House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories by Yasunari Kawabata
Vintage International, 2017
160 pages / Penguin Random House
Like many of us, I’ve often pondered the elusive nature of love. Yet, in light of the #MeToo movement and the multiple cases of sexual harassment, assault, and rape that have emerged in recent days, I’ve found myself increasingly consumed with a desire to better understand something equally as complex, for which love is often mistaken: lust. In particular, the lust of older men, who seem predominately the ones at fault.
In House of the Sleeping Beauties, Yasunari Kawabata explores this subject in his suitably delicate manner. Instead of attempting to explicitly render lust as a less talented or more exoteric writer might, say through a fast-paced, dramatic depiction of an extramarital affair, he takes a more esoteric approach—he considers the perspective of an elderly gentleman named Eguchi whose friend has informed him of an inn located by the sea with a particularly alluring secret: in it are young girls who are voluntarily drugged into a deep slumber for the night, which immediately teaches us how lust, as Yukio Mishima notes in the story’s introduction, “inevitably attaches itself to fragments.” A sleeping girl is not only a fragment of her full, awakened self, but she comes to embody the men’s many fragments, those of memory, awakening in them lost or unfulfilled loves, brief but powerful sexual encounters, regrets, and the persistent sexual longing and lusting that doesn’t lessen with age and the approach of death. What lessens is the ability to act upon this lust, heightening the man’s terror of being unable to satisfy its final urges, and therefore his need to do just that, at times forcibly. Death is ever-present; any girl is like a memento mori for an older man, a sleeping one only more powerfully so. She becomes like a beautiful corpse, Mishima writes, which, paradoxically, invokes the “strongest feelings of life.”
But these girls aren’t prostitutes—the men aren’t permitted to do anything more than caress them and sleep beside them, and are given sleeping pills to expedite their slumber. The men, furthermore, don’t ever break this rule, for reasons discussed below. And this only helps when discussing the nature of lust, as it strips away what’s generally its focus located at its end—the physical act of sex—in order to meditate on its origins, impulses, and consequences: after some initial reservations, Eguchi eventually decides to visit the house. He brings with him a lingering sense of guilt and shame, but he alleviates these by reminding himself (and us) time and again that he’s not as old as the other frequenters of the house, like the man who recommended the place, and not yet as senile. Ironically, shame is precisely what attracts the men to the house—the absence of shame. Unlike a girl who’s awake, a sleeping girl can’t physically reject the advances of an older man. Nor can she verbally strike him where it hurts most, and comment on his lack of virility. She can’t even return to haunt him after their encounter, remind him of his impotence, or condemn him for his actions, as she’ll retain no memories of him. Instead she can only speak “as the old men wished.”
This brings to the forefront an essential driving force of lust: vengeance. Eguchi finds himself constantly tempted to break the rules of the house not to satisfy himself sexually, recognizing this would be but “a fleeing consolation, the pursuit of a vanished happiness of being alive,” but to get revenge against a girl who—were she not asleep—would look upon a man in the “ugliness of old age” and be disgusted. Or indeed, look upon him and not see a man at all. Eguchi goes even further, and finds himself seeking revenge “for all the contempt and derision endured by the old men who frequented the house,” as if to indicate how a man’s lust is fueled by a sense of comradery—either conscious or subconscious—with other men formed in the trenches of a woman’s rejection they’re forced to endure each day.
The pursuit of vengeance, meanwhile, brings up an inherent trait of lust: violence. Violence transcends the physical act of penetration, and Eguchi constantly ponders murdering the girls in shockingly abrupt transitions from moments of compassion; compassion remains in the old men, who are reminded of their daughters and wives and lovers, which helps form their restraints, fighting against the violent tendencies of their lust. “Suppose he were to throttle her,” the narrator casually mentions on one occasion, after Eguchi covers a girl with a blanket so that she doesn’t catch cold. To hurt, to kill—not only is this an effort to relieve the stresses and frustrations of impotence. Like Eguchi’s temptation to leave a child in the belly of one of the girls (a thought he ultimately discards as hellish one, which he blames on the “body of woman,” echoing familiar defenses of rape), it’s an effort for posterity as well, as it acts as a last, desperate attempt to leave the mark of a life that otherwise “seemed likely to have a timid ending.” It’s an act of destruction that goes beyond that of the girl’s purity—all of the girls in the house are virgins (and when Eguchi doubts the purity of one of them, proves this with a prodding finger). “Thoughts of atrocities rose in him: destroy this house, destroy his own life too.”
