Dreams and Kafka on the Shore

*Some spoilers for Kafka on the Shore*

As one reviewer put it (perhaps an article in The Atlantic), reading Murakami is in large part enjoyable because he is a great travel companion. Having been raised in the Western tradition, I have a general distaste for plot holes and artistic excess, but my experience reading Kafka was in large part enjoyable because of its “filler scenes” of characters going out for a walk, eating dinner, and going to cafes. The cliche that, “we read to know we are not alone” rings especially true here, where you are reading not so much for plot development or to excavate some great truth to the world, but simply to feel the presence of another, to be allowed into that intimate space of self-reflection. There’s a scene in which Hoshino goes out to a cafe and listens carefully to and appreciates Beethoven for the first time, and while this contributes almost nothing to the plot other than showing that Nakata is opening Hoshino up to a world beyond that of mundane routine, it’s memorable because it’s so lovingly painted. In many ways Hoshino is the most relatable character because Kafka harbors some darkness that is impossible to understand (who is Crow, anyway?), Nakata is, well, Nakata, and Oshima is a bit too complex for us to understand entirely. Hoshino is simple, likable, and most of all forgivable, for he’s just like anyone one of us stumbling around in life and just trying to do the best that we can. For these same reasons Sakura is sorely missed throughout the book, as some of the scenes with her are well crafted and ground us in reality — I suppose that’s her role for returning only at the end of the story, to ensure that Kafka is back in our world and that we can somewhat find closure in its comforts.

Because the reading is so easy and conversational, I found myself experiencing a phenomenon that strangely tied into the novel itself. When I started being more comfortable with the idea that good literature doesn’t have to be carefully planned and executed in the sense of everything having certain meaning (a “magnetic field” as described in the New Yorker review ) I began letting my imagination run loose: what would I write if I were to just let it all gush forth, all the scenes that randomly spring to mind throughout the day and in my dreams? Might there not be some meaning between it all, even if that meaning is indecipherable? This was in part spurred by the fact that I had been wanting to write fiction for a while but was afraid to start unless I knew exactly what the themes would be, how it would develop, etc. But reading a book in which Colonel Sanders comes out of nowhere as a pimp, or where the entrance stone is literally a stone, and where fish falling from the sky is allowed to remain a mystery, you begin to think differently.

While it’s impossible to ascertain some “core” to the novel’s whirling layers, the fact that an imagination run wild can still lure you with some hint of meaning, even if it is unreachable, is profound in its own way. There’s so much we end up not knowing, about Johnnie Walker and the flute, Crow, Miss Saeki (is he really Kafka’s mother? But really, does that matter for their relationship to have meaning?), what was that slime thing that comes out of Nakata?, etc. but in the end we enjoyed and gained from, the journey. You step into the sandstorm and, even though the sandstorm is nothing but particles thrown spontaneously and randomly against the wind, we emerge changed.

“You’re afraid of imagination and even more afraid of dreams. Afraid of the resposibility that begins in dreams. But you have to sleep and dreams are a part of sleep. When you’re awake you can suppress imagination but you can’t supress dreams.”

This bit on the importance of dreams was intriguing in that it implies there is something, some other world, that lies dormant in each of us and is impossible to keep at bay. Some combination of memory and longing, a raw imaginative force, pulses within us and is beyond even the most herculean efforts to give it shape by narrative. In a sense Kafka mocks those clean cut stories with firm resolution: who are we to dictate what dreams have to say? In that sense perhaps it’s best that Crow remains elusive, that part of ourselves that we know is there and have a relationship with but cannot ultimately be understood on the same plane our world rests on.

Earlier this month I went on a short day trip to Busan, and the entire time I couldn’t help but keep thinking about Kafka. I saw lots of cats lazing about and skirting through dark, narrow alleys, and the waves crashed in and out along the shore that lined the culture village. It was windy and freezing yet a nice, sunny day, reminiscent of the day I went to Odaiba now just about a year ago:

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The winter air lent itself to introspection, though perhaps all shore are like that — we humble ourselves before all that we do not and cannot know, and yet go on living regardless. Sitting there absorbed in the beauty and wonder of the unknown, Nakata asks Hoshino something like, “What lives in there?” Hoshino tries to rationalize all of the creatures and rubble underneath the waves but ends up like the rest of, asking himself: “Who am I kidding, what do I know?” For all our worth in philosophy we will never really be able to be in the deepest depths of the ocean or the furthest reaches of space just as we will never be able to map all that lies within us.

Sure, the Western culture references to literature and music may seem a bit gratuitous at times, but I’ve also started to see this more in terms my own fascination with Japan. For Murakami, the West is like the ocean as well, full of pieces like the Archduke Trio and stories like Oedipus Rex, rich with meaning yet speaking to a wider sea of art that lies in the distance simply by virtue of chance.

For me, Kafka is but a small pebble washed up on a shore looking out into the East, but all works point inward to the depths that extend beyond any regional markers.

