Wednesday, October 13, 2010


M., who was of Japanese descent, loved the novelist Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1994.  A few months after being so honored, Oe gave a talk at the City College of New York, where M. was a student.  M. brought several books for Oe to sign, which he did graciously.

On a recent library trip, I found a book by Oe on the free table.  Oe's oldest son, Hikari, was born with severe brain damage, and much of Oe's early novels are fictionalized accounts of his attempts to accept the upheaval in his life occasioned by his son's disability.  The book I found, however, is not a novel, but a memoir called A Healing Family.  I've been reading it in snatches stolen from the big copy-editing job that's taking up much of my time.  Oe, who studied European and American literature at university, writes here about William Blake (from one of whose poems Oe took the title for one of his novels, Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!):

[He] evolved an utterly original version of the world in [his work,] at the heart of which were two preoccupations.  One was his engagement in the crucial historical events of his period, namely American independence and the French Revolution . . . . The other concerned his role as a seer whose visions linked him to a tradition of . . . neo-Platonism . . . . Among the shorter of [Blake's "prophetic" writings] is a strange but lovely poem called "The Book of Thel," which tells the story of an ethereal being who dwells in the valley of eternal life but wonders about her existence there and seeks to find answers to her doubts by questioning a lily, a cloud, and a worm.  Finally, having consulted a lump of clay, she manages to pass through the gate leading to the world of men, but one look at this vale of tears sends her fleeing, with a piercing shriek, back to the valley of eternal life.

I found myself recalling this poem when my elder brother developed cancer . . . In plain, precise, and convincing words [Blake] is able to capture the desolation of the land of those doomed to die and the frailty of human flesh; he makes one think of all the hosts of people, with oneself among them, passing through this world only to fall victim to disease or to the ravages of age.  My brother's cancer . . . will soon kill him.  As if unafraid of this other reality, the two of us used to laugh and sing together once; but now it is another sound we hear -- the cries of pain that mark the true condition of our lives . . .

Then, in a less despairing mood, I go on to think that maybe in a way we are like Thels who ventured down to this world but didn't go crying back to heaven; who, when they made that now-forgotten choice, perhaps told themselves to "just get on with it."  In fact, the older I get . . . the more convinced I am that my soul, in that instant when it was first marked with the stain of mortal life, turned to face its fate with the same resolve.

This passage, expressed with Oe's typical modesty and elegance, offers a relatively more optimistic version of the Japanese ethos of shikata ga nai, which, written in Japanese katakana, is the title of this post, and which means, loosely translated, "there's nothing to be done about it." This implies that, therefore, one simply has to go on.  I learned about this too from M.

1 comment:

Rodak said...

Beautiful post, Pentimento. I've read several of Kenzaburo Oe's novels. I recently gave one that I obtained at a library sale to my closest friend as a gift.