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Art of Cruelty

Hell Screen, Cogwheels, A Fool’s Life

by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, translated by Takashi Kojima, by Cid Corman, by Will Petersen, with a foreword by Jorge Luis Borges, an introduction by Kazuya Sakai
Eridanos, 145 pp., $12.00 (paper)

Two short stories, by Tanizaki Jun’ichiro and Akutagawa Ryunosuke, appeared within ten years of each other; Tanizaki’s “The Tattooer” in 1910, and Akutagawa’s “Hell Screen” in 1918. The stories are remarkably alike. “The Tattooer” concerns Seikichi, a tattoo artist in the decadent phase of the Edo period, around the 1840s let us say, whose ambition is, as the author puts it, to engrave his soul into the skin of a beautiful woman. It takes time to find the perfect human canvas for his masterpiece, but when he catches a glimpse of the exquisite feet of a young teahouse girl, he knows his goal is near. “This,” he feels instinctively, “is a foot to be fed by men’s blood, a foot to trample on their bodies.”

The girl with the enticing feet visits his studio and Seikichi shows her a picture of a beautiful princess watching with rapture the execution of a prisoner. The girl confesses that she feels the same inclination as the cruel princess. The tattooer’s eyes gleam with pleasure. Seikichi drugs her and works on her fair skin day and night. When she wakes from her stupor, the legs of the tattooed spider on her back appear to move from her shoulders down to her waist. The tattooer is exhausted, his soul caught forever in the female spider’s web. The girl is transformed into a sexual demon, every man her slave. Both are ecstatic with the beauty of it all.

Akutagawa’s story also concerns an artist, a painter at the court of the most powerful lord in Kyoto. The artist, Yoshihide, has a taste for cruel and violent scenes, which he insists on seeing to the last horrible detail before transforming them into art. His handsome young assistant is made to strip and is tortured by snakes and birds, or tied up in excrutiating postures.

Yoshihide, a melancholy and macabre man, has only one tender spot, his daughter, whom he loves deeply. Yoshihide’s lord takes a fancy to this beautiful girl but his advances are refused.

Yoshihide is commissioned to paint a screen depicting a scene from hell. He asks his lord for a favor. In order to convey the full horror of the main image, a burning ox carriage containing an elegant court lady in the throes of a ghastly death, he needs to see the scene with his own eyes. It can be arranged, the lord promises, in pleasant anticipation. A carriage is provided with a gorgeously dressed woman inside. And just as the carriage is put to the torch, Yoshihide notices with a mixture of horror and fascination that he is watching his own daughter being burned to death. His screen is of course a masterpiece, much admired by all. On the day after its completion, Yoshihide hangs himself.

Both stories are romantic, beautifully, though, in the young Tanizaki’s case, somewhat floridly, written, and quite perverse. They are amoral—not immoral—in the sense of Oscar Wilde’s dictum about there being no moral or immoral art, only good or bad art. Indeed, in both works, art for art’s sake is taken as far as it can go; nothing, not even death, is too much of a sacrifice for the sake of beauty.

One might be tempted to find something peculiarly Japanese about these works, a sense of beauty unfettered by Christian morality. This has been argued by some Japanese critics, who have pointed out that Tanizaki’s aesthetic was not so much an attack on morality, or humanism, as completely independent of such concerns. This is different from many Western “decadents,” who were too busy rebelling against religious constraints to be completely free from them. It is also possible to speculate that artists who grow up in a highly formalistic culture become obsessed with genuine emotions, whose sincerity can only be tested by going to violent extremes—double suicide as the only proof of enduring love, and so forth.

But I don’t think the aesthetics of cruelty in Tanizaki and Akutagawa are especially Japanese. When he wrote “The Tattooer,” Tanizaki was an enthusiastic reader of Oscar Wilde, and it shows. His preoccupation with femmes fatales, at least in his early works, was influenced by Flaubert, Baudelaire, and Wilde as much as by Japanese literature.

The same is, I think, true of Akutagawa. The stage upon which he set his stories is often a period in Japanese history, but his literary sensibility was deeply influenced by European writers. In “Cogwheels,” the melancholy record of the author’s incipient madness, ably translated by Cid Corman and Susumu Kamaike, Akutagawa constantly refers to Western literature, which lends his hallucinations a strangely bookish quality, as if he lived with literary ghosts:

Back in the room I thought of calling a certain mental hospital. But to go there meant death to me. After much hesitancy I started reading Crime and Punishment to distract myself. The page I turned to, however, was from The Brothers Karamazov…. It was a passage of Ivan’s being tormented by the Devil’s Inquisition. Ivan, Strindberg, de Maupassant, myself, in this room….

This is not to say that either man lacked originality, or that Japanese culture and society are not reflected in their writing. But I think there are more rewarding ways to approach these great writers—in Akutagawa’s case I use the word with some hesitation, in Tanizaki’s with none—than to seek what might or might not be quintessentially Japanese. Why, for example, did two authors of such similar backgrounds with, at first, such similar literary tastes, end up almost as opposites?

Both men were born in the old “lower city” of Tokyo. Both were fascinated by the West, though neither ever went there. Both escaped, if that is the right word, from politics and social issues, into aestheticism. But Akutagawa turned away from macabre fantasies to the kind of solipsistic autobiographical writing that Japanese critics like to classify as the purest literature. That is to say, literature without plot, concentrating instead on minute shifts in the author’s mood and details of his often uneventful daily life.

Tanizaki, on the other hand, remained an unashamedly popular writer, whose taste for drama, heady eroticism, and baroque fantasy never flagged until he died, aged seventy-nine, in 1965. (Akutagawa took his own life in 1927 when he was thirty-five.) In an essay on Tanizaki, Mishima Yukio once remarked how his beautiful aunt would look quietly joyful, whenever Tanizaki’s “perverse” works were mentioned. “Tanizaki’s literature,” wrote Mishima, “was first of all delicious, like Chinese or French cuisine.”

Tanizaki’s main literary theme was sex, particularly sadomasochistic sex, hence his interest in lady’s feet, while Akutagawa grew more and more absorbed by egotism, the lack of universal values, disgust with himself, and death. These diverse preoccupations are already visible in the two short stories described earlier. Tanizaki’s hero, Seikichi, turns his muse into a demon, but finds erotic fulfillment. Akutagawa’s artist creates his masterpiece, but has to sacrifice the only person he loved. His obsession turns to disgust and his life becomes meaningless, not worth living.

The books under review are interesting first of all because of their literary merit. This is especially true of Akutagawa’s story. Tanizaki’s loosely linked essay on his childhood works better in Japanese than in English. Paul McCarthy has done an excellent translation, but he is quite right to warn in his introduction that Western readers might be disconcerted by the episodic, unstructured quality of the work, much appreciated by Japanese readers, but unusual in contemporary Western literature. Tanizaki’s essay is, however, invaluable as a guide to his personality. It is a wonderful portrait of the artist as a child (it has been observed that in a sense he remained a child for his entire life). Certainly childhood nostalgia runs through most of his books. At the same time, Tanizaki’s erotic inclinations are very much part of his childhood memoirs, as they should be.

Thus we learn of such childlike entertainments, indulged in by Tanizaki and his friends, as the “basket game.” The young schoolboys would lie down together in baskets, dubbed “courtesan’s bedchambers,” pretending they were clients and prostitutes in an elegant brothel. Then there were the many grotesque murders to capture the young imagination. One such case, later turned into a popular play, which delighted Tanizaki, concerned the murder of a former bar girl by her common-law husband. A salient detail was that her face had been disfigured with a knife. Photographs of the result, along with those of popular actors, were displayed at the local fair. Even more to Tanizaki’s taste, the boot being, so to speak, on the other foot, was the stylish geisha O-ume, who stabbed her lover with a kitchen knife. “I suppose,” observed Tanizaki’s mother, “that’s what they must mean when they talk about ‘a real woman’!” The adult Tanizaki would doubtless have agreed.

Tanizaki’s worship of women was inspired by his mother, apparently a great beauty. He was by all accounts, including his own, a mama’s boy and an impossible crybaby. Long past his toddler’s years, Tanizaki still found his mother’s breast irresistible. It was not so much the taste of milk, he thought, as the “sweet smell and the gentle warmth of Mother’s breast.” Compare this to Akutagawa’s mother, who was insane.

My mother was a madwoman. I never once experienced anything resembling maternal affection from her. She would always be sitting by herself in the family house in Shiba, her hair twisted around a comb, puffing away at a long-stemmed pipe. Her face and body were both very small. Her face—I can’t explain this—was always an ashen color, with no suggestion of living vitality.1

Another source of Tanizaki’s inspiration, we are told, was a picture of the Madonna belonging to his grandfather, who was a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. “Gazing with inexpressible reverence into the Virgin Mother’s eyes, so full of tenderness and mercy, I felt I never wanted to leave her side.”

