Sunday, June 03, 2007


Is it better throughout the course of one's life to focus your individual efforts on one thing, and the achievement of singular competence, or examine many things, diverse and detached, and long for a universal link?

I ask because of interesting conversation with Japanese writer and thinker Kenichiro Mogi published in Sunday's edition of The Japan Times. Mogi states:

The way I see it is this: I come from a scientific background, but I also know many of my former classmates from the law department who have gone on to become government officials and corporate executives and so on. I know many art students and famous novelists in Japan. Also, musicians. Through meeting all these different people, I realize how divided modern society is.

I've discovered that even people with very high achievements actually live in a very closed context. Novelists only care about novels. Artists — painters, they only care about paintings. Musicians only care about music. Scientists only care about science. I find that very very unsatisfactory. That is why I try to push myself through all these different fields in modern society, in addition to doing my scientific work.

By doing that, I would like to make myself a kind of link, in the flesh, between these divided societies or subcultures. I think I'm doing an experiment with my own body. Maybe the product can be a book or a philosophy or a new concept or whatever, but I'd like to somehow, someday, reach or generate this something which would encompass all these myriad, miscellaneous aspects of modern life.

"I think I'm doing an experiment with my own body," Mogi says. In a sense, aren't we all doing that? We are a community and a context of one; we seek to become the kind of person that only we were meant to be. And yet to do that means that we have to exist within a community of others, who are also seeking the same purpose -- some consciously, deliberately, others collectively, in a trance. Mogi is hinting at something I've long struggled to articulate: the desire to understand life, and our relationship to it, with it, in a manner that is not limited to four or five seemingly random aspects of our personality, but instead embraces all of us, collectively, impassionately. Almost mathematically.

Just yesterday, at the bookshop, killing time before Spider-Man III, I flipped through the paperback edition of Haruki Murakami's book Underground, his interviews with the survivors and perpetrators of the sarin subway attacks in Tokyo a decade ago. One of the members of the cult talked movingly about his interest in Buddhism, in the impermance of life, and his quest to find a mathematical way to prove the Buddha's philosophies. A linear means to document the spiritual, I guess you'd say. Both Murakami and myself were somewhat flabbergasted at such an attempt, but then I thought about it; about the root of such a desire. Is what we do in life any different? We start a family and choose a job, and a street, and a house, and a TV, and a sofa, all of which we intend to use as a starting point by which we can order our lives. Perhaps we don't do such things by mathematical means, no, but still: we seek a balance, and when we feel that we've achieved such a balance -- when the sofa is in the right position, and the coke is properly chilled, and the fruits are sufficiently ripe --we indulge. We look to the physical world to prove the intentions that emanate from our innermost selves. Perhaps spirituality cannot be so similarly digested and delineated, but since our brains are the source of all of our worlds, and since these brains are nothing more than electrical circuits looping around a tactile blob of inert gray matter, perhaps some kind of statistical, measureable logic can be documented.

We usually unconsciously start with a checklist of ourselves and work from there: I like to write; to run; to read; to watch movies. Hence, ipso facto, ergo, this is me -- the sum of my parts. All these interests are balanced out by the sun and the moon, the cities and the wilderness that surrounds me. We find a context, or create a context, and within those boundaries we move and slide through the days and weeks of our lives.

But is there a means by which we can find the kind of symbiosis that Mogi seeks? If we are limited to one thing, our thing, as Mogi explains, a certain, inevitable level of limitation is constructed. The writer writes; the musician composes, or plays; the architect designs. We settle into our niche and try to find meaning through what we do, repeatedly. By the age of twelve or thirteen we've decided, more or less, what we like, and why, and we go from there.

And yet part of life also entails expanding our sense of self and our relation to those other 'selves' that are also trying to understand their place in their world. And since their place is next to us, literally, on the bus, or in the classroom, or across the factory assembly line, a certain kind of compromise has to take place. We give up something of ourselves so that the other entity in relation to us can more readily find their own level of comfort.

How do we then come to a satisfactory synthesis, if our own self-inflicted needs are increasingly to be balanced with the needs of others? If we truly want to understand life, in all its maddening complexity and inconsistency, how do we choose between A and B, left and right? Or can we, as Mogi is attempting to do, incorporate not only A through Z but also mathematics, and music, and cinema, and sport, and the Hungarian language, and the pursuit of the perfect cheeseburger, and on and on and on?

I'm reminded of a book I started but never finished, Herman Hesse's Magister Ludi, Or The Glass Bead Game, its photocopied brilliance abandoned by me in my apartment in Phnom Penh the Cambodian heat, and my addled brain, not conducive to philosophical translations. In the book a game has been developed that incorporates, through an intricate and escalating series of stops and starts, a series of tests that somehow link literature to music to science to religion.

Is that what we should be doing? Finding the links? Or is the ultimate joke of life that there are no links, that the 'me' that is separated from the 'you' will remain that way -- separate -- and any attempt at an all-embracing fusion of intellect and spirit and community and individual will remain nothing more than an intellectual tumbleweed wobbling its way through the dusty streets of the universe?


But I want to keep looking.

I study Japanese to try to peel away a tiny piece of the universe that had remained unknown and invisible to me, but now reveals its essence in slow, tantalizing glimpses. I've seen the despair of the poor and the misery of the sick in Southeast Asia, and I wonder how it fits with the seemingly safe, snow-swept suburbia of my youth. I listen to the sound of my own voice as it modulates, wondering if its tone and timbre are connected to the deeper voice that writes these words and thinks these thoughts. I feel the heat on my forehead, a warm slap, and I compare it to Cambodia, and the Philippines, and a water-park afternoon from the end of high school, when the future was close, and the past even closer.

I will try to find a connection between all of these things. Perhaps, some day, such a circuit might lead to you, the person reading these words, the self at the center of your self.

And if I find such a link, or even come close, you'll be the first to know.

1 comment:

Jim said...

Through the wonders of the internet
you've made that connection you're talking about.
Maybe we can get together over coffee some time and expand on it.