On Tanizaki Jun'ichirō, by Yukio Mishima
"There is nothing as far from the thought of women's liberation as the literature of Tanizaki."
On Tanizaki Jun’ichirō
This is something I think about often lately, but why is it that in Japan, particularly in modern Japan, artistic perfectionand general education are not united? Recently, when men like Abe Yoshishige and Koizumi Shinzō have passed away and it is acutely felt that the era of Taishō-style intellectuals has come to an end, the fact that the general education of these men had absolutely no connection with artistic perfection and stopped at mere dilettantism, while on the one hand being a matter of course because they did not aspire to become artists, on the other hand, seems to bear a relationship also with the fact that a genius like Tanizaki Jun’ichirō who achieved artistic perfection did not bear the features of an all-round intellectual . Further, comparisons with great intellectuals who did not achieve artistic perfection like Masamune Hakuchō also interestingly come to mind.
There may also be the criticism that, compared to the era of Ōgaiand Sōseki, people have become far more finely specialized, but that is a harsh criticism, and it overlooks the character of the sacrifices that artists have had to make to their eras in order to perfect their own art. If one succeeds in combining the great artist and the great intellectual in a single body that is good, but if one fails one will live in an era that has lost everything, and it seems that, just as a ship in distress is saved by throwing cargo into the ocean, artistic perfection was bought by renouncing being an all-round intellectual.
However, the drama that men play in is not necessarily carried out in such a conscious or determinedmanner. The god of art is not so easy as to permit such simple talk as achieving perfection as an artist by renouncing being an intellectual.
In his criticism of others, Tanizaki Jun’ichirō was a third-rate critic, but in self-criticism he was the first of the first-rate. It is remarkable that throughout the eighty years of his life he almost never misread his own nature. When placed beside authors who, while being blessed with superior talents and sensibilities like Yokomitsu Riichi, misread their own natures a number of times, the sagacity of Tanizaki seems almost divine.
If one were to define the word “genius” according to the standard solely of artistic perfection, then one may be able to define it as “someone who is able to continue believing in his own nature without misreading it” but in fact this definition contains circular reasoning, because it would be the same as saying “the genius is someone who is able to believe that he is a genius.” Jean Cocteausays something interesting. “Victor Hugo was a madman who believed he was Victor Hugo.”
Tanizaki had already declared his suspicion of all intellectual cultivationin his early work “The Child Prodigy” (Taishō 5 ), but it was this discovery that was the discovery of what forms the pivot of his thought. It was simultaneously the discovery of his nature and its manifesto.
“I am not the sort of pure and innocent person who was conceited in childhood. I am definitely not the sort of person who has a religious or philosophical temperament. That I seemed to be of such character is no more than the result of the fact that I in any case possessed a sort of genius and that my understanding in all areas was markedly more developed than other children. I am too weak-willed to lead an austere ascetic lifestyle like that of a Zen monk. My emotions are too violent. I am without a doubt a man born not to expound on the immortality of the soul, but to extol the beauty of man. Even now I cannot think of myself as an ordinary person. In spite of myself, I have the feeling that I possess genius. If I realize my true mission, laud the beauty of the human world, and extol revelry, my genius will manifest true light.” (“The Child Prodigy”).
However, we must here not only see his free self-discovery, but must simultaneously also perceivethe powerful pressure of Confucian asceticism and the cult of success that was intimately connected with it that strongly remained in Japan of the Meiji 30s (1897-1906) and formed the background of “The Child Prodigy.”
While it seems as if Ōgai’s international education was freely manifested, his legs were caught by this double-headed snake. That the generation of youths who came after him killed the double-headed snake in order to completely break their legs free of the double-headed snake is good, but at the same time we cannot blame them for killing even the desire that was supported by the fetters of those snakes for the discovery of an intellectual view of the world. In any case, then a pure artist was born.
In “The Child Prodigy” the shadows of Tanizaki’s own boyhood are markedly thrown, but the birth of the young man Tanizaki as an artist is lucidly related before that in “The Tattooer”(Meiji 43 ).
