Akutagawa on Sacher-Masoch
Posted October 6, 2011on:
In reviewing the stories of Akutagawa I selected just one for comment, The Writer’s Craft. Even then I didn’t say all I wanted to say about that story.
I try to keep my reviews short. But it’s hard sometimes to have to omit things that are interesting.
The Writer’s Craft is autobiographical. The tetchy Yasukichi, like Akutagawa, taught English at a Naval Engineering School and wrote stories in his free time.
In the course of this story a student asks him the meaning of the word masochism. After learning the definition, the student asks:
“Now, this writer, whose name the word comes from—Masoch, you said?—are his novels any good?”
“No, they’re all terrible.”
My reason for mentioning this is self-serving. I am convinced that this was Akutagawa’s own view and Akutagawa was a very fine writer. It’s also my view. Which makes me a very fine reviewer.
Interestingly, though, Yasukichi doesn’t leave it there. The discussion continues.
“He must have been an interesting person, at least.”
“Masoch? Masoch was an idiot. He tried to convince his government to take money out of defense and put it into keeping whores.”
Newly apprised of the idiocy of Masoch, Tanaka at last gave Yasukichi his freedom. The business about whore support was far from certain, of course; Masoch probably believed in national defense as well. But Yasukichi knew there was no other way he could impress the cheerful lieutenant with the stupidity of abnormal sexuality.
I find this interesting because it is multi-layered. It seems very prejudiced. These days it is a virtue to be tolerant of diversity in every sphere of life even that of other people’s sexual preferences. It seems wrong for a teacher as eloquent as Yasukichi to slander another writer to a pupil just because that writer liked to have a woman crush him beneath her heel.
But why is it so difficult for Yasukichi to explain to his pupil his real reason for disliking Masoch?
And why does he confess his lie? Why mention it at all in this story?
He is, in fact, like Masoch, debasing himself. His antipathy towards Masoch arises from an unacknowledged and festering envy. And in debasing himself in this way, is Akutagawa not also showing an unacknowledged empathy?
Yasukichi’s stories are not successful. A bad review depresses him.
His eulogies worked, his stories failed miserably: it was funny for everyone but Yasukichi himself. When would Fate be kind enough to bring down the curtain on this sad comedy?
Misplaced praise, shame, ridicule and dejection are the story’s themes. But the story ends on another telling detail, a detail, like the conversation about Masoch, that puzzled me at first:
As he stood looking at the moon, Yasukichi felt the urge to urinate. The lane was hushed and empty, enclosed on either side by the bamboo fences. Aiming at the base of the right-hand fence, Yasukichi enjoyed a long, lonely pee.
He was still at it when the fence creaked and began to pull away from him. What he had thought to be a section of the fence was in fact a gate. And through it strode a man with a moustache. Unable to stop himself, Yasukichi turned aside as discreetly as he could.
“Oh, no,” the man sighed, as if dismay itself had become a human voice. When he heard this, Yasukichi discovered that the sun was too far down for him to see his own stream.
Sacher-Masoch had a moustache.
Is there a connection between Akutagawa’s spiteful lies about the renowned author Sacher-Masoch and his peeing on a stranger in the dark? If it is too dark to see his own stream, how can he see the moustache on the stranger? Why do we even need to know the man had a moustache? What difference does it make? Unless the man is an unconscious symbol of the renowned Austrian author?
But in telling us all this, Akutagawa is of course supremely conscious of the ironies. Although he cannot see his own stream of piss, he knows he has aimed it badly.
Because he cannot explain the stupidity of abnormal sexuality, he tells a stupid lie.
Although he disapproves of sexual self-abasement, he abases himself in his art.
That’s one reason why his stories are very subtle and resonant. There’s quite a lot going on.
So maybe Sacher-Masoch is not so bad. And I am not such a good reviewer after all.
Or maybe I am just an Akutagawanist, which would be absolutely brilliant.