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Confucianism in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled

Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Vol. 4 No. 1 (Oct. 2004)



The Unconsoled is an oneiric or dream-like novel in which the main character, Ryder, seeks to discover his identity. Instead of discovering a single identity, the novel illustrates Ryder at different stages of life development: as the child Boris; as the timid but rising musical star, Stephen Hoffman; as the confused but accomplished narrator; and finally as Brodsky, the burnt-out, lonely old conductor. A second theme is concerned with Ryder giving a concert at an East European city to, in a sense, help it discover or invent its identity. In both cases, identities are Confucian constructions rather than found objects.

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Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki where he lived until he was six years old. His father, an oceanographer, took the family to Britain when he went to work on the North Sea oil project. Young Kazuo went to British schools but was brought up “by Japanese parents in a Japanese-speaking home”, as Brian Shaffer puts it. Ishiguro’s first two novels are set in Japan where the plot conflicts arise from clashes among the systems of thought that comprise Japanese culture: Shinto, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Kazuo Ishiguro is best known for his third novel, The Remains of the Day, which won the Booker Prize for 1989 and, with the help of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Anthony Hopkins, was made into a hit movie in 1993. I have argued that despite the ultra-British setting of the novel that borders on parody, the fundamental ethical clash in the novel is between Confucian etiquette and Zen Buddhist insight. Ishiguro’s fourth novel, The Unconsoled (1995), further examines what Donald Hall and Roger Ames call “third wave Confucianism”. The first wave was made by Confucius and his followers. The second wave was made by institutional and cultural Confucianism that so successfully reigned in China for two millennia that it is difficult to separate Confucian tenets from Chinese culture. The third wave is being made by scholars such as Hall and Ames who are offering Confucianism as a philosophy, ethics, and culture in dialogue with other world views, especially that of postmodernism.

The novel offers a psychoanalytic autobiography that gropes and fumbles through a series of portraits of the main character, Ryder, at different ages in a search for consolation or truth rendered as the discovery of an underlying, authentic, and controlling identity. The failure of Ryder’s Romantic and psychoanalytic quest for self-discovery is better explained by Confucianism than by postmodern views and methods. Shuffling images of Ryder as other characters of differing ages — the child Boris, the hopeful young pianist Stephen Hoffman, the old hotel porter Gustav, the accomplished Mr Ryder himself, and the old conductor Brodsky — Ishiguro leads readers to the Confucian recognition that “An individual must develop ... within the human relationships that bind one to society”. One does not develop “in an abstract, transcendent state” regardless of context, as Tu Weiming observes. This is necessarily the case because there are no transcendental truths in the Confucian outlook. There is also no consolation of an unambiguous reality or identity that exists before we construct it in language. Thus, the exploration of the question “who am I?” can only be done in terms of considering different identities framed by different social contexts at various times of life. At least two of the Confucian “five human relationships” suggest that age contributes to identity in the child-to-parent relationship and in the young-to-old relationship.

The main character of The Unconsoled is Ryder, “a man of internationally recognized genius” who is “not only the world’s finest living pianist, but perhaps the very greatest of the century”. Vladimir Horowitz may come to mind as a model, but the more important influence in the novel is the oneiric form of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Ishiguro’s novel concerns Ryder’s trial and anxiety about giving a piano recital of a postmodern work, Asbestos and Fibre, that will — along with his lecture — inspire the citizens of a nameless East European city to turn their community into “a city like Antwerp” or Stuttgart, instead of allowing it to degenerate into “a cold modern city” lacking a soul or identity. The cause for Ryder’s anxiety is Confucian embarrassment rather than Judeo-Christian guilt. Ryder hopes to play a mandarin role for the city by inspiring people to reach for greater cultural heights, even though in the dreamlike plot his speech is condensed into a haiku and his recital serves as the requiem for a dead dog.

The most distinctive feature of the novel is its epistemology. Ryder’s perceptions are dreamlike; meaning is never objective or capable of being definitively fixed. Indeed, the novel can be construed as Ryder’s lengthy attempt to define or understand himself through dreaming up a series of characters recognizable as various ego formations illustrating different stages of Ryder’s life: Ryder as the child Boris; Ryder as the timid but rising musical star, Stephen Hoffman; Ryder as the confused but accomplished narrator; and finally Ryder as Brodsky, the burnt-out, lonely old conductor. Influenced by Greek and Christian sources, the Western outlook presumes that human identity or character has a single, definitive form. In Homer, the eulogy for a fallen warrior publicly fixed his social identity in a way that was not entirely different from the Christian and Islamic Last Judgment. However, the various temporal answers to the question of “who is Ryder?” coupled with the expectation that Ryder’s performance will determine “so much of the future of our city”, suggest that Japanese Confucianism provides the vocabulary and scheme to explain the novel.

