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Diary: Stephen Mortland, (2) Reading Akutagawa
Read Part One of this post here
Something Ryūnosuke Believed
Akutagawa’s identification with his birth mother was as strong as it was distant. Though he hardly knew her, he was convinced of a kinship between the two of them that went beyond hereditary bonds, a kinship reinforced by their singular vulnerability. He believed—and so feared—that he might, at any moment, succumb to obsession, paranoia, and hysteria just as his mother had, and this belief—the ever-present possibility of descent—rendered all of life, no matter how supposedly stable and trustworthy, meaningless for him.
Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s Three Mothers
The first, who brought him into the world, went mad eight months after he was born. She died when he was ten years old. He was living, at the time of her death, away from her. The second, his legal mother, the wife of his maternal uncle, was mother to him only on record. His impression, on first encountering her—that she was nervous and easily defeated—did not change over the course of a childhood spent in her house. The third mother—a mother by force—was his unmarried aunt Fuki who lived all her life in her brother’s household and who, on the boy’s arrival, fastened herself to him for unclear purposes (though perhaps she was enticed by the opportunity to achieve something near legitimate motherhood without needing to marry). Whatever Fuki’s reasons, her devotion to the boy was faultless. These three existed for the boy—and later for the man—as poles that tethered him, demarcated the boundaries of his self-understanding. When Patient No. 23 visits Kappa Land, he meets a Kappa poet named Tok. Tok explains that parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters exist for the sole purpose of making each other miserable. Later, though, Tok sees, through a window, a Kappa family sitting serenely around the dinner table. He is envious, he admits, even though he knows better. Watching the family as they eat together, Tok says quietly, “I suppose even those eggs right there are more health-giving than love.”
“MOTHER’S VOICE (from afar): Yes, it’s me! I’m home now.”
—from Akutagawa’s Tiger Stories: A Play (translated by Ryan Choi)
During His First Year at Tokyo Imperial University
Akutagawa was sitting on the bank of the Kanda River in the shade of the Ochanomizu Bridge. On his lap was a historical novel by a Japanese author. The novel told the story of a moneylender and a medical student. It was a love story, of sorts, though it seemed more concerned with the changing circumstances between Edo and Meiji Tokyo than it did with romance. Akutagawa was not reading the book. He was staring past the bridge at the spires of the Nikolai Cathedral, which stood black against the white sky. On his way down the slope to the bank of the river, he had noticed a sign posted on the trunk of a cherry blossom tree. Beware of Kappa, the sign said. While he sat in the grass and stared at the spires of the Nikolai Cathedral, he remembered a story his aunt Fuki once told him, the story of a carpenter who, needing extra help, built dolls and breathed life into them. The dolls woke and assisted him with his work. When his work was completed, the carpenter disposed of the dolls in the river, where, left alone, they transformed into mischievous Kappa.
The Kappa poet, Tok, shoots himself in the head. A contemporary reader cannot read the account of Tok’s suicide without considering that the author of Kappa would, mere weeks after completing the novel, also kill himself. Those standing over Tok’s body discuss his situation. They mention his selfishness, his incurable depression. They pity his family. A piece of paper is sitting on the desk near where Tok has died. It is, presumably, the last thing he wrote. They read the poem written there and discover that it is a portion of verse plagiarized from Goethe’s “Mignon’s Song.” “Kappa was born out of my disgust with many things," wrote Akutagawa to the critic Taiji Yoshida. “Mostly with myself.”
A Variation of Goethe
Come, let us go
To the valley that cuts through this fleeting world
Where the rocky crags are steep, and over it the mountain stream runs pure
Where the herbs are fragrant
—translated by Allison Markin Powell & Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda
Akutagawa scribbled in English in the margin of his incomplete manuscript, “The Youth of Daidoji Shinsuke”: “His tragedy was the tragedy of endeavoring to be great and finding [himself] to be small.” His admirer Hori Tatsuo said of him: “He finally ended without any original masterpiece. In all of his masterpieces, in every single one of them, linger the shadows of previous centuries.” He said: “I am not at all ashamed to imitate the geniuses of all ages and to appropriate their crafty methods and devices.” Yasunari Kawabata said “In his works, most of today’s intellectuals will detect a symbol of their own tragedy.”
He turned to the poet Hide Shigeko who lay quietly next to him. He watched her face as words formed somewhere behind her closed lips. She turned her head and faced him. “No,” she said. “I can’t accompany you.”
His Last Several Months
In a letter to his friend Saito Mokichi, Akutagawa likened himself to the medieval samurai Kusunoki Masashige fighting his final battle. “All I want now is animal energy, and then animal energy—and then animal energy.” In another letter to Mokichi, on March 28, 1927, four months before his death, Akutagawa wrote: “Lately again a multitude of half-transparent cogwheels revolve, obstructing the vision of my right eye.”
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