Readings — From the September 2018 issue

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By Ryunosuke Akutagawa, from “A Certain Socialist,” a short story written in 1926. Akutagawa (1892–1927) was the author of more than three hundred works of fiction and non-fiction, including the short stories “Rashomon,” “The Spider’s Thread,” and “In a Grove.” Translated from the Japanese as a part of a manuscript in progress by Ryan C. K. Choi.

A young man decided to become a socialist, and when his father—a low-ranking civil servant—heard, he threatened to disinherit him, though the young man was not convinced, except of his own righteousness and by the fervor of his friends, together with whom he formed an official socialist party, whose meetings he never missed. In the still of his nights, he punctiliously composed many of the essays that appeared in the ten-page pamphlets that the party members distributed and discussed among themselves. Of these writings, there was one essay in which the young man allowed himself a measure of pride, despite its being weak on the critical inquiry that he and his comrades esteemed. It was called “In Memory of Liebknecht,” and the prose, which was exceptional, abounded in poetic ardency.

To the dismay of his parents, the young man’s studies suffered, and a slumping record of attendance prompted his school to intervene. Unwilling to renounce the party, the young man dropped out, found a job at a magazine publishing house, and moved out on his own. He continued to attend party meetings faithfully, holding court in debates and leading rallies with the same vociferous intensity. Of what import were the capitalist relics of family and school when a worldwide socialist revolution was under way and the party was at the fore?

He also met a girl, not from the party, and yet they married and moved into a cottage that they made their home, where, to his wonder, instead of ennui, he felt fulfillment in a way that he never had before, blessed with an idyllic life with his wife, dog, and a poplar garden to tend to daily. On the morning that his wife announced her pregnancy, his world was overturned once again, and the man, overnight, became obsessed with money and career. He sacrificed going to party meetings and stayed loyal to the socialist cause only in intellect, reminding himself that he was no less the radical idealist, a fact venomously denied by the party, whose junior members were quick to brand him a bourgeois traitor, lazy, sunk in the pits of family and career. The rituals of activism and debate ceased to have a place in his days. It was only in the still of his nights, surreptitiously, by the light of an electric lamp that he purchased with his year-end bonus, that he persisted in his socialist activities. On one of these occasions, he found himself flipping through the pamphlets that he had helped author as a young man. Reading his prized piece of yore, “In Memory of Liebknecht,” he felt, nostalgically, a sense of dissatisfaction, that the writing was, somehow, pathetic.

He had, long ago, tired of the party members’ captious ways—they were on their international crusade and, like a child’s brigade, smug and ironfisted, they ousted all who dissented. Even after their quarrel had faded into the past, when the man ran into his old comrades, not more than a minute would pass before they blared the familiar screeds about a “breakthrough being imminent,” while he would nod politely along, maximally at peace with his mounting wealth and family. Decades later, after a near lifetime of devotion to the publishing house, having earned the trust and respect of his seniors, he was elevated to the status of executive himself, and was ensconced in a mansion with his wife, with whom he had reared numerous children who were rearing children of their own.

But what about that other part of him? In the still of his nights, did he persist in his socialist activities by light of electric lamp? God knows. Sometimes, though, lounging in a rattan chair on his porch and reflecting on his past over a cigar, he felt wistful pangs of disaffection, the only salve for which was a stoic resignation he had honed with age—a classic Oriental fate. He was, undoubtedly, a failure. Little did the old man know, however, that a prominent young socialist from Osaka, with a swell of devotees, had been inspired by the incendiary writings of the old man’s youth, specifically the essay “In Memory of Liebknecht,” which the young leader quoted from in speeches and exhorted people to read, raising the writer from obscurity to the summits of fame. As the young man told the tale, after a stock market crash obliterated his inheritance, he had happened upon an archive of moldering pamphlets that contained the old man’s seminal essay, a momentous discovery that was the genesis of his conversion, of his unswerving dedication to the socialist cause.

And how little this young man knew. Lounging in his rattan chair and smoking his cigar, in almighty ignorance of the renaissance efflorescing around his name, the old man censured the whims of his youth with the phrase “Human, all too human.”

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