Woman in the Dunes: Geology as Sociology

April 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

woman in the dunes

Teshigahara might not be Japanese cinema’s most subtle symbolist or innovative formalist, but his uncanny ability to craft startling depictions of existential deadlock has cast him as one of the most enduring figures of the New Wave despite his relatively concise body of feature work. While one can find many parallels between his films and those of Antonioni, Resnais (another veteran of the documentary form) or even Bergman at his more abstruse, it could be said that Teshigahara’s greatest spiritual contemporary is none other than Rod Sterling’s immortal television series The Twilight Zone and its countless short form excursions into the impenetrable irreal that haunts all four of Teshigahara’s collaborations with novelist Kōbō Abe. Internationally hailed as a  masterpiece, his Woman in the Dunes (1964) has largely been seen the artistic peak of this tetralogy—the first of which being Pitfall (1962), a wonderful analysis of which can be found [here] by our very own Mr. Triangles.

By way of the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, I seek to continue Mr. Triangles’ Neo-Marxian reading of Pitfall into Woman in the Dunes with the specific concerns of connecting the radical implications of Deleuzian materialism with the influence of Kiyoteru Hanada’s “mineralism” on Kōbō Abe’s post-Communist political attitudes and subsequently Teshigahara’s cinematic interpretations of his works.

Hanada and Abe

Kōbō Abe wrote Suna no onna after being expelled from the Japanese Communist Party in 1962 for opposing the leadership’s censorship practices. Even ignoring of the tremendous effect of Teshigahara’s 1964 adaption on Abe’s subsequent popularity, the novel already marked both a stark turning point in Abe’s literary method and the political commentary inscribed into his works. Yet, from this item alone, it remains unclear as to which stemmed from which, since Abe’s insistence on undisciplined artistic freedom seems to be both the cause and the result of his withdrawal from communism.

But when looking at the extent of Kiyoteru Hanada’s influence on Abe’s early work, it becomes clear how Abe’s rejection of communism was much less a paradigm shift in philosophy than a disillusionment with a particular experimental attempt at achieving that philosophy.

In “Dendorokakariya” (1949), Abe explores Hanada’s blurring of the distinction between different forms of life through a deadpan surrealism reminiscent of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”. In this case depicting the gradual transformation of human into plant, Abe wonderfully captures the ostensibly boundless metaphysics of Hanada’s “mineralism” with the main character’s absolute refusal to accept neither the reality his own transformation nor the inconsequence of any transformation as such by desperately clinging to the transcendent supremacy of man. A character in the story elaborates:

In the end, scientifically speaking, both plants and animals are one and the same. Doesn’t that sound good? A completely judgment-free approach . In my opinion, plants are analogous to schizophrenia. They are the hope of the modern era. Plants are the gods of the modern age, masses of hysterical people will become believers and emulate them.

Though laden with a kind of flippant overstatement, it is the statement’s very frankness that hold its truth. Take for instance Abe’s use of the term schizophrenic. It is an artistic flare that anticipates Deleuze and Guattari’s parallel use of the word by 20 years. It is even possible that both parties found inspiration from the same source: surrealism. It would not be the first time that Deleuze borrowed a concept from the movement—his most famous being his  appropriation of Antonin Artaud’s Body without Organs (BwO), a term which will soon be applied here.

Only through Hanada can Abe’s communism and surrealism be explained; the two do not both require separate justifications. Still, in either school, there remains a lack that perhaps even Hanada could not account for—a lack which can only be encountered with Deleuze. Hamada’s first step towards the radical logic of the BwO was in finding a way out of the psychological realm of surrealism into a wider, material field of free expression, revealing the non-human real as a place for schizophrenia—perhaps even more so than the socially over-determined human mind. It is Hanada’s crucial displacement of the sacred Cartesian subject along with the unconscious space classically deemed as “beneath” this subject that makes him and his followers, Abe and Teshigahara, prime candidates for a Deleuzian reading.

Continuing into communism, it is even less surprising how a Marxist materialism and the Hegelian dialectic would be appealing to Hanada and his bold conception of art as the “unification of opposites—in their opposition—through art”. In communism, we see this embrace of the world’s perpetual self-contradiction taking two main forms: the violent road to universal synthesis through dialectical process itself and the internal regulations of a society speaking out their General Will through democracy. Where the first aspect might still have been accessible to a post-Communist Abe, it is precisely this unifying, disciplining in the General Will logic of democracy that he reacts against.

It could nearly be called a property of the becoming of any nation-scale democracy that bold artistic expression finds itself consigned to the decadent fringe, since the General Will of a majority is—while not itself normalized to any standard as such—still always normalizing and standardizing within itself by constantly coercing the dissent to move in harmony with the General Will. And where a stateless Communist utopia claims an ability to circumvent this minimum of absolutism, it is hard to imagine any society large enough to require governance that does not also require some form of territorializing centralization. Quite ironically, we find this very phenomenon appearing in the organization of the Japanese Communist party itself and its attempt to eliminate troublesome iconoclasts like Abe.

