Monday, December 13, 2010

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.

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"?
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."

"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.

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At 4:16 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

when it still contained articles not only by the New York Times but also by the Washington Post

That's a pity. I too used to read it when my job was as a journalist in Milan (right until 2003), and the 'old' Tribune was a precious source, as including the best of those two newspapers.

As for 9/11, we saw it live on TV, it was afternoon in Italy. Besides the comments here written by you, I just add that the 'big novelty' was that for the first time - after its independence - the USA had / has a war within its boundaries. Well, honestly, you could not expect to make war only abroad forever. No empire did. E.g. the book I am translating (see previous topic) conveys an 'idyllic' picture of the Pax Romana; but it was not so, as the writers of THAT time knew.

At 5:14 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Don't forget the War of 1812, the Civil War, and the various Indian wars, as well as wars on the borders.

As for 9/11, it was not so much an anti-imperialist attack as it was an Islamist imperialist attack. Al-Qaeda has global ambitions, as do most Islamist Jihadists. They sometimes borrow the language of anti-imperialism, but their own goals are nakedly imperialist, as their own writings make clear.

Of course, they also dislike American foreign policy . . .

As for the IHT, I also miss the Washington Post articles. That was a special newspaper. But I have to admit, the new IHT is somehow more substantive.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:01 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Don't forget the War of 1812, the Civil War, and the various Indian wars, as well as wars on the borders

Never, however, the enemy was attacking from outside.

(Unless--- Mussolini planned a submarine attack against NY. The plan was ready in every detail, but it was never done.)

At 8:08 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The War of 1812 was from outside. The British attacked and burned Washington.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:56 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Okay. But you (the citizens at home, I mean) skipped both World Wars. Whereas in Europe and Japan the people knew, all too well, what a carpet bombing is. Homes crashing, everyday streets turned into hells.
Surely this deeply influenced the post-war attitudes in most Americans. Whence the 9/11 shock. That probably would not have been that shocking to, say, Lebanese people.

At 3:42 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, that's probably correct, and I thought of the horror of fire bombing and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks back when 9/11 happened.

One difference was that this was an unexpected terrorist attack in peacetime using commercial airlines, so the shock was greater than would have been the case in wartime if bombed by military aircraft.

It signaled a new kind of terrorism in its scale and aims. The 9/11 attacks weren't simply a means of political pressure to change American foreign policy. They were intended as a blow against what Al-Qaeda considers an evil, infidel nation. They expect total capitulation. They truly do hate, e.g., liberal democracy, human rights, equality for women.

Moreover, their attacks and the attacks of other Islamists are directed not just against the US but against other 'infidels' around the world.

I think that this is a new reality, an 'unreality' if you will, and the next generation or two will be a period of great instability until Islamism runs its course . . . if it does run its course.

Of course, it might succeed.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:15 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

I basically agree with your reflections. Just, I have come to the--- it would be too much to say: conclusion--- the idea, anyway, that desire and violence are at the core of human nature. They are the "motive" (literally) of every human action, both directly and indirectly, both the wars and the arts.
So, it is maybe possible that Islam does not turn into a danger worldwide (and many muslims surely don't want it to) but that kind of menace would loom anyway, from whatever side.

This is Samsara, our hell-like condition. But, as the Indian Zen philosopher Nagarjuna taught, "There's not the slightest difference difference between the boundaries of Samsara and those of Nirvana."
That, all in all, may be the central teaching in Milton's Paradise Lost too.

At 7:31 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I know too little of Buddhism to evaluate its doctrine concerning desire, but I do think that Islamists have a strong desire for power, along with the numbers and the ideology to act on that desire.

The irony is that they would usher in a deeply undesirable reality.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:41 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Some time ago, for a contest among sci-fi fans, I wrote this 6-word story:

"Per sterminare l'umanità, basterà favorirla."

"To get rid of mankind, we'll just favour them."

A reader noted that it was a Buddhist one :-)

At 3:52 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Much like Al Capp's Shmoos . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:08 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

While re-studying (again!) the Divine Comedy illustrated by Salvador Dalí, I just remembered that some years ago I saw, in the following picture:

sort of a 'prophecy' of 9/11. A hell, in fact. Besides its obvious sexual references, the bone in Lucifer's head also reminded me of the tail of an airplane.

Dalí even made a painting showing a shocking bomb attack like that, though set inside the St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. This one:

This Lucifer could become a symbol of our fears.

At 6:18 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

In a photo of the smoke from the burning WTC on 9/11, one can visualize a demonic face. Our minds look for such images to make sense of the evil, perhaps, to personalize it and make it fit some system that would explain it as somehow bound up with a greater struggle -- and to demonize the enemy, of course.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:49 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

I knew (American friends sent me) the 'demonic face' in that photo.
But the Dali reference had a different purpose.

At 7:15 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Undoubtedly . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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