- Two-Timing Modernity: Homosocial Narrative in Modern Japanese Fiction by J. Keith Vincent
Anyone in the field of Japanese literature who read Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s ground-breaking work, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (Columbia University Press, 1985), must have been astonished by its explanatory power, as her conceptualization of a continuum between the homosocial and the homosexual seems extremely applicable to premodern practices related to nanshoku (male-male sexuality). But as Japan modernized, the alien concept of homophobia took root and radically disrupted this continuum, even as male bonding continued to thrive in various ways.
Some may observe that, without the political force of Christian fundamentalism, the intensity of homophobia is felt less in Japan than in the United States. In [End Page 295] Japan, girls flock to yaoi (Boys’ Love) manga. TV variety shows are crowded with gender-ambiguous tarento (mass-media celebrities). Men’s esute (cosmetics and the like) is all the rage. We might surmise that somehow the continuum Sedgwick was hypothesizing between the homosocial and the homosexual is still alive in Japan. Yet, as J. Keith Vincent persuasively demonstrates in Two-Timing Modernity, the transition from the tradition of nanshoku to the modern notion of homosexuality as a perversion has been painfully and masterfully recorded by canonical modern writers including Kawabata Yasunari, Mori Ōgai, Natsume Sōseki, Mishima Yukio, and Ōe Kenzaburō. The only noncanonical writer that Vincent discusses extensively is Hamao Shirō (1896–1935), who is quite well known among aficionados of the detective-fiction genre.
Sedgwick’s work was, in turn, much inspired by René Girard’s conception of mediated desire elaborated in Deceit, Desire and the Novel (originally published as Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, 1961). Girard claimed that desire is not inherent in the subject, nor directed to the desired object in a straightforward manner. Instead, it is always mediated by a third entity. In this triangular structure, the subject imitates a desire already expressed by the third entity, be it a hero or a rival. This nonessentialist insight into the structure of desire is also fundamental to Vincent’s approach. Vincent reports that as his class was discussing homosociality in Sōseki’s Kokoro, a student inquired, “Was Sensei in Kokoro actually gay for K?” (p. 12). Perhaps a question like this motivated Vincent to write this book, which painstakingly attempts to counter such an identity-based understanding of sexuality. Instead of identifying a homosexual desire naturally residing in the subject, Vincent wants us to see that, as Girard and Sedgwick argued, our desire is constructed through mediation by others and by narrative acts.
This counteressentialist look at sexuality and desire constitutes, I believe, an important political ethics for Vincent. He warns: “One danger of overlooking this crucial point—namely, that homosexual desire itself is not at the root of male homosociality,” is the potential for “lay[ing] the blame for the structural violence of homosocial patriarchy at the feet of an essentialized (male) homosexual desire located within individual bodies” (p. 12). Vincent, however, comes across as less dogmatic about not being essentialist than some recent scholars of queer theory. I detect his genuine sympathy with those needing to establish their (minority) identities. In his analyses, Vincent carefully refers to the possibility of gay men reading a particular text one way, while those who are immersed in heteronormativity would read it quite differently. He also does not hesitate to insert into his discussions his own identity as a gay man growing up in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. Such autobiographical revelations definitely give us a sense of Vincent’s urgency and sincerity, just as we experience “the author” in a shishōsetsu (autobiographical novel). At the same time, in his chapter on Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask, Vincent emphasizes the excruciating loneliness that can result when a desire is not placed in a mediated structure but is instead conceived as inherent in one’s interiority since birth. [End Page 296]
Heteronormativity must be one...