What’s this? My last book review was The Nose by Nikolai Gogol. And now there’s another short story review of… The Nose?
Well, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s work first reached publication in 1916 – over five decades after the Russian’s satirical classic. The Japanese writer’s effort is an adaptation of famous native folklore from the Uji Shūi Monogatari. These were short fables written during the 13th century from an author no one knows.
I couldn’t find any information about whether Akutagawa read Gogol’s classic farcical tale. But, being a learned sort, I’d bet money he knew of the Russian wit. And, perhaps, the translation of “nose” from Russian into Japanese (and vice versa) doesn’t quite flow in the same way as for English-speaking countries.
Regardless, the stories are quite different – except for their focus on the olfactory body part with nostrils and mucus. They also share the same satirical edge, lampooning pomp and ceremony in a hierarchical social structure.
Akutagawa’s work also dispenses with the comedic elements of Gogol’s story. Instead, it’s an altogether more bizarre and unsettling look at narcissism.
The Nose (鼻)
Japanese literary great Natsume Sōseki was so impressed with this short story he sent Akutagawa a letter of praise.
Further to that, in this book there’s Rashōmon and 15 other short stories – it’s worth buying the book for all of them – and an introduction from the living legend Haruki Marukami.
So, what piqued the interest of those greats? Here’s the opening paragraph:
If you mention “the Nose” to that high-ranking priest from Zenchi Temple, you won’t find a soul in Ikenō who doesn’t know the name. Five or six inches long, it hung down from above his upper lip down to the bottom of his chin. Its width was the same from top to bottom. To get a good picture of it, imagine someone with a long, thin sausage dangling casually down the middle of his face.
A strange start, but the reason for why this particular nose is an issue becomes apparent in the next paragraph.
This Buddhist priest was now in his fifties. From the time he was an apprentice in the inner hall, climbing the ranks, even until the present day, he was constantly worrying about his nose. Of course, during all this time, he continued to pretend that he didn’t care about it in the least. It wasn’t just that as a monk he should’ve been completely focused on the Pure Land awaiting him in the afterlife, it was that he didn’t want other people to know he was so concerned about his nose. Nothing terrified him more than the idea that someone would bring up his nose in conversation.
Immediately I found this interesting as we’re in an age of narcissism and insecurity. Akutagawa wrote this tale over 100 years ago, but we’re sure everyone back then still remained reasonably image conscious – you have to be to win favour with the gender of your choice.
But vanity and self-loathing are far more pronounced in our age of social media, celebrity press coverage, and smartphones. If you have a big nose these days, you’ll be inclined to get plastic surgery so you can secure that perfect selfie.
For the priest with his hurtful nickname, there are two reasons why he’s unhappy with this thing on his face.
The first was that a long nose, practically speaking, was not very useful. He couldn’t even eat breakfast by himself. If he tried to eat alone, the tip of his nose would poke into the middle of the food in his bowl. So the Nose had one of the apprentice monks sit a few feet across from him and hold up his nose.
It’s not an easy task, either, as anyone who’s tried to eat an ice cream and jammed their nose into it will testify.
One time, a temple pageboy was substituted for the usual apprentice monk, and when this young man sneezed, he accidentally shook his hand, and the Nose’s nose ended up thrust into the middle of his rice gruel, at least according to the rumor going around Kyoto in those days.
The second reason goes back to my brief aside on modern narcissism. The second problem for the Nose:
What really worried him was the damage to his self-esteem.
Akutagawa briefly moves his attention to nosy locals – most of whom seem to find it hilarious, if not confidence boosting, that this guy has a massive nose.
But then it’s a sudden and enduring return to the nature of an esteem crisis.
As for the people in Ikenō, they maintained that they were happy to have someone with such a nose, such a holy priest at Zenchi Temple. This was because with that nose, they thought no girl would marry him. Between themselves, they reasoned that his nose was the only reason he became a monk in the first place. But for the Nose, the mere fact of being a monk didn’t make him feel any less burdened by his nose. He felt like he was married to the strain this nose had placed upon him, and this was a delicate situation for him. Because of this, he tried passively, actively, to restore his damaged self-esteem in any way that he could.
These days, it’d be a bout of plastic surgery. Such pioneering medical ideas were mere experiments in the author’s day. But a desire for self-improvement most certainly was there.
The first thing that came to mind was to find a way to make his nose look shorter than it really was. When nobody was around, he’d sit in front of the mirror, experimenting with various lighting schemes, zealously laboring to hold different poses. No matter how he tried positioning his face, he was never satisfied, sitting there with his head propped on his hands and his fingers on his chin, spending hours peeking diligently into the mirror.
