Mikhail Epstein


The work of Araki Yasusada has been appearing in numerous publications of late and has been provoking quite a bit of discussion in the world of poetry. I say "world" because poets and critics are not only avidly speculating about the work in the United States, but they are also beginning to do so in England, Japan, Russia, and Mexico, where selections and critical commentary have recently appeared. It is understandable why the Yasusada phenomenon has caused such fascination and controversy, for it is, without doubt, one of the most enigmatic and provocative authorial mysteries of 20th century poetry.

Originally presented in various journals as translations from the posthumously discovered notebooks of Yasusada, a purported survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima, the writing has recently been revealed by its "caretakers," Kent Johnson and Javier Alvarez (two individuals whose existence is empirically verifiable) as the creation of their former and now deceased roommate, Tosa Motokiyu, who has been credited in all previous publications as the main "translator" of Yasusada's work. Johnson and Alvarez assert that Tosa Motokiyu is the hypernym for an author whose actual identity they are under instructions to never reveal.

As the reader shall see, I came into contact with this work through two fortuitous occurences, first in 1990 and then in 1995; but it was in January of 1996 that I became more intimate with it, when I received a letter and package of Yasusada materials from Motokiyu, who explained that he had been urged by "our mutual friend" Kent Johnson and his own interest in my recent book, After the Future, to write to me. In this letter he acknowledged to be the empirical writer of the Yasusada materials, and he asked for my thoughts on the implications inherent in such a scrambling of authorial identities. Indeed, I wrote him back a lengthy reply, only to learn from Kent Johnson this past summer that he had died not long after receiving my letter.

Like some other critics and scholars, I have reflected on the matter of Yasusada in these past months, and as I have done so, certain curious coincidences and parallel strands have emerged. Is it possible that my connection to this work has a more personal tie that I was not at first cognizant of? Is it possibly the case that the author whose hyper-identity is Tosa Motokiyu already knew of me many years ago, when we both were citizens of the bygone Soviet Union, and that his announced "death" is meant as a metaphor for his "death as an author"? I believe that the answer to these questions is very possibly "yes," and I write now to offer the following two hypotheses concerning the authorial origins of Yasusada. I do so not to try to "solve" the matter (for paradoxes are not to be solved), but rather to suggest possible layers of hyper-authorship whose consideration may enrich the further interpretation and evaluation of this many-dimensioned work.

Before beginning, I think it is worth pointing out that Emily Nussbaum's discussion in LINGUA FRANCA (Nov/Dec.,96) regarding the presence of Yasusada poems in Kent Johnson's doctoral dissertation does in no way settle the question of the Yasusada authorship. In fact, as I believe my remarks will suggest, it is quite feasible that Johnson placed this work in his dissertation at the request of its actual author. Such a gesture would have been perfectly consistent, for example, with the "conceptualist" aesthetic of one of the writers I discuss below. I might further say, in regards to this matter, that I happened to be a guest lecturer in Bowling Green, Ohio in the spring of 1990, and was invited to attend Johnson's dissertation defense, which fell, by strange coincidence, on the day of my arrival there. As he began, in front of a table full of solemn professors, to speak about the poems of Yasusada, two other graduate students seated on the floor behind him began (carefully following notations set down in copies of Johnson's lecture) to loudly exclaim certain utterances in English and Russian, and to blow, strike, and drum on an array of Asian musical instruments. This they did for the next fifteen minutes or so, while Johnson presented a collage of theoretical and poetic propositions. Although the professors on Johnson's committee seemed very perplexed, I can attest that this was truly a strange and memorable event, one very similar in flavor to a conceptualist poetry evening in my native Moscow.

