An Extremely Disorganized Life: Osamu Dazai’s NO LONGER HUMAN
By Peter Selgin •
The older I get, the less interested I am as both reader and writer in things are that—or that feel—“made up.” Put in positive terms, the more attracted I am to stories and novels that strike me as boldly genuine, and those who create them.
As he would have been first to admit, by ordinary standards Osamu Dazai (1909–1948) was not what most of us would call a “decent” man. In the words of poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth, his was an “extremely disorganized” life. Though for sure the adjective applies, Rexroth might as accurately have said “supremely” or even “magnificently,” for Dazai’s life was nothing less than a monument of disorganization, a litany of self-inflicted wounds and disasters culminating in not only his own but two other suicides.
Born Shūji Tsushima (he acquired his pseudonym in 1933) to an upper-class Japanese family, from an early age Dazai demonstrated a precocious talent for writing. He was a diligent student and seemed bound for success. Things took a turn for the worse, however, starting in 1927 when his literary hero, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, committed suicide. He started neglecting his studies. Before long the pattern of Dazai’s life was established, with him failing at school, squandering his allowance on alcohol and prostitutes, dabbling in Marxism, and courting—symbiotically—women and suicide.
You would not expect all of this “disorganization” to add up to a career of any sort, let alone that of a distinguished and remarkable author whose works are considered to be classics of Japanese literature, and for whom a prestigious literary prize is named. But that only goes to show that—when it comes to artists in general and in particular to literary artists—“ordinary standards” don’t apply.
If I single out literary artists, it’s because unlike (say) Picasso, whose personal flaws and disasters were relevant to his art only insofar as they distorted its subjects, Dazai made his flaws the very subject of his art. So closely do his novels and short stories hew to his personal defeats, disasters, disgraces, and debacles, reading them one gets the ominous feeling that he lived as he did at least partially to furnish himself with a subject, namely dissolution; namely his own. At times he seems to revel in and even to relish that dissolution, as if it were a drug that—like the heroin he started taking in his twenties—he couldn’t resist, not because it made him feel good, but because it made him feel human, which is to say, flawed. Dazai could only access his humanity, or at any rate his literary personae, through his personal failings. Hence his addiction, one that led him to seek ever greater depths of dissolution. Yet his personal failings were his artistic triumph.
Nowhere is this more evident than in his masterpiece, No Longer Human, the last novel Dazai wrote, and which was being published in serialization when its thirty-nine-year-old author committed suicide in June of 1948. Ranked as one of the all-time bestsellers of Japanese fiction, the novel, structured as a series of notebooks bequeathed by their author to a bar hostess he met as a younger man, tells the story to age twenty-seven of Oba Yozo, a young man almost entirely out of sync with society as well as with his own feelings, a man who lives in dread of exposing his “true self” to others, and therefore cannot be fully human. Incapable of comprehending social protocols and signals, and therefore unable to engage successfully in “normal” relationships, instead he adopts the postures of a buffoon, an amusingly cheerful facade by way of which he hides his deep anxieties and growing sense of alienation. Meanwhile he neglects his studies, falls under the influence of a callow, bar-hopping dilettante, engages prostitutes, and disappoints and disgraces his family until at last they cut him off. Throughout the narrative women play the Janus-face role of damning angels, always there to rescue Oba while simultaneously dooming him (as in the case of the pharmacist who, moved by his pleas, tears, and kisses, generously supplies him with a new addiction: heroin) to ever deeper levels of damnation. But in “helping” Oba his women likewise pay a price, including one death by drowning in a failed double-suicide (he survives).
All of this sounds—and is—fairly gruesome, the more so when one considers that in almost every facet the novel is autobiographical; indeed, it’s hard to find much fiction in it. Some even maintain that Dazai wrote it as a sort of last will and testament, having intended to commit suicide once it was completed.
