A Wild Sheep Chase Essay, Research Paper
Boku, thirty years old, is in many respects an average middle-class citizen who, free from excessive financial worries, enjoys the kind of independence his status bestows. A product of 1960?s, he takes endless pleasure in smoking, drinking, and eating in bars, cafes, and restaurants. He dresses with casual chic and frequents the movies regularly. His tastes in music and reading materials, though predominantly popular, are disarmingly eclectic – from the Beatles to Mozart, from Sherlock Holmes to Nietzsche – in the postmodern way of leveling elite/popular boundaries. Boku is far from gregarious, yet by no means a true loner; he is by all counts a likable, easygoing fellow, devoid of malice and an overbearing aggressiveness. Indeed, endowed with a sense of humor and self-irony, he is engaging in his displays of sensitivity and tenderness, possesses a wry and ready wit, and evinces a bemused air.
Significantly, however, Boku is a member of the advertising world, that symbol of media-dominated and consumer-orientated contemporary Japanese culture, which is revealed to be under the thumb of the right-wing leader by virtue of his financial holdings; it is this man who indirectly draws Boku into the maelstrom of the sheep chase and robs him of his independence. No wonder, then, that there is no core, only vacuity, to Boku’s being. He is literally without a past (or a future, for that matter). Victims of erasure, neither his family nor his divorced wife, for instance, impinge much on his consciousness. Paradoxically, he is often filled with a sense of loss, though the content of that loss is not clearly spelled out. There are, at most, references to the style and climate of the 1960s, a past that Boku tends to estheticize into an indulgent, wistful nostalgia.
The thinness of Boku’s identity is exposed by the absence of self-examination and in his relations with other people. If, as Jean-Paul Sartre claims, true identity is forged in the crucible of the dialectic between self and other, Boku fails the test. The “other” is a problematic force for the subjective “I” or self, because it too, unlike inanimate objects, is endowed with a consciousness and subjectivity that often clash with those of the self. Consciously or unconsciously, Boku tries to escape the self-other confrontation by viewing others as objects, no doubt because his own subjective self is wanting in depth.
A case in point is his relationship with his former wife. The divorce effectively takes place early on in the novel, in chapter two, when Boku returns to their apartment after attending his old girlfriend’s funeral to find his wife ready to move out for the final time. The conversation between the two skirts everything that might be thought of as essential for an understanding of their situation. At one point Boku remarks, “I’m not explaining. I’m just making conversation” – summing up the tenor of their relationship. Boku is dejected over and saddened by the failed marriage; but there is no reflection whatsoever on what might have gone wrong, and the matter is soon erased from his consciousness.
The relationship with his new girlfriend is carried out on no firmer ground than that with his former wife. First attracted to her by her beautiful ears glimpsed in a photograph, Boku regards her, perhaps unknowingly, as an object (her ears), thus depriving her of subjectivity. It is not that Boku is intentionally mean and insensitive, only that he is fundamentally more comfortable with exteriors and averse to the deep probe. Indeed, he is fully adept at displaying affection of the surface variety – a candlelight dinner in the romantic setting of a posh French restaurant, for instance. The chitchat they engage in, often bordering on the ridiculous, produces a delightful humor; but in the end it signifies nothing more than the postmodernist “noisy silence.” Most telling is his reaction to her sudden disappearance toward the end of the novel. They have finally reached the site in the mountains of Hokkaido where the picture of the grazing sheep had been taken. As Boku naps in the villa, formerly the property of the Sheep Professor and now owned by Rat’s family, she mysteriously vanishes. (The reader is informed shortly thereafter that the Sheep Man, who turns out to be the ghost of the now-dead Rat, had urged her to leave.)
"I could not accept the fact of her disappearance. I was barely awake, but even if I were totally lucid, this – and everything that was happening to me – was far beyond my realm of comprehension. There was almost nothing one could do except let things take their course".
Far from chasing after her, Boku proceeds to prepare his dinner – stew, bread, an apple, and wine – which he consumes while listening to a record of the Percy Faith Orchestra playing “Perfidia.” The extent of his reflection runs as follows, laying bare his penchant for estheticizing and romanticizing even the very recent past: “I was feeling lonely without her, but the fact that I could feel lonely at all was consolation. Loneliness wasn’t such a bad feeling. It was like the stillness of the pin oak after the little bird had flown off”.
