J A C K E T  # 5
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Kent Johnson
Letter to American Book Review
 
 

You can read six different articles on the Yasusada phenomenon here in Jacket.


 
To: The Editors
The American Book Review
Unit for Contemporary Literature
Campus Box 4241
Normal, IL 61790-4241 USA
 
November 24, 1998
 
Dear Editors:
 
      I've recently read Joe Napora's review of Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada ("Back Covered," ABR, Nov./Dec. '98). I'm familiar with Mr. Napora's superb work as a critic and poet, so the insight and intelligence of many of his remarks didn't surprise me. All in all, it's quite a fine review, and I'm grateful that the American Book Review chose to feature it.
      I was surprised, though, to see my name so matter-of-factly attributed to Doubled Flowering, as if it were simply the case that I am the book's author and that such casual ascription is sufficient, ipse dixit, to prove it. I am proclaimed to be the book's "Author" in both Mr. Napora's text and (in an editorial choice by your magazine) in the issue's table of contents and the review's heading.
      I think this is too bad, because I have stated in print a number of times (including in the interview with myself and Javier Alvarez in the book's "Appendices" section) that the author of the Yasusada materials is the late Tosa Motokiyu, the pseudonym of a writer who did not wish to attach his legal name to the hyperauthorial person he brought into being. As a caretaker of the Yasusada manuscripts, I have certainly acted and spoken publicly on behalf of Motokiyu's work and have even (through a necessity that should be understandable given the unusual circumstances) assumed copyright for the book. But the fact of my personal intimacy with the work, I would like to emphasize yet again, does in no logical manner make me the Yasusada author.
      In fact, a relevant question here would be one that a famous writer once asked: What does it matter who is speaking? Araki Yasusada is the creation of Tosa Motokiyu, a man who wished, simply, to remain unknown. His book brings forth a faint, fragmented, and yet compelling vision of another life -- that of a humble poet of avant-garde tastes who survives the single most obscene and sinful moment of violence ever conducted upon human beings. For nearly three years now, in keeping with Motokiyu's instructions, the caretakers of his estate have acknowledged Yasusada's life to be a fictional gesture, one writer's idiosyncratic, empathic, and poignantly utopian counter to the ever-deepening neglect and repression of Hiroshima in our collective memory. In its eccentric and moving and transgressive contents and forms, it is, quite simply, a book unlike any other in American poetry.
      But despite the book's complexity, one of the fascinating things about the "Yasusada affair" has been the degree to which its already substantial critical reception has reduced the work to the status of mere "hoax" and tightly orbited, in name-calling outrage or vindictive glee, around the work's absent author -- an easy reductiveness to the virtual exclusion (with one or two notable exceptions) of any reflection on how such absence might be intrinsic to the very origins of the work and indivisible from its broader aesthetic and ethical purposes.
      To his credit, Mr. Napora makes some incisive and tantalizing suggestions on why this has been so, alluding --through a quote from the great but largely unknown poet John Clarke -- to the grid of "Power" that fuels and channels the production, circulation, and evaluation of contemporary literature. And he goes on to suggest (rightly, in my opinion) that it is precisely through the ideological node of Authorship that this Power routes and relays our vision and judgment as readers and writers; it makes "cultural constructs seem natural" and provokes irritation and unease when those constructs (such as the Author) are suddenly withdrawn -- or yet deeper unease when the constructs are faintly, "falsely" returned, like the shadows that they are.
      How odd and surprising, then, that Mr. Napora and the editors of the ABR see no problem in using the essay's occasion to ensconce Doubled Flowering into that very institutional grid, assigning, or more properly "exposing," an Author named "Kent Johnson" to replace Motokiyu's troublesome and apocryphal form. It is almost as if Yasusada had all along simply been some kind of misfiring fuse that hadn't yet been properly screwed in. But now, apparently, he's screwed in fine, or at least where it most matters, and this will no doubt make Yasusada easier to "understand," more readable perhaps, more comfortable and at hand. Yasusada now has a proper name.
      The situation makes me think of a letter I received a couple of weeks ago from the widely- published Russian critic and cultural theorist Mikhail Epstein. Epstein, who has commented extensively and rather provocatively on the "Yasusada affair" here and in his native country, had written me to report that a heated and voluminous debate had been raging in The Russian Journal, the most important scholarly site from Russia on the internet. There, a large number of subscribers had weighed in with over one hundred letters on the question of whether "Mikhail Epstein" (whose name in Russia is linked to mysterious and newly discovered philosophical tracts from various historical periods) was an actually-existing individual or whether he was, "in reality," the hyperauthorial invention of the Italian critic Umberto Eco -- an hypothesis partly supported by published photographic montages that show a rather plausible resemblance between the aging Eco and the younger, "so-called" Mikhail Epstein. In part, this debate had been provoked by Epstein's numerous forays of speculation into the complex issues of pseudography, including controversial articles on Yasusada published in prominent journals in Russia and Italy, wherein Epstein had demonstrated, in extremely convincing fashion, that the most likely candidate for the "Yasusada author" was not Kent Johnson at all, but the famous author of Pushkin's House, Andrei Bitov. Epstein, who is a Professor of Slavic studies at Emory University, ended his letter with the following resigned observation:
 
 
 
This is how creation of hyperauthors brings forth the effect of boomerang on the creators themselves, presenting them as hyperauthors of some more primary creators, etc. Isn't this an applied theological argument leading to the Primary Cause?
 
 
 
My point in relating this curious story is that the "boomerang" effect of which Epstein speaks is precisely analogous to the widespread and confident claim that "Kent Johnson" is the creator of Yasusada. For it is a claim that transforms Tosa Motokiyu -- who was guilty of nothing else but a principled refusal to parade forth his name -- into the hyperauthor of a hypothetical "Primary Cause," in this case myself.
      The irony of which seems interesting to me, but of which I don't really mean to complain in any kind of self-righteous way. The issues of Doubled Flowering are quite intricate and difficult to sort out, and the intellectual dynamics do create unintended misdirections and contradictions. I myself, familiar as I am with the background of Yasusada, become sometimes disoriented too. And on the whole, I am quite grateful to Mr. Napora for his thought-provoking review. But the confusion of attribution is an important matter, and I am writing to call your attention to it, asking that you print this letter as a clarification. Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada, please, does not belong under my name.
      Thank you,
 
      Kent Johnson
      1147 W. Lincoln Blvd. Freeport, IL 61032, USA
 
 
 
I wish to thank Rebecca Kaiser, Managing Editor of American Book Review, and the editorial board for their courtesy in allowing this letter to be reproduced here. - John Tranter, Editor, Jacket
 
You can read more on the Mystery of Araki Yasusada in Jacket magazine: in this issue, Eliot Weinberger's original "exposé" of the affair, and Kent Johnson interviewed by Norbert Francis.
      In Jacket # 2, the Kent Johnson / Akitoshi Nagahata letters, and in Jacket # 4, Forrest Gander's review of DOUBLED FLOWERING: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada.

Kent Johnson’s author notes page gives more recent information.
Jacket’s ‘author notes’ provide direct links to various pages in the magazine that feature more of an author’s work, reviews of their books, and interviews.

 
 
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