Who is the “I”?: Anti-Essentialism in Dazai’s No Longer Human

I’m not sure where the idea that we have exclusive access to our “true” selves came from (maybe Descartes’ whole thing with “I think, therefore I am?”), but it certainly seems to have stuck. Of course, it would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that the psychologists have known, for a long time, about how our biases affect how we construct our own identities. Still, these biases apply just as well to anyone else, so they do not challenge the idea that there is some special relation we have to ourselves that others do not.

This idea is what makes first-person novels so interesting to me, because these novels, implicitly or otherwise, take on a different authority. While the first-person perspective has been historically used to motivate an unreliable narrator, thus rendering a separation between the speaker and the so-called objective world; the subjective aspects of the novel, that is, the desires, intentions, beliefs, and motivations of the first-person protagonist cannot be questioned. These things are incorrigible, to put it in philosophical jargon, i.e. you cannot be wrong about your own desires, intentions, beliefs, and motivations.

In the novel No Longer Human, the protagonist Oba Yozo believes that he is not human. Whatever he may be, it is a matter of fact that he believes he is not human. He cannot relate to the humans that surround him. That much cannot be questioned. He pretends to be farcical, likable, but he is not really so. That cannot be questioned either. Or so the story goes.

Though the book was initially written in 1948 (the English translation being released 10 years later), its themes still resonate today, perhaps more than ever. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the concept of “intention” and “belief” have been thrust into the spotlight of our mainstream political discourse. It seems everywhere we turn, there is some discussion about someone’s intentions behind their actions, but more than that, there is an unhealthy emphasis being placed solely on one’s intentions. It is our intentions that define us, that condemns or acquits us from moral wrongdoing. How many comedians have we seen that apologize by stating their wholly innocent “intentions?”

What I find remarkable about Dazai’s novel is that the book spends almost all of its time building up this character Oba as solely a performer, someone whose intentions run contrary to his actions, someone who has spent his life, in essence, “faking it.” And what is worse than a pretender? We hate them, right?

But to say this is to say assent to the idea that we do have some special, exclusive access to our true nature. In some way, we know ourselves better than anyone else. So here, we must ask, why? Our relationship to ourselves is just another one of many relationships; is there any a priori reason to think this has to be different? Yes, we may have access to certain parts of ourselves, but so do others. Just as only we can truly know how we feel, only others can truly know how they feel about the actions we take, only others can know how our actions affect them. And is that not a form of knowledge they have about us, that we do not? If so, why think that is any less “special” than the kind of knowledge we have about ourselves?

In the prologue of the novel, Dazai does exactly this, where a character pronounces this: “The Yozo we knew was so easy-going and amusing and if only he hadn’t drunk — no even though he did drink — he was a good boy, an angel.” In a seemingly abrupt ending, Dazai declares that no, Oba was wrong, he was human, if only he knew himself better.

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