Category Archive for: ‘Michael Ferguson’

House of the Sleeping Beauties — Book Review

House of the Sleeping Beauties, and other stories

By Yasunari Kawabata (1969)  Translated by Edward Seidensticker.  Tokyo and New York:  Kodansha International.


Recently I bought several porcelain figurines of nude young girls.  They are made by Kaiser of Germany and are exquisite in detail and craftsmanship.  The absolute smoothness of the surface of the porcelain and their pure whiteness coupled with the finely detailed features of the nude girl create at once an idealization of the young girl’s body and a kind of perverse reduction of a girl to this idealized representation.

As I look at these lifeless figures I find that I begin to recall living, breathing girls from the past that I once held in my arms.  I recall the details of their bodies, their “imperfections” in contrast to these perfect porcelain representations, the way they kissed, especially their kisses, the fierceness of the longing and hunger in their kisses, their pants, moans, and sharp cries in my ears.  My response to these porcelain figurines is exactly analogous to the memories awakened in Eguchi by the all but lifeless bodies of the deeply sleeping girls in the House of the Sleeping Beauties.

The House of the Sleeping Beauties is no ordinary brothel.  It is very exclusive and caters only to very old men, who “are no longer men,” that is, men who have lost sexual potency, and can thus be “trusted” to spend the night beside a sleeping nude girl without performing intercourse on her.  The girls are between about sixteen and twenty.  The madam supposedly drugs them into a deep sleep from which they will not awaken while the man is present.  They are not dead, but nearly so.  Customers are free to examine and explore the bodies of the sleeping girls to their hearts’ content, but the house rules are very strict and absolutely forbid the girls being sexually violated.  Eguchi claims to be still capable of sexual performance and on a number of occasions considers defying the house rules and taking sexual liberties with the girls, but he always backs off, finding one excuse or another.

The story is psychologically complex and works on a number of different levels.  First of all, on the obvious level of presentation one might question whether the girls really are drugged into a deep sleep, or is it an elaborate performance?  Numerous passages suggest that the girls are indeed aware of the man’s explorations of their bodies and they seem to respond at times to his overtures as if they had sensible awareness.  The madam told him on one occasion that the girl that evening was “in training.”  But how much training do you need to be drugged into a stupor and lie unconscious all night in the nude?

I had the sense that there is a pervasive and profound hostility toward women expressed throughout the story, but it must be qualified by some counterweighing factors.    The negative valuation and destructive impulses toward women are strong, but they are at the same time nuanced and tempered.  This extreme ambivalence is reflected in the way the story ends, which we will examine.

Eguchi, at sixty-seven, is a man who has had a lifetime of extensive sexual experience with many women.  He is not an ascetic and continues to desire to sleep beside the nude body of a young girl, even if drugged into insensibility.  He is deeply disappointed in women (p. 17, 22), yet they continue to offer a comfort that is worth paying for, and there is also profound comfort in the memories they evoke of women long faded in the past (p.27).  He still finds their bodies beautiful and fascinating.  He remains drawn to women and strongly so, despite his disappointment in them.  He has not renounced the pleasures of sex, a la Wagner or Tolstoy, in search of an ideal of “spirituality.”  He feels impulses to both violate the girls and to kill them.  His feelings toward the girls are extremely mixed.  There are murderous impulses, suicidal impulses, alongside a deep longing for connection which he is in despair of ever attaining.  I think this is part of the reason the girls must be unconscious, but at the same time nude.  They are reduced to their physical bodies, much like my porcelain figurines, devoid of personality, devoid of response, unable to interact — although not entirely, as it turns out.  As he told the madam, “It is not a human relationship” (p. 38).  Promiscuity is another way of interacting with women on a physical level while evading a deeper attachment and engagement with the personality of the woman.  Eguchi is able to make attachments to the women, something which commercial sex and promiscuity tend to discourage.  The madam takes the initiative in making sure that he does not sleep with the same girl more than once.  She understands Eguchi’s tendency to become attached to the girls and seek and involvement beyond this superficial acquaintance with her body, and she is very much at pains to avoid that development.

