electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies
Review 7 in 2010
Dazai on the Couch
19 June 2009 would have been the 100th birthday of the famous mid-century novelist, Dazai Osamu. As such, in Japan especially, he has recently garnered the renewed attention of literary figures, film-makers, and the public. One example of this interest is a new semi-biographical work, Dazai Osamu by Hisao Nakano. Works about Dazai can be judged by the added value that the author brings to the subject. What new facts are brought to light? What new perspectives can the reader share? Nakano Hisao sells his text by approaching Dazai's life and work through the lens of Freudian psychoanalysis.
Readers familiar with Dazai will know him as the author of novels such as Ningen shikkaku (No longer human, 1947) and Shayō (The setting sun, 1948), as well as collections of shorter works, including Otogi zōshi (Fairy tales, 1945) and Ban'nen (The final years, 1936). Perhaps more than his writing, though, Dazai's radical lifestyle is notorious. He first attempted suicide by an overdose of sleeping pills when he was twenty, and a few years later tried hanging himself with string. On at least three other occasions, he attempted—and finally succeeded—double suicide with lovers. During the 1930s he suffered an addiction to a morphine-like pain killer called Pabinal, which he later replaced with alcohol after a stint in a mental hospital. At one point he even required a 'wake-up snack' of beer from his wife to get out of bed. This all makes him a fascinating target for psychoanalysis.
Nakano wastes no time in bounding to the undertaking—in lieu of an introduction, he describes Dazai's childhood environment, and begins to elaborate on how the problems he encountered in his early years created the novelist. Dazai was the tenth of eleven children of an Aomori politician and his tubercular wife. His mother was too weak to take care of him, so he was passed on to a wet nurse—who left the house to remarry after about a year, and handed young Dazai on to his aunt Kie. A maid, Take, was hired to look after him, and thus his earliest memories are of these two women—his aunt, who was like a mother and father to him, and his maid, who taught him to read and write. When he entered elementary school, Kie moved away, taking Take with her, leaving Dazai with a mother he barely knew and a father who was rarely home. In high school, after he had decided that he wanted to become a writer, he was shocked by the noted novelist Akutagawa Ryūnosuke's suicide in 1927, an event which melded with the growing popularity of Marxism in Japan at the time to trigger, in Nakano's view, Dazai's first suicide attempt.
To Nakano, this childhood environment created in the young Dazai a need for dependence, and also established the personality traits Nakano diagnoses as schizoid personality disorder. Nakano's Dazai is cold, strange, unsocial, over-sensitive, neurotic, and bashful. These traits, he claims, justify labeling him schizoid. Since Dazai was separated from his mother and wet-nurse at the oral stage of psychosexual development, Nakano explains that he had an oral fixation, which triggered dependence issues, as well as his love of food, cigarettes, and alcohol. Meanwhile, Dazai lived a life ruled by thanatos—the drive in Freudian thought that coaxes us to destruction and death. This helps explain why suicide plays such a large role in both his work and his life, but also why Dazai seemed incapable of settling down as a flourishing author, instead always seeming to strive for and run away from success. Dazai's fixation on suicide had another role—it allowed him to avoid reality. When things became difficult, Dazai would attempt suicide and obtain a new lease on life—not to mention the sympathy of the people around him.
The latter half of Nakano's book is dedicated to examining Dazai's famously autobiographical works for more clues about the relationship between his life and his literature. It includes a literary analysis of many of Dazai's works, and serves to reinforce the arguments made in the biographical section. In the final section, Nakano identifies four currents in Dazai's life and work that encourage our emersion in his narratives. His consciousness of sin, his gift for fiction, his constant regression to a childish mental state, and his delicacy and fragility all draw attention to Dazai's work and to his character.
Nakano's presentation is clearly written and supported by citations from Dazai and his biographers and friends. The organization of the text is labyrinthine and the topic belongs to a decidedly non-mainstream niche, but the insight it offers into the motivations behind Dazai's antics makes this book entertaining and at times enlightening. Given free time and an interest in the author, the book is well worth reading.
Kaleb Withrow is in his fourth year of undergraduate studies at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University. He is interested in psychology, philosophy, and Japanese studies, and intends to pursue graduate studies in Japan.
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