Before the twentieth century, Westerners generally believed that God or Reason (Logos) created an a priori or transcendent order. This outlook renders nouns more real than verbs, empirical objects more real than processes or relationships. In contrast, Asian systems of thought consider the opposite to be logically self-evident. They recognize perception as the origin of what we seek to put into words, to make sense of, or to file away as a memory for later consideration. Perception involves two processes: an embodied performance (like swimming or cursive writing) that is also a temporal performance, which means that, despite what Plato and Isaac Newton thought, time and verbs are indispensable in the attempt to understand or describe reality. Ryder is a musician. Music is a product of culture, not nature. The musician’s fingers and breath produce sounds that are recognized or interpreted as music by an audience trained in the culture of music. Similarly, all forms or nouns are produced by culture. Confucianism believes that none is innate to human nature. One cannot have an innate or latent identity that can be discovered or uncovered. Instead, one is given various social roles to play in a dynamic that somewhat resembles Freud’s superego formation.

Frederick Mote claims that the Chinese cosmos differs from classical “Greek cosmologies in which a logos or demiurge or otherwise conceived master will external to creation” gave it form. Chinese thought “contrasts still more strikingly with the ancient Semitic traditions that led to subsequent Christian and Islamic conceptions of creation ex nihilo by the hand of God.” Mote believes that “our civilization has been so long content in those narrow confines that we have found it next to impossible even to comprehend the... Chinese world view”. Something of the Confucian view might be suggested by this homely example. Imagine that monkeys and people live in the trees. People climb down in order to play more complex games and to live more refined lives. Perhaps people invent a rubber ball and subsequently develop various ball games. Perhaps they sketch out a court and develop rudimentary rules to play basketball. Over time the rules are refined. One day Michael Jordan performs, and only then do we truly understand how to play basketball because his performance is authoritative, exemplary, and memorable. His performance establishes a tradition and offers a standard. This is something like the Confucian conception of li (tradition), which has an authority comparable to Western conceptions of God’s command or of an inherent scientific principle or pattern. Thus when the citizens of the nameless city in Ishiguro’s novel seek consolation and direction, they cannot pray for prophetic guidance or hope to recover a set of foundational principles. They can only hope that a creative genius will transform the cacophony of their individual concerns into a civic symphony. “Discontent grows. And the loneliness. And people... who understand almost nothing about music” are confused and cry out “for some ordering, for a system they could comprehend. The people here, they were out of their depth, things were breaking down. People were afraid, they felt things slipping out of control”. When they hear exquisite music performed by an authentic master, they recognize an elegant form, confessing, “That’s it, that’s it, as though I had just articulated something she had been struggling to formulate for years”. The shock of recognition is based on socially shared experience, not on some quasi-physical structure, such as Jung’s archetypes or Plato’s forms.

In a given time and place, everyone has roughly similar experiences, but not everyone can render his life as an elegant performance. Theodore de Bary explains that Confucianism relies on “a kind of extraordinary inspiration or creativity … which enabled specially endowed individuals [mandarins] to come to new understandings or make new discoveries … and to impart them to others at a critical stage which called for the revitalization of tradition and reform of society”. Mr Ryder recognizes that “clearly, this city was expecting of me something more than a simple recital”. Mr Pederson, a civic leader, explains: “This is precisely why your help, Mr Ryder, your agreeing to come to our humble city may prove absolutely crucial to us. The people will listen to you in a way they would never listen to one of us”.

What will Ryder say to console the city? He does not know. If a prophet fails, God is presumably still in heaven. If a scientist fails, the truth remains to be discovered. But when a Confucian artist fails, chaos is not transformed into order; barbarism is not transformed into civility. Ryder acknowledges that he “would have to take control of the situation before it disintegrated into chaos”, but the only way Ryder can “take control” is to give a performance that will captivate and inspire others to similarly make music of their lives.