This parallel was all the more vivid to me because my lecture at Bowling Green and the subsequent conversation with Kent Johnson and his colleagues was devoted in a significant part to conceptualism and the construction of multiple authorships. Of this conversation published later, I will cite only one passage that relates directly to the current discussion on the authorship of Yasusada's poetry:

"After deconstruction comes an epoch of pure constructivism. Anything can be constructed now. As one of my philosophical characters says - most of my recent works are constituted not by my own thoughts, but by those of my characters - a word cannot be exact, cannot be precise, so it must be brave. Deconstruction demonstrated that a word can't be precise, it can't designate any particular thing. But what remains to be done with the word? To be brave, to use it in all senses that are possible to it. This [is] the new domain of construction which comes after the deconstruction..." (3)

Included into this domain is, first of all, the construction of authorship, as implied in those philosophical characters in my own work about whom and on whose behalf I am speaking. This explains why I became so intrigued by the phenomenon of Yasusada and now attempt to look into the enigma of his origin. It depends on the readers to decide if the following hypotheses pursue the goal of deconstruction of Yasusada or rather can serve as an example of critical constructionism.

Hypothesis #1: The Yasusada manuscript, DOUBLED FLOWERING: FROM THE NOTEBOOKS OF ARAKI YASUSADA, was originally composed in Russian by the famous writer Andrei Bitov and then translated by Kent Johnson and at least one Russian-speaking informant into English. I'll try to substantiate this version with irrefutable facts.

Bitov, born 1937, is Russia's major contemporary novelist, the principal representative of, and, to a certain degree, the founder of Russian postmodernism. His work generated a number of famous hyper-authors, among them Lev Odoevtsev, a literary scholar and the protagonist of Bitov's major novel PUSHKIN'S HOUSE, and Urbino Vanoski, a writer of mixed Polish, Italian and Japanese origin, the hyper-author of another of Bitov's novels, A PROFESSOR OF SYMMETRY, which is annotated as "a translation from English without a dictionary."

I have been maintaining friendly ties with Bitov since the late 1960s and have first-hand information about the following. In the mid-1960s Bitov--bythat time already one of the leading figures of the so-called "youth prose"--received an invitation to visit Japan through the official channels of the Soviet Writers' Union. However, he was denied an exit visa by Soviet authorities, who claimed that he was too ideologically immature for such a responsible trip to a capitalist country (he was suspected to be a hidden dissident, almost rightfully, as presumably 80% of the Soviet intelligentsia were at that time). One can easily imagine both the excitement and disappointment of a young writer who spent two or three subsequent years reapplying for this trip and reassuring the authorities of his "maturity" in vain. This bitter experience inspired him to write a novel IAPONIIA ("Japan"), about the country he never saw but tried to reinvent in his imagination. Two planes alternated in this novel: the bureaucratic trials of a young author haunting the thresholds of high Soviet authorities, and imaginary landscapes and poetic visions of Japan, including fragments of an imaginary anthology of contemporary Japanese poetry.

Incidentally, though Bitov never considered himself a real poet, he has hyper-authored several brilliant poems allegedly written by some of his characters (in particular, Aleksei Monakhov, the protagonist of Bitov's "dotted" novel THE DAYS OF A MAN). I assume that Bitov's novel "Japan," actually "Dreams about Japan," was a kind of symmetrical response to the 18th century Japanese masterpiece "Dreams about Russia," written by Kodayu Daikokuya, a treatise which mixes pseudo-ethnographic description with lyrical visionary passages. This book was twice translated into Russian, and I have no doubts Bitov was intimate with it.

With the coming of glasnost', Bitov intended to publish his novel "Japan" after some additional stylistic elaboration. I was very intrigued by this plot, especially after A PROFESSOR OF SYMMETRY came out, with a brilliant stylization of a contemporary multi-ethnic Western author, slightly in Conrad's or Nabokov's vein (English was not Vanoski's native language; hence Bitov's translation from English into Russian of a novel which itself was presumably translated from his mother language into English, at least in the bilingual imagination of the imagined author). I expected that Bitov's IAPONIIA would again induce a case of "doubled authorship," now with a Japanese hyper-author. According to Bitov's account, IAPONIIA was almost finished. But gradually all rumors about its pending publication disappeared, and my direct questions addressed to Bitov failed to receive any definite answer. Bitov complained that he was burdened with numerous urgent literary projects and administrative responsibilities. Indeed, since the early 1990's he has been the president of Russian Pen-Club. Thus, the publication of "Japan," with a poetic anthology as its supplement, was postponed for an indefinite period.

