“Wasted Effort” and the Deeper Malaise
As we live our day-to-day lives, what drives us to make the decisions that we do? Regardless of whether or not we are conscious of why we make these decisions, there is an abundance of rhetoricity at work that moves us to action and forms the words in our mouths, often before we are even aware of their effect. These forces work on not just us but others as well, driving us apart and then together again like specks on ocean waves. Through what means do these effects manifest in our material circumstances, and what is the irrational source from which they are born?
In the 1948 novel Snow Country written by Yasunari Kawabata, a wealthy city dweller named Shimamura befriends the country geisha Komako and pursues an extramarital affair with her. The novel follows the laborious progression and slow unraveling of their relationship as it plays out in a small hot spring town, tucked away in the snowy mountains of Japan. Throughout the novel, it becomes clear that Shimamura initially pursues the geisha because she embodies his obsession with the tragic futility of relationships—or as he puts it, “wasted effort.”
Shimamura’s notion of wasted effort as a particular kind of tragic beauty is a motif that is often revisited in his ruminations on the farce of his affair with her and the immeasurable distance between them that resists closure. However, as I’ll explore in further detail later on, his obsession with wasted effort is really just a symptom of a deeper emptiness. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that he is motivated to overcome this emptiness, or impurity, by means of an unconsciously enacted myth of purity.
The Signification of Waste—The Myth of Purity
Shimamura projects fantasies of authentic love onto Komako as a way of coping with his obsession with waste. At one point, he ponders the local gossip that she chose to become a geisha to support her dying fiancee, which he chooses to believe. Thought the rumor proves untrue, his belief in it is further evidence that his cynicism is a sham. Indeed, at the end of the novel, Shimamura’s cynicism is stripped bare as the means of repression that it was all along: inspired by the sublime beauty of the Milky Way in the night sky, he realizes his smallness in the grand scheme of the universe, experiencing something akin to profound humility for the first time.
However, this moment of transformation only occurs after Shimamura has further indulged in his obsession with wasted effort. Nothing more fully encapsulates this fixation more than the summer kimono he muses about toward the end of the novel. Bathed and “bleached” in snow in a kind of ritual cleansing, the Chijimi cloth used to weave the kimono is treated as a kind of totemic fetish that Shimamura regards as a waste of effort for a number of reasons.
First, he seems impressed by the amount of labor required to make an “authentic” Chijimi kimono—“the thread was spun in the snow, and the cloth woven in the snow, washed in the snow, and bleached in the snow.” All this work is done by young women, in a specific manner, and during specific months of the year. This laborious process comes off as a kind of purificatory gesture intended to imbue the kimono, a consumer product, with a sense of authenticity. Second, he is strangely attracted to the complete irrationality of his desire for the item in the first place, as there is no guarantee that such a kimono is truly authentic—a fact that seems to amuse him.
In this way, the Chijimi kimono takes on the qualities of Roland Barthes’ version of the Saussurean signifier. In Barthesian thought, almost everything we can speak of or write about using language functions as text, since everything has a linguistic, symbolic function of signifying an abstract something-else. Barthes articulates this difference as the distinction between form and concept, which operate in tandem to generate signification. Signification, in turn, is the interplay between the form and the concept that leaves room for ambiguity. Most importantly, however, the signification of an object, concept, or person always has the potential to be transformed into myth.
“Myth is a type of speech,” Barthes writes in his essay “Myth Today,” albeit one that operates on a more abstract level than linguistics. Thus, Barthes works with a particular conception of myth, one far more ubiquitous and banal than the word’s usage in common parlance. Here there be dragons, and although they’re figurative instead of literal, Barthesian myths are just as elusive as the mythical beast. Because myth draws power from the ambiguity resulting from the constant alternation between the emptiness of form and the fullness of meaning, it gains a rhetorical capacity that would otherwise be unavailable to it. Returning to the novel, we can view the Chijimi kimono in Barthesian terms. The cloth itself is the empty form of the signifier, while the meaning—the somehow desirable “wasted effort” that Shimamura sees in it—constitutes the signified for him.
The slipperiness of the relation between the physical kimono and the abstraction of what it signifies is “read” as a sign, or signification. This signification is meaningful: utterly compelling in its implications of decadence and comfort, yet somehow impossible to put a finger on. Myth, an irrational force, seizes on this ambiguity, drawing power from it in order to take on a life of its own. By feeding upon the signification of decadent yet wasted effort in the kimono, the myth that governs Shimamura in his everyday living holds sway over his thoughts and actions while remaining invisible.
This governing myth is the myth of purity that I mentioned earlier. It is a myth dialectically opposed to Shimamura’s impurity, yes, but is also a motive that has pre-consciously arisen as the answer anticipated by this very impurity. What this means is that, for Shimamura, waste is analogous to impurity, which cannot exist without its wholesome counterpart, purity. Therefore, the myth of purity that drives his actions is simultaneously wholesome and unwholesome—a cycle of bliss and sorrow in which the former is nonetheless at the end of the novel discovered to be the master of the latter.
When a Kimono Is Not Just a Kimono
We can see the mythical effect that the kimono has on Shimamura in the following passage:
The thread of the grass-linen, finer than animal hair, is difficult to work except in the humidity of the snow, it is said, and the dark, cold season is therefore ideal for weaving. The ancients used to add that the way this product of the cold has of feeling cool to the skin in the hottest weather is a play of the principles of light and darkness. This Komako too, who had so fastened herself to him, seemed at center cool, and the remarkable, concentrated warmth was for that fact all the more touching.
The fact that Shimamura’s governing myth of purity is invoked in terms of a garment is significant for specific reasons. However, a more general takeaway is that myth always appears in seemingly innocuous forms. The kimono is not just a kimono, but rather host to a myth buried deep at its center—coiled and interwoven within the materiality of form, yet powerful and resourceful. Indeed, once we realize a given myth as such (this is not to say “false” or “untrue,” but rather “hard to pin down and yet tangible, potent, and hyperreal”), much of its immediacy fades away momentarily. This is what happens when we experience a temporary lapse of faith in an institution, system, philosophy, religion, etc. The rhetorical appeal of myth sometimes falters when we recognize the emptiness of its form, yet myth always regains its footing due to its own ineffability and the ambiguity of language.
Indeed, as Barthes writes, “Myth is a value, truth is no guarantee for it; nothing prevents it from being a perpetual alibi….” Myth is many things, but above all it is an alibi—a scapegoat. When the meaning of life feels strained, we look to our myths to save us, just as Shimamura does with his myth of purity, albeit unwittingly and indirectly.
I’ll get to the particular significance of the myth taking up residence in the Chijimi kimono momentarily. First, it’s critical to note a few things. The individual myths that suffuse our individual lives appear to have, within them, the inscrutable power to contain the very motives of the “principles of light and darkness”—the seeming essence of things—that Kawabata writes about in the above passage from Snow Country. Yet the very thing that myths draw their power from—meaning—is depleted by the forms in which they present themselves to us.
The Naked Subject and the Garment of Identification
This is a side effect of language, which 20th-century rhetorician Kenneth Burke observes to be the reason for why we function as symbol-using and -misusing animals. By putting things into words—by acknowledging their textuality—we simultaneously open and close doors of possible meaning. Indeed, as Burke writes in Permanence and Change, “a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing.” By buying into myths, which is something we all do, we close off, regulate, and deplete meaning. Not only that, but myth also has the uncanny power to naturalize phenomena, causing us to fall into a type of essentialism that can be harmful and burdensome—e.g., Shimamura’s defeatist worldview concerning the possibility of authentic love.
Not only are we cursed with this burden of ambiguity, which is instituted by language and our human tendency toward irrationality, but according to Burke, the core of the human subject is empty at birth. This is essentially a Freudian position, but Burke uses it as a point of departure to develop his concept of identification. Identification serves as another building block of myth, albeit one that expands beyond semiotics and signification to underscore myth’s sociologico-rhetorical function.
Identification is a deceptively simple concept that can be tough to make sense of, so here’s a loose definition by way of example: all of the identifications we make in life—whether with the parents that raise us, the friends we make, the products we buy, the work we perform, the hobbies we pursue, the politics we engage in, the religion we adhere to, etc.—are attempts to “clothe” the naked emptiness at the core of our subjectivity. Borrowing from the philosopher Thomas Carlyle, Burke writes the following on this subject:
For round a man’s “mysterious ME,” “there lies, under all those wool rags, a Garment of Flesh (or of Senses), contextured in the Loom of Heaven….”
