As we come to the end of our book club on Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short story collection Mandarins, Michael tackles Cogwheels, another posthumously published story by the author. We’d like to thank Michael Orthofer again, for a great month of reading Akutagawa and a fantastic journey through the life and works of the author and the discussions surrounding him. Michael is the managing editor at the Complete Review and its Literary Saloon.
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; some thoughts on our perceptions of Akutagawa and his work, and a reflection on Akutagawa’s posthumously published The Life of a Fool—Editors
So what strikes me about Cogwheels is how much it is a story of resignation. Another posthumously published story (though the first part was published shortly before Akutagawa’s death), it’s also the story both De Wolf and Rubin close their collections with, presenting it as the final act. (In the Penguin edition Rubin titles the story Spinning Gears.) It is another summing-up story, though focused more on the present than The Life of a Fool, and I think there really is also a very different feel to it. Passion still figures prominently in The Life of a Fool, even if it is often near-ridiculous— that “A single line of Baudelaire is worth more than all of life”-sentiment—but Cogwheels is world weary in a different way.
Passive, resigned: the narrator doesn’t have much drive left in Cogwheels. It’s a wonder he can undertake any journey, as he does at the beginning of the story. In the hotel, then, he’ll: “set off aimlessly,” and that seems to be all he’s doing. Here is a character who actually sees himself as Monsieur Bovary, of all people! What’s interesting is that while in The Life of a Fool even suicide seemed something he was actively playing at—he has a go at hanging himself, he wants to enter into a suicide pact—here he doesn’t even seem to have the energy for that. In The Life of a Fool he was pro-active, in Cogwheels he ends the story with the plaintive plea:
Oh, if only someone would gently and kindly strangle me in my sleep.
The first section of Cogwheels, ‘Raincoat’, seems at first just another story of a trip, with various delays, observations, and asides. The narrator finds fault (“‘Café’ … a dubious appellation”) and seems a bit worn down, but his attention jumps from one thing to the next, and he engages in a few conversations. He’s on his way—and then gets—to a wedding reception, and there’s little out of the ordinary. There’s that ghost-story at the beginning, and there are those cogwheels spinning in his eyes, half-blocking his vision for a few moments, but where it really hit me that maybe something is really, really off is when he turns to the meat on his plate. There’s a maggot there, which is disturbing enough, but what’s really disturbing is his reaction—an almost surreal calm:
I saw a small maggot gently struggling, making me think of the English word worm. Like qilin and fenghuang, it could only refer to a mythical animal. I put down my utensils and gazed at the glass into which champagne was being poured.
That sort of sets the stage for everything: he might have seemed indifferent before, but this reaction really suggests his utter resignation. (But what then of his panicked reaction to waking up and finding only one of his slippers? This seems a ridiculous over-reaction, even if it is something that triggers a particular nightmare in his head (“For two years I had been plagued constantly by such fears” …)).
Much isn’t what it seems—or at least what he expected: he walks down an embankment and expects to see a “two-storied wooden structure” (and instead finds only a bathtub sitting on a foundation). He picks up Crime and Punishment (randomly choosing a page, of course—aimless even here) and finds himself reading The Brothers Karamazov. There’s a disconnect from the world here: he’s literally losing grip on reality, at least in part.
Is that what the cogwheels are for, too? Preventing him from seeing clearly?
Is that also why the supernatural elements are so prominent in the story? Some things are ambiguous: he hears taunting laughter, but finds: “There was no one in the corridor.” He manages to get some sleep but is woken by words he thinks he hears whispered in his ear (the nicely sinister: “Le diable est mort“). But there’s also the raincoat/ghost story at the beginning—and, especially, his wife’s sudden feeling that he was going to die (right at the end of the story). Finding his wife, hearing her remarks about the feeling she had: “This was the most terrifying experience of my life …” he says. I’m not too sure what to make of this. Does he see it as an omen of his death and is that what scared him? (But right after that he longs to be strangled in his sleep…)
Is the key his admission that: “My affirmation of materialism forced me to deny any sort of mysticism?” Is this the consequence—mysticism coming back to haunt him, with a vengeance? From what happens to him, between the supernatural elements and the cogwheels, it certainly doesn’t sound like he can find any happy harmony with mysticism either any longer.
Any thoughts? Anything I am missing, or should consider from a different angle?