The Private Lives of (Japanese) Writers

There is something of a tradition in Japan of relatives or close friends publishing memoirs and biographies about the country’s writers. Natsume Soseki, Junichiro Tanizaki, Naoya Shiga, Yukio Mishima, all get their share. We are treated to inside views of the authors as people, as everyday men (sadly almost always men despite Japanese women’s voices shining with a clarity and force only sometimes belied by the subtlety of delivery that we might expect) with all their flaws, foibles, and inevitable shortcomings. We are allowed to see them just as them, as the people they were when bereft of their beautiful words. Often the picture is quite common – humdrum even -, and perhaps we should not be surprised by that. Sometimes, as especially the case with Mishima, we find details that may shock us, but then when we turn back to their works the shock really should wear off, particularly given the propensity for lightly or mostly autobiographical fiction that seems to thrive here. Considering the big picture at least, but then there are those details, those nuances of thoughts revealed and behavior described. Whatever these authors may have done, what they wrote is of an altogether different degree. And the same, of course, goes for just about everyone engaged in fiction.

Why is this? The case turns really, on the function of the artist. An artist must have a dedication to the truth of their own soul that compels them into baring it. This is not merely a case of reflection, not simply an issue of self-analysis, but one of both done to a depth that far exceeds where non-artists are willing to go. To function as a creator an artist must not only have the courage to stare at, handle, examine, admit, embrace their subterranean shadows, they must also haul them to the surface and put them on display. This is a necessarily frightening act, and the horror of what is found within cannot easily be exorcised. It can – and does – make for great storytelling though. These writers, and all of us who put pen to paper, have been engaged in an ongoing process of dissecting the human psyche. This can be done to better or worse degrees, and one is tempted to say that the difference lies in the honesty.

How much are we willing to risk? Life in the modern age is naturally fairly predictable, as it always has been, really. We wake, eat, work at whatever it may happen to be, receive payment for our labor, use that recompense for food, shelter, clothing, eat again, rest, and once more wake. The contours of human life: easy, settled, stable, animal. Yet what goes on inside our heads brooks no such comparisons. Emotions, desires, moods, wishes, yearnings, all and more surge through us in great waves. We may be both the victims and the beneficiaries of our affective tides, but we can hardly be said to be their masters. And so it is that we share them, we imagine others – so much like us – who may be in such and such a situation and may react in such and such a way. Far different from what I the author has done, but strikingly similar to how I have felt. Were my circumstances otherwise, I might muse, what would I do? This “I’s” circumstances also including variant genetic inheritances, social setting, historical place, geographical locale, and on and on. Yet if all that is other, then what actually remains of the “I”? What is left is what is human, universally human, the core that unites us all regardless of culture, language, gender, age, and all the rest. Human nature, human potential. Whatever our private lives might consist in, and whatever we can learn of those whose works we read and love, the “what ifs” that rage within boil through all of our veins. As writers, as artists, we give them to the light of day, each in our own way, and in that further individuation of expression make the double proclamation of single self and cosmic human spirit.


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