The poor man even obsesses over other people’s faces: nose-envy. And the following paragraph so perfectly summarises the total angst and horror many teenagers must face these days when faced with the “perfection” of others on social media.
The Nose patiently scanned the faces of the various people. He wanted to find someone with a nose like his own, thinking this would put him at ease. Because of this, in his eyes, people weren’t wearing navy blue robes or white morning kimonos, not to mention things like orange hats or dull priests’ robes. He was accustomed to seeing these things, but it was all the same to him; he didn’t see people, only their noses.
And as with many people embarrassed with their appearance in some way, the priest has various nervous ticks that accommodate for his social unease.
While talking to people, he would aimlessly pinch the tip of his own nose, blush as if he’d forgotten his age, and then feel supremely unhappy about his own behaviour.
Obsessing over the matter, he searches through ancient scholarly material to try and find out more about his situation. Was there a bodhisattva with the some enormous nose from the distant past? Quite why is he cursed with this thing?
While part of him was feeling this passive anxiety, another part of him was actively trying to find ways to make his nose shorter, almost too many to mention here. To this end, he tried everything he could. He’d tried drinking a boiled concoction from a snake gourd, he tried rubbing rat piss onto his nose. However, no matter what he tried, he’d be damned if his nose wasn’t the same as ever: five or six inches long, hanging down from above his upper lip.
Now, the rat piss thing is interesting as I – a sufferer of male pattern balding – once came across a purported cure for that malady. Rubbing cat urine into your skull. And, apparently, some men were desperate enough to try it out.
When someone is really obsessing over something, they can drive themselves to quite remarkable extremes of paranoia. And, so, The Nose makes it shift towards the bizarre central aspect of the tale.
But one autumn, the apprentice monk helping the Nose had gone on a visit to the capital, where he learned from an acquaintance of his, a doctor, a method for making noses shorter. This doctor, he came over from China and became a monk in Chōrakuji Temple.
The Nose, acting disinterested as usual about anything having to do with noses, did what he could to pretend he didn’t want to run out and try this new method. Then someone else, in a carefree tone, mentioned that it must be a burden for the apprentice having to help the Nose every time he ate, and this was a terrible blow. Of course, the young monk wouldn’t say so, but he, too, was eager to try out the method. This young monk, and the Nose as well, it’s doubtful that either one was unaware of the baiting that had occurred.
However, more than his opposition, more than avoiding this obvious trick, there was the fact of the Nose’s sympathy for this poor apprentice who had to hold up his nose. The apprentice monk, as the Nose expected, blurted out his opinion that they try it out. So the Nose, as he’d known all along that he would, eventually gave in and decided to follow the recommendation that was so enthusiastically proffered.
And, so the priest is about to discover a way out of his situation. Before I divulge the weird details about that – entirely fake – procedure, here’s an aside about that odd thing that protrudes from your face.
The Nature of Noses
There’s something strangely deflating for people with a big nose. As an article from Dr. Leon F Seltzer Ph.D. in Psychology Today puts it:
Ironically, the less prominent your nose, the better. That is to say, the so-deemed “perfect nose” is one that draws as little attention to itself as possible.
Pete Townshend of The Who, for instance, convinced himself as a young man that he was repulsive. You can see how hideous he looks in the above 1973 interview. Ironically, Townshend has a debut novel called The Age of Anxiety out shortly. That aptly sums up modern life rather well.
Seltzer’s article goes on to add:
Unquestionably, on this oh-so-imperfect planet, imperfect noses have—and will—prevail. And that’s why it’s so sad that a great number of us remain self-conscious about what we can’t but adversely regard as our “blemished beaks,” particularly as seen in profile (and curses on that callous individual who invented the mirror in the first place!). It’s fascinating that the perfect feminine nose has actually been labeled “celestial,” as in heavenly—or, better, not of this earth.
I did some extra research and came across young author and journalist Radhika Sanghani’s interview with The Independent.
My friends would say well-meaning things like “you’d be so pretty if you had a smaller nose” and a few times I had kids in the street yell “big nosed Indian” at me.
That horrendous story sums up life in England right now rather well. Brexit, the age of anxiety, and a personal type of aggrandisation have shoved mindless patriotism and self-adoration to the forefront of the national conscience.
The result is the return of casual racism alongside rewards from anyone suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect.