It should also be noted that it is this same, subtractive dialectic which is at work during the transmission of image to word—or, in the parlance of J. L. Austin, the world-to-word direction of fit. One only needs to make the opposite move, the so-called word-to-world direction of fit, in order to describe this singularity of Abe to Teshigahara, literal to filmic.

Sand and Politics

What significance can we draw from the Teshigahara’s treatment of sand, the controlling metaphor of Woman in the Dunes, as a BwO? Is sand really the first image we associate with a smooth movement, a body animated by intensities? Perhaps the better question is whether or not free movement is the first association we have with the BwO.

Indeed, an extended field of pure BwO often gives very much the opposite appearance of what its primary aptitude and raison d’être might suggest. Just like its Nietzschian counterpart, the Übermensch, the BwO is necessarily a singularity in order to exist as such; that is, an aristocrat. The BwO must always emerge from within a particular striation, since its very being is only made possible by the mechanics of that striation and a subsequent decoding thereof. In other words, if taken en masse the BwO is not some kind of schizophrenic field. A society comprised solely of BwOs is no kind of anarchy; it is a desert.
Woman in the Dunes

Deleuze looks to the revealing becomings of nature itself in order to predict what would occur in such a situation. The result is not so hard to imagine, though it does seem rather strange that the logical limit of Deleuze’s supreme formulation of human freedom eventually gives way to its very opposite: global stratification and class politics, an utter obscenity in our current vernacular. One only needs to look at Capitalism itself to see the startling recoding effects emerging from an absolute decoding of value. I think Mr. Triangles puts the vulgar representation into its clearest terms: dirt as people. Our analysis of the stratification of minerals as an articulator of social stratification is simply the natural conclusion of this phrasing: geology as sociology.

It is hard to overstate the ubiquity and infinity of difference in the world and how over-determining processes of becoming/differentiation work on all levels of articulation. The free man is free only in his relation—only in his difference—with striation. In the same sense, a society of free men can no longer posit freedom as a requisite for individuality but rather something else. This is essentially a reversal of the logic of Marxist class struggle where the individual is the object of an utopian dream, not the base subject of redifferentiation. For Marx, the individual is only fully actualized during a historical Communism whereas the BwO is always possible except when among a society of solely other BwOs. In this sense, historical Communism is positively the death of the BwO, which is perhaps why Deleuze never fully latches onto it or any other utopia despite his spiritual solidarity with Marx both philosophically as a radical materialist and politically as an ardent anti-Capitalist. The same attitude can even be ascribed to Abe as the man without a country, the artist individualist, all too much aware of his obligatory contingency as an example of freedom and not an ahistorical ideal.

Freedom and Rebirth

Few would argue Woman in the Dunes as an optimistic film, I imagine. It could verily be said that all of Teshigahara’s Abe collaborations are sustained by the same kind of pervasive desperation and impression of impending doom. Note that this is no accusation of self-plagiarism; there are simply not enough of these remarkable films. This is the kind of cinema that simply could not have existed in color, so strongly does it invoke the constitutive abyss of human existence in the underexposure of its frames.

That being said, Woman in the Dunes is a very dark film even for Teshigahara. There are shots during the chase sequence where the frame is absolutely drained of light and sometimes sound as well. The lead male’s initial entrance into the sandpit and first sighting of the woman in the dunes is enshrouded in the same frustrating pitch black. The woman herself is first seen to emerge from the blackness through little, poorly illuminated slivers of herself. One gets the sense that she is seen solely for the man, not only out of practical service to him but out of the nothing of the dark itself, something from nothing. Throughout the entire film Teshigahara only ever teases us with the woman’s personality, but still, when all is said and done, there simply is nothing there; no past, no future, and the barest semblance of a present, passion only in self-defense.

Of course, it is the film’s disquieting finale that reveals the truth of this move. We at last see the man himself become the caretaker of the sandpit, a willingly permanent occupant unperturbed by the opportunity of freedom. In the mode of Anti-Oedipus, the man becomes a subject who desires his own oppression. Academic feminism is just one profession that makes its name on ridiculing these sorts of subjects. My warning to this attitude would be: perhaps it is too early to lob indictments without first getting a sense of what the opposite would mean.

Noteworthy is how Teshigahara refuses to make it obvious as to how the actual event occurs. What was the cause of the man’s radical paradigm shift? What lead him away so nonchalantly from his ceaseless clamoring for freedom into a willing, complacent citizen of this outskirt world? Included in these lingering questions is the feeling that everything about the man’s behavior was, in some sense, preordained by the people of the village. It did not seem like them, even in all the commotion with the woman’s pregnancy, to simply forget reinstalling such a vital obstacle crucial to the maintenance of their project. And yet, it seems that it was this very move of simply allowing the man to go free that ensured his permanence—also suggesting that every other move on the villagers’ part had some degree of manipulative calculation. After walking out to the ocean, the man contemplates his experience in the sandpit and submits his conclusion aloud to the audience. His stated reasons for staying are, of course, rational ones. And in that sense they are all that much more false and unintelligible for being so rational. For, even if he did feel some utilitarian duty to share the designs of his water recovery system with the villagers, why did Teshigahara suggest to us with the following shot—no, rather dissolved superimposition—how this innocent move was the beginning of the end, the culmination of his captor’s initial intentions, and the seal of certainty on his disappearance?

