[(essay date winter 2002) In the following essay, Loughman traces the influence of William Butler Yeats on Kenzaburō Ōe's writing.]
A longtime admirer of William Butler Yeats, Ōe Kenzaburō has often discovered in the Irish writer the meaning of his own works. The title The Flaming Green Tree, the third part of Ōe's recent trilogy, is taken from Yeats's poem "Vacillation," and Ōe acknowledges, "In fact my trilogy is soaked in the overflowing influence of Yeats's poems as a whole" ("Japan," 28). Analogs to Yeats's poetry are also central in two of Ōe's early works, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids (orig. Memushiri kouchi, 1958) and Seventeen (orig. Sebunchin, 1961).
Borrowing from a comment congratulating Yeats on his Nobel award, Ōe identifies with Yeats "as a citizen of such a nation which was stampeded into 'insanity in enthusiasm for destruction'" ("Japan," 28), and his representation of Japan in these early works is similar to Yeats's descriptions of the sorry state of Ireland and the Western world, as in this passage from "The Second Coming" (written in 1921, after World War I and during Ireland's Black and Tan conflict):
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
"The ceremony of innocence" refers to individual moral idealism that dares to resist the world's madness but is overwhelmed by it. Yeats clarifies what he means by such innocence in "A Prayer for My Daughter," when he warns against the destructiveness of intellectual hatred and calls for finding and asserting values from within the self:
Considering that, all hatred driven hence, The soul recovers radical innocence And learns at last that it is self-delighting, Self-appeasing, self-affrighting, And that its own sweet will is Heaven's will.
What Yeats is describing is, to use Ihab Hassan's phrase, "the modern self in recoil" from a world with which it is at odds. In his book Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel, published in 1961, the same year as Seventeen, Hassan expresses the postwar literary spirit of alienation that crossed national boundaries; indeed, Ōe was attracted to the marginal heroes of writers such as Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, who are discussed in Hassan's book. Though Hassan makes no reference to Yeats, he arrives at a similar definition of radical innocence when he says that "the existential self which modern literature reveals is one that reaches out to new conditions while recoiling to preserve a radical kind of innocence" (20). He says further that the image of the self in its "quarrel with culture" (a phrase he borrows from Lionel Trilling) focuses on the antihero, a "ragged assembly of victims" that includes, among others, the criminal, the freak, the outsider, the scapegoat (Hassan, 21). This ragged assembly is searching for self-definition, and its recoil is "its way of taking a stand" (Hassan, 31). Sometimes it takes the opposite stand, surrender of...