This essay offers a new reading of a pivotal and controversial novella, “Gan” (“The Wild Geese,” 1911), by major modern Japanese writer Mori Ōgai. Scholars (such as Dennis Washburn and Shiokawa Tetsuya) have argued that Ōgai's formal experimentation and aesthetic ideals led him to discover deep flaws in the novel's capacity for mimesis. I agree, but not with their conclusions that he therefore abandoned the form. On the contrary, I suggest that it was the very power of the novel to hold competing conventions of representation in tension, and to work through the epistemic and ethical problems of perspective raised by the act of narration itself, that also epitomized the strengths of the genre for Ōgai. His work throughout his career engages readers in moving stories of ethically complex interactions, while at the same time demanding a reflexive critical consciousness that disrupts the very illusion of mimesis on which those stories depend for their effects. In “Gan” and other works, Ōgai does not merely fail to produce an aesthetically coherent world in the process of telling an ethically unsatisfying story. Rather, he explores the ethical and aesthetic limits of the conventions of novel narration itself, with unnerving success. “Gan” represents a culmination of his critical explorations of the ethics of novel form, and not the radical break from his former methodologies that has been theorized. This essay examines the method of self-conscious critique Ōgai employs in “Gan” to suggest its benefits as a model for contemporary ethical criticism in Western academia. Ōgai's reflexive experimentation in this work shuttles readers between absorption in novelistic pathos and reflection on its ethos, exploring both the possibilities and limitations of immanent ethical self-critique in the novel. Rather than taking up “Gan” as an object of ethical inquiry, then, I propose that we compare its reflexive mode of self-critique with the methods employed by ethical criticism today. Contemporary theories of literary ethics in the West often turn to the novel for its representations of alterity—its compelling portraits of others. They generally share a tacit assumption that the novel presents a site of immersive experience whose powerful pathos requires critical intervention to elucidate in ethical terms. Attending to the “ethics of self-consciousness” in modern Japanese novels might help Western critics rethink these assumptions, while at the same time it may revise conventional wisdom about Ōgai's career trajectory.

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