Thursday, 24 January 2013

Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness

Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness - Kenzaburo Ōe

This is the title story in this collection and it deals with the relationship between a father and his son, who has a brain defect. It opens, almost dramatically, with the father almost thrown to a polar bear, an experience which, we are told, led to him being "released from the fetters of an old obsession."

The father, who is known as "the fat man" throughout, has focussed all his energy on caring for his son. It is as if the birth of his son had created a new version of him. The doctor tells him  "Even if we operate I'm afraid the infant will either die or be an idiot, one or the other." "That instant, something inside the fat man irreparably broke. And the baby who was either to die or be an idiot quickly elbowed out the breakage, as cancer destroys and then replaces normal cells." 

This is one of those moments that Ōe seems to hinge his stories on, the birth of an "idiot child", the death of a father,  the end of WW2 in defeat and the Emperors fall into humanity, the dropping of the atomic bomb. What do we do when everything changes, without warning. Fall apart - "In arranging for the operation the fat man dashed about so frantically that his own in those days meagre body might well have broken down. His nervous system was like a chaos of numbness and hypersensitivity, an inflamed wound which had begun to heal but only in spots: fearfully he would touch places in himself and feel no pain at all; a moment later, when relief had lowered his guard, a scorching pain would make him rattle."

But this isn't the first of these situations that the fat man has faced. He has also suffered the early loss of his father. And subsequent to his father's death, his mother's refusal to discuss it, a refusal which she takes to great lengths and which leads to tension between them, and madness, feigned or real. "As a child, whenever he began to question her bout his fathers confinement and sudden death, his mother had closed the road to communication by pretending to go mad. It reached a point where the fat man would affect madness himself before his mother had a chance, smashing everything in reach and even tumbling backwards off the stone wall at the edge of the garden and down the briary slope. But even at times like these, his sense of victory was tiny and essentially futile: he never managed to make contact. Ever since, for close to twenty years, the tension of a showdown between two gunmen on a movie set had sustained itself between them - who would be the first to affect madness and so win an occult trophy?"

 To deal with his fathers death he tries to recreate him: "He moreover concluded, with renewed conviction, that his relationship with his own father, who had died suddenly when he was a child, must be the source of the somehow mistaken, insincere, unbalanced quality he had to recognise in himself, and he undertook somehow to recreate a whole image of the man, whom he remembered only vaguely."

To deal with his son's disability he immerses himself completely in caring for his son. He even sleeps at night with his hand reaching out to his son, in case he wakes up and is anxious. He starts to feel that he in some way completes his son, being aware of his pain and able to anticipate his needs and communicate his wants and fears to others. It is almost as if, he feels, they share the same nervous system. "Until his son began to peel from his consciousness like a scab, the fat man was convinced that he experienced directly whatever physical pain his son was feeling."

Why does his son start to peel from his consciousness? It is a result of the fat man's close brush with death by polar bear. This in some way brings him to realise his own individuality, his own essential freedom. But this freedom is not wholly welcome -  "..The loneliness of the freedom he had acquired that morning at the zoo had quite intimidated him, and so he cried in the stinking darkness beneath the covers where he could be certain he was unobserved."

He has to face the fact that rather that simply sacrificing himself to looking after his son's needs he was looking for something for himself. "In truth, he enjoyed thinking of himself as a passive victim quietly enduring a bondage imposed by his son." He has used "the warm and heavy presence on his shoulders which sometimes felt, to his confusion, more like his guardian spirit than his ward" as a way to fill his own life and leave little space for anything else.

The issues raised in this story are difficult ones to resolve. They echo profoundly with details from Ōe's own life. Just like the first two stories in this collection, which I have already written about, this is a story that will stay with me and attract me back for future rereads.


  1. This idea is repeated in Oe's fiction, and 'A Personal Matter' explores the idea of the unbelieveing father of a mentally-disabled child in more depth.

    Another great review - one more to go?

    1. Yrs, one more out of this book but a couple of other #JanuaryinJapan reviews coming up.

  2. This blog series on Ōe makes me want to pick up these novellas. I've got a copy somewhere.