What do we call a hero who ignores, abandons or refuses the quest?
In Haruki Murakami’s seminal work, his main character finds her self in a world that she suspects is no longer the one she knew. As a way of noting for herself that she is now a stranger in a strange land, she changes the current date from 1984 to 1Q84, and sets about finding her bearings.
Many of us may feel similarly out of place in the world that we find ourselves in at the beginning of this new year. For most of us this didn’t happen at midnight New Year’s Eve 2021, and for some it has been coming for decades.
This isn’t about COVID, and it isn’t about any specific political or pop culture shift. It is about the more general way in which the narratives have been breaking down around us.
As early as the mid twentieth century there was talk about a shift into post-modernism. Discussion started in the realms of literary theory, but spread through the following decades to describe what was happening in many spheres or discourse.
In broad terms, postmodernism is the breaking down of grand narratives, the stories we have told ourselves about the way things work. As these once-secure footings began to dissolve we entered a reality more focused on subjective experience and riddled with skepticism about how one “should” think, feel or behave.
In the novels of Murakami, the characters are faced with strange twists of reality, and situations that make them question fundamental truths that they have told themselves, or absorbed from others. It is in their discovery and navigation of the places in which their worlds seem to dissolve, that they play out their heroic roles.
Photography has been a way for me to make note of the strange within my world. I perhaps wouldn’t have described it this way a decade ago, but it is becoming clear to me that what I take pictures of if often what I find a bit odd, or seemingly out of place.
A deep part of me has always embraced the skeptical nature of post-modernism. My early photography especially seemed to focus on pointing out spaces of the city that were not intended to be focused on. I focused on the back staircases of apartment houses, the alleyways and awkward architectural features of buildings that had not been designed to go together. Perhaps my subconscious was attempting to draw my attention to the places which society’s narrative didn’t account for.
At first my ability to see behind the veil was a call to action, a charge to challenge the faulty narrative at work. I felt cheated when I saw something that didn’t add up. I felt as if I had been lied to, that surely someone must be held accountable.
Fiction places heroes into the grand narrative. It asks great things of them. We are accustomed to heroes who must save the world from great dangers. Sometimes this same unfortunate hero must save the world over and over again, perhaps upping the ante each time.
Murakami’s heroes also find themselves in the middle of dramatic events. There is often a disturbed undercurrent of supernatural power at work in the world because the world has been cracked open, laid vulnerable, crying out for repair.
More recently, as the perspective on my own work, and my own place in the world, continues to develop, I see a different place for my photography. Far from speaking to the world at large, my images seem meant purely for myself. Rather than showcasing injustice, or highlighting hypocrisy, or even drawing much needed attention to situations that were overlooked, it remains inwardly focused, speaking only to me.
The moments of strangeness that I seem interested in look more to me now less like failings of society, and more like accidents, easily forgiven in context of all that is taking place around us. Like Tolkien’s wonderful description, the world in which we live has been spread too thin, like too little butter over too much bread. There is so much complexity and ongoing development that no one can possibly comprehend or begin to approach an understanding of it all. Not that we ever really could, though we did a wonderful job convincing ourselves.
Postmodernism has been a blessing, a liberation from outdated models of thinking that might have tied us down artificially to a world that no longer existed. It has given us tools to free us up for new development and evolutions. All change requires conservation of energy, and the destruction or transmutation of what exists before it can become something new.
Like any tools, however, the ability to criticize and tear-down a grand narrative can be turned loose where it is not helpful. Like any tool, it requires the proper training, or at least a passing glance at the manual before operation. It seems that the disintegration has gone rampant in our time, accompanied by the escalation of complexity in our world. We are confronted by a civilization in which the landscape is changing daily, and we are simultaneously working to destroy the maps we have used up until now, no matter how imperfect. What is more, anyone who tries to present a new map is immediately pulled down and silenced.
Murakami’s heroes often disrupt what we expect of them. Sometimes this means abandoning the “main” quest altogether. Often this means making decisions which place them into unique consequences many of us would not be willing to live with. For each character the real story becomes about how they orient themselves to the world around them, and what they ultimately choose to strive for as an individual, rather than looking outwards at the values, expectations and judgments of other people. The reader is often left feeling harmoniously adrift as the world-building and the characters part ways on the page.
Looking at the world through a lens has been a way for me to identify where my resonance is with the world around me. Reviewing the art I have created across a variety of media during the last couple decades, I can see what carries meaning for me, and where the questions are that I have been working to tease out.
Photographs of nature dial in on dense foliage, intricate textures and layered compositions. Nature has been my refuge and my inspiration for a while, but I find myself returning to images of what humans have built. Still, it is those accidental moments, the awkward juxtapositions, the unintended consequences of what we have created which interest me. I seem to enjoy the beauty within the chaos and the idea that everything has a life of its own, especially in concert with everything else.
These conversations continue in all areas of my life, and it has become easier and easier for me to recognize where I feel most activated and whole, and what situations seem unnatural and toxic.
Taoism has helped me focus these ideas, that everything is living out its own unique character. That to express oneself fully, to be most fully who you are, is the most natural and important way for us to try and be in this world.
Stoicism urges us to ground ourselves in values. A life lived in congruence with our core values is the way to live honestly, openly and fully, without regrets.
In order to be most fully ourselves, we need to do the work of getting to know ourselves, of testing our value systems and challenging what we think we ought to be doing. Murakami’s characters remain true to themselves, and their abandonment of the quest that they have been thrust upon is of no concern to them. Their purpose lies within, their quest is not open for us to see. We may not be able to describe the what or the why, but we all recognize someone who is being true to themselves.
Now that we are in the deep throes of tearing down the narratives around us, it is time to starting thinking about the next steps. Destruction is useful to clear the way for something new. The onus looms large that we begin the work of reconsctruction. I believe it must be a hyper-grassroots effort, in which each individual concentrates inwards. Like a substance breaking into basic atoms, we must start from the bottom up.
When living in accordance with our own nature we are learning to define ourselves on our own terms. It may be awkward and it won’t always be comfortable, but the result is there for anyone who does the work. Live life according to your own values and no matter what is going on around you it can feel like an authentic life.
Murakami’s characters use the strangeness of their situation to spark this transformation. The fact that the world is broken isn’t their charge to go and fix it the world outside, it is a reflection of what is happening within. The quest they ultimately undertake brings them into a new world. Not one in which the outward reality is back to “normal”, but one in which they are free to live a whole life no matter what else is going on.
Art, curiosity and compassion are tools that we can use to discover ourselves and test our values. These attributes can be combined to tease out a life in which we can feel more whole. It may not seem like much, but I think it has to start here.
In a world where the grand narratives have been torn down, it is on the individual to create their own roots.
That is my charge for 2Q22. Not to change the world, but to change ourselves. Follow your curiosity, support others with your compassion.
Wishing everyone the best this year, thanks for reading.