Diary of a Mad Old Man
Calibrating the Perverse
In Junichiro Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows, the writer wonders if the East had innovated technologically and scientifically whether many aspects of Japanese life would be quite different. "Suppose for instance that we had developed our own physics and chemistry: would not the techniques and industries based on them have taken a different form, would not our myriads of everyday gadgets, our medicines, the products of our industrial art - would they not have suited our national temper better than they do?" One of the advantages of art is that it does not have to follow the standardization of science and technology. When Tanizaki talks about medicine, he says "antiquated medical equipment does have its drawbacks; but had modern medicine been developed in Japan we probably would have devised facilities and equipment for the treatment of the sick that would harmonize with Japanese architecture. Here again we have to come off the loser for having borrowed."
But how does this work when it comes to making sense of aesthetics that are not standardized: how can we comment on a Japanese writer's work if we accept that the codes and attitudes are so very different from those in the West? Two antithetical ones are immediately available, The first would be to understand the cultural codes themselves, to immerse oneself in the history, geography and ideally the language of Japan. E. D. Hirsch would seem to be a theorist in sympathy with such a position as he attacks what he calls three historicist fallacies when applied to literature. The first he calls the fallacy of the inscrutable past, where we cannot know the behaviour of an earlier time: "one regards persons of the past in the way the Englishmen in novels used to regard inscrutable Orientals." The second is the fallacy of the homogenous past, where one assumes that all people of a certain age thought in more or less the same way. The third is the fallacy of the present-day perspective. This means that we can say what we like about a past text because the present is what matters. Hirsch is harsh on important critics here, as he gives as examples Jan Kott's invitation "to meet Shakespeare" and Roland Barthes' insistence that we attend to "our contemporary Racine". Hirsch says finally, "a text cannot be interpreted from a perspective different from the original author's," ('Faulty Perspectives') and thus, we might say, further reveals his own
A different approach from Hirsch's would be the cognitivist belief in contingent universals, so that we would find ways in which Japanese literature is like our own. As the cognitively inclined David Bordwell says, "I take narrative to be a diffuse and complex phenomenon, with many crisscrossing features spread across the world's storytelling traditions. Virtually all narratives seem to share some components..." Bordwell talks of "goal-oriented protagonists, causal consequence, and a psychology of beliefs and desires." "Certainly", Bordwell says, "these features are present in a large amount of non-western literature" as he cites particular Chinese and Japanese novels "which do not seem on the whole confused." (Figures Traced in Light) Bordwell is here disagreeing with the psychoanalytically-inflected philosopher Slavoj Zizek who is more inclined to play up the cultural complexity of non-Western aesthetics. If we are resistant to both the Hirschian and the cognitivist approach, and not always unsympathetic to the three methods Hirsch dismisses, it is because in the Hirschian we would be in danger of doing little more than imitating what a Japanese person would already know quite instinctively and in the second imposing what we already know on work that we might wish to read in the first instance for its immediate unknowability. The former would be to be 'Japanese', the latter would be to impose some of the notions, aesthetically, that Tanizaki frets over scientifically.
Perhaps one way of allowing ourselves into the work of a writer without feeling that we know too well the author's intentions, or especially the context out of which it comes (as an expert or a local might), nor relying on the contingent universals that would suggest it isn't too important to attend to the cultural milieu by attending to the broad approaches used that resemble art we are familiar with, is to accept that when we read any text we are in a constant relationship with the familiar and the unfamiliar, a world we know (most of the words on the page), and the world we don't - what these words mean in the specific context in which they are used. A very good example of this ongoing process comes from Colin McCabe, discussing Henry IV and Falstaff's lines "And I had but a belly of any indifferency, I were simple the most active fellow in Europe: my womb, my womb, my womb undoes me." McCabe says, "if we are surprised by the masculine Falstaff claiming a womb, we may be unsurprised to find a gloss that informs us that womb, in this context means stomach." A particularly extreme and absurd example of reading Shakespeare as our contemporary, without attending to the specifics of its linguistic context, would be to see in Falstaff a transfigure for our times, when of course the important thing to do is to register our surprise at the word used in this way. It brings us up short and makes us reassess presuppositions, a better reason than many to read a work of fiction. Challenges come in many forms and this can be one of them.
