Shingo was silent for a moment. “There’s been something wrong with my ears these last few days, I think. The other night I opened the shutter to let in a little air, and I heard the mountain rumbling. And you were snoring away.”
Yasuko and Kikuko both looked toward the mountain.
“Do mountains roar?” asked Kikuko. “But you did say something once, Mother – remember? You said that just before your sister died, Father heard the mountain roar.”
Shingo was startled. He could not forgive himself for not remembering. He had heard the sound of the mountain, and why had the memory not come to him?
~ The Sound of the Mountain, by Yasunari Kawabata, (serialised 1949 – 1954).
“What were we doing at this moment, on this day, a year ago?” I asked a friend recently. He shrugged. I thought for a moment. “Isn’t it weird that that moment is as good as dead?”
In one lifespan we die innumerable times. As Ogata Shingo, an elderly ‘salaryman,’ comes to realise, the loss of memory is the slow ebbing away of the self. Shingo is frustrated by his adult son’s aloofness in regard to his personal relationships (a fault attributed to his youth), but also finds himself somewhat invigorated by his daughter-in-law’s (Kikuko) resemblance to an old love – his wife’s sister, long deceased. Kikuko’s mere presence has an almost epiphanic effect on him: “Shingo’s memories were pierced by moments of brightness, like flashes of lightning.” These moments of clarity are uncomfortable and painful, but just as worrying are the recurring bouts of amnesia. At the beginning of the novel, Shingo struggles with his inability to remember a housemaid who just left his employ: “I can’t even think of her name,” he mourns, “I can’t remember her clothes or her face.” Troubled, he feels as though “a life was being lost” in his forgetting the maid. To Shingo’s son, Shuichi, his father’s forgetful and forlornness “seemed a trifle exaggerated.”
Shuichi is unable to emphasise with his father. When we are young we largely manage to grow and forget our pasts whilst still retaining a sense of our old selves, all without attaining the existential angst plaguing Shingo (whenever we are afflicted, we call it nostalgia). The young, Shingo may suspect, are able to forget themselves repeatedly and carry on because they’re always able to reflect afterwards – no matter what they forget in the present, there’s always the possibility of a future. Think of it as reincarnation. Not as dramatic as Lazarus or the Nazarene’s, but reincarnation all the same. True death is the final fade to black, with no time for reflection afterwards. Shingo is rapidly running out of lives, and unfortunately he knows it. His frequent amnesia is a living death. This naturally instigates his anxiety and regret.
Looking at photographs of my younger self, I know that we no longer share a single cell, atom, or thought – but yet, it’s me. And I can look at you, and any photograph or recording of yourself as a child, and I can say, “that’s you”, and we’ll both agree – but we can also agree that you presently are no longer the figure in the photograph, physically or mentally. These sort of Theseusian paradoxes have often been applied to ships, weaponry, tools, and so forth. They tend to perplex or delight us when considered in inanimate contexts. Applying them to ourselves normally leads to feelings of nostalgia, and perhaps even a sense of achievement if we feel that we have improved ourselves. Though I am no longer the child or teenager I once was, I still share a unique relationship with those prior incarnations collectively known as ‘myself’ – I know what they knew, and I know it exclusively; whatever they have forgotten, we forgot together. And that’s not generally troubling when we have time, good health, and a long life on our side. Shingo has none of these things left to console him.
He had reached an age when most of his friends were dead. It was perhaps natural that he should dream of the dead.
Neither the old cabinetmaker or Aida had appeared to him as dead, however. They had come into his dreams as living people. And the figures of both, as they had come in the dreams, were still vivid in his mind.
What Shingo finds most worrying is that not only is he running out of ‘reincarnations’ as he grows into old age and his body becomes frailer, not only is he hurtling towards that final death, but that with each passing day the many disappointments he has suffered, buried, and forgotten over the decades begin to resurface. No prior incarnation of himself has ever been truly happy, and this sad, frail effigy of his former youth has inherited a lifetime of regret and doubt. There is no future to offload onto. Shingo must live in the rapidly deteriorating present. These troubles are represented in the novel as the spectres of people Shingo had known throughout his life, but are now dead. Others, perhaps representing both his deteriorating past and future, appear as hypnagogic figures to whom he is unable to put a name or even a face. “It’s not very pleasant dreaming of dead people,” his wife remarks. “Maybe they’ve come for me,” Shingo replies.
“Toriyama was being taken to the grave, not knowing,” the novel reads at one point. “For the wife, left behind, it was all in the past.” The elderly widow is then compared to her husband, “Probably she too would go to the grave unknowing.” A small sad affirmation that our memories are continually stripped and clumsily relatched until there’s nothing left of us but the pip.
“Let’s see if we remember this moment a year from now,” I said to my friend, novel aside, and we agreed to test ourselves in the future, even though the memory had already started the long process of dying.