Review: Andrew Fuhrmannon Abe Kōbō

Beyond the skin: The Frontier Within Essays by Abe Kōbō

Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse (1987) is still the best study in English of the Japanese writer Abe Kōbō’s fiction. She sees the master trope in Abe’s work as an overwhelming desire on the part of his protagonists to dissolve themselves – literally, as a sort of haptic viscera – and enter into the other. Abe’s men – and his protagonists are all men – are surfeited with loneliness. They long to escape the vastness of their isolation by fusing themselves with a woman. What they are after is contact unmediated by the formal limits of the skin. It is what Dworkin calls ‘skinless sex’, the most maximal sensuality, and it relates to the eternal and ancient desire, so raw and so consuming, to get inside the beloved.

Of course, says Dworkin, Abe’s men want both to abandon their suffocating sense of self and also (however paradoxically) to remain master of the sexual encounter. That is, his men want to enjoy, simultaneously, selfishly, the grandeur of their passion and their sacrifice. The tension between these two impulses – for they cannot be had both ways – is the compulsive, motivating power of Abe’s art. As Dworkin explains, skinless sex

is obsession, but obsession is too psychological. It becomes life; and as such, it is a state of being, a metaphysical reality for those in it, for whom no one else exists. It ends when the skin comes back into being as a boundary.

Dworkin’s book places Abe in some pretty eminent company – with the likes of Tolstoy, Tennessee Williams and Flaubert – all, according to Dworkin, writers who intuited more about sex under patriarchy than the patriarchy, and the world it underpinned, was or still is willing to admit.

When Intercourse was first unleashed on the world in 1987, Abe was widely regarded as Japan’s most important living writer. His novel Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna, 1962), turned into an award-winning film by Hiroshi Teshigahara, brought him instant international fame, while his subsequent work – and further films with Teshigahara – made him Japan’s leading candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature through the 1970s and 1980s. He worked in the theatre as both a playwright and a director, and in 1972 he formed his own theatre company in Tokyo, the Abe Kōbō Studio, which toured to New York in 1979.

Since his death in 1993, Abe’s reputation in the West has slipped somewhat. His work is less visible than it once was, and is certainly less prominent than that of his one-time literary rival Yukio Mishima and earlier writers such as Kawabata (Thousand Cranes, Snow Country and The Old Capital) and Tanizaki (The Makioka Sisters, Some Prefer Nettles).

Richard Calichman, editor and translator of The Frontier Within, the first collection of Abe’s essays to be published in English, says that the ‘politics of translation’ might help explain this decline. In the last two decades, he plausibly suggests, the West has tended to look more to those Japanese texts which seem most exotic and ‘authentically’ Japanese. Abe’s outlook, on the other hand, was always deliberately international, and his direct influences are as much European as Japanese. Indeed, it is the standard line to hail Abe for his universality, as Edmund White did in his 1988 review of Abe’s The Ark Sakura (Hakobune Sakura-maru, 1984) in the New York Times. ‘That the author is Japanese seems almost irrelevant,’ wrote White, ‘a tribute to the universality of his fable and the colloquially American flavor of the translation.’

Abe was a prolific essayist, and wrote for most of Japan’s major literary magazines, though The Frontier Within is a surprisingly slim selection. There are only twelve essays here, spanning the first 25 years of Abe’s career: from 1944, when he was an unpublished poet studying medicine at Tokyo University, to 1969, two years after the publication of his ninth novel. Calichman seems primarily intent on giving a sense of Abe’s intellectual development and the theory that underlay it, as well as some insight into his critical temper, otherwise faintly sensed in the novels at the back of a generalised ambience of menace and hermeneutic enigma.

It makes for a strange collection. In the earliest of the essays collected here, ‘Poetry and Poets (Consciousness and the Unconscious)’, we find the undergraduate poet manqué labouring over ontological questions, trying to link poetry to the movements of the heavens. Ten years later, Heidegger has given way to Marxist literary theory, to Stalin on linguistics and Mao Zedong on knowledge and practice. It’s a bit of a grind to read (as it presumably was to write). Towards the end of the 1950s, he shifts in the direction of Sartre’s literature of ‘engagement’ and the responsibility of writers to work for political change. Later, in essays such as ‘Discovering America’ and ‘The Military Look’, we find him aping the nonchalant journalistic semiotics of Roland Barthes.

