Yesterday I was invited to Prof. Miho Matsugu’s class at DePaul University entitled “Queer Japan” to discuss with the class as well as Prof. Yuki Miyamoto “Honey Pie”, a Haruki Murakami short story. The class was composed of students with various backgrounds and motivations for study of Japan, and the discussion turned out to be quite an opportunity for me (and for Yuki, as she later told me) to explore many other possible readings of the story than ours. Since the class session didn’t last long enough for all of us to fully share our interpretations of the story, I’m sure some of the students had a lot more to say than we got to hear. I myself left out some of the points that I had in my notes.
My expertise is queer theory and feminist critique (although that’s got more to do with literature, not my official discipline sociology). Queer theory and feminist critique are, you know, things that some people like, some others loathe; some people need them to make sense of the gendered/heterosexualized world, some people don’t need them because the world already makes sense to them. So here I am, trying to share my reading of “Honey Pie,” so that some of the class who may find this example of queer reading interesting——or at least worth-thinking about——can get a glimpse of what is queer about queer-reading.
Before I get to my own reading of the story, I want to say a bit more about the very act of reading. There are many, many ways to read a story. In the world of literary criticism, it is one of today’s dominant views of authorship that the author is dead. Authors’ intentions, his or her subjectivity in controlling the plot, and their originality (as in, they control the language, not the other way around) have been for quite a few decades dismissed from the status of primary concerns of literary critics. Now it is considered that each reader creates, or recreates, the story as she or he reads it. Having multiple meanings is, as opposed to the conventional view on literature that it is a sign of incoherent and thus crappy work, a great asset to literature since, in the post-author’s-death literary criticism world, through differences between interpretations we readers expose ourselves, our own views of the story, and our own views of the world around us. The author’s interpretation of her or his story does not outdo any of his or her reader’s.
Then why do many people read any given story pretty much, quite often in almost the same way? This is called dominant reading, a practice that is in accordance with the social structure and dominant ideologies of the time and place of reading. “In accordance” here can be a good thing; it is easy to read stories this way. If you are the kind of person who never questions how the world/society works, then your most relaxed way of reading is dominant reading. But “in accordance” can also be a bad thing; it perpetuates, reproduces, and sometimes even further advances the social structure and dominant ideologies that are, to some of the members of the society, unfair. Each reading precipitates in your mind——readers’ minds——which keeps your worldview in a particular shape, a shape that is convenient for the powerful people (because, of course, the powerful people are powerful because the currently dominant ideologies and social structure are convenient for them; otherwise they would not be powerful).
Alternative readings are less popular, and sometimes dismissed as nonsensical. You probably have experience of sharing your thoughts on a story——be it a novel, an anime episode, or a Lady Gaga song——and being told by your friend, “that’s ridiculous!” Alternative readings may be practiced involuntarily, meaning you don’t realize it is alternative since it’s your natural way of reading, until the very moment someone tells you you’re a freak. Now, whenever that happens, take it as a compliment. You’re a freak and that’s a good thing because it means your mindset is not entirely composed of things “in accordance” with the existing social structure and dominant ideologies. Note, however, that no one is entirely free from them. A person’s mindset is always already composed of languages that have precipitated in her or his mind, hence sedimentation of discourse in the human mind, which means your position in the social world has led you to read the way you read, just like for most people their positions in this world have led them to read the (dominant) way they read.
Now there’s something called resistant reading, or reading against the grain. This is oftentimes practiced voluntarily. And the reason why some people practice this voluntary act of reading against the grain is because of their humble acknowledgment that, as just mentioned above, no one is free from the dominant ideologies and social structure and any given reading is a mixture of dominant reading and alternative reading. Take for example, you think the Evangelion movie (the final one of the older series) is a story of the defeat of the patriarch (Gendou) finally taken over by his younger generation that Hope (Rei Ayanami) chooses over him. This is not the dominant view of the movie, but still makes some sense. But what about Kaworu? In this view of yours, how do we make sense of Kaworu, the other half of Shinji’s Hope (the other being Rei)? Or, what about the series of deaths of female characters, from Shinji’s mother to Asuka’s mother who are both dead in the first place, from Rei whose death repeats over and over to Asuka who becomes half-dead toward the end until she eventually gets killed? Isn’t it possible to do a feminist reading of Evangelion? And let’s say someone does a feminist reading of it. Now that’s only going to be yet another reading that is incomplete. And we should humbly admit that there is no complete, absolute reading of a text. That’s where the power of resistant reading comes in. In resistant reading, you consciously makes an effort to read a text in a way that doesn’t make sense to most others but to you yourself. Try it sometime, especially with your old favorite book or something. You will start questioning many parts of the story, wondering why the heck you never questioned them back in the days when you were even more obsessed with the book than today. For example, in our class yesterday I was thinking about the bra game in “Honey Pie”, to which I hadn’t given much thought, and I wondered if the mother-child relation between Sayoko and Sala could be considered sexual, or at least a bond that’s got something to do with desire, which is to be betrayed by the following scene of sex between Sayoko and Junpei (which is, of course, to be interrupted by Sala who takes hold of Sayoko and kicks Junpei out of the bedroom). This is a really, really minority reading, I think. But if you read the whole story again with this in mind, some other parts start to make sense.
