“Man is by nature a social animal.” - Aristotle
Being part of a society is a major part of the human identity. Whether it be a small tribe or an expanding metropolis, humans have always formed societies. Although harmony in society is kept through the enforcement of rules, the expectation to meet these norms is the root of struggle for many and is also the topic of Osamu Dazai’s 1948 'No Longer Human'. The semi-autobiography follows the life of a man named Yōzō, who deems himself disqualified of being human having felt alienation since childhood. Yōzō attempts to forge genuine relationships, all which end with no avail for him. He eventually falls to his demise as he departs his prestigious upbringing and drowns in smoking, drug abuse, and harlotry while becoming obsessed with the idea of suicide. The novel ends on a rather bleak note as the protagonist is confined to a psychiatric hospital, spending the restof his life in complete isolation.
There is no light throughout Yōzō’s journey. What left me particularly heartbroken was the protagonist’s misconception of what it means to be human. Throughout the novel, he laments that he is disqualified from being human because of his lifelong alienation and desensitisation. It didn't occur to me until reading this novella the importance of society to the human identity. By being in a community, we have the ability to communicate and cultivate art, religions, cultures, and thought. For Yōzō, his inability to be part of that society disqualifies him from being human. His bleak outlook is clear in the novel’s opening line: “mine has been a life of much shame”. Given that shame roots the self-evaluation that one has not met expectations, it's fair to say that the protagonist does not consider himself human because he considers social integration vital to the human identity.
Yet 'No Longer Human' presents one of the most genuine portrayals of a human being. Although Yōzō claims that he is devoid of emotions early in the novel, underlying his dark demeanour is a strong yearning for acceptance. His buffoonery in adolescence and later dependence on drugs, alcohol, and harlotry are all behaviours any human could adopt as an attempt to belong and use as a means of coping. There's nothing more human than embodying the innate need to be loved. Yōzō was human from the beginning to end; it's his failure to notice this that makes Dazai’s novel such a lamentable read.
'No Longer Human' is a feat of Japanese literature that showcases Dazai’s mastery as one of Japan’s greatest writers. Undoubtedly, a writer’s skill and experiences are integral to any piece of literature. However, I have learnt through other books that language is a powerful storyteller in itself. The satire in Sōseki’s 1905-1906 'I am a Cat' could not have been written without the subtle nuances of the Japanese language, indicating the pompous attitude of the novel’s feline narrator. The art of 'No Longer Human', on the other hand, does not rely on language but purely on Dazai’s own ability as a storyteller. Despite its bleak subject, its prose is austere and becomes increasingly conversational as the novel progresses, almost as if to complement Yōzō’s metamorphosis into an entirely different person. The frank tone of Dazai’s novel is even somewhat comforting; one could almost forget the dark nature of the matter being discussed as they befriend Dazai through reading. 'No Longer Human' is remarkable in how it verbalises the torment of its protagonist and Dazai’s prose only contributes to its sincerity to readers.
'No Longer Human' is a consuming novel that, despite its title, gives a painfully raw and genuine account of a human’s struggle to be a part of society. In the epilogue, upon being asked whether she remembers the author of a found diary, a woman only replies that she has no idea. Readers are never informed of the exact whereabouts of Yōzō before his death. However it is clear to me that even though he may not have left a mark in society, he was always a human.
Writer's Bio: Layla Aoki is a student of English/Law from Sydney. Prefering to read over sleeping, she spends much of her day thinking about books. She also loves all kinds of food including dairy, which she devours at the cost of enduring prolonged bellyaches. Layla is also an executive member of the UNSW Bookworm Society.