Like in our viewing of Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046, it’s useful here to add some historical context around the creation of this story. Kobo Abe was born just after the first world war 1924. The early part of his writing career coincided with what was probably the most dramatic social and political transformations in Japan’s history.
During the first quarter of Abe’s writing career, Japan: entered WII (against the Allies, which it fought alongside in WWI), was bombed in the only two nuclear strikes to have ever happened in history, surrendered the war unconditionally, instituted a new constitution that replaced a thousands-year-old tradition of authoritarian rule with a liberal democracy, and somehow managed to go from a war-torn, bombarded economy to the world’s second largest economy shortly after this film was made in 1964. It was also during the time of this novel’s conception that Abe both joined, and was forcibly expelled from, the Japanese Communist Party.
One of Abe’s close friends and an almost exact literary contemporary, Yukio Mishima, founded a right-wing militia while he was writing, and attempted a coup on the Japanese Military forces to restore power to the emperor. Mishima briefly seized control of a military base to give an impassioned speech “in defense of culture”, and after the soldiers inside mocked him, performed the only recorded act of seppuku in modern history. As much as anyone, Abe can be understood to be writing in absurd times.
[reading from Kierkegaard’s Christianity does not Exist on the Danish North Pole expeditions ]
In his essay Kafka and His Precursors, Borges discovers that in certain parables and anecdotes by Zeno, Han Yü, Kierkegaard, Browning, and Lord Dunsany, there is a prefiguration of Kafka’s tone. He concludes that each writer creates his own precursors.
His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.
Only after I read Kobo Abe’s novel Woman in the Dunes, did I realize that he must be one of the precursors of my own thinking. As it happens, the point that Borges makes directly after this: “In this correlation the identity or plurality of the men involved is unimportant.” is, almost exactly the musing sentiment which closed my last film club writeup on Perfect Blue: “This is one of the ways in which “he” might come to the conclusion that what constitutes “he” is not something singular, but is rather synecdoche for the world which has unmistakably made “him”. And when he entertains this one step further, he recognizes that the world is itself constituted of many such individuals, meaning that not only is personality fragmented, but that fragments are fragmented, not just in layers, but in cycles.” The purpose of this introduction is even more enlaced when you consider the fact that if you’re a Westerner and you’ve heard of Kobo Abe at all, he was almost certainly introduced to you in relation to Kafka’s work, i.e. Kafka was presented to you as one of Abe’s primary precursors.
The particular genealogy of thought I’d like to sketch out today, using this film as a pretense follows my sense that there is a definite shared sensibility among many of the seemingly disjoint topics I’ve talked about in the past: postmodern identity, Absurdism, surrealism/enchantment, and references to cognitive science and AI. The maybe obvious-if-you-think-about it connection among them is that they all expound a kind of Cartesian dualism, and all express or expound a kind of reality and subjectivity that is virtually constructed rather than “real”. Aesthetically, they reflect what feels to be the platitude that bears so much weight over so many systems of coping and spiritualism throughout human history: Mind over matter.
One of my favorite films, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty opens with a quote from Céline’s particularly treacherous novel Journey Into the End of the Night:
Our journey is entirely imaginary, that is its strength.
This is the general insight. The confident conclusion of Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus is that “we must imagine Sisyphus happy”. Much of Christian morality can be understood as a disciplinary detachment from carnal impulses, and a central aspect of Buddhism involves the difficult practice of exercising an isolated, purely cognitive agency detached from the perceptual world.
There is a spiritual affinity that is shared between Abe, Kafka, and Borges, and to some extent Calvino that goes beyond fantastic creation. It is perhaps the same thing that separates surrealism from fantasy. A theory: surrealist fiction is almost always amoral, and follow characters who face seemingly outrageous or inscrutable injustices with a sense of normalcy that can feel supremely uncomfortable. There is something profound in the sensation of weirdness or strangeness: demonstrations that experience and understanding, our best available access to reality, is neither completely credible nor totally incredible, but in some place between. It’s in this deeply contradictory priming of reality – an inherently tense place between suspension of disbelief and assumption of belief – that our demands on imagination are most strained, and so our awareness of the Cartesian elephant in the room, most acute. Surrealist fiction seems to be particularly well suited for exploring the liminal gap between the subject and object of reality. If by taking the blue pill Neo goes back to his simulated life, and by taking the red pill he is shown outside the matrix, then by watching the Matrix the audience takes the purple pill, which amounts to apprehending the Cartesian premise and becoming Neo.
