Original Title: ヰタ・セクスアリス (Wita Sekusuarisu)
Author: Ōgai Mori (森 鷗外 / 森 鴎外, Mori Ōgai)
Translator: Kazuji Ninomiya and Sanford Goldstein
Genres: Literature, Japanese Literature
Even someone like me couldn’t help but reason that some relationship exists between love and sexual desire. Yet even though I had a longing for love and affection, I didn’t feel, as one normally would have expected, any real sexual drive.
(Let’s get this project up and running again, shall we? 😉 )
I was hesitant to read Vita Sexualis, mostly because I wasn’t sure that I would find it interesting. It chronicles the sexual awakening of a young man, from childhood all the way to early adulthood. It’s not that I’m prude, it’s just that I’m really, really not interested in sex. Like, at all.
However, despite its misleading title (In Latin, somewhere along the lines of The Sexual Life), Vita Sexualis is not the book that I thought it would be. Mori was interested in how sexual desire affected everyday life, and he wanted to disprove those that claimed sex was vital to human beings. When Vita Sexualis was published in 1909, it was censored four weeks after publication due to the strict morality of the Meiji era, since by discussing sexual desire, the censorship authorities automatically viewed it as an erotic novel. Honestly, I think that’s ridiculous. I’ve read children’s books more scandalous than this.
I was surprised at how liberal it was. Even though there aren’t any explicit depictions of sex, it alludes to prostitution and masturbation, and even homosexuality. This was the thing that I was really worried about. The introduction mentions that the narrator, Kanai, carries a dagger around with him to protect himself from the “queers.” I immediately assumed the worst, but it turns out that my concern wasn’t necessary. The “queers,” as they are referred to in this book, are actually viewed as more superior than the “mashers.” (This is because they are homosocial and it was considered to be more masculine.) The reason why Kanai carries a dagger around with him is due to a time when he was eleven when he was attacked by his upperclassmen after refusing to sleep with one of them. (Thankfully, someone stops them before things go too far.)
The other thing I loved about Vita Sexualis is when Kanai discussed his views on arranged marriage:
The woman herself did not say whether she liked the candidate or not. Only the male had to indicate his likes or dislikes. It was as if the parents of the daughter were selling her while the groom was doing the buying. The daughter was treated as if she were a commodity. If she were set down in Roman law, the word res would be used, the same as our word for slave. I had no interest in going out to buy a beautiful toy.
He also discusses “marriage in terms of soul,” and how he would hate to marry a woman he didn’t like, or for the woman to marry a man that she didn’t like. Since arranged marriages were based on looks, status, or wealth, this way of thinking was considered appalling. To me, it was the best part of the whole novel.
It’s a little dry, which is why the rating was reduced to three stars. The writing style is very analytical, as the narration is being told by a philosopher. (He criticizes his own work at the end, saying that it’s neither worthy of a novel or an autobiography and for some reason, I found that amusing.) However, to call this book “unessential” is incorrect. It’s more than just a book about sexual desire; Mori published this book knowing that it was going to be censored, putting his reputation as a writer and as surgeon general of the Japanese Imperial Army on the line, presenting Vita Sexualis to Japan in a time of strict moral codes that would continue through the second world war, decades after the Meiji era had ended. By writing and publishing Vita Sexualis, Mori was opening a door in a time when everyone else wanted to keep them closed.