The Silent Cry: A Novel. Kenzaburo Oe.
The Global Cry…. June 24, 2000
Let me discuss “The Silent Cry” and Kenzaburo Oe’s work in general by first sketching in a broader view of Kenzaburo Oe’s literary interests.
No other Japanese writer has seen as deeply into Yukio Mishima’s suicide and the “vacuum” of modern Japanese life as has the 1994 Nobel laureate in literature, Kenzaburo Oe:
“His death was a performance for the foreign audience, a very spectacular performance. The relationship between Mishima and the emperor system was rather dubious; the Japanese knew that. But from foreigners’ point of view–say, an American reader’s point of view–the Japanese emperor system is something inexplicable. Therefore, that final act by Mishima, tied in with the emperor system, appeared to be a kind of mystical thing. In actuality, he did it in order to entertain foreign readers.”
As in this excerpt from a 1986 interview, Oe, also influenced early on by Marxism and existentialism, especially Sartre, has had the vision and strength to confront in his writing not only the nostalgia of Mishima but also the past and present implications of the emperor system for Japan. In 1971 his novella “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears,” written just after Mishima’s suicide, courageously explores the nature and meaning of emperor worship. Having known Japanese students and friends who fiercely supported the emperor, loathed him, or were simply indifferent, with most falling into the last category, I believe it may be difficult for Americans to appreciate fully the scope of Oe’s achievement in this novella. Oe tried to convey the challenge of his theme when he wrote in an essay, “A man who criticises Mishima and his works must have the determination to criticise the total culture that orients itself toward the Imperial hierarchy.” Far from falling short of this determination, Oe creatively confronts the Japanese fascist and wartime past in “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears” and thereby truly serves the Japanese people and, I would argue, the emperor as well.
Oe grew up in a small village on the island of Shikoku where the events of “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears” and many of his stories take place. While in a Tokyo hospital dying of cancer, the persona narrates the densely complicated events of his father’s fervent devotion to the emperor, filtered through his own consciousness as a child and a mentally unbalanced adult recalling his “happy days.” His Japanese mother, who grew up in China, and whose own father was involved in the Daigaku Incident of 1910-11, an attempt to assassinate the emperor, believes her son has never been mentally stable since the age of three. Lying in his hospital bed, he recalls “hate-filled exchanges” between his mother and father about the role of his grandfather. Later in his life, she had always refused to discuss anything with her son about his father, a military official who returned from Manchuria a few years before the end of the war and who died attempting to lead an uprising in support of the emperor after his 1945 announcement of surrender on the radio. Respected by the village people, the father, suffering from cancer, secludes himself in the family storehouse. For the boy observing his father, he becomes a “kind of idol,” obedient to the emperor. After his older brother deserts in Manchuria, the boy shouts in defiance at his mother, “I don’t have no traitor’s blood in my veins”:
“Even now he could recall, with extreme vividness and reality . . . wanting to shout Long live the emperor! so that [his father] would acknowledge that it was his young son who was the true heir to his blood.”
Oe slowly leads the reader to the realization that the young boy has grown up to repeat the obsessions of the father, destroying himself in the process. When the mother, “a simple old country woman,” visits him as a thirty-five year old adult in the hospital, she struggles to no avail to get him to recognize what an absurd, cowardly figure his father actually was, while cancer literally and symbolically continues to eat him up. Near the end she says to the persona’s wife, whose own marriage and life have been ruined, “Sooner or later the Japanese are going to change their attitude about what happened, and I intend to live to see it, yessir! THIS IS THE DREAM. THIS MUST BE THE DREAM!” This is clearly the dream of Oe and many Japanese. He more than any other modern Japanese writer has had the courage to write fiction that might help Japan to accomplish it.
Also set mostly in Shikoku, The Silent Cry (1967), presents two brothers who return to their country village nestled in a valley. Although a dialectical struggle takes place between them, reminiscent of Dostoevski’s Brothers Karamazov, the older brother Mitsusaboro is the central figure of the novel, which is told from his point of view. In the opening paragraph, Mitsusaboro thinks to himself,
“Awakening in the predawn darkness, I grope among the anguished remnants of dreams that linger in my consciousness, in search of some ardent sense of expectation. Seeking in the tremulous hope of finding eager expectancy reviving in the innermost recesses of my being . . . still I find an endless nothing.”
