When was the last time you saw or heard or felt something entirely novel? We humans are extraordinarily good at making sense of the cacophony of sensory impressions that reaches us, at slotting disparate inputs into our existing conceptual view of the world. You see and feel and smell and hear a particular configuration of color and shape and sound and icy cold metal and you immediately know it’s a mailbox, nothing special about it. Terrence McKenna asks us to imagine a baby lying in its cradle, observing something “
marvelous, mysterious, glittering, shedding light of many colors, movement, sound, a tranformative hierophany of integrated perception” — a true wonder, until the mother tells the child that this is “a bird”, and forever after, the “
angel peacock irridescent transformative mystery is collapsed, into the word.” We rarely encounter something new. We may travel new places, and there see new configurations of concepts we are familiar with, but they quickly lose their wondrous quality when we see how easy it is to fit the streets of Tokyo or the jungles of the Amazon or even the barren red landscapes of Mars into our existing frameworks and categories and, above all, words.
We live in a world of the familiar, then. Most of the sensory impressions we get, at least those we get in a sober state, are easily integrated and explained as instances or variations on what we already know. But occasionally, we come to see the familiar from an unfamiliar angle, and for a moment, we again experience this feeling of not knowing, of seeing and hearing directly rather than through a conceptual or linguistic veil. Such instances seem to collapse quickly as our rational mind frantically scrambles to make sense of the unfamiliar and finds that, indeed, we are only seeing the same old things from a slightly unusual angle. But that short moment of doubt, of wonder, seems to me both valuable and worth cultivating, even if it is unsustainable as a way of living day-to-day.
As I imagine most people who grew up in small towns did, as a child, I would roam my sleepy little town with friends. There were no dangers to be found in daylight, so we’d mostly be left to our own devices during evenings and weekends. Quickly we learned to know every detail of our neighborhoods—we knew where every playground, every shop, every kindergarten and school and bus stop was, as well as which gardens had apple trees from which one might, at certain times of the year, steal sour-tasting apples. We knew which houses had children in them, and which had grumpy old men who, it was rumored, might come after you with a gun if you dared to cut across their lawns. In short, not only did our world consist entirely of familiar objects—houses, playgrounds, grumpy old men, and so on—but we were thoroughly familiar with their particular configuration.
Imagine the thrill, then, when after having walked and ran and biked and played for years in one particular street, my friend and I discovered that, behind a small gray building that housed an electric transformer, down a small hill, there was a partially overgrown playground that we had never seen before. It really was a wonder: we had walked straight past it for years, and there it was, hidden behind that ugly transformer building. The familiar, for a short while, had become unfamiliar, and this discovery implied the possibility that there might be other wonders hidden among the normal and the familiar. It is, perhaps, the same impulse that drives adults to enter sewer tunnels or abandoned mental hospitals.
I thought of that when I read The Town of Cats, by Sakutaro Hagiwara. It’s an old short story from 1935 that can be found in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, an anthology edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer and released earlier this year. I may write more about the whole anthology later: it’s massive, clocking in at over 750,000 words and more than a hundred stories both from literary superstars—Kafka, Lovecraft, Borges, Steven King, Murakami, etc.—and more unknown writers. I’m glad I opted for the ebook version. Until such time, know that it’s highly recommended, but I’ll get on with talking about this particular story.
Last year, Haruki Murakami published an excerpt from 1Q84 in the New Yorker called Town of Cats, which references Hagiwara’s story in an oblique way. Whether because he genuinely misremembers the story or for literary effect, Murakami makes the author of the story German, and the story itself, as referred by Tengo, Murakami’s protagonist, a good deal less subtle. No matter. The original is great, even if Murakami’s version reads like some weird pastiche of I don’t know what.
In Hagiwara’s The Town of Cats, the protagonist is a dreamer. He has travelled the outer world, but grew disenchanted when he observed that most people live the same, boring lives everywhere. He has traveled the inner world through drugs like cocaine and morphine, but he had to quit when it started to take a toll on his health. Luckily, he discovered a new source of wonder in his terrible sense of direction. The protagonist can’t seem to keep track of where he’s going, frequently getting lost even in his own neighborhood. And when he does lose all sense of direction, he sometimes happens to enter familiar streets from the opposite end or a different path than he usually does, and then something almost magical happens:
… suddenly I came upon a bustling street. It was a lovely little neighborhood, but I had no idea where I was. (…) The red mailbox at the street crossing was also beautiful, and the young woman in the cigarette shop was as bright and sweet as a plum.
I had never seen such an aesthetically charming place! Where in Tokyo could I possibly be? But I was unable to recall the layout of the city. I figured I could not have strayed far from home because so little time had elapsed. It was perfectly clear that I was within the territory where I ordinarily strolled, only a half hour or so from home, or at least not too far from it. But how could this place be so close without my having known it?