When the novel opens, chaos is temporarily held in check by conservation. Gustav, the hotel porter whose character suggests a museum curator, is proud that “Frederick the Great is believed to have stayed a night here” and claims that “there have been events here of great historic interest.” Inevitably the serendipity and authority of great performances is eroded into empty formalism. Gustav complains: “Many people here seem to think they can simply put on a uniform and then that will be it, they’ll be able to do the job. It’s a delusion”. Formalism degenerates into pedantry and ultimately into an obsessive-compulsive ritual devoted to meaningless details, evident in Gustav’s elaborate technique to deliver luggage. Gustav and Hoffman, the hotel manager, respect authoritative performance, even when it does nothing more than transport luggage, which symbolizes empty forms. Gustav, who claims that in Lucerne “there was much greater respect paid to porters”, develops a kind of artistry for the minimalist profession of carrying luggage (which may remind us of Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist”.) The appropriation of common tasks, turning them into a discipline or art, is especially characteristic of Zen Buddhism, which uses such techniques to occupy the conscious mind, assuming that the really important and creative work of understanding experience will be done by the unconscious mind or that, with the conscious mind occupied, perception will have a pristine, stunning, and even enlightening effect. Unfortunately, Gustav is neither a Zen Buddhist monk nor a gifted artist. Speaking about postmodern music, Christoff, the failed civic music conductor, asks, “How can people like this, untrained, provincial people, how can they ever understand such things, however great a sense of duty they feel toward the community?” They cannot do for themselves what they expect from genius — turn the cacophony of their emotions into music. They expect the genius, or mandarin, to illustrate how to live elegantly, as though dancing to music instead of jerking through life like a puppet pulled this way and that by conflicting emotions. “Those gentlemen in there, they’re the very ones who should be setting an example”.

Genius is a crucial agency in Confucianism. Do Mozart, Confucius, Vladimir Horowitz, and Mr Ryder lead lives different from the rest of us? They are certainly more creative. Although the novel’s more than five hundred pages describe activities spanning three days, Ryder typically reports perceptions that are not adequately confined to or explained by familiar social constructions. For example, he perceives his important speech as three sentence fragments: “Collapsing curtain rails! Poisoned rodents! Misprinted score sheets!” Yet the next morning he is told: “your after-dinner speech last night, oh everyone’s talking about how witty and entertaining it was”.

In another incident local journalists manipulate Ryder into having his photo taken in front of the Sattler Institute. Ryder has no idea who Max Sattler was or what the Institute means to the local people. When Ryder discovers his photograph in the newspaper, he sees a Romantic, Beethoven-like figure: “my features bore an expression of unbridled ferocity. My fist was raised to the wind, and I appeared to be in the midst of producing some warrior-like roar. I could not for the life of me understand how such a pose had come about”. A day later Ryder recomposes the incident, saying, “It occurred to me that I had somehow, unaccountably, made a miscalculation... in choosing to be photographed in front of the Sattler monument. At the time, certainly, it had seemed the most telling way of sending out an appropriate signal. [...] I had, of course, been all too aware of the pros and cons involved — I could recall how at breakfast that morning I had sat carefully weighing these up”. Is Ryder composing these memories like musical notes? Is he creating a temporal pattern for memories that transforms perceptions into conceptions? Is this how art (cf. li) gives form and meaning to experience?

Emotions are not only technically meaningless — requiring language to explain them — they often overwhelm us, causing us to lose direction and purpose. Ryder projects his own turbulent emotions onto Sophie, his fiancé, thinking, “If only Sophie could see clearly what was happening, I know she’d get a grip on things.” He believes: “A good talk, that’s really all she needs. Just someone to sit down with her for a few minutes and make her look at things clearly. Help establish what the real problems are” and “give her back her perspective”. Emotions are not self-interpreting; they have no context until society and art create occasions and patterns of meaning. Ryder, in all his guises or stages of life, wants love but does not know how to get it or control it. As Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions suggest, the life of genius does not follow safe patterns. The truly creative music is extemporaneous, made up as life goes along. Still there is a tenuous melody. Oedipal rejection recurs at different times in Ryder’s life with different sets of characters. To Sophie, Ryder is the impatient husband and absent father of her child whom she finally divorces: “leave us. You were always on the outside of our love”.

Gustav, a father figure, is also unable to reach Sophie, confessing, “we don’t speak directly” to each other but use Boris as an intermediary. In fact, this arrangement or “understanding... started when she was eight years old.” Gustav was putting up a shelf, and Sophie bothered her dad, wanting attention. Gustav says, “I maintained my silence. [...] I maintained it completely. She soon became bewildered and upset.” Gustav imposes three days of silence before “I’d be able to come in from work, pick her up again, hold her close to me, we’d tell each other everything”. Of course, the oedipal rupture proves to be lifelong. “One day followed another, and before you knew it, it [silence] just became the norm between us”.

