Published in 1962, Kōbō Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is pegged to a single bizarre image: a man trapped in a sand pit with a mysterious woman. Their survival depends upon shoveling the accumulating sand each night, a metaphor for the labor of existence which the man alternately resists and accepts. Does shoveling an endless pit of sand make him any less free than his former life of paperwork, obligations, and bills?
He meditates on the reasons the mind craves routine: “It goes on, terrifyingly repetitive. One could not do without repetition in life, like the beating of the heart, but it was also true that the beating of the heart was not all there was to life.” Yet what else is there? This question becomes more difficult to answer as the man contemplates the woman’s resignation to this strange life. Shoveling gives her existence as much meaning as any other activity might. Meanwhile, villagers peer into the pit to ensure his compliance. “More than iron doors, more than walls,” Abe writes, “it is the tiny peephole that really makes the prisoner feel locked in.”
In the vein of Camus’s stranger, Abe analyzes human behavior with the detachment of a scientist observing an insect: “Repetition of the same patterns, they say, provides an effective form of protective coloring.” Yet routine offers no shelter from spiritual loneliness, and his description of its effects reads like an epitaph for the digital age: “Loneliness was an unsatisfied thirst for illusion. And so one bit one’s nails, unable to find contentment in the simple beating of one’s heart…one smoked, unable to be satisfied with the rhythm of one’s brain…one had the shakes, unable to find satisfaction in sex alone.” Although an extension of Camus and Kafka’s absurdism, the surreal society formed by Abe’s dunes transforms this philosophy into myth. This story has seeped into my dreams, grinding at my thoughts like sand in the teeth.