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positions: east asia cultures critique 10.2 (2002) 365-397

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Mori Ogai's Resentful Narrator:
Trauma and the National Subject in “The Dancing Girl”

Christopher Hill

The career of Mori Ogai, in its most common interpretation, appears to be a symbol of the contradictions of Japan in the Meiji period (1868–1912). Typically paired with Natsume Soseki as the archetypal Meiji writer, Ogai was not only a novelist and poet of Apollonian aesthetics but also an erudite and scathing critic, an army doctor, and a “combative enlightener” (tatakau keimoka) associated with authoritarian reformers in the middle and late Meiji periods.1 Critics consider Ogai's early romantic fiction and trenchant criticism to have played a central role in the establishment of modern literature (kindai bungaku) in Japan, the psychological, depoliticized fiction that succeeded the Meiji political novel after the demise of the Freedom and Popular Rights Movement (Jiyu minken undo) in the 1880s.2 Ogai's first published story, “The Dancing Girl” [“Maihime”] (1890), indeed was a significant intervention in the transformation of literature under way in the mid-Meiji decades. In contrast to the strained allegories of Meiji political [End Page 365] fiction and the loose, wandering form of Futabatei Shimei's unfinished tale The Drifting Cloud [Ukigumo] (1886–1889), often cited as the first “modern” Japanese novel, “The Dancing Girl” is a brooding story with a tightly crafted aesthetic vision.

Far from solely concerned with the advancement of literature, however, “The Dancing Girl” incorporates a political argument of its own that critics frequently ignore: the necessity, according to Ogai, of nationality as a primary form of subjective identification and the illegitimacy of alternative identities. Regardless of its literary innovations—or, as I will argue, by virtue of them—“The Dancing Girl” was a forceful contribution to efforts to transform the populace of the Japanese archipelago into a “nation” mobilized with a commonly held purpose. The story, which perhaps ranks only behind Soseki's novel Kokoro (1914) as the work of Meiji-era writers most widely taught in Anglophone classrooms, demands to be reread in light of such close engagement with contemporary politics. “The Dancing Girl” has as its climax a choice by the protagonist, a student studying in Germany, to return to Japan or remain in Europe. Ogai stages the choice as one between identity as Japanese and a purely negative (i.e., nonnational) cosmopolitanism. While Ota, the protagonist, chooses the former, he confesses to suffering from a lasting resentment as a consequence. Pursuing a line of analysis made possible by the gendered quality of the choice—to return to Japan Ota must abandon the young German woman of the title—I will show that the dilemma Ota faces poses the possibility that he will lose all subjective definition. From this perspective, resentment emerges as a constitutive characteristic of the national subject: not a secondary malady but, rather, what makes the formation of such a subject possible. As Ota confesses the events leading to his condition, the first-person narrative revealingly breaks down precisely when such a damaged national subject takes shape. The narrative aporia, I will argue, ultimately serves to cordon off alternative identities that might compete with nationality in the Meiji-era project to transform popular consciousness.

The work to create a nation for the new Japanese state that began after the nominal restoration of the emperor to power in 1868 faced what can be described as twin obstacles, one arising from the “people” and the other from the Meiji government's response to European and North American imperialism. Such an imbrication of local and global conditions in the construction [End Page 366] of national identity in Japan closely resembles the situation in other countries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where the nation-state as a political form and the nation as a form of community served mediating roles (between the global and the local) in the integration of world markets and the international state system.

3 Countries in the European core such as France, Germany...