By the mid 1960s, Abe settled into a more original and incisive style, so that the last six essays in this collection show the author at his best: committed, intelligent and deeply curious about the workings of the world and the way writing can map it, or unmap it. Abe’s abiding interest is the relationship between the artist and what Nietzsche calls those ‘terrible bulwarks’ with which the state protects itself against the old instincts of freedom: the military, the police, the schools, the prisons and all the other walls and enclosures of civil society. Still, returning to Dworkin, it is possible to see how even in Abe’s non-fiction, the formal limit of the body – the epidermal limit (how can we shed our skins?) – continues to fascinate.

In 1965, long before the rise of the so-called science of innovation, Abe was asking whether creativity could be taught in schools, arguing that fostering freedom of thought and originality among students was the only way to resist and ultimately transform Japan’s militaristic culture. In the essay ‘Possibilities for Education Today’, he turns to Helen Keller, the American woman born deaf and blind, and to methods of teaching similarly afflicted children using touch alone as a way to escape the traditional ‘chains of thought’:

When I saw [these deaf and blind children], I felt enlightened by the fact that the educational sequence was so different from what it is generally. At the same time, I learned that there was enormous potential to educate people, and that infinite possibilities were available if one could just find the right methods to unlock that potential.

He does not speculate on what those methods might be. It is only in the fiction and the plays that he allows old ways to be torn to pieces by the ‘god of corporeality’ (as he puts it in an essay not collected here) – and to imagine a new world. The image of deaf and blind children in a world of darkness or of pure touch was already there in his novel The Face of Another (Tanin no kao, 1964):

How wonderful it would be, frankly, if everybody in the world would suddenly lose his sight or forget the existence of light. Immediately there would be agreement about form. Everybody would accept the fact that a loaf of bread is a loaf of bread whether triangular or round.

It is a utopian dream, that we might all take and eat of one bread; and it’s still there, although the dream is more explicitly an impossible dream, in Box Man (Hako otoko, 1973), where, as Andrea Dworkin describes it:

a man gives up society and lives in a box; the box is his skin; he gives up the box finally to have sex with a woman; they are skinless together – he is skinless without his box, she is skinless naked; when she dresses, their love is over, which is unbearable, so he locks her in the building where they have been living and cuts off the electricity so that in the dark it will be as if she were naked.

The man sits in the dark, which works both to conceal his own despised nakedness and to preserve her idealised nakedness. Only in darkness can he recover the radical innocence of skinless touch, of touch that knows no separation, that is limitless and without boundaries – at least, that’s the hope. But Abe’s men are characteristically frustrated in their desires, because they are ultimately unwilling to sacrifice the sense of self-possession which the skin of identity locks in.

The skin, according to Dworkin, is the frontier between the remnant world, the absolute limit to what we can know of others, and to our apprehension of human community, a frontier, a borderline. Like his protagonists, Abe is always kicking against these limits. More often than not in his novels, the motivating problem is sex. But in the essays we see just how far this restless urge to get outside really goes. Whether he is interrogating the institutions of the state and its power, or probing the progressive creep of fascist attitudes in everyday life, Abe always implies a desire to transcend, and his hope of outwitting the confines of the box.

In a speech from August 1969, the final piece in The Frontier Within, Abe said of his sometime friend and intimate enemy, the artist-samurai Yukio Mishima:

I sent [him] an invitation to come today, but of course I knew that he wouldn’t. He called to tell me that he wouldn’t be able to attend. It’s fine that he’s not here. He mentioned that he’s been directing a Kabuki play, which will debut on November 5. ‘So it’s a contest, then. It seems that I’m always competing with you,’ I replied.

A year later, Mishima was dead. He committed seppuku, the full ritual self-evisceration of the Bushido knights, an act he had prefigured and celebrated many times over in his fiction, at the headquarters of the Eastern Command of the Japan Self-Defence Forces, after failing in his bid to incite a military coup.

The two writers form a wild contrast. Born only a year apart, they were in their day the two best-known Japanese authors alive, at home and internationally. They both worked in the theatre and they both grounded their art in fervent political commitment. Mishima was a far-right nationalist, sometimes seen as the greatest truly fascist writer who ever lived, and at least the greatest literary reactionary since Dostoevsky; Abe was an internationalist in sensibility and communist in his sympathies. In fact, he was a member of the Japanese Communist Party for more than a decade, but was expelled in 1962.

Faced with the yawning abyss of social alienation that confronted Japanese artists after World War Two, Mishima worked to recuperate and rekindle traditional forms and themes, rejecting modernist fragmentation in favour of a distinctly Japanese neo-classicism: deliberately exotic in its aristocratic barbarism and its erotic, frequently homosexual, violence, through which Western influences were adapted and re-figured. Abe, on the other hand, has an affinity with experimentalism, the strenuous subversion of forms that, in different ways, characterises Kafka, Beckett, Sartre and Joyce. He argued that art was ‘progressive’ or nothing. And his novels tantalise with what this might mean. They are full of cinematic gestures and dynamic shifts in voice.

