Friday, December 19, 2008

Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness



For the most part I think I’ve maintained a balanced approach to becoming a parent. Though my love for my children is immeasurable, there are moments where this love eclipses reason. In these moments, I am seized with terror as though I enter an alternate reality, one that enables me to see the infinity of their innocence, the coldness of the world and my limitations to comfort them and guide them in the years ahead, in which I only see peril. It is as though I cross a threshold into something I can only describe as madness.

Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe wrote a story called Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness which is in this collection of short stories from the mid 1960’s. Years earlier, Oe’s eldest son was born significantly brain damaged. In the title story of this collection, Oe presents a family whose son is likewise disabled. The boy is referred to as Eeyore (Oe called his son ‘Pooh’). Eeyore’s nameless father is referred to only as ‘the fat man’.

As Eeyore grows up, the fat man, overwhelmed by the boy’s disability, takes to his day to day care exclusively. He shuts out the entire world, even his wife, and as a result he is transformed into an irrationally obsessed caricature. Still, beautiful imagery is used to illustrate the relationship between father and son: they sleep on adjacent tatami mats as Eeyore needs to touch his father’s arm in order to sleep; father and son riding through town with the boy, who is nearly blind, staring blankly into sky while riding on the handlebars. Due to the father’s obesity and the boy’s disability, they share the bond of being outsiders in a Post-Occupation Japanese world which gains its strength in homogeny.

Kenzaburo Oe places these emotional images to simultaneously draw in our sympathy and then leave us to explain the fat man and Eeyore’s existentialist dilemma. What life will they lead? What will happen to them? Oe uses the fat man’s outsized body and irascible behavior, perhaps, as a manifestation of the rage and helplessness he may have felt when confronted with his own son’s disability, yet could not express in the stoic Japan of his times. The other works in this book are equally powerful, also drawing on the analogies of outsiders, fathers and sons.

About this copy: Twice a year our local library holds a used book sale. Usually, this sale turns into a bit of a Tom Clancy/ John Grisham/Michael Connelly love fest (what do those guys DO with all that dough?). Two years ago, however, I happened upon Kenzaburo Oe’s Teach Us to Outgrown Our Madness. It was like finding a penguin in Jamaica. It is currently available from Grove Press.

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