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Temporary Note

Free From The Crime of Being Ridiculous: Transcending Shame in Kobo Abé's The Face of Another

By Michaela Grey

It was a mere hair's breadth from this point to making plans for a mask...I would cover up the holes in my face with a plastic mask. Of course, according to one theory a mask is apparently the expression of an extremely metaphysical aspiration to give oneself a kind of transcendental disguise, for the mask is not simply something compensatory. Even I did not regard it as anything like a shirt or a pair of pants that I could change at will. However, I really don't know about the ancients, who believed in idols, and about adolescents who imitate them, but for me, at this point it is probably useless to decorate the altars of my next life with masks. No matter how many faces I have, there is no changing the fact that I am just me. I was just attempting to fill in a too-long intermission in my life with a trivial 'masked play.'
--Kobo Abé, The Face of Another (19-20)

In a cheap, darkened apartment, on a low table near a thermos of water for tea, the narrator of Kobo Abe's The Face of Another has left three notebooks -- black, white, and gray -- for his wife to read. The notebooks contain an extremely detailed, deeply personal confession by the narrator, division head of a laboratory whose face has been severely scarred in an accident. Not only do the notebooks provide his wife with the tale of how he came to construct an elaborate mask with which to attempt to seduce her, they also trace his experience of and journey through profound shame. While the text hints that it can be read as an allegory of the Japanese national crisis of identity and loss of sociopolitical 'face' in the wake of World War II [1], its methodical unveiling of one individual's multiple masks of shame also maps superbly to a recent psychoanalytical text on the subject, Günter Harry Seidler's In Others Eyes: An Analysis of Shame. The narrator has carefully recorded every step of his progress, from fantasies and fears to details of his actions, in the notebooks which he hoped his wife would use to "come safely through this moment and make a step toward" him. Although the narrator disingenuously tells his wife that "there is no relationship, of course, between colors and content," claiming that he "chose haphazardly, merely to distinguish among notebooks," the colors of the three notebooks do indeed correspond closely to critical stages in his journey. Looking over the wife's shoulder as she sits with her tea, let us begin to read...

The Black Notebook

In the early pages of his first journal, the narrator has already for some months been wearing heavy bandages which almost completely conceal his face and the keloid scars he describes as "a leech-like mass" of "red and black intertwining." Although he "can hardly believe that the face is so important to a man's existence," the accident has left him "so ashamed I writhed in anguish, still I did not rightly grasp what I had to be ashamed about." The narrator feels that without the ability to express emotions, his scarred face is "inscrutable to others" and so needs to be hidden away. The desire to hide in darkness is expressed repeatedly throughout the novel, as is the wish that "everybody in the world would suddenly lose his sight or forget the existence of lightt." He goes to the movie theater, not to watch a film, but because it is a "market-place of darkness -- the only safe place for a monster."
The bandages themselves serve more as a hiding-place than they do any medical purpose; he considers his aversion to the scars to be a "ridiculous" form of  "psychological hives," but is nonetheless "unable to stop my suffering." Shame washes over him with the rays of the morning sun: "I was suddenly aware that day had already come. And the instant I involuntarily averted my face from the brilliance of the morning light spilling over the window ledge, piercing to the core of my head, shame overcame me." It is as if the sun can penetrate through the bandages, exposing his scarred features and bringing his defects into plain view.
Seidler's text relates the gaze of the other to shame, by first linking the gaze to sunlight and thus subconsciously to the father:

Abraham reports that [...] those fearing their father's gaze would express this in terms of necessity to protect themselves against the rays of the sun, and vice versa in connection with the location of power, they sometimes develop the notion that their own vision [...] could have effects similar to the light of the sun. Abraham relates his clinical observations to a host of literary examples. (Seidler 61)

