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  • Discourses of Seduction: History, Evil, Desire, and Modern Japanese Literature
  • Angela Yiu
Discourses of Seduction: History, Evil, Desire, and Modern Japanese Literature. By Hosea Hirata. Harvard University Asia Center, 2004. 304 pages. Hardcover $50.00.

Seduction is an elusive matter. Once explained, it ceases to have a hold on the imagination and is no longer seductive. It is thus commendable that Hosea Hirata has undertaken the Herculean task of delineating for the reader not attuned to literature's siren song why literature retains the power to generate desire and what sets literary discourse apart from other discursive fields. In an age where literature is often studied as a cultural, political, or historical discourse with supposed reference to an external reality, this study attempts to challenge the reader to gaze into the space of literature and respond to its temptation. At its best, the book consists of rigorous and astute close readings in various theoretical contexts ranging from historicism to gender studies. At its worst, however, it echoes the jargon-filled and convoluted critical discourse of the 1980s, when literary criticism was dominated by theoretical and ideological studies. This dimension of the study unfortunately serves to obscure instead of illuminate the author's fine selection of literary texts, ranging from Kunikida Doppo to Murakami Haruki.

In place of standard, impersonal, academic prose, Hirata adopts a personal mode of critical discourse that approximates the essay style associated with Kobayashi Hideo and Walter Benjamin. He shows no hesitancy in using the pronoun "I" or in incorporating poetic interludes in his critical language. This is an engaging part of the study, though at times it results in an unnecessarily self-referential and close to sentimental tone. Emerging from his respect for Kobayashi and Benjamin are some of the best chapters in this book—two chapters on Kobayashi and an appendix that includes an excellent translation of Kobayashi's "On Impermanence." Insightful and instructive, these chapters cover points ranging from the poetic language in Kobayashi's criticism to his meditation on home (kokyō) and history. Hirata argues persuasively that "Kobayashi and Benjamin are in harmony in their startling reorientation of history not as a mere extension of time but as its arrest" (p. 255). He also elucidates Kobayashi's complex idea of home, pointing out that the concept of kokyô is "an allegory of modern man's relation to history" (p. 256). His assertion that Kobayashi is "a thief of poetry," in that his critical language is poetry in disguise, indeed reveals the lure and timelessness of Kobayashi's criticism.

The chapter on Sōseki's Kokoro is a meditation on the repetitive quality of myth and the singularity of history. The distinction itself is sound and cogent, yet it is less than convincing to argue that the mode of existence of the novel's main character, Sensei, exemplifies the singularity particular to the historical perspective. As a tragic figure, Sensei shares with other tragic heroes a certain timelessness. Sensei does not connect his suicide with that of General Nogi out of "clumsiness" (p. 202), as Hirata suggests, and his death reinforces the repetitive quality (note the number of deaths— by kidney disease and suicide—in the story) inherent in the mythic mode.

Apart from the chapters on Kobayashi and Sōseki, all of the other texts discussed, by authors from Kawabata to Ōe Kenzaburō, are heavily sexual and erotic in nature, which presumably relates to the theme of seduction. It follows that the metaphors [End Page 541] adopted in the discussion of these texts range from incest, masturbation, and masochism to hymen and vagina. Highlighting sexuality and the body is neither new nor shocking in the critical discourse of Japanese fiction; if anything, it has become rather trite. Hirata spells out what he considers the gist of seduction in his discussion of Ōe:

the writings of Ōe stand dangerously on an insidious textual/bodily movement lured by the strange call of masochism. I have to call this lure "the seduction of literature" in contrast to the seduction of the ethical, of the political. . . . The masochistic text is such an ambiguous, obscene, miraculous, and seductive force.(p. 153)

I do not contest the...


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