There is a deeply pessimistic attitude toward women, human relations, and life itself that runs throughout the story that hearkens back to the Zen Buddhism that has afflicted Japanese society for centuries.  This pessimism is also related to the profound sense of loneliness and isolation throughout the story.

Eguchi visits the house several different times.  Each time the girl and the experience is different.  On his final visit the madam provides him with two girls.  The experience of two girls divides his attention and makes it difficult for him to sleep.  During the course of the night one of the girls dies, perhaps from an overdose of the sleeping drug, or an allergic reaction to it.  This is only a minor inconvenience and the madam encourages him to stay on, “there is the other girl.”  The cold indifference with which the girl’s death is treated evinces the hostility toward women that pervades all of these stories.  Her death is no more than a nuisance such as a spill or a broken dish.  But it is balanced by the girl who remains living with whom Eguchi spends the remainder of the night.  This conflict between the impulse to kill the girls on the one hand, or to keep them alive and enjoy sleeping with them, even if only in a condition of near total insensibility, is the theme throughout the story from the beginning, and finally at the ending it is made stark and concrete.  Throughout all of these stories the attitude toward death is callous and diffident.  It reflects a low valuation of life itself.

There is no moral or message to the story.  It is a portrait of a man who is so fragile within himself that he is unable to interact on an intimate level with a living, breathing woman.  He can only deal with women on the level of their bodies, without the driving force of lust, and only with the utmost detachment, as if he were appreciating the beauty of an insensate object, like my figurines.  This desire is itself a source of pain for him, because it emphasizes his loneliness and isolation and his inability to reach beyond it.  This is probably the reason for the murderous impulses toward the girls.  If he can kill the girl, maybe he can kill the desire within himself for her, is the logic.  But, or course, it is futile.

Incidentally, this is a mechanism in some serial killers who kill women or prostitutes.  What they are trying to do is blot out an intolerable desire within themselves, a desire that is experienced as intolerably painful because of deep disappointments and frustrations in the past.  It is an attempt to externalize an internal problem.  But projecting it onto the girl who is the object of the desire and killing her does not work, so he has to keep on killing.  Serial killers of women are fundamentally lonely people to an extreme degree, who are trapped in a horrifically painful isolation from which they cannot escape, and which tortures them with relentless, hopeless desire.  In Eguchi we see a very similar psychic mechanism, but in this case the girl is not overtly killed, she dies, more or less by accident.   Eguchi has mitigating forces in his personality that prevent him from becoming a killer, although not by much.

House of the Sleeping Beauties might well be called a novella.  It is the flagship story in this small volume of three stories by Japanese writer, Yasunari Kawabata.  The additional two stories in this volume are One Arm, and Of Birds and Beasts.

One Arm is a tragic representation of the inability to accept intimacy, the partial merging of another with one’s body and one’s self.  The writer borrows an arm from a young girl just for one night — the right arm.  “I don’t suppose you’ll try to change it for your own arm, but it will be all right.  Go ahead, do,” the girl invites him.  And indeed he does exactly that.  In the course of the night he removes his own arm and replaces it with the arm of the young girl.  “Is the blood flowing?”

“[The arm] lay over my heart, so that the two pulses sounded against each other.  Hers was at first somewhat slower than mine, then they were together.  Then I could feel only mine.  I did not know which was faster, which slower.  Perhaps this identity of pulse and heartbeat was for a brief period when I might try to exchange the arm for my own.” (p. 118)

The arm is a symbolic representation of the girl, perhaps it might be better to call it an abbreviation of the girl, which the man brings to his residence and sleeps with in his bed.  The result is a partial merging with her.  The girl [the arm] become part of himself, incorporated into his own body.  He removes his own arm and replaces it with the girl’s.  His blood flows through it.  The girl becomes part of his self.  He and the girl merge into one.  “I’ll keep away the devils,” she tells him.  “Our sleep was probably light, but I had never before known sleep so warm, so sweet.  A restless sleeper, I had never before been blessed with the sleep of a child.” (p. 123)

But he awoke screaming.  “I almost fell out of bed, and staggered three or four steps.  I had awakened to the touch of something repulsive.  It was my right arm.”  (p. 123)  In an instant he tears the girl’s arm from his shoulder and replaces it with his own.  “The act was like murder upon a sudden, diabolic impulse.”  The story ends with him weeping over the dying arm of the girl.

