Ichi-go ichi-e

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(Update- I origin­ally posted this in 2014, but decided to add a few pictures and change the date to 2020 because I thought people might enjoy it and it was kind of buried in the old entries- it also became the text of issue 32.5 of my zine which many people get as a free­bie with their shop orders.)

This was my April piece for Story­board , a writ­ing site with monthly prompts run by a friend. I couldn’t think of a story idea, so I wrote a kind of essay instead.The theme this month is “Ichi-go ichi-e”: a never again moment. I couldn’t think of a story, so I decided to talk a little about ways other writers have handled the theme. I suppose you could call this a casu­al essay. I’m afraid it won’t be closely argued or metic­u­lously foot­noted, and it is quite loosely put togeth­er, but maybe it will give people some good recom­mend­a­tions of things to read.

Photo­graph­ers talk about the “decis­ive moment”. Henri Carti­er Bresson said that “There is a creat­ive frac­tion of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a compos­i­tion or an expres­sion that life itself offers you, and you must know with intu­ition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photo­graph­er is creat­ive. Oops! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever”. Perhaps this is true of photo­journ­al­ism, but does human exper­i­ence actu­ally work in that way?

Psycho­geo­graphy tries to explore phys­ic­al loca­tions through subject­ive means rather than in terms of geograph­ic­al facts. Prac­ti­tion­ers explore and recon­sider their surround­ings, trying to see even the most mundane of places from new angles using vari­ous tech­niques such as photo­graphy, draw­ing and writ­ing to find the specif­ic things that make that specif­ic place that and not anoth­er, espe­cially consid­er­ing the over­lap­ping histor­ic­al factors that lead to a place being a certain way.

For example, people say that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. I haven’t been there myself. (Or perhaps I have been there, but I forgot because whatever I did stayed there. I’m sorry to my forgot­ten drive-through husband if that is the case.) If you take the phrase liter­ally, though, does that mean Las Vegas is full of ghosts? Ghosts play­ing cards, drink­ing over­priced drinks, watch­ing Liber­ace, all on a loop, cross­ing over each other in thick layers. People who believe in ghosts claim that they are more likely to be present in places where people do the same thing day in, day out, creat­ing some kind of ghostly rut (person­ally I do not believe in ghosts). People do do much the same kind of things in hotels and casi­nos, so perhaps there’s some­thing in this theory. A compos­ite ghost made of lots of people doing the same thing in the same place on differ­ent occa­sions. The oppos­ite of a never again moment.

In the film Last Year at Mari­en­bad (Alain Resnais, 1961) the same scenes happen again and again in a luxuri­ous, yet slightly oppress­ive hotel. A man approaches a woman, and tells her that they met at Mari­en­bad the previ­ous year, and they had agreed to run away togeth­er. The woman claims they have never met before. The man plays a game of Nim using matches with anoth­er man, who appears to be the woman’s husband, and loses. The same scenes happen again and again; but with differ­ent settings and nuances from the actors, and new inform­a­tion from inter­ven­ing scenes they have a differ­ent signi­fic­ance and mean­ing each time, gradu­ally build­ing up a story.

Raymond Queneau, whose Oulipo writ­ing group influ­enced the creation of Last Year at Mari­en­bad, did some­thing simil­ar in Exer­cises in Style, taking a short, unevent­ful vign­ette of an annoy­ing man on the bus and re-writ­ing it in 99 differ­ent invent­ive ways. The whole gamut of differ­ent liter­ary styles and moods, and results of Oulipo games and ventures into the surreal are covered. “There was a guy of around 26 on the bus” becomes in the style of “hesit­a­tions” (in oppos­i­tion to the style of preci­sion on the facing page where everything is described in terms of numbers and meas­ure­ments) “There was . . . but was what there, though? Eggs, carpets, radishes? Skel­et­ons? Yes, but with their flesh still round them, and alive. I think that’s how it was”. The same basic story becomes completely differ­ent based on the manner of telling. Perhaps the versions of the story as told by an Itali­an with a poor grasp of French, or via sonnet are more likely than the radishes and skel­et­ons version, or the version with all the nouns replaced with the noun seven places below in the diction­ary (an Oulipo game called N+7) but they all still create a small valid real­ity with­in the realms of the story, and each one is entirely differ­ent from the others.

How do you know what is likely and what is not? Actu­ar­ies know what the like­li­hood of things happen­ing or not happen­ing is, and how much it will cost if it does or doesn’t happen. They have books of tables and complex math­em­at­ic­al formu­las for work­ing it out. Perhaps they have all the answers, if you want all your answers in terms of odds and figures. Their work relies on work­ing out what the common­al­ity of events is, and which are unique and stat­ist­ic­ally unlikely. I don’t know if this would give you a solider grip on real­ity due to having to work out the like­li­hood of events actu­ally happen­ing, or wheth­er it would unmoor you a little spend­ing all your time turn­ing hypo­thet­ic­al events into numbers. Ever since I found out that being an actu­ary was an actu­al job, I have also wondered if they find them­selves look­ing people up and down despite them­selves, and wonder­ing how much they’re worth dead. I would like to meet an actu­ary (hope­fully I am worth more alive than dead). Having not worked in the insur­ance or book­mak­ing indus­tries though I have never come across one. Wiki­pe­dia claims there are only 9,000 in the UK. Wiki­pe­dia also help­fully provides a list of fiction­al actu­ar­ies. They are all either very stereo­typ­ic­ally dull in the way of screen account­ants (in real life I have met some inter­est­ing and delight­ful account­ants in my time), or secret masters of the universe. I wonder if it is possible to be both. That’s prob­ably the best way to keep it quiet.