And yet, whatever his influences, Abe is not a man without a country. The Frontier Within makes it clear that he renounced nothing in his Japanese heritage, nor he did attempt to transform that heritage through critical reconstruction or iconoclasm. In the essay ‘Beyond the Neighbor’, he says:

Regardless of whether or not we problematize ‘tradition,’ it is impossible to escape from it. ‘Tradition’ is precisely that from which one can never escape. No matter how much I might claim to lack ‘tradition’, I am nevertheless forced, for example, to think within the linguistic structure of the Japanese language.

But heritage, though unavoidable, should always be secondary for a post-war artist. In an essay from 1965, Abe writes that uniquely national ways of thinking are less nourishing: like it or not, contemporary writers must opt for universality. ‘I believe that the most contemporary and effective way for us to view tradition,’ he says, ‘is as a trap, something dangerous and likely to drag us inside it.’ This apprehension underlies, for instance, his short play The Suitcase (1973), about a woman worrying over a locked case in which she can hear the mingled voices of her husband’s ancestors. She forces the lock and is about to open the case when at the last moment she changes her mind and keeps the ghosts at bay.

Here ‘universality’ means – in the first instance – economic, political and cultural globalisation. For Abe, urbanisation is the central transformational-revolutionary fact. It is the growth of cities and the migration of people from the country to the swollen cities that makes nationalism irrelevant. Cities are the heart and soul of the state, and one major city is much the same as another.

Counter to this global transformation, which constitutes the social space and the very geography of society, Abe identifies the persistence of so-called ‘agrarian ideas’, whereby the land is still celebrated as sacred, essential and foundational to the state’s formation and its strong continuance. Abe implies that, as more and more people are alienated from the land, the belief in the country, the agrarian faith, becomes a negative theology. The imagined national community stands on a resistance to the city, on a suspicion of all that is not folkish or pastoral, and against anything cosmopolitan or internationalist or migratory.

According to Abe, any modern belief in a distinct ‘national culture’ – be it European, American or Asian – is necessarily grounded in anti-urban sentimentalism. Real culture does not come from the cities, so the myth goes, it comes from the soil:

Must ‘authentic citizens’ appeal to antiurban or native elements in order to preserve their ‘authentic culture’? Must we for the sake of our culture stand barefoot on mother earth and purify the filth from cities?

According to this myth, this pastoral as populist political rhetoric, some citizens are more real than others:

Authentic citizens thus appear in the form of peasants, while pseudocitizens are driven off to the cities. In reality, it is the city that is the backbone of the state; on the scale of authenticity, however, the city is merely a frontier within.

So Abe’s universality – in the second instance – means resisting the ideology of authenticity, an ideology divorced from contemporary reality. The model for his universalism is Kafka, more particularly in his Jewish aspect. Abe sees in the cultural ferment of large cities a frontier against pastoral nonsense, a frontier first opened up in the early twentieth century by writers of Jewish background. Kafka’s Jewishness might seem to bind him to the tradition of one folk, but Abe’s point is that for Kafka, and other European Jewish artists and thinkers, Jewishness is the tradition of the city-against-the-land, of a people driven off land and always excluded from the state’s fantasy of blood and soil – the heroic richness of peasant and patriot.

The pastoral myth legitimises the ideology of the state: a sense of ‘the land’ creates solidarity. A recurring question in Abe’s work is whether social organisations can exist without fealty, whether a polity based on disobedience and anti-patriotism is possible – a polity that could embrace betrayal and apostasy, deception, treachery and vagabondage. This preoccupation is dimly visible beneath the opaque varnish of his Woman in the Dunes, where the captive protagonist, put to work in a strange village, finally accepts his new life amid the shifting sands; but it is more explicit in, say, Ark Sakura, with its comic representation of a would-be community of derelicts and the alienated in a labyrinthine fallout shelter, chasing after each another with flashlights and air rifles.

Abe’s attitude to the role of the artist in creating such organisations is somewhat ambiguous. First of all, art must not serve the state, must not perpetuate the lie of authenticity. ‘In speaking with Mishima,’ says Abe, ‘I again realized that what we call “art” must ruin the nation …’ But what is art that ‘ruins’ the nation? Is his universality only the art of refusal? Creating by negation the conditions where a radically different politics might exist?

