LI has been thinking about the “reality effect” since reading Underground, Haruki Murakami’s account of Aum Shinrikyo’s poison gas attack on the Tokyo Subways. Murakami’s book is divided into two sections, which were published as two separate books in Japan. In one section, he interviews victims of the attack. Some of these victims have recovered, at least physiologically, and some still deal with various degrees of injury, up to and including being permanently on life maintaining systems at a hospital. The other, smaller section is a group of interviews with Aum members. Some of the members have moved away from the group, some remain with it.

Although I’m not sure that this was Murakami’s purpose, one of the results of the book is to contrast two kinds of “reality” effect. It was, perhaps, unconsciously one of the reasons that Aum targeted a subway system, insofar as subways represent almost pure routine, that part of life in which everything exists under the sign of the minus. By which I mean that the experience is oriented exclusively to getting somewhere, and thus is ‘subtracted’ from real experience. Very few autobiographies concentrate on the phenomenology of taking a subway train to work. If one did, undoubtedly it would be one subway ride – the general subway ride, which absorbs into its general features the features shared by all particular subway rides, and is thus not a description of a specific subway ride at all. It is hard to imagine an “On the Road” devoted to riding the subway. This is why subway rides are routine –routines are experiences under the minus sign. The feel of their collective reality is unimportant. This is, I think, partly what Santayana means when he claims that we experience essences. It might be that Santayana's claim confuses description with experience, but the problem with sending a philosophical probe into experience to find out what it is in itself, beyond description, is that this restricts description to a narrow and specific verbal activity. But description is much more mixed up in experience than this, as you can tell from accounts of almost any disaster. Those accounts are full of people instructing themselves to respond to things. These instructions imply, in fact, a stream of descriptive activity that is implicated in the very stream of experience. And one effect of the mingling of those supposedly different planes, description and experience, is that experience is oriented towards the general features of a situation -- maps the present with its expectations about the present. The present, in other words, is experienced as the description of the present in many more cases than the philosopher likes to admit.

This negation of the value of the feel of reality (and yes, that’s a lot of “of” – ofs are the subway train rides of grammar) is precisely what the interviewees in the Aum section abhor. The victims all begin their accounts like “ On March 20th I wasn’t especially busy at work, but it being the end of the fiscal year there was plenty to do.” Or ‘March 20 coincides with our spring fashion sales peak, which keeps us pretty busy.” Or “So there I was, going back to work that day, after my absence, which is why I wanted to get to the office a little early, to make up for lost time.” The subways exist in the realm of busyness – the schedules are about down time between home and “plenty to do,” “making up for lost time”, etc. Busyness, of course, is both absorbing and fills the place of the feeling of reality.

The Aum people begin differently. Of course, this is partly because Murakami is not trying to pin them down to a particular day, or sequence of events. He is after what it felt like to be in the group, in a way that he is not after what it felt like to be on a subway train day after day. The closest he comes to treating the subway experience as a salient and complete thing in itself, an object for understanding, is when he interviews the subway employees. For them, the subway exists under the sign of busyness – that is, it is fully real. But the Aum people begin by saying things like “I had some sort of philosophical struggle going on in me, a period of great discontent.” Or “When I finished high school I felt like I would either renounce the world or die…” Or “I never felt any major frustration or difficulty in my life, really. It was more like something was missing.”

The disturbing thing about the Aum accounts, of course, is that the reality of life in Aum was also full of busyness. Certain people were busy being given drugs and shut in boxes. Certain people were busy building vats to hold poisonous chemicals. And, in the most astonishing account of all, to me, one of the Aum interviewees was given electroshock after she committed some trespass, and has no memory of two years of her life. The astonishing thing is not so much the electroshock as the fact that it and the vanished two years are so completely assimilated to what is normal to her:

“I underwent electroshock. I still have the scars from the electricity right here. (Raises her hair to show her neck, where a line of white scars remain). I remember things up to the time I entered the Dubbing Division [a division of the Aum Shinryko “Ministry of Communications”], but after that it is a blank. I have no idea at what point, and for what reason, my memory was erased. I asked people around me but no one would tell me. All they’d say was, “It seems you and a certain somebody were getting to a dangerous point.”

And, after another question:

“Anyway, my memory was erased, and when I came to myself it was already the beginning of the year of the gas attack [1995] I’d gone into the Dubbing Division in 1993, and the two years after that are an absolute blank. Except I suddenly got a flashback of me working in the Aum-run supermarket in Kyoto. All of a sudden this scene came back to me. It’s summer, I’m wearing a t-shirt and I’m sticking price tags on packets of ramen.”

A routine sticking price tags on packets of ramen is just the sort of objective that the subway system serves. It is interesting that the negation of this woman’s experience, the memory loss, is interesting, dramatic, frightening because of the surrounding narrative – in the same way that the subway ride on the morning of March 20, 1995, suddenly glows, suddenly reverses the minus sign above it, because of the attack. The subway ride on the morning of March 23, 1995, for example, has fallen into nothingness. It could have been erased by electroshock, for all the impression it makes upon us.

I am bringing these things up because lately, I have vowed to work more on my novel. The writing life is much like being a member of Aum, actually. It is full of what is missing in life, full of “training,” and – inevitably – full of busyness. But to continue to do this, I have to have a sense about what a novel does, or what I would like one to do. And the problem is in achieving the kind of intensity throughout that is of the same substance – that has the same attitude towards reality – as the day the woman in Aum “woke up” from her blank two years.

The woman, by the way, woke up in a sealed room, three feet by six feet, without even a peephole through the door. Aum leaders had a habit of punishing the wayward by locking them in such holes. The woman is not completely cool with being shut in a box, it turns out.


Ray Davis said…
It is hard to imagine an “On the Road” devoted to riding the subway.

A hard but pleasant thing. Much of Ron Silliman's poetry takes (and took) place on a bus.

For the tube, at least there's Geoff Ryman's disaster hypertext, 253.