Thursday, 6 January 2022

Apocalypticism and quietism in Subarashiki Hibi

[epistemic status: fairly confident. contains major spoilers for Subarashiki Hibi, plus some discussion of sexual abuse, bullying, suicide, and cults]

First, to get something out of the way: yeah, I changed the title of this blog. It is now named after a quote from a pivotal scene in Episode 4 of Umineko no Naku Koro ni, but it was heavily influenced by my readthrough of Subarashiki Hibi. As to why, you'll gain a sense of that from this post.


Subarashiki Hibi, a.k.a. SubaHibi or Wonderful Everyday, is a little difficult to categorise. The one point everyone seems to agree on is that it's denpa, and it certainly is—I'd be lying if I said the whole thing with Riruru-chan didn't stick with me.

this is one of the less insane things that happens during this chapter

It's also an eroge, but most of the "sex scenes" are deliberately unappealing and disturbing to the point of one of them actually being triggering to me, given my previous experiences with sexual assault. This is not a point against it at all, for the record! I was actually glad to be dealing with a piece of media that, for all its faults, genuinely communicates the experience of being a victim of sexual abuse very well: the internal monologues of Takuji and Zakuro after their respective assaults are unfortunately very familiar, and I appreciate this attempt to convey the headspace it leaves you in. And I insist on their necessity, for reasons I'll get into later.

The themes of bullying and suicide run through the entire story, being portrayed in often horrifying detail. Zakuro's perspective chapter, "Looking-glass Insects", is infamous for being dark to the point of causing readers to give up trying to care: despite how extraordinarily cute and sweet Kimika's route here is, we've already been told the "canonical" ending for this part of the story, and watching all the bullying unfold from Zakuro's viewpoint, one starts to experience an extremely unpleasant feeling of hopelessness. Of special note is Zakuro's vision of God, a shitheaded naked middle-aged blond man on a cross whose sole purpose is to taunt her randomly through her daily life and mock her for being raped. There is more explicit, bloody horror in other places throughout this VN, but for sheer disturbingness, my money is on this part: a totally nightmarish world that is also, for plenty of human beings out there, extremely real.

And yet the message offered at the end of the story is in direct contradistinction to this nightmare. The climax of "Jabberwocky II", though ultimately sad, offers us this incredible dialogue:

I cried so hard at this ngl

The whole message could be summed up in that one Wittgenstein quotation: "Live happily!" As you might expect, however, there's a lot more to it than just that. Because this message is being set up in contrast to another viewpoint. This opposition is elaborated poignantly in the "Wonderful Everyday" ending:

Kimura: "Every time we hear rumors about missile attacks from neighboring countries, a new strain of a virus that could wipe out humanity, or a prophecy about some great disaster that is going to strike us. It happens every time."
Tomosane: "What does?" 
Kimura: "They say, 'Here it is at last.'"
Tomosane: "Here it is at last?"
Kimura: "A young man once said that war is the only solution, and he became famous overnight. If a war starts, then it will at least change the situation we're stuck in. So sometimes we need to wage war. In a sense, that's a logical way of thinking.
"But that's not all it is. Every time someone predicts a great disaster, you hear these words.
"Now I can finally die.
"Now it's finally over."
Tomosane: "Hmm... If you want to die, then you should just go and die already."
Kimura: "No, I totally agree. They should. If they want to die, then they should. Why do they have to wait for some disaster to kill them? That's right... But you know, every time one of these disasters is predicted, you see people online saying that they can finally die. Even if it's not quite the end of the world, all they need is a large-scale disaster. With that, they can say that it's finally over. Why do they look for a reason to end it?"
Kimura: "The suffering we experience is our own, present suffering. Not the suffering of someone from a distant past. The pain we feel right now will never belong to anyone else. That's why it's precious."

We have a pointer here as to what SCA-DI is responding to in quoting Wittgenstein. The dynamic Kimura and Tomosane are talking about in this selection is most fully explored in "It's my own Invention", which is where we get to see the cult "Takuji Mamiya" sets up.