I think that one’s evaluation of Tanizaki’s literature changes in various ways depending on whether one thinks of the earlier cited section of “The Child Prodigy” as self-liberation or a relinquishment. If one has it that he purchased artistic perfection by relinquishment, the thus gained perfection is surely a renunciation of freedom, and if one has it that he became an artist by means of active self-liberation, then artistic perfection and freedom are surely in agreement. Leaving aside whether emphasis was on the former or the latter in his consciousness, I cannot but take interest in the basis of the freedom that he thus gained. The basis of the freedom that he gained was the total endorsement of the erotic sensibility, that is, eros.
Now, it seems that here Tanizaki, at the outset of his life, had grasped the paradox of the problem of freedom. That is, to bring the intellectual free spirit or free will as the basis of freedom is none other than a self-contradiction. Because it ends up legitimizing freedom as an objective with freedom as a presupposition. But what would happen if you brought in eros? Then, the paradox of the problem of freedom is deftly evaded. Because eros as the basis of freedom is simultaneously the greatest enemy of freedom of spirit.
Tanizaki brought eros to the basis of freedom. At the basis of oneself not being fettered, he brought the thing by which one is most strongly fettered. Here, renunciation, that is the abandonment of freedom, and liberation, that is the obtainment of freedom, ultimately hold one and the same meaning, and at the same time even become an ethic on the level of artistic creation. In the rigors of words and literary style in artistic production, Tanizaki maintained a rarely seen diligencethroughout his life.
There is also the essence of eros itself. Sadistic eros is suited to criticism, and masochistic eros is appropriate for smooth artistic polishing. The former hates restraint, destroys form, and has the danger of exhausting sensibility, while the latter loves the restraints that are due to the object that it loves and is capable of guaranteeing an eternal abundance of sensibility. The ideal author may lie in the mixture of the two, but if one is to incline to one or the other, then one should incline to the latter. Even so, the tendency of Tanizaki's eros was the most convenient thing for the solution of the aforementioned problem of freedom. There is no way that Tanizaki, who was an adept in self-criticism, did not make exhaustive use of such a temperament in artistic creation.
This allegory is already clearly related in “The Tattooer.” On the background of drabnaturalist literature, it exceeds imagination how this work revealed the beauty of a gorgeous tree peony blossoming in full glory on the background of a black cloudy sky. In this work, the characteristics of Tanizaki's literature until The Key of his late years (Diary of a Mad Old Man is a bit of an exception) are all displayed like a prelude. That is, Tanizaki’s literature is first and above all beautiful. Like Chinese cuisine, like French cuisine, a sauce created without sparing time or effort is placed atop finely crafted cooking, rare ingredients that normally are not placed on the dining table are relished, nutrients abound, it entices people to a nirvana at the end of intoxication and ecstasy, it provides simultaneously the joy and the melancholy of life, energy and degeneration, but at its root, it does not threaten the foundation of common sense as a great practical man. Whatever Tanizaki wrote, it did not end up making people pinch their noses. In my youth, I remember my beautiful aunt vaguely showing a happy-looking expression on her beautiful face while mockingly asking if I was reading Tanizaki's perverted novels. Even if there was a certain degeneracy in Tanizaki's literature, it was a sort of degeneration that secretly satisfied working adults and gladdened women. I cannot but think that the fact that wartime speech controls prohibited even such things was for the sake of that susceptibility to unsatisfied desires. In Tanizaki's literature there is not included even a single thing that endangers the existence of the state.
Hārītīhas her sin of taking and eating children effaced and becomes a greatly loving mother, and when one pursues the essence of Tanizaki’s eros, it corresponds to something like Hārītī. Normally statues of Hārītī are sedentary statues with a voluptuous physical beauty that even the traces of that terrifying legend cannot contain, and she embraces one child in her left hand, and five children surround her. Woman, for Tanizaki, possessed such a double image, and the sublime side of Woman as a loving mother was projected onto the dead mother, and on the other hand, the Hārītī-like side, which is represented by the female protagonist of A Fool’s Love famous under the name of Naomism, even in the latter, its debauched egoism and physical beauty becomes an object of worship as something of a sublime sort. And I think that these two images of Woman are deftly united in the fantasy of Pure Land rebirth of the protagonist of the novel of his latest years, Diary of a Mad Old Man.