He crawls into a hole dug for a septic tank and claws at the sides with his bare fingers trying to get the walls to cave in on himself. At the end of the summer his best friend, who had been injured in front of the Diet demonstrating against the Japan-US Mutual Security Treaty, had painted his head red, stuck a raw cucumber up the anus of his naked body, and hung himself. Mitsusaboro reflects, “And I too have the seeds of that same, incurable madness. . . .” Beginning in the hole, haunted by despair, madness, and nihilism, he gropes and searches throughout the novel for something worth living for. At dawn sticking his head up “two inches above the ground,” he notices,
“the backs of the dogwood leaves were a burning red… a red that reminded me of the flames in the picture of hell that I’d seen in our village temple every year on the Buddha’s Birthday. . . .
Saul Bellow. Ravelstein. Allan Bloom.
The Closing of the American Soul.
November 23, 2009.
When Saul Bellow’s novel Ravelstein was published in 2000, I did not rush out and buy a copy but closely followed the many reviews that began to appear. I had read almost all of Bellow’s work up to his last novel but felt for some reason that the time was not right to readRavelstein, despite my having ravenously devoured Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind when it had been published in 1987, and anything related to it. I trusted my intuition and attended to other interests, while more reviews continued to come out. Occasionally, I would stumble on one and read it, thinking Ravelstein was a book that I’d have to read someday. Then in 2005 I bought a copy when I happened upon it in a bookstore, but I didn’t read it. I put it on a shelf, waiting for the right moment. This fall, a year and a half into working on writing an epic poem, I realized I needed Saul Bellow’s help. I needed to know how things really stood with the Jews. Even more thanCommentary Magazine, I knew I could count on Saul Bellow to tell me the truth. He never lied to me in the past. I remembered Ravelstein and retrieved it. The right moment in the life of my soul had come.
After reading Ravelstein, I reread most of the articles and reviews I had been collecting for years. I was struck by the shoddiness of the typical piece of writing published in national newspapers, magazines, and academic journals. Schools of journalism might provide their students with a modicum of technical training but certainly are not capable of cultivating the necessary sensibility to read and understand a subtle and complex literary creation, while English departments, under the rigor mortis of Deconstruction theory and the like, have abandoned and betrayed literature and poetry, rendering many of their students incapable of even writing a clear, intelligible sentence. The review that interested me was by a writer, Cynthia Ozick, who insightfully perceives what Saul Bellow is about, though she only touches on Bellow’s ruminations on the soul in passing, in The New Republic, “‘Soul’ being his most polemical term.” These curious facts fascinate me and convey something very important about the present state of cultural affairs. We have lost the soul and few can even recognize it. Few are willing to discuss it.
Many of the thirty or more reviews focus on the surface layers of Ravelstein, emphasizing it’s a roman-a-clef; that is, the characters correspond to real people, Allan Bloom, as Abe Ravelstein, and Chick, as Saul Bellow himself. But the novel is much more than that, much more than mere biography. Ozick is very perceptive about that fact, unlike the journalistic hacks so much of the media presents as “reviewers.” Much is sensationally made of Bellow’s disclosing Bloom’s homosexuality and death from AIDS, as though that really amounted to everything in terms of the book. Technical critiques, plot summaries, gossip, and so on, all substitute for understanding and interpretation. Bellow tells us what the book is about if only we’ll listen, remain open and sensitive to detail.
Abe Ravelstein, a university professor of political philosophy, though Chick at times dismisses him as such, achieves the rarest kind of success, a best selling book that turns him into a millionaire, Allan Bloom’s own intellectually demanding book, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy, and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987):
He had gone over the heads of the profs and the learned societies to speak directly to the great public. There are, after all, millions of people waiting for a sign. Many of them are university graduates (48).