"It's my own Invention" is probably the most infamous chapter of Subarashiki Hibi for reasons very clear to those of you who've read the story, which is, I hope, all of you at this point. Because we're looking at it through the eyes of a delusional pervert, the narrative reaches heights of insanity and depravity that can't be fully anticipated (see: the first image above). The key moment here, though, is Takuji's first major rant, a singular condensation of world-rejecting cult ideology informed by terror management theory.

disturbingly relatable on too many levels for comfort

It's worth diving into what this scene has to say about terror management for a bit, because I don't think anyone else has noted this before. At the centre of Takuji's rant is a statement that "our culture has covered up death", that the media and education system are responsible for reducing the concept of death to a meaningless faraway abstraction. TMT proposes that most action undertaken by human beings is driven by unconscious death anxiety; cultural values and self-esteem are, in effect, a kind of symbolic immortality. By feeling like we are part of something greater than ourselves, or by assuring ourselves that we are something more than an agglutination of cells, we are able to keep our terror of nonexistence at bay. This paper uses it to explain the fact that many people, when made aware of threats to their health, react defensively: the ensuing consciousness of death unsettles your beliefs about yourself, and as such your natural instinct is not to take self-preserving action but to buttress your self-esteem, to maintain that sense of "immortality".

What Takuji is doing here is, in effect, an attempt to break down those defences. By casting organic anxiety buffers as a sort of false consciousness produced by mass media, he can dig into a sort of fundamental terror that begs for answers. On one level, this is, of course, to ensure that the others will look to him for answers, so he can start recruiting followers. (The way this whole chapter shows how he can remain very cynical about what he's preaching while still buying much of his own bullshit is incredible, and Kimika illustrates well how even true believers can be cynical about their beliefs.) But more fundamentally this also really is the core of a lot of cult ideology. Robert Jay Lifton explains in Destroying the World to Save It, his book on Aum Shinrikyo (undoubtedly a major inspiration for SCA-DI in writing):

Death is the heart of the matter. At issue are the connections between individual death and the death of everything, between death and killing, between death and eternal survival.

The guru took on what could be called the ownership of death. He became the ultimate arbiter of every level of death from that of an individual to that of the entire world. Disciples both legitimated and shared in his ownership. All death everywhere was absorbed and orchestrated within his being. This is a pattern that can be found in visionary prophets and paranoid schizophrenics, who may come to equate a sense of inner death, of extreme numbing or disintegration, with the death of the world. Although prophets and gurus differ from schizophrenics in being supported and confirmed by their disciples, they may similarly require the promise of the death of everything in order to maintain the life of the self. They may come to feel that only the world’s death can enable them to overcome their own inner deadness.

But end-of-the-world images have never been limited to gurus and schizophrenics. In becoming human and taking on the knowledge that we die, we also become susceptible to equating our individual deaths with the death of everything. We ordinarily transcend this equation through a sense of belonging to a larger human continuity that extends beyond our finite individual lives (whether through our descendants, our works, our religious convictions, or eternal nature). But during times of confusion and upheaval, that sense of human continuity is threatened by the breakdown of the belief systems that traditionally maintain it. A sense of radical discontinuity can come to predominate, accompanied by unsettling ideas and images that exacerbate anxieties about individual death. Troubled by the meaninglessness of their own lives and deaths, ordinary people can become susceptible to worldending visions. Aum’s members grew up in a country that had experienced more than a hundred years of such confusion and upheaval, including the imperial megalomania of the World War II era and a subsequent half century of precarious national achievement and equally precarious individual coherence. It was hardly surprising that the young people attracted to Aum had already experienced a profound sense of dislocation—including confusions between personal and global death—before they ever encountered the guru.

