Thursday, January 6, 2011
WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964, JAPAN)
I proved to be just a smidgen late once again from capturing that last insect in my specimen jar. I promised myself that I would be more alert and quicker next time. And was that really a grasshopper? Sure looked like one. I laughed at the thought of a grasshopper in the middle of the Gobi desert. A mirage perhaps? Who knows? I did know my pack was feeling a little heavy, so I scrunched my back to get a knot out. A knot out of my back, not the backpack, of course. I thought I’d spotted something else of interest and tried to look at it before it crawled back into the sand. I took out my magnifying glass. No, it was gone too. No problem, they’ll be others, I thought. I looked up at the setting sun. All by myself, in the middle of nowhere with my insect samples and entomological books. What a gorgeous sunset! If I had been more prone to believe in God, that would have been the moment I most likely would have become a believer. It was a nearly perfect moment, in fact. It was then I experienced a sharp pain in my head and everything went black.
I woke up hurting. The blow to my head, or whatever it made me pass out, had left me woozy. It took a few minutes for me to focus. An Asian woman, moderately attractive but no Nancy Kwan, brought me some water in a tin cup. I sat up and drank it. My skull was still throbbing, but I managed to sit up with her assistance.
“Thank you.” I said.
She sat back silently and smiled as I finished my drink.
“The obvious question,” I said, putting down my cup. “Is where am I and how did I get here?”
“What do you remember?” she asked.
Her English seemed good. Much better than I could speak any Asian language I had studied.
“Well,” I said, as I nodded approvingly at her non-verbal offer of another cup of water.
“Well,” I repeated. “I was looking at the sun setting, it was almost a religious experience I’d say. And the next thing I know I felt an excruciating pop against my head and then…I was here.”
“A religious experience you say?”
“Yeah, though I don’t really have a religious affiliation one way or another. I’m a man of science.”
She put her hand up to her mouth to stifle a giggle. “Tertullian said the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And he was buried and rose again; the fact is certain because it is impossible.”
Her quote made me think she might be a nun of some kind. I didn’t know what to say to her statement.” So, I’m not in Hell?” I asked, laughing uncomfortably.
“Hell is other people. And I may be other people, nevertheless you aren’t in hell.”
I scratched my head. “Hell is other people. Was that Kierkegaard?”
She tried to stifle yet another giggle. “No, silly. That’s Jean-Paul Sartre.”
I guess I failed this round of Philosophical Trivial Pursuit. That’s all right. I was a entomologist, not an existentialist.
“You’ve had a nasty bump. Would you like me to give you a neck massage?” She asked.
I did consider taking her up on her offer, but thought better of it. “No. Thank you though. I’m really feeling much better now. It is I that should help you to show my gratitude. Is there anything I can do for you before I head on my way.”
She took me by the hand and led me to her front door. “Yes, there is something I need help with if you would be so kind. By the way, your backpack is over there in the corner.”
She had retrieved my pack. My most valuable possession and I had almost forgotten about it. I nodded in approval. I really owed her a favor now. I was determined to help her with whatever she wanted.
As we went outside, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Her house was at the bottom of a thirty-foot hole in the dessert. I noticed sand slowly seeping down to the bottom of the dune from the top. She grabbed a pair of goggles and a shovel that was propped next to her front door and handed them to me. She took another shovel and signaled for me to follow her. As the sand came down she scooped some up and brought it to a gully on the other side of her house and dumped it. I stood still for a moment before following suit. I felt I owed her, though I didn’t understand the point of all this.
After doing this a few more minutes, I yelled out to her over the slither of falling sand. “Miss, what is the reason for this? I don’t understand.”
“Reason is the most obstinate adversary of thinking,” she said.
“What? I couldn’t hear you.” I said.
She yelled back at me. “Reason is the most obstinate adversary of thinking, Martin Heiddeger.”
I heard her that time, but didn’t know how to respond. I just kept scooping up the falling sand and taking it to the gully at the other side of the house. We repeated the process for the next eight hours before the sand finally stopped.
