An Excerpt from “Hokusai’s Octopus: A Romp at the Edge of the Deep”

Garret Keizer

The Fisherman’s Wife
In his print The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, the Japanese artist Hokusai (1760-1849) shows a large octopus performing cunnilingus on a naked woman while a smaller octopus enters her mouth with its beak. The creatures wrap her neck, shoulders, and thighs with their tentacles, the tips of which touch her nipple and clitoris. The woman appears relaxed, entwined but in no wise restrained, and her hands grip two of the larger arms that loosely hold her. It seems she is having a good dream.

According to the art historian Edward Lucie-Smith, Hokusai’s print “is one of the rare attempts, in either Asiatic or European art, to symbolize sexual sensations as they are experienced by the female.” That’s a gracious and perfectly plausible occidental bow to the East, and if Hokusai had been a woman, I might accept it as readily as the fisherman’s wife receives her mollusk lovers. As it is, I wonder if the print is just as plausibly viewed as a heterosexual man’s longing to experience all the delights of a woman’s body simultaneously, or at least as simultaneously as the limitations of sixteen arms allow.

Perhaps the two views are not mutually exclusive; perhaps the picture is about something else. Or perhaps it touches several things at once, as the octopi do. Might Hokusai’s print also be one of the not-so-rare attempts in both Asiatic and European art—as well as African, Oceanic, and pre-Columbian—to suggest that the fullest human satisfaction lies beyond the human, or to put it in crooner’s terms, “Beyond the Sea”? Or beneath the sea, or beside the sea, or on Homer’s “wine-dark” pathways of the sea—wherever we face the unfathomable majesty usually associated with religious experience and sometimes symbolized by the ocean and its stranger animals?

I’m not begging for a yes. Though I love the ocean and am a conventionally religious man, my own capacities for these larger longings do not seem highly developed. To put it another way, two hands are plenty for me. I have never aspired to be an octopus, though I’ve been called one, or a saint either, though nobody could ever mistake me for that. When I say I love the ocean, what I tend to mean is that I love standing on the shore.

. . .

Read the rest of this essay in the Kenyon Review May/June 2015 issue, on sale now!

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter