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Shaldjian Morrison Study Guide for Mori Ōgai’s Vita Sexualis (1909) “Each time he read a naturalistic novel, he discovered that the author never failed to use every occasion in daily life to represent his hero in reference to sexual desire and that the critics themselves acknowledged these novels accurately depicted life. At the same time he was wondering if such representations were actually true to life, he suspected that perhaps unlike the rest of the human race he might be indifferent to such desires, that he might have an extraordinary natural disposition which might be called frigitas.” (Vita Sexualis, 25) The above quote sums up one of the protagonist Kanai’s main motivations for writing his sexual memoirs: to challenge the notions of sexuality being propagated by Naturalist writers of the day. Ōgai’s main criticism of Naturalism: that the vast sum of human experiences cannot be reduced to mere “sexual drive” (seiyoku). Vita Sexualis is thus often read as a challenge to or parody of Naturalist literature. 1. European Naturalism: “In literary criticism, a word sometimes used loosely as a synonym for realism, and also in reference to works which show a pronounced interest in, sympathy with and love of natural beauty (eg much of the poetry of Wordsworth). Properly speaking, it should be used to describe works of literature which use realistic methods and subjects to convey a philosophical form of naturalism; that is, a belief that everything that exists is a part of nature and can be explained by natural and material causes - and not by supernatural, spiritual, or paranormal causes” (Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literature Terms and Literary Theory. 537-538). European Naturalism … -Developed out of realism + and the literary application of Darwin’s biological theories, Comte’s positivism (i.e., science of society=sociology), Taine’s deterministic theories; -Often focused on social environment as the cause of deficiencies in human beings; -Explored dark themes and was often somber in tone. Emile Zola, the “high priest of Naturalism,” regarded the artist as a “pathologist and physiologist” whose job is to “to dissect, to perform an autopsy on life” by subjecting it to “universal” social and natural laws. Other Zola-inspired Naturalist writers include Maupassant, Tolstoy, Dreiser, Gorki, Chekhov.

2. Japanese Naturalism, which is said to have begun with Tayama Katai’s Futon (1907), . . . * Was less “objective” and “scientific” that its European predecessor; *Placed the focus less on society and more on the protagonist’s subjective state (usually involving sexual desires); *Was more introspective, and often featured a protagonist with some “dark secret” to confess; *Explored/confronted dark themes as it uncovered the protagonist’s “true nature”; *Is written in a colloquial and “transparent” style (genbun itchi). *In his writings, Ōgai was often critical of Naturalism. His main contention: that the mere reproduction of reality does not qualify as art; that scientific observation/analysis is a fine starting point, but by itself is insufficient; and that the subject of art must be both the material and spiritual worlds, and its creation must involve imagination!

In Vita Sexualis, he borrows many elements from the Naturalist novel (scientific/sexological terminology, confessional/memoir form, genbun itchi style, etc) only to parody it, to expose its deficiencies/pretensions. 3. Parody: “The imitative use of the words, style, attitude, tone and ideas of an author in such a way as to make them ridiculous. This is usually achieved by exaggerating certain traits, using more or less the same technique as the cartoon caricaturist. As a branch of satire its purpose may be corrective as well as derisive” (Cuddon, 640).

How is this work a parody of the Japanese Naturalist novel? Possible answers: *It imitates the Japanese Naturalist’s favorite narrative form: the confession. Yet there are several important differences: unlike the typical Naturalist protagonist, Kanai is a straight-laced, stoic type; has no “dark core” at center of self; is more Apollonian than Dionysian; is fully in control of his sexual urges; and provides few titillating details/scenes; etc.). *Ōgai beats the Naturalists at their own game: he employs “naturalistic” (i.e., scientific) terminology far more adeptly than the Naturalists themselves ever could, thus exposing their claims to truth as fraudulent/hypocritical.

