Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994, Kenzaburo Ōe’s (OH-way) short story ‘われらの狂気を生き延びる道を教えよ’, ‘Warera no kyōki wo ikinobiru michi wo oshieyo’ (translated by John Nathan as ‘Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness’) was published in 1969, five years after his novel ‘A Personal Matter’ which dealt with the birth of a disabled child (based on his own son Hikari). This story also tells of a protagonist who has a brain damaged child, the protagonist known only as the “fat man” (I wonder if Lydia Davis’ short story ‘What She Know’ was influenced by this “fat man”?)
What She Knew
People did not know what she knew, that she was not really a woman but a man, often a fat man, but more often, probably, an old man. The fact that she was an old man made it hard for her to be a young woman. It was hard for her to talk to a young man, for instance, though the young man was clearly interested in her. She had to ask herself, Why is this young man flirting with this old man?
At the opening of the story Ōe’s “fat man” is being thrown into polar bear enclosure. As we later learn he was at the zoo with his disabled son, who he calls by a nickname Eeyore a character from A.A. Milne’s ‘Winnie The Pooh’. What we do know is that the title of the story comes from “a line from a wartime poem by an English poet” a line that resided in the “fat man” “always, as if it were his prayer.” In fact it comes from W.H. Auden’s (British American) poem ‘Commentary’.
Lydia Davis also wrote a short story ‘How W.H. Auden Spends the Night in a Friend’s House:’, I won’t repeat the text of that here, you’ll have to buy her collected short stories, it is about only achieving peaceful sleep with a heavy weight pressing down on him.
Ōe’s setting with a polar bear had me thinking of a recent Japanese writer, Yōko Tawada and her novel ‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ which she self-translated into German and Susan Bernofsky translated that version into English!!!
A 50-page short story and oh so many diversions. I will look at the book of four “short novels” that goes under the tile of ‘Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness’ at some later stage as it contains earlier and later works, and many many layers Ōe’s writings. In the meantime, here is the poem by W.H. Auden that resides in Ōe’s “fat man”.
Season inherits legally from dying season;
Protected by the wide peace of the sun, the planets
Continue their circulations; and the galaxy
Is free for ever to revolve like an enormous biscuit:
With all his engines round him and the summer flowers,
Little upon his little earth, man contemplates
The universe of which he is both judge and victim;
A rarity in an uncommon corner, gazes
On the great trackways where his tribe and truth are nothing.
Certainly the growth of the fore-brain has been a success:
Me has not got lost in a backwater like the lampshell
Or the limpet; he has not died out like the super-lizards.
His boneless worm-like ancestors would be amazed
At the upright position, the breasts, the four-chambered heart,
The clandestine evolution in the mother s shadow.
“Sweet is it,’’ say the doomed, “to be alive though wretched,”
And the young emerging from the closed parental circle,
To whose uncertainty the certain years present
Their syllabus of limitless anxiety and labour,
At first feel nothing but the gladness of their freedom,
Are happy in the new embraces and the open talk.
But liberty to be and weep has never been sufficient;
The winds surround our griefs, the unfenced sky
To all our failures is a taciturn unsmiling witness.
And not least here, among this humorous and hairless people
Who like a cereal have inherited these valleys:
Tarim nursed them; Thibet was the tall rock of their protection,
And where the Yellow River shifts its course, they learnt
How to live well, though ruin threatened often.
For centuries they looked in fear towards the northern defiles,
But now must turn and gather like a fist to strike
Wrong coming from the sea, from those whose paper houses
Tell of their origin among the coral islands;
Who even to themselves deny a human freedom,
And dwell in the estranging tyrant’s vision of the earth
In a calm stupor under their blood-spotted flag.
Here danger works a civil reconciliation,
Interior hatreds are resolved upon this foreign foe,
And will-power to resist is growing like a prosperous city.
For the invader now is deadly and impartial as a judge:
Down country footpaths, from each civic sky,
His anger blows alike upon the rich, and all
Who dwell within the crevices of destitution,
On those with a laborious lifetime to recall, and those,
The innocent and short whose dreams contain no children.
While in an international and undamaged quarter,
Casting our European shadows on Shanghai,
Walking unhurt among the banks, apparently immune
Below the monuments of an acquisitive society,
With friends and books and money and the traveller s freedom,
We are compelled to realize that our refuge is a sham.
For this material contest that has made Hongkew
A terror and a silence, and Chapei a howling desert,
Is but the local variant of a struggle in which all,
The elderly, the amorous, the young, the handy and
Those to whom feeling is a science, those to whom study
Of all that can be added and compared is a consuming love,
With those whose brains are empty as a school in August,
And those in whom the urge to action is so strong
They cannot read a letter without whispering, all
In cities, deserts, ships, in lodgings near the port,
Discovering the past of strangers in a library,
Creating their own future on a bed, each with his treasure,
Self-confident among the laughter and the petits verres,
Or motionless and lonely like a moping cormorant,
In all their living are profoundly implicated.
