The Japanese writer Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (1886–1965) began his career as a writer of sensational, rather diabolical tales influenced in part by Western writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Oscar Wilde. Celebrated for his masterful plotting and psychological insight into perverse states of mind, Tanizaki was among the first 20th-century Japanese writers to receive international acclaim as a major literary figure. His last book before his death at the age of 75 is, as the title Diary of a Mad Old Man partially suggests, a first-person account of a man of similar age who suffers from a relatively benign form of erotomania rather than clinical insanity.
The ironic elements of this book are heightened by other biographical aspects, notably Tanizaki’s own lifelong reputation as a sensualist. According to Gwenn Boardman Petersen in The Moon in the Water: Understanding Tanizaki, Kawabata, and Mishima, Tanizaki reputedly “act[ed] as a go-between for his own wife.” Heightened irony also derives from his repudiation early in his career of the so-called “I” novel, a relatively plotless, naturalistic yet sentimental and poeticized, confessional narrative using material from the author’s own life, which had been considered the ideal prose form by the earliest modernists of the Taisho era (the period between World War I and the mid-1920s). Although Tanizaki’s diarist is not a professional writer, his bouts of libidinal reverie do lend themselves to being read as a parody of the I-novel decades after the genre had become moribund, or perhaps of Japanese aestheticism, generally. At the very least, the book both exemplifies and wryly comments on Tanizaki’s lifelong preoccupation with the theme of the artist transfixed by sinister beauty.
Utsugi Tokusuke is an excitable, short-tempered old man with high blood pressure. As the reader might expect, Utsugi’s high blood pressure, like the neuralgia in his left hand and his difficulty in keeping balance, has metaphoric implications. If he is testy, it is only in the modern sense of the term, since he is also impotent. But, as he observes in a mixed tone of lament and assertiveness, “even if you’re impotent you have a kind of sex life.” He goes on to declare, “Even so, I can enjoy sexual stimulation in all kinds of distorted, indirect ways.” Although his diary begins by surveying his attraction to onnagata—handsome young men who play women’s roles in Kabuki theater—it soon becomes clear that what sends his blood coursing is the female foot. Unfortunately, where it courses is to his own feet, which tend to swell up in the heat. As fetishistic objects, female feet provide Utsugi with meaningful indices of the profound cultural changes that have occurred in his lifetime; thus, at one point in his diary he launches into a sustained comparison of the tiny, dainty, but broad feet of women of the 1890s, who walked in a typically “mincing,” “pigeon-like” manner, and the “elegantly long and slender” feet of more selfassured contemporary women.
While tending to propel him to the edge of comic absurdity (and occasionally beyond that brink), Utsugi’s erotic sensibilities are played off against the prosaic aspects of everyday life. Eros provides a stay against disintegration and death, while disintegration and the possibility of death are themselves potent erotic stimuli. Utsugi is not content to measure out the short span of his remaining life in dosages of multivarious pharmaceuticals; but if too earthy and superficially “reckless” to play Prufrock, he is too “timid and cautious,” by his own account, to truly rage against the dying of the light.
The intimate relationship between death and eros is played out in terms of physical symptoms that are in fact psychologically symptomatic: “When I crammed her toes into my mouth . . . my blood pressure reached its height . . . as if I might die of apoplexy that very instant. . . . I told myself that I had to calm down, that I mustn’t let myself be excited, and yet I went on blindly sucking at her feet. I could not stop. No, the more I tried to stop, the more I suckled.” The vague intimation of suicidal compulsion in this passage (“I don’t care if it kills me”) exemplifi es the relief he often seems to derive from imagining his life fi nally ending, not just the pain but also the tedium: “Something is lacking unless my eyes get bloodshot and my blood pressure goes over 200.”
Utsugi’s preoccupation with his symptoms—the preoccupations of a narcissist as much as of an old, sick man—swells out of all proportion with his erotic obsession with his daughter-in-law, Satsuko, his most dangerous symptom. Utsugi confides to himself about his attraction to cruel-looking women and, further, notes that “I might be all the more attracted to a woman knowing that she was a sneak thief.” His fixation on feminine criminality waxes as he approaches closer to the inevitable end, until he feels genuine pleasure in the fantasy of being killed by such a woman, particularly since it offers the additional prospect of learning “how it feels to be brutally murdered.” He asks himself, “Is it possible that physical suffering, the inability to enjoy the normal pleasures of sex, could distort a man’s outlook this much?”
Utsugi never fully addresses the origin of his masochistic inclinations, other than to claim they had emerged only as he had grown old. Introspective speculation has its limits because, fortunately, Satsuko seems just his type—“a bit spiteful . . . a bit of a liar . . . cold.” She is suitably coquettish, impudent, and malicious— to his exulting pleasure. Satsuko tantalizes Utsugi. On one occasion she proffers her leg for tongue caresses, extending it from behind a shower curtain in a gesture reminiscent of her days as a chorus girl. On another occasion she deposits a dollop of saliva into his mouth.
