Saturday, 9 May 2020

Patient X: The case-book of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa by David Peace      {Reviewed by THOMAS}
He was born for lock-down, he told her, and it was not until the circumstances provided themselves, as circumstances occasionally do, as they had now done, that he had realised how far short ordinary life fell of those conditions, the conditions for which he had been born, or so it seemed to him. How had he managed that ordinary life, so to call it, that ordinary life in which he had participated beforehand, at least to a small extent, he wondered, but, even more, how will he manage to return to this so-called ordinary life if this so-called ordinary life is possible again? It was true that he was not making sense, and she had little trouble convincing him of this, but this nonsense was undeniably true for a part of himself, he thought, why else would he think it, how could this part be acknowledged, how could this part be ridiculed and suppressed by the rest of himself, if it was not permitted, from time to time, to express itself as if it spoke for all of him, or in the name of him, to release the pressure of its inclinations through exaggeration and to be stilled, at least momentarily, by the deflation that follows this exaggeration? Who is it or what is it that speaks for himself? In any case, he said, already beginning to ramble, he did not experience the self as a thing, there is, in his experience, he said, no such thing as a self, excepting perhaps in the eyes of others, in the world of names, which is the same thing, there are only experiences, inclinations, images, roughly bundled by who knows what forces, adhered to each other through being pressed so hard together, or by inertia, or by their shapes, though such shapes are always figurative at best, which should be etymologically self-evident, our identities are more convenient than real, he said, what lies within their bounds must necessarily be either tedious or inconsistent. Or both. Before she had the opportunity to point out the flaws in his thinking, the tediousness and inconsistency of his thinking, the tediousness and inconsistency that were the defining characteristics of his thinking, which would at once both invalidate and prove his point, he began to move the discussion, if such a one-directional torrent of speech can be called a discussion, even euphemistically, towards the book he had been reading, Patient X, a novel, if it is a novel, or a set of stories, if we can call them that, and possibly we should call them that, by David Peace on the life of the Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, or maybe that should be the lives of the writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, as here indeed is a person irreducible to a single narrative, a person who bundled his discordant parts with narrative, outsourcing his inclinations into characters, failing always to resolve the enigma of his own existence, or should I say, he said, the trauma of his own existence, a trauma being that which is irresolvable by narrative but also that toward which narrative is ineluctably drawn, but by so failing producing texts of considerable interest. “These are the narratives you tell yourself, you write yourself, you keep telling yourself, will keep writing yourself, these stories, these narratives that do not hold, which will not hold, will break apart, breaking you apart.” Peace writes Akutagawa in the third person and in the first and in the second, as fractured into stories, as seen by others, as fact, as experienced by Akutagawa himself, as he night have been if he had not been as he was. Akutagawa’s words well up throughout the text, or they are Peace’s words, if such a distinction can sensibly be made, Akutagawa’s double is Akutagawa himself, and also Peace, and neither Akutagawa nor Peace but something or someone else, there are no end of doubles. Akutagawa fears that there is another passing himself off as him, a doppelgänger that lives a life parallel to his, or lives the life that he does not live, or, if they share a life, that lives the parts of his life that he does not acknowledge, does not wish to acknowledge, cannot acknowledge. He fears that he is not himself but is a double passing himself off as him, even to himself. Of course, he told her, though she was fast developing resistance to his telling in just such a way as she had developed resistance to other forms of illness, as soon as a writer writes they create just such a doppelgänger, this is unavoidable, all literary life is doppelgänger life, and the closer to ‘actual’ life this literary doppelgänger life is, the greater the deception and the more striking, and the more disorienting the doppelgänger. In fact, he said, the word doppelgänger is only sufficient in a single instance, the cumulative effect of a life, or a literary oeuvre, each as fictional and as truthful as the other, is that of the presence and action of multiple doppelgängers, multigangers or polygangers, he wasn’t sure what to call them, existing and acting all at the same moment, thanks to literature, thanks to language, both in the past and in the present. Every character in a story is a splinter of one character. Akutagawa was fractured by fear, he was “afraid of the doors, afraid of the floors. That open, that tilt. The dust from the ceiling, the dust on the floor. Afraid of the tatami, afraid of the lamps. The old tatami, the dim lamps. Every night, every day.” He was driven mad by the fear that he would be driven mad like his mother who became mad after his birth. “The first act of the human tragedy starts when an individual becomes a child of certain parents.” Akutagawa’s resistance to life begins with his resistance to being born. He says he doesn’t want to be born “but no-one can hear you, no-one is listening to you or truly cares what you say, your words are drowned in the waters, your words are lost in the tunnel, and so, before long, the waters are breaking, and off you go, swept along, down the tunnel, through the curtains, into the room and out.” And, really, each moment is a repetition of the trauma of becoming, except in so far as we are anaesthetised through narrative, or habit, if these can be distinguished, he said, all narrative, literary or otherwise, is lived by our doppelgängers, or polygangers, there must be a better word, all life is a second-hand life, everything is experienced at a remove, all existence is an act of appropriation. Akutagawa’s resistance to “the diseases of the mind that reduce a man to a lump of flesh, plagued by delusions” reduced him to a lump of flesh, plagued by delusions, and Akutagawa ended the life of that lump, but the delusions that plagued that lump produced literature of considerable psychological insight, as well as beauty, and the same could be said of Peace’s book, he said. It is narrative, he said, though by this time she was not listening to him, he had after all never given himself the opportunity to listen to her, it is narrative, literary or otherwise, that provides the distancing from what he called, rather vaguely, existential trauma, that enables life to be lived despite such existential trauma, and the distancing of fiction is the safest form of distancing, the distancing of tense, or of point of view, of character, of narrative, or of any of the other novelistic PPE, provides the best protection, though not, as Akutagawa showed, infallible protection. Are we comfortable, though, he asked, and he was fortunate not to be expecting an answer to this question, with living at such remove? He thought perhaps we were, at least in current circumstances, or in what he termed current circumstances but which were probably circumstances that applied more particularly to himself than to any shared experience, current or otherwise, but he was not challenged for his sloppy thinking, if it could be called his own. He was not the sort of person, he said, if there in fact is such a sort, who takes refuge in the third person, I would never take refuge in the third person, he said, I always refer to myself in the first person, I take responsibility, entirely, for my opinions and for my actions, he said, by claiming them as mine, by admitting to them, no less, by referring to myself always in the first person, I do not refer to myself in the third person, I do not even attempt the pretence that I am  fictional character, he said, a fictional character hiding not only in the third person but in the past tense also, he said, the past tense is another distancing device, a fictional distancing device that I would never stoop to using when referring to myself, he said, though, now that I think about it, he thought, the first person and the present tense are no less deceptive, the first person and the present tense are also fictional devices, fictional devices that give the illusion of honesty and immediacy and are therefore even more deceptive than the third person and the past tense, where the deception is more obvious and therefore less deceptive, he thought, but naturally he did not speak these thoughts. Whether he spoke these thoughts of not made no difference, he could speak or not to an equal lack of effect, no response was forthcoming, she had long ago fallen asleep. 

No comments:

Post a Comment