The Perfect Moment

9 August 2011


I just re-watched one of my favorite films, a Japanese movie, After Life (ワンダフルライフ, 1998), written and directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu. The film tells the story of a remarkably understated afterlife: people who have recently died find themselves in a dingy institutional setting where they are interviewed to discover the one memory from their life that they will take with them to eternity. The focus on perfect moments of great beauty or joy seems to be in calculated contradistinction to the gray and essentially joyless institution at which this process unfolds.

A film like this is essentially a thought experiment, and it invites the viewer to consider his or her own life from this perspective: of the welter of memories that we all have, if you had to choose just one of them, and forget everything else that happened to you, what would that memory be? The earliest recollections of childhood? Youth? Adulthood? Maturity? Old age? I was reminded of a thought experiment that I recently formulated in A Question and a Thought Experiment, in which I asked readers how they would respond if they were confronted with the book of their life. This film does much the same thing, but asks us to pick one page from the book of our life to preserve.

The bulk of the film is a meditation on memory. Some of the film was taken from unscripted interviews of non-actors reflecting upon their lives. As a meditation upon memory, it made me think of Proust, but in thinking of Proust I was put in mind of the difference of Proust’s project from that of this film.

In Proust, memories lead from one to another and unfold in remarkable and unexpected ways, always gathering more of life together into a whole that is synthesized in memory. In this film, the meditation on memory takes a focused form of selecting a single memory that is isolated, self-contained, and in some respects perfect. I think that if most people reflected upon their life experience they would realize that they have experienced many of these perfect moments. I wrote about this previously in Capturing the Moment.

That the Japanese film After Life should focus on single, isolated memories and Proust should focus on a baroquely interwoven texture of memories is interesting when I think of this contrast in relation to recent work that has been done on the differences between what is now called Western and East Asian cognitive styles. Here is an exposition of this distinction from A Cross-Cultural Comparative Study of Users’ Perceptions of a Webpage: With a Focus on the Cognitive Styles of Chinese, Koreans and Americans:

“Westerners use an analytic cognitive style, which involves a tendency to detach an object from its field and to focus on categories. East Asians use a holistic cognitive style, which involves a tendency to see the field as a whole and to focus on the relationships of objects to the field.”

Well, one could call Proust analytical or holistic, depending upon which aspect of his work you chose to emphasize, and there is clearly a sense in which a single memory summing up a lifetime involves a holistic sense of life. Anything as subtle as how people think about life, and especially as presented in works of great subtlety such a A Remembrance of Things Past or After Life, will defy any schematic opposition between the analytic and the holistic.

While I’m thinking of it, Nietzsche’s thought experiment of the Eternal Return also involves the relation of life to memory, and demands that one see life whole, accepting the good with the bad and acknowledging all of it as one’s own, to the point of affirming the same life, played out endlessly, without a single detail changed.

While Nietzsche’s thought experiment with memory resembles both Proust and After Life, it is also different from both, as this is memory without an editor: no narrator to guide us through the unfolding of time, and no meditation upon what we would choose and what we would discard. While non-selective memory is, in a sense, a form of involuntary memory, it is the involuntariness of the whole rather than the involutariness of the part.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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