According to Marjorie Perloff, the dissolution of author-centered scholarship in the humanities, brought out by the currently fashionable Foucauldian theory, may have contributed to the Yasusada case. Indeed the mysterious author of the Yasusada poetry seems to be testing whether our theoretical assumption of the “death of the author” can similarly function in a “real” society. This case also directly touches upon the multicultural sensitivity training that now preoccupies American higher education.

Multiculturalism calls for something like a form of civility, a respect for the other: to give the hitherto silenced other a voice. It is a type of truth, the truth of the other, undistorted by our Western cultural biases. Another aspect may be seen in our search for the historical real, again freed from the Western ideologies of dominance. In more psychoanalytical terms, one may characterize this search as our paradoxical longing for the Real, the unknown, or the site of trauma, unhindered by the deceptions of representation, severed from our nostalgia and exoticism for the other. What multicultural ethical codes does the Yasusada case transgress? With what desire does it align itself?

Perloff’s main analysis of the Yasusada case is nothing short of brilliant:

The Yasusada case, I shall argue here, can be understood as a reaction formation experienced by a literary community that no longer trusts the individual talent to rise above mass culture and hence must find a poetry worthy of its attention in increasingly remote and improbable locations.

She immediately follows this insight with an account of Foucault’s criticisms of the centrality of “author.” Yet alongside this anxiety about “the individual talent” (author), the Yasusada affair suggests an anxiety of poetry itself vis-à-vis the all-powerful mass culture, which at best renders poetry an elitist, irrelevant, cultural residue.

Ancient storytellers and poets have spoken of our origins which defined our beings entirely. We have admired the genius of modern writers for their uncanny ability to construct experiences that seemed at once unique and universal. They were the mediums of the Real. They were the sites of truth. Now the sites of truth have shifted: to science, history, and for the increasingly weakening poetry, the “improbable locations.” But can Hiroshima be an improbable site for poetry?

Poetry is weak in face of the nuclear horror of Hiroshima. Yet shamelessly poetry must approach the Real that such an unspeakable event contains, for it lost its “author” of the Real. What we read in the literature of the atomic bomb is not only the rage of the people but the shame of language. Hiroshima is not merely an improbable but an impossible site for poetry. But that very impossibility beckons our poetry. It is our perverted envy (call it guilt, if you will) of the victimhood, of the ultimate horror, of the Real.

Araki Yasusada was such a bearer of the impossible. His calculated mixture of japonisme and current American poetic idioms also fills in a lack that we furtively feel as we read atomic bomb literature with however much horror and sympathy: “But is this good literature?”1 Perloff concludes that we should “look searchingly and critically at what is always already there.” I doubt that we will find any poetry that may satisfy our current standard of “excellence” from the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is no Paul Celan, no Primo Levi in Japan. But does that matter? Would it hurt Japan’s pride? Poetry was too weak before the horror of atomic bombs until Araki Yasusada began to write. Perloff’s concern also betrays our longing for the true other, undistorted, uncreated by us. I wholeheartedly agree with her that Japan has produced a superb corpus of modern poetry. We must, however, notice that the very core of modern Japanese poetry is not the pristine mother tongue of Japan but an invaded language, a language born from translation.2 That is, there, we may find not them, but us. That’s why we want to create an exotic them.

Certainly as Perloff shows Yasusada was merely an organizational node within a network of poetic works, thus a true Foucauldian “author.” Somebody else manipulated the network. Traditionally speaking, this manipulator should be named the “author.” But, echoing Foucault, I want to say, “What matter who’s speaking?”3 It is because no one brings the message from the Real any more. If I am pressed for a firmer position on this point, I must say that Hiroshima–that total annihilation of beings and language–is the true author.

Would such a “hoax” upset the people of Hiroshima? I believe so. Let me state this again: Hiroshima is the impossibility of poetry. Nothing can represent, express, replace that annihilation adequately. Every time I visit Hiroshima, my own cousins who survived the bomb repeatedly remind me of that fact. If they learned that an American poet assumed the identity of a hibakusha in order to write “good” American poetry, they would be offended. But they may simply ignore such a case. Who cares about such a trivial thing called poetry now?

The assimilation of Foucault’s writings to the now-pervasive mentality of “political correctness” has diminished the Nietzschean, demonic force of his original thought. We have become so careful not to offend the integrity of the other that we don’t know whether to bow or shake hands. But, as Bataille recognized, we need to acknowledge the primary capacity for evil that literature embodies. The young Japanese novelist Shimada Masahiko can write a novel parodying the plight of AIDS victims. Murakami Ryu can advertise for bondage models. Knowing its fictitious nature, with a slight sense of disgust, I find Yasusada’s poetry evil, and eerily beautiful.


1 On the literature of atomic bomb, see John Treat, Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

2 See my The Poetry and Poetics of Nishiwaki Junzaburo: Modernism in Translation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

3 Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 138.


Originally published in the Summer 1997 issue of Boston Review