Secret offices full of actu­ar­ies work­ing out the like­li­hood of some­thing happen­ing, and then quietly tweak­ing the prob­ab­il­it­ies to make some­thing happen or not happen in real­ity sounds like some­thing from a Jorge Luis Borges story. For the unini­ti­ated, the Argen­tini­an writer wrote philo­soph­ic­al short stor­ies, mostly only a few pages long, that you wish were full-length novels.

The Lottery in Babylon (full text of the story behind the link) imagines if all aspects of life were governed by a form­al lottery, with a new draw dictat­ing player’s lives for the next 60 days. “Every­one knows that the people of Babylon are fond of logic and even symmetry . . . . Is it not ridicu­lous for chance to dictate someone’s death and have the circum­stances of that death – secrecy, publi­city, the fixed time of an hour or a century – not subject to chance? . . No decision is final, all branch into others . . Under the bene­fi­cent influ­ence of the [lottery] Company, our customs are satur­ated with chance.” (Ficciones). In Pierre Menard, Author of the Quix­ote a man who has never read Don Quix­ote researches the life of Cervantes so thor­oughly that he finds himself writ­ing a word for word perfect version of Don Quix­ote, which the narrat­or of the story claims is far rich­er than the origin­al, because it can take into account all the events and ideas that have happened since the 1600s.

Borges said that “It may be stated that all chil­dren are by defin­i­tion, are explorers, and that to discov­er the camel is in itself no stranger than to discov­er a mirror or water or a stair­case” (Book of Imagin­ary Beings). Italo Calvino, anoth­er member of the Oulipo circle, wrote some­thing simil­ar in Invis­ible Cities: ”else­where is a negat­ive mirror. The trav­el­ler recog­nises the little that is his, discov­er­ing the much he has not had and will never have.” (Invis­ible Cities). The book is a series of short descrip­tions of cities recoun­ted to Kublai Khan by Marco Polo after tour­ing the Khan’s empire. Each descrip­tion however, is actu­ally about Marco Polo’s home city of Venice, viewed or portrayed in a differ­ent way, and with the advant­age or disad­vant­age of distance in both miles and time.

“How well I would write if I were not here!” (If On a Winter’s Night a Trav­el­ler) Calvino also writes in his novel about the exper­i­ence of read­ing. When I was young­er, I used to explore the excit­ing king­dom of the ceil­ing using a mirror as the narrat­or also does at one point in the book. If you take a medi­um sized mirror, hold it flat in the palms of your hand, and then walk look­ing down into the mirror, your brain is fooled into think­ing that you are walk­ing on the ceil­ing. You’re there and you’re not there. Walk­ing on the ceil­ing of my house was much better than the exper­i­ence of walk­ing on the carpet, even thought the reflec­tion was noth­ing more than plain white artex or plaster. Some­how doing the same in the garden with the sky was never as satis­fy­ing. Perhaps it’s the fact that the ceil­ing of your house is still recog­nis­able as the same layout of rooms, so is half recog­nis­able and half alien, like the house in Alice Through the Look­ing Glass (one of my favour­ite books at the time, although I was, and remain too bad at chess to solve the puzzle).

T.S. Eliot talks about “the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened” in the first poem of the Four Quar­tets, a whole set of poems on the theme of time and memory. “Houses rise and fall, crumble, are exten­ded, are removed, destroyed or in their place is an open field, or a fact­ory or a by-pass”. “Words strain, crack and some­times break under the burden”. (Also, I would like to remind people of the import­ant fact that Eliot used to bring whoopee cush­ions to liven things up at the duller meet­ings at Faber & Faber).

On the oppos­ite corner from Eliot’s long flow of time that defeats words and build­ings, Christie Malry in Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry by B.S. John­son (no rela­tion to Boris) knows exactly what consti­tutes a specif­ic event and can quanti­fy it in numbers. Christie is an appren­tice account­ant at a biscuit company. He finds his work dull, and life in gener­al unfair, so he starts to take his revenge on the world, keep­ing metic­u­lous double-entry accounts of his actions (which form an import­ant part of the story) to make sure he keeps the action and reac­tion balanced. For example the gener­al unpleas­ant­ness of the bank manager he has to deal with is debited for £1 of aggrav­a­tion and social­ism not being given a real chance is debited at £311,398 but steal­ing station­ery from work is cred­ited at £0.06 of satis­fac­tion and as pleas­ant co-work­er brings £0.28 of satis­fac­tion. However the aggrav­a­tion debt to Christie starts mount­ing up, and he has to start taking drastic action against the world to rebal­ance the books. He prob­ably missed his call­ing as an actu­ary in an imagin­ary Borges story.

I’m sure Foucault also has some­thing insight­ful yet long-windedly indi­gest­ible to say about all this, but I recently proof-read my friend’s anthro­po­logy essay on him, and that is quite enough Foucault for me for a long time.

“Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfor­tu­nately Your Days Are Numbered”: (If On a Winter’s Night a Trav­el­ler)The Aleph– Jorge Luis Borges
The Book of Imagin­ary Beings– Jorge Luis Borges
Fictions– Jorge Luis Borges
If On A Winter’s Night a Trav­el­ler– Italo Calvino
Invis­ible Cities– Italo Calvino
Collec­ted Poems 1909-1962– T.S. Eliot
Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry– B.S. John­son
Exer­cices de Style– Raymond Queneau (there is also an English trans­la­tion, which is very good, but doesn’t have the panache of the origin­al)

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