The last time I saw Bitov was December 11, 1995 when he visited Emory by my invitation to give a lecture on Russian postmodernism. In our conversation he confirmed again, with a visible reluctance, that "Japan" will be published in due time, but probably "in a modified form" (he did not go into details). On December 29 of the same year, in downtown Chicago, at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, I met by chance Kent Johnson, whom I had not seen for several years. He shared with me news on the rising posthumous star of Araki Yasusada, and gave me some copies of Yasusada's publications. Not immediately, but with an increasing feeling of right guess, I recognized Bitov's stylistic charm in these English verses allegedly translated from Japanese... But why not directly from Russian?

The point is that Kent Johnson, as the compiler and editor of a well-known and critically acclaimed anthology of contemporary Russian verse, THIRD WAVE: THE NEW RUSSIAN POETRY (4) had much more grounded and first-hand familiarity with Russian poetry than with Japanese. The question that is raised is this: Is it possible that there is a connection between Kent Johnson, who is now prominently connected to Yasusada's legacy, and Andrei Bitov, a master of hyperauthorship and the author of the still unpublished novel "Japan"? Let me further explain.

I first met Kent Johnson in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad, the native city, incidentally, of Bitov) in 1989, at a conference on contemporary Russian culture. Kent was then busy collecting materials for his English anthology of the newest trends in Russian poetry of 1970s-80s. This anthology came out, with my afterword, from University of Michigan Press in 1992 and had a significant success, particularly in the world of Slavic literature: it was the first book in English representing the "new wave" of Russian poetry, and, most valuably, it contained, in addition to verses, theoretical manifestoes of the poets. Kent Johnson and his co-editor, Steven Ashby, managed to make a superb choice of authors and their representative works, as well as of skillful translators, for this unique collection. This project by itself would have justified Kent's trip to S. Petersburg, but, as I suspect is possible now, it was in Russia that he got the impetus for the preparation of another anthology, this time a Japanese one, subsumed under the name of a central hyper-author (Yasusada), but including two of Yasusada's renga collaborators, Ozaki Kusatao and Akutagawa Fusei, and their three contemporary translators, Tosa Motokiyu, Okura Kyojin, and Ojiu Norinaga. I am amazed with what subtle skills this anthology has been translated from Russian into English in order to be finally presented as originally Japanese. Now I can also understand why Bitov withdrew his intention to publish "Japan" under his own name. To become a part of a foreign culture is a more inspiring, generous, and at the same time ambitious enterprise than just to add still another piece to the treasury of one's native language.

Yasusada's work is conceived not just as a poetical collection, but as a novel with its own sub-plot (the editorial piecing together of the fragmented record of a Hiroshima survivor), cast in in the multi-generic form of diaries, letters, verses, comments, etc. The meta-genre of "novel in verses" is deeply rooted in Russian literary tradition, with Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin" as its prototype - the major source of Bitov's inspiration throught all his creative search and especially in his major novel PUSHKIN'S HOUSE. No wonder that the novel "Japan" proved to be not just a novel with "poetic supplement" as was intended initially, but "a novel in verses," or, more precisely, "a novel with verses." Every reader of Yasusada's texts will agree that verses constitute only one aspect of its larger literary whole which, like both Pushkin's and Bitov's novels, include numerous self-commenting pages, lyrical digressions, and critical reflections... This is truly a poetic novel of Yasusada's life, a novel in the traditions of Russian literature which now, with the aid of Kent Johnson's mediation, again invests its inspirations into the treasury of Japanese literature, but now even in the more palpable and congenial form of "a newly discovered author."

In Russian literature, authors like Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov, were for a long time the moral and artistic authorities for Japanese literature; now, with Bitov-Johnson's contribution, Russian literature becomes an indispensable part of Japanese literature, of its novelistic flesh and poetic blood. As a scholar of Russian literature, I can only rejoice at the fact of this transcultural interaction and the resulting synthesis.

Hypothesis #2: This, I believe, is the least hypothetical of the two, being merely a combined statement of several well known facts. Among Russian authors presented in Kent Johnson's anthology of contemporary Russian poetry, one of the most preeminent figures is Dmitry Prigov, a close acquaintance of Bitov, and a central proponent of Russian Conceptualism, who is known for his poems and whole collections written on behalf of various characters and mentalities belonging to different cultures. As Prigov puts it in his manifesto published in Johnson's anthology,
"the heroes of my poems have become different linguistic layers... A shimmering relationship between the author and the text has developed, in which it is very hard to define (not only for the reader but for the author, too) the degree of sincerity in the immersion in the text and the purity and distance of the withdrawal from it. ...The result is some kind of quasi-lyrical poems written by me under a feminine name, when I am of course not concerned with mystification but only show the sign of the lyrical poem's position, which is mainly associated with feminine poetry..." (4)

In 1987 or 1988 Prigov circulated a collection of verses on behalf of a Chinese she-poet, thus helping to fill the gap of female authorship in the highly developed but almost exclusively male-oriented Chinese classic tradition. Further, he planned to expand the cultural geography of his hyperauthorship by introducing a collection by a Japanese poet with "a rather unusual but universally comprehensible fate and sensibility." This collection was never published under the name of Prigov himself, and I submit that in this case the project of hyperauthorship underwent a further mysterious expansion to acquire an international set of hyperauthors, hypereditors, etc., along the lines of a global poetic plot (imitating and parodying the 'Zionist- masonic conspiracy' as exposed in "The Protocols of Zion"). Prigov once, in the spirit of 'new sincerity', confessed to me his "masonic" conspiracy for the triumph of creative impersonality throught the world of art.

Precisely by the time Prigov's Japanese collection was due to be finished (1989), Kent Johnson came for his first and only visit to Leningrad to meet with Prigov and other poets participating in the future Russian anthology. From my continuous personal talks with Prigov at this time (we even spent a rather 'sincere' night of discussions and confessions in the apartment of our common friend poet Viktor Krivulin) I could conclude that along with the poems he passed to Kent for this anthology, there was an additional set of materials large enough to form a separate collection which, it is easy to conclude, came to be known as "Doubled Flowering" by Araki Yasusada.

I want to underscore once more that everything aforesaid is only a hypothesis, though all mentioned facts are true. I daresay this kind of hypothesis does not need a further factual verification, inasmuch as the true identity of the person named Tosa Motokiyu (who, as I mentioned earlier, is now claimed by Johnson and Alvarez to be the "real" author of the work) is never to be revealed, according to his own last will. A question poses itself: Whose will is this, if its author refuses to be attributed its authorship? This is the same type of paradox that we find in the most famous of logical paradoxes of "liar's type": "The liar says that he is always lying. Is it a truth or a lie?" If we believe Motokiyu's testament (that is, his statement that his true name is not to be revealed) then this is not Motokiyu's testament.

A vicious circle? But is not the same circle incribed into another declaration of authorship? Is Shakespeare Shakespeare? Let us suggest that whoever Shakespeare was he succeded to produce, in addition to "Hamlet" and other classical plays, the most enigmatic of his creations - the author named "Shakespeare," the one who wrote both prophetic HAMLET and his own almost illiterate will.

The vicious circle is a creative one. An author's imperative: to create an author. How can we trust a doctor who is permanently sick? There is a biblical saying: "Physician, heal thyself." How can we trust an author who limits himself to inferior characters, like tsars, generals, business people, etc., and cannot create an Author?