Boku’s attitude toward “others” is perhaps most basically reflected in his aversion to referring to them by their proper names (which are never revealed), as denying them their independent, subjective identities. (Since Boku ["I"] himself is not assigned a name, the proclivity in turn mirrors that of the author, who in fact has littered his oeuvre with nameless characters.) Thus, Boku’s wife is merely “the wife,” his girlfriend “the girlfriend with the beautiful ears.” And, like the “secretary,” the “business partner,” and the “hotel clerk,” who also inhabit the novel’s world, they are reduced to their functional categories. Whatever names do appear are nicknames, such as Rat and Sheep Professor, perhaps suggesting these characters’ less-than-human capacities.
The antipathy toward naming is no accident. The topic is taken up within the novel itself and given a comic turn. When Boku is forced to leave Tokyo in search of the special sheep, in a funny scene of reverse bullying, he insists that the right-wing leader’s secretary care for his aged cat. Sent to pick up the feline, the secretary’s chauffeur asks its name.
“Nice kitty-kitty,” said the chauffeur, hand not outstretched. “What’s his name?”
“He doesn’t have a name.”
“So what do you call the fella?”
“I don’t call it,” I said. “It’s just there.”
“But he’s not a lump just sitting there. He moves about by his own will, no? Seems mighty strange that something that moves by its own will doesn’t have a name.”
The conversation continues with an amusing give-and-take on why some things (like ships) are accorded names whereas others are not (like airplanes). The problem goes unresolved, even as the conversants consider the “act of conscious identification with living things” and “non-interchangeability: as possible bases for naming.
A symptom of Boku’s disconnection with his essence, or self, is his almost fetishistic attention to trivia, to “things.” It is as if a careful tracking of “things” furnishes him with a handle and a grip on a recalcitrant reality. He notes the exact number of steps from the elevator to the door of his apartment, the amount of coffee and cigarettes he consumes, or the time that a particular song was in vogue; he becomes obsessively curious about a whale’s penis on display at an aquarium he visits. Even something so intimate as sex turns into a “thing.” Concerning his own sexual affairs, about which he is surprisingly reticent, at one point he records perfunctorily, “We returned to the hotel and had intercourse. I like that word, intercourse. It poses only a limited range of possibilities”. Sex, it would seem, offers him not much more than the sensual gratification he derives from the consumption of “things,” like gourmet foods.
Boku’s perception of and response to people and things leans heavily on the side of the immediate, the physical, the sensual, mixed with not a little affectation. Riding in the limousine driven by the chauffeur, he comments, “Compared to my fifteen-year-old Volkswagen Beetle I’d bought off a friend, [it] was as quiet as sitting at the bottom of a lake wearing earplugs”. He reacts to his girl friend’s ears in the following way:
"She’d show me her ears on occasion; mostly on sexual occasions. Sex with her ears exposed was an experience I’d never known.
When it was raining, the smell of the rain came through crystal clear. When birds were singing, their song was a thing of sheer clarity. I’m at a loss for words, but that’s what it was like."
Anything requiring sustained thought, spiritual input, or a committed stance bores him, perhaps even frightens him. What he finds hard to handle or bothersome, he dismisses with slick, flippant aphorisms, something he remarks Russians are prey to: “Russians have a way with aphorisms. They probably spend all winter thinking them up”. Here he comments on sex:
"To sleep with a woman: it can seem of the utmost importance in your mind, or then again it can seem like nothing much at all.
Which only goes to say that there’s sex as therapy (self-therapy, that is) and there’s sex as pastime."
" There’s sex for self-improvement start to finish and there’s sex for killing time straight through; sex that is therapeutic at first only to end up as thing-better-to-do, and vice versa. Our human sex life – how shall I put it?? – differs fundamentally from the sex life of the whale."
Boku is by no means a despicable man, out to perpetrate evil. Neither is he coldly indifferent toward those around him – his former wife, his girlfriend, or J the bar owner. He seems genuinely fond of his friend Rat in particular, carrying out with good cheer and curious favors the latter requests. In fact, Rat appears in many ways to be the alter ego of Boku himself – Rat’s letters to Boku have the same mannerisms and tone as Boku’s speech. Ultimately, however, Boku avoids engagement and commitment, those qualities Sartre deemed to essential in human relations. Short in attention span, he is constitutionally incapable of giving fully of himself to anything. All is surface.