Knowledge Problems

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Existential Anime

Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations,
Speak if you have understanding.
Do you know who fixed its dimensions
Or who measured it with a line?
Onto what were its bases sunk?

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
(Leonard Cohen)

I just saw an amazingly sad and thought-provoking Anime yesterday called Haibane Renmei. It is 13 episodes and available on DVD from Amazon (i.e., legally) and on BitTorrent. Except for a couple of moments, it is free of those Anime elements that make some Americans uncomfortable (e.g., manifestations of the cavalier Japanese attitude toward nudity and sexuality), so I would recommend it without reservations. I suspect it's best viewed with subtitles.

The story is heavy with Christian themes of sin and salvation (which is very unusual for Japanese animation), although there is no reference to any particular Christian mythology. But these themes of sin and salvation are in some measure also Jewish, and indeed are now largely universal. We all wonder what will become of us ultimately, whether and how anything we do here and now can influence our final disposition, and we all hope that somehow even if we've gotten everything completely wrong, that there might be a compassionate Father-in-Heaven who knows how we struggled, and will accept us even if we have nothing to offer other than our failures. But our deepest wish of all is not to be left alone. If our loved ones do indeed go somewhere after this life, our dearest hope is that we will be able to rejoin them someday. (One can see this desire already in Genesis, where the patriarchs when they die are "gathered to their kin.") There is no concept more devastating or painful than the idea that at the end of our days, we might be somehow be left all alone, never again to be reunited with our loved ones. There could be no fate more cruel than that.

(Incidentally, the depth of this fear is why religion has gotten so much mileage out of bludgeoning people with visions of Hell and Purgatory. The fear of Hell is not ultimately the fear of fire and torture, but the fear of being forever separated from the people you love.)

The premise of Haibane Renmei itself is in some regards strangely similar to the The Prisoner, and yet it is utterly different. The outline of the story is that there are certain children who are periodically born into a small village which is sealed off from the outer world by impenetrable walls. These special children are not born as infants from human mothers, but emerge mysteriously from cocoons at the ages of between 5 and 12 years old. They are called "Haibane" because that is what they have always been called. (Haibane might mean "Charcoal Feather" in Japanese. Not sure.) There is no rhyme or reason to any of this: At random periods, a cocoon will spontaneously grow in some isolated location in the village, and eventually a Haibane child will emerge. The Haibane children are fully aware that they have had some prior existence before emerging from the cocoon — an existence that included a home somewhere and a family — but they cannot remember anything in particular about that prior existence, not even their own names. After emerging from the cocoon, each child is given a new name by the older Haibane children based on the dream that the child experienced while in the cocoon. Each child sprouts cute little wings and is given a halo, so they look like the classical figure of an angle. However, the wings are flightless, the halos functionless, and in every respect the Haibane children remain just ordinary children. There is no information available to the children about where they came from, why they appeared in this village at this time, or what purpose their existence might serve. The Haibane's existence is a complete and utter mystery to the Haibane themselves.

In addition to these Haibane children, the village also contains a majority of normal humans who reproduce in the classic fashion. However, neither the Haibane nor the humans are permitted to leave the village. The human villagers generously give the Haibane children jobs to do, and the two species coexist peacefully. However, while the human villagers go through the normal human life cycle of aging and death, it's a different story for the Haibane. At a certain time in the life of these children, they just disappear. That is, at some moment — usually a few years after their "birth" — they suddenly begin to feel that "their time has come," and they walk alone into the Western Forest where they are mysteriously "beamed-up" as a column of light. This is their "Day of Flight." And just as they have no knowledge of how or why they came to this village in the first place, there is no knowledge of how or why they leave it. It's just how it ever was, from time immemorial: A new Haibane is born into the village, lives, laughs, and loves for a short few years, and then mysteriously disappears. Some of the older Haibane children have watched many of their friends disappear in this fashion and have almost become accustomed to it, wondering only when their own turn will come. Others of the children find it very difficult to be suddenly abandoned by their close friends in such an abrupt manner. (Since they have no parents, their friends are their family.) But again, there is no rhyme or reason. It's just the way things are.

Naturally, the fondest wish of every Haibane child is that when their Day of Flight comes, they will be reunited with their dear friends who have previously left them. And their greatest fear is that they might for some reason be left behind (as some indeed are), to live alone and die alone.

This is all food for thought, but besides the great sadness of the story itself, what is even sadder in some ways is the "knowledge deficit" of these children. What do they know about anything? At any given time, the oldest of the Haibane children are perhaps 16 years old. (Only a few children reach this advanced age without yet having had their Day of Flight.) And the knowledge that any of these "seniors" possess is just the scattered bits of lore that the previous generations told them over the years. The older Haibane have certainly witnessed many new Haibane being born, and they have witnessed many of their friends depart. They therefore know something of how to care for and acculturate the "newborn" Haibane, and they know something of how to grieve for their departed companions.

But they have no insight. They have no answer to the question of "Why?" Indeed, the most painful fact is that there is no one to whom they can even ask their questions: "Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose? What should I do? Where will I go on the Day of Flight?" There is no one who has the answers. There are only the children themselves.

All they can do is live day to day, enjoy the time they have together without knowing how long it will last, and ultimately just accept the essential mystery of their existence. Perhaps on their Day of Flight they will finally learn the answers to their questions, but perhaps not. Perhaps the Day of Flight is simply The End, after which they will have no existence at all. Or perhaps the Day of Flight is the entrance to a new level of existence, a new cocoon, a new village. Or perhaps it is a passage back to the forgotten place they originally came from. All they really know is that it is a journey they cannot refuse. And so they all hope for and believe in the best-case scenario... that wherever they do end up going on the Day of Flight, it will be somewhere that they will be reunited with all of their friends that they had lost.

And so my first reaction after watching this series was "Those poor children." They have to live this existence of uncertainty, not knowing who they are, where they came from, where they are going, or what the meaning of their very existence is. They have no answers. They have no teachers. They have no oracle or prophet. No one has been beyond the village walls. The Haibane children have nothing but a few scraps of mythology passed down by prior generations of Haibane children who were as much in the dark as they are. "Those poor children," I think.

But then I think, isn't this exactly our own situation? We are those poor children. We have no oracle to whom we can ask questions such as "Why am I here? Where did I come from? What is my purpose?" Indeed, "Who can possibly know what is best for a man to do in life — the few days of his fleeting life? (Kohelet)" There are none of us who stand at some Archimedean vantage point, and to whom we might entreat, "What is the view from there?" Likewise, we know not what will become of us when our time is finished. "For who can enable him to see what will happen afterward? (Kohelet)"

Like those poor Haibane children, we too have no one who has been beyond the walls. All we have are the snippets of mythology which were given to us by former generations who were even more in the dark than we are. Indeed, we are all abandoned children, with no adults to guide us, to teach us. When our newborns ask us "Why?" we tell them the same story that was told to us. Whether we tell them a scientific story or a religious story, all we can ultimately say to them is "Here is what I was told. I don't know if it's right or wrong. Perhaps some day you will know more."

I hear babies cryin', I watch them grow,
They'll learn much more than I'll ever know.
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world,
Yes, I think to myself, what a wonderful world.


  • I once heard that Kurt Vonnegut used to shake his head, when asked questions about God by his children, and reply.... "I just got here myself."

    I do think our situation is a little better than the pod born children. At least we have science, our own kind of bitter refusal to go towards the light without a fight !!

    By Blogger Ben Avuyah, at May 29, 2006, 3:23:00 PM  

  • Thanks Benavuyah. That's a wonderful line from Vonnegut. It really captures the feeling right. And I do agree science gives us something powerful. But yet it makes one a bit queasy to think that it's really just us... that all the understanding we have is just whatever we have been able to scrap together on our own, with our little brains. There is no teacher to look over our shoulder and say, "Yes, that's good" or "No, you're not doing that quite right." It makes me a bit nervous.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at May 30, 2006, 12:51:00 AM  

  • BigS - Beautiful piece and great thoughts.

    BA and BigS - I am older than both of you and interestingly I was more concerned about afterlife when I was younger than I am now. I think it had to do with my immersion in Rambam thought over the last ten years or so. The beauty of his Derech is that we deal with the here and now and there is nothing after the moment of death. You can connect with eternity through science and metaphysics which is ultimately understanding our existence as far as we can.It is an exhilarating feeling of empowerment and is almost an Ayn Rand like feeling. I have no patience for the afterlife concept of the general population and I find it depressing.

    The reason I say understanding is connecting with eternity because I believe, based on my understaning of causality, that there is such a Being we call God that is transcendental and eternal, a non contingent Being that we can connect to by trying to understand the concept. The understanding of that concept is eternity itself.

    The concept of Missas Neshika Rambam describes is the most beautiful idea of death i can imagine. A few years ago I had to undergo total anesthesia for a surgery and I found this way of thinking very comforting - Realizing that we all can have a certain smidgen of that type of death if we work toward it. It is not why I believe in it but it is a good side reward I got from it.

    By Blogger David Guttmann, at May 30, 2006, 11:23:00 AM  

  • I have no patience for the afterlife concept of the general population and I find it depressing.

    Thanks so much for the comment, David. I also find the popular concept of afterlife depressing, which is perhaps why I found Haibane Renmei more saddening than uplifting. (Apparently, many viewers find the story to be uplifting, which is probably how it was intended.)

    Nevertheless, I thought Haibane Renmei was very profound in many ways, perhaps because it speaks also to the pervasive feeling so many of us have that we have been given some mission that we must accomplish in this life. But we don't really know what our mission is, or what constitutes success or failure, or what the consequences of success or failure might be. We sometimes wish that some Heavenly Voice would come down and tell us, "Your mission is ... and the purpose is ...," but there is no Voice.

    But perhaps all such lines of rumination just lead to depression. Maybe some time you can post about the concept of "Missas Neshika." Perhaps I will find that to be a comfort, as you have. Thanks.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at May 30, 2006, 1:01:00 PM  

  • The Haibane have something we don't -- a memory however vague of a prior life. Therefore they have good reason to believe their Day of Flight is not an end. Everything about their walled city says they are cherished, that they are not abandoned children, and the universe will not simply dispose of them when it's done with them. I very much envy these little hatchlings.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sep 15, 2008, 11:12:00 PM  

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