Nagai Kafu, novelist, translator of Baudelaire, and lifelong devotee of brothel life, praised Tanizaki’s early work, specifically “The Tattooer,” for its style, urbanity, and its “profound, mysterious beauty arising from carnal terror.” Paul McCarthy, who displays considerable connoisseurship of Tanizaki’s erotic tastes, nonetheless appears somewhat mystified over the exact meaning of Kafu’s phrase. It seems fairly clear to me. Whenever Tanizaki’s woman worship becomes sexual, his pure goddesses are transformed into demons. They are still unutterably beautiful, made even more so, perhaps, by the terror they inspire.

One interesting aspect of Tanizaki’s femmes fatales is that they are often highly Westernized women, brash, colorful, and a little vulgar. This prompted one Japanese critic, Eto Jun, to remark that Tanizaki’s masochistic worship was a metaphor for modern Japan. Japan worshiped the West, just as Tanizaki’s literary heroes sucked the feet of bitch goddesses. But then Eto, who has had a bee in his bonnet about America ever since the occupation after the war, would say that. In fact Tanizaki’s worship was ambivalent. The West, like his cruel mistresses, was seductive, but dangerous. He once likened Western culture to a sweet and deadly drug. In his younger years, he expressed the desire to be killed by the drug. Later on, after moving away from Tokyo in the 1920s, he turned more and more to the traditional Japan of his childhood, which still lingered in Kyoto.

Even in the account of his childhood, the sluttish Western woman appears, perhaps more as a creature of the imagination than anything else. Tanizaki describes a group of young English ladies in an establishment called the Grand Academy of European Culture, set up in the foreign quarter of Tokyo. These attractive ladies teach English on the first floor, but there is a mysterious second floor to the house, where the young Japanese pupils are not permitted to go. It is described by a friend of Tanizaki’s, who took a clandestine peek, as a den of luxury. There is speculation that these foreign ladies do more than teach English, when well-to-do Japanese gentlemen visit their quarters.

Despite his worship of his grandfather’s Virgin Mary, Tanizaki was never a religious or even particularly spiritual man. And despite his considerable scholarship in Japanese, Chinese, and Western literature, he was not an especially intellectual writer. Indeed, his reputation was that of an incurable sensualist, and therefore, in certain highbrow circles, not to be taken very seriously. There was not enough anguish and soul-searching in his books to please the advocates of “pure literature.”

Akutagawa, on the other hand, pleased them much more; plenty of soul-searching is to be found in his work. He died with a Christian Bible beside his bed. And yet he never, as they say, found God. In “Cogwheels,” an old man suggests that Christianity might be the answer to his angst:

If even I could become…”

There’s nothing hard about it. If you just believe in God, in Christ the Son of God, and the miracles Christ did…”

Devils I believe in…”

Then why not believe in God? If you believe shadow, I don’t see how you can help believing light also.”

But there’s some darkness that has no light in it.”

Perhaps Akutagawa’s attraction to Christianity was partly aesthetic, as was Oscar Wilde’s; both enjoyed the style of religious ritual and imagery. But I think it was more than that. Akutagawa, though never a political writer, was very aware of the spritual dislocation that accompanied Western-style modernization. Not that he had a reactionary yearning for traditional Japan, far from it. That, as far as he was concerned, was all bankrupt. What he sought was a universal spiritual ethos that could save him from the sense of alienation that led to morbid solipsism and pure egotism. Donald Keene summed it up well: “Egoism could be transcended through divine grace, but not by a careful observance of any code of etiquette.”2

Akutagawa’s minute description of his mental anguish, leading up to his suicide, is a moving document. You sense the life being drained from the man, leaving nothing but intellect, icily, horribly lucid, when not fading in and out of hallucinations. In “A Fool’s Life,” written as a kind of suicide note shortly before he killed himself, he compares himself to Icarus, his intellect equipped with artificial wings by Voltaire:

Unfolding these man-made wings, easily he glided up into the sky. Bathed with reason’s light, human joy and sorrow sank away beneath his eyes. Over squalid towns, letting irony and mockery fall, he soared into unobstructed space, heading straight for the sun. That with just such man-made wings, scorched by the sun’s radiance an ancient Greek had hurtled into the sea, dead. He’d seemed to have forgotten….

All this might suggest that Akutagawa was a more profound writer than the hedonistic Tanizaki, who was too busy with his sexual obsessions to have much time for Voltaire, Icarus, and the sun’s radiance. But I wonder if it is true. I wonder if Tanizaki, through his deep understanding of eroticism, did not get closer to the core of human nature than Akutagawa ever did. And what is more important, he managed to convey this in his art. Tanizaki’s prose lives. Perhaps Akutagawa, burned out at such an early age, knew that his prose was dying. Perhaps that is why he could no longer bear to live.

  1. 1

    Translated by Donald Keene in Dawn to the West (Henry Holt, 1984), p. 557.

  2. 2

    Dawn to the West, p. 569.

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