I was reminded of the simple elegance of language a few nights ago. While discussing 20th century Japanese literature with a class of college students, I re-read Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s short story “The Spider Thread.”
The story itself is a combination of traditional Buddhist proverb and anecdote from The Brothers Karamazov, and it is not the tale alone that makes the story so intriguing. Instead, it is Akutagawa’s flair for description that draws me in over and over again.
“The Spider Thread” is simple. A criminal sits in hell, either surrounded by the Pond of Blood or atop the Mountain of Needles. Above him, in Paradise, is Buddha, the compassionate being who leads others out of suffering. Because, just once in his life, the criminal himself was compassionate, The Buddha sends down a thin spider thread to save him. The rub? The criminal must again be compassionate if he is to leave hell and join the Buddha in paradise.
Lets look again at the Buddha’s dropping of the web. Akutagawa writes, “By happy chance, He turned to see a heavenly spider spinning a beautiful silver thread atop a lotus leaf the color of shimmering jade.”
This is no ordinary spider web, it’s sent by the enlightened one. And the beautifully written story can teach us a little bit about Buddhism and a little bit abut what makes good literature.
Need more push? Akutagawa’s most famous stories were made into this little seminal flick in 1950 by Akira Kurosawa called Rashomon. The guy knows what he’s doing when he writes a tale.
If you’ve decided these stories are for you, I recommend this collection. Murakami Haruki’s introduction finally proves that Murakami knows literature and write about it. His books are pop-y and easy to read, but fun. This introduction is deep, thoughtful and full of admiration for Akutagawa, a tragic and beautiful literary figure.