And so we return to Tanizaki, one of the key figures in 20th-century Japanese fiction, alongside for example, Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, Kenzaburo Oe and Shusaku Endo. and what we want to focus upon is a perversity that he shares, and that at the same time is distinct from other Japanese writers to whom we might notice similarities: Mishima and Kawabata, even Endo. What this allows us to do, however troublesomely, is acknowledge an aspect of the two contrary positions we have proposed without feeling obliged to either of them. What interests us is not some fundamental Oriental aspect to the work, nor are we seeking out features that we can say are universal to all cultures, but we do wish to explore the relative singularity that allows us to comprehend an aspect of Japan, an understanding of modern Japanese fiction, and the importance of Tanizaki within it.
Taking the diary form of the title, Diary of a Mad Old Man details the increasing decrepitude of the narrator, Utsugi Tokusuke, and his increasing interest in his daughter-in-law Satsuko. This is the beauty and the beast reformulated as youthfulness versus old-age, but while the myth of beauty versus beastliness brings out the virtue of the former and the dignity of the latter, Tanizaki's tale leads instead to vice and indignity as the narrator loses a little of his mind and his soul in desiring Satsuko. "Does my love for Satsuko come from my impression that there is something of [the famous murderess] Oden in her? She is a bit spiteful. A bit sarcastic. And she is a bit of a liar. She doesn't get along very well with her mother-in-law or sisters-in-law. She's cold towards her child." This is forgivable if she is cunning and smart. "Even with a woman of bad character, though, her badness mustn't be too obvious. The worse she is, the cleverer she has to be." This is not about a meeting of equals but the maximum perversity available in the inequality between them. "I know very well that I am an ugly, wrinkled old man. When I look in the mirror at bedtime after taking out my false teeth, the face I see is really weird." Later in the book he notes: "after looking at myself in the mirror, I looked at Satuko. I could not believe that we were creatures of the same species. The uglier the face in the mirror, the more extraordinarily beautiful she seemed to be."
The narrator is a seventy-seven-year-old man who would be unable to make love to Satsuko even if she was willing to participate, but he nevertheless desires her even if we cannot quite propose that he lusts after her. We might muse over what the difference happens to be, and see it resting on a combination of age and sensibility: that Tanizaki's sensibility is extended and he finds the means by which to examine it through the desirous but hardly lustful narrator. It becomes an exercise in comprehension rather than satisfaction. What Tanizaki offers is a book that emphasizes the age gap between the narrator and Satsuko but also in this age gap a perceptual field opens up that cannot be closed by a sexual encounter. This is not exclusive to Japanese fiction, of course, but in a society that is heavily codified even, or especially, aesthetically (Noh and Kabuki theatre for example), we can see how desire and lust can work as separate entities. To lust is to seek the procreative act; to desire is to generate a codification that can allow for satiation without release, for desire to be entertained without a sexual encounter taking place. The narrator wants to believe that Satsuko is available but this availability needn't be sexual, and partly why he seems more jealous of a dog than he is of her husband. If he can imagine himself as a different species from Satsuko, can the dog be closer in kind to her than he is? "Somehow it puts me in bad humour to see her go out riding side by side with that dog. It's only natural for her to ride with [her husband] Jokichi, and I can accept the situation even if she's with [her lover] Harushia; but the very fact that you can't be jealous of a dog makes it all the more irritating."
Tanizaki both normalises and makes perverse simultaneously. The narrator has been a womanizer in his younger years and suggests his son is no less fickle: such men can act upon their desires. But now the narrator is old he cannot; his capacity for the codes of affection become so abstracted that a dog finds itself part of the codified forcefield. "Satsuko had him nestle close to her in the car; and even if she drives she keeps one arm around his neck, snuggling her cheek against his. That must be offensive to anyone." What is 'normal' in the book is his account of old age; what is perverse is the means in which he sustains life through his fascination with Satsuko. Though at one moment the narrator insists "I can't understand all the technical details", nevertheless throughout the book Tanizaki gives us plenty of information about the medicalization of old age. "If the fluid or air got into a blood vessel, a tube could be immediately inserted into the trachea to provide oxygen", "meanwhile I have tried all kinds of medication, by injection or whatever: Pyrabital, Irgapyrin, Doriden, Nortan..." But what is most important about the narrator's old age is the limits placed on his life and the habits that come out of that limitation. He would get up at 6Am, urinate into a tube, then bathe his eyes in a solution, clean his gums and put in his false teeth. He will take a nap after lunch and several afternoons a week have acupuncture. These are the rituals of old age against the spontaneity of youth, but the narrator wants an aspect of that youth back not so much as the seducer as the seduced. His lustlessness means he is the passive figure in seduction; all he can hope for is that the object of his desire is intelligent enough to make his projections interesting.