4. Frame Story: Vita Sexualis is structured as a frame story, or a story within a story. The first and last sections to the main embedded story constitute the “frame.” (Examples of frame stories in world literature: The Arabian Nights, The Canterbury Tales, Decameron, Heart of Darkness). In Vita

Sexualis, the main body of the text (i.e., Kanai’s first-person account of his sexual experiences from age six to twenty-one) is framed by a first-person omniscient narrator. *What is the purpose of framing Kanai’s story in this way? (Possible answers: To make Kanai appear more reliable than he in fact is; to distance Kanai from Ōgai himself; etc.) *Who is this disembodied (and omniscient) voice at the beginning and end of the novel? What is his relation to Kanai? *Is he in fact the same person as Kanai (as some of my previous students have argued)? *If Kanai=Ōgai (as many Japanese critics have suggested), why did Ōgai insist on distancing himself from himself? 5. Nanshoku 男色 : Male-male erotic love; a practice common throughout Japanese history. Nanshoku began being suppressed in the 1880s; by 1909, it was taboo. Why does Ōgai resurrect this taboo subject? (Possible answer: To challenge the Naturalist assumption that human sexuality is universal, suprahistorical, and knowable through scientific methods.) *Kōha 硬派 (Queers) vs. Nanpa 軟派 (Mashers): The boys in Kanai’s narrative are divided into these two groups. Kōha are characterized by their shabby dress, their Confucian sense of ethics, their philosophic and misogynistic inclinations, and their sexual preference for younger boys. By contrast, boys in the Nanpa group are effeminate, dandyish, sexually interested in women, prefer Western literature and dress to native tradition, and often frequent the red-light districts.

*Which group is Kanai most closely associated with? *Do you find it strange that the “masculine” boys prefer boys, while the “effeminate” boys prefer girls?

Some Questions/Points of Discussion 1. By referencing actual events/places/people in the opening chapter (e.g., Sōseki, the Debakame affair, Naturalist novels, etc), Ōgai invites his readers to read the work in relation to the real world. This mode of reading is called “mimetic criticism.” There are also numerous similarities between Kanai and Ōgai himself, which readers of the day surely would have picked up on. In fact, even today many Japanese readers read the work as a thinly-veiled biography.

Some questions about this:

-Is this mode of reading justified? Or is it a fallacy to attempt to read fiction in relation to the real world? -Should works of fiction instead be read in isolation from the world? (Is such a thing possible?) -When is it OK to read a work as a representation of the real world? When is it not?

2. Vita Sexualis was banned shortly after its first publication. Why? Do you think the censors misunderstood Ōgai’s intentions?

3. This novel was one of few late-Meiji works to acknowledge/depict the custom of nanshoku. Why was this age-old custom suddenly eliminated, its memory repressed? What is Ōgai’s reason for reviving this subject? How does his depiction of the subject reveal an “epistemological gap” between his understanding of the subject and the traditional understanding?

4. How and why do attitudes toward sex change over time? How are our attitudes toward sex/human nature different from, say, the attitudes of our parents’ generation?

Some Further Points of Discussion Discourse of Sex: Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), a kind of encyclopedia of the various types of “perversions,” was first translated into Japanese in 1894, introducing to the Japanese the entirely new concept of “sexual perversion.” Parts of the book are in the form of a confession; Vita Sexualis might be read as a parody of this work as well. [Perhaps a word on Foucault, sex as discourse, etc.] Epistemological gap: A “knowledge gap.” In Vita Sexualis, there are two important “knowledge gaps.” The first is the gap between what the adult narrator Kanai knows and what the young Kanai being described knows. (One example that beautifully illustrates this gap in perception is on 52-53). The second gap involves the different historical understandings of sex. Japanese of the 1870s/80s understood sex/sexuality in a very different way than did the Japanese in 1909; in Vita Sexualis, it is important to remember that early Meiji cultural practices such as nanshoku are being described only through a late Meiji scientific/sexological lens. Ōgai’s point(?): To show that knowledge and the discourse that frames it change over time—a fact which Naturalist writers had apparently forgotten.

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