Today We Learn About: Tanizaki and Akutagawa – A Critique of Delivery over Plot

Akutagawa argues that mere story is not as essential to literary work as the architecture of that story, that is, plot should not be the main focal point. In suggesting so, Akutagawa seeks to take on a more artistic approach to writing whereas the story being told is second to the medium and/or delivery. He thus suggests that the manner which a story is told is of greater importance than the content. Throughout his literary sparring match with Tanizaki, Akutagawa seeks to establish his viewpoint. He displays his opinions in his works, Spinning Gears and Fool’s Life, but do these works reflect his argument? What is to be said for these works when compared to Tanizaki’s works such as Quicksand? Furthermore, Akutagawa’s standpoint raises the question of whether or not his approach is sound in accomplishing the goals of a writer. Artists of all mediums are taking one side or the other in the Tanizaki/Akutagawa argument without even realize they are doing so, and this fact should also be explored as a parallel to the ongoing debate over plot as an aspect of literature.

In Spinning Gears we are treated to a disjointed account of a man who experiences odd headaches that are preceded by hallucinations of spinning gears. The work consists largely of small sections that feel and seem to be unrelated to the previous and following pieces. In this work Akutagawa misses his mark. It feels as though he is trying to prove a point with the work by making it as abstract as possible. This brings to mind artists such as Jackson Pollack whose works are very abstract, that viewers must work to bring away their own personal meanings and purposes. Spinning Gears is exactly this type of work. It seems as though Akutagwa has gotten so wrapped into creating an abstract work without a focus on plot that he has neglected the reader’s desire for continuity. Instead he offers up a confusing, anecdotal work that leaves much to be desired.

Fool’s Life is another disjointed account of a man struggling with his own mortality. Akutagawa takes a similar approach in the recounting of the tales, however this story is in the third person. This makes Fool’s Life much easier to follow than Spinning Gears because we are able to separate ourselves from the main character whereas Spinning Gears first-person narrative is hard to absorb as a jointed work, it is easier to follow Fool’s Life because we often view the actions of others as disjointed. After all, we are not in the head of any individual but ourselves. In Fool’s Life Akutagawa delivers a slightly less abstract work that mirrors the content of Spinning Gears without mirroring the delivery. With that in mind however, it is still plain to see the difference in writing style that Akutagawa is known for throughout the world. The question remains as to whether or not this is an effective approach to writing. Surely in Fool’s Life we are shown the innards of a man on the brink of destruction, this much is clear. Does the subject matter lend itself nicely to the style with which the story is written?

It does, as a man on the brink of destruction would seldom be thought of as having the ability to compose rational accounts of their inner workings. In this respect Akutagawa succeeds. His manner of writing is entirely appropriate for stories of men or women who are struggling to contain their sense of normalcy, who could self-destruct at any moment, who could just as easily make a cup of coffee as fall off the edge. After reading only two of these stories however, it becomes clear why Akutagawa writes the way he does and that is because he is writing about himself. Some investigation into Akutagawa reveals that he was a very troubled individual, especially much later in his life. This culminated in his suicide. It is not beyond reason to think that, had the reader known that the stories were autobiographical or been given some insight into Akutagawa’s inner working, Fool’s Life and Spinning Gears might have been even more enjoyable and easy to decipher.

Considering the debate between Akutagawa and Tanizaki, it stands to reason that perhaps Akutagawa was playing devil’s advocate to Tanizaki’s point of view. This idea is patently false. Akutagawa wrote the way he did because he believed it, and because he has no other choice. The mind of this man was as jumbled and confused and full of emotion as it could possibly and this comes out in his writings. Such a troubled man is not likely to offer up an elegant account, but more likely to write introspective pieces that speak of life on the edge. This is very similar, and almost parallel to the writing of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. He wrote autobiographical pieces that told of dangerous behavior often veiled by drugs where reality and hallucinations were interchangeable. Akutagawa treats us to the same sort of writing approach in Spinning Gears and Fool’s Life. As if to cement the comparison, Thompson and Akutagawa both took their own lives after years of mental uneasiness and struggle.

Compared to Akutagawa, Tanizaki is what is thought of as a classical novelist. He writes the standard interpretation of a novel. In Quicksilver we are given a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is deception, sex, scandal, and humor. The reader is treated to a story with a distinct plot that employs many literary devices. It is essentially what is thought of as a western novel. It is possible that, because of this characterization as a western novel, Akutagawa took issue with the writing style. As a western individual though, it is easier to read an author like Tanizaki but this could largely be attributed to the fact that his style is familiar and easy to follow. Tanizaki is like our modern day Steven King, if not more salacious.

Akutagawa sought to create works that mirrored his mind, and accomplished this feat at the expense of continuity and plot. Some may view this as difficult to follow while others may appreciate the disjointed nature of his writings, but one thing remains clear; he had and has an audience. This fact will not be changing, and this can be attributed to the fact that some people enjoy a more abstract work, something that makes them think and interpret much more. With this in mind, it is impossible to say whether Tanizaki or Akutagawa had it right. They both had it right as they wrote for themselves and achieved fame by finding their niche, their audience, and their own style, and sticking to it.


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