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(Busan, South Korea)

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Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Notes from 12/29/17

*Light spoilers for Never Let Me Go, particularly because it’s really hard to read anything about this book without it being ruined for you (happened to me)*

Somehow I managed to squeeze in another book before the end of 2017. When I studied abroad in England a peer of mine was really eager to see Ishiguro at the Oxford literature festival, and though I hadn’t heard the name before I assumed his books would be something like Murakami’s (a naive assumption but hopefully understandable). Since then the name has floated somewhere in my mind, and it wasn’t until Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize that I happened to discover a co-worker had a copy of Never Let Me Go.

Initially I was really surprised that, given the hallowed nature of the Nobel, Ishiguro’s prose is really plain and easy to read. Even the names itself — Tommy, Ruth, Kathy — feel a little childlike (likely the intention) and the entire book, for all the literary merit I expected, came in a modest package, delivered without any ceremony. For that reason I was initially rather annoyed at Kathy’s naivete, and the way the novel so obviously foreshadows the future and tugs the reader along with suspense. It made me think of an article recently shared to me by a friend, a reflection by George Saunders on writing fiction:

We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader. You make a rarefied place (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties – the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off); and then welcome the reader in. She can’t believe that you believe in her that much; that you are so confident that the subtle nuances of the place will speak to her; she is flattered. And they do speak to her. This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.”

As I explained to a friend earlier this morning, there were many times I felt that while I was deeply entranced in Kathy’s memories, lying in my presence was not only the characters but some thin outline of Ishiguro himself, baiting me along to keep reading. Undoubtedly, Ishiguro is a talented writer, reaching the nooks and crannies of our everyday and childhood experiences we can only intuit but not exactly explain (perhaps explaining such moments is one of the main roles of writers). But this cleverness is not so well concealed, especially when Kathy keeps saying “in order to explain this I need to tell you about this…” creating a “to be continued…” suspense that gets old quickly. This is in part because other than the mysteries of Hailsham and the setting, there is very little motive for me to care so much about Kathy’s trauma. It’s the incredibly realistic voices and probing of memory, the masterfully fabricated dreams that keep you going, if anything just to savor how real and lifelike it all feels. It may very well be that because Kathy’s voice is so real, it’s almost too-real — and therefore you can’t help but force yourself to remember that Ishiguro is there: the talent itself can become the subject if it shines too brightly.

Aside from my thoughts of Ishiguro, the novel itself was a bit too dream-like for me, and I didn’t like plunging so much into these memories. I sometimes have to wonder if I’m more interested in fiction that is just not so immersive, works that are more evocative of big thoughts and act as thought-experiments, or otherwise reflect some aspect of the world. This work is pure fiction, sketched in a fictional world, bare of any particular details that may reveal and specific time or place, and I’m not sure how well that sits with me personally, though I can see how some people would be huge fans of such an immersive experience.

A review in the Guardian kindles in me some more fondness for the book by placing it within a larger theoretical structure — that is, thoughts on life and how this book may be practical:

This extraordinary and, in the end, rather frighteningly clever novel isn’t about cloning, or being a clone, at all. It’s about why we don’t explode, why we don’t just wake up one day and go sobbing and crying down the street, kicking everything to pieces out of the raw, infuriating, completely personal sense of our lives never having been what they could have been.

I thought the way the novel delivered its climax in Miss Emily’s explanation of everything — Hailsham, clones, donations, etc. — was thoroughly depressing, and I suppose that is the theme of this novel. You build up all these dreams and fantasies of what places will be like, only to realize that life is really just a big absurd joke (to reference Moby-Dick). While we may at times see Kathy and Tommy as being too childish, and Ruth as being a little repulsive for blatantly conforming to society’s norms, it ends up that we have to cling to something, whether it be acceptance in society, sex, or fantasies of love, in order to escape existential free falling. The way Tommy explodes at the very end of the novel and just screams out against the universe is a nice subdued version of what we see in something like Moby-Dick, and the way Kathy and Tommy clutch each other against the stream of time that erodes away at everything we love exemplifies the powerful way humans will try to hold on even if it may all be pointless anyway. I think as I piece together these aspects of the novel, I realize that it may be less of anything related to craft and more the melancholy of the novel itself that made me not fully like it but still appreciate it. In realizing this I feel more drawn to the novel and its merits.

