“Dying has never been our true suffering. All of our sufferings, in fact, have been born . . . from having to live in this mutable world.”
Kazufumi Shiraishi’s Me Against the World is, according to its subtitle, a novel, but would be more accurately described as a work of philosophy with a fictional framing device. The “publisher’s foreword” fictionalizes the main text by presenting it as the work of a Mr. K, an old friend of the “publisher.” Their friendship was not what one would describe as intimate, but it was marked by deeply meaningful exchanges through correspondence and in person. Over the course of this lifelong friendship, the two meet at least once a year until Mr. K dies suddenly of a heart attack at fifty-three and entrusts a manuscript he was working to his friend, in whom he had never confided about his writing.
After the publisher has piqued the reader’s curiosity by sharing his compulsion to have this manuscript published and by seeking to soften or justify the manuscript’s abrasiveness, the foreword ends and we are plunged into the main text, a rabid stream of consciousness reminiscent of Journey to the End of the Night, full of contempt for humans and anger at having to live among them. Mr. K asserts at one point that human beings are to the planet what cancer is to human beings–an endlessly multiplying, malignant organism:
Each and every one of us is something like a cancer cell. While cancer cells can metastasize anywhere and are able to adapt and grow in any environment, there really isn’t a single thing that can be considered significant in their existence or in their nature to carry out unlimited proliferation.
This likening of human beings to cancer is the first of many analogies Mr. K uses to describe the human condition. To anyone who’s read epistemological philosophy (willingly or unwillingly), reliance on analogies recalls the work of thinkers who firmly believe in the universe’s explainability. But it soon becomes clear that—as the “foreword” preemptively pointed out—many of these analogies are faulty, either because they compare two things that are not analogous or because the analogy is used to support a conclusion that does not follow from it. What appear to be analogies are really more like free associations, just as what appears to be reasoning is more like a string of loosely connected musings assembled in such a way that it looks like a work of philosophical argumentation as long as you skim over what the words are saying. This, and the way Mr. K criticizes anything and everything humans do to make their lives a little bit bearable, makes for tough reading and the occasional eye roll.
Mr K. has little patience for widespread beliefs and for the ways that people reassure themselves or organize their lives. Of physics and scientist alike he says:
In effect, what they’re doing is picking up random stones littered on the ground, then coloring them and showing them off before us as if they were something precious and rare. They commercialize “death”—which is in fact the most ordinary and commonplace phenomenon you can find in the world—by decorating it in various ways . . . I believe the psychic medium resembles the career scientist very much. Of course, priests of existing and new religions are also similar in this regard.
Mr. K’s mistrust of rationality, of the scientists who he believes deify it, and of religion and superstition—as well as his passionate and oracular voice—bring to mind Nietzsche, specifically The Gay Science. Like Nietzsche, Mr. K pinpoints the foolishness of the beliefs we hold on to as balm (or opium, Marx might say) for our creeping awareness of our pointless existences and our inevitable deaths. But even to a reader who agrees with this vision of the world, the narrator is at his most abrasive in these passages, particularly where he criticizes care for one’s family and friends as a feel-good farce. In emulating Nietzsche, Mr. K sometimes veers into the tone of those who have read Nietzsche hastily and without depth and want to provoke and to seem superior by proclaiming the majority of humanity weak and stupid.
Just as irritating are the meditations on revenge, justice, and responsibility that make up the midsection of this slim but slow-moving book. We are introduced to extreme and off-putting scenarios—rapes, murders, accidental deaths—and called upon to imagine what kind of punishment is appropriate. If someone kills a child, would the father of that child be justified in killing the murderer? Or would justice or revenge be better served by killing the murderer’s family so that he might experience the same grief that he inflicted? If your girlfriend dies in an accident on her way to meet you, to what extent did your actions cause her death? And so on. Given the casual, detached tone of these passages, their point might be to drive home the horror of the human condition, that the world is so disgustingly cruel that horrible acts of violence do not warrant dramatics or outrage because they’re commonplace enough to merit nothing more than a shrug.
But Me Against the World hinges on explaining a much smaller-scale, less visible tragedy: “Dying has never been our true suffering. All of our sufferings, in fact, have been born . . . from having to live in this mutable world.” Just as happiness is only perfect in anticipation, death is most fearsome when we’re alive and constantly aware of it, every change in the world a reminder of the passage of time. What we fear about death, Mr. K contends, is forever losing consciousness, our relationship with our incomprehensible self:
When physical death is imminent, what is horrifying to you above all else is not the prospect of parting from your beloved wife or your young children. It’s the prospect of parting from yourself.
Eventually, the combative tone subsides, as though the narrator has accepted death and now just wants to reason through its implications. It becomes clear that what he seeks to do is to defy the indignity and inevitability of death by writing toward some discovery, some purpose for his life. It’s rare for a philosophical work to have character development, but this progression seems to qualify: Mr. K, for all of his off-putting or unfounded judgments, for all his bitterness and misanthropy, is shown to be one of us. He has spent his life hoping, if not quite effectually, to accomplish something exceptional that might justify his existence. He has cast aside the consolations and reassurances of science and religion and other beliefs, and he has also tried the give up on finding meaning, and yet peace of mind still evades him.
But some kind of clarity and resolution does come at last. Unlike some of Nietzsche’s corny imitators, the narrator ends up proving, in the end, that he had a reason for hacking away at religion, superstition, family, and every other value widely embraced as solution to the problem of death. The narrator’s conclusion, and his recommendation to all of humankind, is to cast off affection for individuals in our lives in favor of developing real compassion for all members of the human race—a change that will, for Mr. K, lead us to a more just world. In a shift of mood and tone reminiscent of Albert Camus’s The Stranger, the last pages suddenly turn from clipped pessimism to lyricism and evoke a sense of hope and vindication. Mr. K comes to the Camusian conclusion that although we must die without ever knowing why we exist on this earth:
Real love is a small encouragement for all of us who must die. Which is why every kind of human being, every kind of living thing, deserves to be loved equally. You could be a good person or a bad person, but your inevitable fate of death will remain unchanged. The true nature of love is in fact an infinite sadness for every presence, every being that must die. The true character of love is in fact a never-ending flow of sympathy for us beings who remain in the dark about why we were ever born, what we love for, and what we die for. Love can never overthrow death. But that’s why love can come close to us . . . Just by bringing to life the compassion within you, you can neutralize the abominable, diabolical program that has been built into the world—the program running the algorithms of poverty, violence, war, discrimination, persecution, fanaticism, and other true sins.
Even upon finishing the book, this reader remained at a loss as to how Mr. K arrived at his conclusion of universal love through his series of convoluted and often unpleasant digressions. But when one thinks about it for a while, one realizes that these kinds of thoughts about the human condition, or anything else, are never linear—and they don’t even have to be logical or consistent to lead us to an epiphany that is greater than the sum of the thoughts that preceded it. Still, it is a strange and maybe even triumphant accomplishment to start from utter misanthropy and disgust at the world—hurling insults at it, showing it the truth of its own ugliness—and end with a stunning display of hope.