All rather worrying. But Sanghani has encouraged people to overcome their self-loathing, as there really is no need to focus in on one minor element of your body and presume you’re loathable.
Focus instead on the whole – particularly your personality. Because if you’re a bit horrible, that’s a tad worse than whatever size the cartilaginous protrusion from your face is.
The Priest’s Redemption
The Buddhist priest takes it on himself to change the situation. And why? Well, he finds about this strange little cure-all.
The method in question, put simply, was to boil the nose with hot water and then have someone stomp on it. An extremely simple procedure, so to speak.
This isn’t advisable for anyone, of course. Don’t go boiling any body part in water – that’ll hurt and things will get worse. Also, the stomping bit… don’t have anyone stomp on anything.
Of course, if you’re desperate like our protagonist the priest then you’ll give anything a whirl. His apprentice fashions a bucket with boiling water the priest can lower his nose into. After trying this out, it’s onto the second half of the operation.
The Nose gave a bitter smile. Having heard only about his nose, he felt that soon nobody would recognise him. With his nose soaking in the hot water, it was as itchy as if it were being eaten up by fleas.
When he pulled his nose out from the hole in the bucket’s cover, it was still dripping from the steam. The apprentice began stomping on it hard with each of his feet. The Nose was lying on his side, with his nose protruding out onto the floorboards, watching the apprentice’s feet go up and down in front of his eyes.
The apprentice monk, casting a pitiful glance down upon the Nose’s bald head said:
“It probably hurts, doesn’t it? The doctor blames the stomping for that. Anyway, it probably hurts.”
The priest attempts to hold onto some sort of honour and roars back up to his apprentice.
“I said it doesn’t hurt!”
Then it all gets a bit gross. But, I suppose, as an apprentice you have to do anything to pay your dues.
After being stomped on for a while, before long, spots that looked like grains of millet started to appear on the nose. It looked like a bird whose feathers had been plucked and was now ready for roasting. The apprentice stopped stomping and said, as if to himself:
“He said to pluck these out with tweezers.”
The Nose puffed his cheeks as if he were short of breath, and waited silently for the apprentice to continue. Of course, it wasn’t that he couldn’t tell that the young monk was trying to help.
He knew that. But it was his nose that was being manhandled, so he was forced to focus on his own discomfort. The Nose made a face like a patient who doesn’t trust the doctor doing surgery on him, and he watched as pus oozed from the pores in his nose being squeezed open by the tweezers. The pus looked like the quills of bird feathers, and almost one-fourth as long.
After a while, when this part was finished, the apprentice monk heaved a sigh of relief and said:
“And now, we boil it again.”
I don’t know about you, but the above section is a queasy one for me. The stomping of the nose followed by all the pus stuff… as a writer, Akutagawa certainly draws out vivid (if mildly repulsive) imagery. And he leaves his characters rather in the lurch.
In response to the boiling, the priest is willing to put himself through further torment.
The Nose looked battered. With his nose still in a boomerang shape, he nodded.
Then, after they boiled it a second time and took it out of the water to check, it had, in fact, become shorter than it was. It didn’t look so different from an ordinary hooked nose. Stroking his nose, the Nose peered bashfully into the mirror that the apprentice produced.
That nose—the one that before had hung down past his chin—he couldn’t believe it was this short, the idea that he would’ve had to live the rest of his life without self-respect seemed like a lie. Still speckled here and there, this was probably just the aftereffect of having been stomped on. Make no mistake, people won’t sneer at a nose like this. The face of the Nose in the mirror shot a satisfied wink at the Nose outside of the mirror.
Yet despite his initial elation, this soon gives way into further misgivings. Paranoia about his old nose returns. The man can’t rest up in his new short nosed-ness and take a chill pill for once. His anxiety is so deeply ingrained he can’t revel in the moment – again, a rather fitting comparison to modern life, where so many simply can’t rest happy with themselves. Even an Andonis can look in the mirror and see a thinning hairline to fix.
During the course of his usual daily activities, he finds a new psychological tick emerging – reaching out to touch his nose to ensure it’s still of a small size.
Even upon waking each morning, he immediately reaches out to grab at his face. The subsequent realisation all is well leaves him elated.
But when he makes his first trips out into public, things start to go a tad awry.
Still, over the next two or three days, the Nose made an unexpected discovery. It started with a bureaucrat visiting Ikenō temple, who, even more than before, made a strange face upon seeing the Nose. He was rendered speechless, his eyes transfixed on the Nose’s face. Outside the lecture hall, the Nose walked past some temple pageboys familiar with the rice gruel incident. As he walked by them, they looked down and restrained themselves, but finally, a laugh escaped. The second-rate teachers called for order, talking to the Nose respectfully, but as soon as he turned away, they also burst into laughter. This happened more than just once or twice.
