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  • Writing Madness:Deranged Impressions in Akutagawa's "Cogwheels" and Strindberg's Inferno
  • Mats Karlsson (bio)


On 12 January 1917 Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892–1927) had finished reading August Strindberg's (1849–1912) novel Inferno (1897). In this novel Strindberg purports to render faithfully his "infernal" experiences of a few years earlier when he supposedly was balancing on the edge of insanity. The epilogue of the book, which was originally written in French, ends with an invitation by the author to his readers: "Le lecteur qui croit savoir que ce livre-ci soit un poème, est invité à voir mon journal tenu jour par jour depuis 1895, et duquel ceci n'est qu'un extrait amplifié, et arrangé" ["The reader who is inclined to consider that this book is a work of imagination is invited to consult the diary I wrote up day by day from 1895, of which the above is merely a version, composed of extracts expanded and rearranged"].1 Strindberg's testimonial of authenticity appears to have been accepted by Akutagawa. Having finished reading Inferno , he wrote down the following words on the inside back cover of his copy: "Kono hon o yonde kara myō ni Super Stitious ni natte yowatta. Konna myō na sono kuse hen ni shinken na kanmei o uketa hon wa hoka ni nai" [After reading this book, I have been troubled by becoming oddly superstitious. There is no other book that has given me such a strange yet sincere and deep impression].2 When Akutagawa embarked on his career as a writer he distinctly deviated from the prevailing autobiographical trend [End Page 618] of the so-called shishōsetsu , or I-novel, in Japanese fiction. In works like "Rashōmon" (1915) and "Hana" ["The Nose"] (1916), he drew on Buddhist tales of a thousand years ago, and the breach with the trend of confessional writing could hardly have been more glaring. However, toward the end of his life Akutagawa began to veer in the direction of his own personal circumstances in order to find subject matter for his stories. And so, ten years after having read Inferno , he came to write his own descent into hell in the short story "Haguruma" ["Cogwheels"] (1927). Of this work Yukio Miyoshi provides a fine description:

Tashika ni, "Haguruma" wa gendai no jigokuhenaizu de aru. "Boku" wa "jigoku yori mo jigokuteki na" jinsei—kare no shinshō o kakudai shita ni hitoshī gensō no fūkei no naibu o ikite iru. Kyōki to shi no yokan ni michita jikan dake ga nagarete iru sekai. Ryūnosuke wa sono shin'en no soko ni made oritachi, mizukara shi o erabu ningen no seizetsu na shinshōfūkei ni, migoto na hyōgen o ataeta. Shi o to shite seikō shita kaiki na shōuchū no byōsha wa, hoka no dō iu shōsetsu mo mada jitsugen shita koto no nai, bukimi na senritsu o himete iru. Kuraku, bukimi de, iyō ni utsukushii.

[To be sure, "Cogwheels" is a modern scene of hell. " Boku" [I, the protagonist] lives a life "more hellish than hell," the illusionary internal scenery being tantamount to an expansion of his mental world. [It is] a world where time flows by laden only with premonitions of insanity and death. Akutagawa Ryūnosuke descends to the bottom of that abyss to give masterly expression to the gruesome mental scenery of a human being who has chosen death for himself. The successful representation of that grotesque microcosmos, attempted at the risk of his life, conceals ominous reverberations that have yet to have found expression in any novel. It is darkly, ominously, uncannily beautiful.]3

However, as several commentators have pointed out, similar "ominous reverberations" had in fact found literary expression in advance of "Cogwheels." As we shall see, Akutagawa's version of hell has a great deal in common with Strindberg's. Renowned novelist Tatsuo Hori, for instance, as early as 1929 observed of "Cogwheels":

Sono naka no episōdo no hitotsu hitotsu ga kare no "nani ka shiranai mono" (kare ga sore o "fukushū no kami" to yonda mono) ni tai suru kyōfu de chokusenteki ni tsuranukarete iru. Sono tame ni, mata sono...