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  • No Homelike Place:The Lesson of History in Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World
  • Timothy Wright (bio)


Early in Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), the narrator Etsuko makes a grim admission. Her eldest daughter, brought to England as a child when Etsuko left Japan after the war, is several years dead. Never able to adjust to her new country, without friends, she has taken her own life, her body hanging undiscovered in her Manchester bedsit for several days. “The horror of that image has never diminished,” says Etsuko, “but it has long ceased to be a morbid matter; as with a wound on one’s own body, it is possible to develop an intimacy with the most disturbing of things” (54). Intimacy with the disturbing turns out to be the leitmotif of Etsuko’s story, and indeed of Ishiguro’s oeuvre as a whole. We discover that the daughter’s suicide is merely one manifestation of an ongoing historical trauma from which, despite time and distance, she cannot fully emerge. The emotional devastation, the sense of terrible historical guilt, the unlocalizable shame that continues to accompany Etsuko even after she marries a British citizen and moves to the English countryside—all this is bound up with the bombing of her home city, Nagasaki, whose hills, which escaped nuclear devastation, symbolize an unrealizable yearning for a refuge from history.

As a statement of the essential theme that would come to dominate much of Ishiguro’s work—how one survives after historical [End Page 58] catastrophe—Etsuko’s confession is implicitly a rejoinder to Theodor Adorno’s famous proclamation, made from the ruins of postwar Europe, that “[t]o write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” (“Cultural Criticism” 34). This claim Adorno was later to qualify in his philosophical summa, Negative Dialectics. Conceding that “[p]erennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream,” Adorno goes on to raise the “less cultural” question of “whether after Auschwitz you can go on living,” especially when “mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz” (362–63). The horror for Adorno was not just Auschwitz but our ability to disregard that horror, to put it to one side as we go about the process of living. Adorno perceived that the status of human existence in the wake of these catastrophes had been decisively altered. “After Auschwitz,” he wrote, “our feelings resist any claim for the positivity of existence as sanctimonious prating” (361). Hence Adorno’s famous proscription on poetry: if poetry is a creative act, it is an affirmation—of the human spirit, of culture, of language. But can one affirm the human spirit if this same human spirit is also responsible for Auschwitz? Should not one just abandon the entire human project as such?

Adorno’s position remains controversial, more so because of the blanket moral complicity it attributes to Enlightenment modernity as a whole. It is not only that one must live every aspect of one’s life with the knowledge of Auschwitz—that is, that one can never forget it, brush it to one side, go on as if it didn’t concern one. It is also an acknowledgment of the radically compromised nature of human life itself, which must now internalize the intolerable fact of its existence within a system that is fundamentally and inescapably inhuman. In response to his sense of modernity’s structural entanglement with catastrophe and violence, Adorno developed the notion of negative dialectics, a restless, unhappy, and relentlessly critical mode of thinking that refused the syntheses and sublations of Hegelian “positive” dialectics. Due to its ability to continually elude conceptualization, aesthetics occupied a privileged position within this antisystem. The very aesthetic practices Adorno denounced as barbaric still harbored the potential to be salvaged and recuperated as possible spaces of resistance. Art existed both [End Page 59] inside and outside the social world it represented, not so much a representation of it as its negative reflection, “the negative knowledge of the actual world” (“Reconciliation” 160). In particular, Adorno found a measure...


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