In a passage from Seduction, Jean Baudrillard says, "seduction is stronger than production. It is stronger than sexuality, with which it must never be confused. It is not something internal to sexuality, though this is what it is generally reduced to. It is a circular, reversible process of challenges, oneupmanship and death. It is, on the contrary, sex that is the debased form, circumscribed as it is by the terms of energy and desire." Baudrillard's book is provocative and intricate; all we want from it, for the moment, is the idea that for the narrator in Tanizaki's book, seduction is inevitably stronger than sexuality now that he cannot perform. This is where the more scheming and manipulative Satsuko is ideal because he does not want from her the reliability of a long-term companion, nor the instant gratification of an available lover. No, he wants a tantaliser who can keep him alive, with Satsuko a reverse Scheherazade. She doesn't have to tell stories to stay alive herself; she needs to be capable of generating narratives inside the narrator so that he can remain in existence. She must be capable of not so much telling stories as generating them in him as erotic possibilities. A third of the way through the book he says "another erotic thriller. But it was a little different from the earlier ones. Today she came in wearing high-heeled sandals, and kept them on while she took her shower." She then suggests they might partake in a little necking. Near the end of the book in one of two excerpts that come from others, the nurse says that Tokusuke was "subject to what might be called abnormal sexual impulses." While she wonders if this is Tokusuke close to mental illness, it might be the closest he is likely to get to physical health.
The reason we emphasise the gap between lust and desire rests on the simple fact that the narrator would be incapable of performing the deed, but it doesn't stop him desiring Satsuko any the less. This could make the story less perverse than another, famous Tanizaki novel The Key, with which it shares a few similarities. The earlier work focuses on an older married man who involves his wife in various sexual acts, believing he controls her without her knowledge, but that he eventually realises she is a far from an unaware participant. In The Key, however, the central character is ageing rather than aged: mature rather than old. He remains in the tradition of the impotent control freak who wishes to observe his wife more than please her, while Diary of a Mad Old Man grounds itself very strongly in the aged process that nevertheless still has sexual desires its body is incapable of putting into practice.
This might make the book all the more perverse as it gives to old age not the dignity of escaping from the sexual but a new mode of enslavement within it. The narrator has no choice but to enter the symbolic field, a point well addressed by those interested in structuralist thinking or ritualised behaviour, but that Tanizaki offers very specifically, as if mocking the structuralist and the ritualistic by saying that it is all very well to have codes that dictate our actions, but what if we have no choice but to have the codes dictating us thus? The structuralist would insist on the interacting nature of the structures, with Terry Eagleton noting that "poems were to be viewed as 'functional structures' in which signifiers and signifieds are governed by a single complex set of relations. These signs must be studied in their own right, not as reflections of an external reality," (Literary Theory) It would make sense that one of the key figures of semiology and structuralism, Roland Barthes, would examine the nature of signs in so codified a culture as Japan, wishing to see in it a system that would counter in some ways the arguments proposed in western discourse through structuralist thinking. Barthes notes that Zen wages war against the prevarication of meaning. Instead of the ongoing deferral of signifiers, there is Satori, which can only be clumsily translated as revelation or illumination, a panic suspension of language, the blank which erases in us the reign of the Codes... (Empire of Signs) There is an immense culture of codes, but not necessarily as a consequence a constant deferral of meaning. Satori suspends meaning and allows for it simultaneously.
Here we find Barthes coinciding with Tanizaki's thoughts but from the other side: the West on the East. But one reason we have chosen to look at The Diary of a Mad Old Man is to see that the ritualistic doesn't exclude the existential necessarily but contingently. The narrator is reduced to a symbolic field. Incapable of satisfying his desires as procreation, he multiplies the possibilities as creation - as imaginative possibilities. It may be true that humanly sexual desire is never as direct as we might wish to claim, that Baudrillard is right when he says "seduction is stronger than production, It is stronger than sexuality," but this relationship with the symbolic field and the sexual act becomes manifest only if the figure cannot perform the task itself because the body is incapable of doing so. He is seeking deferral. The Moravian, Proustian figure who desires desire is usually nevertheless physically functional if mentally dysfunctional - as though they have given over to the symbolic field their sexual energy neurotically. Tanizaki's point here is that the narrator has no biological choice as the book constantly emphasises the degeneration of the narrator's body. "For the last several years I have suffered from enlargement of the prostate (they called this gland by a different name in my youth, when I had venereal disease): occasionally the urine accumulates too long, and a few times it has had to be drawn off with a catheter." "When I walk my legs get so much in each other's way that I find it difficult to manoeuvre. If I try to step down from the veranda into my garden clogs, I am never able to do it smoothly." "They say a typhoon is coming. Perhaps that is why my hand hurts so badly and why I am having trouble using my legs." He thus desires partly because he can't lust.
