Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Study Guide: Akutagawa Ryūnosuke's “The Life of a Stupid Man” (1927; Aru ahō no isshō) and “Spinning Wheels” (1927; Haguruma)


*To purchase the J. Rubin's English translations of these two stories, click here.

Terms/References/Key Concepts

1. Flâneur : “The name given to a crucial figure of modernism as it emerged in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. As understood by Baudelaire, the flâneur or stroller was one of the heroes of modern life. A flâneur was held to be an urban, contemporary and stylish person who walked the anonymous spaces of the modern city. Here he experienced the complexity, disturbances and confusions of the streets with their shops, displays, images and variety of people. This perspective emphasizes the urban character of modernism. The flâneur took in the fleeting beauty and vivid, if transitory, impressions of the crowds, seeing everything anew in its immediacy yet achieving a certain detachment from it. The idea of the flâneur directs our attention towards the way in which the urban landscape has become aestheticized through architecture, billboards, shop displays, street signs etc., and through the fashionable clothing, hairstyles, make-up etc. of the people who inhabit this world.
[...] The adventures of the flâneur [...] were one of male-coded public spaces from which women were excluded (for example, the boulevards and cafes) or entered only as objects for male consumption. Thus, the flâneur’s gaze was frequently erotic, and women were the objects of that gaze.” (Barker, The SAGE Dictionary of Cultural Studies, 70).

2. Eros: “1. Term used by Sigmund Freud as a poetic metaphor to personify the life-force and sexual instinct. 2. In later psychoanalytic theory, the drive that comprises the instinct for self-preservation, that aims for individual survival; containing also the sexual instinct, whose goal is the survival of the species. Named for the Greek god of sexual love (responsible for permitting and harmonizing life, secret lover of Psyche). Also known as life instinct. (Corsini, The Dictionary of Psychology, 339).

3. Thanatos: “1. According to the Freudian view, thanatos is the basic death instinct that functions in opposition to the life instinct. 2. The Greek God of death, which in psychoanalytic theory becomes the name of a purported “death instinct” inherent in all organic matter and that is somehow more basic than its opposing instinct ‘eros’ the life instinct.” Ahmad, Comprehensive Dictionary of Education, 510).

Study Questions

Consider all of the following questions as you read. For your homework, answer three questions for each story.

Spinning Wheels” (1927)

1. Describe the narrative structure of the work.

2. List and discuss the recurring images in the work.

3. Give a brief description/diagnosis of the narrator’s psychological condition.

4. List and explain each of the allusions, symbols, metaphors, associations, foreshadowings, etc. that are related to death.

5. List and describe the various images and associations related to flight.

6. Analyze the passages related to fire, desire, hell, the devil, sexuality, eros, spirit possession, etc.

7. List and describe the many doppelgangers, “second selves,” self-reflections, etc. that the narrator encounters in the work.

8. Explain how this work relates to the literary topos of the “the flâneur” (see above).

9. Explain the motif of vengeance, sin, female wrath, the Furies, etc. that runs through the work.

10. Explain the significance of the faraway “pine forest” that is alluded to several times in the text. What does this pine forest represent?

11. Many images/colors/sensations/words appear in the work in a certain context, only to appear again in a different context. Identify some of these images/elements, and explain how their meanings shift according to their context. Include in your answer a discussion of the significance of the eponymous image of the “spinning wheels.”

The Life of a Fool” (1927)

1. Explain the “point” (i.e. the symbolic significance within the context of the narrative) of each episode.

2. Where is the narrator (both spatially and temporally)? Describe the narrative voice, and its relation to the events/characters it describes.

3. Although the narrative is very poetic and fragmentary—indeed its structure seems to foreclose any attempt by the reader to extract/construct a “story”—try to piece together the events of the narrative as if it were a “regular novel,” and give me a summary of that novel.

4. Examine the relation between the death-related images and life-related images that appear in the work. Consider the complex relationship between Eros (the drive toward life) and Thanatos (the drive toward death, both personal and general) suggested in the work.

5. Examine the references to Western culture/civilization that appear in the work. Explain the function/significance of each.

6. Discuss the work’s autobiographical elements. How does the work relate to the genres of I-novel/autobiography? Why do you think Akutagawa—who had made a name for himself as an “aestheticist” or tanbiha (i.e. anti-shishōsetsu) writer—suddenly turned to his own personal life for literary material?

7. Examine the images and motifs related to madness. What does the narrator mean when he says that the protagonist is “possessed by the demon of the fin de siècle”?

8. Discuss the various women (the protagonist’s wife, his mother, the madwoman, the “moon woman,” the “Hokuriku woman,” the woman whose face resembles the sun, etc.) in the story. Describe their relation to the protagonist.

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