Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Glimpses at the Complexity of Life and the Human Condition

Yasunari Kawabata’s short story Canaries is a forbidden letter to a past lover that babbles and eddies with the narrator’s awkwardness and emotions. The subtext of the letter successfully tackles the complexity of human relationships. Superficially the narrator laments his recently deceased wife and is reminiscent of his long lost lover, Madam. The story is grounded in the relatively trivial fate of a pair of birds he received as a gift from Madam, who instructs him to: “Please remember me with these birds. Perhaps it’s odd to give living creatures as a souvenir, but our memories, too are alive.” As the birds inevitably near the end of their life, he desperately tries to create something out of the memories they are preserving. He habitually returns to clarification phrases such as “I’ll put it plainly” and “I’ll say it again”. When the letter drifts into those serious emotional territories, the narrator returns to the trivial topic of the birds. The letter reads more like a schizophrenic self exploration then genuine correspondence.
James Purdy’s Daddy Wolf (1923) also has a narrator who is dependendent on communication to cope with personal hardships. At times it is unclear which of the narrator’s many strangers is absorbing his burden by putting up with listening. Is it a stranger on the phone, the operator, the stranger in the hall, or myself as the reader of the story? The narrator of this story has taken this situation to a ludicrous degree. “It’s funny talking to you like this, Mister, and as I told the lady I am waiting to get reconnected with on the phone, if I didn’t know any better I would think either one of you was Daddy Wolf on the Trouble Phone”. The man in Kawabata’s story, who seems more in touch with reality is merely trying to cope with his emotions through the postal system, while the narrator in Daddy Wolf is not satisfied with his “Trouble Phone” as an outlet, and franticly unloads his baggage on passersbys and strangers.
The very concept of a relationship that is complex in presentation, and obscured by secrecy, dances at the edge of understanding the human predicament. Like these short stories, it is this polar duality that makes Bob Dylan’s “As I Went Out One Morning” (1967) so magical while remaining so concise. In only 140 words, Dylan paints a picture of the disturbingly unhealthy relationship between “the fairest damsel that ever did walk in chains” and Tom Paine. It is his mastery over the rhetoric of human relationships that allows the complexity of the situation to be subtle and technically unwritten.

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