The story is short on analysis and explanation, so I will try to provide some.

“Woman why weepest thou?  Whom seekest thou?”  These questions of Jesus to Mary Magdalene are recalled in the text “as if spoken by an by an eternal voice, in an eternal place.”  “Very often when I’m dreaming and wake up in the night I whisper [this passage] to myself.”  (p. 120)  These questions might well be posed to every woman a man ever sleeps with.  They truly are eternal in place and voice.  But the answers to them are myriad.  In One Arm no answers are attempted.  The man is entirely absorbed within himself.

Intimacy is a merging of the inner self with that of another.  It is the most profound communication between people.  In the Bible the phrase “he knew her” is used to represent having sex with a woman.  Having sex with a woman is equated with “knowing” her.  One knows a woman through sex.  I like this locution.  Sex is communication.  Sex is discovery.  Sex tells you where you are in your relationship with another person.  Sex is a merging of the body and the heart, and it extends beyond the act of sex.  Sex creates a bond, because once you “know” someone, that knowledge does not disappear with the sunrise.  It is this emotional bond, created by the intimate connection, that this protagonist revolts against.  It is experienced subjectively as a feeling of revulsion toward the woman, an intense desire to get away from her, even to destroy her, to repudiate the connection that had been made through the night of unleashed desire and longing with the merging of self and other that resulted.  Why is that?  Why did he wake up screaming after the warmest, sweetest sleep he had ever had?  The girl said she would keep away the devils, but she didn’t.  The devils were much deeper than her arm could reach.  In order to be intimate with another person, sexually and emotionally, one has to have good internal boundaries.  That means that one has to have a sense of oneself and who one is that is sturdy enough to withstand penetration by the needs and longings and inner world of another.  If one feels overwhelmed by the emotional needs of the other, if one merges with the hunger, longing, and pain that the other brings to your bed to the point where you begin to feel you are losing yourself, a kind of panic may result, experienced as an intense need to escape from the suffocating quicksand of the inner world of another.  The origins of the writer’s dilemma are not described, but we can surmise that he must have experienced some severe and confusing early rejection.

“Woman why weepest thou?  Whom seekest thou?” are probably questions he has been asking himself for many years.  Do you really want to know?  Are you really ready for the answers that might emerge?  Why does he wake up in the night with these questions in his mind?  They represent his greatest fear.  He is lonely and isolated.  He reaches out to the woman.  He wants to be close to her.  He needs the soothing and comfort of her body.  Yet the closeness overwhelms him.  The reality of merging with the woman’s heart is intolerable.  This is the tragedy of the story.  He longs to come close, and he succeeds.  But he has to turn around and destroy the connection he created.  He is not able to consolidate what he has gained through his connection to the woman.  Like Sisyphus, he has to start pushing the rock back up the mountain all over again.

Of Birds and Beasts describes a man in his late 30s — who is not named — who feels very little connection to other people.  It is the story of a man who is deeply depressed, estranged from human connection (with the exception of his maid), and on the verge of suicide.  He maintains a few small birds and dogs which provide him with his only joy.  I think it is fair to say that the only thing between this man and suicide is the fleeting vivaciousness he finds in these small animals.  The story opens with him and his maid in a taxi on his way to a recital and they become stuck in a funeral procession — essentially equating this excursion to the recital with a funeral.  Additionally, he mentions two dead birds to his maid, which have been left dead in their cage at his house for a week.  So the theme of death is at the forefront of consciousness right from the very beginning, and the indifference to death is also evident, represented by leaving the dead birds unattended in their cage for a week.  The bulk of the story is a discussion of his birds and his dogs, and especially their fates, which often come at his ineptitude in taking care of them.

He relates an anecdote about a group of children who find a baby bird that has been coldly thrown away by some neighboring bird keepers.  Our hero at first has the intent of taking in the discarded bird and raising it, but he abandons the idea when he considers that this bird was discarded as garbage by his neighbors, most likely because it would not become a singer, and he leaves the baby bird to be tortured to death by the children.  He points out how the human love of animals quickly becomes a quest for superior specimens, and the discarding of the inferiors is brutal and cruel.  He tells us he would not take in an animal that had been raised by someone else.

