‘Silence’ And Shūsaku Endō’s Christianity

Shūsaku Endō‘s Silence is a remarkable religious novel, one whose close reading and discussion in a philosophy classroom pays rich dividends. This week marks the concluding sessions of my Philosophical Issues in Literature class’ discussion of Endō’s novel; I can enthusiastically recommend it–in whole or in part–for use in classes on epistemology and philosophy of religion. This is because the novel–ostensibly a historical work set in seventeenth century Japan as the systematic persecution of Christians commenced following a brief flourishing of the faith–is at heart about the nature of faith, its relationship to knowledge and belief, the nature of ‘commitment’ to religious ideals and beliefs, the possibility of voluntarism about belief, the relationship between belief and action, the relationship between organized and ‘personal’ religion, between moral sentiments and religious strictures, between geographically and nationally specific cultures and supposedly universal belief systems, and so on.

Endō’s novel also proves the truth of the wisdom contained in the claim that the doubts of the religious and the agnostic or atheist are more interesting than the certainty of the believer. In this regard, observant Christians will find the book just as provocative as atheists or agnostics might. As Charles Peirce had noted, doubt is that irritation which leads to inquiry. And that is certainly one thing that Endō’s novel does; it prompts inquiry and investigation. It creates more doubt in turn, and prompts that most useful activity of all: self-examination. (My classroom discussions with my students about the philosophical issues the novel raises and examines have often been quite rich even as I suspect that, as usual, some students are simply not keeping up with the reading and are thus unwilling and unable to participate or contribute.)

Silence is the story of Sebastião Rodrigues, a missionary who travels to Japan to ‘rescue’ a Christianity sought to be driven out from Japan, and finds himself the latest target of the campaign to do so. Rodrigues takes inspiration from Christ through his trials and travails at the hands of his Japanese tormentors–even as the events around him shake his faith like never before. The determination of his inquisitors to make him an apostate makes Rodrigues sense he will become, rather than Christ, Judas instead; he will not be the defender and promulgator of his faith, but its betrayer instead. As his greatest trial approaches, Rodrigues comes to understand that the man he had imagined the Judas to his Christ is closer to him than he had imagined, that his dislike for him, his failure to feel sympathy or empathy for him, is his greatest failing as a Christian.The novel’s provocative claim–under one interpretation–is that he becomes a better Christian by becoming Judas. And that is because in doing so, he is better able to understand someone, Christ, and something, Christian faith, that he had imagined himself, arrogantly, to understand all too well before his trials began.

Rodrigues worries that God is silent; his most powerful realization is that God speaks through man, and man alone.

Kōbō Abe’s ‘Woman in The Dunes’ And The Scientist’s Existentialist Despair

Kōbō Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes wears and displays its existentialist, absurdist aspirations openly and transparently; this is its terse Wikipedia summation:

In 1955, Jumpei Niki, a schoolteacher from Tokyo, visits a fishing village to collect insects. After missing the last bus, he is led, by the villagers, in an act of apparent hospitality, to a house in the dunes that can be reached only by ladder. The next morning the ladder is gone and he finds he is expected to keep the house clear of sand with the woman living there, with whom he is also to produce children. He eventually gives up trying to escape when he comes to realize returning to his old life would give him no more liberty. After seven years, he is proclaimed officially dead. [citations removed.]

Yes, there is a Sisyphean task here; the labors are joint–crucially, involving both a man and a woman–but seemingly infinite and never-ending anyway. The mystery over why Niki is treated as he is by the villagers is never given a satisfactory solution, and indeed, as in the case of those who counterproductively continue digging in holes, efforts to solve this conundrum only heighten its inexplicability. Bafflement, bewilderment, anger, frustration are Niki’s primary responses, and they are all equally efficacious–that is, they are not in the least.

A perplexed protagonist, a brutal, unrewarding task, an unsolved mystery, the realization that deliverance is not forthcoming; yes, this is an existentialist novel.

There are two interesting embroiderings of these basic existentialist themes in Abe’s novel. First, the novel is set ten years after the end of the Second World War, ten years after hell was dragged  up from its depths and deposited on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and thus, on the Japanese nation. This is a world in which the firmness of an older universe has been replaced by the shifting and transient sand of a new relationship with the world; sand, as Abe reminds us, is ‘fragmented rock,’ once solid and imposing, now beaten down. The Japanese, of whom Niki and the woman are as good representatives as any other, might yet be buried by this relentless invader of their older world. Second, Niki is not just any man, any Japanese. He is a schoolteacher, and moreover, he is a man of science. He is an entomologist; he studies sand as well, and is fascinated by its physical properties.

As a man of science, Niki expects his situations in this world to be infected by the same reason he sees underwriting the cosmos. He is, precisely because of this intellectual orientation, unprepared for the villagers’ mysterious, criminal behavior: Why have they kidnapped him? Do they really think they can get away with this absurd plot? The villagers do not care; they are absorbed in their task. The woman does not know and she does not too, seem to care too much. If there is a concern for consequences, it is a narrowly circumscribed one: what will happen if the sand is not kept at bay? This encounter, this futile dashing of the hopes of the man of science that a reasonable explanation will be found for all that afflicts us, that the methods which have made so much of the world comprehensible will make the villagers and their task less mysterious, gives Abe’s novel its most acute sense of desperation and despair.