The threatening existence of nuclear weapons (two of which destroyed Japanese cities) has radically disrupted all efforts to balance individual death with a sense of human continuity. Such ultimate weaponry has imposed on everyone disturbing images of our capacity to destroy our world and extinguish our species with our own technology, by our own hand, and to no purpose. Small wonder we have encountered during the last half of the twentieth century not only intensified end-of-the-world visions but a troubling sense of these visions as closer to actuality. Fear becomes tinged with guilt: what could be more sinful, after all, than destroying the world with our own weaponry? And if that is a genuine possibility—as it must be—how can we continue to believe in human continuity? Our ultimate weapons, along with our capacity to destroy our environment in other ways, undermine what is symbolically regenerative in our mythology of death and rebirth. Our imaginations become impaired. There is a tendency to equate nuclear holocaust with Armageddon—here Aum is far from alone—and we are likely to extend the actuality of nuclear holocaust to any world-ending story from whatever religious or mythological narrative. When we do, talented megalomanic gurus like Asahara can manipulate this already concretized world-ending story and claim ownership of that narrative as part of their general ownership of death.

Returning to Subarashiki Hibi, this reads basically like a summary of the worldview which Takuji espouses, which his mother's cult that had created the Web Bot (which /x/philes will know is based on a real thing, btw!) promulgated, and which Tomosane comes to be adamantly against. And we see a small-scale snapshot of how it plays out in the rest of the chapter: once he gets people to believe his predictions were right, they flock around him. He demands teachers prove their loyalty with incest. He drugs people en masse and tells them to have massive orgies, and they oblige. (Cynicism is analysed here again: though he's aware the effect of the drugs is due to the fact they're a mix of amphetamines and LSD, and though Kimika keeps mentioning this fact, he also refuses to speak of them, even to her, as anything but the "sacred elixir" that he transubstantiated them into, and corrects her when she does mention it.) Kimika openly admits to him she's along for the ride because she hates her life and is glad to jump at the chance of something bigger, even if it's deadly and horrific.

And finally, all of them leap into the sky in a joyous frenzy, even as they burn each other with fire. Though, of course, the media reports that they all jumped off the roof of the school building. And we all know from Takuji what to think of the media.


Now that we know precisely what SCA-DI is responding to here, we still have to ask: how exactly is he responding by using that quotation? It's surely worth looking at the pages of Wittgenstein's notebooks whence this quotation comes in order to understand the significance of those two words:

The solution of the problem of life is to be seen in the disappearance of this problem. [See 6.521.]

But is it possible for one so to live that life stops being problematic? That one is living in eternity and not in time?


Isn't this the reason why men to whom the meaning of life had become clear after long doubting could not say what this meaning consisted in? [See 6.521.]

If I can imagine a "kind of object" without knowing whether there are such objects, then I must have constructed their proto-picture for myself.

Isn't the method of mechanics based on this?


To believe in a God means to understand the question about the meaning of life.

To believe in a God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter.

To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

The world is given me, i.e. my will enters into the world completely from outside as into something that is already there.

(As for what my will is, I don't know yet.)

That is why we have the feeling of being dependent on an alien will.

However this may be, at any rate we are in a certain sense dependent, and what we are dependent on we can call God.

In this sense God would simply be fate, or, what is the same thing: The world—which is independent of our will.

I can make myself independent of fate.

There are two godheads: the world and my independent I.

I am either happy or unhappy, that is all. It can be said: good or evil do not exist.

A man who is happy must have no fear. Not even in face of death.

Only a man who lives not in time but in the present is happy.

For life in the present there is no death.

Death is not an event in life. It is not a fact of the world. [Cf. 6.4311.]

If by eternity is understood not infinite temporal duration but non-temporality, then it can be said that a man lives eternally if he lives in the present. [See 6.4311.]

In order to live happily I must be in agreement with the world. And that is what "being happy" means.

I am then, so to speak, in agreement with that alien will on which I appear dependent. That is to say: 'I am doing the will of God'.

Fear in face of death is the best sign of a false, i.e. a bad, life.

When my conscience upsets my equilibrium, then I am not in agreement with Something. But what is this? Is it the world?

Certainly it is correct to say: Conscience is the voice of God.

For example: it makes me unhappy to think that I have offended such and such a man. Is that my conscience?

Can one say: "Act according to your conscience whatever it may be"?

Live happily!

Now, this is a somewhat obscure passage, from pages 74e-75e of Wittgenstein's 1914-1916 Notebooks, recorded during his time serving in WWI, and he likely never intended this for mass reading. Nevertheless, it's very poignant, and it would be a mistake to dismiss it as mere nonsense and navel-gazing created by his experience of the terrors of trench warfare. Even in his private conversations, it's known that Wittgenstein intended to be as clear as possible by his own standards.

