“They’ve fallen for the Bukowski myth, I’m actually a coward” – “Night Streets of Madness,” Tales of Ordinary Madness, Charles Bukowski
Ok, I’m reading this publication called No Longer Human written by Osamu Dazai in post-WWII Japan, and it’s totally superb. I have a feeling this will be the first in a series of many posts about it.
I’ve always thought of Charles Bukowski as the kind of guy who’s sort of been through it all, and has the highest quantity of wisdom, or, the most twisted perspective on the motives and inclinations of human beings down to the most unmonitored situations, that is, wherein there may be the fewest capitalistically derived courtesy restraints and scruples. For instance, one of my favorite poems, about a poet who is giving a reading of poetry part of which prizes “women, poetry, and truth,” ends with the poet apparently winning a lady with his work, and Bukowski himself quipping that “I thought to myself, you dumb son of a bitch, you deserve all three.”
Dazai, though, in this collection of notebook writings that acts as an ostensible novel, places almost no value on conventional thought, but unlike Bukowski, institutes a literary discourse that’s nicely conditioned with soft innocence, though containing a little of the Bukowski-typical cynicism.
Without a doubt, I thought of the old LA drunken scribe when in No Longer Human I perused the lines: “Am I wrong in thinking that these people have become such egoists and are so convinced of the normality of their way of life that they have never once doubted themselves?” (25-26). Particularly, Bukowski’s resignation in, I believe, either Ham on Rye or Betting on the Muse, came to mind, that, “My father doesn’t think about death” (Bukowski found this trait repulsive, and indeed he paints a pretty dubious picture of his old man). There’s a really precious sort of ballooning back into youth, though, exuded by Dazai in his innocent submission that “I felt convinced that their reprimands were without doubt voices of human truth speaking to me from eternities past; I was obsessed with the idea that since I lacked the strength to act in accordance with this truth, I might have already have been disqualified from living among human beings” (27). Just listen to that line, “speaking to me from eternities past.” The emotional investment and heartbreak are certainly palpable, and Dazai’s train of thought emerges as virtuous and true.
So far I’ve presented examples of two opposite extremes in Dazai: a jaded, spiny accusation against other humans, and an earnest paean to solidarity, if not an affirmation thereof. There’s one passage in No Longer Human that I’ve encountered, though, so far, that actually walks the tight rope of the two, and it’s my feeling that it’s best to discard part of it, that is, the one that most resembles Bukowski’s caustic cynicism. The passage goes: “Some perhaps will deride me. ‘What do you mean by not having faith in human beings? When did you become a Christian anyway?’ I fail to see, however, that a distrust for human beings should necessarily lead to religion. Is it not true, rather, that human beings, including those who may now be deriding me, are living in mutual distrust, giving not a thought to God or anything else?” (36). Do you see how the second part is so ornery, Bukowski-like and unneeded? Whereas the first part, about failing to see that distrust leads to religion, to me, jibes gloriously with some tenets of Alan Watts’, specifically that faith, rather than obviating organized sects of religion, is characterized by utmost trust in the unknown. The language is beautiful because it’s so lacking in colloquial ambition, favoring haunting, fresh plainness, and surely some credit should go here to Donald Keene, the translator. He’s got an unnerving tendency to use the term “human beings” instead of “people,” and, auspiciously, in a segment about the narrator running around and entertaining people by doing a humorous dance in a loincloth, opts for “peepee” as the organ uninentionally exposed during the proceedings.
Here, and elsewhere throughout No Longer Human, in which I admittedly still have a way to go, Dazai is extremely effective in depicting life as necessarily and intrinsically unknown and mysterious, the author all the while slightly inclined toward painting descriptive pictures, but more so than that, and which is actually the mark of great literature, garnering empathy.