Fatalistic Nihilism in Memoirs of a Geisha

Wendy D. Bateman

A Journal for Western Man-- Issue XLIV-- December 19, 2005

           If you like Japanese clothing and customs, read this book but only the first half of it. After Sayuri, the protagonist, surrenders herself to her 'fate,' it becomes as nihilistically depressing as The Grapes of Wrath.

            Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden promotes anti-values through Sayuri's lack of self-respect: she claims that she has no power over her own life. She decides to be an object, a plaything, and refuses to be a person. And most egregiously, she evicts all thoughts from her mind in order to hide from herself the creature she becomes.

            A geisha's main purpose is entertainment the nonsexual kind, contrary to popular opinion. But a woman can objectify herself even outside the dimension of sex. "Geisha" literally means "art person;" "gei" meaning "art" and "sha" meaning "person." This injects the title with a foul dual meaning: yes, a geisha is a woman skilled in the traditional Japanese arts of dance, music, and song, but she is also a piece of art a pretty object. Sayuri herself demonstrates her lack of self-respect by choosing an objectively inferior, superstitious man who is her "destiny" (the Chairman) over a strong, kind, virtuous entrepreneur (Nobu).

             Sayuri and Nobu have a long past; they are very good friends, and he loves her desperately. He only has one arm, and one side of his face is badly burned-- but he is a fantastic man, made more fantastic by the adversity he has overcome: he builds an electric company from the ground up out of nothing; despite not owning it himself, he runs it like he does. He is honest, intolerant of sin, a fantastic businessman, very wealthy, and kind in the truest sense of the word. And he loves her.

            She betrays and abandons him for his co-worker, the Chairman, the man who does own the company but doesn't run it. Why? Because she didn't consider Nobu her "destiny," while the Chairman was.  Sayuri arranges for Nobu to find her in flagrante with a government minister he particularly dislikes;  when the Chairman finds them instead, he confirms in his own mind that he and Sayuri are alike: neither of them have any self-respect. They forge a twisted love for one another through their parallel self-deprecation. Desperate for the woman who is as low as he, the Chairman takes her on as his mistress and spends more time with her than he does with his own wife.

           And all of this is considered moral and good because, of course, they can't help it -- it's their destiny! Nobu is heartbroken, but we never find out what becomes of him; the pain of a good man is discarded like wheat chaff. She and the superstitious, irrational (but lovable -- more lovable than any good man could possibly be, to her) Chairman spend their evenings in each other's arms, he away from his wife and she away from her own humanity. How nice.

            She hates herself; that's why she betrays Nobu. Nobu wants her to choose her own life which means choosing her own destiny, choosing dignity, and choosing him.

            The book's tone inverts when Sayuri plans to escape, tries, and fails. Sayuri breaks more than her arm when she falls off the roof; she breaks her soul, too, refusing evermore any personal responsibility for her life. She chooses from that moment to view herself as an object, unresponsive to being pushed hither or thither.  But there's something supremely unrealistic in her attitude; no real person could possibly shield herself from the world deceive herself that thoroughly. But nary a hint of Sayuri's mistake ever occurs to her.

            Prostitutes often look bored while they're working, but occasionally their defenses slip, and a shard of reality pierces through. No one's mind can ever stop completely or certainly, short of death. And because their minds soldier on despite their best efforts, they can't help but bump into truth once in a while. That is why most fallen women are so tortured and unhappy. But Sayuri: Her soul is broken, yes, and her mind stops working. Through ultimate self-deception, she finds a perverse, numb happiness. At this point, the author loses all credibility. No real person could deceive herself that thoroughly.

            Fallen, broken women either suffer from paralyzing guilt or offer a rationalization for their suffering; their situations pervade their minds unavoidably. A real woman in that situation has got to view the opposite sex as a different species in order to view herself as an object, to make her highest goal the pleasure of the men who view her as a thing.

            Women are people, of course, even the ones who insist they're not, and they have to have some coherent self-image about who they are and what they're doing with their life. Sayuri never does. Her only philosophy is nihilism, the philosophy of no philosophy.

            I can't blame this character flaw on Sayuri; she never really existed. The author is at fault, and Sayuri suffers less from poor character than from poor character development. Arthur Golden is a hardened, left-liberal academician projecting his own self-hatred and nihilism onto Sayuri. And because he's male, the heroine's musings about children or motherhood what any woman in such a situation would wonder about are conspicuously absent. Because of his own foolish philosophy, she seems completely unconscious of her humanity; the greatest travesty, of course, is that she accepts her status as an object and continues in her capacity as one.

            The book ends with this sentence; I thought you'd enjoy the blunt, shameless nihilism:

Whatever our struggles and triumphs, however we may suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper.

Wendy D. Bateman is an artist, writer, grafic designer, literary connoisseur, and contributor to The Rational Argumentator. She is a recipient of TRA's Henry Ford Award. Some of Miss Bateman's art can be found at http://karooble.deviantart.com/.

This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA's Statement of Policy.

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