The narrator's father, while appearing only briefly in a dream-sequence, marks a decisive moment in the establishment of his shamefulness. In this dream, there are two fathers, one with a simple straw hat, the other with a hat made of soft felt. The felt-hat father, upon seeing the straw-hat father in the vestibule, "looked clearly contemptuous and gave an exaggerated shudder in rebuke for such evident bad form. Whereupon the one in the straw hat smiled mournfully in quite unbecoming confusion and left as if he were furtively escaping, the shoe he had removed dangling in his hand."  The narrator, "not quite ten" at the time of the dream, is heartbroken, and upon recalling this, is certain that "the trust I had had in my father up to then was completely betrayed by the exchange of hats." He further wonders if he has been made to "suffer shame in my father's place." In the narrator's dream, it is he who has judged his father, or has recognized that his father is liable to be judged by others, a fact that he recognizes when noting that the two hats were probably "symbols for the unforgivable lies that exist in human relationships." Scorn and judgment are linked in the dream to his father's external appearance -- to how he appears to others and thus to himself.
The pain of these "unforgivable lies" that led to the narrator's betrayed trust in his father develops into a "deep abhorrence of cosmetics," or indeed any suggestion of people attempting to don "false faces;" as a child he burns his older sister's wig, finding it "unspeakably indecent and immoral." Upon handling a prosthetic finger while researching the technical details of his mask, he "had the weird sensation that it could infect me with -- well, with death." He is, then, understandably reluctant to forsake his bandages for a plastic mask, but is equally unable to expose his expressionless, scarred face to the judging gaze of others, which he experiences as "hidden needles bearing a corrosive poison" which make him feel "like an oily dustcloth, spotted with shame." However, he gradually comes to realize that cosmetics, like his mask, are intended to achieve the same goal he hopes to attain with his masked play -- "to get a little closer to others by transforming the expression." Desperate to make his expression readable to those around him, particularly to his wife, he is presented with the choice between being "consigned to oblivion" for "nonpayment on the promissory note of [his] bandage," and assuming a false face which, being capable of expression, can serve as a "roadway between oneself and others."
According to Seidler, "the theme of the gaze and its reciprocal nature is of paramount importance [...]shame is the affect that asserts itself when the ego/self knows it is being 'judged.'" As demonstrated by the dream of the two fathers, the roadway of the gaze or expression is for the narrator also an implicit path to shame, encapsulated in the sense that he is being judged by others when they look at him.
The central factor here is the objectifying gaze interpreted as contempt. The subject experiences itself as completely set apart, all links are severed. The gaze turns the subject into an object, a thing. Frequently the affective response to such a gaze is self-devaluation. Some misunderstandings that have cropped up in the discussion of shame are traceable to the equation of the objectifying-gaze situation with the shame situation. The attendant self-devaluation is then misinterpreted as shame (Seidler 73).
The narrator is acutely aware of the gaze of others, before which he feels like something more abject than an insect or a fish -- like some kind of monster. Sensing that those around him are treating him differently than they did prior to the accident, he cannot at first believe that the "loss of a face can cause conspicuous change in the scale of evaluation," and, feeling himself inadequate, declares that "it may well be owing to a fundamental emptiness of content" on his part. Addressing his wife, he asks her to "imagine my wretchedness at making people around me uncomfortable just by my existence, like some stray mongrel," and again expresses his disbelief in his changed circumstances: "Even I recognize that a roadway between people is a necessity. I keep on writing these sentences to you precisely because I do fully recognize this. But I wonder if the face alone is the one and only roadway. I cannot believe it."
Yet on some level, he must -- he does believe it. Even before his journey takes him out of the shadowy denials entombed within the black notebook, the narrator repeatedly displays classic affects of shame, as addressed by Seidler's query: "is it not the case that the parts of the body that blush are precisely those which are exposed to the gaze of others but which the shame subject cannot in fact see, however it may train its gaze upon itself?" (Seidler 19) Heavily scarred and completely swathed in bandages, however, the narrator's facial expressions of shame, including blushes and tears, cannot be read by the other, while he himself is well aware of his own shame, experiencing it as "a deep hole popp[ing] open in my face," a hole which threatens to engulf his whole body. Unable to bear this swallowing up of his ego by the "game of blindman's bluff with no blindman," he yearns for a "stopper for the hole in my face--anything would do." This imaginary hole is felt to ooze "a liquid, like pus from a decayed tooth," a comparison which is repeated when he deflects a hurtful comment by claiming it had no more affected him than "the filling of a molar." Speaking of the pain of having lost his original face, he says, of the anesthetizing potential of the mask: "If I could not have the tooth taken care of, I could at least take a temporary pain-killer." [2]
For all the psychic agony these incidents cause him, only he knows when he is experiencing the physiological expressions of shame. His frequent meditations on this subject suggest that some of his shame stems from being too concealed, from failing to be expressive with others. His dislike of makeup, wigs, and masks can be understood more easily when one considers that it is only when others can see his shame (what he calls expression) that he is a genuinely social creature. When his shame is effectively disguised by the bandages or by the mask, the roadway to society  "blocked by a landslide" of concealment, he runs the risk of being thought of as an "uninhabited, dilapidated house" that will be left alone, something other than human.
