Monday, November 2, 2015

The Folklore Of Our Times

I was born in 1949. I started high school in 1963 and went to college in 1967. And so it was amid the crazy, confused uproar of 1968 that I saw in my otherwise auspicious twentieth year. Which, I guess, makes me a typical child of the sixties. It was the most vulnerable, most formative, and therefore most important period in my life, and there I was, breathing in deep lungfuls of abandon and quite naturally getting high on it all. I kicked in a few deserving doors - and what a thrill it was whenever a door that deserved kicking in presented itself before me, as Jim Morrison, the Beatles and Bob Dylan played in the background. The whole shebang.

Even now, looking back on it all, I think that those years were special. I'm sure that if you were to examine the attributes of the time one by one, you wouldn't discover anything all that noteworthy. Just the heat generated by the engine of history, that limited gleam that certain things give off in certain places at certain times - that and a kind of inexplicable antsiness, as if we were viewing everything through the wrong end of a telescope. Heroics and villainy, rapture and disillusionment, martyrdom and revisionism, silence and eloquence, etcetera, etcetera... the stuff of any age. Only, in our day - if you'll forgive the overblown expression - it was all so colourful somehow, so very reach-out-and-grab-it palpable. There were no gimmicks, no discount coupons, no hidden advertising, no keep-'em-coming point-card schemes, no insidious, loopholing paper trails. Cause and effect shook hands; theory and reality embraced with aplomb. A prehistory to high capitalism: that's what I personally call those years.

But as to whether the era brought us - my generation, that is - any special radiance, well, I'm not so sure. In the final analysis, perhaps we simply passed through it as if we were watching an exciting movie: we experienced it as real - our hearts pounded, our palms sweated - but when the lights came on we just walked out of the cinema and picked up where we'd left off. For whatever reason, we neglected to learn any truly valuable lesson from it all. Don't ask me why. I am much too deeply bound up in those years to answer the question. There's just one thing I'd like you to understand: I'm not the least bit proud that I came of age then; I'm simply reporting the facts.

Now let me tell you about the girls. About the mixed-up sexual relations between us boys, with our brand new genitals, and the girls, who at the time were, well, still girls.

But, first, about virginity. In the sixties, virginity held a greater significance than it does today. As I see it - not that I've ever conducted a survey - about 50% of the girls of my generation were no longer virgins by the age of 20. Or, at least, that seemed to be the ratio in my general vicinity. Which means that, consciously or not, about half the girls around still revered this thing called virginity.

Looking back now, I'd say that a large portion of the girls of my generation, whether virgins or not, had their share of inner conflicts about sex. It all depended on the circumstances, on the partner. Sandwiching this relatively silent majority were the liberals, who thought of sex as a kind of sport, and the conservatives, who were adamant that girls should stay virgins until they were married.

Among the boys, there were also those who thought that the girl they married should be a virgin.

People differ, values differ. That much is constant, no matter what the period. But the thing about the sixties that was totally unlike any other time is that we believed that those differences could be resolved.

This is the story of someone I knew. He was in my class during my senior year of high school in Kobe, and, frankly, he was the kind of guy who could do it all. His grades were good, he was athletic, he was considerate, he had leadership qualities. He wasn't outstandingly handsome, but he was good-looking in a clean-cut sort of way. He could even sing. A forceful speaker, he was always the one to mobilise opinion in our classroom discussions. This didn't mean that he was much of an original thinker - but who expects originality in a classroom discussion? All we ever wanted was for it to be over as quickly as possible, and if he opened his mouth we were sure to be done on time. In that sense, you could say that he was a real friend.

There was no faulting him. But then again I could never begin to imagine what went on in his mind. Sometimes I felt like unscrewing his head and shaking it, just to see what kind of sound it would make. Still, he was very popular with the girls. Whenever he stood up to say something in class, all the girls would gaze at him admiringly. Any maths problem they didn't understand, they'd take to him. He must have been twenty-seven times more popular than I was. He was just that kind of guy.

We all learn our share of lessons from the textbook of life, and one piece of wisdom I've picked up along the way is that you just have to accept that in any collective body there will be such types. Needless to say, though, I personally wasn't too keen on his type. I guess I preferred, I don't know, someone more flawed, someone with a more unusual presence. So in the course of an entire year in the same class I never once hung out with the guy. I doubt that I even spoke to him. The first time I ever had a proper conversation with him was during the summer vacation after my freshman year of college. We happened to be attending the same driving school, and we'd chat now and then, or have coffee together during the breaks. That driving school was such a bore that I'd have been happy to kill time with any acquaintance I ran into. I don't remember much about our conversations; whatever we talked about, it left no impression, good or bad.

The other thing I remember about him is that he had a girlfriend. She was in a different class, and she was hands down the prettiest girl in the school. She got good grades, but she was also an athlete, and she was a leader - like him, she had the last word in every class discussion. The two of them were simply made for each other: Mr and Miss Clean, like something out of a toothpaste commercial.

I'd see them around. Every lunch hour, they sat in a corner of the schoolyard, talking. After school, they rode the train home together, getting off at different stations. He was on the soccer team, and she was in the English conversation club. When their extra-curricular activities weren't over at the same time, the one who finished first would go and study in the library. Any free time they had they spent together.

None of us - in my crowd - had anything against them. We didn't make fun of them, we never gave them a hard time; in fact, we hardly paid any attention to them at all. They really didn't give us much to speculate about. They were like the weather - just there, a physical fact. Inevitably, we spent our time talking about the things that interested us more: sex and rock and roll and Jean-Luc Godard films, political movements and Kenzaburo Oe novels, things like that. But especially sex.

OK, we were ignorant and full of ourselves. We didn't have a clue about life. But, for us, Mr and Miss Clean existed only in their Clean world. Which probably means that the illusions we entertained back then and the illusions they embraced were, to some extent, interchangeable.

This is their story. It's not a particularly happy story, nor, by this point in time, is it one with much of a moral. But no matter: it's our story as much as theirs. Which, I guess, makes it a form of cultural history. Suitable material for me to collect and relate here - me, the insensitive folklorist.

by Haruki Murakami, The Guardian |  Read more:
Image: Wikipedia