Theses Doctoral

Cultivated Madness: Aesthetics, Psychology and the Value of the Author in Early 20th-Century Japan

Pitarch Fernandez, Pau

This dissertation analyzes how the motif of the “morbid genius” became a central concept for the formation of the literary field in 1910s and 1920s Japan. Writers deployed the idea that artistic creativity is a form of mental abnormality in order to carve a privileged space for themselves as “modern authors,” at a time when literary writing was becoming professionalized. Psychological abnormality offered both a mark of modernity, as well as a set of aesthetic, medical and political discourses to legitimize a notion of literary value based on the artist's unique experience of the world. This discourse of uniqueness was often contrasted with the logic of economic profit, as if the authors' abnormality were proof that their works had value beyond the price they commanded as a commodity in the mass cultural market. However, it was precisely this configuration of literary value as extra-economical that made possible the creation of a privileged space for literature within the cultural economy of value.

Chapter 1 traces the origins of medicalized concepts of “morbid genius” and their reception and development in modern Japan. I argue that by the 1910s, psychological abnormality had become naturalized in Japan as a key feature of “modern literature.” Next, I look at the circulation of biographical literature on 19th-century European artists in Japan. While relatively rare before, modern artists become the dominant subject in biographical literature published after 1914. This interest in the lives of European artists appears actually at the same time that their works became widely available in translation, establishing a very close connection between their oeuvre and their pathological diagnosis. The rest of the chapter is devoted to the discussions of artistic pathology in the popular psychology journal Hentai shinri (Abnormal Psychology, 1917-1926), both in the form of “pathographies” of 19th-century European artists, and in writings by 1920s Japanese authors on their own experiences with psychological abnormality.

Chapter 2 focuses on the early works of Tanizaki Jun'ichirō (1886-1965), looking specifically at stories that explore the moral and aesthetic implications of the ideal of the “morbid genius” in the context of the modern cultural market. I interpret Tanizaki's use of psychological abnormality motifs as an attempt to construct a model of artistic development that is markedly different from established narratives of bourgeois and academic success, exploring an idea of artistic value as originated in the unique psyche of the artist. Tanizaki’s texts highlight the ambivalent position of the modern artist by focusing on protagonists who waver between the lure of the “morbid genius” image, and the need to participate in the economic exchange of the cultural market to achieve recognition as artists.

Chapter 3 is devoted to the early writings of Satō Haruo (1892-1964). I analyze his utopian theory of art as a path towards one’s “highest self,” and a space of resistance against the uniformization of human experience and alienation from one’s labor brought by the industrial economy. Against this background, I highlight in his fiction the contradictory interplay between the unique morbid sensibility of artists, and the demands of their professional position in the modern economy. To close, I propose Satō's 1920s writings about Taiwan as an endpoint for this utopian project, when his fascination with abnormal creativity encounters the harsh realities of colonial violence.

Chapter 4 looks at the works of Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892-1927). I understand Akutagawa's experiments with fragmented narrative form as an extension of his interest in abnormal perception, and not as the crisis of a previously unproblematic and self-contained “modern artist.” Akutagawa's historical fiction and critical texts, as well as his obsession with the risk of an inherited madness, show that his idea of the “modern artist” was always based on liminal figures that struggled with the taxing demands of artistic activity. I close the chapter with Akutagawa’s re-telling of the life of Christ, to consider how the discourse of abnormal genius, and artistic labor by extension, gains an existential dimension when used to re-interpret the New Testament and celebrate artists as “christs.”

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Suzuki, Tomi
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 24, 2015