The shame-subject assumes the position of the other as it were and takes an outside view of its own shame-inducing action. This alternating cathexis of the subject and object position corresponds to the object-relation situation described by Freud as engendering the "criminal from a sense of guilt." For the present gaze of the other, the subject enacts a shame-scene and in so doing works off unconscious shame that is as hard to bear as it is difficult to verbalize (Seidler 219).
The narrator, then, follows the judging gaze back to the other, and identifies with what he imagines they see in him. What he thinks he sees through the eyes of others is distorted by previously existing unconscious shame, which he can in the early stages of the novel only access by identifying it with his recent accident and the resulting scars. Horrified and disgusted by how he imagines himself to appear, he initially attempts to play the fool at work, drawing unnecessary attention to his lack of a face and joking with coworkers that he has become a "masked monster." When this tactic induces a female assistant to show him a Paul Klee drawing entitled False Face which he sees as reflecting his own condition in that "the expression was expressionless to the point of cruelty," he is "overcome by an indescribable feeling of humiliation [...] upset that the picture appeared to be my very own face seen through the girl's eyes. A false face, seen but unable to look back. It was intolerable to think that I appeared to the girl like this." [3] Forced to admit that he cannot control the judging gaze of others and so make the shame subside by self-deprecation, the narrator returns to contemplating other means of escape.
While wearing his bandages, the narrator feels shamefully judged and excluded by gazes carrying pity, curiosity, and most damningly, a distant air of "only affability [...] If they did not want to look me square in the face, at least they had to be affable, I suppose...shut off by a wall of affability, I was always completely alone." The aloneness pains him deeply, and he is quite affected when Dr. K, a plastic surgeon, points out that "the human animal can validate his ego only through the eyes of others." Since neither his scars nor his bandages can return the expression of those who gaze at him, his choice seems plain. After all, "if I could cover my face with an imitation completely indistinguishable from the real thing, however fake the landscape might be, it couldn't make me an outcast." A mask, then, is preferable to having no face at all, so in spite of his distaste for deception, he reluctantly determines that "being seen [is] the cost of the right to see."
Ironically, it is this very distaste, coupled with a desire for genuine expression, that leads the narrator to conclude that the mask cannot be an identical copy of his original face: "After all, wouldn't the meaning of the mask be completely negated, no matter how skillfully it was constructed, if I wore one identical to myself?" This suggests a dawning awareness that his face -- his presentation to others -- was not entirely an honest one even prior to the accident. The long-buried unconscious shame has been exposed by the ridges and discolorations of his scars. The bandages, then, have been used not only to hide his mutilated face from others, but to conceal from his own eyes the shameful evidence of denial. Seidler cites Tomkins as defining "the mien indicative of an attempt to maintain lasting control over a state of chronic shame" in terms of a "frozen face," a particularly apt description of the expressionless mass of white bandages concealing the narrator's face. Unable to affect an expressionless or "frozen" expression with what remains of his own features, he has resorted to a blank expanse of white cloth.
In spite of all the misery created by this ploy, he might have continued to hide behind his bandages, crippled by half-denials of his deeply buried shame, had not his wife rejected a sexual advance in a crucial scene. After realizing that even the enjoyment of his beloved Bach recordings has been transmogrified by the accident into "a dusty, sticky lollipop" of meaninglessness and banality, he desperately attempts to slide his hand up his wife's skirt; she drops the glass she has been polishing in shock. He describes the humiliation of this experience as "a desperate effort to regain all at once what I was beginning to lose because of my ravaged face," noting that "[s]ince the accident, the two of us had completely stopped sexual relations. In theory, I conceded that my face was an incidental reason, but in reality perhaps I was sneaking around trying a direct test of your response [...]apparently I had tried to convince you by my action that the face was a mere screen, an illusion of no importance." Imagining that his wife is as disgusted by his scars as he himself is, he assumes that she has rejected him because of his appearance. Brought to the very edge by this rejection, he now feels there is no choice but to make for himself a mask with which to reconquer his social environs.
The remainder of the black notebook follows his initial research into the project. During the course of this research he "wondered if [he] weren't becoming a kind of monster[...] perhaps the face makes the monster. A monster's face brings loneliness, and the loneliness informs his heart. If the temperature of my freezing loneliness were to drop even slightly, I should become a monster, indifferent to my appearance, and break with a crash all the bonds which bind me to this world." Shortly after this overwhelmingly shameful thought occurs to him, he manages to find a stranger who will sell him a small skin sample to be used to fashion the outer surface of his mask. Once he has irrevocably committed to replacing bandages with plastic  skin, he recognizes the "anesthetic nature of disguise" and understands that he "would ultimately be poisoned by my bandages." The narrator then moves away from the shadows and secrets of the black notebook, and is ready to attempt to face the blinding gaze of the other.