At first, the Nose reasoned that they behaved this way because his face had changed. However, this explanation only satisfied him for about ten minutes. Of course, what caused the pageboys and the crummy teachers to laugh was his face, no two ways about it.
He is mystified about why they are laughing at him in this new manner. Whilst meditating, he eventually comprehends a belated epiphany:
The Nose, who should love everyone, when things got like that, without thinking, he stared at the figure of Samantabhadra on his white elephant, and, remembering the long nose he’d had four or five days before, he said, “People who fall from grace long for the days of their former glory,” and he shut his mouth.
The conclusion to his predicament is this:
In the hearts of people, there are two conflicting interests. Of course, anybody can sympathise with the misfortune of another. However, when another person can somehow overcome his misfortune, we feel unsatisfied. To exaggerate just a little, we wish for that person to regain his misfortune once more. We usually feel ambiguous about this, but, on occasion, they embrace a certain animosity towards that person.
The Nose, still not knowing the reason why, felt perturbed. He realised the Ikenō monks’ behavior was nothing more than a reflection of their own selfishness.
Such a revelation sends the priest into a melancholic stupor.
After that, the Nose’s spirits grew darker each day. Surrounded by irritating gossip, he was nastily scolding everybody. Finally, he overheard that the very apprentice monk who’d helped with his treatment was saying, “The Nose is committing the sin of jealousy.”
Another thing that upset the Nose was something one of the temple pageboys did. One day, the Nose heard a dog howling. He strolled out to investigate and saw a pageboy, brandishing a twig about two feet long, running around chasing a skinny, shaggy dog. He wasn’t just chasing it; “Hit you with my nose! Hit you with my nose!” he shouted as he ran. The Nose plucked the stick from his hand and smacked him across the face with it. It was the most disgusting-looking stick imaginable, from a rotting tree.
The Nose was resentful. Not that his nose used to be long, but because it was now short.
And, finally, his situation is enough to trigger off a bout of insomnia – that age-old reaction to dealing with stress.
One evening, after the sun had set, the wind started blowing, causing the bells in the pagoda to ring fiercely, and the monks to toss and turn atop their pillows. What’s more, the wind was remarkably cold, and the Nose, old man that he was, he tried to sleep, but sleep just wouldn’t come. He stared up from his bed, and after a short while, he realized his nose was itching. Touching it with his fingers, it felt moist and started to swell a little. There was nothing he could do; it seemed he’d caught a fever.
He lies in bed feeling miserable, lamenting that his shorter nose is the bringer of all this misery. But a happy ending is on the way for the beleaguered priest, in this short story that so succinctly summaries why we should all be happy with what we’ve got.
The next morning, the Nose woke up early, as usual, and the gingko trees and horse-chestnut trees covering the temple grounds had all dropped their leaves overnight. The yard was bright, as if someone had carpeted it with gold. This was probably due to the frost covering the rooftops nearby. In the thin morning light, the rings adorning the zenith of the pagoda shined brilliantly. The monks of Zenchi Temple lifted the shutters covering the porch, and deeply inhaled the morning air.
This is when, as if he had forgotten, he first realized that a certain sensation had returned.
The Nose, in confusion, lifted his hand to his nose. The thing he touched, it was not the short nose of the night before. From above his upper lip to the bottom of his chin, four or five inches long, it hung down. It was the long nose he’d had before. In the course of one night, his nose had returned to its former length. He felt just as cheerful as he was when his nose became short, he felt that his nose had come back to him.
—after this, I’m certain nobody will laugh, is what the Nose felt in his heart. His long nose was blown about by the first winds of autumn.
Steeped in paranoia and insecurity, The Nose is a story for the ages. As I’ve had to mention many times during my review, it’s so stunningly fitting for the digital era; the Age of Anxiety.
In a world where personal image is everything, reading over Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s short story would provide many with a potentially therapeutic experience. A trip into their deepest personal fears – a trip through their self-loathing. And a shuddering punch for their subconscious.
But as a standalone tale, it’s also an effective read. Weird as it is – steeped in a sense of Gogol’s mischief from the Russian master’s own story of a nose – it’s a fitting reminder of Akutagawa’s talents as a genius of short story writing.
And as happenstance would have it, The Nose is also something of a social satire on life in the 21st century. Top marks, Akutagawa shi.