All of these questions, it turns out, have their analogs when asked of Capitalism, and it is here in this parallel articulation where we might find some answers.

In this postmodern tale, the role of the male lead, the entomologist, is played by the populace of a nation as a collective and also, as in the film, a pure individuation of spirit. This, I would hope, is the easy move. Perhaps more mysterious is the role to cast is that of the woman, who in retrospect almost seems to have no role. For, even if she wasn’t there, we could have expected much of the same defensive behaviors from the man. For most of the film, the woman is simply a bargaining chip for the man, a strategy which ultimately yields nothing. And yet it would seem that the film’s turning point, the change of the man from revolutionary to complacent, is none other than her pregnancy; that is, his partnership with her—his exchange of essence even, and I mean this statement in its full Strangelovian connotations. Viewed from the biological perspective, sex is nothing more than an exchange of bodily fluids, though what we find exchanged is a sort of sublimated payment. The woman gets the male gamete, and the man gets his pleasure, his temporary satisfaction. For, theoretically, the female genitalia is differentiated enough to the point that pleasure, reproduction, and excretion can be seen as three separate movements; the same is hard to say for the man. Although we know discover little about the actual problems of the pregnancy—possibly an ectopic or tubal pregnancy—it perhaps isn’t all that essential to understand the particulars in order to understand the significance of her threatened health as a narrative development.
Woman in the Dunes

To see the woman as earth and the man as the child of that earth is to see her abnormal pregnancy as the biologically cursed result of incest even if the literal act depicted in the film is not factually so. Yet, it is rather difficult to characterize the relationship between the man and woman before their having sex as anything other than a mother to child relationship. The sex act itself devolves from a sequence in which the woman is cleaning the man’s body of sand, intimately interacting with his body without pretense in the same was as a mother does of a young boy. The woman feeds the man, teaches him everything he needs to know to survive, and doesn’t become angry when he refuses at first to listen.

Even more crucial is the nature of the sandpit itself as being almost absurdly vaginal, even uterine. The man is taken by the villagers into the sandpit, or uterus, as an unsuspecting seed when they themselves never enter. There is even a sense here they themselves could not enter. Then, just like a fetus, the man grows and adapts to his claustrophobic environment, occasionally kicking at the walls much to the villagers’ entertainment. Finally, at a certain point the man, the fetus, devises a way out and is born. His method of escape, a rope, is both practical from a logistic standpoint and reminiscent of an umbilical cord. Living his life out in the open, always on the run and in the dark, the man eventually finds his way back home—back into the comforting recesses of the womb. This entire scenario, it seems, is the incestual model of human development and sexuality at its purest.

Moving the scenario into the social realm, we find some new light thrown on both the abnormal pregnancy and the man’s final submission. Since it now seems possible that the zone of the sandpit represents a kind of primordial rebirth of man, what exactly can be drawn from the implied permanence of the man’s disappearance into that realm? Is it quite possible that the desperation of the ending—the dark and ironic twist, the trance-like state of the characteristically lucid man, the injustice of his continued collaboration—is not even to be taken strictly as a bad thing? This is not to say that we should ignore the potent emotional character of the film’s final acts, but rather that we should embrace Teshigahara’s meticulously crafted seeming of desperation as a literal desperation—as the final and most authentic bid for freedom in all its ingloriousness and yet in all its power.
Woman in the Dunes

Freedom is always in some sense an option of last resort. It is always easier to simply fall back into a stable, self-limiting system instead of riding the schizophrenic waves of the world. Abe’s own departure from Communism due to his disgust with censorship could be seen as the same kind of existential desperation. At some point, the man of Woman in the Dunes realizes the inherent folly of his struggle against his oppressors after being forced to live a life of complete alterity with his previous one; after being forced to give up all that he before valued. His appearance of complacency—of giving up, of conceding, of resignation, of weakness—is really a sign of the opposite: his newly discovered power. His final, desperate clingings to his old life perished in those blissful moments of unpursued, unstriated freedom. Abe too found in his escape from the confines of a noble yet rigid utopian dream the power to create a work like Suna no onna. Both figures, the entomologist—a near homophone of etymologist, a scholar of words, representations, systems—and Abe himself discovered in their devoted fidelity to a cause of freedom and social justice the very problem of freedom and authentic existence.

To be a perfect BwO is to live without such intensities, without longings for a return to normalcy even if that normalcy is a utopia of hope. The man’s nonchalant openness to the world at the end of the film is nothing less than his full transformation into a BwO; absolutely complacent to the intensities that guide him and therefore absolutely open to expressing his own power in any number of ways.


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