The White Notebook

The 'other' is doubly relevant in this connection. He or she is both the source and the witness of shame, and this sets up waves of shame that flood in on the subject...naturally, a renewed actual encounter with the person inducing the feeling of shame may also trigger the process all over again. (Seidler 42)

As source and witness of his shame, the narrator's wife -- and her gaze -- are pivotal to his experience of himself. The plan to create the mask was devised after his wife's rejection, and it is the thought of regaining her love that the narrator initially imagines as his primary motive in the project. Still disturbed by the need to resort to artifice, and justifying the mask as a necessary deception, he muses that "the face is made by someone else; one doesn't make it oneself...the expression is chosen by someone else;  it is not oneself that chooses it." Believing that the appearance of the face he creates is dictated by those who will direct their gaze at him, he can comfortingly imagine that the responsibility for his shameful deception is at least partly outside himself.
He then tries to alleviate his increasing sense of isolation by transferring some of his shame: "a monster is a creation, so we can call man a monster too." If the shaming gaze of others has created him, then likewise other people are themselves the creation of other gazes. In the white notebooks, the creator of the monster he feels himself becoming is strongly identified as his wife. This is consistent with Seidler's assertion that "the stranger, the unfamiliar entity not only perceives and observes, it is also invested with judgmental power, it becomes a 'causa,' the constitutive element of the whole scene" (Seidler 40).
It may seem odd that the narrator's wife of eight years is conceived of as a stranger, but his accident has made him realize her essential unknowability. Recalling that her "outgoing and peaceable disposition is like a three-foot wall of crude rubber. Infinitely pliant, but inviolable," he complains that her inviting smiles "turn into mist and obstruct my view." He feels, then, that she is able to look at him, that he is exposed and vulnerable to her gaze, but that the more he seeks to comprehend her, the more she "seemed to become a dot, a line, a face, at last changing into profileless space, slipping through the net of my senses." Unable to imagine what features the mask should have in order to be attractive to his wife, he wonders

What in heaven's name had I seen, what had I talked to, what had I felt during all the time we lived together? Was I that ignorant of you? I stood in blank amazement before the unknown territory of you, which was enveloped in an endlessly spreading milky mist. I was so desperately ashamed I could have wrapped my head with another two bandages.

His shame is interwoven with his sense of his wife as an intimate stranger, as unknowable but utterly familiar alien. In analyzing why shame is associated with the gaze of the other, Seidler defines the other by "two indispensable conditions [...] the other must display a number of features that accord with the subject's own, and a number of others which are, in the truest sense of the word, nonidentifiable, alien, inaccessible." The "self" is then produced by the "refracted relation" of the "unreflected ego/image of the ego projected by the other" (Seidler 52). In this account, the constitution of the self relies upon a balance between attractive similarities, which allow an identification with the other, and a basic otherness which clearly defines boundaries between the ego and the exterior. The self can then only understand itself as a self when it is being seen by the other, but if, as previously discussed, the gaze of the other carries implicit shame, then the self can only understand itself as a shamed self.
The narrator's wife, as his preferred other, is necessarily someone with whom he identifies and yet considers unapproachably alien. Prior to the accident, this relationship was unproblematic and "uneventful" for him; he assumed that he had the upper hand in the game of reciprocal gazing, imagining himself complacently and confidently in the subject position, "living with [her] in a self-absorbed way." Upon finding himself a spectacle, the dynamic has reversed; now it is his wife who looks at him "with a clear, penetrating gaze, which seemed painted on." Now it is she whose "transparent nonexpression" exposes him "like rays of sunlight filtering through a forest swept with cold winds of winter." He writes to her that he had "fundamentally had no power over you" because "if you felt like it you could desert me at any time. I wondered if I could make you understand just how dreadful that would be." He is, at this point in the game, trapped in a terrible quandary [4]. Without his wife's otherness, without her to see him, he will cease to exist as a coherent self. But while robed in shame and self-disgust, he must reflexively interpret her every glance as a witheringly pitying, judging gaze of shame. Little wonder, then, that he cannot decide between tearing her face off to make her "the same as I...or some even more horrible goblin" and recovering her love by remaking his own face in a form that she might desire.
His wife's second rejection of him, after he rages at her in a fit of self-disgust, renews his awareness of the primacy of shame in their reconfigured relationship, inducing him to vengefully design the phsyiognomy of his mask to correspond to hers; "the aggressive, extroverted type -- a sharp face centered around the nose; in terms of Jungian psychology, a strong face, showing ability to act [...] the face of a hunter." The mask, initially conceived as a recuperation of his wife, is now a weapon to be used against her -- a recuperation of what he perceives her to have stolen from him. Yet, for all his fantasies of vengeance, she remains for him

[...]the most important "other person." No, I do not mean it in a negative sense. I mean that the one who must first restore the roadway, the one whose name I had to write on the first letter, was first on my list of "others." (Under any circumstances, I simply did not want to lose you. To lose you would be symbolic of losing the world.)