Thus we should be grateful to Motokiyu, who succeded to create Yasusada and, even more, his friends, translators, editors, and executors. But who created Motokiyu? And who created his creator? The answer is infinitely deferred, to use the deconstructionist cliche, but what is more important and goes beyond the realm of deconstruction is the construction of infinite authors in the place of the absent single one. By this I do not mean to imply that the questioning of and quest for an original authorship should be qualified as a critical fallacy; the point, rather, is that the dispersion of creative origins is an artistic provocation that brings forth the possibilities of infinite answers. Why shoudn't such provocation productively exist alongside genetic paradigms of authorship? Is not the goal of creativity the excess of meanings over signs, and therefore, the excess of authors over texts, since each additional authorship is a way to change radically the overall meaning of the text? Each text is allowed to have as many authors as it needs to have in order to become infinitely meaningful.

Vladimir Nabokov once remarked on what makes literature different from the "true story" or "the poetry of testimony": "Literature was born not the day when a boy crying 'wolf, wolf' came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying 'wolf, wolf' and there was no wolf behind him."

A friend of mine with whom I shared with her this observation, remarked pessimistically: "In our wretched times, when the boy runs in crying 'wolf, wolf!' no poetry is born whatsoever -- he will simply be dragged to court for 'making false statements' and 'disturbing the peace' of the pedestrian-minded." Some will regard such a view as overly gloomy, but it does suggest why, in our times, the boy might do well to disappear together with the ghostly wolf he dared to so bravely herald. In other words, the author is drawn to become fictitious in the way fiction is itself; the author shares the destiny of her characters and becomes one of them, like a chameleon--an illusion among illusions. Perhaps a new kind of literature is being given birth these days--one where neither the wolf nor the boy is to be found, even though the heart-rending cries go on echoing in the villagers' ears.

But wait, object the villagers, for in the meantime rumors about the wolf and the boy who supposedly are "never present" become more insistent and repetitious. Isn't this play of language with no ground exactly what we know as postmodernism? If the wolf in this little parable represents the objective truth of classical art, while the boy, the subjectivist pathos of modernism, what, then, is the truth and the pathos enacted by their vanishing? Is it not a blasphemy to "post-modernize" such a deeply pathetic experience as conveyed by Yasusada's poetry? If everything becomes fiction, including the author, what is left that is real?

Theodor Adorno, with even deeper pessimism than my friend above, famously proclaimed that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz. We might likewise conclude that there can be no poetry after Hiroshima. But is this true? Could it be, instead, that poetry must become wholly different from what it used to be in order to to fulfill its human calling after Hiroshima? If so, then the work of Yasusada can be seen as pointing toward one possible form of renewal. For in it, poetry reaches beyond the individual's original self-expression, beyond the "flowering" of one person, to become something other: "multiple flowering," a shared imagining and expression of humanity--of Russians, Japanese, Americans, of any nationality. Yasusada's fragments, letters, and poems become, through the egoless generosity of a person or persons we call Motokiyu, an appeal for a transpersonal (and thus selfless and in a sense authorless) empathy. Perhaps we can say this: In Yasusada there exist as many potential authorships as there are individuals in the world who are aware of Hirosima and associate themselves with the fate of its victims and survivors.

In conclusion, I must state again that all facts cited in this letter concerning real names, persons and historical circumstances, are true. It is only the interpretation of these facts which can claim the higher status of a hypothesis.


(3) Ellen E. Berry, Kent Johnson, Anesa Miller-Pogacar, "Postcommunist Postmodernism: An interview with Mikhail Epstein," Common Knowledge, Oxford Univesity Press, 1993, Vol.2, No.3, p.110.

(4) Third Wave: The New Russian Poetry, ed. Kent Johnson and Stephen M. Ashby. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1992, p.102.

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