I felt as if I was dreaming. I wondered if perhaps what I was seeing was not a real town but a reflection or silhouette of a town projected on a screen. Then, just as suddenly, my memory and common sense returned. Examining my surroundings again, I realized I was seeing an ordinary, familiar block in my neighborhood. The mailbox was at the intersection as always, and the young lady with the gastric disorder sat in the cigarette shop. The same out-dated, dusty merchandise yawned from the space it occupied in the store windows. On the streets, the eaves of the coffee shop were boorishly decorated with an arch of artificial flowers. It was my familiar, boring neighborhood.
In the blink of an eye, my reaction to my surroundings had altered completely. The mysterious and magical transformation of this place into a beautiful town had occurred simply because I had mixed up my directions. The mailbox that always stood at the south end of the block seemed to be on the opposite, northern approach. The tradesmen’s houses on the left side of the street had shifted to the right. The changes sufficed to make the entire neighborhood look new and different.
Unexpectedly coming at something from an unfamiliar angle allows or forces us to temporarily put away our conceptual picture of something. If I pick up a box to examine its underside, I expect to see a different side of the box, so this unfamiliar view doesn’t force me to abandon the view of the box as a box and try to figure out afresh just what these sensory impressions mean. But if I had somehow found myself below the box, not expecting to see a box at all and certainly not an unfamiliar angle on it, I may well have wondered just what this odd object was. The narrator in The Town of Cats discovers that unknowingly entering a street from the opposite end can give him the sensation of seeing something truly new—even if he “snaps back” as soon as his mind figures out that this is the same old seen from the opposite end.
Since this story is found in an anthology of Weird Fiction, there is naturally an undercurrent that something odder and more sinister may be happening. Perhaps the narrator is simply seeing the same old in an unfamiliar light. Or perhaps he is actually catching a glimpse of some sort of opposite world that really exists “on the backside” of the regular world:
When I was a boy a long time ago, and I used to examine a framed picture that hung on the walls of the house, I wondered all the while what worlds lay hidden on the reverse side of the framed landscape. I removed the frame repeatedly to peep at the back side of the painting. Those childhood thoughts have now turned into a riddle that remains impossible for me to solve even as an adult.
But the story that I am about to tell may contain a hint for solving the riddle. Should my strange tale lead you, my readers, to imagine a world of the fourth dimension hidden behind things and external manifestations — a universe existing on the reverse side of the landscape — then this tale will seem completely real to you. If, however, you are unable to imagine the existence of such a place, then what follows will seem like the decadent hallucinations of an absurd poet whose nerves have been shattered by a morphine addiction.
Like many great weird stories, we don’t know quite what is dream and what is reality. That’s one of the ways in which weird stories achieve the effect of unsettling the reader: not only by evoking dream worlds, but by somehow fostering in the reader a sense that perhaps it is, if not plausible, then at least possible that what we see as dream is real and what see as real is actually the dream.
And so on we go with the story. The narrator is no longer in Tokyo, but at a hot spring resort in the countryside. He likes to walk, and frequently gets lost, as one would expect of someone with his terrible sense of direction. From the locals he hears stories about villages where the citizens are possessed by the spirits of dogs or cats, but he dismisses these stories as superstitions. Perhaps, he muses, these are simply the distorted retellings of the foreign rituals practiced by some minority group or other, such as the Christians who fled into the countryside to escape the persecutions of the Tokugawa era.
But then it happens again: he gets lost, and he encounters a strange city. Everything about this city appears harmonious, appears to conform strictly to certain aesthetic principles, to the point where it feels like, if even a single soul missteps, the whole city will be thrown into chaos. And this is just what happens: someone breaks the harmony, and the city takes on grotesque proportions, the city-dwellers appearing to all be cats in disguise, cats absolutely everywhere. But then the perspective changes again: just like when he got lost in his own neighborhood, the narrator has simply entered a familiar town from an unfamiliar angle, and everything is as it should be. We are meant to ask, even explicitly told to ask the question: could the town of cats really all be due to the narrator seeing something familiar from an unfamiliar angle, or did he actually catch a glimpse of a world existing “
on the reverse side of the landscape”?
Whatever is the case in the story, the narrator’s hobby of getting lost simply to experience the thrill of seeing the same old in a new light is an interesting conceit. Think back to McKenna’s baby in the cradle. It’s clear what the child gains by learning language, by buying into the common conceptual framework of humanity. Without it, one simply can’t function in modern society, as evidenced by the trouble so-called “feral children” have adjusting to ordinary life among fellow humans. But at the same time, the child loses something that may be crucial: that wondrous cacophony of sensory input that lacks interpretation. That may be something we ought to seek out occasionally. Not just for the pleasure of feeling genuine wonder—and make no mistake, this can be one of the higher forms of pleasure—but also for its utility. If we never step out of our conceptual and linguistic framework even for a moment, how are we ever to realize and adjust the flaws which must inevitably accompany any such framework?Sep 28, 2012