Murakami on Japan’s ‘Years of Trial’

Like most ‘Western’ students of the world wars, my reading has largely been confined to American and English sources; this is revelatory of both provincialism and laziness on my part. In the case of the Second World War, I’ve read a few German sources but very few Russian or Japanese ones. Thus it was with great interest that I read Hyõe Murakami’s Japan: The Years of Trial 1919-1952, a little book that provides a highly compressed history of that turbulent period. (Murakami served in the Japanese Army in WWII before going on to become a novelist and critic.)

As might be expected, there are interesting shifts in perspective on: the Paris Peace Conference, the Sino-Japanese conflict in Manchuria, Japan’s motivation for the declaration of war, the conduct of wartime operations, and the US occupation of post-war Japan.

Some of these shifts are startling. For instance, the invasion and sack of Nanking is described thus:

Nanking fell to the Japanese army in December of that year (1937).

That’s it.

Others, however, are far more interesting. Consider, for instance, Murakami’s debunking of several aspects of the ‘Japanese soldiers never surrender but would rather commit suicide’ legend:

The fact that Japanese soldiers surrendered to the enemy is often attributed to the traditions of the samurai era, but this is not correct. Most military men throughout the world feel the same: surrendering is dishonorable. Yet in fact the Japanese samurai of old surrendered quite frequently, nor was there any traditional feeling of shame involved. Even during the Russo-Japanese war, Japanese soldiers became POWs–there were not many, it is true–expected quite naturally to be treated according to international conventions . It was only in the Shõwa era (1926- ), when the spirit of nationalism began to be fostered, that the belief that it was shameful to be taken alive really sank into the nation’s mind. During the Shanghai incident in 1932, Major Kuga Noboru was seriously injured and, while unconscious, was taken prisoner by the Chinese army. Treated well in the hospital, he was subsequently repatriated, but was so ashamed of having been a captive that he went back to the former battlefield and committed suicide there. The event received overwhelming news coverage and created a new standard of the ‘model soldier’. As the war with China dragged on, this spirit was encouraged still more until it permeated the entire population.

Once taken prisoner, a Japanese could no longer return to his old home; no one but his father and mother would be happy that he had returned alive, and sometimes even the parents and family, swayed by the other villager’s scorn, would start wondering why he had not died a ‘glorious death’. It was not necessarily ‘for the Emperor’ that the Japanese soldier fought to the last, but, rather, because of such rules of the community. What he wished most of all was to avoid shame for the family; the Emperor’s name was no more than a convenient symbol used for that purpose.

Murakami’s book is far too slight for the serious historian of that period, but it still works as a very good introduction for anyone else.

The Emperor Has No Clothes Ritual

In ‘Expect to be Lied to in Japan‘ (New York Review of Books, 8 November 2012), Ian Buruma writes:

I decided to go on a little trip to Matsushima this summer because I had never seen this particular “Great View,” even though I had in fact been there once before, in 1975. Then, too, I set out from the harbor in a boat filled with fellow tourists—all from Japan. As we took a leisurely cruise into the bay, a charming guide gave us a running commentary on the islands we were supposed to be gazing at, their peculiar shapes, names, and histories. The problem was that no matter how keenly we craned our necks in the directions indicated by the guide, we could not see a thing; we were in the midst of a thick fog. But this did not stop the guide from pointing out the many beauties, or us from peering into the milky void.

It was a puzzling experience. My familiarity with Japan was still limited. I didn’t quite know how to interpret this charade. Why were we pretending to see something we couldn’t? What did the guide think she was doing? Was this an illustration of the famous dichotomy that guidebooks say is typical of the Japanese character, between honne and tatemae, private desires and the public façade, official reality and personal feelings? Or was it the rigidity of a system that could not be diverted once it was set in motion? Or was the tourists’ pretense just a polite way of showing respect to a guide doing her job?

I still don’t really know. But since then I have seen other instances of Japanese conforming in public to views of reality that they must have known perfectly well were false, to protect “public order,” or to “save face.” Japan is a country where the emperor is rarely seen naked.

The collective participation in an ‘emperor has no clothes‘ ritual is always fascinating to observe: the collective pretense and participation in make-believe, so seemingly irrational on the surface, but which in fact might be an entirely rational response to the perceived threat of a loss even greater than that necessitated by the temporary suspension of disbelief.

Its most interesting current variant might be the responses to works of art that are clearly felt to be too inaccessible by those that interact with them. Here, a group of ‘consumers’ come face to face with an artwork–perhaps a musical composition, perhaps a painting–that is intractable. But no one is willing to admit their lack of comprehension, their distaste for its rendering, their reluctance to submit to its demands. So the mask is slipped on; quiet, polite, murmurs of appreciation emanate; to say much more would be to admit ignorance, to request admission into philistinism; better then, to move on, maintaining the facade of knowledgeable understanding, or if not that, then at least, not active dislike.  The active bullshitter adds his own distinctive flourish to this collective act; loud exclamations of sensitive, nuanced, yet entirely misplaced, insight emanate, which would invite ridicule were it not for the fact that they would break the collective spell.

It seems to me to be a worthwhile venture for some budding social scientist to investigate the phenomenology of participants in such rituals where every participant is aware of the his own inauthenticity and that of the others, but still feels compelled to maintain the charade. What is the felt experience of the cognitive dissonance, the strain of the maintenance of such public artifice?