Monday, December 13, 2010

Shel Silverstein's "The Missing Piece" and self-help ethos

Shel Silverstein’s children’s picture book The Missing Piece was translated into Japanese by Yumiko Kurahashi, and published in 1979, titled “Boku o Sagashi ni,” which can be translated as “in search of me.” This Japanese version was popular when I was a student in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. The protagonist “it,” the a-pie-with-a-missing-slice character goes rolling in search of a piece that fits in its missing part. To achieve its goal--becoming a complete circle means, as Slavoj Žižek puts it, “somewhat like the perfect spheric human being preceding sexual difference from Plato’s Symposium.”(Žižek, Enjoy your symptom!) (I could note that since the Japanese version defines that the missing piece is a part of me, this connotation of “sexual difference” is more or less watered down, so the book tends to be a-sexually interpreted by the Japanese readers. In Japan, self-searching often does not include partner-searching. It is all about one’s own career, potential, and happiness. This translation problem may become more obvious in Japanese version of The Missing Piece Meets the Big O.) The it finally meets a perfect piece, but because its “mouth” was filled with the piece, it can no longer sing, so it decides to drop the piece. Žižek goes on: “It is paradox of desire at its purest: in order to sustain itself as desire, to articulate itself (in a song) a piece must be missing.” When I read this picture book, my question was practical one: I will never know if the piece is perfect or not. Whatever I choose, be it a partner or artistic style, I cannot do so in a way of choosing a shirt. The conclusion of the story read a bit melancholic. It reminds me of Stéphane Mallarmé’s The White Water Lily, in which the poet only indulge the proximity by hearing a faint noise of footsteps of a lady, but tries not to see her. But, in The Missing Piece there is no subtlety of “séparés, on est ensemble--being together apart,” but a slight ego-centrism. It is not something you can choose by examining if it fits in or not. It constantly changes its shape. It is not something you can deliberately pick up and drop. I like a scene from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, in which the protagonist sees his ex-girlfriend Anny. Both call each other “a milestone” or “le metre etalon,” which does not change its shape, and both deny it. At such a moment, I think they are not saying what they mean. What is important is that saying “You haven’t changed” or “I’ve changed” means something else.

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