This is one sector and one movement of the general war
Between the dead and the unborn, the Real and the Pretended,
Which for the creature who creates, communicates, and chooses,
The only animal aware of lack of finish,
In essence is eternal. When we emerged from holes
And blinked in the warm sunshine of the Laufen Ice Retreat,
Thinking of Nature as a close and loyal kinsman,
On every acre the opponents faced each other,
And we were far within the zone where casualties begin.
Now in a world that has no localized events,
Where not a tribe exists without its dossier,
And the machine has taught us how, to the Non-Human,
That unprogressive blind society that knows
No argument except the absolute and violent veto,
Our colours, creeds and sexes are identical,
The issue is the same. Some uniforms are new,
Some have changed sides; but the campaign continues:
Still unachieved is Jen, the Truly Human.
This is the epoch of the Third Great Disappointment:
The First was the collapse of that slave-owning empire
Whose yawning magistrate asked, ‘‘What is truth?’’
Upon its ruins rose the Plainly Visible Churches:
Men camped like tourists under their tremendous shadows,
United by a common sense of human failure,
Their certain knowledge only of the timeless fields
Where the Unchanging Happiness received the faithful,
And the Eternal Nightmare waited to devour the doubters.
In which a host of workers, famous and obscure,
Meaning to do no more than use their eyes,
Not knowing what they did, then sapped belief;
Put in its place a neutral dying star,
Where Justice could not visit. Self was the one city,
The cell where each must find his comfort and his pain,
The body nothing but a useful favourite machine
To go upon errands of love and to run the house,
While the mind in its study spoke with its private God.
But now that wave which already was washing the heart,
When the cruel Turk stormed the gates of Constantine s city,
When Galileo muttered to himself, “sed movet,”
And Descartes thought, “I am because I think,”
Today, all spent, is silently withdrawing itself:
Unhappy he or she who after it is sucked.
Never before was the Intelligence so fertile,
The Heart more stunted. The human field became
Hostile to brotherhood and feeling like a forest.
Machines devised by harmless clergymen and boys
Attracted men like magnets from the marl and clay
Into towns on the coal-measures, to a kind of freedom,
Where the abstinent with the landless drove a bitter bargain,
But sowed in that act the seeds of an experienced hatred,
Which, germinating long in tenement and gas-lit cellar,
Is choking now the aqueducts of our affection.
Knowledge of their colonial suffering has cut off
The Hundred Families like an attack of shyness;
The apprehensive rich pace up and down
Their narrow compound of success; in every body
The ways of living are disturbed; intrusive as a sill,
Fear builds enormous ranges casting shadows,
Heavy, bird-silencing, upon the outer world,
Hills that our grief sighs over like a Shelley, parting
All that we feel from all that we perceive,
Desire from Data; and the Thirteen gay Companions
Grow sullen now and quarrelsome as mountain tribes.
We wander on the earth, or err from bed to bed
In search of home, and fail, and weep for the lost ages
Before Because became As If, or rigid Certainty
The Chances Are. The base hear us, and the violent
Who long to calm our guilt with murder, and already
Have not been slow to turn our wish to their advantage.
On every side they make their brazen offer:
Now in that Catholic country with the shape of Cornwall,
Where Europe first became a term of pride,
North of the Alps where dark hair turns to blonde,
In Germany now loudest, land without a centre
Where the sad plains are like a sounding rostrum,
And on these tidy and volcanic summits near us now,
From which the Black Stream hides the Tuscarora Deep,
The voice is quieter but the more inhuman and triumphant.
By wire and wireless, in a score of bad translations,
They give their simple message to the world of man :
“Man can have Unity if Man will give up Freedom.
The State is real, the Individual is wicked;
Violence shall synchronize your movements like a tune,
And Terror like a frost shall halt the flood of thinking.
Barrack and bivouac shall he your friendly refuge,
And racial pride shall tower like a public column
And confiscate for safety every private sorrow.
Leave Truth to the police and us; we know the Good;
We build the Perfect City time shall never alter;
Our Law shall guard you always like a cirque of mountains,
Your ignorance keep off evil like a dangerous sea;
You shall be consummated in the General Will,
Your children innocent and charming as the beasts.”
All the great conquerors sit upon their platform,
Lending their sombre weight of practical experience:
Ch’in Shih Huang Ti, who burnt the scholars’ books,
Chaka the mad, who segregated the two sexes,
And Genghis Khan, who thought mankind should be destroyed,
And Diocletian the administrator, make impassioned speeches.
Napoleon claps who found religion useful,
And all who passed deception of the People, or who said
Like Little Frederick, “I shall see that it is done.”
