The author Osamu Dazai committed suicide — several times. The first was on a cold December night in 1929, just before his school exams. But the overdose of sleeping pills he took was not enough; he survived, and graduated. The second was in October, 1930, on the barren sands of a beach in Kamakura — this time a double suicide with a young woman he barely knew. Tragically, she drowned, while Dazai was rescued by a passing fishing boat. He went on to marry and began a career as a writer. The third attempt was in the spring of 1933: He tried hanging himself from a beam in the mesmerizing stillness of his Tokyo apartment. Once again Dazai survived, though he was hospitalized and developed a morphine addiction. And the fourth was in the fall of 1936, when Dazai and his wife — with their marriage disintegrating — attempted a double suicide, but to their horror, they lived.
Born Shūji Tsushima, Dazai’s life was by turns tragic and absurd, not unlike the portrayal of life in his stories. His 1948 novel “No Longer Human” (“Ningen Shikkaku”) remains among the most popular books in modern Japanese literature, and an English translation by Donald Keene has recently been republished by New Directions. It opens with an admission: “I can’t even guess myself what it must be like to live the life of a human being.”
Throughout his life, Dazai struggled with his writing, his personal relationships and with the shifting norms of postwar Japanese society. He grappled with alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness. Beneath all this, however, lay a deeper struggle. As he writes in “No Longer Human,” “What frightened me was the logic of the world; in it lay the foretaste of something incalculably powerful.”
Though he is highly regarded today as an author, it has taken some time for Dazai’s writing to gain a wider audience. This is perhaps surprising, since the central theme that runs throughout his work is that of estrangement — the terrain of Dostoevsky’s “Notes From Underground,” Kierkegaard’s journals, Camus’ “The Stranger,” as well as Japan’s “I-Novel” genre.
In his relentless self-examination — often to the point of self-abnegation — he finds the estrangement of the individual from society. But he also finds the idea of a human estranged from being human — to be alienated from one’s own species and, ultimately, from existence itself. It is this fundamentally unhuman feeling that, paradoxically, reveals to Dazai’s characters exactly how human they are.
Estrangement is a strange sort of thing. It’s less than an emotion, but more than an idea. It seems to hover somewhere between affectlessness and vibrancy, an emptying of the self coupled with a world that seems humming with impersonal affects. Lurking beneath Dazai’s mundane and dream-like writing is this fundamental suspicion about being a self at all, incessantly miming the words “I think … ,” “I am … ,” “I could … ,” “I should … .” His characters are never quite convinced.
“No Longer Human” is a coming-of-age story for a Japan traumatically thrown into a world at once postindustrial and postmodern, and yet a world haunted by its past. Dazai’s novel does not provide us with any happy endings, eulogies for a nation or a people, or elegies for the human spirit. There are no grand epiphanies, no heroic struggles, no sufferings stoically endured, no wrongs righted or lovers reunited. While “No Longer Human” does recount a life, it does so in fits and starts, presented as a series of “notebooks” written by its protagonist, Oba Yozo. In them, we witness the strange, pervasive sense of estrangement Yozo feels at home, at school, at work, among friends and lovers and strangers — even in his moments of solitude. In language that is sparse and evocative, Yozo recounts his attempts to adapt, cope and fit in with what everyone else seems to take for granted. As he observes, “I have never been able to meet anyone without an accompaniment of painful smiles, the buffoonery of defeat.”
Yozo tries wearing masks, playing the class clown, the angst-ridden artist, the upstart careerist. He tries art, politics, religion. He is by turns a sensualist, an ascetic, a loafer. But the result is always the same: not “getting” what it means to be human.
Dazai’s characters take on the task only to find themselves more confused and bewildered than before. It’s as if there were some guidebook — How To Be Human, And Why — that was given to everyone else, except Yozo. In a harrowing and profound way, the child at the beginning of Dazai’s novel, perplexed by what he sees on the school playground, is also the adult at the novel’s end, perplexed by what he sees in the adult pantomime around him. In “No Longer Human” one simply gets older, not wiser.
Such an estrangement is almost metaphysical, a perplexity about incessantly finding one’s self ensnared, like prey, in a human world of human beings. And yet Dazai’s characters are refreshingly unintellectual. Theirs is an estrangement that happens spontaneously — while walking, while waiting, in the middle of a conversation. Yozo’s recurring phrase for this is “the dread of human beings.”
“No Longer Human” raises a difficult question: What if being human is the problem, and not simply the solution? What if being human at any cost — even at the cost of the planet on which we live — has actually resulted in the impossibility of being human?
“No Longer Human” ends on a dark note, darker, in a way, than suicide: to fail to be human, to be disqualified as a human being. Dazai leaves it to the reader to decide whether this is a curse or a blessing — or neither. To be a nonentity strangely indifferent to all the accoutrements of human life and society, and yet strangely drawn to the unhuman world of sky, rain, sand, sea, this is where Dazai’s novel ultimately leads, and it’s at this point that it has to end.
In the summer of 1948, Dazai’s corpse is discovered, along with his mistress, having drowned in the Tamagawa canal in Tokyo’s Mitaka neighborhood. The novel he was working on at the time — titled “Goodbye” — remains unfinished.
This is the second article in a series on pessimism in Japanese literature. Eugene Thacker is the author of “In The Dust Of This Planet” (Zero Books, 2011) and “Cosmic Pessimism” (Univocal, 2015).