The Life of a Fool

By The Editors

As we near the home stretch of our discussion of Ryunosuke Akutagawa's Mandarins, Michael Orthofer offers up some ruminations on The Life of a Fool, Akutagawa's posthumously-published collection of very short pieces.

Earlier posts can be found here: a look at the titular story, Mandarins; the approach to storytelling in Evening Conversation; a conversation on the literary influences in The Handkerchief and some thoughts on our perceptions of Akutagawa and his work.—Editors

The Life of a Fool was published posthumously and looks very much like autobiography, the final "Defeat" (so the title of the last section, #51) in real life just a larger (and hence fatal) dose of that Veronal that he claimed was the only thing that gave him "moments of relative lucidity." The note at the beginning of the piece, entrusting the manuscript to Masao Kume (and bidding farewell…) is dated June 20th, 1927—a full month before his July 24th death—making the story seem like just another part of the preparation for the (drawn-out) end. And he seems to have been working his way up to it for a while, as even the aborted "double platonic suicide" he describes in "Playing with Fire" (#47) is apparently based on actual events (and, one guesses, the test-hanging (#44) too). So it's hard not to see The Life of a Fool as summing-up, testament, and suicide note rolled up into one—an overview of his life, but very much from a particular perspective.

The 'story' consists of fifty-one short pieces, each with a title, many focused on a very specific impression or event. I like this approach, and think it works very well here—though perhaps this is because Akutagawa pretty relentlessly beats the same drum here, but does it with so many fine variations. It's all a bit grim, actually, but I found something very compelling about the pieces and the impression they give.

I think it's the concision, and jumping from one impression to the next, that lets him get away with being so explicit throughout. In fact, there's little beating around the bush ("Smiling wryly through his tears, he thought about his life. Before him lay only madness or suicide.") But what might be an annoying heaping-it-on works pretty well here. Consider just the opening piece, capturing 'The Era' and already showing us exactly where to place this character: he's on the second floor of a bookstore, he's climbed a "Western-style ladder" to get to even higher heights. The books there—all Western, too—are "less a collection of books than the embodiment of la fin de siècle." He recites their names as it grows darker and darker—"but quite on their own they were sinking in the melancholic gloom." He starts to go down the ladder and Akutagawa actually has a lightbulb go on over his head. Below are the people—customers and clerks—the real world, but they look shabby and small. Then, in quotes, the pompous pronouncement: "A single line of Baudelaire is worth more than all of life." Between all the symbolism and those words…well, it's pretty ridiculous, isn't it? If you take it apart, piece by piece. But it works here, conveying that distant-from-life, wanting-to-lose-oneself-in-pure-literature (and what's purer than just a single line of Baudelaire?) youthful innocence and delusion. And it's also already a good summing-up: Akutagawa's desire to rise above it and exist in some realm of pure literature.

For all that, Akutagawa led what seems like a fairly conventional life; he certainly didn't isolate himself. Still, that seems to have weighed heavily on him: his newspaper-contract afforded him considerable security and stability, but the brief piece on that (#21) is titled Shackles, and in Pierrot Puppet (#35) he writes that:

He intended to live with such intensity that he would have no regrets at his death. He nonetheless continued to spend his days in diffident deference to his foster parents and his aunt, thereby creating for himself a life divided between light and darkness.

His literary creations are not necessarily an outlet but seem often a constant attempt to capture this feeling—as he recognizes in the second half of the same piece:

One day he saw standing in an Occidental clothing shop a Pierrot puppet and wondered how much like one he was himself. But his unconscious, that is, his second self, had long since included this intuition in a short story.

In Languor (#36) he envies students' lust for life, admitting: "Somewhere along the way he had lost interest in life," and that: "All I have is my desire to produce." But I don't know that I can find where he really showed much interest in life. Yes, he describes being passionate about some things earlier on, but even then what passion he has—like for a single line of Baudelaire—is practically overwhelming, a small all-encompassing bit he wants to grab hold of. Most obviously he describes that in Sparks (#8): where he's captivated by the sparks coming off the trolley wires. He's still younger here, but already had his fill:

He had taken a survey of his life and found nothing in particular that he wanted or desired. But now those violet sparks…To seize those stupendous sparks exploding in space, he would happily have forfeited his life.

