restricted access Suicidal Narrative in Japan: The Case of Dazai Osamu (review)
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Reviewed by
Alan Wolfe. Suicidal Narrative in Japan: The Case of Dazai Osamu. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990. 263 pp. $29.95.

As the dust-jacket proclaims, this study of the writer Dazai Osamu (1909-1948), "one of Japan's most famous literary suicides," is the "first deconstructive reading of a modern Japanese novelist." Well, perhaps not the first, but certainly the most ambitious. Wolfe pulls out all the stops in presenting his revisionist reading of twentieth-century Japanese culture through one of its iconic literary figures. And in so doing he brushes aside what he regards as a misguided and essentially outmoded Japanological tradition in favor of Barthes, Culler, de Man, Jameson, Bakhtin, Raymond Williams, Derrida, and Foucault.

Wolfe's dazzling (and often dizzying) study, richly comparatist and aggressively analytical, is also quite polemical. Some readers will herald it as the long-overdue "coming-of-age" of Japanese literary scholarship. Members of the Japan literary establishment will be put off by the strident tone, the insistent jargon, the audacity of it all, whereas those at the theoretical cutting edge will perhaps regard Wolfe's methodical deconstructing as itself outmoded and passé. In a field easily accused of insularity—a conservative agenda of canon-maintenance, translation (much of Japan's literary "mother lode," after all, remains in the ground), philology, literary history, biography, and sincere "appreciations" having long held sway—Alan Wolfe does not figure to win many friends. Which is precisely the point. Suicide and its relentless textualization in the hands of Dazai Osamu is Wolfe's stated concern. [End Page 335] But antagonists may perceive in his revisionist agenda a certain homicidal motive—the scrapping of an entire domain of literary scholarship. In short, the book promises to inspire a good deal of controversy, which is all to the good.

The polemical issue aside, Wolfe's aim is to explore suicide as an integral part of Japan's "national allegory." In attempting to work through the complex code of "suicidality" in Dazai—this writer whom he speaks of as "overdetermined sign," "saint of negativity," and "emblem of Japanese cultural production"—Wolfe seeks to expose what he regards as the systematic misreadings of critics on both sides of the Pacific. Dazai's work is contrasted with that of Mishima, the Japanese suicide par excellence, and both are interpreted as critics of Japan's project of modernization. Here, Wolfe's discussion of modernization theory and its implications for Japanese literary selfhood is impressive. Of particular interest is his argument that the "I quest" so closely identified with the literary mainstream is a concomitant of the modernization process itself.

In proper deconstructionist style, Wolfe embarks on a project of problematization, wherein conventional thinking about Japanese writers, literary history, and culture is "unpacked" and rewritten. His position vis à vis the Japanological establishment exactly parallels that of Dazai, this celebrated bête noir whom he identifies (rightly, I feel) as Japan's first postmodern writer. Hence, Alan Wolfe can be said to have enlisted Dazai's aid in critiquing the "aporia" of postwar modernization. Of course, the far-ranging analysis—in the service of which the author is employed as cultural "sign"—comes at the expense of a literary reading. We are afforded no insights into the artistic qualities that have earned Dazai an important reputation, nor do we learn much about his ties (paradoxical, in light of the "suicidal loner" persona) to the literary establishment. But here I betray my personal preferences, as yet unre(de)constructed.

I should note that Wolfe's own narrative style does not serve him well. It is so densely lit-theorish as to seem smug and pretentious, and the writing occasionally borders on the unintelligible. Nevertheless, his challenge to familiar and comfortable assumptions is both exciting and provocative, and it stands as a welcome sign of the gradual—and inevitable—rapprochement of Japanology and mainstream literary study. [End Page 336]

Marvin Marcus
Washington University
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