None of the men attempt any of this destruction: there are no suicides (although one man dies in his sleep), the house remains intact, and more importantly, the girls remain pure. Besides the compassion the girls invoke in them, the origins of their restraint lies in the trauma Kawabata himself received as a young man, one which no doubt spurred on the writing of House of the Sleeping Beauties, his own contemplation of lust, and gave birth to his “worship” of virgins: when he was twenty, he was engaged to thirteen-year-old Hatsuyo Ito, whom he met at a café in 1919. She was his waitress, both were orphans, and they immediately fell deeply in love. Before she could join him in Tokyo, she was sent to live with a guardian in a distant temple, and a correspondence began, one filled with the tender sensibilities of an obsolete romanticism. “I have never written the word love in a letter before,” Ito writes in one letter. “Today is the first time.” But their engagement was abruptly broken off after she was raped by a monk. No longer pure, she felt unable to marry Kawabata, who was from a well-established family of doctors. Without giving him an explanation of what had occurred (only later did he find out about the rape), she told him how an “emergency” she’d rather die than tell him about had forced her to end their planned union. “This is goodbye,” she writes in her last letter.
Kawabata never fully recovered from this experience, and tells of how he “was left deeply wounded, and wandered the burned fields of Tokyo” for a “girl [who] no longer exists in this world.” This trauma is explicitly depicted in his short story Emergency, where he uses words from Ito’s letters throughout, not just in the title. His sadness manifests itself in all of his works, however, Ito appearing in many of his characters, in particular in the geisha of his masterpiece Snow Country, and in the dancing girl of Izu (from his story of the eponymous title). She’s also present in all the girls Eguchi sleeps with (each night he’s presented with a different one, and on one occasion, he sleeps with two at once), especially the first: one not yet twenty “with the scent of a baby.” As Eguchi lies with her and is seized by alternating waves of guilt and shame and compassion and “the impulse to arouse her by violence,” Kawabata not only wrestles with what he may have been facing when writing the story as a 61-year-old, but he attempts to empathize with the monk who violated his betrothed. He doesn’t let this girl or any of the others share Ito’s fate, however, as noted above. He instead offers some fragment of salvation with their virginity acting as the sacred shield Eguchi and the other frequenters of the house ultimately can’t bring themselves to breach. Kawabata does this while stressing the inhumanity of lust that culminates in the innkeeper’s cruel, near-last remark: “there is the other girl,” she tells Eguchi, after one of them perishes in her sleep.
I use the word “inhumanity” here not only because Kawabata does, and so does Mishima in the story’s introduction, but to bring up something else: it’s abundantly clear that lust is inherently human, and therefore to describe it as “inhuman” seems wrong. Han Kang would perhaps agree, as she approaches her literature with the Korean interpretation of Buddhism, which teaches how Man is inherently violent; she appropriately named her novel depicting the atrocities committed at Gwangju Human Acts. And whereas her Japanese counterparts appear to paint humanity with a more positive palette, Kawabata notes that with constant practice “any kind of inhumanity becomes human.” In relation to lust, that practice has unfortunately been ongoing for countless years, and only now are perpetrators being consistently named and roundly punished—thankfully, women are refusing to be put to sleep with fear, and have woken up the world to their struggle. Sadly, compassion doesn’t always act as a restraint, and there still isn’t a sacred shield protecting the vulnerable. Lust doesn’t have boundaries, and doesn’t stop at virginity. Besides, “why is a virgin pure, and another woman not?” Eguchi asks himself.
Christopher Impiglia is a writer and art book editor based in New York who received an MFA in Fiction from The New School, and an MA in Medieval History and Archaeology from the University of St Andrews. His words have appeared in “Kyoto Journal”; “Columbia Journal”; and “EuropeNow,” the journal for the Council for European Studies at Columbia University, among others.