Only “The great public” is worthy of a writer’s aspiration. We live in a time when most writers are content to settle for a low, narrow, constrained, academic audience, a coterie, made up solely of people in university circles, “creative” writing programs, and so on, preaching to the choir. Allan Bloom and Bellow chose humanity, in all its plenitude, as much as could listen and understand, at a high and demanding level, as had Rabelais, Cervantes, and Shakespeare. The university does not captain the great ship of literature. Poets, playwrights, and novelists are the trustees of the literary tradition, not academicians. They are the last people poets should be writing for. The secondary crowd of secondary scholars write secondary things and achieve only secondary results. During the last eighty years, since the New Criticism, the Age of Criticism has only continued to devolve into ever more effete and alienated theories of life and literature, which have nearly sunk the great ship. American English departments have proven themselves unworthy stewards of the literary tradition, of what is noble in human nature, in the great public.
In the novel, Ravelstein admits that Chick had suggested the idea of writing the book, believing Ravelstein only had to write up all his lecture notes to achieve a popular success. The interplay of their two characters shapes and structures the entire book, with Bellow often provocatively emphasizing the contrasts. Once Ravelstein dies, the novel continues because it is about the ideas of Bloom, their critique, and not the mere memoir Ravelstein had wanted. For in the end, it’s the differences between Ravelstein and Chick that count in the overall meaning of the book and in the meaning of the resolution about life and death. Another significant theme is their reflections on the “viciousness” of modern history, as demonstrated by the Nazi treatment of the Jews and other Eastern European atrocities. Ravelstein helps Chick to come to understand the dark side of history and humanity—“viciousness was universal.”
Yet Chick informs the reader at one point that he is not writing about Ravelstein’s ideas on the political philosophy of Western civilization since Plato, though Ravelstein thought he was essentially commissioning Chick to write a memoir of his life, believing Chick has the literary gift for it. The fact is, however, that Bellow does write about Allan Bloom’s ideas, indeed, critiques them, as well as Bloom’s life. In his treatment of Ravelstein, Bellow goes right to the core of Bloom’s shortcomings, both as a thinker and as a man, which is not to say that Bellow doesn’t give Ravelstein credit for his contribution to “the correct ordering of the soul.” The original title of Ravelstein’s book, Chick explains, was “Souls Without Longing,” the Platonic longing for fullness of being, as in Plato’s Symposium and Aristophanes, “the missing portion to complete” our highest, true self.
Repeatedly Chick discloses that Ravelstein is an atheist, a secular, assimilated Jew, hates his own father and family, fails to love his neighbors, is dying of AIDS, and other unfavorable, contradictory elements of his character and life. In recruiting Chick, Ravelstein had told him, “I want you to show me as you see me, without softness or sweeteners.” If those were Allan Bloom’s actual words, he was a brave man to invite America’s greatest modern novelist to show him warts and all and definitely got what he asked for. Chick, interested in the “chicks,” the real passions of life, more so than abstract ideas, now with his second wife, is advised by her, Rosamund, that Chick should “leave it to others to comment on his ideas,” meaning Ravelstein’s ideas. He responds, “Oh, I intend to. I’m going to leave intellectual matters to the experts,” which resonates with a deceptive irony that ought to tip off any sensitive reader. Saul Bellow often had little respect for academic “experts.” I’ve already mentioned he dismisses Ravelstein at times as a mere professor, a teacher.
Bellow is actually writing about the soul and the afterlife and chastens the failure of Allan Bloom to give them both their proper due. In one discussion of Platonic longing, Chick mockingly states, “Ravelstein was in real earnest about this quest driven by longing.” Ravelstein looked for longing in his students, acquaintances, and friends. Chick describes himself as a Jew, though engaged and struggling with modernity, with religious conceptions implicitly within the more customary framework of Judaism. On the other hand, Ravelstein, the learned professor, is out on the edge, in every way, with “his esoteric system,” almost counter-culture, like the students he criticizes in his book. By critiquing the life of Ravelstein, Bellow is critiquing the ideas of Allan Bloom, at a very deep level, for Bloom’s book ultimately reflects its author’s secular and atheistic outlook, even while it appears to affirm the transcendent values of Plato and the Greeks. Chick rams this home when he says, “for most of mankind the longings have, one way or another, been eliminated.” Ultimately, this is just as true of the picture Chick paints of Ravelstein, “portrays,” he self-deprecatingly puts it, and is Bellow’s deepest criticism of him.