Abe is always described – and not only in the West – as a Kafkaesque writer. In his novels, plays and stories, metamorphoses and bureaucratic absurdities abound. And of course he is obsessed by images of confinement, disorientation, marginal identity and sexual inadequacy. But for Abe himself, Kafka is more than just an icon of estrangement and alienation. He is the pre-eminent poet of the ruined state – wandering Jew, army deserter, wastrel hippie of Shinjuku, hopeless nomad going nowhere. He is the exemplary figure of the artist who says no to the state and defies its doctrine of power. Kafka is the ‘No! in thunder’, which is also Bartleby’s ‘I would prefer not to’. He refuses to participate, to accommodate, to believe.

Kōbō Abe was born in Tokyo in 1924 and grew up in Japanese occupied Manchuria. He returned to Japan after the war to study medicine at Tokyo University. He complains that his early education was ‘completely militarist’, and he struggled against this influence in Japanese society throughout his life. As a child, he was considered good at mathematics, and his hobbies, such as insect collecting, were of a scientific bent. His father was a professor of medicine, but Abe was apparently no great shakes as a medical student. Although he did succeed in graduating, he never practised as a doctor. Still, his medical training or systematic temperament has left traces in his fiction. Medical and technical terms litter books such as Inter Ice Age 4 (Daiyon kampyōki, 1959) and The Face of Another. Kangaroo Notebook (Kangarū nōto, 1991), a dream-like novel about a man whose legs begin sprouting beanshoots, features several long digressive sections about hospital beds.

The insects return, too. The man who is imprisoned by desperate villagers in Woman in the Dunes is an amateur entomologist searching for an unclassified species of beetle. In what may be his most memorable imaginative creation, Abe has a fictional beetle called the eupcaccia that becomes the totem spirit of Ark Sakura – an insect which has no need of legs because it eats only its own faeces, or rather the bacteria which grows on its faeces, so that it interminably circles itself, self-perpetuating, self-parasitic:

It begins ingesting at dawn and ceases at sunset, then sleeps till morning. Since its head always points in the direction of the sun, it also functions as a timepiece.

More than anything else, it is the visual clarity and realistic detail with which he builds his scenes that creates the sense of scientific precision. Think of his careful, step-by-step instructions in Box Man for the construction of ‘the box’. We then get his explanation of how to move while wearing the box, the way to throw bricks when you are inside the box, the way to fight from within the box. It is so exhaustive you start to think that he must have tried it out himself. This, again, is that uncanny use of high realism we get in Kafka, most notably in Metamorphosis and ‘In the Penal Colony’.

Abe believed that visualisation, the image in the mind, was the strongest provocation to language; it was the primary urge that led to creativity or imaginative embodiment. He explains this in ‘Does the Visual Image Destroy the Walls of Language?’:

In order for fiction to shock language … and recover the energy needed to revitalize it, one must first depart from the framework of fiction and experience the shared task of art. In this sense, I am certainly an ultra visual imagist in comparison with other visual imagists, and that is also how I regard myself.

The visual images conjured in his imagination subvert traditions and habits of language and demand new structures. In describing the exact dimensions of a room, the precise shade of a curtain, the exact layout of a street, Abe is first of all responding to the destructive power of the images in his head, using ‘the force of his linguistic impulse’ to create anew where clichés have been obliterated. And if his precise descriptions conjure visual images for the reader, well, that is the progressive, as well as the progressivist renovation of literature. This, ultimately, is the object of art:

One might say that the task of art consists in temporarily disturbing [the balance between perception and reason] so as to make use of its restorative force in a progressive manner in order to expand and develop knowledge as a whole.

Again, we are back to artists as agents of the ruined state. Writers do not or should not draw new maps, but rather punch holes in the old ones, in the useless maps of old customs and directories which constrain our thinking in much the same way that the skin of the lover constrains his visceral passion. ‘Novelists have an obligation,’ he writes, ‘to participate in the making of dynamite so as to ensure the destruction of language.’

While on the subject of this new – or perhaps ‘schizoanalytic’ – cartography, it is worth noting how often The Frontier Within touches on images and shadows of ideas that have an affinity with the post-structuralist philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Japan was especially receptive to the work of this duo of thinkers, particularly in the 1980s. Guattari visited Japan several times in this period and wrote extensively about Japanese culture. He said in an interview in 1985: ‘There is for example someone for whom I have great respect, Kōbō Abe, who is truly singular and Kafkaesque.’ Indeed, it is interesting to note that in 1968, the same year in which Deleuze introduced the unsettling (or de-settling) idea of nomadic distribution as a potential in Difference and Repetition – an idea later developed with Guattari into the concept of ‘nomadology‘ – Abe can be found similarly preoccupied with nomadic peoples and the thought of discovering a freedom beyond the reach of the mediation of the state:

Unlike the occupations on the part of fixed states, these nomadic peoples did not see the need to redraw borders; rather they allowed the destroyed borders to remain destroyed. Those peoples living a settled existence had hitherto believed that the borders of their land marked the ends of the earth, but now the real horizon suddenly appeared before them, stretching off infinitely into the distance.