The first thing we notice is his early focus on the dissolution of philosophical problems. Here we have a foreshadowing of his mature focus on practice and rule-following: we don't address the problem of the meaning of life by questioning it in the abstract, but by actually living in such a way as to make the problem disappear. This is part of what Wittgenstein gestures at in the Tractatus when he consigns certain questions to "the mystical": that some things must be lived, experienced, and not spoken of, for to speak of some things is to lie about their nature by necessity.

In the discussion of conscience and will, there is a parallel here with the Thelemic concept of "True Will". The injunction of Liber AL vel Legis, to "do what thou wilt", is understood not as to do whatever one pleases, but to follow the specific path of action unique to oneself that puts one in harmony with nature. That is, one's momentary whims may conflict with one's actual Will, and frequently do; thus, the first aim of Thelemic practice is to attain knowledge of one's True Will so that it may be followed. It is believed that doing one's Will is often difficult, but is inherently satisfying in ways that following one's whims often isn't. This is, however, not to say that the True Will might not involve violence or other unsavoury forms of behaviour; a traditionalist interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita, for instance, that takes Krishna's admonitions to Arjuna to take up his duty as a kshatriya and fight with detached violence rather literally would be a good way to comprehend what the doctrine of the True Will might entail.

So this is where conscience factors in for Wittgenstein. "Fear in the face of death" is an indicator of regret, that one has not done right by oneself, that one has unfinished business or has betrayed one's own conscience too many times. Here is a concept of what might be called "authenticity"; earlier, Wittgenstein had cited Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, and their influence is readily apparent. Yet his concern with this is not merely individual, but is outward-facing; in contradistinction to the individualism of some forms of existentialism (or Thelema), Wittgenstein does not refer so much to alignment with one's own inmost values and feelings, but with the world at large. The world, which he defines as "the totality of facts"; that is, the sum of all of the states of affairs that exist.

And his answer as to what to do in response to that sum is, simply, "Live happily." That is, at its core, one thing: not to regret being alive. And to do things which do not produce that regret, and to live in such a way that one does not have to hang on to those regrets.


I think it's important to note that all of Tomosane's alter egos possess Cluster A traits. "Yuki" has some schizoid and schizotypal traits, being content with a relatively solitary, simple life and only a couple close friends whom she's known since childhood and finding entertainment in looking for patterns connecting things. "Takuji" exhibits strong schizotypal and paranoid symptoms, being stricken with severe social anxiety and preferring to spend his time in a private fantasy-world, fundamentally mistrusting even the people he comes to believe he was called upon to "save". "Tomosane" further exhibits schizoid traits of a different nature to Yuki, being apathetic to others save for his younger sister, "Yuki", and Master and violently defending his privacy whenever others attempt to intrude.

The fundamental desire of all these characters is quietude. They don't want much excitement or drama or disruption; if they want these at all, they want it all to occur at a distance from them so they can watch without getting involved. Even at the helm of his cult, "Takuji" finds himself resentful of his position, viewing the people he's manipulated not so much as an opportunity but as objects of disgust. Tomosane, once reintegrated, is upset with the media attention placed on him and doesn't do much to hide his irritation with the reporter Kimura, despite the latter's sympathy for him.

It's difficult for them to live in the world as it is, because the world is noisy and bustling and full of people who want to see lights in the sky and explosions on the ground. They want a quiet world. And this is a struggle that each of them approach differently: "Tomosane" beats people up until they give him the quiet he wants and "Takuji" is willing to attempt to unleash a fury upon the world that leaves silence in its wake. "Yuki", however, and the integrated Tomosane later, realise the answer to their problem is right in front of them: the world grants plenty of space for quietude, they simply have to find it.

This is, in effect, the kind of problem that most Cluster A people experience, and I was very glad to find an empathetic analysis here.