Queer reading is primarily, but not limited to, readings of stories with attention to homosexual desire, transgender identity, bisexual subjectivity, and queer lifestyles that on the face of the story do not come to surface. For example, the critique of homosociality, the term Prof. Matsugu explained in yesterday’s discussion, is that a bond between two men competing for a woman that they are both (allegedly) in love with is stronger than either of the two heterosexual affective bonds between the woman and the two men. This has something to do with the discussion of Desire (with the capital D) that Hegel laid out a long time ago. According to Hegel, Desire is different from animal needs in that it is a desire for recognition from a similarly recognizable subject with desires. A desire for food is not human but remains on the animal level because the object of the desire here is food that is not a subject with its own desires, and thus does not require recognition. Desire is only human if and only if its object is capable of desiring. In this understanding, for example, a desire for a medal (like in the Olympics) is a desire whose object is not the medal but your competitors’ desire for the medal. The object of your Desire is your competitors’ desire. If no one wanted to get the medal like you do, would the medal still hold the same value to you? Absolutely not. By extending this Hegelian argument, we can say that in a love triangle, the object of Desire is the other man’s desire for the woman, and the other man’s desire for the woman is in fact also a Desire for the first man’s desire for the woman, where the woman is not desired by either of the men but only used as a tool to generate the hypothetical assumption that both men desire her so that the men’s desires for each other’s desire can emerge.
Eve K. Sedgwick argues that the separation (or the purging out) of homosexual desire from homosocial relations was one of the primary modernization projects in the Western world. Homosociality and homosexuality, if you look at ancient (or even as close as pre-modern) history, are not mutually exclusive. In those ancient times, misogyny was already in place. But the modern Western world, by separating out homosexuality from homosociality, began to see homosexuality as an identity, subjectivity, something that can be attributed to a person, not to an act or behavior, and can be discarded as inauthentic masculinity, hence modern homophobia based on human identity. By excavating the residue of homosexual/homosocial erotic relations in today’s seemingly heterosexual literature, this type of queer reading (or in this case, gay reading) sheds light on what today’s social structure and dominant ideologies tell us about masculinity, homosexuality, and women.
Binary Oppositions in “Honey Pie”
There are many binary oppositions in “Honey Pie”. In fact, the entire story is about things that are two. One example is the mountain where bears reside and the town where humans reside. The former is depicted as rural and organized based on group politics rather than personal talents. The latter is urban, a place for personal flourishing, division of labor and capitalism. By going back and forth between the mountain and the town, Masakichi the bear finds more and more home in the town where his individual talents get recognized and exchanged for money. Now this is parallel to the urban gay myths that gays in the rural regions suffer the pains of being in the closet and being the target of homophobia that’s prevalent in rural areas, that urban settings create much more opportunities for gays who have talents (not in honey-making, but fashion), and that a gay man with talents can enjoy his life to the fullest if he migrates to an urban city because that’s where all his previously unrecognized talents get recognized. (Tonkichi, on the other hand, has no talent when he leaves the mountain, hence his unsuccessful migration. When he finds his talent, he’s back on the market.) On page 117, Junpei tells Sala that the mountain is too steep and people leave their stuff on the way to the top so they can keep climbing up and survive. Now, what does a gay urbanite do when he visits his parents’ house in a rural town? He leaves his gay identity, desire, and lifestyle behind so that he can survive.
The mountain-town binary opposition is also temporal, for denial of descent is playing a huge role in Junpei’s life. To Masakichi, the mountain is the past to be discarded, just like Kobe is for Junpei. The earthquake, however, reminds Junpei of his past, and he hates it. He has not been in contact with his family since graduation from college. But then his temporarity, as Takatsuki suggests, is still stuck in the college times. Junpei in this state, as well as Masakichi who still resides in the mountain, is not living the present time that is between past and future, but they’re outside time.