Never Let Me Go is a novel about loss and recovery, and in that sense the entire plot of carers and donors can seem a bit gimmicky at times. But in any case, these themes of entering the labyrinth of our memories and searching for what we’ve lost is beautiful. It’s intriguing that our gift of memory can bend the passage of time, at least put up a force of resistance against its stream and change its trajectory if only in the slightest. Memory enables us to bring back to life those we’ve lost, to recover them without actually recovering them, and in the same way Kathy “recovers” her missing tape by finding a new one, a “clone” it doesn’t really matter whether or not it’s the real thing. What matters is the way it evokes feelings in someone else, and those feelings, despite being different (Kathy and Madame react differently) validate the existence of that being even it’s a clone. The final scene is hauntingly beautiful:

That was the only time, as I stood there, looking at that strange rubbish, feeling the wind coming across those empty fields, that I started to imagine just a little fantasy thing, because this was Norfolk after all, and it was only a couple of weeks since I’d lost him. I was thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half-closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up, and I was now standing here in front of it, and if I waited long enough, a tiny figure would appear on the horizon across the field, and gradually get larger until I’d see it was Tommy, and he’d wave, maybe even call. The fantasy never got beyond that — I didn’t let it — and though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn’t sobbing or out of control. I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to where it was I was supposed to be.

Addendum 1/1/18

Never Let Me Go is not about clones in the science fiction sense, but about the relationship between clones and memory. We effectively clone people when we bring them into the landscape of memory and such memories are not any less valuable than the actual thing, especially when they are all we have left. Of course these clones/memories will never be as “real” as the real thing, but this raises questions about what is “real” and the tragic notion of never being full enough in that sense.

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

Notes from Sunday, 12/17/15

*Spoilers for Please Look After Mom*

Interesting how one can have so many preconceptions about a book based entirely on the title and what other people say about it. Because so many of my friends said Please Look After Mom was sad, I just assumed it would be another sentimental fiction about how someone loses their mother during the Korean war. Over time such preconceptions built itself into a bit of cynicism, perhaps also in part due to the fact that it was so well known yet not “canonical” — I took it to be something more like The Fault In Our Stars which I really didn’t like (but admittedly it is a young adult book). I ultimately decided to read it only because it seemed short and would presumably enrich my experience in Korea — little did I know just how impactful it would be.

I have never felt a book feel so much like a mirror to me. Throughout the narratives of the daughter, son, and husband, I was constantly pulled into a stream of memories about my own parents and grandparents. Perhaps it’s because I’m in my twenties that I couldn’t help but feel this was essential reading. How well do we actually know our mothers? The entire eighteen or so years it takes for one to grow into independence are spent largely thinking about oneself — how much life goes overlooked as we become spoiled with the belief that having a home cooked meal is something we are entitled to, that “Mom does that because she’s always done it?” Elle puts it well when stating it is “A moving portrayal of the surprising nature, sudden sacrifices, and secret reveries of motherhood.” The idea that we are entitled to such care is quite a fascinating paradox in that while nobody deserves such selfless love, mothers sincerely believe in it — how else can they toil day in and day out and not ask for anything in return? As I push forward in my early stages of adulthood and contemplate the questions of finding motivation and inspiration, I can start to better understand how exactly your life changes when you have a child, and what it may look like to live for someone else. It may very well be the enigma of that kind of lifestyle and dedication to another human being that frustrates our relationship with our own mothers, who can often be seen as nagging or infringing too much on our independence. My own mother never fails to ask if I want a bowl of fruit when I’m home and, even if I say no, ends up leaving some at my desk. It can be frustrating because it doesn’t make much sense unless you put in the mysterious context of motherly love.

I feel there is so much for me to reflect on — the way the mother in the story is portrayed and my thoughts on Korean culture, the ways in which I am thankful to my own mother, the fact that parts of the novel take place in Jeongeup, where I lived for a year, etc. — but for now perhaps the most pressing is my thoughts on the epilogue, in which Chi-hon goes to Italy and finds herself at the the Pieta, a sculpture by Michelangelo in which the Holy Mother is seen cradling Jesus’ body after he is crucified (featured image). In many ways I identified with Chi-hon, despite her being a daughter, because she is the more nomadic, independent child who travels the world and seems a bit more distant from the family than the other siblings. While some may think that the final scene in Vatican City is a little bit too dramatic, I sympathize with the idea that travel can, despite appearing like an escape, bring us closer to thoughts we didn’t know we had to confront. Chi-hon finds herself at the feet of the sculpture, reflecting on what it means to be there and what it is exactly she has been looking for:

Perhaps you wanted to pray in this place, pray that you could see for one last time the woman who lived in a small country attached to the edge of the vast Asian continent, to find her, and this is why you came here. Then again, maybe that wasn’t it. Maybe you already understood that Mom didn’t exist in this world anymore. Maybe you came here because you wanted to plead: Please don’t forget Mom, please take pity on Mom. But now that you see the statue on the other side of the glass, sitting on a pedestal, embracing with her frail arms all of mankind’s sorrow since the Creation, you can’t say anything. You stare at the Holy Mother’s lips intently. You close your eyes, back away, and leave that place. A line of priests passes, probably on their way to celebrate mass. You walk out the entrance of the basilica and look down, dazed, at the piazza surrounded by long cloisters and enshrined in brilliant light. And only then do the words you couldn’t say in front of the statue leak out from between your lips.

“Please, please look after Mom.”