Of the two groups, “The Tattooer,” “A Portrait of Shunkin,” and The Key, which are focused on the former image of Woman, and the latter, that is, “Longing For Mother” and “Captain Shigemoto’s Mother,” which are focused on the image of the Mother, when relating Tanizaki’s literature, one cannot by any means ignore the latter grouping.
This is because, insofar as the most purified love of Woman is extolled and in the respect of being romantic novels in the normal sense, on the contrary this group is more romantic novel-like. However, if one asks if one cannot at all recognize the shadow of eros in the image of the Loving Mother, it is Tanizakian that one cannot say so. It is just that, because the erotic manifestation of the Mother is not as the object of conscious desire, but is taken in the form of an unconscious undifferentiated longing for the unknown, then the subject must be a child. Consequently, even in “Longing For Mother,” as a conversation that takes places in a dream, the speaker changes form into seven or eight children. Nostalgia for uncertain memories of childhood changes everything to the color of sadness like a moonlit night, but we, inferring from childhood memories, possess the tendency to redye even the imagination of the world of the spirit in the same colors as the moonlit night. The subject of the Mother that is displayed in that root form in “Longing For Mother” achieves a great blossoming in “Captain Shigemoto’s Mother.” Shigemoto is a young man, but, in the moving climax where he meets the mother he had been searching for, he must be turned into a six or seven year old child.
“The face of his mother in the depths of her white hat was obscured in the moonlight that slipped through the flowers and was cute, small, and looked as if it bore a halo. Memories of the time when he was held behind a curtain screen on a day in spring forty years ago were vividly brought back to life, and he felt that for an instant he had become a young child of six or seven years.”
It is interesting that, when, in this refined longing for motherliness, lust happens to be mixed, the woman partner immediately transforms and becomes a woman particular to Tanizaki’s literature who contains a sort of dark and malicious enchantress within her beautiful body like the female protagonists of “The Tattooer” and “A Portrait of Shunkin.” However, when examined in detail, the evil of these women is, rather than an evil that women naturally possess, an evil demanded and provided by men, and it sometimes seems that that evil is no more than a “projection of the lusts of men.” When this is examined further, (I probably cannot avoid the feeling of overthinking), it even seems that Tanizaki’s literature is not as much of a literature of the total endorsement and liberation of sensualityas it seems, but in the unconscious depths of Tanizaki, old stoic feelings still survive, and these view all lust as evil, and there is a mechanism working that projects that evil onto the personality of the woman who is the object of lust, thereby makes the woman unnecessarily malicious and unnecessarily cruel, and thereby causes her to fulfill the demand for self-punishment of the lust of the man who is the subject. Is not everything a drama contrived in order to effectively operate this mechanism and bring about the success of the self-punishment that is the expected aim? Is not the woman a mere tool of this drama?
However, the more she is a tool, the more beautiful and the more of an object of veneration she must be, and at least on the level of that drama, by venerating the body of the woman, Tanizaki venerates his own lust and his own evil, and thereby ends up swearing eternal fealty to the theme of “The Prodigy.” This ambivalence toward evil would be no means emerge in the world of the “longing for the Mother” of purified sexual love.
In this framework of eros of Tanizaki’s, aging was not such a terrible problem. In his masochism, kinship with narcissism was lacking from the start, and throughout his life Tanizaki did not have what Norman Mailer called phallic narcissism.* Phallic narcissism necessarily demands action and battle, and has a connection with the glory of self-destruction therein, but in Tanizaki that was merely an obstruction. Sasuke’s act of gouging his own eye in “A Portrait of Shunkin” subtly hints at “castration,” but from the start there is the tendency for the state of sexual absorptionto be dreamed of within such a kneeling of love of absolute impotence. In which case aging is not such a tragic state of affairs, but rather I think that it is precisely in aging, that is, death, that is, nirvana, that the route to approaching the state of sexual absorption lay. Tanizaki's longevity as a novelist was indeed a longevity of artistic necessity. Because this prodigy was from the beginning embarked on the opposite path of the path to an early death in the intellectual extreme north.