We offer this distinction partly to escape any fundamental notion that sex is in the head, that pleasure is always deferred and that whether well or ill sex remains an abstraction. The point for Tokusuke is that he has no choice but to desire since lust is beyond him. But we also want to make a second distinction that can take us back to our original point, and the various ways in which we can approach a text that is unfamiliar to us. In the Eagleton quote we can see that the structuralists have neither adopted the Hirschean method or the cognitive approach. They insist neither on comprehending the specific context nor finding general attributes that cross cultures, insisting instead on the idea that they are signs in conjunction with other signs. The existential reality is unimportant just as many believe the sexual act is insignificant next to the desire surrounding it. Tanizaki seems to be saying that the ritual nature of Japanese culture allows the narrator to take advantage of the symbolic field, but at the same time Tanizaki acknowledges there is an existential reality that Tokusuke's decrepitude is denying him.
This is partly what makes the book closer to works like Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year and Roth's Everyman rather than to Moravia or Proust: more affiliated to novels that indicate the increased inability to satisfy one's desires, rather than one which offers a schema within which one can practise them. We can also suggest that in most cultures it would seem there is both the existentially sexual and the symbolically sexual: the need to satisfy one's primary sexual wishes, and the need to abstract them. If we were to suggest the latter was an Oriental quality and the former Western we would miss the freedom out of which the writer works and the different modes in which we can exist as sexual beings. Now certain circumstances allow us to exist in one field or another: the sexually explicit and yet active, or the sexually implicit and deferring. Talking about homosexual culture, Michel Foucault says: "let me try to answer your question another way. The experience of heterosexuality, at least since the Middle Ages, has always consisted of two axes; on the one hand, the axis of courtship in which the man seduces the woman; and, on the other hand, the axis of sexual act itself." Because of the focus on courtship, Foucault, says, "this is the reason for the relative poverty of literature, cultural and aesthetic appreciation of the sexual act itself...in contrast, the modern homosexual experience has no relation at all to courtship." (Ethics)
Even though Roland Barthes, a friend of Foucault's and of course a fellow homosexual, can say in his book on Japan, The Empire of Signs, that in Japan "sexuality is in sex, not elsewhere, in the United States it is the contrary, sex is everywhere, except in sexuality", this depends on how one looks at it. Barthes is talking about the capitalist idea that sex sells; we are talking about the notion that sex abstracts: that it permeates according to the givens of a situation. In Tokusuke's case it does so because he cannot hope to act upon his sexual wishes. If Foucault's very useful bald dichotomy brings out the difference between the heterosexual and homosexual approach to courting, then what about complicating it further by distinguishing it again within the cultural and the demographic, by taking into account the specifics of Japanese culture and its capacity for the abstract, and the fact that the narrator is an old man who cannot fulfil his lust and must instead settle for delineating his desire? Taking into account the cultural first, Barthes also says in Empire of Signs that one of the things he finds interesting about Bunraku puppet theatre is the manner in which it separates gesture from action. The problem with western theatre is that "the actor pretends to act, but his actions are never anything but gestures", while the Bunraku theatre "separates action from gesture: it shows the gesture, lets the action be seen..." The western actor exemplifies the gesture in the categorical action, but Japanese theatre (and here we can also think of Noh and Kabuki theatre also) utilises the abstraction of the action and becomes very strongly codified behaviour. Tokusuke, incapable of the action, must rely instead on the gesture that can encode an affair without enacting it, and this he does in numerous ways from feeling jealous towards the dog to buying Satsuko an expensive ring that she wants and insisting to others that it is a gift for his daughter-in-law rather than someone with whom he is smitten. As he says to his spouse: "what's wrong with buying her a ring?" She's not a stranger, she's our own son's wife? My parents would be proud of me for being so generous." He is now as corrupted as the woman whom he desires, as if there would be no desire without disaster, no pleasure to be sought unless there was a moral system to collapse. He wants a woman who is manipulative and exploitative, someone who will take him for a ride rather than, so to speak, give him one. As he says, of Satsuko, "when she was a young bride she didn't seem so malicious, but the difference in the last three or four years has been striking. Perhaps to some degree because I have deliberately egged her on." He does not wish for someone who will give him what he wants., He instead desires a woman whose behaviour he can alter: he can change subtly the structure of her identity by turning her into not the woman of his dreams but the woman of his nightmares. "Even now I suppose she is good at heart, but she has come to pride herself on being bad. No doubt this is because she realizes how much her behaviour pleases me." We can see how a codified approach meets with septuagenarian limitations: the cultural and the demographic create a work that illustrates not at all gratification but inevitable deferral.
