November 10, 2008


Ryunosuke Akutagawa's short story shares its title and setting with Kurosawa's famous film but little else. It is the decline of a civilisation expressed in a short burst of important prose. Unlike Kurosawa's film which has almost no time to it, Akutagawa's is located very definitely within the history of Japan and Kyoto- and the decline of the nobility in the middle ages. The Rashomon is a ceremonial gate just outside Kyoto- at the time of which Akutagawa was writing though, 'no one bothered to maintain the Rashomon. Foxes and badgers came to live in the dilapidated structure, and they were soon joined by thieves. Finally it became the custom to abandon unclaimed corpses in the upper storey of the gate, which made the neighbourhood an eerie place everyone avoided after the sun came down'. Under this gate sits an ex-servant of a nobleman who has just been sacked- the servant 'had no idea what he was going to do', his only objective was 'to find a way to keep himself alive for one more day' and thus he sat, deciding between starvation and becoming a thief.

Ethically Akutagawa leaves us in no doubt of the correct judgement- it would be right for the servant to starve- suicide in this case is a duty. The story though is about that choice- the servant meets a woman in the upper hall of the gate, who is stealing hair from the corpses in order to make wigs- she justifies this by saying that she needs to survive and that the dead when alive sold snake meat and pretended it was fish so that they might survive. The argument that morality may be broken in cases of necessity, has become through the poverty of Japan, an argument that may be used in any eventuality. This is a society that lives by necessity not by morality. Every character ultimately in the ten pages faces a bleak choice- to die or to deal another blow to right and wrong. In Kyoto's decline the issue is what should the servant do?

Exploring that moral choice, implies that such a choice exists. Akutagawa definitely thinks that there is a sense in which there is a choice and a sense in which there is not a choice here. The servant can deliberate about this- he chooses when he does rashly in a moment. But equally the factors impelling the servant along the path he treads are the grimmest possible- in the Western tradition where say a Jew may eat non-Kosher if it saves his life and a Jesuit may utter a politique lie if it saves his the servant might be entitled to commit the crime. He has our sympathies. The issue is complicated by the way that the novelist captures the moment of choice- we often think of choice as deliberation, but actually what he describes is an impulse. As Heisenberg says in Frayn's play Copenhagen- it is only after we make choices that we can see what they meant and what they say about us. Free will here is not an illusion but is an impulse- our actions are not considered, they are committed.

Something follows from this which is a bleak insight into human life- and particularly political life. The darkness of the short story is envisaging a time of uncomfortable bleakness- but Akutagawa's point is that this darkness permeates us. That the soul is not its own place- that we are ourselves contextualised beings. The appeal to neccessity can be abused- and there is a worthwhile argument that all these people are abusing it- but it also exists and it exists for those who face great troubles. As those troubles advance, so our moral judgement recedes- as the sky grows darker outside, so do the rooms inside the head (and to complete my analogy, we have no electric lighting!) Contextualising moral decision is important- whatever theoretical understanding theology or philosophy can give us into how people make decisions, decisions are made here and whilst there are almost no theoretical decisions, there are many actual ethical decisions. To reduce to principles is to ignore the context that explains and may limit the role of moral thinking for each individual.


Georg said...

Hallo Graccy,

Great post, this one. A bit difficult to follow but there are subjects that cannot be easy.

Your thoughts remind me Bertold Brecht's famous words "Erst kommt das Fressen, dann die Moral", meaning roughly "First comes the grub, then the moral".

As to me, I've thought sometimes what I would do in a situation leaving no real issue. Well, I think I would commit murder. Kill someone I consider not worth living. Being useful a last time.


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