- Beyond Nation: Time, Writing, and Community in the Work of Abe Kôbô by Richard F. Calichman
In the introduction to his 2013 translation of Abe Kôbô's essays, The Frontier Within, Richard Calichman argues that the Western reception of Japanese literature has typically worked to reinforce the borders of the Western subject through the projection of difference onto Japan as exotic Other (Abe x). However, he continues, Abe Kôbô has not fit comfortably into this essentialist imagining of the Japanese author, and is considered an anomalous writer, not typically "Japanese" since his works are less concerned with standard orientalist tropes and more with the experimental and the avant-garde. As a result, Western scholars have focused on the ways in which Abe has been "influenced" by Western literary and philosophical sources, such as Kafka, Camus, Sartre, and Marx, among others. In other words, the reception of Japanese literature in the West has worked to mutually reinforce the legitimacy of both West and East as stable geographic coordinates within the Western imagination. Though Abe has constantly worked to challenge the stability of these coordinates and their reduction of subjectivity to national belonging, he has nonetheless been interpreted within the confines of their logic, as a Japanese writer influenced by Western ideas.
In Beyond Nation, Calichman builds on the insights received from Abe's critical essays translated in The Frontier Within in order to explain in more depth the ways in which Abe problematizes these assumptions concerning identity formation and [End Page 504] national affiliation. Calichman refuses to pigeonhole Abe as a "Japanese" author, and actively avoids "any Orientalist projection that would find satisfaction in uncovering a link, grounded in some spurious 'asian' identity" (113), between Abe's work and essentializing markers of Japaneseness. At the same time, he refuses to interpret Abe within a binary model of Western influence. Rather than fall into these traps, he instead presents a rigorously methodological approach to Abe's writing that works to destabilize the traditional disciplinary limitations of Japan Studies that would position and understand Abe through the logic national difference and affiliation. The central claim of Beyond Nation, as I interpret it, is that Abe's work expresses a philosophy of self-deferral, whereby all identity formations, collective and individual, necessarily produce through the very process of self-creation an excess (temporal, signifying, subjective) that resists all efforts to be appropriated. Calichman explores how this fundamental process of self-deferral is developed in Abe's writing, with each chapter focusing on a different aspect: writing, temporality and spatiality, community, and the academic institution. His focus is mostly on Abe's works of fiction and essays from the 1960s, and, without diminishing the significance of Calichman's insights, it is unfortunate that there is no treatment of the significant body of theatre that Abe produced in the decade prior, as his focus there on the fluidity of surface appearances and resistance to the discourse of interiority would have made a valuable contribution to Calichman's understanding of Abe's method. It would be equally unfortunate, however, to focus on comprehensiveness as a metric of worth. Quite the opposite: if we are to take Abe's notion of self-deferral seriously, then we ought to question whether it even makes sense for Beyond Nation to treat Abe Kôbô as a coherent subject and his writing as belonging to a singular, differentiated, and comprehensive oeuvre.
Chapter One of Beyond Nation explores these issues of identity through the question of writing. Trough a reading of Abe's novel Suna no Onna (Woman in the Dunes, 1962), Calichman explores the paradox of claiming identity through signification. Niki Junpei, the protagonist of Woman in the Dunes, must identify himself by reference to his proper name, evidenced through business cards and tax documents, but the inherent repeatability of the signifier also opens his identity up to difference. By arguing that the act of writing is not self-identical-leaving a remainder, mark, or trace that when...