This scene conveys so powerfully the mysteries of motherly love, a force so powerful that it can be felt beyond the lines that one would think divides mere mortals from the divine. The Holy Mother, despite all that has happened, despite the fact that Jesus has gone forth and ended sin once and for all through the greatest sacrifice, still cannot help but look beyond all of the divine consequence and is bound to her role as a mother. If Jesus’ sacrifice is the epitome of fatherly love, of the divine’s passion for mortals, motherly love is the only matchable opposite, of a mortal’s tender love for the divine.

While the novel’s plot is, on a basic level, driven by the search for a physical mother, by the epilogue we see that what they are searching for is not just answers as to who their mother was but also, by consequence of their understand or limit thereof, who they are themselves. The novel is a kaleidoscope of mirrors, piecing together perspectives of the eldest son, independent daughter, regretful husband — all of which stirred in me a spectrum of memories that made me feel selfish, conceited, ungrateful, and yet thankful for being gifted such perspective.

On a final note, I found this quote to be quite interesting:

Do you know what happens to all things we did together in the past? When I asked my daughter this, although it was you I wanted to ask, my daughter said, “It’s so strange to hear you say something like this, Mom,” and asked, “Wouldn’t they have seeped into the present, not disappeared?” What difficult words! Do you understand what that means? She says that all the things that have happened are actually in the present, that old things are all mixed in with current things, and current things mingle with future things, and future things are combined with old things; it’s just that we can’t feel it.

Having spent much of my college career dedicated to the question of who we are when faced with the reality that we are an amalgam of different identities, I was intrigued by this idea in relation to motherhood. While the obvious relationship is in the fact that our mothers, too, were once children and young adults, the more profound idea lies in thinking about how all of these pieces can flow together — I particularly liked the verb “seeped.” It’s very easy to rationalize the fact that our parents had lives before we entered them, but it’s very difficult to embrace the truth that they are not independent of those selves today — they are very much the same and, in some ways, just as youthful as they were then. If we do not consider ourselves to change so much over time (at least in terms of some solid essence), why should we impose more rigid identities upon our parents?

There’s so much to think about here but I’ll stop for now. I’m extremely grateful for having been able to read this before the end of my stay in Korea.

 

 

Meditations on the Force

Notes from Friday, 12/15/17

*This post contains spoilers for Star Wars VIII The Last Jedi*

Watching Star Wars last night made me remember how special moments are where you can take part in a larger cultural experience. Yes, at the heart of all cultural experiences such as this are capitalist machines just attempting to generate money, but it’s a bit easier to suspend those negative thoughts if you focus on being in a crowded movie theater, surrounded by people who are looking forward to a film or performance just as much as you are. The anticipation of wanting to know what’s going to happen next, of progressing through a story together, is something that I’ve really only felt with A Game of Thrones and Harry Potter. Despite all of the chaos and issues that divide us in real life, such powerful fictions can bring us together on a basic level for entertainment but also for discussion about issues that, despite being parallel to those of reality, can be examined on a further removed, less political landscape. (Admittedly, it was hard not to think of the Resistance in terms of Doug Jones’ recent win in Alabama.) In any case, such large franchises can feel as much of the story of our generation as actual historical events in that they have an effect on the way we think and reflect the best and worst of us.

Aside from some musings on what makes fiction great and the uniqueness of such communal participation in larger works as well as that of what can be called modern theatre (being present among others and sharing a live performance), I really sat down today to write up thoughts on the Force and its relation to Eastern religions.

There’s a decent post on this blog that brings together explanations of the Jedi order’s inspirations: Taoism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism, and the paradoxes in synthesizing them together. I am no expert on any of these religions, but the reason I was moved by the scene in which Rey meditates and Luke explains that the Force is that which lies between good and evil was because a few months ago I became interested in meditation. It was during a period in which I became really set on making a better daily routine, and one of the things I read about was that meditation is one of the best things you can do to improve your overall “mindfulness and wellbeing” (terms you hear so much in college but never think of until you really need it). There are of course studies about meditation improving aspects of your brain and whatnot, but for me, even in the earliest stages of trying to figure it out I still felt the potential for immense benefits.

All the instructions said, in a short couple minute tutorial on meditation I found on Youtube, was that you should give yourself around 10 minutes to just close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Nothing else, just your breathing — the way you breathe in and the way you breathe out, that small pause in between. After doing this for about a week I discovered that I felt more alive in those 10 minutes than I did in a lot of other stretches of the day. That is, because all I was doing was focusing on my breathing, I actually paid attention to the fact that I’m alive and that it is a process, not just something that’s a given. We spend so much of our energy thinking about why we’re alive, what we’re going to do with our lives, etc. that we seldom have time to sit and appreciate the fact that we actually are here now, breathing and existing just like everything else. The other thing I noticed was the sheer magnitude of thoughts that would come hurling towards me in those 10 minutes, ranging from larger existential issues to “What am I going to eat for lunch today?” “Did I leave the heater on?” etc. In casting these thoughts aside rather than wrestling with them I started to feel like I was strengthening a muscle sorely needed in my day to day life. Unfortunately, despite growing fond of the time, I eventually lost my motivation (or more precisely the discipline to wake up early enough to follow through). In 2018 one of my resolutions is to start waking up earlier than I have to, and hopefully once that habit is setup I can reincorporate this one (it becomes quite hard to wake up early in the winter!).

