Philosophical Possibilities in Kaoru Fujiwara’s “Mukashi no Hanashi”
Mukashi no Hanashi is an anthology of short stories, literally “A Story of Long Ago”, that combines Kaoru Fujiwara‘s sparse and mysterious storytelling with her great artwork. Each of the seven stories is deeply suggestive, and there are a number of incursions into the realm of thought that I’d love to highlight and dwell on in this post, if briefly. By the way, I’m keeping this post spoiler free, although some description of the plot is inevitable.
I. White Room
The first story in the collection presents us with a world (perhaps our own?) where there are white angels and black angels. The white angels take care of positive things: making flowers bloom, granting people the courage to endure difficult situations etc. The black angels deal with the negative: they cause disease and death. Significantly, the mechanism at work for both sides is the same: they are ordered, presumably by God, to carry certain actions and they perform them promptly. There is no real sense that the white angels are good and the black ones bad, both form an integral part of the way the world works.
Philosophically speaking, the angels in the story form one solution to the problem of Cause and Effect.
Western philosophy has come up with three possible solutions. The first and most popular agrees with common sense and with most of modern science: we can call it physical relation. We are sick. This is an effect. Of what? A virus. How? Well, I don’t know the details, but the virus enters our organism and it settles there. Then it begins to break down this and that, which makes this fail and then we’re sick. You get the point!
Traditional religion has never really had a problem with this theory. It’s very easy to postulate that God creates the universe in its initial state and gives it a set of physical laws, then the world develops according to its own internal (though, to be sure, God-given) logic. We’re still sick because of the virus, but the ultimate cause of viruses and I myself is God. End of story.
There are two other, lesser known theories. The German Leibniz developed one all by himself called preëstablished harmony. Basically, this means that each object has an internal program that tells it how to act from beginning to end. One object does not cause anything in any other object, it just seems that way because all of the “programs” have been harmoniously established by God since the world’s inception.
So in this case, if I’m sick it’s because my body has been determined to behave in this way: it’s fated to be so to speak. The virus does enter my organism, sure, but the virus is not causing my sickness, it’s only developing along the lines of its own program. How come viruses and sick bodies are found together so often? Because God willed it so. And if you want to know why He willed it so, the short answer is because that is the best possible harmony possible. The foundations for this assessment, however, are known only to the creator Himself.
The third theory was most famously championed by the French priest Malebranche. It’s called occasionalism, and it harks back to a more primal, perhaps purer state of religion: simply put, God causes everything. So in this case when I get sick, it’s because God made me sick. The virus had nothing to do with it. I was born, not because of my parents’ love, but because of God’s intervention: every occasion is the result of God’s immediate work. As for the fact that viruses and sickness seem to go together, it can be explained as God’s willingness to make the world more “intelligible” to us.
The angels in White Room are the agents of this divine occasionalism. The protagonist, a black angel, struggles between accepting her role or switching to the sweeter white tasks. The end, well, I won’t spoil it, but it fits the solemnity of this worldview…
II. The Dreamer
The third story of the collection. A man dreams of a woman in a dull town of grayless skies. The dreams continue night after night, forming a narrative. The man begins to realize that the woman in the dream talks of dreaming, and that which she is dreaming is nothing other than the man’s life.
This story is absolutely gorgeous. The basic premise reminds us of the tale Zhuangzi and the Butterfly, which appears in the second chapter of his classic. Zhuangzi dreams that he is a butterfly. Then he ponders, is it him dreaming of being the insect, or is it the insect dreaming that it is a man?
Zhuangzi leaves us with an aporia: what’s the difference? How can you tell? Without spoiling the ending of Fujiwara’s tale, I’ll say that the sense that I got from it is that the answer might lie in a third, inclusive view: both butterfly and Zhuangzi exist, maybe they are each a part of the other.
All of the other stories are wonderful as well. A couple of them, Cups especially, are full of so much pain that I find it hard to write about them. The Edge of the Sky, to the Furthest Horizon is 5 pages of pure love: a man is seeking for his soulmate; a dog stands by, unnoticed and probably looking for the perfect master; a woman sits alone, elsewhere.
BTW: Storm in Heaven has done a great job on this series [here].