Near the end of the book in Chick’s reflections on the afterlife, Chick reveals that even the brilliant atheist Abe Ravelstein, when confronted with the impending seriousness of death, accepted that there must be an afterlife. By then, Ravelstein had moved on from Greece and Athens to Jerusalem. Chick recounts earlier in the novel his memories as a child being intensely struck by the vivid experience, the “first epistemological impressions,” of the sheer miracle of life, “the pictures,” as he phrases it, of existence, his “intimate metaphysics.” When Ravelstein, facing death from AIDS, asks Chick what he imagines death would be like, Chick answers it would mean the pictures would stop, which Ravelstein respectfully broods on. Chick reflects,
No one can give up on the pictures—the pictures might, yes they might continue. I wonder if anyone believes that the grave is all there is. No one can give up on the pictures. The pictures must and will continue. If Ravelstein the atheist-materialist had implicitly told me that he would see me sooner or later, he meant that he did not accept the grave to be the end. Nobody can and nobody does accept this. We just talk tough (222).
Striking at the heart of Allan Bloom’s ideas, Saul Bellow reveals their weakest point, standing no more on a sure foundation, for all of Bloom’s formidable intellectual accomplishment, than all the modern nihilists Bloom denounces. For Chick had earlier revealed, while discussing the pictures at length, that he, unlike Ravelstein,“had no intention, however, of removing, by critical surgery, the metaphysical lenses I was born with.” Socratic “longing” is not enough and cannot alone restore the soul, neither for the individual nor the modern world, yet the scale of values made possible for Bloom a historical position from which he could critique modernity, but proved untenable when confronted with the grave.
In 2002 in an interview with Antonio Monda, published in Do You Believe (2007), available online on The Jewish Daily Forward, Bellow laconically answers the point-blank question “Do you believe in God?” with one word: “Yes.” He dismisses further discussion, believing “it’s a subject whose importance is diminished by conversation.” A few years earlier, in 1999, Norman Manea interviewed Bellow, published eventually in 2007 in Salmagundi. The long, wide-ranging interview covers Bellow’s life and personal views on many issues. In it Bellow states,
I stopped arguing with myself about belief in God. It’s not a real question. The real question is how have I really felt all these years, and all these years I have believed in God; so there it is. What are you going to do about it? So it’s not a question really of the intellect freeing itself from bondage, it’s the question, first of all, of trying to decide whether this is bondage and then just accepting what you believe because that’s all you can do by now (161).
Like Chick, and in the end even Ravelstein, Bellow didn’t believe “the pictures stop.” As with all of Saul Bellow’s books, his probings at the soul of modernity is at the core of Ravelstein, and at the core of Chick’s criticism of Bloom’s ideas, of the groundless, unsustainable ideas of modernity. And so even Bellow near the end of his life could honestly acknowledge to Norman Manea that his earnestness “was more an experience of nostalgia for me than it was a spiritual reality.” Yet the cloying political correctness of our secular, nihilistic age and the journalists, academicians, and writers so caught up in rigid adherence and obeisance to the ruling orthodoxy of scientism, do not know what to make of a serious writer like Bellow who has the temerity actually to believe in and write about God, and such spiritual matters as the afterlife. Many choose to ignore this part of his work. This is the state of the human soul that is still with us, even as it has demonstrated so fully its bankruptcy as a vision of life in every department of human endeavor. Beyond the stale ideas of modernity, Bellow’s down-to-earth answer to the ideas of Allan Bloom, as in an interview, quietly affirms, “all these years I have believed in God; so there it is.”
See my review of Bellow’s Him With His Foot In His Mouth and Other Stories (1984), in the Saul Bellow Journal (summer 1985) and my essay “Saul Bellow’s Soul” in The Grove of the Eumenides: Essays on Literature, Criticism, and Culture.