I was exhausted. I sat down next to her. She offered me a cigarette. I didn’t smoke, but felt obligated to take it anyway. “This was a most interesting experience, miss. And I’m glad I could be of assistance to you, but I must be on my way. I have my research to do. Where is your ladder to the top?”
She giggled once more, putting her mouth to her lips yet again. “There is no ladder. This is your home now.”
During the next few weeks, I tried to understand the reasoning and rationale for my captivity. I failed to get a satisfactory explanation out of her; all she would say about my question was the real is rational and the rational is real. I had no interest in pursuing a Hegelian dialect with her, at least that what she called it, so I dropped the subject.
Every day was the same thing. The sand would fall and we would move it to the gully in the back of the house, presumably to prevent it leaking through to the next house down (which I could not see and wondered if even existed.) I boycotted work one day, but the sand got so high I was worried about our safety and ended up helping her.
Every day three swarthy looking gentleman would come to the top of our dune and throw down our rations for the day. I reasoned, quite rightly she would later confirm, that these were the thugs that hit me over the head and took me to this place. I still couldn’t figure out why we were there and what the point of all this was.
I was angry with her for her complicity in all of this, but after our work for the day was over she treated me quite well. After a couple of months at the bottom of the dune, comparing her appearance to Nancy Kwan was not quite as far-fetched as I had first reasoned. By the time she finally offered herself to me, I accepted.
One night when we were lying in bed together, I took a long drag of a cigarette. I was content for the moment, but still curious about some things. “The last two men that were down here. Are you ever going to tell me what happened to them?”
She blushed. “I didn’t want you to know about the others. It is immaterial. I know our captors yelled something down to you about them, so I will tell you. My first husband died, buried somewhere underneath the sand. My second husband threw himself down the gully to the next house. An ancient type of ritual suicide.”
I got out of her bed and slumped down onto my cot. She followed me and put a hot compress to my head and tried to offer me words of comfort. “Do you see why I didn’t want to tell you? Third times the charm I hope.”
I sprang up and grabbed her by the hands. “What about you? I know I keep asking you, but why do you put up with this? Don’t you want your freedom? You know freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose?
“Oh, is that Kant?” she asked.
“No, it’s Kris Kristofferson,” I said.
She looked puzzled before I continued. “I’m trying to talk about the quality of your life. Down here it’s the same every day.”
She held her hand out to me. “I have you now and I had hoped having me would be enough for you.”
“Nothing personal, but it isn’t. Free will. That’s what matters to me. I could be with you, but it needs to be my choice, not by the insane whims of a bunch of thugs.”
She was clearly disturbed by choice of words in describing our captors. “Oh, please don’t call them that. They are freedom fighters. Patriots…I know what you are thinking. You’re thinking about that Thomas Paine quote-Patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings.”
“Steal a little, they put you in jail. Steal a lot they make you king,” I finished her quote with the Bob Dylan punch line.
She giggled. “I don’t think that’s how he said it. But I like it.”
We both laughed. It was good to break the tension that had been forming. “You want to read?” she asked.
“We read every night before bed. Why do you ask now? Hey! Why don’t I read your books and you read mine for a change.”
She agreed. I picked up Volume 5 of her Encyclopedia of Philosophy and tried to make out the small print. Philosophy was a bit much for me, I must admit. I looked under the heading for Existentialism. All it said was, Existentialism-see Existentialism. It was then I realized our switching reading material was not such a good idea after all.
She read out the contents of the books from my bag as she went back to her bed. “An Introduction to Entomology: or Elements of the Natural History of Insects (1828) by William Kirby, Rats, Lice and History by Hans Zinsser 1935, Historical Scarabs by W. M. F. Petrie 1889 and this article Controlling Sex in Butterfiles, The American Naturalist-September, 1873. Oh, my. I’ll be asleep in no time if try to read this.”
I came over to her and snatched the article and took my books away from her and tossed her Philosophy Encyclopedia onto her bed. “I’m sorry that the natural world holds so little interest for you. I think you should stick to you irrelevant philosophical ramblings of long dead and buried Europeans. I don’t feel like reading anymore. Let’s just go to sleep.”
I was angry with her, but that didn’t seem to faze her. She came over and began to rub my shoulders and took my mind off of reading anything else for the night.