Terrified of losing his wife/other, the narrator feels he has little choice but to merge with her, to take her facial type as his own. Although "the other remains constantly transcendant" and is "never apprehendable in its entirety," he believes he can continue to access her gaze "via the forfeiting of objectal relatedness, i.e. either the loss of the other as a discrete vis-a-vis, or the loss of the consciousness of the subject, in short the loss of ego" (Seidler 58). To keep her, he must become like her. This presents a paradox, since it is her sexual difference by which he understands himself as a self; "the 'sexually distinctive other' is critical because 'self-referentiality [...] cannot be conceived of without the other'" (Seidler 187).
The conflicting desires to destroy and/or merge with the judging other, as represented by his wife, reflect a split in the narrator's own self-image. Just as his dream-father's identity split into an abjected straw-hat father and a contemptuous felt-hat father, so too the narrator finds it necessary to divide himself into desirable and unwanted aspects. Seidler's text addresses such "splitting syndromes, such as multiple personality, borderline, and narcissistic disorders," noting that "Kaufman sees 'splitting' as a process of alienation or expropriation. Areas of the personality subject to self-contempt or self-blame are 'split off' and no longer integrated into the whole person" (Seidler 276). It is easy to see how the ineffectual, damaged, and shameful aspects of the narrator are consigned to his scarred face, while the new, shameless mask is allowed to be "utterly free and accordingly infinitely cruel." Wearing the mask, to which he ascribes an entirely separate personality from his own, he feels free as "a child who for the first time is permitted to ride the train alone," feeling at first that "[c]ompared to scar webs or bandages, this plastic mask was a far more living face. The former were trompe l'oeil doors painted on a wall, but the mask was like a door ajar, through which the fragrance of sunlight is wafted in." Although he himself is not free from his shame, he has found a proxy through which he can experience a temporary measure of shamelessness.
The thrill of being treated indifferently by passersby on the street and cigarette shopgirls while wearing the mask emboldens him; "while beneath the mask the blood vessels expanded and the sweat glands poured out their moisture, the surface didn't shed a single drop of perspiration. Thus I was easily able to recover from my fear of blushing." The mask, unlike his bandages, is capable of expression, but the expressions that emerge are distinct from those of his pre-accident self. The "stubborn power the mask had over" him leads him to purchase a "conservative three-button suit [...] a style which was the fad of the moment," a completely uncharacteristic act which shocks him into "gasps of incoherent laughter."
He learns, though, that "anyone closing the window of the soul with a mask of flesh was merely shutting away scar webs inside," and that although "in my imagination the mask was something that exposed me, [...] in actuality it was an opaque means of concealment." The events in the white notebook, from the first wearing of the mask, represent defenses against the newly exposed shame, and the narrator comes to understand that his journey is not complete. He realizes that "the brightness of the sky had not reached the mask," and he has "had enough sleep." Feeling the "influence [of] the rays of the sun" on his mental state, and "[...]after shifting from side to side in their brilliance, [he] awoke."
The final act recorded in the white notebook is the purchase in a toy store of a Walthow air pistol, which although still rather a toy, is "considered a real pistol" and which is illegal to possess. His real face, the abjected aspects of himself, protest "quietly in a small voice," but the mask gleefully persists in its course of action, "like a badly behaved dog who has made off with something from under the shepherd's nose" -- a development which causes anxiety in the narrator, who recognizes that "the mask was certainly not something that, rabbit-like, popped out of a magician's hat; it must really be a part of me that had come into being without my being aware of it, because the gatekeeper, my real face, had been so severely forbidden access." As much as it is a part of him, the mask's actions are still "enough to make the worms of shame come wriggling out of all the pores of my body." Until he directly confronts his wife/other, until he is recognized and judged by her, he and his mask will remain locked in a closed circuit of interaction, and his shame will continue unabated. "If I am ashamed to reread this, how much more ashamed I am to imagine you reading it." Yet he did write it, and he does need for her to read it. He desperately hopes that her judgment will bring him balance and wholeness, and moves forward to the next stage.

