Oscar Wilde and “An Artist of the Floating World”

I was looking for something to read while waiting for a couple of books I had ordered to show up from the library. I decided to re-read Kazuo Ishiguru’s “An Artist of the Floating World.” It had been a long time since I had read it, and I mostly recalled disliking the narrator, his moral blindness, and the seemingly obvious direction the story was headed. But I also recalled how well-written and well-paced it was. I thought I would read it again to see if I’ve changed since the last time. Plus, it’s a short book, and I knew the books I had ordered were on their way from Oahu.

As I read it again and didn’t need to worry about what would happen – if suicide really was to take place as a recognition of past misjudgements (my prediction when I first read it) – I was flooded by a sense that so many Oscar Wilde quotes were applicable to the story. I came to see Ono-san, the protagonist, as an Oscar Wilde character or epigram come to life – in the negative. That gave me more of an “in” for the story, more of an insight into the character, his tragedy, his unreliability as a narrator, and helped me enjoy the beauty, sadness, and ultimate resolution of the story. So I’ve changed in the last 12 years, since I first read it.

A quick synopsis of the story: an elderly Japanese artist writes of events that happened during and just after WWII. Early in the book he is trying to arrange the marriage of his youngest daughter. One earlier potential marriage, “a love match,” was broken off by the suitor’s family about a year before the narration begins. Gradually we learn that the artist’s nationalistic pre-war work has led him into some disgrace (though he is initially unaware of it). His son-in-law (his oldest daughter was married before the Pacific War) is embittered at the artist (Ono-san) and the role he played in getting Japan into a war that led to humiliation and defeat. We learn that the youngest daughter ultimately gets married, after Ono-san claims that he is ashamed of the small role he played in leading the nation to disaster. This confession occurs at a dinner between the two families. The dinner was going poorly until this confession. We also learn that Ono-san was a pupil of an artist famous for painting the “floating world” of geishas and drinking houses. Ono was creating a name for himself in this style of painting until he was seduced by a young man with nationalistic and militaristic ambitions. Ono left the style of the floating world to create paintings designed to lead to the primacy of the Emperor’s will in Japanese government, the destruction of “vulgar business interests,” and the expansion of Japanese power and culture abroad.

Let me drop some Oscar Wilde quotes in italics and describe how they are appropriate for the tale.

“To me, Beauty is the wonder of wonders…It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.”

Ono-san forgets this, devalues the European-influenced, lantern-lit images he had been painting and takes up nationalistic themes. He ignores beauty and shuns the attempt to capture serene or joyous moments.

Art is the only serious thing in the world. And the artist is the only person who is never serious.

Ono does seem to live this way when he is in Mori-san’s studio (the “floating world” artist). The young men at the studio are childish and quarrelsome – not at all like serious salarymen. They spend days either painting or being entertained by traveling storytellers and the denizens of the Floating World.

But as Ono adopts “serious” goals for his art he is asked to leave Mori-san’s studio. Ono gains influence in his city, he has followers, he creates political art. He tells Mori-san

“I have learned much contemplating the world of pleasure and recognizing its fragile beauty…. it is my belief that in such troubled times as these, artists must learn to value something more tangible than those pleasurable things that disappear with the morning light. It is not necessary that artists always occupy a decadent and enclosed world.”

“It is only the superficial qualities that last. Man’s deeper nature is soon found out.”
“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is visible, not invisible.”

Mori-san describes a close friend

“Gisaburo is an unhappy man. He’s had a sad life. His talent has gone to ruin. Those he once loved have long since died or deserted him. Even in our younger days, he was already a lonely, sad character. But then sometimes we used to drink and enjoy ourselves with the women of the pleasure quarters, and Gisaburo would become happy. Those women would tell him all the things he wanted to hear, and for the night anyway, he’d be able to believe them. Once the morning came, of course, he was too intelligent a man to go on believing such things. But Gisaburo didn’t value those nights any the less for that. The best things, he always used to say, are put together of a night and vanish in the morning. What people call the floating world, Ono, was a world Gisaburo knew how to value.”

Mori-san knows the value of appearance, of the surface of things. Ono-san rejects this and we see the consequences in the next Oscar quotes.

“A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.”
“Whenever a man does a thoroughly stupid thing, it is always from the noblest motives. “

I think Ono-san comes to see these things as both truth and horror. WWII costs him his wife and son, and then costs Japan so much destruction and humiliation when the war is lost. His noble sentiments about raising the living standards for poor Japanese by all the standard fascist/militarist methods only result in death and the end of a sort of Japan that he hoped to build upon.

At the end of the novel, Ono has returned to painting. His daughters pretend that he has nothing in his past to be ashamed of. Ono sits on a bench facing an office building, he watches the office workers in pleasant conversation. He thinks

I smiled to myself as I watched these young office workers from my bench. Of course, at times, when I remember those brightly-lit bars, and all those people gathered beneath the lamps, laughing a little more boisterously perhaps than those young men yesterday, but with much the same good-heartedness, I feel a certain nostalgia for the past district as it used to be. But to see how our city has been rebuilt, how things have recovered so rapidly over these years, fills me with genuine gladness. Our nation, it seems, whatever mistakes it may have made in the past, has now another chance to make a better go of things. One can only wish these young people well.

The tranquility and resignation here put me in mind of a very different book

I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

An Artist of the Floating World is well worth reading. It’s not quite up with Anna Karenina in terms of providing an illuminating snapshot into how my attitudes have changed since my previous reading, but I was very glad I picked it up again.

And John Scalzi’s The Ghost Brigades is now here.

About mutecypher

Old. Bold. Deal with it.
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