After a while one gets the feeling that this is not just hyperbole. In fact, doesn't there seem a sort of inevitability to his suicide? All these explanations are almost just variations on a theme, different ways of explaining (to himself? To posterity?) why everything leads up to that one final step.

A lot of what Akutagawa describes here are variations on that very fin de siècle-feeling of ennui. I've mentioned before Akutagawa's use of Western references, and The Life of a Fool seems to rely on them particularly heavily. They're not all typically fin de siècle—Goethe, Voltaire, Tolstoy get name-dropped too—but what seems like the vast majority of the points of reference (including also Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Mozart) are Western. (Toson's Shinsei (ref. #46)—explained only in the 'Additional Terminology'-section at the end of the book—is one of the few Japanese references.)

In Prisoners (#50) he visits a mentally ill friend who tells him:

"We are both haunted by demons," his friend remarked, lowering his voice, "the so-called fin de siècle demons."

He seems to accept this diagnosis, later coming to the conclusion: "There could be no doubt: he was being tormented by the fin de siècle demons." Certainly he seems to want to see it in those terms: he "just read the last words of Raymond Radiguet," he finds Strindberg's lies in his Confessions of a Fool "hardly different from those he himself was writing" (#25), etc., etc. Is this almost complete embrace of something so foreign in part because of its foreignness—i.e. done with the knowledge that he'll never completely be part of it? Or was that fin de siècle-feeling really so much in the air that he could convincingly play along? Or, finally, was part of his problem that he had missed the boat—after all, he's writing in 1927, and it was already a very different world by then, in both Japan and elsewhere? (After all, his melancholy seems very much founded in this sort of longing for the unobtainable…)

Finally: am I too limited in my focus here? Should we be paying a lot more attention to the lunacy here, for example? There are, after all, quite a few instances of mental illness here (recall that Akutagawa's mother was mentally ill, and that he apparently worried greatly about following in her footsteps), and he ascribes his physical ills (#41) to: "his shame of himself and his fear of them—the society he despised"—i.e. it sure sounds like a lot of this is in his head…

On a slightly different note, this story is also a good one for translation-comparisons. It's also one of the stories in Jay Rubin's Penguin-collection, and Rubin opts for The Life of a Stupid Man for the title, which gives quite a different feel to the story. De Wolf, explains his choice, and I certainly think the idea that Akutagawa: "is also putting himself in the grand tradition of socially alienated, morally flawed but nonetheless prophetic 'fools'" is convincing. Without having any proper sense of what the Japanese word "aho" really corresponds to, I certainly prefer the fools-idea; 'stupid' seems to go too far.

To get an idea of the different translation-approaches, consider for example the De Wolf and Rubin versions of #16 (in its entirety):


He read a book by Anatole France, his head propped up by a pillow of skepticism exuding a rosy fragrance; the presence in that same pillow of a centaur quite escaped his notice.


Pillowing his head on his rose-scented skepticism, he read a book by Anatole France. That even such a pillow might hold a god half-horse, he remained unaware.

I like the De Wolf version considerably better—"pillowing" and "god half-horse" are just jarring, the second sentence-order feels off —but I'm glad to have the Rubin version too. Using it almost as a gloss I think I have a much better idea of what the Japanese original must be like. (I could be completely mistaken, but perception is, to a large extent, what counts, and these variants seem to me to give a better idea of the original—like looking at two pictures of a building taken from different angles gives you a better idea of what the building looks like).

I have to admit to relying on the Rubin as much as the De Wolf collection in all these discussions—for one, it has more biographical information, and the notes are, by and large, considerably more useful—but it's where the stories appear in both collections that it's proven most useful to have a second version. But now, long after it's much too late, I'm not so sure this was the right approach to take. For one, it's easy to get hung up in the differences in the texts over the actual texts themselves (ascribing too much meaning to specific word choices, for example—'fool' vs. 'stupid man', etc.—rather than just considering the story).

Did anyone else have that experience, or did you just stick to the De Wolf?

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