Unfettered Misanthropy: On Osamu Dazai’s “The Flowers of Buffoonery”
By Terry NguyenApril 30, 2023
The Flowers of Buffoonery by Osamu Dazai
In recent years, perhaps due to the self-conscious turn towards morality in popular fiction, acclaim for Murakami’s work has tempered. He may be a compelling novelist, but his exigent flaw is no longer excused: he is bad at writing female characters—bad, at least, according to contemporary feminist standards. In 1Q84, Aomame is a deflated wisp of a character with a confusingly hypersexual inner monologue. The novelist Mieko Kawakami, in direct conversation with Murakami, remarked upon his tendency to depict female protagonists as “oracles […] gateways, or opportunities for [the male protagonist’s] transformation.” His women are always defined in relation to men, their raison d’être almost always sexual.
Indeed, we expect one of the world’s most popular writers to realize it is in poor taste to portray women this way. Murakami has conceded to finding not much wrong with his depictions. And so, in light of this relative nonadmission, he has been labeled a misogynist. To me, he sounds more like a middle-aged man blinded by his own awooga goggles, who finds perverse delight in writing weird women. The distinction is important: I don’t believe Murakami is motivated by a hatred of women. Rather, his disregard for their interior state begets a negligent cruelty. This cruelty is embedded in the greater landscape of his fiction. It’s a carelessness that I sometimes find harder to stomach than explicit contempt.
A Japanese writer who is perhaps secondary to Murakami in fame, judging by the literary zeal of TikTok, is Osamu Dazai. The mid-century modernist writer has been subject to a recent, albeit surprising, posthumous revival. His treatment of women on and off the page is far from chivalrous, but unlike Murakami, Dazai does not characterize women as transformative vessels or sexual muses. Female characters are victims of men’s plight, obstacles—rather than oracles—that prevent their descent towards utter depravity. The women’s sexual desires are rarely made explicit, or even mentioned. Dazai is no feminist. But his characterizations, specifically those of the dozen or so female narrators he has written, probe at their humanity, rather than sensuality. His most critically acclaimed works, such as 1947’s The Setting Sun and “Villon’s Wife,” are told from a female perspective. Dazai’s sympathies usually lie with his men, but his narrative choices uncover their pitiful shortcomings. There is a neutered compassion—not cruelty—at the core of his stories. Women see men as broken creatures. Men rely on women for caretaking and belligerent comfort.
The author’s proclivity for such depictions is not often clear to those new to Dazai, as his best-known work is his 1948 novel No Longer Human. The autofictional work contains, in essence, a laundry list of misogynistic outbursts from its narrator, Oba Yozo. In recent years, No Longer Human has found a second life on TikTok, proving that blatant self-loathing is no topical deterrent for younger readers. Dazai’s prose is simple: the novel is diaristic and easy to read. Most compelling, however, is the self-reflexive contempt, his ability to replicate the uneasy tightrope of depression, wherein every action or thought can be nitpicked and denounced to oblivion.
The outsized popularity of No Longer Human suggests that it is a singular work in Dazai’s oeuvre. In fact, Dazai composed a 1935 novella, The Flowers of Buffoonery, that presages Yozo’s plight in No Longer Human. It details a failed double suicide from his youth, an event that is only given a few pages’ worth of commentary in the novel. Despite the shared protagonist, Flowers was written 13 years before No Longer Human and remained obscure as one of Dazai’s early, minor works. It was only recently translated into English by Sam Bett. Its retrospective publication in March is well timed, coinciding with Dazai’s resurgent fame. Flowers is best read as a companion text to No Longer Human. They are bookends to his distinguished literary career and bleak personal life, the former foreshadowing Yozo’s descent into irredeemable despair. (Some readers have interpreted No Longer Human as Dazai’s suicide note, since the protagonist’s moral transgressions mirror Dazai’s own. He died by suicide—his fifth and final attempt—before his 39th birthday, shortly after No Longer Human’s serial release.)
Much like Dazai, Oba Yozo is a failed painter from a wealthy family who feels intensely alienated and detached from others. He copes with his social anxiety by adopting a clownish personality to prevent others from perceiving his true self. In college, he tries to kill himself, leaping off a cliff with a married woman whose name he later purports to forget. She perishes; he survives and is sent to a seaside sanatorium. The Flowers of Buffoonery opens in the immediate aftermath of this failed attempt and ends with Yozo’s hospital discharge. No Longer Human makes mention of the suicide, but pivots quickly to Yozo’s later years. By his mid-twenties, he is drinking heavily, injecting morphine, patronizing prostitutes, and abdicating all responsibility toward family, friends, and lovers.
No Longer Human offers a close, comprehensive look at Yozo’s life through a three-part diary, the story flanked by an external narrator who “found” his private writings. Flowers of Buffoonery, on the contrary, is a brief, tantalizing vignette. The novella fluctuates between a close third- and a meddling first-person narrator. This unnamed figure breaks the fourth wall, eagerly interrupting scenes and dialogue to insert unsolicited commentary. This narrator is a self-proclaimed “hack” of a writer, in the process of writing the story that we are reading (“This novel was doomed from the start. All posture and no substance”). He claims to have been told of Yozo secondhand, but it’s also implied that he is Yozo, the fictional stand-in for Dazai himself. In one scene, a hospital patient asks for a copy of Madame Bovary—an allusion to Gustave Flaubert’s famous remark that he is himself Madame Bovary. “The perceptive will perceive what I am up to,” the narrator says in the first chapter. “I might have skirted the whole issue by writing this in the first person, but this past spring I wrote a novel with a first-person narrator, so I’m hesitant to do another one so soon.”
