Kenzaburo Oe Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Art and Healing: Conversation with Kenzaburo Oe, 1994 Nobel Laureate in Literature; 4/16/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 4 of 6

The Artist as Healer

Your son became a composer. Your family -- your wife, your children and yourself -- in caring for him over time identified his ability to communicate. Tell us how that came out.

Until my son was four or five years old, he didn't do anything to communicate with us. We thought that he cannot have any sense of the family. So he looked very, very isolated -- a pebble in the grass. But one day, he was interested in the voice of a bird from the radio. So I bought disks of the wild birds of Japan. I made a tape of fifty specimens of birds -- bird calls. There are the bird calls and a very flat voice, a woman announcer, says the names of the birds. "Tada-dada," then: "Nightengale." "Tada-da." "Sparrow." "This is nightengale; this is sparrow." We continued to listen to that tape for three years. During those three years, when we played the birds' songs, my son became very quiet. So it was needed to make him quiet. My wife must do her work, and I must do my work. So with the bird voices we three lived on.

In the summer when he was six years old, I went to our mountain house, and while my wife was cleaning our small house, I was in the small forest with my son on my shoulders. Nearby there is a small lake. Oe A bird sang, [one of a pair]. Suddenly a clear, flat voice said, "It is a water rail." Then I shook. Utter silence in the forest. We were silent for five minutes and I prayed for something, there on my head. I prayed, "Please, the next voice of that bird and please next the remarks of my son, if that was not my phantom or dream." Then after five minutes, the wife of that bird sang. Then my son said "It's a water rail." Then I returned to my house with my son and talked to my wife.

For a long time, we waited for another voice, but there was not any voice during the night. We didn't sleep. But in the early morning, a small sparrow came to a small tree in front of our window. He made a small sound, and my son said, "It's a sparrow." Then everything began, and we played the sound of a bird, and my son would answer. We made many recordings of birds, even the birds of the U.S.A. and Europe. My son answered very quietly and very correctly if he listened to the name of a bird two or three times. We began to communicate by the word.

"Pooh-chan," -- my son was called Pooh-chan, from Winnie the Pooh -- "what is the bird?" [He would answer after I played the tape.] "Sparrow." "Pooh-chan, what do you want to listen to?" He thinks, [and says,] "Water rail." "Nightingale." Then I would play it.

Then, we began to communicate, and my son was accepted for a school for the mentally retarded, and then very few teachers saw they could not take care of him. They are always playing FM broadcasts of Handel, Bach. Then my son began to listen to the music. After he is concerned with the music, he suddenly forgot almost all the names of the voices of the birds. When my son was sixteen, he had a very strong fit and he lost the sight of both eyes. Through each eye he can see, but not through both. So he cannot look at the piano and the musical score. So he makes a missed note and that is very uncomfortable for him. So he gave up the piano and his mother taught him how to write music. In five cd coverweeks, he began to write the music of Bach with a pencil. At first, very simple music. In a year he began to compose his music by himself.

Now he has two compact discs which you were able to buy in Berkeley on Telegraph Avenue.

Yes, when I was here eighteen years ago , I was thinking about my son. Now two days ago, I was thinking about my lecture. I went to Tower Records, and I bought some compact discs by Pisaro. I checked [at the record store] and found two of my son's compact discs and played them this morning.

Your son has fulfilled the dreams of Nils -- riding on the wings of birds or, in his case, the sounds of birds.

Yes, so besides [learning from] the birds [like Nils], my son can say, "Yes, I am a human being, I am a man." Besides the discs of my son, I thought "I am a man."

In A Healing Family you write that your son's music has shown you that in the very act of expressing himself, there is "a healing power, a power to mend the heart," and you go on to say, book cover "For in the music or literature we create, though we come to know despair -- that dark night of the soul through which we have to pass -- we find that by actually giving it expression we can be healed and know the joy of recovering; and as these linked experiences of pain and recovery are added one to another, layer upon layer, not only is the artist's work enriched but its benefits are shared by others...."

I add something to my comment there. After writing that essay , I received many questions. And critics said "Oe has become very conservative now. He is a very quiet man; he says, his [son's] music healed him and he can be healed by the compact disc, himself. That is very negative and very conservative," they said. I must answer that. I don't say to be healed in Japanese. The verb "heal" must be used actively. I heal myself. A human being is healed by something. That is a very positive deed of human beings. When I listen to the music of my son, I don't experience any passive deed. I feel I am doing something positive with my son. We are looking out at the same direction. So if someone feels he is healed by the music of my son, even then I believe someone is looking in the same direction as my son. So he is positively healing himself with my son.

So your son is "getting on with his life," as you say. And his example can inspire others, help them "get on" with their lives. And heal themselves in the process.

Yes, precisely, I want to do the same thing. My son's music is a model of my literature. I want to do the same thing.

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