The Rebirth of the Author

EAJS 2017 Panel Proposal


In 2017 Roland Barthes’ famous essay “The Death of the Author” turns 50. After decades of work inspired by Barthes’ intervention, the once god-like figure of the canonical author has been cut down to size and few scholars need convincing of the dangers of reductively biographical criticism.  Yet critics in recent years have called for new methods of reading that enable a more seamless and productive weaving together of the biographical author with close textual and formal reading, as well as social network analysis; what Hoyt Long, in his book on the author Miyazawa Kenji, calls “seeing the literary forest through the single tree.”  This panel explores new methods of making the author matter that far exceed the sterile division between “sakka-ron”  and “sakuhinron” that once dominated literary study in Japan.  Reiko Abe Auestad’s paper finds in Tsushima Yūko’s novels an ethical strategy that intensifies readers’ relations to characters in a way that depends for its ethical force on the readers’ knowledge of Tsushima’s own life. Kirsten Cather engages the work of Tsushima’s father, Dazai Osamu, to ask what happens when the “promise of autobiographical literary criticism” meets an author whose work was as much about his death as his life.  Finally, Shimamura Teru reads three stories by Shiga Naoya in which he finds not only a reflection of the author’s self, but a deeper layer containing signs and portents that seem to derive from an archaic Japanese past. It is in these deeper layers, Shimamura argues, that we can glimpse a connection with the divine in the authorial image of Shiga, the so-called God of Novels. J. Keith Vincent will serve as discussant and will frame the panel with short remarks on the recent “rebirth of the author” in Japan, in the form of an android version of canonical author Natsume Sōseki, whose uncanny appearance and lifelike facial expressions remind readers in Japan, and elsewhere, that 150 years after his birth, this author is far from dead. 


«Tsushima Yûko: Calling upon the Dead»


Reiko Abe Auestad,  University of Oslo


Avishai Margalit distinguishes between an ethics “that tells us how we should regulate our thick relations” with family, friends, and others who are close to us, from a “morality” that concerns our “thin relations,” with those with whom we share only a common humanity. While Margalit points toward the difficulty of reconciling these two, in this paper  I argue that Tsushima Yūko’s novels show how the distinction can be disrupted.  I read Warai Ôkami (Laughing Wolves ) against her more explicitly autobiographical work, “Mahiru e”—as a novelistic experiment at turning “thin relations” into “thick” ones through the act of remembering.


In a 2001 interview with Shishôsetsu kenkyûkai, Tsushima argued that it is impossible to write a work of fiction which is not somehow rooted in the authorial “I,” and that all fiction is therefore a form of “shishôsetsu.”  Overemphasis on the value of fictive imagination and so-called “socially important themes” can, she warns, not only kill the “I” in a work, but can also kill off its relation to humanity (and thus its status as literature) altogether. 


Many of Tsushima’s novels are haunted by deaths of people close to her in real life, including her father, Dazai Osamu, her mentally handicapped brother, and her own son. At the same time, the novels enable the “rebirth” of these figures by way of affective association and creative remembering.   Indeed, the great power of Tsushima’s novels lies in their ability to evoke the presence of these ghosts. The network of affective associations that they trigger in us through our knowledge of her life creates the very visceral qualities that render “thick” our ethical experience of reading about these people whom we have never met.


Re-evaluating the “I-novel” Reading Mode in Shiga Naoya’s “Kōjinbutsu no fūfu,” “Wakai,” and “Takibi”


Locating Dazai in Landscape and Literature

Kirsten Cather (University of Texas at Austin)


In Dazai Osamu’s birthplace of Aomori, visitors are invited to “walk through the town where he left his scent.” In Mitaka, monthly tours operated by the local arts council allow visitors to see his favorite unagi shop where he ate and drank, the places where he wrote and met with editors, as well as the locales that he incorporated into his autobiographical fiction. Visiting these haunts, a word that appropriately suggests the ghostly remains of this long dead author, we are assured that “‘Dazai’ is standing just around the corner.” But what kind of spectral presence is available in these locales and in these literary works that he wrote, and sometimes also set, in these places? What kind of promise is offered here? Nothing less than the promise of autobiographical literary criticism: to merge with the long dead author through creative acts of reading that firmly locate the author in a world that is at once fictional and real. Literature and landscape offer what the philosopher Robert Pogue Harrison has called the “multitude of recesses where the shadow images of the dead maintain a privative presence.”


Since early 2000, city officials have promoted literary tourism in Mitaka, nominally as the “town where Dazai Osamu lived” (Dazai ga ikita machi), but they are also clearly capitalizing on its status as the place where he committed suicide in 1948. This paper considers what happens when autobiographical modes of literary criticism meet the literal death of an author, particularly one like Dazai whose writing focused on his own death as much, if not more, than his life. I ask: where do we choose to find “Dazai” today and where did he locate himself in life, death, and beyond? And why are we still looking?


Shimamura Teru (Ferris University, Yokohama)


The term “I-novel” [watakushi shōsetsu] is said to have appeared in print for the first time in September of 1920, in Uno Kōji’s novel Amaki yo no hanashi, published in the magazine Chūō Kōron. Originally meant to critique and contest the state of the modern Japanese novel, by the late Taisho and early Shōwa period the term “I-novel” had become normalized as its meaning shifted to designate a uniquely Japanese genre now understood to dominate the main stream of Japanese literary history from the late Meiji period on.


Shiga Naoya’s novels have acquired their canonical status through repeated critical interpretations informed by “I-Novel”-style reading protocols. And yet, considering just the publication dates of three of his most important novels : Kōjinbutsu no fūfu and Wakai (1917) and Takibi (April, 1920), it is problematic to read them exclusively as “I-novels” that are reflective of the author’s own experiences, as works that “record the impressions, sensibility, and mental state of the author via a description of his or her immediate experiences and surroundings.” 


In this presentation, I take a step away from this “I-novel” style of reading to focus on how, in these three Shiga texts, his novelistic language zeroes in on certain “omens,” or “portents,” that seem to emerge from archaic layers of the Japanese language. These layers subtend and connect each of Shiga’s works to the others, and together allow us to glimpse a very different version of Shiga’s received authorial image. Rather than the “purest” of novelists focused only on the most mundane aspects of everyday life, my rereading of “Koujinbutsu no Fufu”, ”Takibi”, and “Wakai”, shows how the so-called God of Novels [shōsetsu no kamisama ] gave us glimpses of the divine in daily life.