, i.e. his progeny, and there is much to worry about. His son is a drunken philanderer; his daughter is married to one. Shingo is attracted to his daughter-in-law, and softly chides himself for it. "But," he admits, "he could not help himself." Kawabata's readiness to forgive human failings is almost saintly. But he also has a very unsaintly regard for human sensuality, which gives purpose to an otherwise purposeless human existence. Purposeless, that is, unless you are fortunate enough to believe in an afterlife, which Kawabata evidently does not. Shingo fondly recalls the dying words of Japanese writer Mori Ogai: "all very stupid." No theist, this.

Why the preoccupation with growing old? It may be because Kawabata's most productive period was the decade following World War II, at which time he was already in his mid-40s, i.e. atop the perilous summit of the hill of life. And no doubt Japan's humiliating military defeat exacerbated feelings of decay and destruction. The House of the Sleeping Beauties, probably his darkest and most revealing work, was published about a decade before his death by suicide in 1972, four years after he became the first Japanese author to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Suicide figures in the plots of almost all of Kawabata's writings, either in thought, word, or deed. Mrs. Ota of Thousand Cranes does herself in, as does the shadowy Aihara of The Sound of the Mountain. The voyeur and pedophile Gimpei of The Lake is so entranced by a young girl "that he felt like dying or killing her," while his schoolgirl lover jokes to her father that "we're not going to commit double suicide or anything." (Her father does not laugh.)

Child psychologists are wont to say that if a child even so much as mentions suicide, they should be placed under round-the-clock supervision until the gloomy one perks up. In Kawabata's Japan this would seem to be impracticable. Suicide is to Japanese fiction what homicide is to Western fiction. Novice novelists are often told that if their stories are lacking in pep, get somebody dead quick. Death gets our attention like nothing else: it is the great question mark of life. Four hundred years after Hamlet, we still don't have a good answer to his celebrated question.

In Kawabata - as in Freud and the Euripides of The Bacchae -- Eros and Thanatos are the main human drives, and are often complementary when not identical. In the novella "The House of the Sleeping Beauties" the connection is most explicit. An old man named Eguchi visits a brothel with a twist: all of the women have been sedated nigh unto death. Men, mostly old, pay to sleep next to (but not with) them. On the face of it, such a brothel seems fantastical. But here in Thailand old foreigners (and, I presume, old Thais) will pay prostitutes to sleep next to but not with them. I suppose they are afraid of dying alone.

Eguchi spends most of his time at the brothel contemplating the bodies of the beauties, but he also wonders why he and the others come in the first place, and why they keep coming back. He decides that "there seemed to be a sadness in a young girl's body that called up in an old man a longing for death." Once more, beauty and sadness. "But perhaps," he continues, "most of them wanted to drink in the youth of the girls...." Of the many unverifiable ideas, this one has enormous staying power: that there is some kind of life force (the chi of Chinese), strong in the young, weak in the old, transferable through sight or touch or mere proximity.

But after all it might not explain the appeal of the "house of the sleeping beauties." The will to power does. As men grow old, their power wanes. Although Eguchi prides himself on remaining sexually potent, it is clear that he could not dominate these young things were they awake. The house provides the ultimate elixir to his despair over his growing powerlessness. Not sex or death, but power ultimately explains all sexual "perversions," whether it is pedophilia, rape, or prostitution. Eguchi acknowledges the possibility when he supposes that some old men may visit the house simply "to enjoy girls that would not awaken."

Eguchi gives the game away when his "longing for death" becomes a longing to murder. In a passage of uniquely Kawabatan understatement -- a hybrid of gentility and savagery -- Eguchi wonders whether a beauty would continue sleeping "if, for instance, he were to cut her arm almost off or stab her in the chest or the abdomen." That "almost" is priceless. In any case, Eguchi is not the only Kawabata character with rather crude ways of displaying affection. Gimpei has already been mentioned, and nearly every male character wonders at times what it would be like to strangle his lover. Some actually find their hands reaching out to do so.

The instinct of ownership and possession finds it way into the two other stories in House of Sleeping Beauties, "One Arm" and "Of Birds and Beasts." Usually Kawabata writes about the bizarre, without straying into the impossible. In "One Arm," he strays. A woman detaches her arm and gives it to the narrator for his delectation. Thus we learn that complete possession is a laughable impossibility: when the narrator replaces his own arm with the girl's, he discovers it not to his liking, as one might expect.

In "Of Birds and Beasts," Kawabata turns to the question whether possession is harmful to the possessed. A misanthrope tries to appreciate life by appreciating animals, birds especially. But one day his treasured kinglets stay too long in their bath and nearly die. In trying to warm and resuscitate them, he scorches their feet. Thus does benevolence wedded to excessive power often yield undesirable results. For their part, the burned birds "seemed to find it endlessly strange that something could be wrong with a part of them." Kawabata may here be using the birds as symbols of the artist (or rather Artist), endlessly fascinated by his own wounds.

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Part II

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Books by Yasunari Kawabata reviewed for this article:

House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories, Kodansha, 1980.
The Lake, Kodansha, 1978.
Thousand Cranes, Vintage International, 1996.
The Sound of the Mountain, Vintage International, 1996.

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