Temporarity has become one of the popular topics in queer theory ever since Prof. Judith “Jack” Halberstam (USC) wrote “In a Queer Time and Place” (2005). You probably remember that Prof. Miyamoto yesterday said she didn’t want to read “Honey Pie” as a coming-of-age story. Coming-of-age stories are about growing, entering into adulthood. And what does adulthood mean? Halberstam writes:
queer subcultures afford us a perfect opportunity to depart from a normative model of youth cultures as stages on the way to adulthood: this allows us to map out different forms of adulthood, or the refusal of adulthood and new modes of deliberate deviance. Queers participate in subcultures for far longer than their heterosexual counterparts. At a time when heterosexual men and women are spending their weekends, their extra cash, and all their freetime shuttling back and forth between the weddings of friends and family, urban queers tend to spend their leisure time and money on subcultural involvement. This may take the form of intense weekend clubbing, playing in small music bands, going to drag balls, participating in slam poetry events, or seeing performances of one kind or another in cramped and poorly ventilated spaces. […] For queers the separation between youth and adulthood quite simply does not hold, and queer adolescence can extend far beyond one’s twenties. I want to raise here the notion of “queer time,” a different mode of temporality that might arise out of an immersion in club cultures or queer sex cultures. While obviously heterosexual people also go to clubs and some involve themselves in sex cultures, queer urbanites, lacking the pacing and schedules that inhere to family life and reproduction, might visit clubs and particupate in sex cultures well into their forties or fifties on a regular basis. (pp.44-45, Halberstam, J. “What’s That Smell?” in Driver S. (eds) Queer Youth Cultures. 2008.)
Queer time is not only related to clubbing and queer sex cultures but, as you can see, it’s invariably un-related to family life. Urban-rural opposition also plays a role here, because urbanites, expecially queer ones, typically do not live with their parents (remember, denial of descent is a huge theme of “Honey Pie”).
The binary oppositions between the mountain and the town, or the past and the present, are to be resolved in the future. And this is exactly what Prof. Matsugu said yesterday about the mythical aspect of this Murakami piece being a story of post-disaster recovery/rebuild. The state of non-decision, state of being outside of time, is to be resolved. The resolution here is triggered by the earthquake, an utmost brutal destruction of all boundaries (of buildings, of roads, and of collective sense of community). After Fukushima, by the way, many in Japan immediately responded to the earthquake and the reactor troubles by creating a sense of national collectivity through their expressions of nationalistic sentiments (see Hiroki Azuma’s piece by googling his name and “earthquake”, for example). What boundaries get rebuilt, what boundaries are left destroyed, and what boundaries get created anew are some of the things we need to carefully observe, for they reflect the existing social structure and dominant ideologies that tell us what kind of society is ideal.
The future, or the kind of adulthood, into which Junpei enters is heterosexual union, hence my own terminology “bandaid heterosexuality” (I would also say the same thing about the movie, “GO” with Yosuke Kubotsuka in it, if you have seen it). This is understandable for he is a heterosexual subject. But what accompanies this decision creates repercussions for Sayoko and Sala, too. To understand Sala, we already know that she has been traumatized by the earthquake news on TV and has been reacting to the fear by dreaming of the Earthquake Man and waking up to do a complete inspection of the house to make sure the Man is gone. The Man here, in her dreams, tries to forcefully put her into a tiny box.
Later toward the end, the Earthquake Man reappears in her dream saying he’s got a box ready and big enough for everyone. And she does not seem to be afraid anymore.
Let’s think about what all these signify in terms of boundaries:
-the earthquake = destruction of boundaries,
-the Earthquake Man = boundary maker, whose boxes encapsulate a person or persons in a enclosed area,
-the box for Sala = an individual boundary, the boundary between Sala and everything non-Sala, and
-the box for everyone = a family boundary, the boundary between the newly-formed nuclear family and those outside the family (including Takatsuki).
Boundaries, in linguistics, exist so that object A is recognizable as such, as different from non-object A (everything that’s not object A). The definition of a man, a male human being, for example, always requires in itself a mention of “woman”, the non-man. The same holds true for every single word, hence creating boundaries between things. Different languages have different boundaries. For example, in Japan many old people call both green and blue “blue.” The green traffic light is still called “blue light” by most Japanese-speaking people. When I dyed my hair light brown at twelve, my grandmother said, “did you dye your hair red?!” But these seemingly “wrong” color names still make sense in the contexts of conversation, because the green light is still relatively more “blue” than the red or yellow lights, and because my light brown hair, that had been black, was now relatively more red than before. Aside from these casual instances, the world of linguistics tells us that a language is a system composed of “differences” between signs, not composed of signs freely floating around that have meanings in themselves. Meanings of things are created in the course of social life (i.e. boundaries are created so that we can recognize things), to which we create labels to attach, according to which new generations learn about the named things and their meanings (what to call them doesn’t really matter, because anything that sounds new in the existing lexicon can be recognizable as different from other names).