When she is eleven, Sophie sobs uncontrollably for a dead pet, and Gustav pretends not to hear: “I remained in the bedroom, my ear close to the door. [...] I did of course think several times I’d go through to her, but then the longer I stood there at the door, the more odd it seemed that I should suddenly burst in.” Such self-consciousness about how to act in such emotionally charged situations is characteristic of Confucian ethics and Japanese culture. He decides, “if she calls for me... if she knocks or calls for me, then I’ll go in”. The next day, father and daughter not only resume the silent treatment, but Gustav says, “I realized Sophie knew I’d been listening” and had chosen not to console her. Gustav hopes that Ryder, the genius, will have the right words to explain his emotions to Sophie: “I wondered if you might go and explain things to her. There’s no one else who could do it”. Ryder is expected to offer the music of consolation that will transform such psychologically devastating moments into poignant beauty. The Japanese call this sabi, a key term in Japanese aesthetics. It denotes recognition of temporality illustrated in art. More specifically, it alludes to the Buddhist recognition that every perception and emotion is impermanent (anicca) and ultimately disappointing (dukkha). One of the most distinctive examples of sabi is viewing cherry blossoms in the spring in some stage such as the Imperial Garden in Tokyo. Against a black sky, driven by mild spring winds, the blossoms seem a fragrant blizzard. With associations of adolescent longing and dreams, the blossoms are the essence of the ephemeral; beautiful for a day or a week but impossible to preserve even in symbols. Thus, “wabi-sabi is the quintessential Japanese aesthetic. It is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”, according to Leonard Koren.

Alienation is illustrated in another form in the Hoffman family, a subplot that expresses Ryder’s feelings about himself as a young man. Stephen confesses, “my mother and father had barely spoken to each other for months”. He believes that it is his fault, because his parents are profoundly disappointed in what they mistakenly perceive as his lack of musical genius. Oedipal investment in social roles produces guilt. Sophie feels that her father suddenly and inexplicably ceased to love her. She sobs in guilt for killing her pet (Sophie had placed her hamster in a box to keep him safe and snug, but she forgot him, and the animal was smothered.) Stephen feels similarly guilty for not providing the music for his parents’ lives, allowing them to be emotionally smothered. Such guilt and rejection fuel one’s desire to conform, to act in a way that will win approval and applause, if not love.

Oedipal development pursues two tactics: conformity and service. Neither Sophie nor Gustav will speak first, because the one who speaks first is vulnerable and risks rejection. Hoffman, the hotel manager, hopes to earn respect and thereby receive love. However, like a recital that is ruined by a single wrong note, Hoffman is devastated by a casual remark. Piotrowski, a musical celebrity, mentions that he has spoken to Hoffman’s “most charming wife” who told him “about her great love of Baudelaire.” Hoffman laments: “I had never known of her love of Baudelaire!” because “She had never revealed this passion to me!” Hoffman feels his “heart breaking” as he sees his wife deftly anticipate Piotrowski’s movement on a couch to place a cushion “so that by the time his head touched the back of the sofa, the cushion was there.” Hoffman feels that “it was a movement so full of natural respect, a desire to be solicitous, to please in a small way. That little action, it revealed a whole realm of her heart she kept tightly closed to me”, because he believes she has no respect for him.

When he was courting his wife, Hoffman pretended to be a composer. Sophie visits Hoffman’s apartment and asks, “where do you compose your music?” Hoffman echoes Gustav’s disastrous discipline of silence, saying, “I’ve decided not to compose again for two years”. Thirty years later, Hoffman hopes that Stephen will produce the music to win his wife’s affection. Like Sophie sobbing for the father who rejected her, Hoffman admonishes his wife: “Leave me. Find someone worthy of you.” He says the world will “know I have nothing. No talent, no sensitivity, no finesse,” desperately hoping that his wife/mother will say she loves him anyway.