Authors for whom aging simultaneously signifies the decline of an authorial theme are pitiable. Authors for whom physical aging runs counter to all of their thought and sensibilities are pitiable. (I shudder to think of myself). Hemingway and Satō Haruowere both such tragic authors, and, leaving myself aside, there is no doubt that Hayashi Fusao and Ishihara Shintarō are living within such premonitions. Interestingly, in all authors of this strain there lurks phallic narcissism.
Tanizaki’s narcissism was entirely spent on the pride of the great artist and the great genius. It seems that all of Tanizaki’s labor in the realm of art and his strict conscience in work were entirely in the self-assuranceof this narcissism.
However, in the framework of Tanizaki’s eros, the more it gouges its own eye and brings the body nearer to zero, the more the subject of sexual love increases in intoxication and ecstasy and the more the beauty, voluptuousness, and heartlessness of the object grow. Put differently, the more the subject of sexual love discards the body and transforms into the concept of sexual love itself, the more the purity of the directly manifestbeauty increased. The theme of aging that appeared in his late work The Key lies on the natural line of extension of Sasuke’s act. And in Diary of a Mad Old Man, this theme reaches its apogee, and lust enters death within the ecstasy of a vision of a stone engraved with the Buddha’s footprints, and the body comes to zero under the grim analysis of a doctor. Those who think of the record of the doctor in the conclusion of that novel as a superfluity seem to be in error concerning Tanizaki’s concept of the body.
To venerate the female body, to venerate the patience of women, and to venerate all their anti-intellectual elements is in fact subtly tied to contempt. There is nothing as far from the thought of women’s liberation as the literature of Tanizaki. Tanizaki is of course not one who rejects women’s liberation. But the concern for Tanizaki is the female body that, as a result of women’s liberation, has developed and come to possess a vivid beauty.
In the language of eros, veneration and contempt are likely synonyms. However in the case of Tanizaki, of what nature is his own pride, which is the basis of this contempt? Is it the non-bodily pride of the intellectual man, the observing man? Or is it merely the pride of a man? Or could it be the pride of the genius? In Some Prefer Nettles, the compulsivecruelty of a man toward a woman in whom he has lost sexual interest is clearly symbolized by the jōruri line, “does a demon or a snake live in my wife’s bosom?” and, in what is rare for Tanizaki’s works, displays traces of what one could call the “novel of sexual education.” That is, around a husband and wife who have lost sexual love and their Western-style intellectual household life, on one hand a lively white prostitute and on the other hand a woman of old Japan like a Chikamatsu-style doll are arranged, and the novel ends at the point where the protagonist, who wavers like a cutie girl between the West and Japan, is ultimately about to fall under the charm (while despising it) of the Japan-style eros of tranquility. Ohisa is the most foolish, most selfless, and consequently as a woman the most wise woman.
But the realistic grimness of this novel ultimately lies in the depiction of the protagonist’s sexual disinterest in his wife in the first few chapters, and here is an example of the cruelty which a man who has once been caught in sexual disinterest is capable of reaching, even if his sexual interest teetered between the ambivalence of contempt and veneration. There even psychological cruelty lingers, but of course in this “cruelty” there is no joy of sadism, and nothing but what could be called aristocratic cruelty.
Nothing of this world is, compared to this hell of sexual frigidity, as without joy and without celebration. No matter what, Woman, as the factor that permits Tanizaki to create this drama of contempt and veneration, must live, must move, and must laugh. If not, women in general have no meaning.
Compared to authors like Murō Saiseiwho in any woman, in all women, discovered, relished, and enjoyed a subtle feminine world, Tanizaki is by no means what is called a woman-loving author. The general abstract Woman, and women in general, women as a whole, caused Tanizaki to dream of nothing, and a woman does not merely on account of being a woman cultivate Tanizaki’s fantasies. For Tanizaki, a woman ultimately had to be beautiful in accordance with his taste and arouse sexual interest in the extreme, and then truly all things around that woman would overflow with a fetishistic brilliance, and there he would realize his Pure Land.
