Recently, I found myself enjoying some films and books (again), especially some that came from Asia. From the prose of Haruki Murakami, Yukio Mishima, and Orhan Pamuk; through the cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, Park Chan-wook, and Wong Kar-wai. And not too long ago, I just finished a novel by Kobo Abe, a prolific writer from Japan, and the title is Woman in the Dunes. The opening sequence of the novel: A school teacher from an urbanized city makes a journey far from home to a desert to seek a new species of insects, and accidentally finds himself slowly falling into a Kafkaesque hell.
Woman in the Dunes is a quiet, eerie, metaphysical-existential parable regarding the ever-lasting question of what is the absolute purpose of human existence, and the meaning of being an individual living in a society. This novel was published in 1962 and was a big hit on its release, successfully orbiting Abe to the peak of his career as a writer. The spotlight was even bigger in the years after. In 1964, Woman in the Dunes was adapted into a film by the brilliant cinema auteur Hiroshi Teshigahara, and it managed to won Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in the same year. The adaptation was a success because it was Abe himself who wrote the script and it effectively captured the claustrophobic, steamy, and harsh nuance of the novel.
The Social Contract
Apparently, there are some reasons behind the big theme that Abe chose in this novel. Living in the current state of post-war Japan, Abe’s stance as an intellectual pacifist led to him to join the Japanese Communist Party. He stayed with the party for quite sometime, but their relationship did not go well. In 1951, Abe won the Akutagawa Prize for one of his short stories entitled “The Wall — The Crime of S. Karma”. However, he felt that his participation as a member of the Japanese Communist Party constrained his artistic capabilities. And the coda of their dispute eventually happened in 1962; Abe was kicked out of party membership because his attitude was considered subversive and had deviated from the party’s values. And then in the exact same year, Abe released Woman in the Dunes.
His falling out with communism made Abe re-questions his understanding of what it means to be an individual and what society is. He also wants to criticize the Japanese society for their insisting on living in a reserved, static, and collective manner; afraid of being a different and genuine individual. His Woman in the Dunes tells the story of a group of villagers who are isolated from civilization and the modern world by living in the desert. Through this, Abe tries to deconstruct a human being: what if an individual is stripped of all his clothes, wealth, interpersonal relationships, and all of his facades? Can they survive in their state of nature? What would they be without modernization?
Therefore, comes Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This Swiss philosopher, who lived in the 18th century, focused himself on the course of political-social philosophy and is considered one of the most important figures in the making of the modern world. Rousseau made a controversial claim that modernity and civilization are not improvements; they’ve dragged us from a primitive state of innocence and happiness. In one of his great works, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau said that man in his state of nature is essentially an animal, driven only by two key motivating principles: pity and self-preservation. In the state of nature, man exists without reason or the concept of good and evil, has few needs, and is essentially happy.
But as time goes by, it is inevitable for the individuals to make contact with one another; consequently, small groupings begin to form, and the human mind develops language and reason. Life in the collective state also generates the development of a new, negative principle for human actions. Rousseau calls this principle amour-propre (self-love), and it drives men to compare themselves to others. This urge toward comparison to others is not rooted in the desire to preserve the self and pity others. Rather, comparison drives men to seek domination over their fellow human beings as a way of projecting their own happiness. And with his famous phrase, ‘Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains.’, Rousseau asserts that modern states and society repress the physical freedom that is our birthright, and do nothing to secure the civil freedom for the sake of which we enter into civil society. And then by knowing so, it just adds more questions for us: how free are we, living in a modernized, society-bound life? Or, are we even really free, or do we just think so?
The Myth of Sisyphus
Kobo Abe has been often compared to Franz Kafka for his modernist sensibilities and his surreal, often disquieting explorations of individuals in contemporary society. In Woman in the Dunes, he shows his ability to make his own Kafkaesque vision by using the widow and the villagers as the medium. They live a daily life that sounds absurd, but that’s the only way for them to survive: by digging sand continuously at night so that they don’t get buried because of a sand avalanche that might happen at any time. They cannot leave because the sand walls are too steep to climb, so they need a rope ladder to go up and down the sand pit. The villagers are kind of trapped by the higher men in the village, who have the authority on the railing of the rope ladder from the top of the dunes. It is now the widow’s fate: being stuck there, condemned to dig for the rest of her life — and so might the man be. They are living out a Sisyphean agony, damned to a lifetime of hopeless effort. As in the Greek myth, every day, Sisyphus is ordered by Zeus to roll a boulder to the top of a hill; when he reached the top, the boulder would roll down the other side and he had to begin again, on and on like this for all eternity. Similar to what the villagers do on their pitiful daily chores.
But what if Sisyphus and the villagers instead accept their tragic fate, or even enjoy it? This revolutionary idea was coined by Albert Camus, a famous modern philosopher from Algeria-France. In one of his essays, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus hypothesizes: ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’ Sisyphus kept pushing the rock up the mountain even though he knew it would roll down and hit him again. He knew that his efforts were futile and absurd; however, he did so anyway, for that is how he resisted and mocked the divine will: by enjoying his curse. In this way, he makes his own meaning in his inane life. Sisyphus is a prime example of what Camus calls an “absurd hero”. And so do the villagers. They are condemned to live an absurd life by doing the pointless task of digging sand endlessly just to survive. But by making the effort to survive, they have already made their own meaning in their life.
We, humans, are born without our own will and consent. Therefore, we are kind of ‘condemned’ to live. We are forced to grow from being a toddler to being an adult, without any specific road map to get through it. Furthermore, we keep asking, ‘digging’ for answer, and get even more confused after. And in the end, we will realize that there is no definite purpose for our existence. Life is meaningless, and we are forced to live it. Only death is certain.
However, Camus asserts that there are many ways to face this bitter fact: commit suicide, take a leap of faith, or just accept it. Gladfully admits the absurdity of life is the most reasonable way out of them. By accepting that fact and living merrily in this life of nothingness, we are revolting against the will of the universe. Even more so, knowing that we had no sole purpose in life is actually comforting. We can live as we please, without having to be someone great, meritorious, or anything. We can make our own way. Camus argues that we have to live with the knowledge that our efforts will be largely futile, our lives soon forgotten, and our species irredeemably corrupt and violent; yet we should endure it nevertheless. And by doing so, we can create our own meaning out of our meaningless existence. Thus, let’s live a rebellious life and scream our hearts out to the world: ‘I am a nonsense and I am happy for it!’