The one-legged alcoholic Brodsky and his estranged wife, Miss Collins, illustrate the last attempt to pour emotion into forms that will invite respect and win love. Brodsky recalls this defining moment in his marriage. He remembers feeling that “the future might hold something for them after all. Brodsky had been on the verge of articulating such a thought” when his wife reminds him to do some carpentry work in the kitchen. Even though it is a trivial incident, Brodsky feels rejected and never overcomes the alienation he feels. He reflects that “Neither of them had raised their voices at any point and the entire altercation had lasted no more than a few seconds. He had not attached much significance to it at the time”. That night Brodsky hopes to reconcile with his wife when, approaching their bedroom, he hears her cough: “Somehow, the cough had contained in it all her perfectionism, her high-mindedness, that part of her that would always ask of herself if she was applying her energies in the most useful way possible. He had suddenly felt enormous irritation at her … and walked away”. Like the silence between Gustav and Sophie, Brodsky and Miss Collins remain estranged: “something cold had remained in their lives”. Near the end of his life, Brodsky still hopes for love: “I thought if we only talked, things could come right again.” He admits, “Deep down. I never really accepted it, what they said about me back then. I never believed I was just this... this nobody”. Brodsky does not win Miss Collins’ love, Ryder loses Sophie, and Stephen never wins the approval of his father. All three performers, however, are successful in pouring emotion into music. Stephen’s performance of Glass Passions wins “the audience’s surprise at discovering one of their own young men capable of scaling such technical heights” and displaying a “strangely intense quality... that virtually refused to be ignored”. Brodsky’s performance is absurdly successful. Having lost his artificial leg, Brodksy uses an ironing board as a crutch, transfixing the audience by “perversely ironing the outer structure of the music” to display the “life-forms hiding just under the shell.” The audience is “emotionally gripped by Brodsky”, who “seemed eager to push things still further” in the direction of Max Sattler’s postmodernism. The borrowed Stuttgart Nagel Foundation Orchestra, however, mutinies, and Brodsky collapses, unable to escape desire by cathecting it into a perfect object.

Strangely, art simultaneously offers personal defeat and public acclaim. Miss Collins remains aloof, condemning Brodsky for his aesthetic narcissism: “You’ll never be able to serve the people of this city. … Because you care nothing for their lives.” She correctly says, “Your music will only ever be about that silly little wound” of oedipal rejection. Just as Hoffman’s assessment of Stephen’s artistry is warped by emotional involvement and conventional expectations, so too Miss Collins is wrong when she says that Brodsky’s music will “never be anything profound, anything of any value to anyone else”.

Boris, Stephen, and Brodsky are various avatars of Ryder. Nonetheless, Brodsky steals Ryder’s spotlight by producing the inspiring and authentic Confucian art: “That performance Mr Brodsky gave … was the finest thing that’s been heard in this concert hall for many many years”. Because it is beyond the audience’s conventional understanding, Brodsky’s performance causes them to “re-assess themselves and their community in some profound way”. “Mr von Winterstein gave a fine speech... about the splendid heritage of this city, all the things we’ve got to be proud of.” It turned out to be just “what we needed” and “made us all feel good about ourselves and our city”. Ryder himself intends to “say a few words suggesting we keep in our hearts the meaning of the extraordinary performance Mr Brodsky was... giving... and that we should endeavour to be true to the spirit of that performance”, but it is unnecessary.

The novel ends almost as indecisively as it began. The Buddhist recognition of time and the living perceptual moment overcome the Confucian hope to render these in a sublime symphony. Rather, the symphony is produced but ultimately it is simply another moment in life. Apparently Ryder has given an adequate recital and speech. He reflects that “As ever, my experience and my instincts had proved more than sufficient to see me through”. Of course the city is not suddenly transformed into a different place. Life goes on without objective or transcendental standards to measure what it means or how successful it is. It is simply life: motion, time; perhaps, in a rare moment, music.

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Works Cited

Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Unconsoled. New York: Vintage, 1995.

De Bary, Wm. Theodore. Neo-Confucian Orthodoxy and the Learning of the Mind-and-Heart. New York: Columbia, 1981.

Deutsch, Eliot. Personhood, Creativity, and Freedom. Honolulu: U of Hawaii Pr, 1982.

Hall, David L. and Roger T. Ames. Anticipating China: Thinking Through the Narratives of Chinese and Western Culture. Albany: SUNY, 1995.

________. Thinking Through Confucius. Albany: SUNY, 1987

Koren, Leonard. Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 1994.

Mote, Frederick W. Intellectual Foundations of China, 2nd. New York: Knopf, 1989.

Rothfork, John. “Zen Buddhism and Bushido,” Lectures D’une Oeuvre The Remains of the Day. Edited by François Gallix.  Paris: Éditions Du Temps, 1999: 178-92.

________. “Zen Comedy: The Commonwealth Fiction of Kazuo Ishiguro,” Mosaic, 29.1 (March 1996; University of Manitoba): 79-102. 

Shaffer, Brian W. “General Introduction,” Lectures D’une Oeuvre The Remains of the Day de Kazuo Ishiguro. Ed. Francois Gallix. Paris: Editions Du Temps, 19995-11.

Weiming, Tu. The Confucian World Observed: A Contemporary Discussion of Confucian Humanism in East Asia. Ed. Tu Weiming, Milan Hejtmanek, and Alan Wachman. Honolulu: Hawaii, 1992.


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