There is a ghostly quality to much of Yasunari Kawabata's work, a sense that the central characters are revenants passing through the life of the living, or the living passing amongst the dead. In his short novel Thousand Cranes, the central character may very much be alive, but he seems more attuned to the absent than the present. The novel starts with both of Kikuji's parents recently deceased, and he embarks on an affair with his father's mistress, Mrs Ota, a woman in her mid-forties and twenty years his senior. She dies of an overdose of sleeping pills, but when he hears the news he muses over the suicide, where she perhaps guiltily killed herself over the affair she was having with the son of a dead man she once loved, perhaps over the idea that she was getting in the way of a possible union between her daughter and Kikuji. Throughout the book the dead not only haunt those still alive; they seem to be resurrected in those still alive. In one scene Kikuji is speaking to Mrs Ota's daughter on the phone and the narrator says "...it was strange that his guilt in the Ota affair seemed to disappear when he heard the daughter's voice. Did it make him feel that the mother was still living?" At another moment Kikuji thinks: "worrying oneself over the dead - was it in most cases a mistake, not unlike berating them. The dead did not press moral consideration upon the living." And yet do they? The book focuses so much on the dead that people's actions seem reincarnated in others, and even objects have huge resonance. Kikuji notes that "his father's way of living seemed to survive in the maid", while "the tea bowls, three or four hundred years old, were sound and healthy, and they called up no morbid thoughts. Life seemed to stretch over them, however, in a way that was almost sensual". At another moment Kikuji says "a jar that had been Mrs Ota's was now being used by [a character called] Chikako. After Mrs Ota's death, it had passed to her daughter, and from Fumiko it had come to Kikuji."
As subjects and objects, the living and the dead, dissolve into each other, so Kawabata's work is permeated with spirit. Many writers obviously concern themselves with death and pay great attention to the details of a character's life. But in Thousand Cranes death and the object are as present as the living, evident when the narrator comments on Kikuji observing the Shino jar that "stood naked in the middle of the alcove". As he walks along the streets he would be drawn to middle-aged women, as though constantly looking for reminders of Mrs Ota. It is as if Kawabata is looking to disintegrate the line between the living and the dead, the still and the animated; and this problem of animation is interestingly explored in the lengthy short story House of the Sleeping Beauties. Here the aging central character Eguchi goes, over a series of evenings, to the titular house where he spends the night with a woman sedated heavily enough so that she will not wake until morning, and after the visitor has left. In such circumstances Eguchi has immense observational intimacy with the woman even if there is no opportunity for conversation. This is one-sided privacy, and yet not quite the voyeuristic. In the voyeuristic we usually assume a certain distance between viewing subject and viewed object, but Kawabata offers a sort of tactile voyeurism. Eguchi can touch the woman if he pleases, observe her from any angle he chooses, and indeed notes how much intimate knowledge he can possess: "no woman, however beautiful, could conceal her age when she was asleep."
Kawabata's story practices a horribly problematic solipsistic intimacy, but understands also the problem of loneliness, aging and desire: the story's purpose is to push the decadent to the further reaches of acceptability as we might respond to the sensitivity of Eguchi's thoughts, whilst musing over the horror of the situation: a narcoleptic prostitution that he accepts but also constantly observes, questions and comments upon. Like Kikuji in Thousand Cranes, he is a locked-in figure, looking for situations and encounters that can access thought and feeling. His visits bring up the past, as the smell of the sleeping figure in his company leads him to recall the moment where with one of his children he was sitting on the western veranda watching the sun setting behind a tree. "It did not seem that his youngest daughter was as lost in the famous tree as Eguchi himself. There was no strength in her eyes. Perhaps she was less gazing at the tree than looking into herself." Here we have a fine encapsulation of Kawabata's style: the scent leads to memory, and within that memory one character gets lost in the beauty of the tree; another lost in her own thoughts. It makes sense that Kawabata characters are never quite alive to the moment; they are always extracting from it other moments, other thoughts and memories. It is partly why the living, the dead, the sleeping and the object all have equal potentiality in Kawabata's work. If as Yukio Mishima so nicely put it of the first of the sleeping beauties that it was as if "she were being caressed by words alone", we might observe how often Kawabata's characters caress things with thoughts. It is surely almost a definition of sensitivity (as opposed to practicality): a capacity to give to the things of existence muse rather than use value. Whether it sleeping beauties, jars, cups, pots or possible marriage partners, these are all subjects and objects that are surrounded by thought and feeling.