Finally, Tanizaki’s Manual of Compositionis a book that I would by all means like all those engaged in teaching composition in Japan to read, and in the respect that Tanizaki, without showing partiality to his own tastes, fairly and objectively recognized the differing appeal of each type of prose from the classics until the present, and in addition smoothly advocated his own tastes, I think it is an unparalleled remedy for the tendencies into which Japanese compositional education tends to fall. I say this because I had the experience of myself having been tormented by my erroneous compositional education in unconditional report-style realism in elementary school, later entering middle school, reading this Manual of Composition, and tasting the indescribable joy of having for the first time broken out into the boundless plains of prose writing.
* When I wrote this critical essay, I had not yet read “A Golden Death.” “A Golden Death” is a work of this kind of narcissism, which is totally an exception for Tanizaki, but artistically it fails spectacularly. However, this failure is extremely significant. Because by this failure, Tanizaki was (probably unconsciously) able to evade the branch road toward the most dangerous ideas that may have harmed him his entire life.
(First Appearance) Deluxe Edition, A Complete Anthology of Japanese Literature, Volume 12: Tanizaki Jun’ichirō. Kawade Shobō Shinsha. October of the Forty-First Year of the Shōwa Era (1966).
On Tanizaki Jun’ichirō (First Serialization) From The Wasteland. Chūō Kōronsha. March of the Forty-Second Year of the Shōwa Era (1967).
谷崎潤一郎 Tanizaki Jun’ichirō (1886-1965). One of the deans of modern Japanese literature and, as Mishima makes clear in this essay, perhaps Japan’s greatest literary analyst of the psychology and consequences of women’s liberation. After the Great Kantō Earthquake in 1921, Tanizaki moved to Kansai and turned increasingly to classical and traditional Japanese aesthetics. This shift culminated in the essay In Praise of Shadows, in which he laments the loss of the traditional Japanese aesthetic sense under the assault of Westernization. His best-known novel in Japan and the West is 痴人の愛 Chijin no Ai (lit. A Fool’s Love but translated as Naomi), in which he offers a subtle yet devastating portrait of women’s liberation in Japan as foisted on the willing but initially uninterested Japanese woman by weak-willed, timid middle-class men, particularly educated men in white-collar jobs, who are enslaved to the popular trends of the time as depicted in the media and motivated by sexual fetishization of Western women as well as feelings of racial inferiority to Westerners in general and resulting eventually in the irreversible loss of all womanly virtues, the subjection of men to women, and widespread cuckoldry. All who are interested in the problem of women and their so-called liberation should read his work.
芸術的完成 geijutsuteki kansei.
総合的教養 sōgōteki kyōyō. Could also be rendered as “comprehensive education.”
一致しない itchi shinai. Could also be rendered as “are not in accord.”
安倍能成 Abe Yoshishige (1883-1966). A student of Natsume Sōseki and a publicist, philosopher, and educator, Abe served as Minister of Education under Shidehara Kijūrō (October 9, 1945 to May 22, 1946), and as Chancellor of Gakushūin University, among other positions.
小泉信三 Koizumi Shinzō (1888-1966). An academic economist with broad knowledge of economic history and social thought. Worked primarily at Keiō University.
大正的教養人 Taishō-teki kyōyōjin.
総合的教養人 sōgōteki kyōyōjin.
正宗白鳥 Masamune Hakuchō (1879-1962). A novelist, playwright, and publicist who worked at Yomiuri Shinbun. Instead of seeking to overcome his congenital ill health, Masamune sought salvation in Christianity and wrote many works promoting “nihilism” and suspicion of life.
森鴎外 Mori Ōgai (1862-1922). Meiji and Taishō era Romantic and anti-Naturalist novelist, translator, and military doctor. He is most well-known for the short story “Dancing Girl” and such novels as Vita Sexualis and The Abe Clan.
夏目漱石 Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916). Meiji era novelist and scholar of English literature. He is most well-known for his novels Kokoro, Sanshirō, and I Am A Cat.