The Gray Notebook

The newly masked narrator is eager to take action, to recuperate some of what he has lost, and he contemplates criminality; while "almost all the illegal actions that occurred to me were concerned with money, that is, the illegal transfer of ownership" he ultimately chooses to act sexually, noting that "at least seventy percent of my thinking continued to be possessed by frantic sexual fantasies [...] I was indeed a potential sexual criminal." This is no accident. He requires reification of his increasingly incoherent identity, and "the other sex remains the differentiating gauge for one's own. Only when difference is preserved will the gaze of the other not coincide with the gazed-on subject. Thus the reality of sexual difference remains an indication of the need for complementation. Awareness of this is accompanied by shame" (Seidler 189-90). His wife has indeed stolen from him--stolen the power of the gaze, and stolen his illusion of independence from the sexual binary. The only way the narrator feels he can recover what has been stolen is to steal it back from her -- a vengeful seduction that will confirm his long-held jealousy. But his shamed, scarred face is too meek to attempt such a violation. Instead, the mask "as a complete stranger, planned to seduce you, to violate you -- you who were the symbol of the stranger."
Although conflicted about his plan to seduce his wife, the narrator finally determines that the jealousy which drives it is the very root of his shame, and that even "since before I lost my face, from the time when I had planned on leading an ordinary married life" he was "already fostering the sprouts of jealousy against" her. The very jealousy that shames him is, however, a source of "vivid physical feeling[s] of excitement" and he is both repulsed and aroused by the idea of observing the mask making love to his wife. The feeling of jealousy "made me remember again the affection and love I had for you." Seidler speaks of "the loss of scale of judgment" in individuals who feel they have lost control of a situation; their sense of order "has to be recovered by introducing a third person as observer." Not trusting his own impressions of his wife's feelings, he needs to invent the mask's persona in order to observe her infidelity, which in his profound insecurity he has already assumed. The mask's observation of the scene is needed because the narrator's "ego is completely taken up with an other" and is not "in a position to make an impassive, 'distanced' critical judgment"(Seidler 64).
Having overidientified with his wife, she is not other enough for him to constitute an identity upon. He must become a stranger to her in order to receive her critical judgment. The mask, as the "point of reference, the third person, is a condition of shame" (Seidler 65). The narrator realizes that "the mask that was supposed to mediate between us was only a shameless rogue" but feels the scene is unavoidable; whether the wife rejects him in his mask or takes the mask as a lover, "the result would surely be a scene of violence." His preoccupation with his appearance to the other has become a sexual fetish; the ambivalence and excitement he feels at the thought of violating his wife are bound up in his efforts to regain control of the gaze from her.
Having successfully seduced his wife as the masked stranger, the narrator feels temporarily whole: "suddenly the mask and I became one, and there was no 'other one' to be jealous of. If it was myself who was touching you, then it was I too who was being touched by you." This crucial moment of self-awareness leads to an astonishing epiphany.

In my fancies I accused you of shamelessly betraying me, and my body was wracked with the poisons of jealousy; yet as soon as it was a question of myself, I called it a pure act of freedom and was too selfish to think how much it might hurt you. In the final analysis, jealousy itself is something like a pet cat that insists on its rights but does not accept its duties.

Like the scars which covered and exposed his underlying shame, the jealousy had been yet another mask concealing his truest shame, that of selfishness and a basic shamelessness that has excluded him from the roadways of human interaction. Seidler describes how a female patient, "in trespassing on the privacy of others, [...] violated the boundaries of intimacy and antagonized the people she was trying to relate to. At this juncture she had neither tact nor shame at her disposal"(Seidler 271). Similarly, the narrator realizes that his whole plan to seduce his wife, to regain her affection, indeed his whole marriage to her, was never intended by him as a reciprocal relationship [5].  His worst fear, that of becoming a false, non-reciprocal person, has always already been the case. Horrified, he judges himself guilty of "the crime of having lost one's face, the crime of shutting off the roadway to others, the crime of having lost understanding of others' agonies and joys, the crime of having lost the fear and joy of discovering unknown things in others, the crime of having forgotten one's duty to create for others, the crime of having lost a music heard together." He cannot be seen and judged by others because his shame, which seemed so real, has been just another defense against real human interaction. All of his faces are false, and there is nothing beneath the final bandage [6].