So much of the response I've seen to COVID-19 has stemmed from a disappointment that the virus did not, as in a story like The Stand, wipe out 99.7% of humanity. There have been nearly six million deaths worldwide, but the fact that that number is neither six thousand nor six point nine billion, I surmise, is the source of the frustration. If we take into account what Kimura says, then we can see why: if the number was six thousand after all this time, we probably wouldn't have the huge response, the initial reaction of the press that it's "a nothingburger" would probably never have changed, and we can all just wait around for the real doozy, the comet or nuclear war or what have you that finally destroys everything. If the number was 6.9 billion, then that would fundamentally transform everything about life—if you're one of the 100,000,000 survivors, then there's absolutely no chance in hell of your life going back to normal, and you're probably going to face a short life of great excitement. Or so you might imagine.

But the number is nearly six million. Not enough to end all, or even most, traces of normalcy, and yet still enough to make us uncomfortable. To remind us that one day, we'll all open a door, and death will be waiting for us behind it. To remind us that death is right there by the beds of so many sick, and that there's questions of responsibility and risk we have to think about with that staring us in the face.

This, like Trump's presidency before it, is the sort of thing that fuels epistemic crises, that leads to things like QAnon gaining public prominence and grand unified conspiracy theories involving UN takeovers and secret global depopulation plots thriving outside established crackpot dens. These destabilising events have caused fear and panic among the populace, but that atmosphere of doom paradoxically generates a sense of excited contentment, whereby the quotidian terror of everyday things can be resolved by a feeling that although death is coming soon, it will at least have some sort of meaning. Some sort of unifying factor that makes it, somehow, meaningful.

This is what cults like QAnon offer to their believers: either the globalists will win, and they will kill you, or we will win, and if you don't live to see the Golden Land that Trump has bestowed upon you, you'll at least die a noble death fighting for the greatest cause in history. It's what extremist movements of all stripes offer: there will be a great conflagration, and you will die a hero in it. Just as Umberto Eco diagnosed: "the Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die."

It would be useless, of course, to discuss QAnon without its dual roots in New Age conspiracism and American evangelicalism. Both have rich histories of apocalyptic thinking: the New Agers with 2012 (as mentioned in Subarashiki Hibi) and Nibiru and alien invasions and evangelicals with, among other things, the Rapture and the Antichrist. American society is saturated with casual apocalypticism stemming from these two strains. Ever since the First Great Awakening, there have been people in America who have dedicated their lives to prophecies and predictions that the world was going to end soon, and to this day, the evangelical movement broadly accepts that at any moment now, the Great Tribulation will begin and that we can already see the signs on Earth. Books like The Late Great Planet Earth, Left Behind, and The Harbinger have made bestseller lists for decades. And frequently, these are in the service of a racialised militaristic nationalism, such as the involvement of Left Behind author Tim LaHaye in the founding of the Iran-Contra-involved Council for National Policy, which still acts as a major networking centre for the hard right.

That is to say, these fantasies have real impacts, not just on the micro but on the macrosocial level. The world has been shaped profoundly by large movements of people terrified of the everyday, and this is not to say that their concerns are totally invalid. Everyday life does have the tendency to suck, especially in a global social system marked by instability, precarity, and fear of violence (often caused by yet other movements of people terrified of the everyday). All the time, I talk to people who have invested their hopes and energies into fantasies of apocalyptic destruction. It might be helpful to remember the original meaning of the word ἀποκάλυψις here, as an "unveiling": the explosions which so many desire and long for are conceived of as the veil of the world finally being lifted, the "lie" of everyday life being revealed, the meaning behind it all now tangible and definite.

And this is why Subarashiki Hibi had to spend so much time on its nightmarish episodes of hopelessness and violence.


I've found in my life of horrific events that the truly difficult thing is so often not surviving said horrific events, but returning to normalcy thereafter. If you just returned home from a year of kidnapping, then how the hell do you expect to simply go to school and resume a typical routine? How do you convincingly fake normal childhood behaviour when you've been raped? And so on.