In psychoanalysis, an infant cannot recognize the boundaries between I and non-I. Without the felt contours of itself, the infant’s body is continuous into everything non-I, including the mother, a table before her- or himself, the house, and the universe (this state is called the realm of the Imaginary). The mirror stage kicks in when the infant looks into a mirror and starts recognizing the contours of its body. But at this stage, the infant, knowing nothing about human anatomy, thinks, “oh, so that thing right there is me!” and enjoys the movement of the mirror reflection of itself, knowing nothing about mirror reflection. That is, to this infant, the mirror image is “me” not the mirror reflection of “me.” Now, the realm of language, full of differences and boundaries, is awaiting the infant (this is called the realm of the Symbolic), so that the infant can recognize and identify itself correctly. Many psychoanalysts like Lacan called this a “jubilant” process, but recent theorists have argued that it is not necessarily pleasurable because to some infants, the boundaries (set up in a language system that differentiates things) are violent (e.g. terms that differentiate human races, genders, sexualities, etc.). Then, following the mirror stage comes in the phallic intervention of the Father that breaks apart the primary mother-child relation, at which point the infant is given the status of Subject, a recognizable human being, an I (there is much more to this phallic process, so if you’re interested try reading Sigmund Freud, Jacque Lacan, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, or any books that explain their theories). And at this point, everything that is not recognized in the language system of the society gets lost, crammed into the realm of the Real, inaccessible by language except for when one makes a mistake in word choice, grammars, etc. (this is what is called a Freudian slip!) and when the listener/reader misinterprets language. (There is no way someone can intentionally create this crack of the language system. Like I said, the author is dead.)
The earthquake is destruction of boundaries, as said above, a collapse of what people have believed to be the functional, systematic society composed of bits and pieces that are namable, recognizable through language. The quake, by creating massive affective reactions, most of which probably unprecedented, undermines the assumption that the realm of the Symbolic describes the world fully. This realization immediately calls for explanation, something that makes sense, a language that describes what things are in the midst of disaster; hence the need for rebuilt boundaries and new boundaries.
For Junpei (and probably Sayoko, too), it is the nuclear family boundary that they resort to. And the author of that boundary (who draws the line) is Junpei, as has always been since he named the infant “Sala.” But to Sala, is Junpei the author by which she wishes to be written? She apparently is not ready to be an independent, individual subject in this world, as she refuses to be put into the individual box that the Earthquake Man tries to push her into, the box that the Earthquake man has written for her. But we don’t know if Sala would be happy to be put within the nuclear family boundary set up by Junpei, do we?
As I said in the above, Sala is not afraid of the Earthquake Man with the box for everyone. She seems to be spacing out, but remember, before this scene, she has always reacted to a dream with the Man in it by jumping out of the bed and running around the house. Why not, this time? She is surprisingly calm, and, unknowingly, prevents the ejaculatory process that has been on its way. Writing is ejaculatory, as you can see the similarities between a pen with ink seeping out and a pen-is with semen seeping out. By interrupting the ejaculatory process, Sala prevents Junpei from writing, or authoring the family boundary, possibly implying that she would be better off written (put into the box boundaries set up) by the Earthquake Man than by Junpei. Junpei, at the end of the story, after Sala and Sayoko went to bed together, says, “They were inside there. They were waiting with the box open” (145). Why it is not “he” but “they” that Junpei sees as his rival authors of boundaries is that Sala could be in fact written by many others, in various possible ways that do not require Junpei’s writing. Here, the Earthquake Man is Sala’s alternative author, in fact created by Sala herself.
Sala stopping Junpei’s ejaculation can also be read as refusal of reproduction, and thus refusal of family descent, refusal of mortality, for sex signifies the past (parents), temporariness (pleasure of this mortal body, not parents’ or children’s), and timelessness (continuous genealogy). Sala is the refusing, resisting, and timeless queer in this sense, something that Junpei stops being by applying bandaid heterosexuality on his earthquake(past)-inflicted scar. Sala becomes a resistant queer out of necessity since otherwise the boundaries being rapidly rebuilt and forming after the earthquake would force her to enter the realm of the Symbolic governed by the symbolic father or the phallus of Junpei.
Queer Readings in the Plural
Queer reading often looks too ridiculous, too far-fetched to the extent that it distorts the story. But it nevertheless sheds light on things that are not easily recognized in the dominant ideologies and social structure. This, to people who are marginalized, especially those who are sexually marginalized or marginalized in gendered ways, brings hope to their eyes and creates a resistant force that can be used by them to resist the existing social structure and dominant ideologies. My reading of “Honey Pie” in the above may not make sense to you, but there are many, many other ways to do q
ueer reading because every queer subject (not necessarily LGBTs) is queer in different ways. Find your own way, or multiple ways in fact, to get the most queer of stories you read!