「蜘蛛の糸」The Spider’s Thread: On Moving Forward in Visibility
I love YouTube. Last night, craving some literary inspiration, I was hoping they’d somehow have this gem of Japanese 1970s anime — and, yep, they did.
From 1979, this is an excellent adaptation of Akutagawa Ryûnosuke’s masterful Buddhist parable, ‘Kumo no ito‘ [The Spider’s Thread]. It’s a brilliant meditation on evil and the evil-doer, deserving a place beside Hans Christian Anderson as a fable on cruelty, mercy, moving forward, or being stuck forever. I had an old VHS tape full of renditions of Japanese classics for children as a study aid long ago. This was the first one that I watched and really ‘understood’ it, thus signalling to me that my abilities in Japanese — while never great — were at least improving. There’s an incredible thrill in savoring a classic in the original language. I later visited Akutagawa’s grave — while I was still ‘before’ — and was moved by the offerings of incense and fountain pens.
Kumo no ito entails a fairly standard Buddhist allegory of heaven and hell, action and consequence, decision and result, past as future. One can certainly detect a didactic quality here. But like so many Japanese folktales about mercy, especially those involving kindness to other species [see Tsuru no ongaeshi], Akutagawa’s story exemplifies the resonant power of compassion and its after-effects, in time lapse, for improving the future.
There are many ways to interpret Akutagawa’s fable, however, besides the obvious meanings of redemption and capitulation. Today, on the International Transgender Day of Visibility, I offer my own personal reflections.
Lost in the void of Hell, the dark depths of unbecoming and the morass of blankness, Kandata — neither protagonist nor antagonist, but he among the many of the perpetually lost — sees in the glint of the spider’s thread the slender portal as his exit from horror and despair. In a night without stars or moon, the gleam of a silver shaft, reaching down, provides the only slant of sunlight.
[The Buddha carefully took the spider’s thread into his hand and lowered it down between the jewel-toned white lotuses into the depths of Hell.]
The spider, as the story relates, connects to a previous act of kindness, in which Kandata had stopped himself from ignorantly killing such a creature in the forest.
[“No! Though small this spider also has life: a shame to meaninglessly end that.”]
And now, mired in the dark misfortune of isolation, comes from his actions this one opportunity to leave hell behind.
He grasps the string, climbs vigorously, a nomadic hope energizing his grip. Ages since his sinews have stretched, the heaving of all his weight on such a thin string, but he hoists himself upward and upwards towards the thread’s apex of light-in-escape.
But the hordes of hell follow: jealous, vicious, desperate. They also queue up to climb the spider’s thread, jostling in cruel chaos of the bottomless pit that holds all of midnight.
[“HEY, you sinners! This thread is mine. Who said you could climb it? Get down! DOWN!”]
And at that moment — the thread does not snap, but vanishes into invisibility. The thread disappears. The way forward, gone.
Being trans, I know what the unlived life of invisibility does to make a hell of the heart. The inner void of self-imposed disappearance.
And I’ve been illuminated by that salvific power, transmitted through visibility and example, of what light reaches outward by refraction. In Akutagawa’s prose, ‘御下しなさいました’ means to lower down, of course — but there’s also the sense of handing down, of offering over.
Visibility can be such a gesture of sharing.
Thus, I was only able to come out because others before me had done so. Their clarity of purpose was my guide: my opportunity, by way of recognizing the beam of their happiness, to be free.
Their visibility was a call from beyond the closet door and into my immediate dark. I thought: “Wow. They did this, I can do this as well.” And that made all the difference in leading me out of my self-contained dialectic of “I’m not” and “I never will be.” I can do this also. I can transition, and a better me because. Visibly me. Genuinely revealed.
Kandata’s thread had vanished for a number of reasons: his greed in seeing the thread of light as his alone; his inability to focus on the future, the above; his fixation on his own life, to the point that he actually gets in his own way; the wretched, painful experiences of the past that keep him from moving onward and upward.
I’ve been guilty of all these things. My own grasping at threads has sometimes flitted apart like flimsy gauze against the spike pits of my own making. I’ve fallen headfirst back into torrential recriminations of what I thought I could never leave.
But the beautiful spiders, sparing their silk, kept offering their threads to me.
. . . there was always that light, re-materialising — neither mine to possess but only to share — the sunlight that, for the concealed and hidden, ended all hells. The threads are there for all of us as trans people — for us to be, out of the depths, into our own emergence. A singular declaration: “This is me. I’m Aoife.”
Coming out. Climbing the spider’s thread into visibility. Not looking down in doubt, not looking up in prediction. But moving forward — by my grip as well as the sunlight shone down to me by my Buddhas, my trans brothers and sisters who live in their example — moving forward, coming out …
Nothing — nothing — kills shame like sunlight.