意志的 ishiteki. Also volitional.
横光利一 Yokomitsu Riichi/Toshikazu (1898-1947). A late Taishō and early Shōwa era neo-sensualist novelist.
Jean Cocteau (1889-1963). French poet and friend of Raymond Radiguet, in whom Mishima took great interest.
知的教養 chiteki kyōyō.
歌う utau. 謳う is now the standard character for utau in this sense.
真実の光 shinjitsu no hikari. Could also mean “the light of truth.”
透かし見る sukashimiru. To strain one’s eyes to see something in darkness, fog, etc. Also to look through a gap, glass, etc.
立身出世主義 risshin shusse shugi.
色濃く irokoku. Also “markedly.”
一つの自由の放棄, hitotsu no jiyū no hōki. Could also be “the abandonment of one freedom.”
是認 zenin. Also approval.
官能的感受性 kannōteki kanjusei.
精進 shōjin. Also religious purification through abstention from certain foods, particularly meat.
感受性 kanjusei. Also sensitivity, receptivity, susceptibility.
灰色 haiiro. Lit. gray.
開顕 kaiken. A Tendai Buddhist term signifying that all teachings prior to those of the Lotus Sutra were mere upāya (expedient means) while the ultimate truth is revealed in the Lotus Sutra.
支那料理 Shina ryōri. Shina is the non-Sinocentric term for China in Japanese, but it is considered a slur today. It shares etymological roots with the English “China.”
欲求不満的感受性 yokkyū fuman teki kanjusei.
鬼子母神 Kishimojin. A demon and goddess in Buddhism. After abducting and killing the children of others, she appealed to the Buddha, accepted his teachings, and became a goddess of great compassion with the ability to heal the sick.
See Footnote 1.
浄土 Jōdo. Also known as Buddha fields (buddhakshetra), Pure Lands are planes where bodhisattvas are said to reside and provide special teachings to those with the fortune to have been reborn there. It is said that it is particularly easy to escape the cycle of rebirth from a Pure Land, hence the focus of numerous East Asian sects on reaching a Pure Land.
Translation my own. The original text quoted by Mishima is as follows:「白い帽子の奥にある母の顔は、花を透かして来る月あかりに暈されて、可愛く、小さく、圓光を背負っているように見えた。四十年前の春の日に、几帳のかげで抱かれた時の記憶が、今歴々と蘇生って来、一瞬にして彼は自分が六七歳の幼童になった気がした。」
性の三昧境 sei no zanmaikyō. Zanmai is derived from the phonetic translation of samādhi.
この神童ははじめから、知的極北における夭折への道と、反対の道を歩きだしていたからである。Kono shindō wa hajime kara, chiteki kyokuhoku ni okeru yōsetsu e no michi to, hantai no michi o arukidashite ita kara de aru.
佐藤春夫 Satō Haruo (1892-1964). Novelist and poet.
林房雄 Hayashi Fusao (1903-1975). A novelist, initially of the student “proletarian” movement but later of a “nationalist” bent. He is known for writing In Defense of the Greater East Asian War (大東亜戦争肯定論 Daitōa Sensō Kōteiron).
石原慎太郎 Ishihara Shintarō (1932-2022). Novelist and politician known for such novels as Season of the Sun.
自己保証 jiko hoshō. Literally self-guarantee.
現前する genzen suru. Literally to manifest or appear before one.
やむにやまれぬ yamu ni yamarenu.
振子 burikko. A woman who goes out of her way to make herself seem sweet and cute in order to attract the attentions of men.
揺曳する yōei suru.
室生犀星 Murō Saisei (1889-1962). Novelist and poet.
文章読本 Bunshō Tokuhon.
この失敗によって、氏は、生涯氏に災いしたかもしれぬもっとも危険な思想への岐れ路を（おそらく無意識に）避けえたからである。 Kono shippai ni yotte, Shi wa, shōgai Shi ni wazawai shita ka mo shirenu mottomo kiken na shisō e no wakaremichi o (osoraku muishiki ni) sake eta kara de aru.