While many famous clerks support their programme:
Plato the good, despairing of the average man,
With sad misgiving signs their manifesto;
Shang-tzu approves their principle of Nothing Private;
The author of The Prince will heckle; Hobbes will canvass,
With generalizing Hegel and quiet Bosanquet.
And every family and every heart is tempted:
The earth debates; the Fertile Crescent argues;
Even the little towns upon the way to somewhere,
Those desert flowers the aeroplane now fertilizes,
Quarrel on this; in England far away,
Behind the high tides and the navigable estuaries;
In the Far West, in absolutely free America,
In melancholy Hungary, and clever France
Where ridicule has acted a historic rôle,
And here where the rice-grain nourishes these patient households
The ethic of the feudal citadel has impregnated,
Thousands believe, and millions are half-way to a conviction.
Nor do our leaders help; we know them now
For humbugs full of vain dexterity, invoking
A gallery of ancestors, pursuing still the mirage
Of long dead grandeurs whence the interest has absconded,
As Fahrenheit in an odd corner of great Celsius’ kingdom
Might mumble of the summers measured once by him.
Yet all the same we have our faithful sworn supporters
Who never lost their faith in knowledge or in man,
But worked so eagerly that they forgot their food
And never noticed death or old age coming on,
Prepared for freedom as Kuo Hsi for inspiration,
Waiting it calmly like the coming of an honoured guest.
Some looked at falsehood with the candid eyes of children,
Some had a woman’s ear to catch injustice,
Some took Necessity, and knew her, and she brought
Some of our dead are famous, but they would not care:
Evil is always personal and spectacular,
But goodness needs the evidence of all our lives,
And, even to exist, it must be shared as truth,
As freedom or as happiness. (For what is happiness
If not to witness joy upon the features of another?)
They did not live to be remembered specially as noble,
Like those who cultivated only cucumbers and melons
To prove that they were rich; and when we praise their names,
They shake their heads in warning, chiding us to give
Our gratitude to the Invisible College of the Humble,
Who through the ages have accomplished everything essential.
And stretch around our struggle as the normal landscape,
And mingle, fluent with our living, like the winds and waters,
The dust of all the dead that reddens every sunset;
Giving us courage to confront our enemies,
Not only on the Grand Canal, or in Madrid,
Across the campus of a university city,
But aid us everywhere, that in the lovers’ bedroom,
The white laboratory, the school, the public meeting,
The enemies of life may be more passionately attacked.
And, if we care to listen, we can always hear them:
“Men are not innocent as beasts and never can be,
Man can improve but never will himself be perfect,
Only the free have disposition to be truthful,
Only the truthful have the interest to be just,
Only the just possess the will-power to be free.
For common justice can determine private freedom,
As a clear sky can tempt men to astronomy,
Or a peninsula persuade them to be sailors.
You talked of Liberty, but were not just; and now
Your enemies have called your bluff; for in your city,
Only the man behind the rifle had free-will.
One wish is common to you both, the wish to build
A world united as that Europe was in which
The flint-faced exile wrote his three-act comedy.
Lament not its decay; that shell was too constricting:
The years of private isolation had their lesson,
And in the interest of intelligence were necessary.
Now in the clutch of crisis and the bloody hour
You must defeat your enemies or perish, hut remember,
Only by those who reverence it can life be mastered;
Only a whole and happy conscience can stand up
And answer their bleak lie; among the just,
And only there, is Unity compatible with Freedom.”
Night falls on China; the great arc of travelling shadow
Moves over land and ocean, altering life:
Thibet already silent, the packed Indias cooling,
Inert in the paralysis of caste. And though in Africa
The vegetation still grows fiercely like the young,
And in the cities that receive the slanting radiations
The lucky are at work, and most still know they suffer.
The dark will touch them soon : night’s tiny noises
Will echo vivid in the owl’s developed ear,
Vague in the anxious sentry’s; and the moon look down
On battlefields and dead men lying, heaped like treasure,
On lovers ruined in a brief embrace, on ships
Where exiles watch the sea: and in the silence
The cry that streams out into the indifferent spaces,
And never stops or slackens, may be heard more clearly.
Above the everlasting murmur of the woods and rivers,
And more insistent than the lulling answer of the waltzes,
Or hum of printing-presses turning forests into lies;
As now I hear it, rising round me from Shanghai,
And mingling with the distant mutter of guerrilla fighting,
The voice of Man : “O teach us to outgrow our madness.
Ruffle the perfect manners of the frozen heart,
And once again compel it to be awkward and alive,
To all it suffered once a weeping witness.
Clear from the head the masses of impressive rubbish;
Rally the lost and trembling forces of the will,
Gather them up and let them loose upon the earth,
Till, as the contribution of our star, we follow
The clear instructions of that Justice, in the shadow
Of Whose uplifting, loving, and constraining power
All human reasons do rejoice and operate.”
Text taken from the Internet Archive and edited to correct numerous punctuation and spelling errors.