Weeks became months. My clean-shaven face became a long, scraggly beard. My medium build became, through our daily chores, more muscular, even beyond what it was in my youth. My resolve to escape out of my predicament never diminished. I believed in love now, for I did love the woman, contrary to all logic. Was it love or was it just settling into what had now become inevitable? I believed in God now, too. Was it God or was my way of defining the world so limited now that I had no other way to describe it? Nevertheless, I still wanted my freedom. I would beg my captors when I caught sight of them to please let me go. To let us go. What they were doing was wrong. They agreed one time to let me go if I, well…If I did the act with the woman in front of them for their amusement. I was willing. I didn’t care anymore. I was an animal now, anyway. Might as well do it for the pleasure of others. What did I have to lose? Luckily, in retrospect, the woman refused. She still had some dignity left. I apparently had none, but she was right. All this time, I kept thinking about my experiences toward the external world. But, in the end one experiences only oneself. Nietzsche. She taught me that.
One morning I woke up to her giving me my 6 a.m. cup of coffee, as she did every morning before we went out to our daily digging chores. However, this morning, there was no accompanying smile. She looked at me with apprehension for a moment before speaking. “I’m pregnant.”
I shot up and grabbed her by the shoulders and hugged her. “Oh, this is good news, I…”But as I thought about it in real terms, I became distressed. A baby? What kind of life could there be for a baby down here? Is there a book on how to be a good father at the bottom of a sand dune?
She cracked a smile and I held her tightly until the sands began coming down once again.
During the next few weeks I became very tired from having to work extra to compensate for her. She was too weak to be of much use in shoveling sand. She could barely get out of bed.
One day, I noticed that she was bleeding. I didn’t know what was going on. I had no medical degree; I was a scientist. If she had been an insect, I might have had a better idea of what to do, but I was helpless here. I went outside and yelled up to my captors for assistance. After about an hour, I saw a rope ladder plop down beside me. How I had longed for this sight for so many months, but now all I could think of was helping the woman. My three captors came down the rope, unsmiling. There was a fourth man that came down. He had a medical bag with him and when he reached the bottom I led him to the woman.
After a brief examination, he shook his head. “We have to get her to a hospital,” was all he said to me. My captors went back up the ladder and threw down a makeshift hammock attached to a rope. The doctor and I carried the woman and put her on the hammock. She was weak now but she reached out and passed her fingers across my face before they began to pull her up.
As she ascended, she told me that Kant said that being is not a real predicate, or concept of something that can be added to the concept of a thing. I wasn’t sure what that meant. I wasn’t sure what half the things she said meant. All I knew was that I loved her and that probably wouldn’t ever see her again.
The doctor went up the ladder after them. I presumed they were going to take care of her. It certainly seemed like they were going to. Nevertheless, in my loneliness, I sat and cried for half an hour.
It was then I became aware of the obvious. They had left, but they didn’t take the ladder with them. I looked up. My escape could be just a minute away. I put a foot on the bottom rung before thinking it through further. I hopped down and went back to fetch my gear. I saddled it on my back and crawled up to the top. It was a pretty easy climb for me with my new muscles and my adrenaline pumping at top level. I looked down at the house. The sand would come and there would be no one to dig it out. It would be buried and the next house would be…wait! I never saw the next house. She was just repeating what she was told about the next house being buried if we didn’t do our daily digging. Was this all an elaborate trick? Was there any point to any of this? And who would even build a house at the bottom of a dune in the first place? I still saw no one. The air was cold, but I was bundled up. I didn’t feel the weather anyway. I was free. I was free. I was headed to…to wherever I wanted to go.
Dateline: January 1, 3011. An important archaeological discovery was unearthed today. At the bottom of a sand dune, a type of ancient dwelling was discovered not seen by human eyes for hundreds of years. Even more significantly, remains of a humanoid, identified as a male, were found directly outside its premises. Next to the remains was a carrying bag of some kind made of as a yet to be identified substance containing several copies of what the ancients once referred to as “books.” Scientists have identified the title of one of the ancient texts as The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volume 5.