We’ll never know for sure. But that the book is remarkable is something to be certain of. What makes it so in part is its utterly beguiling frankness, a frankness that somehow avoids bitterness and self-pity while not lacking in rancor or humor. For all his failings, despite a monstrous contempt for society’s norms (which strike the narrator as entirely fatuous), Oba emerges as a likable though pitiable character. He is in fact quite charming. Here, from the First Notebook:
I can’t even guess myself what it must be to live the life of a human being. I was born in a village in the Northeast, and it wasn’t until I was quite big that I saw my first train. I climbed up and down the station bridge, quite unaware that its function was to permit people to cross from one track to the other. I was convinced that the bridge had been provided to lend an exotic touch and to make the station premises a place of pleasant diversity, like some foreign playground. I remained under this delusion for quite a long time, and it was for me a very refined amusement indeed to climb up and down the bridge. I thought that it was one of the most elegant services provided by the railways. When I later discovered that the bridge was nothing more than a utilitarian device, I lost all interest in it.
By way of his apparent innocence it’s hard not to fall in love with this narrator. In first encountering this passage, most readers will be unaware that, like his doomed-dooming women, we’re being seduced into a gruesome contract: we are about to “fall for” (an expression that makes the protagonist tremble) a monster. Thus disarmed, one notebook later without prejudice or judgment we read:
I never could think of prostitutes as human beings or even as women. They seemed more like imbeciles or lunatics. But in their arms I felt absolute security. I could sleep soundly. It was pathetic how utterly devoid of greed they really were. And perhaps because they felt for me something like an affinity for their kind, these prostitutes always showed me a natural friendliness which never became oppressive. Friendliness with no ulterior motive, friendliness stripped of high-pressure salesmanship, for someone who might never come again. Some nights I saw these imbecile, lunatic prostitutes with the halo of Mary.
And no wonder, since the prostitutes assume the role of mother to this full-grown infant who, like all infants, recognizes only his own severely circumscribed needs and discomforts, and who is embraced and desired mainly for his helplessness. Dazai’s great skill here—or that of his narrator—is his ability to turn us all into mothers or big-hearted prostitutes. Like all charming men, he seduces through his inner child. In real life such charmers are reprehensible; on the page they’re irresistible.
At times Oba’s inability to connect properly with others seems not only pathological but neurological; we could be reading the notebooks of an autistic, but one plagued by feelings of shame, guilt, and resentment. The complete dissociation of a personality yet capable of feeling is the book’s unique subject. Is it, after all, called No Longer Human (in Donald Keene’s translation Disqualified From Being Human), and it lives unsparingly up to its title. By the end of the three notebooks the “disqualification,” we are told, is complete. By implication nothing remains for the notebook keeper but to throw himself into the nearest river.
In point of fact that is what Dazai did. He threw himself not into a river but into the Tawagawa Canal near to his home. But being Dazai he didn’t act alone: he took Tomai Yamazaki, a beautician and war widow, the mistress for whom he abandoned his second wife, with him. Their entwined waterlogged bodies were discovered on June 19, 1948, six days after they hurled themselves into the rain-swollen channel. To this day people wonder if it really was a double-suicide, whether in fact Tomai murdered him and then herself. Though no evidence supports this rumor, it has furnished plots for several novels and films. The one author who couldn’t avail himself of this plot was Dazai himself. But God knows given the chance he would have made something excellent out of it.
PETER SELGIN is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction. He has written a novel, several children’s books, and three books on the craft of writing, most recently Your First Page: First Pages and What They Tell Us about the Pages that Follow Them. Confessions of a Left-Handed Man, his memoir-in-essays, was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize. His memoir, The Inventors, won the 2017 Housatonic Book Award. His second essay collection, The Kuhreihen Melody: Nostalgic Essays, was recently published by Serving House Books. His full-length drama, A God in the House, based on Dr. Jack Kevorkian and his “suicide machine,” premiered at the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference and was optioned for Off-Broadway. A visual artist as well as a writer, Selgin’s paintings and illustrations have been featured in The New Yorker, Forbes, Gourmet, Outside, and other publications. He is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia, where he is art director and nonfiction editor of Arts & Letters, an international journal of poetry and prose.