“How much do you love me?” asks a girl in Haruki Murakami‘s very short, short story (see below). The boy responds, not by gathering her to his arms, not with the fidelity of his kiss, but with the only other thing commensurate to love’s interminable estates: the measure of his own loneliness.
“How much do you love me?” she asks. “As much as a train whistle in the night,” he says.
It’s not an answer to “how much?”; it’s not even an image. It’s just the faint hint of something other than nothing. But even so thin an apparition can sometimes restrain the ill effects of loneliness: the depression, the anxiety. I’m just as content as the boy to call that sense of reprieve “love,” inspired, as it is, by something beyond himself. But the word doesn’t really matter. What measure do you give to that which stalls, however briefly, hopelessness and desolation?
If we feel a similar complexity at work in the photographs of Philip LePage, it may be due to LePage’s own fascination with Murakami’s story. LePage’s series, “Still,” unfolds in the aftermath of a kiss that, in reality, “never happened.” Call it a fantasy, call it a dream, or call it every kiss that has ever happened, distilled as archetype. Whatever the case may be, the story loses none of its emotional credibility as, image by image, we’re reminded (as the poet Wallace Stevens put it) of our own “Grievings in loneliness or unsubdued / Elations when the forest blooms; gusty / Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights; / All pleasures and all pains . . .”
“Still” suggests immobility, as in stillness, and its opposite, as in “ongoing.” An impasse? Maybe. “How much do you love me?” Some questions are so fatally human, so suffused with yearning, that only the question ever survives the response.
But it’s the third meaning of “still” that brings LePage and Murakami together, and that’s the persistent notion that things could be otherwise—as in, “and yet.” The photographs in this series tremble in that hopeful space between the how-much of love and the too-much of loneliness.
Concerning the Sound of a Train Whistle in the Night, or on the Efficiency of Fiction
by Haruki Murakami
The girl has a question for the boy: “How much do you love me?”
He thinks for a moment, then quietly replies, “As much as a train whistle in the night.”
She waits in silence for him to go on. Obviously there has to be a story there.
“Sometimes, just like that, in the dead of night, I wake up,” he begins. “I don’t know what time it is exactly. Maybe two or three, around then, I’d say. The time doesn’t actually matter. The point is that it’s the dead of night, and I’m totally alone, not a soul around. I want you to imagine that for me, ok? It’s completely dark, you can’t see anything. And there’s not a sound to be heard. You don’t even hear the hands of the clock, ticking out the time – for all I know, the clock could well have stopped. And then all of a sudden, it hits me that I’ve become isolated, that I’m separated some unbelievable distance from everyone I know, from every familiar place. I realize that no one in this wide world loves me anymore, that no one will talk to me, that I’ve become the kind of person no one even wants to remember. I could just disappear and no one would even notice. I feel like I’ve been pushed into a box with thick iron sides and sunk way down to the very bottom of the ocean. The pressure is so intense it makes my heart ache, I feel like I’m going to explode, to be torn in two – you know that feeling?”
The girl nods. She thinks she knows what he means.
The boy continues. “I think that’s one of the most painful experiences a person can have in life. I feel so sad and it hurts so much that I wish I could just go ahead and die, seriously. Actually, I take that back, it’s not that I wish I could die: I can tell that if things go on in this way, the air in the box is going to get so thin that I really will die. It’s not just a metaphor. It’s reality. That’s what it means to wake up all alone in the dead of night. You still following me?”
The girl nods again, saying nothing. The boy lets a moment go by.
“And then, way off in the distance, I hear a train whistle. It’s really incredibly far off, this whistle. I don’t even know where the train tracks could be. That’s how far away the sound is. And it’s so faint that it’s right on the edge of being inaudible. Only I’m certain it’s a train whistle. There’s no doubt about that. So I lie perfectly still, in the darkness, listening as hard as I can. And then I hear it again. My heart stops aching. The hands on the clock start moving. The iron box begins to rise up, nice and slow, toward the surface of the sea. And it’s all thanks to that little whistle, you see. A whistle so faint I could barely hear it. And the point is, I love you as deeply as that whistle.”
With that, the boy’s brief story is over. And the girl begins telling her own.
“Concerning the Sound of a Train Whistle in the Night, or On the Efficiency of Fiction ” by Haruki Murakami was first published in English in Short Stories in Japanese. Copyright © 2011. Translated by Michael Emmerich.”
All photographs © Philip LePage