by Ezekiel Fry
A Civil War hero, a jaded and scarred participant in one of the bloodiest conflicts in recorded history, a hard-drinking misanthropic humanist, a man who could yield his fierce creativity to none, and who, when the world had almost forgotten him, rode out with Pancho Villa and disappeared into the wilds of Mexico forever.
A frail, melancholic student of western literature, a blossoming literary talent praised by the great Soseki, a man obsessed with his family’s history of insanity and the darker side of human nature, finally driven, by fear of a seemingly inescapable madness, to suicide.
These two men are, respectively, Ambrose Bierce and Akutagawa Ryunosuke. Men who in some ways could not be more different, but, when their work is seen in tandem, are true literary and philosophical kindreds.
If you have been reading these entries thus far you will have noticed the selection from Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, but little has been said about the man himself. Further, Akutagawa, for any Kurosawa buff out there, will be remembered as the writer whose stories, “Rashomon” and “In a Bamboo Grove,” Kurosawa used as the source for his groundbreaking 1950 film Rashomon. This being said, there is a distinct difference between Kurosawa’s Dostoevskian view of humanity and that of Akutagawa. Knowing Kurosawa’s film does not mean that one knows Akutagawa. I suppose this could be said of any writer whose work has been translated into film, but I feel that it is particularly true of Akutagawa and Kurosawa. Akutagawa viewed humanity as something cancerous, something damned and irredeemable. Despite his hopes to see things differently, he expressed great doubt over the goodness of humankind within all of his work. This distrusting love of humankind, this misanthropic humanism, is something that Akutagawa inherited not from his own national literary tradition, but from his American forebear: Ambrose Bierce. Perhaps the best place to start discovering Akutagawa is by discovering Bierce.
From this introductory comparison we will launch into an examination of Ambrose Bierce and some of his short works as a complimentary piece to “Sundays with Ambrose” (and a sort of apology for not putting up some vicious definitions the last two weeks). Once Bierce’s literary world is established I will endeavor to present the genius of Akutagawa in all its macabre glory. I hope you enjoy cynicism because this blog is about to get mighty grim for a little while! I’m very excited.