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The Sand Pit As Paradise
On the rare gift of knowing our place
There’s a 1964 Japanese film called Woman In The Dunes (see the trailer here) that is one of the strangest and most thought-provoking movies I’ve ever seen.
Director Hiroshi Teshigahara’s film is about a Japanese entomologist out on the sand dunes in a rural village, looking for bugs. He’s hoping to make a name for himself for scientific discovery. When he misses the last bus back to the city, the man has to accept the hospitality of a young widow who lives in a hut in a deep sand pit. Her job is to dig sand out of the pit and deliver it to villagers to make concrete. Also, her digging keeps the sand from crushing other houses in the village. The entomologist, Junpei, climbs down a rope ladder to spend the night in the hut with the widow, who cooks him a nice meal.
But he can’t leave. He discovers to his horror that the villagers have trapped him to force him to live with the widow. The pit is too steep to climb out of. Much of the narrative is about Junpei’s futile attempts to free himself from his circumstances. Meanwhile, he, like the woman, has no choice but to keep digging, or they will be suffocated by sand.
The woman is not unhappy there in the pit. This is her world, and she accepts it. She has a purpose in life. Junpei thinks that she is crazy, but eventually becomes attached to the woman, and becomes her lover. After much time, he engages his intelligence in discovering a way to draw water out of the sand at night, and becomes totally absorbed in perfecting his skill.
In the end, after years of living like this, Junpei has the opportunity to escape … but chooses not to. He realizes that he has found his rightful place there in the pit. To borrow Camus’s last line in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”: We must imagine Junpei happy.
But he is a prisoner and a slave! Why must we imagine him happy?
The answer is in the book that put me onto Woman In The Dunes, a volume that is as enigmatic as this existential parable: The Antimodern Condition: An Argument Against Progress, a thin, dense (but beautifully written), challenging book by a British academic named Peter King. I have no idea why, but the Kindle version costs fifty bucks, and the paper versions are even more. This book, first published in 2014, is not going to be a bestseller, but boy, is it unforgettable.
Explaining Junpei’s happiness, King writes:
He is not free in any modern sense. He is now free in the sense that he lives within an order that he can both understand and help to maintain…
This, says King, is what people require for happiness. Augustine famously said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in You, O Lord.” King doesn’t discuss religion, but he does ponder the existential meaning of anxiety. Restlessness comes from an inability to be happy with where we are and what we have. Modern man likes to think that his happiness comes from an absence of limits. This, argues King, is why he is doomed to be unhappy. Only by living as a part of something that is greater than ourselves, and that requires our participation to continue, can we rid ourselves of angst. Writes King:
Attachment is about putting our trust in one place, about investing all our emotional intensity in it, and this involves a degree of naivety, a simplicity involving acceptance of things at face value rather than speculating on hypotheticals.
The modern world teaches us that detachment — keeping our options open — is the key to happiness. St. Benedict of Nursia, in his Rule, said that the worst kind of monk is a gyrovague, a monk who is always on the move. Why is the gyrovague so bad? Because he cannot settle down, and cannot therefore grow spiritually and mature. But for us, the gyrovague is the quintessential modern man. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman said that pre-modern man was a pilgrim — moving along a relatively fixed path, together with everyone else, towards a sure goal. But modern man is a tourist, charting his own course, carried along by his own fluctuating desires. What a weird thing it is to travel abroad and to take pleasure in visiting places that are so picturesque and appealing precisely because things haven’t much changed there in centuries. Those people have chosen not to live like we do, and have created places worth preserving, and visiting.
(On the other hand, many of those charming little European villages are depopulating. There’s no work there. The young need to go to the city, and they want to go to the city. They too are modern. But I digress.)
Woman In The Dunes is such an unusual movie in part because the hero in Western movies is the man who escapes his boundaries and goes where he wants to go (metaphorically or otherwise). We rarely see in fictional portrayals a character whose total freedom makes it impossible for him to form attachments, and leaves him unhappy. Is this not us, though? Without accepting natural limits, we are tormented by what might have been, or might yet be. High school teachers tell me that anxiety among teenagers is absolutely off the charts. I can’t help thinking that this comes from having their standards set by social media, where they are hit by images of everybody else having cooler and better lives than they are.
After my book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming came out, every now and then I would run into somebody who would offer the theory that my late sister had such low regard for me because she secretly wanted to leave our country town, and resented me for doing so. Nobody who knew Ruthie even slightly would credit that view. Ruthie deeply loved our town and everything about it. She was at home there. Her negative view of me had to do with her judgment that my inability to find happiness there was a sign of poor character. There was nothing restless about Ruthie. She was happy with what she had, and took my inability to share that happiness as a failure of love on my part.
As readers of that book know, I came to admire my sister’s commitments. The title of the book — her “little way” — is a reference to the capacious smallness of her life, and the joy she found through investing all of her emotional intensity in our town and its people. I tried to do it, and things did not work out, for sad and complicated reasons not worth going into here. What I learned from that experience, and thinking hard about the two paths that my sister and I took, is that not everybody can be happy in the same place (and I define “place” here broadly, as a way of life, including locale) but that nobody can find happiness unless they are committed to a place. Eventually you become committed to a place — again, in the broad sense — by limits imposed on you by circumstance. Very, very few of us are wealthy enough to live as we please, or to do without any connection to anyone. And even if we were, eventually infirmity, leading to death, will shrink our horizon.
Woman Of The Dunes compels us to consider the meaning of freedom, and the connection between liberty and happiness, in light of human nature. We mortals are not meant for infinity. We live in a society powered, economically and otherwise, by creating desires that cannot possibly be fulfilled, and exploiting the resulting internal disharmony. If politics is the art of the possible, as Bismarck held, then happiness is learning to accept the possible as the desirable. Nobody likes to consider that knowing one’s place is the key to contentment, but what if it’s true?
I’ll give the last word to Peter King:
Teshigahara’s film tells us what acceptance means and why it is important. His vision is not of perfection or even of possibility. Instead it deals with how we come to an accommodation with the world and learn that we now have enough. It shows us, albeit in a rather allusive manner, what it might mean to be at peace with the world and to accept that we are part of it rather than beings who fight to control and consume.
A paradox: we have to fight ourselves fiercely to arrive at that place of peace.
Here’s a funny story that my father used to tell. It’s true, too. Back in the day, there was a man in our town — let’s call him Carl — who was good-hearted, hard-working, but simple. He struggled to find a girlfriend. Then came word one day that Carl had been going with an old gal from Jackson, the town across Thompson Creek. Everybody was surprised that Carl had found a lady, but some of the men were worried that Carl was being made a fool of by this woman.
They took him aside one day for a word. “Carl,” one of them said, “you probably don’t know this, but that woman you’ve been seeing has slept with every man in Jackson.”
Carl’s face flushed, and he looked down at the ground for a moment. When he looked up, he said to the men, “Well, Jackson ain’t no big town.”
Carl and his lady married, and had a long and happy life together before passing into the community’s memory.
I heard from a reader who is planning to subscribe to this newsletter when I finally make the switch to pay that I need to work harder at differentiating this newsletter from what I write for free at TAC. That’s a good insight, and I appreciate it. The main reason I’m writing for free right now here is that I’m trying to figure out how to determine where the line is. As regular readers of my TAC blog know, I’ve always woven the personal into the public in my commentaries. I started this Substack in part because I hear from a surprising number of readers who miss the quirky stuff I used to write that had nothing to do with politics and current events. As our national politics have grown more heated, I have felt less comfortable with that tonal switch on the TAC blog, even though as anybody who knows me personally will testify, I am far less engaged with politics and current events in real life than I am in my day job. It’s hard to deliver a jeremiad about religious liberty or threats to free speech, then turn around and pen a miniaturist take on old dogs, children, and watermelon wine. (I hope you fellow old folks in the readership get the reference, and if you don’t, well, here you go.)
Anyway, please do write me to give me a sense of the kinds of things you would like to see on this Daily Dreher Substack — specifically, things that you’d like to see me write about here that I don’t write about on my TAC blog. It’s taking some effort for me to sort out and migrate the personal content over here within my own mind, as I sit down throughout the day to write. If I’m going to have the nerve to ask y’all to pay a little bit to read my words, I really do want to give you your money’s worth. I’m at roddreher — at — substack — dot — com.