How much would you risk, what would you sacrifice to sip from the deepest well of human experience? The question usually comes up regarding murder: Would you kill a person just to know what it feels like? To know what it means to rob someone of their life? To push the knife blade till it breaks the skin, then turn it in the spurting artery? Most of us, thankfully, are not born to become the disaffected, murderous Patrick Bateman of American Psycho, the upper class kids in Rope, or the randomly shooting “model Surrealists” of Andre Breton’s Second Manifesto. We live quiet, contained lives, for the most part as morally as we can, and only infrequently wonder what we might be missing. The recent film Fight Club challenged this ethos in a particularly poignant way: Would you hit rock bottom to know what that meant, to know you would survive, to allow yourself the understanding of absolute abjection? As in Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian or Rene Girard’s analysis of ritual: violence is an age-old gateway to enlightenment. Would you?
When the question is taken from extreme violence to extreme sex it loses none of its intrigue. Most of us have indulged, at least in the safety of our own minds, in outlandish sexual behavior, and felt the icy burn of its appeal. Much of the porn industry is based on precisely this instinct for sexual tourism. But what if the objective is not mere arousal but a kind of philosophical redefinition of the Fight Club (or Barbussian) kind? What if there was a kind of sexual abjection that you could pass through in order to emerge in Nirvana, Enlightenment, or at least outside the straightjacket of quotidian boredom?
This is the question raised when the protagonist of Kenzaburo Oe’s 1963 novel, J, decides to become a chikan a groper of women on commuter trains. Oe, a Nobel Prizewinner, crafts the philosophical birthing of a pervert with incredible nuance. The excerpt below, where J makes up his mind to become a chikan and has his first encounter, is one of my favorite passages of erotic prose in the entire history of literature. There are things one can only know through experience; it is up to us to decide whether we dare to do them.
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From J. by Kenzaburo Oe
One morning, J had decided to become a chikan . . . Why had he chosen to be a chikan? J had never really given it much thought somewhere in his heart, he was continually aware that he was not yet truly deviant. On the other hand, he realized that, when he finally found himself humiliated in the strong grip of an angry stranger, he would have no choice but to think it through. And at times, in the depths of his being, a flash of what it meant to be a chikan would rise flickering to the surface of his consciousness, like a sudden stay of execution.
One evening J was riding the outbound express from the Tokyo Station on the National Railways Chuo Line. Standing immediately in front of him was a woman of about his age. She was at a right angle to him, and their bodies were pressed together, with her chest, stomach, and thighs fitted to his. J caressed the woman. His right hand moved into the space between her buttocks, while his left hand traveled down her belly toward the space between her thighs. His erect penis was touching the outside of her leg. He and the woman were about the same height. His heavy breath stirred the down on her flushed earlobes. At first J trembled with fear and his breathing was irregular. Was the woman not going to cry out? Would she not seize his arms with her two free hands and call for help from the people around them? When his fear was at its peak, J’s penis was hardest. Now it was pressed tight against the woman’s thigh. He shook with profound fear as he stared straight at her chiseled profile. Her low, unwrinkled forehead, the bridge of her short, upturned nose, the large lips below a layer of coffeecolored down, the firm jaw, the splendid, dark eyes, cloudy and almost black. She barely blinked at all. As J caressed her rough woolen skirt, he suddenly seemed to lose consciousness. If the girl cried out in disgust or fear, he would have an orgasm. He held on to this fantasy like fear, like desire. But she didn’t cry out. She kept her lips firmly closed. Suddenly her eyes closed tightly, like a curtain with its ropes cut falling to the stage. At that instant the restraining pressure of her buttocks and thighs relaxed. Descending, J’s right hand reached the depths of her now-soft cheeks. His left hand went to the hollow between her outspread thighs.
J lost his fear and, at the same time, his desire weakened. Already his penis was beginning to wilt. He persisted with his caresses out of curiosity and a sense of duty. He became cool-headed. This is what always happens, he thought. When you can get away with anything you can never get to that one reality that transcends this condition. It was nothing more than a step in the same process that had repeated itself time and again since the day he had decided to become a chikan, a deviant. Then, suddenly, his fingertips felt the solitary orgasm of this stranger.
A moment later, the train rumbled into Shinjuku Station. J saw the big glistening tears that slipped out from between the woman’s tightly shut eyelids rise steadily, break, and run down her cheeks. Her lips were pursed as if she’d bitten into a green plum, carving deep wrinkles that could have been cracks all around her mouth. But at that moment the doors opened and J was pushed out of the car by the human wave, away from the woman and onto the platform. After the train left, he continued to stand on the platform. She didn’t look at me for even a second, he thought, and he felt so terribly lonely that tears came to his eyes, as they had to hers . . . For several weeks, at the same time of day, toward evening, he watched out for her at Tokyo Station. But he’d already lost any distinct memory of her looks. It was only the shape and the color and the glistening and falling of her tears that he remembered clearly.
© Kenzaburo Oe