Satsuko further tantalizes Utsugi with her brutal sarcasm, as when she describes the effect of his tongue on her: “It made me feel queasy the rest of the day, as if I’d been licked by a garden slug.” The two enter into what seems a mildly sadomasochistic compact, a “little erotic thriller” in which Utsugi uses his “almost unbearably rapturous” pain to play upon Satsuko’s pity in order to extort a kiss. While howling in authentic pain, he quickly realizes that he can milk it for sympathy, and he begins to act the part of “a naughty, unruly child.” However, the narrator is less than reliable, and the compact may not be all it seems. Although Satsuko benefi ts materially from the old man’s lascivious beseeching, her motives may not be entirely self-serving or cruel. A nurse’s report, which functions as a coda to the diary, reveals that his doctor had given the family a diagnosis entailing an implicit course of treatment: Utsugi “constantly needed to feel sexual desire” and that “in view of the fact that it helped to keep him alive you had to take [this] into account in your behavior toward him.”
The old man displays his own sadistic tendencies in the reflexive manner common to many masochists. Out of petulance and a kind of vengeful malice, he flaunts the grotesqueness of his face once his false teeth are removed: “My nose flattened down over my lips. . . . I smacked my gums open and shut, and licked my yellow tongue around in my mouth.” At the same time, he exults in the fact that the uglier he seems, the more beautiful Satsuko looks by contrast. An aesthete of sorts, he is able to imagine that were he to allow Satsuko to shave him he would be able to gaze up into her nostrils, where “[t]hat delicate transparent flesh would have a lovely coral gleam.” His exquisite erotic hypersensitivity and narcissism encourage him on one occasion to suspect that Satsuko had sought to arouse him by arranging the food on her plate in an intentionally messy, uncouth manner that subtly contrasts with his wife’s scrupulous cleaning of hers.
Utsugi’s perverse, but by no means abnormal, psychology induces him to encourage Satsuko’s adultery with another man because it stimulates his imagination; yet he is jealous of her dog for the time and attention she gives it. Somewhat doglike himself, he barters “petting” privileges for a 3-million-yen diamond ring, bought with money he had planned to spend Westernizing the family house inherited from his parents. Sick and in duress, he justifies his behavior with a Pascalian rationale: “When I think of Satsuko I feel like gambling on the slightest chance to live again. Anything else is meaningless.”
His is a comically fleshy sort of wager, since he matter- of-factly acknowledges, “I have no religious beliefs, any sort of faith will do for me; my only conceivable divinity is Satsuko.” Yet he hatches a “crazy, blasphemous scheme” to have Satsuko’s face and figure carved on his tombstone as images of Bodhisattvas are often carved. Already lying under her image, psychologically, he fantasizes his ashes forever beneath Satsuko’s feet. By logic of association, this fetishistic reverie propels his extravagance further inasmuch as he decides to integrate a Buddha’s Footprint Stone carved on the model of Satsuko’s foot. This conception is ambiguous— sensuously devotional, ridiculously pathetic, and outrageously nihilistic—insofar as the footprints of the Buddha (Buddhapada) is a highly revered symbol of the grounding of the transcendent and an imprimatur thought to evidence the Buddha’s living presence, as well as an absence indicating the achievement of nirvana through nonattachment.
The obsessive Utsugi is nothing if not attached. This attachment is as much vindictive as erotic and aesthetic: “Then after I die . . . she’ll find herself thinking: ‘That crazy old man is lying under these beautiful feet of mine, at this very moment I’m trampling on the buried bones of the poor old fellow.’ No doubt it will give her a certain pleasurable thrill, though I dare say the feeling of revulsion will be stronger. She will not easily— perhaps never—be able to efface that repulsive memory.” Utsugi imagines his spirit coming alive under the sweet pain of “feeling the fi ne-grained velvety smoothness of the soles of her feet. . . . Between sobs I would scream: ‘It hurts! It hurts! . . . Even though it hurts, I’m happy—I’ve never been more happy, I’m much, much happier than when I was alive! . . . Trample harder! Harder!’ ”
Although he is often ridiculous in his amorous cravings, it is hard to begrudge the old man his follies, even at his worst, when he stingily refuses to give a pittance to help his daughter and her children, while at the same time continuing to indulge Satsuko. Certainly the reader’s rush to judgment is forestalled by the shifting ambiguity of his self-description: “I have Satsuko’s taste for shocking people . . . yet in fact I am easily moved to tears. . . . I have enjoyed playing the villain. . . . [E]ven though I am sentimental and given to tears—as virtuous as that may sound—my true nature is perverse and cold-hearted in the extreme.” But the reader’s forbearance is also due to the way Tanizaki ironically undercuts his and his character’s lyrical tendencies with more material concerns. This is perhaps best exemplified when the incessant chirping of a cricket induces the old man to dreamy reminiscences of childhood, until he abruptly realizes that he has been listening to the raspy sound of his own drymouthed breathing.
It is too much to claim, as Arthur G. Kimball does in Crisis in Identity and the Contemporary Japanese Novel, that Tanizaki’s old man is a veritable Trickster figure in “his mischievous delight in stirring up family frictions, in his sexual urges, and most of all in his creative spirit which, one likes to think, transcends the inevitable.” A more accurate assessment would identify him, as Kimball also does, with a type of folly described by Erasmus: “It is present whenever an amiable dotage of the mind at once frees the spirit from carking cares and anoints it with a complex delight.”
Boardman Petersen, Gwenn. The Moon in the Water: Understanding Tanizaki, Kawabata, and Mishima. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992.