Essence not desired

by Yule Heibel on November 26, 2003

Near the beginning, as an opening to Chapter 2 of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami writes,

Is it possible, finally, for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another?

We can invest enormous time and energy in serious efforts to know another person, but in the end, how close are we able to come to that person’s essence? We convince ourselves that we know the other person well, but do we really know anything important about anyone?

It’s unnerving me a bit to realise that I have never desired “perfect understanding” of another person, nor considered it desirable to strive for closeness to another’s “essence.” It’s discombobulating me to realise that there are people who want these effects. Am I too casual in thinking that we’re all changing constantly, that our “essence” is a condition of our relationship to other people and things and events and social structures, and that it’s therefore pointless to seek perfect understanding or essence? Is it a mark of insanity? Shallowness? Comfort? Alienation? Or is it a guy-girl thing, viz. that guys keep believing in some essential beingness? I don’t mind that my children keep changing on me. This is ok, it’s their right. I couldn’t imagine fixing them, and part of my love for them is expressed through the constant dance I have to execute to keep up with their changing coordinates. And vice versa. It’s a form of movement that keeps our lives lively, that keeps us literally on our toes, and young. If I’m really lucky, I sometimes forget how old I am because I have to move.

I recently watched the movie Das Boot, which ends in a bloodbath whose context is quite ironic: after months of escaping dangers at sea, after surviving a disabling sinking, the crew of the submarine, along with various other marines and dignitaries, are mowed down on land in an air attack. The young hero — a journalist — had cried at one point that he wanted, just once, to feel “real” life in its fullness, without the shielding hand of a nurturing mother, without a gentle maiden blurring its outline for him, diluting its essence, or muffling its sound. And then, physically ricocheting through the carnage at the film’s end, he realises that his quest for reality and the reality itself have merged and simultaneously exposed themselves as a materiality (death, mayhem) that never ever will alchemically transmute or transfigure into some “real” or heroic “essence” which the women supposedly were preventing him from accessing. The quest for a higher essentiality was all in his head, and projecting its inaccessibility (or its accessibility) unto women was a self-deluding ruse.

Wars have been fought with this quest as a subtext. I’ve heard that in Wind-Up Bird Chronicle there is a flaying, presumably another quest to reach into the soul. Pain, torture: I suppose that presents a baseline for “essence”-quests, but for anyone who has survived it, we know it ends with just another air attack, from the head this time, with shortcircuits and fainting. Not more life, just less. The other Murakami books I’ve read were full of relationships that kept the stories’ balls in the air, countering or questioning essential conclusions, and I’ll read on in this one. But if it gets too essential, I might not make it through the whole book….


jr November 27, 2003 at 9:39 am

I don’t think your casual disregard for perfect understanding is any way a bad thing. I feel that those who desire perfect understanding really dont want it, they just want to understand enough to control.

Best to be comfortable with those you are with, this does not require much understanding at all.

I do not accept any essential being. He/She that is not still growing is of no further interest to me for they no longer help me grow. Boy that sounds selfish but it’s true.

Joel November 27, 2003 at 2:01 pm

Personally, I have achieved what I feel to be a perfect confusion about many many people.

I agree with jr in that it’s more important to be happy with one’s self than to attempt to psychoanalyze another person. This is why open-questions work better in relationships than statements. You’re not working overtime to put your theories into practice, you’re giving the other person a chance to fill you in about themselves and do the work for you. They understand themselves better than you can ever hope.

I think the best balance is to take care of yourself first, but to see other people as “coming Buddhas”. It is true that people get stuck, but you never know when they might get unstuck. It may be wise to shut the door on someone for the time being, but check to see how they are doing from time to time.

Stuck people can teach you things about the world and yourself that you haven’t realized. If you find that you have problems with someone, look at yourself. Ask why?

