Seduced by Literature
Hosea Hirata is considered one of the leading lights in the study of postmodern Japanese literature and poetics. His affinity for literature started early. Growing up in a suburb of Tokyo, where his father was a Presbyterian minister, he recalls how the isolation of this small, private Christian community fostered his enormous appetite for books. (Less than one percent of the Japanese population is said to be Christian.) He left Japan as a teenager, intending to spend one year of high school in the United States. Instead, developing his facility with English as well as his talent for poetry, he stayed on to graduate from McGill University in Montreal and earn an M.F.A. in creative writing and a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of British Columbia. His scholarship drew inter-national attention in 1993 with his book on the Japanese poet Nishiwaki Junzaburô, an overlooked leader of a new poetry movement. Hirata, who joined Tufts in 1996, is now associate professor in the Department of German, Russian, and Asian Languages and Literatures, and director of the Japanese Program. In 2001 he was awarded the Tufts UNITE for teaching excellence. This year he published Discourses of Seduction: History, Evil, Desire, and Modern Japanese Literature (Harvard University Press), a book prompted by his frustration with contemporary criticism’s preoccupation with a political agenda that has overlooked literature’s “subterranean voice,” a voice that seduces us for reasons obscure and yet seemingly consistent with human nature. Here he talks with Tufts Magazine about the inexplicable pleasure of reading.
Did you enjoy reading at an early age?
Yes. I loved reading since I was a kid. I was a voracious reader, though it took a while to graduate from children’s literature to adult literature. I read children’s versions of classics from all over the world, but then, when I was in high school, I really discovered the pleasure of literature, as something that was very different from anything else—something that I felt a secret affinity with. I began to sense what literature was when I started reading people like Dostoevsky, Camus, Kafka, and Sartre.
Can you explain that sense of pleasure?
My father and his world of Christianity that I grew up in seemed completely saturated with the idea of “good.” Everything was directed toward good. But I think literature provided me with something that was different from the world that Christianity afforded me. At the same time, I was fascinated with reading the Bible, especially the Old Testament. It gave me questions that nobody could answer. The depths of puzzlement that figure called God created in my imagination, I think, was very fundamental to my thinking about literature. So when I look back, there were certain times I felt literature represented a strange, evil, pagan world that I wasn’t really, perhaps, supposed to walk into. Kafka, I think, was a turning point.
I felt that here was somebody who’s as confused as I was. I particularly remember reading The Castle. Kafka’s people have no clue why they’re there and suffering and why they’re confused, and I thought: that’s just like me. I was 16 or so.
You write in your preface to Discourses of Seduction, “Literature seems to tell us that we’re not the center of the world. That we are not in control... We do not know why these words beckon us like a gleaming pool of nocturnal water. We do not know why we leap into these words.” Could you expand on how you came to that perspective?
I started writing this book by thinking about the contemporary status of literary criticism. I somehow became frustrated by much of what literary critics have been writing in recent years. A literary critic needs to be self-assured, confident, and powerful. In a way, in order to criticize something, or even to write a comment, you have to put yourself on a bit of a pedestal. I’ve wanted to envision a literary criticism that is not so self-confident, because my experience with literature seems contrary to “self-empowerment,” to use a fashionable term. Literature overwhelms me. The pleasure of reading something that’s really good is to sense that I’m not in control; it’s controlling me. I somehow think it is basically a masochistic pleasure.
A lot of socially concerned literary criticism seems to find its own “ethical pleasure” by revealing guilt in literature: that this author was not informed or conscious of the ethical consequences of his writing, and so on. This sort of criticism became quite dominant, and I do understand the need for it to a certain degree. At the same time, I wanted to see where this demand for being good was coming from. I was trying to see the seductiveness of literature as well as the seductiveness of ethics on the same plane. I know I am seduced by this thing called literature. It’s where I let my poetic desire loose without any restraints. And yet there’s this ethical superego, whatever you call it. Those two forces, both demanding my attention—I call “seductions.” They are powerful in different ways.
As you finished this book and as it went to press, did you understand that power of literature any better, or does it still seem like a mystery?
I think, yes, it’s still a mystery. There are so many explanations and psychological explanations, sociological, whatever. The point is: What’s the point of knowing? I went to a John Cage lecture once, and he said that there’s one human faculty that always wants to know. This is why you learn—to know. But he also said there’s another faculty here that moves in the complete opposite direction of wanting to know. We may call such a faculty our desire to un-know. Reading literature, to me, is like that. The unknowing we experience in literature is titillating. If you can reach the object of your desire to know, the desire itself disappears. The seductiveness is gone. Seduction is this back-and-forth movement of desire. We can see it built into the structure of a symbol. A symbol indicates something but itself is never that something, the symbolized. It simultaneously shows and hides the symbolized. That’s why a symbol is seductive. Literature is based upon this basic structure of representation. The reality literature represents is not exactly what reality is. Unlike history, from the start, literature states that what it says is not real. Whereas, other discourses, including history, have the burden of telling the truth by hiding their “fictiveness.”
Would you go so far as to say you think people should read literature?
No. It shouldn’t be a universal religion. It’s just a form of rare pleasure.
What can a well-rounded Tufts student take away from literature?
Well, it’s just an incredibly pleasurable thing to learn to enjoy literature and if you’re not into it, you’re missing something. With that, I would like to teach my students or show my students why I get so fascinated by what I’m reading.
How do you excite their interest?
I think I tend to show how minute details of a text would bring up interesting questions that should relate to students’ lives.
Can you give me an example?
Sometimes I come in and say, okay, define beauty on your own because this text we’ve been reading seems to define beauty on its own terms. When was the last time you really choked because of something so beautiful? Tell me something like that.
Do they respond?
Sometimes. Or we read a poem. I ask: when was the last time you really found something in this world that corresponds to this poetic effect?
So you engage them at the emotional level.
Emotional, but at the same time philosophical, because I tend to be more of a philosophical person. I love abstract questions. But to think abstract questions in a very concrete manner, that is emotional. For example, we may ask what the scariest thing is. Some people say the scariest thing is the truth about you. Let’s think about that. And so there’s that abstract notion of truth as well as the scariness as an experiential feeling, both put together in one question. Something like that is interesting as we read, say, a horror story.
It kind of provides you a platform upon which to discuss the book that you’re reading and to open up a dialogue about that.
Right. I think our lives are so busy that we just don’t have time to think about those things in a leisurely manner. I think the students are privileged to be in literature classes because they get to think such abstract questions about life and death and knowledge. Sometimes I get an exemplary term paper and I’ll say, okay, this is well done. It’s academically respectful, but I don’t hear anything about you. I just don’t hear any of your feelings, any of your voice, how you’re relating to this book. Without that, the paper is totally boring to me.
So you’re looking for the personal?
Yes. Reading a literary book is like I’m meeting another person at a very profound level. This author is putting up so much of himself or herself in front of you. And this is the only thing you can say about the book? Now that’s disrespectful. You’ve got to respond like you are responding to someone’s most intimate and private letter written to you. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Do you ponder why we have literature in our life?
It’s an interesting question. I think we have literature because we seem to understand the world in terms of stories, or some poetic flashes. It is different from a scientific understanding based on experiments and proofs and so on. Information gives answers. Stories are not answers. It’s like wisdom. Wisdom does not give you a definite answer. Stories give you some kind of closure, satisfaction, and pleasure. I don’t know why, but they seem to be built into our psyche, our soul.