Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age by Kenzaburo Oe is an autobiographical novel that reads like a memoir binding together the two most important facets of the narrator’s life:
--The challenging burden of raising a mentally handicapped son (called Eyeore);
--The persistent sense that what occurs in his life has been foreshadowed and well expressed by William Blake.
Taken as a novel, this book is essayistic and on occasion tedious although carefully and precisely written and conceived. Taken as some other kind of book...well, I don’t know what other kind of book that would be.
The real power in this tale lies in the father’s struggle to come to terms with how different his child is from himself and from everyone else...how incapable he is of managing mundane tasks...how isolated he is in a world that might not be--probably isn’t--much like the world the father (also a novelist) occupies.
Eeyore is born with an extruded “second brain” that has to be removed surgically. This renders him somewhat autistic with tendencies toward the so-called idiot savant, at least in terms of music. Oe does an excellent job portraying parental anguish in raising such a child. I’ve known parents of autistic and/or brain-damaged children and seen what they go through. It is an emotional/psychological test that never lets up. Tolstoy’s famous observation that all happy families are alike and all unhappy families are different in different ways probably gets more attention than its due. The real killer truth about families, especially families where there is trouble, is that you are only as happy as your saddest child.
Oe’s narrator makes the curious and persistent case that William Blake’s visionary poetry offers some kind of insight into Eeyore’s condition. He notes that Blake’s concept of the imagination--which is fundamentally a capacity to conceive of that which is not--offers relief from conventional existence. Blake, as we know, was no fan of reason; he wasn’t too taken with the notion of mortality, either. From these two predispositions, he elaborated a comprehensive, very personal cosmology.
So this book, with its unfortunate title, wanders back and forth between Eeyore and Blake, with the narrator caught in the middle. Somehow the narrator always thinks of a crucial line of Blake at a particularly sensitive moment in Eeyore’s evolution.
Okay, there is one book I can think of that has some similarity to this one: William Gass’s book about translating Rilke into English. It goes on and on making finer and finer distinctions about the virtues of this or that phrasing and it insists--Gass insists--that Rilke’s genius was his ability to write poetry that referred to, or implied, undefined assumptions about the free space around human experience, not the experience itself.
Rilke read this way is hard to take. Blake read as Oe presents him, however, is no more difficult to take than usual--he’s always hard to take (artwork excepted).
Occasionally things “happen” in this novel. Eeyore has a bad experience swimming; Eeyore somehow seems to have been negatively exposed to the demonic Japanese writer Mishima; Eeyore is actually kidnapped; Eeyore and father go through a devastating storm in their mountain cabin.; Eeyore has what his father thinks of as epileptic fits although his mother disagrees with that diagnosis.
No one with children can be insensitive to these happenings, especially a parent of a vulnerable child. But the super-intellectual response of the narrator/author, always getting back to Blake...Blake...Blake...dampens the experience.
Now that I’ve risen to Oe’s bait and focused so much on Blake, I might as well go on for a few sentences and offer my own experience. In college in the 70s, I took a course that highlighted Blake. The lecturer thought of himself as some kind of guru. Instead of pursuing a traditional path into Blake, he decided that he would read passages...and place students throughout the lecture hall who would read corresponding passages back to him. A rough antiphony or call-and-response was established, sans interpretation. This was Blake? Actually, I think it was a cop-out, a real piece of professorial rubbish, but the student body generally thought of the professor, in his leather pants, was the coolest thing around.
Years later I decided to read Blake by myself. I got the books Oe mentions, including the complete Blake, and one book he curiously doesn’t mention: Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry. Some months later, greatly aided by Frye and also by Harold Bloom’s commentaries, I had developed as much appreciation as I wanted for Blake.
Sometimes I ask myself why I undertake projects like this. The answer is that like Oe I don’t want to miss anything, certainly nothing literary. But if you haven’t pushed yourself into Blake’s unique world, Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age probably isn’t for you.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund