Kobe Abe: A Perspective

The novel, The Woman in the Dunes, by Kobo Abe, is a work that exists on various levels. The most immediate one is the mythic structure that becomes an integral part of the novel. In fact, the entire premise of the novel depends on the Classical myth of Sisyphus, and the journey into Hades; however, Abe is not content with merely retelling ancient myth. Rather, he takes this myth and transforms it into a viable parable for modern life.

The entomologist, Jumpei Niki, finds himself in a strange village, while looking for a rare beetle. Thus, from the very beginning, we have a journey, in which the hero seeks to find something unique and rare – very much like Jason seeking the Golden Fleece. Before long, Jumpei finds himself relegated to the pit, by the villagers, where he must remain, with only a woman as his companion, whose job it is to perpetually shovel the sand to keep the village and herself from being buried alive.

This incessant struggle to keep the ever-encroaching sand at bay certainly reflects the myth of Sisyphus, who must labor and toil to roll a huge rock up a mountain, only to have it roll back again. However, Abe transforms this myth intrinsically.

Whereas the work of Sisyphus is pointless and meaningless, what Jumpei and the woman do is extremely meaningful and useful – they are keeping themselves and the village alive. Thus, their job is similar to life itself, which finds meaning in the most mundane of existences: “In the final analysis, I rather think the world is like sand.

The fundamental nature of sand is very difficult to grasp when you think of it in its stationary state. Sand not only flows, but this very flow is sand.” Therefore, sand is the force of nature that will ultimately destroy the individual.

Thus, despite the absurdity of life – represented by the mindless task of shoveling sand day and night – there is also meaning in what we do. In effect, there is the important idea that we must create meaning in life, despite the fact that we may find ourselves trapped in a situation that in and of itself is entirely devoid of meaning.

From a larger perspective, the sand represents not only the force of nature that will destroy us all in the end; it also symbolizes the encroaching of a world that is alien to Japanese culture. The sand is the influence from abroad that must be continually thwarted in order to preserve that which is inherently Japanese. Again, Jumpei’s and the woman’s job is not entirely without meaning – for they are both guardians who must preserve not only their village, but also by extension, Japan.

It is this larger perspective that transforms the novel into a grand parable about the usefulness of life. A parable by its very nature must teach a valuable lesson, by way of a narrative. Thus, the tale of Jumpei and the woman, trapped in a pit, forever shoveling sand, is a parable for human existence itself.

We human beings are also trapped in life, in this world. Often we recognize our lives to be meaningless and absurd. But it is out effort and our will that transform our lives into an existence full of meaning. And this transformation is the result of our labor – just as Jumpei and the woman must labor daily and ceaselessly in order to live.

Thus, Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is work that transforms myth, and in doing so becomes a parable about the meaningfulness of life – and how we achieve this meaning through our own will and effort. It is ordinary life that is heroic, in the end, and what we achieve transforms not only the world outside us, but it also transforms us as well.


The photo shows, “A Woman Reading” on a postcard, by Yumeji Takehisa, Showa Era, ca. 1930s.

The Humanities And Language

It is often assumed that the discipline of the Humanities involves anything and everything that cannot be properly be classified as a proper science. It is also commonly assumed that language is simply a method of communication – so that flapping one’s arms is the same as speaking; or, one may draw a picture, since a picture is worth a thousand words, as he adage tells us.

Before proceeding further, perhaps its best to define our terms so that we do not bogged down with assumptions.

Turning to language, we need to understand it as thinking more than communication. The founder of linguistic philosophy (Wilhelm von Humboldt) tells us that language is the expression of thinking peculiar to a people, even the most primitive of people, those closest to nature, as he puts it. Communication is only the simplest, basic level of linguistic use.

The most intensive use is the generation of ideas. The philologist Max Mueller continues Humboldt’s description when he describes language as “the outward form and manifestation of thought.”

And Humboldt further defines language as the medium through which humanity encounters reality – “Man lives with his objects chiefly as language presents them to him.”

The philosopher, Ernst Cassirer, succinctly described language as first the symbolic rendering of expressions and second the engendering of discursive thought; or, in other words, reason.

Thus language is the principle which serves to link together complexity in order to produce meaning, or what may be called abstract thought. In brief, for Cassirer, language is the entelechy of knowledge.

This obviously means that language has more than a denotative function – it is more than simply communication.

To quote the Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev: “A language is that into which all other languages, and even all other conceivable language structures may be translated. In language, indeed only in such, can the inexpressible  be dealt with until such time as it is expressed.” Language, first and foremost is ideas.

Given the intimate association of language with thinking and knowledge – why do we hear the teachers of language referring to it as a “form of communication?” What purpose does this extreme simplification fulfill?

Having briefly defined language, we may do the same for the humanities. Again, we encounter confusion. The tendency nowadays is to view the Humanities as anything that is not science; and this confusion continues into areas which veer into science (like anthropology, psychology and sociology).

So, what are the Humanities? In a very straightforward way the Humanities have always meant the study of Greek and Latin – that is, the discipline of the Humanities has always been tied with the learning of language – because it was (and one hopes still is) believed that by learning a language, in a disciplined and structured fashion, a person became educated and refined.

Thus the Humanities are based upon the understanding that education is only possible through language. Therefore, the Humanities are not anything not science – but very specifically education in language – and those disciplines that promote language – namely literature, philosophy, biography and history. And it is here also that we have the very history of education.

But we now speak of skill, rather than education, and language is simply another tool to further the demands of the labor marker, rather than the promotion of being a good human being – the traditional goal of education. Skill is not about education – it is about labor and production.

Education is about building the good human being – or about the esthetic, moral and intellectual nature of humanity. Skill is about the material environment and its conquest. Skill is about bondage (the demands of labor). Education is about understanding the exercise of freedom.

And then there are countless falsehoods that permeate teaching institutions. The worst among them is the notion of “learning styles,” and the absurd notion of “right-brain” and “left-brain” learners. Study after study has amply demonstrated that there is no such thing as “visual learning” or “auditory learning,” or kinesthetic.

Nor does the brain function in left and right compartments. And yet, these false notions are so popular in educational institutions – and worst of all, entire pedagogies are built around these falsehoods. Why? As researchers recently observed in an extensive in the Journal of Psychological Science, “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing.”

Disturbing because students are being taught based upon false assumptions. Is an educational institution a place where pop-psychology should be followed?

And yet the popularity of these views in pedagogy is enormous. And the literature is enormous. But it is literature produced by the non-specialist – by the amateur. Why do teachers follow these falsehoods?

And recent studies also tell us that the only way possible for the brain to learn anything is through language. Thus, the physical brain is Humanistic. It is built primarily for language, for thought, for ideas. And the world that we live, the labor that do, is a function of thought, of ideas. The world that we inhabit is the product of Humanism.

Thus to neglect confuse Humanism with anything other than language is to deny the importance of thought.


The photo shows, “Le quai aux fleurs,” by Marie-François Firmin-Girard, painted in 1875.

Antony And Cleopatra: Failed Politicians

In 31 BC, the outcome of a sea battle off the West coast of Greece forever changed Roman history. As a result, the young and ambitious Octavian would become Rome’s first emperor, Augustus. Octavian’s victory firmly established his military power and dealt Marc Antony a serious defeat, which would prove fatal.

This battle took place between Octavian’s fleet on one side and the combined naval forces of Marc Antony and Cleopatra VII in the other. The battle is considered a major turning point in the history of Egypt and marked the beginning of Octavian’s complete takeover of the rich North African kingdom. The Roman Senate gave Octavian the title of Augustus four years later.

The struggle between Antony and Octavian was actually about the question of who would rule the Roman World. Antony had allied himself with Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, a descendent of the Ptolemaic Greek kings.

Furthermore, Antony and the foreign queen were lovers, even having gone through an Egyptian wedding ceremony. Most Romans disliked such a close relationship between an important governing Roman and a foreign queen. They suspected that he would either give her a large area of Roman territory for her own kingdom, or, worse yet, make her queen over the Romans and himself king in the process. Octavian played on the Roman’s intense dislike of the idea of being ruled by a king and denounced Antony’s supposed plans.

Soon, Antony divorced his legitimate wife Octavia, who was Octavian’s sister. It was not long before there was a full-scale civil war between the two powerful Romans. Antony had anchored his fleet in a small harbor on the Dalmatian side of the Adriatic Sea, and soon Octavian’s fleet had him trapped within his harbor.

Octavian also had his land armies placed in strategic positions to cut off all supplies to Antony’s army and fleet. Antony also had a large army encamped on the shores of the Ambracian Gulf (on the Dalmatian Coast across the Adriatic Sea from Italy). There had been skirmishes and indecisive battles all throughout the Summer of 31 B. C. Near the end of summer, Antony’s supplies were getting low and so was the morale of his troops.

Finally, on September 2, Antony came out to fight. His 220 heavy Roman warships were equipped with stone throwing catapults. They attacked Octavian’s 260 lighter vessels at close range.

Octavian’s lighter vessels were more maneuverable, though, and could use their rams more effectively than Antony’s ships could. Also, Octavian had the great advantage of having the brilliant general and military strategist Marcus Agrippa in command of his fleet. Cleopatra had 60 warships in the battle, including her treasure ship with its purple sails.

The fighting continued throughout the day, with Romans on both sides staining the sea red with Roman blood and killing their fellow citizens in about equal numbers. Then, a very strange thing happened. Cleopatra decided to take her ships and flee.

This act of cowardice dealt a serious blow to the morale of Antony’s men and cheered Octavian’s sailors on to ultimate victory. The battle was nowhere near lost, there was not even a clear indication of which fleet was ahead before Cleopatra cut her cables and ran.

Then, the final blow to Roman morale was struck by Antony himself. Upon seeing his beloved queen fleeing, he chose to abandon his stalwart Roman legions and follow her.

After a desperate chase, he finally caught up with her. Meanwhile, Octavian’s ships made short work of mopping up Antony’s fleet. Many of Antony’s brave seamen surrendered to Octavian and the battle was over.

The issue was not over for Antony and Cleopatra, however. Over the next few months, Octavian’s armies won victory after victory as they advanced through Greece and the East toward Cleopatra’s Egypt.

With their armies falling before Octavian’s advance on every occasion of battle, the two lovers soon saw that their cause was lost. Antony tried to commit suicide by falling on his sword. The wound was not immediately fatal and he found the strength to make his way to Cleopatra’s tomb, where she was awaiting news of the end. Antony died in the arms of his lover.

Cleopatra, meanwhile, had made plans of her own. Rather than be forced to walk in Octavian’s triumphal march through the streets of Rome as a captured foreign queen amid the jeers and insults of the Roman people, she would commit suicide. One of her serving girls brought her a basket of fruit containing a poisonous asp.

When Cleopatra heard Octavian’s victorious troops noisily milling about the streets of Alexandria, she put the snake to her breast and let it bite her. Her death was supposed to be completely painless.

The two serving girls she had also killed themselves by asp-bite, and when Octavian’s troops entered the tomb, one of the girl, still alive, had barely the strength to tell the soldiers that Cleopatra had escaped them in death.

And so ends the tragic tale of the last Ptolemaic queen of Egypt and the sea battle upon which turned an empire. The Battle of Actium was not a massive battle between huge fleets; in fact, it was a rather small one.

But after the Battle of Actium was won and lost, there was not a single obstacle in the way of Octavian becoming the first Roman emperor, titled Augustus and master of the entire Western world.

Thus, the marriage between Antony and Cleopatra was a clever bit of political maneuver. This fact is clearly brought out in the Battle of Actium, where each of them sought personal gain, rather than the support of each other. Their suicides were the accepted, noble way out for the vanquished – for in the end, they were failed politicians.


The photo shows, “The Death of Cleaopatra,” by Achille Glisenti, painted ca. 1870s.

From The Trenches: Teaching Sociology?

Sociology is taught as social reform – identifying the problems of the world; and therefore, it has become mired in relativism. Students are given “case studies” that deal with this or that issue, with the intent of providing a “correct attitude” about society.

These attitudes pass as sociological education, which can be summarized in this way: Society is made up of oppressors and victims; and it is the job of the educated (“socially aware”) person to identify and condemn the oppressor and valorize the victim.

This may be laudable, but it is not education – and it is certainly not sociology, despite the focus of most textbooks.

A fundamental question, therefore, arises: what is the point of teaching sociology? The answer is a variation on a familiar theme – sociology is, in the end, social reform, the fixing of society. Do we need such reform?

Sadly, these fixes tend to be simplistic, if not downright naïve – the world changes as a result of complex ideas; never because of raised awareness. Raising awareness about cancer has not led to a cure; not even massive funding has helped.

Here is the crux of the problem – sociology is seen to be two contradictory things. First, those who teach it professionally perceive it to be a science. Those outside the profession see it as anything but sciencebecause everything is sociology.

Mathematicians may hold varying and conflicting notions about the reality of numbers, but when asked to teach students, there is an immediate “common ground” – students must know the basic and fundamental ideas or principles of mathematics.

What is the common ground of sociology? There is none; there is just varying and conflicting perspectives (endless meta-theory).

Science does not teach perspectives – it teaches principles, ideas. Once students understand ideas – and make them their own – only then can they start thinking with them. If there are no ideas – there can be no thought; hence, the need for attitudes.

Possessing attitudes is not education – it is a deeply disturbing form of conformity; a conformity that passes for enlightenment, but is nothing other than personal feelings – and outside of feelings there is only ignorance.

Education fails miserably if it cannot allow an individual to transcend the confines of individual preference. The only way to do that, of course, is to intellectually equip the student to enter the world with ideas, not with attitudes.

But, for some reason, sociology cannot express its own “common ground.” One has only to look at the countless “Introduction to Sociology” textbooks in the marketplace. Typically, these textbooks seek to “stand apart” by some schtick that will make “the material” either “relevant,” or “engaging.” In other words, how to make sociology teachable?

The assumption is that education can be had via some sort of catchy, marketable trick, which will hook the student into learning something, anything, which can then be described as “sociology.”

Unfortunately, very few people now understand the fact (yes, the fact) that education – and reading – is hard work. It has nothing to do with enjoyment (that used to be called entertainment). Education is difficult work, which is why it is valuable.

Further, when typical sociology textbooks are analyzed (need we say, scientifically), not for content but for approach (or pedagogical usefulness), a consistent methodology emerges.

They invariably set out to define the many “systems” that are seen to hinder or even oppress the individual. Then these “systems” are rigorously critiqued through the lens of diverse (and at times contradictory) theoretical stances (always postmodernist in inclination).

And the result is a hodge-podge of meta-theory that provides to the student neither a clear understanding of sociology as a discipline with precise and marked parameters, nor a firm grasp of the nature of society or societies.

For example, trying to find a simple (yes, simple) definition of “culture” becomes an exercise in frustration. All these textbooks offer is endless examples of culture, followed by tedious ramblings in dead-end areas, like “cultural studies” and “media studies.”

And what does the student take away from all this? Who knows? Empiricism, the science behind sociology, is nowhere in sight.

The second problem with teaching sociology in our time is the fact that science has been abandoned in favor of relativism. And this has meant a loss of objectivity.

Sociology is now rife with a partisan mentality, which suggests that only those inside can properly study and explicate the forces at play in society.

Thus, for example, ethnicity can only properly be studied and explained by ethnic minorities. Anyone trying to study or comment on ethnicity from the badly labeled “dominant group” is simply someone trying to maintain existing power-structures that favor his/her dominance.

In this way education becomes social action. And yet we all know that the world is far greater in complexity than this one-dimensional attitude.

Certainly, it is the nature of all societies to include and exclude, which may be examined by ideas, such as, class, anomie, family, institutions, crime, roles, hierarchy, labeling, and socialization. These ideas have existed for as long as human beings have chosen to live together.

But can our students clearly and simply define these ideas? Have these ideas become part of their thinking? Do they understand the empirical basis of these ideas? Can they use these ideas to rise above the malaise of our civilization – relativism?

Sociology once more needs to teach from the common ground of empiricism. It must abandon relativism, which has effectively sabotaged the Humanities and social sciences.

Students no longer look for an education. But then education also used to mean knowing the basis of your goodness.

Who knows what goodness is, say the relativists? Despite that, the majority of human beings on this planet still want to be good.

Science does not need to be relevant, or engaging, or interesting (we only have to keep mathematics in mind).

Now that sociology has wandered away from its own discipline, as it tries to be all things to all people, it can only promote agendas, whether political or personal, and therefore it will rightly disappear. Who needs more attitude.


B. Hughes teaches sociology at college.
The photo shows, “Après l’office à l’église de la Sainte-Trinité,” painted in 1900, by Jean Béraud.