Of course sometimes this possessiveness takes an especially perverse and fantastic form, as we find in One Arm. The story opens with a surreal matter of fact-ness. '"I can let you have one of my arms for the night", said the girl. She took off her right arm at the shoulder, and, with her left hand, laid it on my knee.' "I'll put the ring on. To remind you that it's mine." Kawabata takes the idea of the fetish object to an extreme just as he pushed the intimacy of prostitution into areas of mental perversion. What matters is one's own relationship with the world over engagement with that world. As the first person narrator says, "she had taken off the arm at the point I liked. It was plump and round - was it the top of the arm or the beginning of the shoulder?" It is one thing to observe fetishistically a woman's arm; quite another to have that object of projection removed from the body and to make it so singularly your own. Near the end of the story the narrator goes further: he removes his own arm and replaces it with the woman's. "The clean blood of the girl was now, this very moment, flowing through me; but would there not be unpleasantness when the arm was returned to the girl, this dirty male blood flowing through it?" After he attaches the arm to his own shoulder: "there was no dramatic awareness that between the arm and my shoulder the blood came and went. My left hand, enfolding my right shoulder, and the shoulder itself, now mine, had a natural understanding of the fact." Later he sleeps, and says "our sleep was probably light, but I had never before known sleep so warm, so sweet. A restless sleeper, I had never before been blessed with the sleep of the child."
The phrasing could almost have come from House of the Sleeping Beauties. "I slept as if I were dead. I really slept as if I were dead." It's a comment by a woman Eguchi had slept with three years before visiting the house, as though intimacy lies not in communication, but chiefly the intertwining of bodies in deep sleep. Is this not the appeal of the house of the sleeping beauties, where the woman lies sleeping when the man arrives, and where the man later also takes a sleeping pill to sleep deeply next to her? Where many a writer might use terms such as sleeping like a child and sleeping as if dead metaphorically, Kawabata wants to offer them as haunting possibilities; as other states one can attain by being attuned to the manifold possibilities in existence.
Yet so often Kawabata's characters are the opposite of people who live what we would usually call a full life. They're more contemplative than active; more passive than engaged; often have thoughts they choose not to or cannot express, and seem essentially solitary figures. Is this not the opposite of the full life? But perhaps it is useful to distinguish here between a full life and a full existence. The full life is vital, energetic, and immediately purposeful as a person acts upon the world. But it is a limited world of the living that has little concern for the other states that await us or seize us: sleep, death and our attachment to objects. One is a mode of doing as opposed to being, and we might usefully contrast Weber's notion of Protestant life with a Zen existence as explored by Alan Watts in his book on The Way of Zen. Where the Protestant life ethic revolves around work; the latter focuses on meditation. In the former the 'idealised' state would be the activity of the machine; in Zen the stillness of the object. Max Weber captures well in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism the ever increasing need to be homo faber - man who makes. "The old leisurely and comfortable attitude toward life gave way to a hard frugality in which some participated and came to the top, because they did not wish to consume but to earn, while others who wished to keep on with the old ways were forced to curtail their consumption." Watts, though, observes the importance of man as stillness: "Now human life consists primarily and originally in action - in living in the concrete world of 'suchness'. But we have the power to control action by reflection, that is, by thinking, by comparing the actual world with memories or 'reflections'".
What Kawabata's work draws upon more than any other Japanese writer who comes to mind - Mishima, Endo, Tanazaki, Oe - is the move towards this stillness through the significance of sleep, the dead and objects. This might be central to all the Japanese novelists mentioned, and perhaps writers more generally, taking into account Mishima's claim in his short introductory essay at the beginning of House of the Sleeping Beauties. "...If we novelists do not belong on the side of "life" (if we are confined to an abstraction of a kind of perpetual neutrality), then the "radiance of life" can only appear in the realm where death and eroticism are together." Mishima is talking of Kawabata's "worship of virgins", and the "source of his clean lyricism, but below the surface it has something in common with the themes of death and impossibility". From our point of view, though, the admiration of virginity serves the function of passivity, of observing the loved one, not possessing her, taking her, moulding her, acting upon her. The virgin, like all other things, remains a potential object of contemplation. Yet lest this be seen simply as a misogynistic perspective, it is more that all things have this potentiality within them. The virgin is a perfect embodiment of muse over use value.
