Oba Yozo and the Underground Man aren’t as similar as they initially appear.
Both are characters from Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human and Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, respectively, and both books are similar in a multitude of ways.
They detail the social isolation of a man who distances himself from society – purposefully – thanks to a variety of personal issues and a sense that the world outside himself is flawed in some irredeemable manner. Yozo and the Underground Man have few acquaintances, few pastimes, suffer from a kind of oppressive shyness, and both the books they occupy have titles that begin with ‘No’. They are most definitely ‘out of sync’ with society’s wants and needs, concerns and interests. Further similarities are only applicable on a surface level.
The ‘modern’ conception of irony is still new to the Underground Man – it was the 19th century and Dostoevsky was definitely looking forward. So UM plays himself as a character as much as he is himself, and delights in it (think of the toothache section). Knowing exactly what he is only prevents him from rising from ‘underneath the floorboards’ and joining society. Lacking Dostoevsky’s conception of ‘free will’ means that the UM has consigned himself to his genes, to the wholly materialistic world, and does not have the desire or belief to change. He will make no attempt to escape.
Yozo, although he never admits it outright, seemed to make several attempts to connect with the world, despite considering himself ‘disqualified as a human being’ (the novel’s more accurately translated title). He never delights in his pain, and seems to be playing it completely straight. Oddly, there’s an ‘unreliable narrator’ aspect to Yozo’s character; he claims to have no understanding of how human beings work, and has reportedly never felt happy. He lacks any empathy and emotional intelligence, and puts on a ‘clowning’ routine in his childhood in order to escape attention. He is unable to refuse anything. He feels intense shame and fear if he disappoints anyone.
Yet, from the outside, this results in an almost angelic character. It’s easy to compare Yozo to the Underground Man, but I would actually go so far as to draw a comparison with another Dostoevsky character: Prince Myshkin. Yozo lacks self-awareness of his actions, and the impact they have on others; he’s more an ‘idiot’ in the Myshkin sense than he is anything like the truly self-aware, pretentious, and awful Underground Man.
The real tragedy of ‘No Longer Human’ is that no one ever understands that fact until well after Yozo disappears.
(I’ve had small experience with Dazai before – I completed a small exploration of post-war literature in Japan, and analysed his Setting Sun. It was a mostly basic analysis, aside from the emphasis I put on therapeutic writing. I would very much like to read more of his work at some point.)
That aside, I researched Dazai and found he was hugely influenced by Dostoevsky, which came as no surprise; what’s clever is how he recontextualises the latter to fit into a post-modern world. At one point, Yozo and his ‘friend’ Horiki are playing a word game and selecting antonyms for random words. Horiki suggests ‘crime’ and after some thought, Yozo drifts towards ‘punishment’ and ponders whether Dostoevsky meant the title of his work as antonymous or synonymous. In other words, Yozo is asking himself whether or not redemption is possible; whether his crime (inhumanity) and punishment (his mental and emotional anguish) are the same, whether one is a consequence of the other (and if so, which is which) and:
“Crime and punishment – absolutely incompatible ideas, as irreconcilable as oil and water…”
He comes to the conclusion that his mental state and the world he fails to understand are permanently at odds with one another. Dazai also suggests that Dostoevsky understood this as well, and calls his mind a ‘scum-covered, turbid pond’. And it’s true, to some extent; because Dostoevsky’s characters are all sinners (with the exception of Alyosha and Myshkin) – prostitutes, liars, murderers, the pretentious and the proud, hysterical caricatures who dash across his pages, often leaving trails of blood.
More than anything, Dostoevsky’s characters are made to demonstrate an idea; and while Dazai is more autobiographical, (in the sense that to an extent he felt what Yozo felt, and how Naoji and Kazuko felt in Setting Sun) the latter does share this trait. Yozo is not a real person. He is a caricature of someone who sees nothing in himself; and lacks awareness of others, and regards himself as ‘disqualified from being a human.’
His only conception of self-awareness is in the awareness that he lacks it. Reminiscent of Socrates if nothing else.
We’re introduced to Yozo by his monologue about not understanding hunger, or about the functions of subways and pillow-cases; in other words, we understand that he lacks selfishness to such a degree that he doesn’t understand the need to sustain his own body. He then talks about his lacking understanding of human desires; he knows that the theory exists that people live to eat, but doesn’t understand it, and doesn’t understand anyone else’s problems beyond the most basic material needs. Because of this, he also lacks the ability to feel happiness. It’s for this reason Yozo begins acting, or ‘clowning’, and lives his childhood deceiving others into thinking he’s normal. He grows, and becomes increasingly degenerate; a drinker, a drug addict, an adulterer, an attempted suicide; but remains sympathetic to us all the while.
Having spent an entire lifetime trying to do almost nothing other than avoid further pain, and with a self-awareness that ignores himself, Yozo’s actions mark him out as both more and less than human. Only because what he does happens to line up with both ‘incredibly selfless’ (his attitude towards his uncle Flatfish) and ‘inhuman and bizarre’ (his reaction to his wife’s rape) can the reader feel anything other than ambivalence and pity (an omnipresent pity for someone who never had the chance to live) for Yozo. Unlike the Underground Man, there was something deeply wrong with Yozo from the start; not simply a hyper-awareness of himself and cartoonish cynicism but an underlying mental issue, the cause of which is not suggested outright. Yes, it was implied that the house servants sexually abused him, but even before that he lacked human understanding. The barmaid at the establishment where Yozo often drunk himself stupid in Kyobashi put forth the idea of Yozo’s condition being his father’s fault, but that doesn’t strike me as true. Rather, he was just missing human qualities since birth.
The Underground Man and Yozo have something in common; neither knows if they are the most selfless of people or the most heinous of egoists. Yozo says this outright, and it’s partly because of that that he considers himself inhuman.
Yet to be inhuman is not necessarily to be a monster.
The barmaid at Kyobashi considered him an angel.