Monday, September 15, 2008

The Woman in the Dunes

by Kobo Abe, w. drawings by Machi Abe

Translated by E. Dale Saunders

An asymptote is a curve, right? It approaches, but never actually arrives at an x- or y-axis. The curvature continues closing the gap until the distance between asymptote and axis are virtually indistinguishable. They remain separate, but not discernibly so. The gap diminishes; it does not disappear. But we’re only dealing in idealism so far. We still haven’t fixed values upon either the axis or the asymptote. What we are looking at is a model - the axis represents an ideal, as does the asymptote. What do they represent? They can represent anything. There is a real mystery in that, isn’t there? Now, look at the idea of a self-contained identity - some innate self, independent of infiltration. That’s just another ideal! It can be posited, sure, though actually arriving at it in reality becomes problematic. It remains a mystery. We can approach almost anything, but arriving at an actuality is something else entirely.

Kobe Abe’s “The Woman in the Dunes” is a novel of approaches and dependencies; it is a mystery fixated upon an axis of identity. The book follows an unnamed insect etymologist on a weekend excursion as he is trapped within a bizarre sandpit whose only other occupant is the eponymous woman of the title. We follow our main character throughout the seemingly straightforward narrative, but we only learn his name, Niki Jumpei, through a government transcript shown following the narrative proper. The text does not “reveal” in the traditional sense, we learn nothing by learning his name, and this addendum to the book only compounds its mystery and profound obfuscation of identity.

In the novel’s investigation of this mystery, Abe uncovers only discrepancy and evasion. If the book can indeed be seen as an asymptote, then Abe makes a point to stress the fact of the gap. He also emphasizes the reality of dependency, or more exactly, contingency – in identity and throughout human existence. Look at the novel’s preface. With dark irony, Abe mocks the conceit of independence, as he tells us “without the threat of punishment there is no joy in flight.” What is this? Is it a justification for totalitarianism? A bleak fatalism? Is Abe disregarding freedom, except within the boundaries of the finite?

Here, Abe establishes the deep dependency on display throughout the novel. Duality isn’t even the word for it, since what we see is more caustic, a cynical dismissal of idealism. That isn’t to say Abe doesn’t approach idealism, in fact the entire novel is engaged with approaching modes of independence and of self-actualized identity, just don’t expect an arrival or revelation. There is no “uncovering” of truth or Joycean epiphany. What does Abe make of the epiphanic moment? Consider the reality of the novel – the sliding of more sand always counteracts the characters’ shoveling of the sand, and the opportunity to escape the circumstances of the novel is followed by the decision that “there was no particular need to hurry about escaping.” There is no break from the reality of life – even an excursion into the fantastic is only a confirmation of banality. Abe, like Kafka, manages to use the bizarre and esoteric to further tether his work to the drudgery of existence, to Schopenhauer’s vast boredom. The fantastic premise of the novel is invaded by the everyday, punctuated by the weekly shipment of sake and cigarettes or as the woman suggests they take a break for tea. The absurdity of the novel has a Kafkaesque relation to the everyday quite distinct from a more Dadaist disjunctive whim.

I can’t help seeing an affinity in Abe with Roland Topor or Thomas Ligotti, two great writers of a profound cynicism and isolation. A sentiment of Abe’s such as “Loneliness was an unsatisfied thirst for illusion” resonates with the skepticism of the two above-mentioned writers. Perhaps such a comparison isn’t entirely unfounded, as a clear Western influence, particularly of European existentialism, of Kafka and Beckett, can be felt in “The Woman in the Dunes.” Perhaps this can be accounted for by the economic turmoil and trauma of post-WWII Japan, which in some ways mirrors the European oppression of the Axis’ powers during the war.

This swapping of roles resonates with a sentiment voiced by the woman. Note that she is also not given a name. The novel is composed entirely of the marginalized, whether it is the villagers, the woman, or the main character up until his "naming" towards the end. The marginalized, Abe seems to be saying, do not even warrant names. The woman, nameless as she is, is established as a victim–trapped in a squalid sandpit and forced to endlessly shovel sand each day. We should sympathesize with her, right? But what to make of her when she says, “ Why should we worry about other people?” Other people had oppressed and subjugated her her entire life, so “…there was no reason why [she] should be under obligation to the outside world.” The marginalized continue the cycle, and proceed to marginalize all those around them. Another circle.

Let’s return to the very beginning of the novel, and to identity and mystery in particular. “The Woman in the Dunes” opens with the disappearance of a man from his normal life as a schoolteacher. Normalizing agents, the police and the journalists, investigate this disappearance. They, inevitably, fall back on numbers, as “according to statistics, several hundred disappearances are reported every year. Moreover, the proportion of those found again is unexpectedly small.” But numbers and statistics cannot qualify identity and particularity. The mystery of identity and the events of the novel slip through the statistics like the sand blowing throughout the book.

Which brings me to another attempt early on in the novel to approach the ineffable, in this case represented by the sand itself. An early excerpt from an encyclopedia entry on sand tells us it is “…an aggregate of rock fragments. Sometimes including loadstone, tinstone, and more rarely gold dust. Diameter: 2 to 1/16 mm.” But a rote definition doesn’t capture the reality of life in the sandpit. Elsewhere, the main character realizes that “the beauty of sand, in other words, belonged to death. It was the beauty of death that ran through the magnificence of its ruins and its great power of destruction.” That provides a poetic truth where the first quote provided a scientific one, but neither presents a unified identity. Both quotes approach, but do not arrive at the mystery of sand.

I mentioned the Joycean epiphany above, and let’s look at another instance in the text in which we are presented with an ironic instance of such. The main character succeeds in escaping the sandpit, only to be trapped in quicksand. This echoes how he earlier is taken out of his life as a schoolteacher to be trapped in a similar existence within the pit. His life shoveling sand and sleeping with the unnamed women are not incredibly far removed from his days teaching and sleeping with his mistress. He escapes one bourgeois life to fall, this time literally, into another one. And as he escapes the sandpit, he finds himself thwarted by falling into still more sand. As he sinks, he shouts for help, and is overcome with cynicism as he asks “what was the use of individuality when one was on the point of death? He wanted to go on living under any circumstances, even if his life, had no more individuality than a pea in a pod.” In his epiphany, our main character’s personality, his individual identity, recedes into a communal polyglot, into the greater mass of existence.

The man returns to the sandpit, and the reader realizes he will never escape, but he will keep on attempting to, despite his unwillingness to actually do so. His flight is the asymptote, but his actual freedom is the axis, which will always be unattainable. His imprisonment though, runs parallel to the ideal of freedom or independence, and is practically indistinguishable from it. Remember though, that freedom remains solely as an ideal – unknown but in approaching without reaching it.

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