‘Pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source—true humility is the only anecdote to shame.’ This quote comes from the Iroh in the TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I think it aptly describes the central theme of shame in Kenzaburo Oe’s novel, A Personal Matter. More accurately, the novel presents the theme of shame as the fruit of selfishness, pride, and self-deception.
Kenzaburo Oe is not shy of making the protagonist Bird appear to be a self-centered blackguard who cares not for his wife or child but only of his own escapist desire to go to Africa. However, he is constantly aware on some level of his own evil, and so is ashamed of himself—but shame is not the same as guilt, for the latter gives one to repentance, while the former stems from self-absorption and further entrenches one in his own selfishness. ‘The sensation of shame was too intense for him to sustain concern for any existence but his own.’1 We might even see this selfishness in his viewing infanticide and the life of his wife’s child as ‘a personal matter.’2
This shame drives him from his job and his wife and child into the bed of a woman with a sense of self-seeking hedonism to rival his own—perhaps it is in this that they seem to fit together so perfectly. She encourages him to destroy sexual taboos, and suggests and aids in taking the baby to be murdered. This ‘liberation’ of his constraints further destroys his moral mechanism, which he believes is already broken.3 And rather than being freed, he is enslaved to his own heart’s hatred and crippling fear—he has ‘lost the self-esteem essential to rebuking someone else,’4 and when Himiko’s father-in-law proposes an opportunity for the realization of Bird’s life-long dream of going to Africa, he cannot even do this. Bird says at the end that he’s been running away, and he has, but he’s also stuck. Like Kikuhiko, he is stuck with the world seemingly progressing past him. This realization, I think, in part causes the abrupt change we see at the end.
Bird’s shame, however, can only be conquered by defeating his self-deception with honesty, his pride with humility. As C. S. Lewis wrote, ‘humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.’ After throwing up twice in Himiko’s toilet, Bird has ‘the first tolerable minutes’ of his morning,5 and after throwing up at school, ‘for those first few minutes, Bird was happy.’6 I think we can read this as those two moments being two of the only times (in this first part of the story) that Bird is perfectly honest with himself—he sees himself as he is: pathetic and helpless. There is a consolation in the truth, even if it is bitter. Throughout the story, Bird constantly makes excuses and ignores the truth of the matter: that he is running away from his responsibility, from what is right. The author doesn’t seem to make much of an argument for infanticide’s illicitness—it’s more or less assumed. But Bird cannot conquer the crippling constraints of his shame until he takes an honest look at himself. In this is humility, not that he sees himself as worthless, but that he acknowledges himself as he really is. He even says that if the baby died of pneumonia, he would be able to take the responsibility that belongs to him. And so it is honesty and humility that conquer his pride and therefore his shame, giving him the freedom to live as an honest man and not as a cowardly, dream-seeking boy.
- Kenzaburo Oe, A Personal Matter (New York: Grove Press, 1969), 77.
- Kenzaburo Oe, A Personal Matter, 120.
- Kenzaburo Oe, A Personal Matter, 116.
- Kenzaburo Oe, A Personal Matter, 94.
- Kenzaburo Oe, A Personal Matter, 56.
- Kenzaburo Oe, A Personal Matter, 66.