I thought of these experiences while watching Rey sense the living and the dead, good and evil, light and dark, and it felt like such a shame that we don’t think more about nature in our everyday life. Most millenials living in cities feel obligated to state their love of nature, but it’s almost always in an abstract sense — hiking for a couple of miles, driving by the beach, or flying to Iceland for your Instagram is not a pure, full appreciation of coexisting on a planet with other living organisms. An offshoot of that thought was how Taoism and Buddhism (I don’t know that much about Zoroastrianism) take into consideration nature perhaps more so than Christianity (which makes sense because once you have a deity in the picture then there becomes a distinct order of living things). After living in the Western world for my entire life, it wasn’t until after at least half a year in Korea and traveling around Asia that I started to realize that there is a lot more merit to Eastern religions than Western culture would like to admit (I wrote a piece here about my experience developing such thoughts). The aforementioned post on Jedi philosophy raised interesting points about the differences in Taoism and Buddhism and being part of the world and attempting to reach a state of being away from it. While this may be an oversimplification, at the current moment of my writing this I find the concept of existing in a kind of non-existence, of living detached from that which makes us suffer, to be not only wildly idealistic but also just ridiculous. We are given life and death, love and hate, good and bad, in its entirety — to seek a state in which we are apart from all of that seems to be nothing more than glorified escapism (again I could be reacting to a misconception or oversimplification of the philosophies).

My real aim in writing this is to just get some thoughts down and to encourage myself to learn more about Eastern religions and just religions in general. When I was younger and wrestling with Christianity I distinctly remember searching the internet for the main faiths in order to just check of my list that I had done my research before settling on any religion. But that was not only a really superficial skimming of Wikipedia pages but also a generally disrespectful way of going about life — assuming you can know entire belief systems through simple, detached readings, and using such superficial knowledge as a means of undermining and rejecting many people’s way of life. That younger version of me was more interesting in proving his intellectual weight than in anything else, and I feel there are many other self-righteous intellectuals parading their logic and philosophical reasoning skills to further inflate their own egos instead of realizing that religions are not just fantasies but embedded in entire cultures with people just as fragile as they are. Religion is a terrifying thing, perhaps these days especially where they are beginning to unveil themselves as the ancient origin of “alternative facts.” Everyone of different religions and also atheists all live under a different sense of order and justification for their existence. If anything we are all constantly going about our lives for different reasons, whether it be for power and fame or simply for taking care of our children — at the end of the day we are all living in different realities when it comes to our fundamental understanding of the universe and our place in it.

“I do what I do because I’m broken, too” Bryan Stevenson and Just Mercy

Notes from Monday, 12/11/17

Today I finished reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, a death row lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit that provides legal aid to those prisoners who have been wrongly convicted and more. While the book is a memoir and therefore isn’t very plot driven, I will be jotting down some of the revelation and best pages in my post so please stop reading this if you feel that may ruin your reading experience (you can also just watch his TED talk to get a feel of the book). Otherwise, this is merely an initial reflection I have on the book’s final pages that underscore its larger themes of how we may not just cope with, but begin to mend a broken justice system full of broken people.

“Do you ever think about dying?” he asked me. It was an unusual question for someone like Walter to pose. “I never did before, but now I think about it all the time,” he continued. He looked troubled. “This right here, is a whole ‘nother kind of situation. Guys on the row talk about what they’re going to do before their executions, how they’re going to act. I used to think it was crazy to talk like that, but I guess I’m starting to do it, too.”

I was uncomfortable with the conversation. “Well, you should think about living, man — what you’re going to do when you get out of here.”

“Oh, I do that, too. I do that a lot. It’s just hard when you see people going down that hall to be killed. Dying on some court schedule or some prison schedule ain’t right. People are supposed to die on God’s schedule.”