Although this passage initially seems enigmatic, it can be decoded if we attend to a passage from Snow Country:
[Shimamura] was conscious of an emptiness that made him see Komako’s life as beautiful but wasted, even though he himself was the object of her love.
The “emptiness” that Kawabata references here corresponds with the “mysterious me” that Burke and Carlyle draw upon. It is therefore evident that Shimamura is likely in great part motivated to pursue a relationship with Komako not for the purpose of pure escapism, but in order to try to fill the emptiness inside himself with an excess of “wasted effort.” Obviously, this is a futile kind of behavior. However, for the majority of the novel, Shimamura ironically pursues his myth of purity by attempting to exorcise the emptiness inside himself with impurity, perhaps as a form of catharsis mingled with masochism—basically, atonement. Still, it holds that this impurity manifests in forms that are rhetorically and sensually appealing—i.e., having an extramarital affair with a young geisha, hiking up snowy mountains in a pastoral locale, purchasing expensive kimonos crafted with an absurd inefficiency, and so on—so Shimamura finds its allure almost impossible to resist.
Returning to the passage from Burke, we should next examine the “Garment of Flesh” woven by the “Loom of Heaven.” What Burke seems to be alluding to is the idea that we “wear” the identifications that exist between ourselves and other subjects and objects in the world—that we “put them on” and carry them with us. Referring back to the passage from Snow Country, we can see this occurring with Shimamura when he muses about how Komako seemed to have “fastened herself to him.” Just as he depends on Komako to shield him from the emptiness inside him, so does she use him as a cloak for a similar function.
We can view the “Loom of Heaven” in Burke’s analogy as the prehistoric birth of humanity, whether by pure chance or intelligent design. However, it can also be read as the originary purity that we struggle all our lives to reattain. When Shimamura experiences a kind of mono no aware at the end of the novel, gazing up into the vast womb of the Milky Way, it is that purity that he finally experiences for the first time, after only glimpsing it earlier in the laborious process of “purification” that goes into a simple summer kimono.
In light of all this explication of semiotics, myth, and identification, the Chijimi kimono is perhaps best viewed as the signifier for Shimamura’s governing myth of purity. Rationally, he has tried to convince himself that purity and authenticity in human relationships are impossible. This explains his cynicism and “occupation” as a dilettante—he sees the pursuit of authenticity as wasted effort. Irrationally, however, he continues to “waste” effort by pursuing Komako, as well as desiring the Chijimi cloth and other excess and finery.
So, whether Shimamura realizes it or not, his obsession with wasted effort signifies his impulse to gravitate toward a myth of purity. The quietude of the snow country, the noble and lonely geisha, the revitalizing hot springs, the sublimity of the pastoral landscape, the cool Chijimi cloth bleached in snow, and so on all point toward this governing myth. Even so, that purity is the primary myth around which Shimamura organizes his life remains unidentified by him, even at the end of the novel.
This, I think, is the main takeaway from Snow Country, and also discourse on myth in general: myths are deceptive and elusive, and we will always fail to fully identify or understand them because of this. They can persuade us to do things in the heat of the moment, appear to be a natural part of the “order of things,” and are composed of an entanglement of both Light and Darkness. Not all myths are created equally however; in some, purity dominates impurity, while in others the opposite may be true. Therefore, it is up to us to be mindful of the multiplicitous myths that are always there to guide us, because if they remain unexamined, then it is them that we end up serving instead of the best interests we share with one another.
But what are these vaguely invoked best interests, exactly? They’re too much to satisfactorily expound on here, so maybe I’ll try to draw out some specifics in a later post. For now, think about the proliferation of the Golden Rule throughout time, and how the Rule itself has escaped the confines of any one place, ideology, or religion, transcending the contemporary moment to become a transhistorical, transcultural ideal. This ideal that exists outside the bounds of any single system of ethics or morality is precisely the kind of metaphysical foundation in whose direction we should look, so we can attempt to find better myths.