There has always been a resonance noted, at least in academic circles, between the novels and plays of Abe and the thought of Deleuze and Guattari – the similarity of interest in Kafka, the molecular flows of A Thousand Plateaus and the shifting sands in Woman in the Dunes, the construction of a face in The Face of Another – but the essays in The Frontier Within brings it home for English speakers. For instance, Calichman translates the phrase nigedashippanashi as ‘sustained flight’, but the Deleuzian ‘line of flight’ (ligne de fuite) would do the trick just as well. As Abe writes in ‘The Frontier Within II’:

The notion that we need to cultivate concerns the state of sustained flight. What does this mean? Whereas settling down somewhere is a basic condition, remaining in a state of sustained flight is a process. We carry within ourselves a prejudice that this process invariably involves settling down somewhere. My point here consists in shedding doubt on this prejudice.

Here we can see what he is looking for beyond the skin, the border and the frontier. Abe – crucially – sees himself engaged in a project which is also a process, or a flight. He does not see himself as a universal artist already set in his achievement, but as an artist constantly in transit, constantly becoming universal.

Again, this is why we ought to be careful when attributing universality to Abe and his work, and of being too free with that ubiquitous adjective ‘Kafkaesque’. Abe doesn’t have the dazzling, baffling, unfathomable originality of a Kafka – that sense in which, as Sartre noted, Kafka is all the more universal because he is so deeply singular. In a way, it is Mishima – a disaster so untimely and awful, so turned around and twisted and obsessive – who is the more universal or at least singular artist. Mishima was, as it were, always already universal: a man born into the wrong time, in whom alienated men and women could see their own blurred reflection, and therefore an impossible person, an instant genius and an inevitable outcast – and he was universally recognised as such.

Abe had none of that. He is not a Hamlet figure, still less a Raskolnikov or Stavrogin involved in some eviscerating portrait of the artist-as-hero. He had to pull himself away consciously, piece by fragmented piece, away from the old order and into a new global territory, a new earth. And it is this process of becoming, of dramatising the refusal of territorial limitation and cultural authenticity, which Abe sees as the ultimate responsibility of all artists:

Is it not the duty of writers who are conscious of contemporaneity to, at the very least, reject all ‘beliefs in legitimacy’ and attempt an internal defection to the frontier within?

It sounds portentous, but the seriousness is real and has its vindication in the art it underpins. For Abe, the point of ruining the state was never really to overthrow the state, only to encourage what he darkly calls its ‘autointoxication’ – in other words, to remake himself and feel in his guts the universal morality of the nomads, the hobos, the Jews who wander the world without settlement. It was left for the histrionic and terrible Mishima to organise the coup d’état and offer himself as a literal sacrifice, to reveal for the world what Dworkin calls – in relation to the skinless embrace – the ‘unspeakably, grotesquely visceral’.

‘In his work,’ Dworkin writes of Abe, ‘sexual intercourse is a metaphor for the human condition.’ In The Frontier Within, we catch a glimpse of the condition as Abe sees it, without the metaphor. Just as in the sex lives of Abe’s protagonists the ultimate goal of dissolution eludes them, so too in Abe’s non-fiction there is a plangent note of frustration:

… the earth has everywhere come to be divided by fixed states, and beyond their borders lay only other, similar fixed states. Have all hearts now lost the need for migrant, mobile rhythms? Does not even one awkward person remain who finds himself confused by the fact that his heart beats out of rhythm?

In the conversation between Abe and Mishima quoted above, Abe reproaches Mishima for not spending enough time rehearsing his new Kabuki play. Mishima tells him that he is too preoccupied with the military business of saving the nation to worry about the ‘tiresome’ business of the stage. Mishima was at that time the head of his own personal militia. All the creator of Woman in the Dunes can say to him is:

Then it can’t be helped. I’ll focus on the art of a ruined nation while you go ahead and fight for the country.

In the grim wake of World War Two, it says something about Japan that it produced two such extraordinary writers at such extremes. The Frontier Within, slim and occasionally difficult as it is, gives us some clue as to what went on in the mind of the saner and milder of these two great writers.