Spring 2009 Issue of KINEMA
SISYPHUS IN THE SAND PIT: ON THE ICONIC CHARACTER OF SAND, AND HOW THE "ANTI-NATURAL MAN" CATCHES WATER IN WOMAN IN THE DUNES
While filming Woman in the Dunes (WITD), director Hiroshi Teshigahara repeated that this adaptation of the acclaimed Kobo Abe novel had three main characters: not just a man and a woman but also the sand. Decades later he would remark: "The sand has its own identity."(1)
My study examines how this sand with an autonomous character attracts water, and thereby redeems the anti-natural man. I have three principal, interconnected objectives as a focus:
1) Locate Woman in the Dunes as a key text in the emergent genre of environmental film, i.e. audio-visual narratives that represent or revision the human-nature relationship;
2) Read the film as an allegory about human freedom and community that is both Japanese and archetypal in its revising of the myth of Sisyphus, and in its treatment of gender;
3) Contribute to a theory of visual narrative by exploring how Teshigahara constructs both the literal narrative (entrapment), and the metanarratives of human-nature relationships and existential dilemmas, primarily through visual means.
My analysis of WITD is part of a larger study of environmental films as a genre. Recent studies such as David Ingram's Green Screen and Pat Brereton's Hollywood Utopia have been useful, (2) but global cinema in central to my analysis. Commercial feature films, Hollywood or otherwise, play an important part in my study, but I include more analysis of avant-garde film, documentaries, and animation. And while scholars such as Ingram and Brereton concentrate primarily on plot and ideology, I want to explore other features which constitute these films as a genre, rather than as a category of analysis, with particular attention to visual narrative.
In The Film Experience Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White characterize genres in three ways: each has recurring character types; it follows plot / narrative templates; it has characteristic settings or visual styles.(3) Of the character, narratives, and visual motifs that recur in environmental films (EF), I emphasize those which are most applicable to Woman in the Dunes:
In EF the "anti-natural man"(6) often goes on a regenerative sojourn into nature. Starting with John Storey's definition of culture as "how we live nature,"(7) it can now be said of human beings that "his nature is to have no nature," as Luc Ferry puts it.(8) The urban man who is confined in a sand pit in WITD is one of those de-naturalized humans whose "second nature" is at odds with first nature. But his close encounter with nature - above all through his Sisyphean struggle with the sand - will reshape him and lead him to revision his concept and practice of "living nature."
This sand has an iconic character and a God-like power; it is capable of both destroying but also, in a sense, of transfiguring those who dwell in its presence. To speak of sand's iconic character is to recognize a doubleness in Teshigahara's view of the function of sand. In the film the sand is indeed a character which acts upon human subjects, as they in turn try to act on the sand. But the notion that the sand "has its own identity" infers that it has a personality or agency independent of humans. By centring a non-human character, WITD is an early instance of the tendency in EF to decentre humans. That is to say, WITD is a precursor of environmental film because it gives nature - in the form of sand - a starring role, and gives a form of agency to this sand that is clearly far more powerful that the agency of the humans who live in its domain.
I define iconography as a process of mass-producing and consuming icons, in which people or things are blown up to larger than life size and take on a life of their own.(9) This perspective is useful for Japanese cinema, which has tended to "emphasize the contemplative aspect of images."(10) And it is particularly applicable to the cinematic vision of Teshigahara, who early on professed a preference for "using images more than dialogue."(11) Roger Ebert remarked on how WITD "uses visuals to create a tangible texture - of sand, of skin, of water seeping into sand and changing its nature."(12) Teshigahara centres his visual narrative in the interface between sand and skin. And in the process of observing how sand seeps into skin, and into the consciousness of his characters, Teshigahara and Abe, who wrote the screenplay based on his novel, visualize how the anti-natural "second nature" of modernized, urban humans is brought into closer alignment with the first nature embodied here by the sand dunes.