The way Stevenson depicts Walter McMillan so innocently was for me reminiscent of John Coffey in The Green Mile by Steven King — to see kindness and hope in such a dark place is an incredible testament to the human capacity for goodness. It also (forgive me for taking such a beautiful, intimate moment and using it to think about broader philosophical questions) raises questions about why it is so wrong for anyone to take a life, including their own. Thinking about dying and the way having a deadline (to take the word literally) can severely affect the psyche both positively and negatively is a common idea but I had not thought at any considerable length about putting discretion over death entirely outside the domain of human privilege. There are so many other aspects of life in which we operate in the realm of gods: surgeons cut open and sew up bodies, we work to design and breathe life into artificial intelligence, and in court we rule judgement over those we barely know. Yet despite this, in so many religions — even beyond Christianity, which is an underlying tone in the memoir and of course a dominant belief system in America — suicide and murder are both considered grave sins. So many of us hold an opinion on the death penalty, but it wasn’t until the end of a memoir with stories about prisoners on death row that I came to really reassess my beliefs. Some of us believe that the death penalty is justified because there are people too heinous to keep alive without risking the welfare of society. Others might believe that the death penalty makes more sense and might be less cruel than a life sentence without parole — to many the latter may seem a crueler punishment. Others, holding steadfast to some moral compass, may be entirely repulsed by the mere thought of capital punishment for the same reasons as Walter’s. And yet these questions, like all questions tied to our character, are incredibly important. Who are we to allow others to kill, regardless of who the victims are? It’s easy to shelve such questions because they are so difficult, but these are the issues we must confront if we are to really know who we are not just as individuals but as a people living in the world’s greatest democracy.

While Just Mercy was for me more compelling for its intimate scenes involving not just prisoners on death row but also the people in communities that stand up against injustice and the hearts that are moved by EJI’s work. For example, a black woman who runs out of the court after seeing a guard dog that reminded her of Selma comes back the next day and conquers her fear because she knows just how it important it is to stand there as a witness. In what may have been my favorite scene in the book a white correctional officer who is initially extremely racist and degrading of Stevenson, eventually changes his behavior because he sympathizes with Stevenson’s a client, one who had mental problems caused by terrible foster care. Despite the lack of larger philosophical epiphanies, the cliches rang through loud and clear, this chapter in particular:

I do what I do because I’m broken too.

My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.

We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. I desperately wanted mercy for Jimmy Dill and would have done anything to create justice for him, but I couldn’t pretend that his struggle was disconnected from my own. The ways in which I have been hurt — and have hurt others — are different from the ways Jimmy Dill suffered and caused suffering. But our shared brokenness connected us…

…We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.

The Christian undertones are strong in this passage, but should make sense to anyone regardless of creed (also because it is common among so many). That arrogance and corruption of power — that bending towards a belief that one is divine — is an evil all of us face everyday in workplaces, on the street, and even, for an unfortunate many, at home. The idea that love is stronger than evil, that humility and acceptance of one’s broken self is central to taking steps towards a better self and world, are common themes but not any less true for it.

In this article/interview Stevenson explains that his intention in writing this book was, in part, to inform those not in the legal system about the injustices in our world today, that one’s mindset and illusion about a “fair justice system” must be shaken if any progress is to be made. In thinking about that and the larger ramifications of a broken justice system, I want to conclude by noting that throughout my reading I felt more and more concerned for the generations that will follow me. Perhaps this is due to the many stories Stevenson includes about children who are incarcerated despite their immaturity, and the fact that many children are tried as adults. As I spend more time beyond college I can’t help but think more about the importance of power and its many temptations that may lead one astray from making the world a better place for those who come after us. This seeming obligation to want to help those younger than us, those who do not even yet exist, may also be central to our humanity and capacity for compassion.

*Featured photo is one I thought to be more fitting than any glamorous photos of Stevenson giving a TED talk. Taken in 1989, this is Stevenson in the early stages of founding EJI, and it’s extremely humbling that one could pursue such a noble career without regard for the temptations of materiality.

Death Parade Anime Analysis

Notes from Sunday, 11/26/17

*This post contains many spoilers for Death Parade*

This afternoon I finished watching this short anime series and while it has its faults, all in all it was not only thought provoking but also rife with symbols and allusions that made me want to take the time to try and unpack what I can. Prior to starting this, I searched for other analyses and could only find a few, all of which were generally short, touching on some symbol but not going further in seeing how that symbol functions in the story. Other than that there were lots of anime review type blogs, which can’t go deeper in analysis due to spoiler precautions. While I would love to do an in-depth, well-composed, post, for now I just want to get down my thoughts before the immediate inspiration fades.

Chavvot and Chiyuki: Limitations of Human Communication

Given the overarching plot is centered around the relationship between Chiyuki and Decim, a foil setup that unfortunately blossomed all too fast in the last couple of episodes, the show introduces us to a strange fairy tale titled “Chavvot” where a young boy named Jimmy sees Chavvot playing outside in the snow. Jimmy tries to talk to Chavvot, but she is deaf, and merely smiles back. Jimmy goes outside and, despite Chavvot being deaf, they can communicate with smiles and gestures and find happiness despite the barrier. One site notes that this is not an original story but a Russian tale.

Apparently Chavvot was based in an old Russian legend about a man and a woman. The man’s name is Death and the woman’s name is Life:

Death falls for Life and constantly calls out to her but because of the realms dividing them and their differences Life cannot hear Death. One day, Death stumbles upon a frozen boy in a pitfall. Instead of taking of the boy’s life he spares the child, and it is then when Life appears before them, finally able to hear Death. Together they revive the boy, with Death promising only to take the boy when his time naturally comes to die. Life and Death fall in love and eventually have a child named Hope who mediates and judges who goes where. “For even in life and death, hope can arise in both situations.”

