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Rashomon and the Act of Understanding

What is it to understand? There is no unitary answer. I might understand an utterance, meaning that I know what the speaker was trying to say. Or I might understand a scientific theory, meaning that I know how to describe relevant real-world systems using its terms, and how to predict and control them on that basis. Perhaps I understand how some machine works: I know how the parts interact so that the machine can serve its function. And so on. There are numerous different types of understanding, connected in various ways to different types of knowing how and knowing that. (For those unfamiliar with the distinction, an example: I might know that a bicycle has two tires but nonetheless not know how to ride a bike.)

I suspect that there is a natural inclination to privilege the knowing that implicated in understanding, to see it as prior to/more important than the knowing how. One reason for this is that we frequently expect someone who claims to understand something to explain it, and giving an explanation requires knowledge that. If someone were to say, “I understand,” but, when pressed, failed to give a coherent explanation evincing his understanding, we would naturally be skeptical that she really did understand.

It is, however, nothing more than a prejudice to think that all understanding requires knowledge that. To make some small progress in breaking the hold this prejudice has upon us, I want to give an analysis of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, which is an exploration of a man’s attempt to understand a terrible and seemingly incomprehensible event. Throughout the film, all attempts to arrive at clear knowledge are stymied, but by the end, it is clear that man does understand. This understanding implicates no knowledge that—it manifests itself in a choice, an action—and nothing more. Fair warning: what follows contains spoilers.

The film opens with a series of static shots of a temple in heavy rain. Two men, a monk and a peasant, sit inside, hunched over and clearly troubled. The first words in the film come from the peasant: “I don’t understand… I just don’t understand.” The monk says nothing in reply, but the look he gives the peasant reveals that he is just as disconcerted. A third man takes shelter from the rain, and is greeted by a repetition: “I just don’t understand.” With the question “what’s wrong”, the attempt to understand begins.

The peasant tells of how he came across a dead body in the woods, and later attended the trial of the suspected murderer. We hear three stories of the crime, each conflicting. What little we can garner with some certainty from them is this: a bandit came across a man and his wife, raped the wife and, in the aftermath, the husband somehow died. The bandit, the wife, and the husband all tell their own story of the event (the latter through a medium), each taking credit for killing the husband. The bandit claims to have killed him in a noble and vigorous swordfight; the wife claims to have killed him because, after she was raped, he looked upon her with cruelty, as if she was subhuman; the husband claims to have killed himself out of shame and humiliation. Each takes credit for the death in order to make him or herself look better: the other two were cowards, but I was brave and noble.

At this point, the nature of what the monk and peasant are trying to understand is this: A terrible crime has been committed, and those involved in the crime have lied about it to protect their dignity. But what really happened? Who, if anybody, actually did behave honorably? And, most importantly, how can I (the monk, the peasant) go on living my life in a world where this sort of depravity is possible? It is this last question that is central to the film. Thus far, at least, answering it seems centrally connected to ascertaining precisely what went on in the crime. If only we knew that, perhaps we could make some progress.

But there is a further kink in the story. After relating the three stories, the peasant’s disgust intensifies. Lies, all of it is lies. None of the stories told is true. Each is self-serving. He accuses both the husband and the wife of lying, for they claimed to kill the husband with a dagger—but, the peasant insists, “He was killed with a sword!” The third man in the temple is nothing if not shrewd, and he presses the peasant: how do you know? You must have seen it all happen, not simply come across it later as you claimed at the start. And so we hear a fourth story, the peasant’s, in which each character comes across as despicable. The bandit’s story was closest to the truth, but far from killing the husband after a valiant battle, he killed him while he was lying defenseless on the ground, and after what was nothing more than disorganized scrambling.

For a brief moment, we can enjoy the illusion of having the true story, of knowing the true nature of the event the peasant is trying to understand, but this is swiftly undermined, for the third man finds a hole in this story, too: the dagger. What happened to the woman’s dagger? The peasant, it turns out, had taken it in order to sell it. The peasant’s story is as much a self-serving lie as the other three.

At this point, we might draw a negative moral from the film. Every story is selective, choosing which details to include and which to leave out (in addition to any explicit lies it might contain), and this selection is a matter of bias. Stories are invariably twisted to the ends of those who tell them.

This moral is more or less true, but the film is not over. I cited in another post David Foster Wallace’s excellent quote about the task of the artist: to locate and resuscitate the possibilities for being alive in dark times. Kurosawa has exposed the darkness of the times; it remains to show the possibilities for being alive. As I suggested earlier, it is this latter half of the task that is the central problem of understanding: what the peasant at root cannot understand is how he is to go on in a world where such self-serving distortion of the truth is rampant. How does this get resolved, if at all?

After the peasant’s tale is exposed for what it is, a child begins to cry. The three go to investigate. The monk picks up the child to protect it, while the third man steals its clothes. The peasant confronts him, but receives a devastating retort: this from the man who stole the dagger! Who are you to teach me about honor? The world is full of self-serving people, because all you can do is serve yourself. If you don’t, you are a fool, nothing more. Honor is beside the point. And off the man goes with the clothes.

The peasant and the monk remain, the monk cradling the child, the peasant looking as if he has been slapped. The peasant reaches for the child, and the monk recoils and adamantly claims that he will not let the peasant hurt the child. But, the peasant explains, he already has six children at home: what could another hurt? He only wants to provide for the child. The monk, with great relief, gives him the child—so the film ends.

What has happened? In the confrontation over the child’s clothes, the peasant has been forced to confront the fact that he, too, is a hypocrite, a liar, a selfish and self-serving man—as is everyone. The thief then suggests one way to live in a world defined by this fact: embrace it and try to maintain a place atop the pecking order. Be the one who tramples others, not the fool who lets himself be trampled. When the peasant reaches for the child, the monk assumes that the peasant has been persuaded by this suggestion.

The peasant’s actual motive, however, indicates that he rejects the thief’s way of life. He finally achieves the understanding that has been eluding him. He has found a way to be honorable in a world that mocks and punishes honor; he has discovered that there is a possibility of being human, no matter how dark the times.

What is this understanding he has achieved? It is not a bit of knowledge that. It is meaningless to know that such a possibility exists. The knowledge gets content only when it is manifested in action. There is no knowledge that such and such is the right way to live; there is only knowing how to live—or not knowing. If you asked the peasant to explain his understanding of the event, I have no doubt he could not give an answer in words.

Moreover, there is no resolved knowledge that about the crime itself. Each of the four stories is undermined, and shown to be subject to self-serving biases. I am inclined to think that the peasant’s story, supplemented with an account of his stealing the dagger, is roughly what happened—but only at a very rough grain. Were the three people involved in the crime all so dishonorable, or was that simply a projection of the peasant’s disgust? There is no way to say. The abstract form of the event, the plot outline, may be resolved, but the specifics are not. The peasant understands the event, but not because he can give an account of what happened. The one account he could give has been undermined. He understands because he knows how to live, how to go forward.

Understanding is an act.

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