After reading all his notebooks, the narrator's wife confirms his fears in her parting letter to him, in which she denies his accusation of infidelity and rejection: "Didn't you reject yourself all by yourself?" The wife then discloses that she knew he was behind the mask all the time, and went along with the seduction play believing his actions to be a therapeutic means by which he could have recovered self-esteem.

At first you were apparently trying to get your own self back by means of the mask, but before you knew it you had come to think of it only as your magician's cloak for escaping from yourself. So it was not a mask, but somewhat the same as another real face, wasn't it? You finally revealed your true colors. It was not the mask, but you yourself. It is meaningful to put a mask on, precisely because one makes others realize it is a mask [...]You don't need me. What you really need is a mirror. Because any stranger is for you simply a mirror in which to reflect yourself. I don't ever again want to return to such a desert of mirrors.

The last several lines of the wife's letter are erased to the point of illegibility, suggesting that she ultimately remains obscured, unknowable and inaccessible to the narrator even as she shines the blinding light of judgment on him. In revealing his own hidden motives to him, she has once again deprived him of the power he had attempted to steal back from her by the seduction. In the act of tearing away his final layer of self-delusion, his wife has given him a painful gift; the choice of self-ownership. In Seidler's account, it is "the birth of the own self, the point where the gaze of the self falls back in on itself, that is represented by the blinding event"(Seidler 93). Stripped of all masks and given instead a mirror, the narrator finally has the opportunity to discontinue his "false self" pattern of narcissistically attempting to "please the vis-a-vis with a view to gratifying the regressive wish for total attunement."
Should he choose to put away the "wish to attune and to be accepted without reserve" and embrace instead the "incipient capacity for feeling shame," he might experience the shameful "perception by the other" as a "tolerable stage [that] no longer demands (subjective) self-abandonment" (Seidler 180). Abandoning his preoccupation with the blinding gaze of the other, he might be able to build an identity that is not reliant upon shame and judgment, and be rid of the sensations of rage, jealousy, and shame which have tormented him for so long. In stark contrast to his self-reflexive, self-protective feelings of shame and self-disgust, his wife has offered him a conscience [7].
Does the narrator take up her challenge? His first reaction is, of course, the sensation of "swarming shame." Having imagined that the mask would magically protect him from the blinding gaze of his wife, he now sees that

My mask, which I had expected to be a shield of steel, was broken more easily than glass. I cannot refute you on that. As you said, I had come to feel that the mask was closer to being a new face for me than a mask. If I still intended to persist in believing that my real face was an incomplete copy of the mask, then I had gone to a lot of trouble to make a fake mask.

Having succeeded in his semi-conscious goal of removing himself  from the pain of the other's gaze, but still reliant on her for self-definition, he is swept into a crisis. Since, as Seidler points out, "the other was not only an 'offensive object' but also a 'defining vis-a-vis'" (Seidler 184), he lacks an identifier and, feeling worthless and "ridiculous," decides that his only remaining choice is to become a monster [8]: "my mask had complained without ultimately doing anything. Enough of this coat of shame." The final self-protective layer of shame is discarded.
Having been exposed as ridiculous and impotent in his docile, fake masks,  he wonders if his  "scar webs [weren't] enough without the mask?" and,  imagining what a real mask would look like, pictures it as a monster:

...perhaps one could only call something which completely got away from the real face a mask. The popping, bug-like eyes, the great mouth filled with fangs, the nose set with shiny buttons [...] it was the expression of a poignant aspiration to go beyond man, an effort to consort with the gods [...] a violent compression of will in an attempt to combat a natural taboo. Perhaps I should have made a mask like that. If I had, from the very beginning I should have been able to dispense with my feeling of deceiving others.

The turn from impotent false face to shameless monster's mask envisioned by the narrator corresponds almost seamlessly to Seidler's analysis of destructive narcissists, who are brought to misery  by the basic incompatibility of

...their drive-wish for relation(ships)--understood as a wish to be 'known'-- and their almost complete inability to bear the fulfilment of that wish. Consciousness of being the object of someone else's attention points up their objectal separateness, their difference and otherness. This realization is accompanied by unbearable shame, which turns 'negative' as a result of dislocation inherent in the perception of separateness [...] the gaze of the other, as a representative of an independent vis-a-vis, must be obliterated 'in order to' [...] salvage the illusion of nonseparateness. The tragic consequence is that the gaze vantage of the subject takes the place of that former other and epistemologically coincides with it. The advantage gained by this motion is that the shame-full experience of being separate and other has now been 'got rid of.' The harm done by it is that the consciousness of the other can no longer be distinguished from the subject's own, so that a depreciation of the subject by the other becomes depreciation of the self by the self: 'I am the person that you take me for'  (Seidler 290).