The original story is so peculiar I plan to look into it, but as far as the function of the adaptation in the anime is concerned, it is primarily used to demonstrate the limitations of communication. Despite the fact that Chiyuki and Decim (parallel to Jimmy and Chavvot), a human and an emotionless reanimated marionette, eventually come to understand and change one another, Chiyuki originally uses the story to demonstrate that even with the multitude of dimensions humans are granted when it comes to communication, there is never a way to truly know someone. Chiyuki’s background of having skating, the most important aspect of her life, taken from her, and none of her friends or family being able to understand how she might feel, is a great example. I found myself similarly moved by the revenge story in the arc prior, which tells the story of a boy who takes on jobs and single handedly cares for his precious sister, only to have her assaulted and hospitalized by a stalker. As much as I can theoretically understand the rage that would possess someone in that situation, I felt a tinge of guilt in knowing that I can’t truly know without a set of experiences I cannot willingly take on.

In its explicatory scenes, the series wavers a bit between acknowledging the complexity of human nature and, as Chiyuki cries out in frustration, “People aren’t as complex as you think they are!” She says something along the lines of humans being dominated by emotions over simple, sometimes petty things we have no control over. The anime does well here in balancing simplicity and complexity, as it answers in a similar manner the question of how we might understand one another despite the limitations of the mind as contained in a single individual. When asked to press a button in order to kill a random person (out of 7 billion people) in exchange for being brought back to life, Chiyuki realizes that she can’t, that even though she won’t know or care intimately for the person who is killed on her behalf, she can’t help but understand the pain of loss and grief that others related to that the person and those around her. Just as it is simple enough to say that humans are neither entirely good nor evil, we have spent the past ten episodes learning not only that they can be one in the same, but that they can also be entirely absurd (one air-headed character, for example, dies slipping on a bar of soap).

Just a short addendum to the coexistence of simplicity and complexity is one of my favorite observations and drawings in the series, where we see that Chiyuki first enters Quindecim with tears and a smile as she asks “How did I die?” Later, as she is being sent in the elevator for reincarnation, she is seen with the same expression. The emotionless Decim notes that smiles convey happiness, and tears usually grief, but what does it mean when we see both? Of course there are tears of joy but when this combination accompanies the question “How did I die?” the situation is both simple and complex, the former because we are human and understand, and yet the latter because it is difficult to explain emotions to someone who lacks them.

One final observation I wanted to make is the theme of snow both in “Chavott” and Chiyuki’s ice skating scene. The skating is reminiscent of The Things They Carried , at the end of which (spoiler alert)  Tim imagines skating with Linda, a childhood friend who died of a brain tumor:

Sometimes I can even see Timmy skating with Linda under the yellow floodlights. I’m young and happy. I’ll never die. I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.

I wonder if snow is used here for imagery of ephemeral purity (I feel like I’ve heard that’s the case in Japanese culture, likening snow to the sakura blossoms in the spring), but Tim O’Brien’s metaphor of skating over history, a tenuous boundary between life and death, feels fitting.

Nona and Decim, Threads and Marionettes

This blog did a good job pointing out the connections with Greco-Roman roots, especially in the names Nona and Decim, two of the three Parcae or Fates (the last being Morta, death). Nona spun the thread of life, Decim portioned it, and Morta cut it.

The Fates

Likewise Nona in Death Parade is among the most powerful in the place of judgment, either injecting Decim with human emotions or merely bringing out what is latent by facilitating his relationship with Chiyuki (Death Parade tends to fall apart in these inconsistencies). Decim is an arbiter, but one Nona purportedly wants to be just in a way that an emotionless judge cannot — she hopes to find one that is both sensitive to humanity yet beyond mortal reason.

I found the marionettes to be an incredible symbol throughout the series, particularly in the way Decim, an animated marionette, began gaining human emotion (we see this in his eyes and the fact that we can only see both his eyes when Chiyuki hugs him), and the way Chyuki, a human, starts turning into a marionette when she stays too long in the halls of judgement. The idea that we are all merely players in an absurd universe is powerfully conveyed by marionettes, the baldness of their anonymity a cruel manifestation of the understanding that death is the great equalizer. It is all the more poignant when we find that Decim’s hobby is not cruelly playing with marionettes but respecting them, dressing them up as those he passes judgement upon, keeping their memory alive in his bar even if he forgets the people as soon as their judgement is complete. This human desire for memory, for the affirmation that life is not all for absolutely nothing, can be fulfilled if at least in the slightest in this way, even if Decim actually forgets. I found that to be profound and representative of the way literature and art is woven into our lives: we keep objects to remind us of other people, and even if we die we hope that the object still has meaning even if we forget (I hope this makes sense, but it’s definitely an idea to explore more in depth).