Through the single lens of Descartes’ res cogitans magnified through the surrealist medium of this film, we can see the scaffolding of a bridge between the sentiment of Paranoia that I talked about in Overlord with the decentered identity we talked about in Perfect Blue, and the sense of the “desert of the Real” we discussed in American Psycho. Here’s Eric Davis putting some of the pieces together:
As Slajov Zizek notes, academia continues to be haunted by the specter of the Cartesian cogito. In other words, we have by no means sealed up the mad void out of which the cogito first arose – a void which in some sense founds modernity. So whatever happens to the vast edifice of rationalist procedures derived from Cartesian science and mathematics, the splinter of Descartes’ true cross – the cogito – will continue to puncture the increasingly posthuman spaces of technoculture. In fact, I take Zizek at his cryptic word when he claims that Cartesian subjectivity is not only alive and kicking, but that only now, in the age of the Internet, are we truly arriving at it.
The mechanistic philosophy that Descartes birthed is now thoroughly undermining – at least in scientific terms – the notion of a single incorporeal point of awareness, rationality, and control. Today, we are anxious because we do not and cannot know who or what is pulling the strings of the subject. Throughout elite and mass culture, we argue and wonder about where the pivot of control lies: with corporate cabals or strands of DNA, with brainwashing advertisers or karmic forces, with historical forces or the structure of language, with the unconscious or the market’s invisible hand. We wonder if our own sense of agency is actually blind causation in disguise, nothing more than a negative feedback loop in a cyborganic system of memes and genes. We wonder to what degree we are “programmed” – by media or social regimes, introjected concepts or neural pathways laid down in infancy. Or we project the anxiety into the technological field: Are machines becoming conscious, are they going to run the show, are they already running the show?
Despite all the comparisons, Woman in the Dunes is similar in form, and maybe tone to Kafka, but different in character. One gets from Kafka that one is born, and thus condemned, but this is more a story of concessions, like Kierkigaard’s parable of the Danish North Pole expeditions .
Not by mistake, the highest virtue exalted by both existential thinking and surrealist fiction is freedom of thought. It is valued over all material concerns of any particular reality, and the traditions, each in their own way, demonstrates that what’s important is subjective experience, that experience is something incorporeal, and self-authored, as in a lucid dream. Miracles are forces of will. Kafka and Abe expound freedom of thought by way of a juxtaposition which is particularly well suited to surrealist fiction. These authors paint reality as nightmares, but the real nobility of the work is delivered empathetically through the ways in which a character is able to paint that nightmare as a plain reality. As readers or viewers, we speculate as to what is happening on in their heads, we try to understand them.
Throughout much of the story Junpei is cast as weak, pathetic, desperate, and dishonest, unable to see past the nightmare. It is the woman that is the real hero of the story. It is Kafka’s Metamorphosis told not from the perspective of Gregor Samsa, but of his sister Grete, who is in a constant state of horror and grief. The whole narrative of the story follows Junpei, but it is only a Kafkan story in spirit if you see the Woman as the central character (maybe hence the title). She is the one who lives without appeal, she is the depiction of ‘acceptance without resignation’.
Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death, and I refuse suicide.
It is necessary, reasons Camus, to construct an understanding of our situation solidly atop what is plain – there are no justifications, there is no sacredness, we will not be consoled – it is necessary to apprehend these absences before it can be sufficient to imagine their presence; we need a brutal honesty, if only to justify an edifying dishonesty. The living articulation of this contradiction is what we call grace, and the primary juxtaposition in this film is between her gracefulness and his lack thereof. Here we can distinctly find Abe’s voice in an excerpt from his precursor Soren Kierkegaard:
No amount of striving can earn salvation. Therefore there is grace. But here there is a danger, the danger that grace may have a stupefying, paralyzing effect. The mystery of grace consists in the fact that the most strenuous human effort is still fool’s play, a wasted inconvenience, a ridiculous gesture, if it should be an attempt to earn salvation – and still to push on just like one who soberly and seriously believed that by his efforts he could earn salvation.
I read this novel around the same time I read Cesare Pavese’s beautiful novel The Moon and the Bonfires. In it, an orphaned child grows up, moves away, becomes successful, and spends most of the novel reflecting on the notion of a home. Unsure of his heritage, and having lived a life of expatriation, he pines for what it must feel like to have a connection with a place or a tradition. Woman in the Dunes explores this sentiment, and then undermines it.
Abe, in an interview, said: “I am essentially a man without a hometown. This may be what lies behind the ‘hometown phobia’ that runs in the depth of my feelings. All things which are valued for their stability offend me”. And a similar sentiment from his essay The Frontier Within:
Whereas settling down somewhere is a basic condition, remaining in a state of sustained flight is a process. We carry within ourselves a prejudice that this process invariably involves settling down somewhere. My point consists in shedding doubt on this prejudice. Such doubt arises only with great difficulty.
There’s a way in which the story can be read as Homo Domesticus being the tragic character of Woman in the Dunes. Just as massive sand dunes are created gradually, grain by grain, so too come affection, complacency, and domestication through long running repetition and habit. The broader suggestion can be read that a kind of Stockholm Syndrome happens at a global scale: the woman is a captive of a tradition, the man becomes a captive of the woman, and the story is a close-up view of how mass cultural allegiances can be paradoxically won by oppression.
 Christianity Does not Exist - provocations pdf