Perhaps the starkest distinction between the two works is The Flowers of Buffoonery’s comic and conversational tone. The narration, which separates us from Yozo’s dark inner monologue, could theoretically make Flowers a redemptive addendum to his story. Instead, Yozo comes across as pitiful, awkward, and meek. He laughs at friends’ jokes and evades revealing the source of his inner turmoil so that his loved ones will stop worrying: “It was only natural for Yozo to vacillate when asked about the reasoning behind his suicide—it was everything to him.”
Still, this younger Yozo does not seem so weary of the world. His countenance is more bearable, and his self-loathing seems tempered. In these domestic passages, Yozo is surrounded by his friends and nurse; one can easily imagine the ocean view from his hospital window, softly tinted with sunlight. No Longer Human, by contrast, is a hopeless screed of gray.
There are few traces of this casual contempt in Flowers, and the younger Yozo does not seem to spite—or fear—women. They fall for Yozo’s handsome looks in both novels, but there is a boyish tenderness to how he treats his nurse Mano and the female patients in his ward, who are drawn to his presence. The narrator even confesses his quiet love for Mano—“Say reader, what’s not to love about a woman like her?”—before admitting his inability to “love a woman without smothering her with commentary.”
In No Longer Human, Yozo considers his attraction to women with resignation and disgust. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them, except Yozo has increasingly little desire to live. He describes women as a different species from men (“incomprehensible, insidious beings”) with a perverse sense of sadism. He dismisses their interests and has no desire to hear women talk about themselves, spurning his wife and lovers alike. In one moment of despair, he admits to wanting to go “somewhere where there aren’t any women.” He finds rare solace in the arms of prostitutes, whom he “never could think of as human beings or even as women” but, rather, as nonhumans—much like himself.
Online discourse about whether Yozo is worthy of sympathy has zeroed in on these statements. How can a reader feel sorry for a man who thinks like that? What does it reveal about us? It might be easier to prescribe Yozo/Dazai with a moral condition—misogyny—than to identify with his mental anguish.
Though Dazai’s work is semi-autobiographical in nature, he doesn’t strike me as a rage-driven incel or a nihilist like Arthur Schopenhauer, who believed women to be “intellectually shortsighted.” And one can sense that he is more introspective in his own misery than Murakami, who claims to not think much at all about the gendered nuances of his work. Rather, Dazai conceded that he did not write “real” women, only idealized approximations of them. In his final years, this idealization dulled: his female characters were flattened into shades. Women are cast as figures incomprehensible to his incorrigible and morally inept male protagonists. Writer John Pistelli identifies Yozo’s despair as a “feminized” condition. He is “forced into hapless and disastrous solidarity with womankind by the unfeeling universe.” Yozo is aware of his immorality. He does not consider any human, even himself, to be capable of goodness or salvation. With Dazai, then, it’s worth asking: is it his misogyny that we’re uncomfortable with, or his unfettered misanthropy?
Dazai, it seems, sensed from his youth that suffering is a by-product of living, that it engenders fear and weakness in people, although most individuals live public lives trying to clownishly deny it. To fool oneself—to be a fool—is the norm, the requirement to function and fit into society. Dazai considered weakness an essential, human trait, and distrusted those who disavowed it. However, those who recognize suffering on an existential level, like Yozo, are tortured by this inescapable conundrum. From this sadness “grow the delicate flowers of buffoonery […] always on the verge of despair”—an autobiographical metaphor that permeates Dazai’s work. His literary alter egos are gratuitously familiar with suffering: they recognize the futility of trying to bridge the ever-widening gap between the self and society. What can they do but suffer in the process and drink to numb the pain so it becomes bearable? Until, of course, it kills them—or someone close to them.
The Flowers of Buffoonery is an early attempt at tackling the incongruity of this inner conflict. The narrative digressions, annoying at first, reveal an earnest vulnerability to Dazai’s psyche as a writer vis-à-vis his fictional counterpart, the unnamed writer-narrator. The novella seemed to serve a dual purpose: Yozo’s story is the primary “plot,” but the struggling narrator frequently interjects with opinions on life and literature. He ponders the purpose of writing novels, the strength of his craft, and the emotions necessary to produce “good” literature: “Ah, a writer must never reveal themselves like this. That’s his undoing. Beautiful feelings, that’s how we make bad literature. I’ve used this phrase three times now. And you know what? I stand behind it.”
One could interpret “the flowers of buffoonery” as a metaphor for writing, devotion to literature, or any transcendent experience that art offers. Although Dazai was a morphine addict and alcoholic, he continued to write through his four failed suicide attempts. To him, life and literature were deeply intertwined, and the latter seemed to be the only thing that offered reprieve from inner darkness. His suffering was a double-edged tsurugi: it led him to be a highly prolific and respected writer, even though he deeply wished to escape this fate.
Beautiful feelings produce bad literature. If we were to take this idea from Dazai’s unnamed narrator as truth and not glib maxim, then perhaps Dazai has proven its inverse: the ugliest feelings in the depths of ourselves can be mined to produce literature that persists beyond the flesh.
Terry Nguyen is a writer based in Brooklyn. She covers culture and technology for Dirt, a Web3 media company and newsletter. Her work has been published in New York magazine, Vox, Vice, and The Washington Post, among other publications.
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