Given I have stayed up too late writing this, I must close with the impression Chiyuki left on me when she says that it’s a shame we don’t realize the meaning of our lives until we are dead. Everything we know about Death generally turns to cliché, and while mantras like memento mori and carpe diem are somewhat taken seriously, I do often feel guilty about not heeding them more fully. Humans really do act as if we will live forever, and, as the anime says, in our final moments try to cling to it and give it meaning. It’s an eerie warning we would all do well to keep in mind everyday — that is not to say live in morbidity but to be mindful of the fact that it is in our nature to believe we are immortal.

Lessons from Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”

Notes from Wednesday, 11/22/17

Having just finished the behemoth of symbols and motifs that is Invisible Man, I must say that while I regret not reflecting incrementally throughout the book as I would have in a college course, it wasn’t until the epilogue that I felt all of the pieces came together, illuminating everything that came before. Because while the book has moments of captivating action and dialogue, there were many other sections where I felt the intrigue came more from the reading of the symbols beyond the present action in an almost allegorical form of processing. The Brotherhood was at times overtly symbolic and I was looking forward to a point where the narrator would move onto the next chapter of his life and yet that point never came. As much as I understand the importance of a communist-inspired organization portending the “All Lives Matter” movement, I grew tired of reading between the lines. But all was forgiven in the epilogue, where everything came together, where the narrator returns to the present and explicates why he has told us his story. He not only recognizes that the entire narrative was simply that, a narrative written in his reclusion from society, but also calls us, who have been similarly shut out from society through the long process of reading it, to action. In doing so the narrator poses eloquent remarks on the importance of both a life of reading and action, of improving ourselves by gaining distance from society and then making manifest change through that which we gain. (That is of course one of the reasons I have decided to blog rather than keep all of my writings to myself, and similarly share on Instagram photos I have long enjoyed on my hard drive.)

Perhaps it is my own reckoning with self-identity during this time in a similar “hole” away from the States that I find such strong resonance in the narrator’s anxieties and  motivation in not only relishing the process of understanding oneself and place in society but also coming to terms with the fact that one cannot bask in such theoretical comfort forever. While no other minorities in America bear a greater share of the weight of injustice than do African Americans, all minorities can relate to the process of losing one’s identity living under various ideologies of racism and seemingly benign “colorlessness.” We can all relate to this:

There is, by the way, an area in which a man’s feelings are more rational than his mind, and it is precisely in that area that his will is pulled in several directions at the same time. You might sneer at this, but I know now. I was pulled this way and that for longer than I can remember. And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wishes to hear what I called myself.

Being displaced from my usual friend groups and culture for the past year and a half, I have thought a lot about just how much my understanding of myself was based on my surroundings. The narrator puts it succinctly in the realization that, “Perhaps to lose a sense of where you are implies the danger of losing a sense of who you are,” and that where is incredibly difficult to discern — it is reminiscent of David Foster Wallace’s ironic parable, where the fish asks, “What the hell is water?” Only through facing the trials of growing up do we begin to unravel where it is we are, a process that usually continues in a hermit-like state of reflection and reading. If anything it is difficult to extricate the the rational from the emotional when we are in society, pushed and pulled, chasing and running away in a paradox of choice and that which is dictated by society. Invisible Man is a kind of thought experiment: what if it were possible to put life on hold, take a breather in a black void?

Aside from the fact that actually traveling and being apart from your usual surroundings is advice well taken, it is also possible to enter this void simply by retreating into your mind. Consequently, in order to find oneself in the void, in invisibility, rather than lose oneself in it, it is necessary to remember why it is that you have retreated in the first place:

Since then I’ve sometimes been overcome with a passion to return into that “heart of darkness” across the Mason-Dixon line, but then I remind myself that the true darkness lies within my own mind, and the idea loses itself in the gloom. Still the passion persists. Sometimes I feel the need to reaffirm all of it, the whole unhappy territory and all the things loved and unlovable in it, for all of it is part of me. Till now, however, this is as far as I’ve ever gotten, for all life seen from the hole of invisibility is absurd.

So why do I write, torturing myself to put it down? Because in spite of myself I’ve learned some things. Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labeled “file and forget,” and I can neither file nor forget…The very act of trying to put it all down has confused me and negated some of the anger and some of the bitterness.

It is all too easy to lose oneself in the madness — particularly relevant these days with all that is going on in the world, all the division — but we must remind ourselves that we analyze in order to act, that we write to give meaning to that which seems utterly meaningless. It is a common mantra, but one we must keep reminding ourselves of in order to pursue a more just future, one in which we recognize each other as humans and not just forces that both push and are pulled all too often at the same time. To be socially responsible by pursuing ideals without giving oneself up to them is a herculean task, but one that is most necessary:

In going underground, I whipped it all except the mind, the mind. And the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived. That goes for societies as well as for individuals.

I hope to return to this post over time to remind myself of these lessons, as life is a momentary state between forgetting and remembering them.

Featured photo is one I took on a lightly snowing day in Seoul near Gyeongbokgung.