Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human (1948), the second-best-selling novel in Japanese history, is a heavily autobiographical work that tells the tale of Oba Yozo, an intensely alienated young man who lives a life of unrelenting tragedy. Its author committed suicide soon after its publication.
Contemporary artist Magdalen Wong explains how it changed her life.
I read No Longer Human about 10 years ago, right after I graduated from university in Chicago. I didn’t know what I could do as an artist, or what would happen to me. I didn’t have a job, and I decided to visit my grandma in Hong Kong for two months. Those two months became seven years. During that time, my grandma encouraged me to apply for a job that was advertised in the South China Morning Post, at the Academy of Visual Arts.
I used to have this habit of going to a library and picking up a book and just reading it. I don’t know why I picked up this book – perhaps it was the title. But it was immediately exciting. I couldn’t stop reading it – I was kind of in a trance. It was so powerful.
There’s the grimness of the central character, who fails at everything, even killing himself, which is pretty depressing. The main character not only doesn’t think he’s human, he also doesn’t think he’s a monster – he doesn’t think his life is even worth that. It directly spoke to me – I related to it and understood it immediately. As I was reading it, I felt I was going on the same journey as him, even though I’m nothing like this character.
This book changed how I approach my art. I had been playing with sound and with object-based materials, but wasn’t really thinking about content and what I wanted to say. It’s not that my work is depressing – it’s more comical.
What I want to explore in my work is the question of what makes us desire certain things. I use a lot of man-made objects, not a lot of things from nature, because I’m interested in why we have created this world for ourselves and how we envision the future in doing so. That’s why I like using television commercials in my work: they reflect our ideals and manipulate what we want. That all comes from this book – it reveals honest, human, true desires.
No Longer Human is a very honest novel; Osamu Dazai uses language that expresses how he felt. After he wrote the book, he killed himself, so I think this is the story of his life. I think he’s telling us who he is through the character.
I used “No Longer Human” as the title of a group exhibition I did with fellow artists Nadim Abbas and Erkka Nissinen at Osage Gallery [in 2012]. So many books have been important to me, but this one relates most directly to my art work. Somehow I always go back to the ideas in it.