Having been finally and totally rejected by his wife, the narrator attempts to reconcile "the two discordant hammers of anger and desire" which mercilessly beat out the rhythm of his shame by himself becoming the gazer who observes and judges his actions. Since he imagines his wife has seen him as a monster, he must become that monster. At the same time, by becoming that monster, he has in an important sense merged with his now-absent wife, eliminating the shame of separateness that has plagued him since his dream of the two fathers.
Considering a facially scarred woman who suicides in a film, the narrator describes her incestuous lovemaking with her brother as a brave swan song, but ultimately an impotent gesture against the social taboos which judged her scars as shameful, and asks his now absent wife, "How would you feel if you were the swan? No matter what song others sang for the girl, she did die, she was unmistakably defeated. I don't want to be like the swan." Having concluded that suicide -- an act of aggression turned inward -- is not a viable option, he feels no other choice but to unleash his rage onto others, warning his wife that "the mask that descends on you this time will be a wild animal. Since you have seen through it already, the mask will concentrate on its lawlessness, unweakened and unblinded by jealousy." He now heeds his wife's advice to "call the mask back" and use it with intent -- not, presumably, the intent she had hoped he would devise. Taking up his pistol, he goes out into an alley and waits for the footsteps of an approaching woman. Hardly sure what he himself is about to do, he wonders

...if I shall become a swan with an act like this. Can I make people feel guilty for me? [...] there will be no other reward outside of being freed from the crime of being ridiculous. [...] anyway, I shall have to go through with this, for doing so is the only way to conquer the face [...] I shall hate people. I shall never admit the necessity of justifying myself to anyone!

The narrator is finally propelled into an action that is designed to turn the gaze back on those who have shamed him. By transforming his shame into his wife's fantasized guilt in allowing him to become a sexual criminal, he has successfully achieved a tragic transcendance of his crippling shame. No longer paralyzed by the judging gaze, he has no further need of his endlessly self-reflexive notebooks: "So nothing will ever be written down again. Perhaps the act of writing is necessary only when nothing happens." Something has indeed happened; the narrator's freedom from shame has been won at the cost of his humanity.


[1] Recalling a film about a badly scarred woman with whom he identifies, the narrator writes about the girl's scars, "No full explanation was given, but the name 'Hiroshima' was constantly repeated in the following dialogue..."(Abé 230)

[2] The connection between these comments and Freud's "molar's narrow hole"(Gay 551) -- the physical pain of a toothache which he thought to constitute the ego's understanding of itself as a coherent being, as well as provide the means by which certain body parts are eroticized -- is too extensive to elaborate upon here, but well worth considering when reading Abé's novel.

[3] 'Reflexivity,' then, means having consciousness of the way one's person is perceived from an outside perspective. (Seidler 134)

[4] How can my consciousness recognize another consciousness, if this 'other' is taken to be the precondition for my being able to define myself as 'I-me' in the first place? (Seidler 51)

[5] I was made to realize fully last night that getting you back through the mask and getting all the others back through you was not the insipid thing one might imagine from the impression the words alone make; when all was said and done, getting you back was breaking down the barriers of sex and bursting through my own vileness. (Abé 186)

[6] A secondary function of shame, thus understood, would be that of protecting the self. (Seidler 111)

[7] 'Con-science' is bound up with the capacity to relate, the awareness of the 'traces' left by one's own person in others, hence with the capacity for empathy and, to the extent that active perception of the other is involved, with a fundamental capacity for shame. (Seidler 86)

[8] If the gaze of the other is experienced not only as judgmental but as censorious, and thus as ascribing to the self bad characteristics [...] the result of this will be an identification of the self as 'bad.' The urge to eliminate an other experienced as a destructive force will thus recursively weaken the self of the subject because it needs the gaze of the other as a constellation of its existence. (Seidler 179)|

Works Cited

Abé, Kobo. The Face of Another. E. Dale Saunders, Trans. Tokyo, New York: Kodansha. International Ltd. & Alfred A. Knopf, inc., 1966, 1992.

Adamson, Joseph & Clark, Hillary, Eds. Scenes of Shame: Psychoanalysis, Shame, and Writing. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Gay, Peter, ed. The Freud Reader: Edited by Peter Gay. 1989. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995.

Seidler, Günter Harry. In Other's Eyes: An Analysis of Shame. Andrew Jenkins, Trans. Madison: International Universities Press, Inc., 2000.