This, of course, makes Kawabata nothing if not a contemplative writer, but there is a potential intrigue to the meditative that is often missing from writers more actively interested in telling a story, as though narrative event is closer to the Protestant work ethic; rumination to Zen stillness. However, where in the former instance this leaves active agents and passive objects, as the scene is set and the characters act; in a writer like Kawabata, the scene is potentially as charged with meaning as the action. If we think of the manner in which great nineteenth century writers like Dickens and Balzac set a scene, they are creating agency of character within passivity of environment. When they describe the environment the character arrives at, they will then move into the action of the character's exchanges as the scene becomes passive while the characters engage. Kawabata will be more inclined to create a certain stillness that nevertheless charges the entire scene with potential force. In Thousand Cranes, when Kikuji awakes one morning recovering from a headache and a cold, he starts to observe and meditate upon the morning glory flower that the maid hangs from a gourd. "He gazed at it for a time. "In a gourd that had been handed down for three centuries," he sees "a flower that would fade in a morning." In House of the Sleeping Beauties, the narrator says "the grey of the winter morning was by evening a cold drizzle. " Eguchi "notices that the drizzle becomes cold sleet", and watches as he sees "white dots in the light pointed at his feet". In One Arm the narrator notices it "was the season for changing to sleeveless dresses. The girl's shoulder, newly bared, had the colour of skin not used to the raw touch of the air. It had the glow of bud moistened in the shelter of spring, and not yet ravaged by summer." These are figures not moving through narratively described spaces, but commenting on the spaces they happen to be in.
Often Kawabata's character don't so much live reality as subjectify it, try to make it their own. His characters are the opposite of thoughtless, though in conventional terms they seem unsympathetic. In Snow Country, central character Shimamura proves at least self-aware. As Geisha girl Kimoko sings for him, "the end of the song released him. Ah this woman is in love with me - but he was annoyed with himself for the thought." In Beauty and Sadness, middle-aged novelist Oki seeks out a former mistress and successful painter, and the subject of his most successful novel, a novel his wife typed up. Oki would constantly reflect on this lost love. "He himself had gone onto other women, but he had never loved again with such pain." In 'Of Birds and Beasts', the central character's fascination with others comes through a curious love of animals and birds. Thinking about some birds a dealer brought at night, the unnamed central character "immediately put the cage away in the dusky recess of the house altar. Glancing at it somewhat later, he saw that the birds were very beautiful in sleep. Each had its head in the other's feathers, and the two were like a ball of yarn, so close that it was impossible to distinguish one from the other." Again a character turns description into rumination, with the narrator adding, "nearing forty, he felt a youthful warmth flow over him, and stood on the table gazing on and on at the altar."
In an essay from his collection the Poetics of Fiction, Tzvetan Todorov talks of narrative men, and describes such characters as those whose purpose is not to think through their actions but to react immediately to them. In fairy tales, for example, the characters are narrative men who are caught up in events and respond accordingly. It is partly why we're inclined to agree with Mishima's comment about novelists not being on the side of life, if he is talking about such writers as himself and undeniably Kawabata. It is as if Kawabata pushes beyond narrative inevitability where narrative is secondary to character, and beyond again the problem of choice, which usually implies relative importance of character over narrative. The figure of choice is not a narrative man but one making difficult ethical decisions. Now in the narratively focused, taking into account Todorov's claims, choice does not really enter into the problem. "A-psychological narrative, on the contrary, is characterised by intransitive actions: action is important in itself and not as an indication of this or that character trait." Perhaps it can enter as false variables, where the baddie convinces the hero that he is a good person, and wants to help, but this isn't quite the same thing as choice, where someone must decide between two equally fair, useful or justifiable actions and frets over which one to take. But beyond the problem of choice is one where the choice of which action to take dissolves into no action to be taken at all, and concerns the meditative, or the reflection upon the object, for example, more than the action in relation to another subject. Even when Eguchi has thoughts of killing himself in House of the Sleeping Beauties, lying next on this occasion to two young women, it is an idle thought rather than an active possibility. "Would this not be a most desirable place to die? To arouse curiosity, to invite the disdain of the world - would these not be to cap his life with a proper death?"