It almost makes you long for another hell to befall you. Because when you fail at normalcy, you start to wonder, "What am I doing wrong?" and you might conclude there is a defect in you. And maybe that defect is because you haven't really suffered enough, and if only you had just another year of kidnapping, were assaulted again, had something genuinely traumatic happen to you once more, you would have suffered enough, and could now justify your failures to cope with everyday life. This is why I often choose to wear my trauma on my sleeve: I want to warn people that I'm not equipped to handle this, and I might fuck up a lot. Of course, they fuck up a lot too, sometimes even more than I do. But trauma creates that disconnect, where you can forgive other people's fuckups because they're human, but you can't forgive your own fuckups, because you're not, you're something less than human, or maybe something better than human. Sometimes you can't decide.

Obviously cults prey on the traumatised, but this is really why. Cults reinforce that sense of disconnect, say it makes you special, better than all those other idiots. They boost the latent narcissism in every individual, traumatised or not, in order to control them. Traumatised people have an acute difficulty with normalcy, and the specialty of every cult everywhere is to claim that normality is a disease, a form of rot to be avoided and extirpated. In a way, the trauma of cult abuse is itself a form of comfort to some, because at least it represents something that can be integrated as meaningful.

What everyone vulnerable to cults and extremism shares is a crisis of meaning, something also shared by traumatised people. Somewhere, the signification chain has burst; words no longer mean what they mean, especially the words in the newspaper. Sometimes, this rupture was caused by sexual abuse, an encounter with death, a primordial terror that strikes at something in our reptilian brains: your life no longer has the context it once did, and this new context is one that lives sharply perpendicular to the world around you. Sometimes, it can be found in instability and more widespread difficulty with life: broken promises from authority figures, pressure from multiple conflicting worldviews, a sense that one's values are not inherently trustworthy and must be either defended harshly or replaced. And often it's difficult to pinpoint any particular causes at all. You just wake up one day and realise that everything seems meaningless. The classic 1/n-life crisis.

In response to the Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks perpetrated by Aum, the Japanese sociologist Shinji Miyadai wrote the as-of-yet-untranslated book Living the Endless Everyday: A Complete Guide to Defeating Aum (終わりなき日常を生きろ). In his seminal article on Fukushima, Kentaro Takekuma identifies the "endless everyday" as the cynical boredom generated by abundance and consumption that Aum sought to destroy, while Hiroki Azuma discusses the book on page 122 of his Otaku: Japan's Database Animals, noting that it makes a distinction between those who can, and those who cannot, adjust to the endless everyday, and quotes it: "I believe that there is another, completely different path: it is to abandon a total, comprehensive demand. It is a decisive path that we have already begun to take." Aum could be defeated, Miyadai thought (so far as I can tell), by abandoning "meaning-giving strategies" and accepting life as it is, with all the everyday problems it produces. I have the inkling Lifton would agree: the protean self resists totalising demands and thrives when it is not given definite, all-encompassing answers. It makes meaning by refusing to make meaning.

This is the answer that Subarashiki Hibi provides, and asks you to think about: what does it mean in the first place that life has meaning? Is it even meaningful to ask about the meaning of life in the first place? Wittgenstein, again, this time from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

For an answer which cannot be expressed the question too cannot be expressed. The riddle does not exist. If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered. Skepticism is not irrefutable, but palpably senseless, if it would doubt where a question cannot be asked. For doubt can only exist where there is a question; a question only where there is an answer, and this only where something can be said. We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer. The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem. (Is not this the reason why men to whom after long doubting the sense of life became clear, could not then say wherein this sense consisted?) There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical …Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

There are two main possible interpretations of this, including the "mystical" interpretation (that the meaning of life can be understood but not spoken of). But the other one of them is the one SCA-DI appears to be most interested in: the "dissolution" interpretation, or what has been called quietism. That is: "What is the meaning of life?" is not a proper question. We are not asking anything meaningful, or sensible, when we speak it. The "problem of life" is not one that really exists, other than as a trick of language.

What are we left with by that? For all the brutality in the world and for all the everyday anxieties too, none of them negate the facts of the world. We are here, and that is enough. We can keep living, and that is enough. Because there is only one thing we can do that stops these questions in our tracks, that really dissolves the terror of death, the terror of regret, and that is to live in a way that leaves us unafraid of those things. The only real option available to us, which is inscribed on the hearts of every living thing, is to live happily.

No comments:

Post a Comment