I don’t have much use for any philosophy such as stoicism which implies that the “crowd” is to be avoided lest them upset your mood. If you can’t keep your attitude when you’re among annoying people, I feel, then you need to work on your attitude. It’s not much of a personal philosophy that crumbles in the face of social pressures and disasters.

brian moffatt November 28, 2003 at 2:57 pm

I think other people – at least those near and dear – understand me better than I understand myself.

And getting to know someone perfectly? Yep, I’d think that would have to be about control, the motive of a sociopath.

As for the essence of life, I think aversion is every bit as vaild as engagement. When you lose a golf ball in the woods it is often best to look askance, seeking indirectly.

Yule Heibel November 29, 2003 at 1:21 pm

I’m getting along in the Murakami novel — it’s a very good book. I’m still puzzling over the knowing-of-essence business, though (in the book & elsewhere) and wondering if it is a guy-girl thing, too. My first reaction is to go with jr, that it is about control — that desiring perfect understanding is about control. I typically focus my quest for understanding (and hence control?) on context, politics, surroundings, but not on people (except in terms of perhaps understanding what makes them tick, and that’s usually related to how they’re relating to their context, politics, surroundings, etc. .. it’s like an endless wheel), and this in turn helps me better understand how I’m relating to past personal history, context, family romance, politics, surroundings.

It’s probably less a guy-girl thing than an authoritarian personality thing. Post-modern relativists are going to be happier thinking about existence in terms of relationships (to other people, to contexts, to politics) than traditionalists who seek to identify ideal forms (and formulae to live by), rules, essences.

I think there’s right and wrong, though. I use the golden rule for that one, and think the world would be a better place if everyone tried to live by it. I’m not as cynical about people as I might seem, because I do prefer to believe (and I’m not saying whether I’m knowingly deluding myself or not) that more people than one might think do try to live by the golden rule. Imperfectly. I know someone who believes in the devil. I think that’s just a belief created by the shock — the very real soul shock — incurred when you understand that there are people who don’t, however, have any interest whatsoever in living by a golden rule or any rule that would protect their innocence, and by extension the innocence of others. But sometimes it’s only through the experience of these people (or the devil or evil or whatever) that human thinking moves forward anyway, provided we’re willing to let go of authority figures: parents, gods, whatever. Our fall is inevitable; how we land, and get up to move afterwards, makes the substance of our lives.

Joel November 29, 2003 at 10:44 pm

Yule, most cynics believe in the highest values. It frustrates them when they cannot get others to rise to them.

There seem to be only two choices: either keep feeling thwarted by the resistance of others to change or give up. I strive for a third course, which is to continue aiming high for myself and being happy with that.

Maybe our happiness will attract others.

brian moffatt November 30, 2003 at 7:29 am

To Joel’s point, and this may sound odd, happy people scare me. And I think back to your comment , Yule about how you deal with your kids. How you see them – not grow, but shift. (okay my words but I think that’s the essence of it.) Change to me at least always connotes a progression/regression. Shifting is something quite amorphous, something outside of time.

As someone who is always very interested in getting to know people I have to catch myself when I peg someone. I make up my mind about what they are – their essence, as it is revealed to me, or as I see it – based on the evidence accummulated, presented then. It’s always then. Past..

But I know of myself there is no ‘me’. I have been at least fifty different people in my life. (And no I’m not deranged – despite my success with personality tests:-) ) Now that sounds all rather fruity but the point is and this sounds fruitier still – we are always becoming. We easily see this in kids because we can see them growing – literally – overnight.

We see adulthood then as a decaying process, a dissolution and associate the depletion of our physical and mental capacities – our march toward death as a force against our selves, because we have been taught or told that our selves or a large portion thereof were fully formed when out vessel – our bodies became fully formed.

A large problem then, whether you are a postmodern-relativist, cynic, devil-worshipper or nun, is typecasting, so to speak, in this knowing of essence has to do with time.

The stuff we have experienced in the past and our hopes (or fears) for the future come together – in essence – in an instant, now. But there is no now, There is no present. Therefore, there is no essence.

We get a whiff. Bottling that whiff, though possible, is futile. Time is the only authority figure we need bow to.

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