There is clearly a Proustian side to Kawabata, taking into account a comment Everett W. Knight makes in Literature Considered as Philosophy. "There is perhaps no work of literature which creates more strongly in the reader than does A La Recherche du Temps Perdu the impression that he has entered another world; not a world which is other by the strangeness of its customs, but by its "interiority"". This interiority in Kawabata is created by rejecting obviously the narrative men of Todorov, but also the notion of choice. After wondering what it might be like to die next to the two sleeping beauties Eguchi thinks, "all of his acquaintances would be surprised. He could not calculate the injury he would do to his family; but to die in his sleep between, for instance, the two young girls tonight - might that not be the ultimate wish of a man in his last years?" This is still idle imaginings over active ethical decision making, as he could just as easily start thinking any number of other possible actions. He is not at all faced with a choice; he muses over imaginary permutations.
It is partly this aspect of the work that makes us think of the characters as revenants. They do not act upon the world like narrative men, nor do they choose like ethical subjects, but rather float through their lives as if a thought was more real than an action - as if they couldn't quite trust in the real world enough to act in it. Kikuji thinks in Thousand Cranesthat "sometimes too he wondered if moral doubts had not sharpened his senses to the point of morbidness." Here he is reflecting upon Mrs Ota's death, but there is nothing he can do about it, even if he might have been responsible for her demise. This is clearly not idle reflection similar to thinking of how people would react to his own possible suicide, since Mrs Ota has actually killed herself, but it still functions similarly in the sense that where concerning his own possible impending death it is merely one amongst any number of possible actions he might commit to, and thus denies action, fretting over Mrs Ota's death after the deed has been done makes it idle because there is nothing he can do about her demise. It is neither an immediate action devoid of reflection, nor an impending action requiring a moral decision. The morbidity resides not only in thinking too much about the dead; but also in the inactivity that comes out of the reflective.
In 'Of Birds and Beasts', the central character's passivity takes on an interesting form. He did not like humans: "husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters: the bonds were not easily cut even with the most unsatisfactory of people." He thinks "there was, on the other hand, a certain sad purity in making playthings of the lives and the habits of animals". Here the character makes of idleness of thought a listless activity. When someone delivers a couple of birds, he was "like a child with a new toy, he could not wait," as he "put the two new birds in with the old one. The commotion was worse than he expected." If often Kawabata's characters are hypothetically thinking through the permutations of possible events, then such potential solipsism is matched by a certain type of action when it is active on one side but passive on the other. In throwing the birds in the same cage with another bird, or later when allowing some puppies to die, the passivity is not too far removed from that of meditating without purpose or action from the characters' point of view even if the results are very different of course from the animals' perspective. "He could have saved the puppies if he had tried. He knew perfectly well that he could have prevented the later deaths if after the first one he had cut the straw finer, or put a cloth over it." But as the narrator adds, "...the last puppy went the way of the other three. He did not especially want the puppies to die; he did not especially want to keep them alive." There is a sense whether it is Iguchi in House of the Sleeping Beauties considering that he might kill himself, or even killing one of the girls, or letting animals die in 'Of Birds and Beasts', affectively the characters' response is the same. In one story the central character thinks about killing himself or others; in another story he allows puppies to die. Both, however, are utterly consistent with a passivity of purpose that makes Kawabata's characters usually neither narrative men, nor ethically tortured ones.
When we invoked the revenant at the beginning, we did so to indicate that Kawabata's work contains a strong element of the passive that we have argued for throughout the essay. But also this passivity is hardly neutral: did Mrs Ota not possibly commit suicide because of Kiguchi; haven't animals died because of a character's indifference? These are characters who may not especially act upon the world, but whose existence in it constitutes events that impact upon others. This seems central to Kawabata's brilliance, and the mournful tone of his stories and short novels, and none more so than in House of the Sleeping Beauties. At the end of the novella that has contained many an observation by Eguchi on his own impending death, one of the Sleeping Beauties dies, it seems, by his side. He has not killed her, and yet had she been allergic to the drugs that put her to sleep, as Eguchi thinks is possible? He might not have committed a crime, but he would certainly feel implicated in another's death, rather as Kikuji believes he was responsible for Mrs Ota's suicide. If narrative men act decisively, and ethical men do so 'indecisively', having to weigh up the options first, in Kawabata's work often the inaction of one nevertheless impacts upon the demise of another. Whether it is the birds and dogs in 'Of Birds and Beasts', Mrs Ota in a Thousand Cranes, or the girl in House of the Sleeping Beauties, the central characters might act like ghosts, but they also in their listlessness or inaction create potential ghosts out of others. These are stories haunted by hauntings as the living, the dead, objects and the unconscious, all have their curious say.
© Tony McKibbin