Obviously, this isn't exclusive to Japanese culture, nor even exclusive to people in their seventies and eighties (those still sexually active in their late years are called sexual survivors by David Lee in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing). And we have noted similarities with Coetzee and Roth. Our claim is simply that Tanizaki utilises Japan's capacity for abstraction, conjoins it with the frail existence of an older man, and arrives at a work that is perverse in a very different way from texts by Moravia and Proust, which rely chiefly on personal, psychological perversity, as opposed to the cultural, physiological perversity on show in Diary of a Mad Old Man.
There are hints of this exploration of old age and perversity in Tanizaki's earlier and much better known and aforementioned The Key, with a man in his mid-fifties unable to satisfy the sexual appetite of his wife, and manages to find that energy by doing things to his wife that he hitherto hadn't persuaded her to indulge in. The Key is a more exhilarating read than Diary of a Mad Old Man (it is an exceptional book on the erotics of sexuality that moves fluidly between the husband and wife's diary entries), but it is finally less discomforting. In The Key, the husband's ageing process such as it happens to be is quickly passed over: what matters is the mise en scene of the perverse as the husband finds ways in which to get his wife to acquiesce to his desires and find a few of her own. It is a great erotic novel. Diary of a Mad Old Man is a book incidentally about the erotic and chiefly about ageing. The whole point about perversity is that it is perverse: it is a minority activity. Getting old is a common pursuit; a husband utilising a strong lamp to see more intimately his inebriated wife, who in her drunken state, whispers the name of a man she would rather make love to than her husband, rather less common we can assume. What often causes discomfort is not what we can hardly countenance, however extreme, but what we cannot easily face, however negligible. The details Tanizaki offers are less often personally revealing in Diary of a Mad Old Man but are instead impersonally revealing: the realities of old age rather than the fantasies of the middle-aged husband in The Key. Tokusuke is even more blunt about his physical condition than he is about his sexual desires: the whole palm of my hand aches, up to the ends of the ulnar and radial bones of my forearm; I find it difficult to turn my wrist as well as extremely painful." This is the frailty that comes to us all if we are lucky enough to live to a ripe old age, though ripe seems an odd word in this context::since old age is surely the opposite of ripe. Bletted might be more appropriate as one becomes softer and mushier as Tanizaki finds correlatives between physical decay and emotional tenderness. The narrator knows that his weakness of body allows for the strong feelings for Satsuko that weaken his resolve. Near the end of the book he cannot live without her and wants to die underneath her. "When I think of Satsuko I feel like gambling on the slightest chance to live again...ah, unless I stay alive till next summer I'll never see her swim again." But if he dies he wants her to be with him in death. "Might it not be possible to have Satsuko's face and figure carved on my tombstone in the manner of such a Bodhisattva, to use her as the secret model for a Kannon or Seishi?" "After all," he says, "I have no religious beliefs, any sort of faith will do for me; my only conceivable divinity is Satsuko. Nothing could be better than to lie under her image." Is there not something all the more perverse in the combination of old age and wishful thinking: to wish to carry one's obsession into a death that soon awaits us?
When we say something feels very French, very Japanese, very Italian or very English, we could be offering a stereotypical remark or trying to move towards a singularity of observation. When Bordwell tries to find the common characteristics of narrative as a means by which to say that Japanese fiction needn't perplex, while Zizek (like Barthes in some ways) insists on the perplexity, others might wish to alleviate that perplexity not in finding the core aspects that it shares with Western literature, but in the specifics of the time and of the culture, as Hirsch might propose. What we have tried to do instead is acknowledge the singularity of Japanese culture in Tanizaki's remarks while at the same time showing that the aspects of ageing obviously go far beyond the Japanese cultural context. But we also believe that to focus solely on the aged would be to miss out on the perverse nature of a book that wants to 'use' old age to bring out the codified and that being Japanese helps because the culture is seen, in Barthes' words, as "an empire of signs". These signs come into their own when the narrator cannot any longer lust but must only desire.
© Tony McKibbin