Smiling a sardonic smile, he excused them as symbols of the tragedy of the universe and of man, these animal lovers who tormented animals, ever striving toward a purer and purer breed.  (p. 134)

This transformation of the simple nurturing impulse into one of competitive striving for relentless improvement can be seen as a metaphor for modern middle class values of child rearing.  In many families great stress is created by the imposition of expectations for achievement on growing children.  In America today the entire educational system is obsessed with testing and retesting and measuring the progress of children — and teachers — in every imaginable way.  The whole system of education has been distorted by the testing regimen to the point where we have lost sight of what education is all about.  Education has become a competitive struggle to maximize certain numbers:  grade point averages, standardized test scores.  The problem that no one considers is: what happens to those who don’t measure up, or who are only average?  We are a society that only awards achievers.  In Garrison Keillor’s mythical Midwest town of Wobegon all the children are above average.  The anxiety of the American middle class is being average or below.  Because we all know there is no provision and no place for those who are only mediocre, like the small bird in Kawabata’s story who is brutally discarded and tortured to death because it could not sing.

The great strength of the Christian faith, which has sustained it for centuries and continues to be its wellspring of renewal, is that Jesus came to seek and to save that which is lost.  Jesus saw value in the losers, the outcasts, the rejected.  To the people nobody else wanted, he said “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  It has inspired millions who see hope for themselves in his promise.  That unconditional acceptance is powerfully appealing.  The great flaw in industrial capitalism is that its emphasis on competition, innovation, efficiency, and improvement makes no provision for the losers.  Those who do not measure up, those who can’t cut it, those who are left behind in the mad rush of progress:  What happens to them?  They simply perish.  It is not a workable value system for human societies, because, in fact, most people are losers.  Over time, the winners become an ever smaller and smaller group accumulating more and more of the wealth and power in the society while the vast majority of people are forced ever downward in their standard of living and in their prospects.

Kawabata captures this ruthless indifference in his attitude toward the baby bird discarded by its human possessors because it could not sing.  There are other such parallels drawn between the indifference to the deaths of animals and human deaths caused by human failings.  He describes a female dog who dug a nest of straw to sleep in and placed her puppies beneath it.  “she [the mother] would lie on the straw under which they were buried.  They would die in the night of cold and suffocation.  She was like a foolish human mother who suffocated her baby at her breast.” (p. 138)

The birds and beasts in this story provide this man with a tolerable, if feeble, connection to life.  The birds and the dogs do show personality and vitality with which he can choose to interact minimally. He observes them with coldness and detachment, and often neglects them to the point of death.  Nothing in the story suggests that he “cares” for the birds or the dogs.

But for him life was filled with a young freshness for several days after a new bird came.  He felt in it the blessings of the universe.  Perhaps it was a failing on his part, but he was unable to feel anything of the sort in a human being. (p. 131)

The three stories in this book provide an excellent representation of what the psychiatric literature calls a “schizoid personality.”1

The schizoid condition consists in the first place in an attempt to cancel external object-relations and live in a detached and withdrawn way.  . . . It pervades the whole life. (p. 19)

The attitude toward the outer world is . . . non-involvement and observation at a distance without any feeling. (p. 18)

The schizoid person’s capacity to love has been frozen by experiences of rejection and the breakdown of real life relationships.” and results in a “longstanding unsatisfied hunger for love about which, however, she could only feel hopelessness and despair. (p. 91)

This psychiatric description is rather abstract and from the outside looking in, but these three stories of Yasunari Kawabata illustrate this mode of existence very concretely from the inside out.  Through the eyes and voices of the protagonists one sees and experiences the detachment, the emotional coldness, the loneliness and isolation, the suppressed rage, and the indifference to death.  It is at once beautifully written and deeply tragic.  I’m not sure I would recommend this book to the general reader, but if you want to gain insight into this particular type of “borderline” personality, these stories bring you into the heart of how it is lived and experienced in the context of Japanese culture.



1.  Guntrip, Harry (1968)  Schizoid Phenomena, Object Relations and the Self.  London:  Hogarth Press.

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