Haruki Murakami: "Reality A and Reality B"
I often post on articles from the New York Times, but that's because I read the International Herald Tribune, which I started reading in the mid-1980s, back when it still contained articles not only by the New York Times but also by the Washington Post. Since 2003, however, it's been owned solely by the New York Times and has thus become "The Global Edition of the New York Times," or so it describes itself. And that's what I read.
Recently, within the past week -- last Friday, to be precise -- my copy of the paper included something titled Global Agenda 2011 and calling itself the International Herald Tribune Magazine. I don't yet know if this is a weekly, a monthly, or an end of the year special, but I was pleased to receive it.
This edition has a number of interesting articles, but something that especially caught my attention was a passage in the article "Reality A and Reality B" by the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. I then wondered if the article might also appear online and indeed found it along with the contents of the entire magazine posted on the "Opinion Pages" of the New York Times. Here's the passage from "Reality A and Reality B" that struck a chord in me:
When I hear the word "chaos," I automatically picture the scenes of 9/11 -- those shocking images that were shown a million times on television: The two jumbo jets plunging into the glass walls of the Twin Towers, the towers themselves crumbling without a trace, scenes that would continue to be unbelievable after a million and one viewings. The plot that succeeded with miraculous perfection -- a perfection that reached a level of near surreality. If I may say so without fear of being misunderstood, the scenes even appeared to be something made with computer graphics for a Hollywood doomsday film.I wouldn't call our world "chaos," but it is a far more disorderly world than the one that I expected after the fall of communism, when the musings on the "End of History" by another Japanese writer, Francis Fukuyama, held rather more appeal to me than Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations."
We often wonder what it would have been like if 9/11 had never happened -- or at least if that plan had not succeeded so perfectly. Then the world would have been very different from what it is now. America might have had a different president (a major possibility), and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars might never have happened (an even greater possibility).
Let's call the world we actually have now Reality A and the world that we might have had if 9/11 had never happened Reality B. Then we can't help but notice that the world of Reality B appears to be realer and more rational than the world of Reality A. To put it in different terms, we are living a world that has an even lower level of reality than the unreal world. What can we possibly call this if not "chaos"?
"Reality A" is Huntington's world, and "Reality B" is Fukuyama's. I don't doubt that we're living in the former, but it does seem less 'real' than the latter. I still vividly recall watching United Airlines Flight 175 enter the glossy surface of the South Tower to the World Trade Center -- first on television that night in Osan, South Korea after arriving home from teaching my evening class at Hanshin University, then in my mind's eye as I tried to sleep later that night but couldn't as I tossed and turned with no place to turn -- and all those times that I watched this scene replay, it always felt unreal. My mind reeled then, and still does.
Murakami goes on to imply that our less real "Reality A" poses a problem for novelists, for "[i]n an age when reality is insufficiently real, how much reality can a fictional story possess?" I won't dispute his point that writing about our time is hard, for I've been writing with unease about the aftermath of 9/11 since the morning of 9/12, but I think that a far larger problem is posed for how we are to live in this 'unreality'.
If our time is characterized as by the clash of civilizations, what does this description mean? Each civilization equally? What is our civilization? Still what it used to be? Whose civilization are we clashing with? Really what it claims to be? How will we know if we've won? Exactly what'd winning be? Perhaps most importantly, who, or what, will we have become by the time this is all over? Something that we'd want to be?
No wonder our time seems unreal. Our questions are about our identity in this world, and we're not even certain what either is any more.
In this flux of identity in a changing world, we find perhaps even ourselves unreal.