Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Phantoms of Your Own Fragmentation - #9

It's authentic props like this that make this blog what it is.

STORY: "Cogwheels" by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Trans. Cid Corman and Susumu Kamaike; (translated elsewhere as "Spinning Gears")

FROM: THE ESSENTUAL AKUTAGAWA, Ed. Seiji M. Lippit, Foreword Jorge Luis Borges (Marsilio, 1999)

BASICALLY: At least partially autobiographical, follows a writer's gradual--but calm and detached--descent into depression and mental illness, accompanied by the increasing appearance of portents, patterns, and hallucinations.

Akutagawa Ryunosuke (or Ryunosuke Akutagawa, I suppose, depending on your preference) was some kind of genius. By the time of his death in 1927—a suicide at age 35—he had achieved literary success and international renown for basically inventing the modern Japanese short story. Director Akira Kurosawa later used two of his stories ("Rashomon" and "In a Grove") as the inspiration for his famous RASHOMON, and Akutagawa's influence continues to be felt in the work of writers (ahem, Haruki Murakami) whose work you'd better know if you want literary hipsters to admire your taste. I chose the story "Cogwheels" because of what Jorge Luis Borges declares in his introduction: "Like the Inferno of Strindberg, who appears toward the end, this story is the diary, atrocious and methodical, of a gradual hallucinatory process."

And wow. I was not disappointed. "Cogwheels" tells the story of a writer as he sinks into an overwhelming depression and profound sense of fragmentation. If that doesn't sound like a hoot and a half, I don't blame you. But consider this—the absolute best word I can think of to describe this story is "delicate." The swelling tension of a man's fractured reality is secured by mere cobwebs, people! From the clarity of the narrator's observations to the gentle materialization of linked signs, the true horror of "Cogwheels" unfolds with a touch that is featherlight. The question is, as usual—how does Akutagawa manage to create this effect?

From the outset, the narrator describes his surroundings with simplicity and precision. There is no elaborate layering of adjectives, no baroque stylization, no heavy-handed symbolism. Simply a pensive man riding in a taxi, hoping to catch a train. His companion in the car, a barber, mentions a haunted house—"No joke, I assure you! . . . And they say the ghost does its haunting in a raincoat." Then the ride is over, the train has indeed been missed, and the narrator/author notes, "On a bench in the waiting room one man in a raincoat stared vacantly out. I remembered the tale I had just heard. But I let it go with a faint smile and decided to go into a café in front of the station to wait for the next train."

I see two thrilling writerly tricks at play here. First, this is brilliant characterization. Akutagawa has already (in a single page, mind you) described the barber as being "as plump as a peach" and recounted the conversation about the ghost, so we know that his protagonist/self is awake to the odd detail. And we know, too, that the narrator is prone to melancholy reflection from that brief interaction in the car—"Looking out at the far hills of pine bathed in the afternoon sun of winter, I satisfied him with occasional responses." So this new observation fits perfectly with the character that has been sketched. Even as he becomes more disconnected and hallucinatory later in the story, he continues in precisely this vein, making his madness seem not like a departure, but like he is becoming more himself. The moments barely stands out.

Which, by the way, is the second trick—that it takes Akutagawa only a page to repeat the portentous appearance of the raincoat, and yet the fabric of the story doesn't so much as ripple. Notice how the mention of the melancholy man in the waiting room is sandwiched between two practical, modern-day allusions to schedules and trains—like the protagonist, we are distracted by the demands of the workaday world. Only after the raincoat appears again (when a man wearing one sits opposite him on the train) and again (on a couch in the lobby of his hotel) do we start to feel nervous.

In the meantime, Akutagawa has already introduced other portents—the hallucination of cogwheels that precedes a headache, the maggot-like worm "wriggling at one edge of the meat" on his plate, the doppelganger of his "overcoat hanging on the wall" that "looked too much like my upright self"—with equally casual aplomb. These things appear consistently in the midst of actions that pull our focus away from their significance. We listen in on his conversation with a Chinese scholar and forget to think about symbols. We're as uneasy as he is when his niece calls and insists that "something terrible's happened"—his sister's husband has committed suicide—and we hardly have time to consider the significance of the man's dying while wearing a raincoat. In fact, though the protagonist is frequently thoughtful or fretful, his focus is always falling on a new event, a new manifestation of his fixations, and he never seems to consider directly what is happening to him.

"Cogwheels" clings to the mind after it has been read, eerie and persistent. It is not necessary to know that Akutagawa wrote this shortly before he killed himself, nor that numerous events related in the course of the story came directly and explicitly from his own life—though these facts cannot help but inform our understanding of what the author has done here. The story is not the accidental by-product of a disintegrating sanity, but a carefully-balanced progression of damning details, culminating in a tragic plea for relief. That's, I think, why it must be genius—the Self and the Art mirroring one another, finding fevered expression, even as they are splintering disastrously…


Post a Comment