Teshigahara grew up in an avant-garde art community, and practised pottery. His father Toshu founded Sogetsu, a world-famous flower arranging school. This sensibility shaped his film-making, in collaboration with cinematographer Horishi Segawa. But as James Quandt notes, "Teshigahara's best work…was a masterful amalgam of high international modernism…and traditional Japanese arts."(13) Teshigahara's collaborators were deeply influenced by European film, literature, and philosophy. Abe was an existentialist; Woman in the Dunes was inspired by Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus. Toru Takemitsu, who scored Teshigahara's best films, was a jazz aficionado. And Teshigahara was deeply influenced by French and Italian Neorealist films.(14)
WITD is located at a transitional moment between postwar (1946-1965), and contemporary cinema.(15) Influenced by post-WWII existentialism, the film on one level is a critique of the rapid Westernization that Japan underwent after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, there are numerous other ways in which the film anticipates preoccupations and visual themes of contemporary cinema, such as the concern with "dropping out," and an increasing emphasis on the human-nature relationship.(16)
Junpei Niki, the existentialist entomologist, is on the face of it an unlikely candidate to drop out of society, much less to find a resolution to his entrapment and Sisyphean labour through embracing a philosophy of Taoist non-resistance, as Dennis Giles has argued. Niki is a rigid scientific "anti-natural man" who treats living things as objects. At first he feels superior to the woman and the villagers who entrap him. But eventually he finds identity and community through confinement in a village that is subjugated by nature. His argumentative nature is sanded, and eventually restructured, through his relationship to the woman, and to the sand. He attains a form of "salvation" through his "return to nature," as Patricia Erens sees it.(17)
Niki's transformation centres around his willingness to sacrifice for a woman. More broadly, it requires an embrace of communal values, which is visualized by his donning traditional Japanese clothing. Niki finally resolves his existentialist dilemma not but rebelling, as Camus thought was the proper response to a Sisyphean situation (although rebellion is clearly a part of Niki's evolution), but by embracing a more fluid Taoist perspective. Although James Quandt emphatically dismisses a Taoist interpretation of this film, I believe that visually it often makes sense. Since the "dwelling place of the Tao" is the "low-ground" (the sand pit here), one must take "the path of least resistance" to achieve this state of balance. One must "be in harmony with, not in rebellion against, the fundamental laws of nature," as Giles writes.(18)
"One must imagine Sisyphus happy," felt Camus. Niki eventually finds a form of joy, but in a Japanese, collective way. When Camus wrote, in The Myth of Sisyphus, that "struggle itself... is enough to fill a man's heart," he spoke of the individual.(19) But the resolution Niki eventually finds calls into question the notion of struggle as the desired end. Moreover, the "happiness" is not located merely in one man's heart. But the story has archetypal resonances. WITD is an allegory about the entrapment of "anti-natural man" in a modernism which is shut off from engagement with nature. Recognizing the limits of that world view will require a de-familiarizing of received thought about nature (as sand), and then a revisioning of the scientific method.
The "Unscientific" Nature Of Sand
With the screen still black, an urban clamour erupts. We see Japanese line art: cartography, or the lines of a dune. Cast are identified by Japanese characters, roman script, fingerprints and seals. Just before the aural city-scape fades, we see an eye squeezed by the ripples pointing in at it. I believe this strategically placed eye has great symbolic power: although the beginning of the film would lead us to see it as trapped, I will later apply the theory of syntagmatic connotation to suggest how the eye takes on a whole new meaning, in retrospect.
The aural city melts into the sounds of classical Bunraku puppet theatre - traditional drums and wooden clappers. The composer hints "that we are about to move from the cacophony of urban life to something older, deeper, and more melodramatic," as Audie Bock observes.(20)
The first filmed image is of an apparent crystal which fills the screen - Sisyphus' boulder? The light shifts: it could be a blown-up monstrous insect's head. Then the camera cuts back to reveal what could be a collection of jewels, or a rock pile. A further step back makes it appear that we are looking at about a square inch of something with a form like rock salt.
The next shot, back to about a square metre, leaves no doubt - this is a dune, over which sand blows. The camera pans back, revealing ripples, like furrows in a plowed field. Onto this desolate landscape, trodding straight up the crest of a dune, comes our entomologist.
This montage de-familiarizes sand - prepares us to see it with new eyes. It foreshadows two elements that dominate the film, Anton Bitel writes: "the microscopic scrutiny to which [everything] will be subjected, exposing all manner of hidden complexities," and secondly, "the inescapable ubiquity of sand, covering the sets, caking bared flesh, and filling the soundtrack with its constant presence."(21) That may refer to more than the sound of sand blowing or being dusted off of skin: The first "1/8-millimetre grain influences Takemitsu's intense soundtrack," Andy Beta claims. Given the "circularity" between Takemitsu, who was indebted to Western composers such as John Cage, and Cage's own deep immersion in Japanese music and thought, Takemitsu's score can reasonably be said to have an organic relationship to Teshigahara's film.(22)
These two brief segments signal that, in the transition from urban life to "something older, deeper," we will be watching the transfiguration of a solitary city-dweller when he is forced to confront nature, and communal living. We can gather that as a solitary grain of sand seems lifeless, and is a mere object of microscopic contemplation, so too individual humans have little power apart from the collective. But when we place the solitary grain or individual in relation to a larger context, both take on new meanings. The community of sand is not lifeless: it takes on a life of its own. In its collective power, it escapes the stereotypes we have about the properties of sand: that it is dry and devoid of organic matter. In fact, a central theme of the film is that sand, as a collective element, attracts water and produces new life.
Once the urban investigator descends into the pit from which there is no exit,(23) we learn that nature is not only beautiful and bountiful, but also dangerous. The widow's husband and daughter were buried alive by the dunes. The villagers have "recruited" the entomologist as one of a succession of "helpers" who must help continuously dig out the houses in the pits from the sand constantly threatening to engulf them. (No one is named except for the entomologist, and then only in the final "Missing Person's Report." But I will refer to him throughout as Niki).
No sooner has he sat down to eat with the widow than he gets into an argument about whether or not sand can attract water. This becomes an organizing principle of the film. Niki argues with the widow when she puts an umbrella over him as he eats her food. "The sand seeps in," she tells him. The words take on great symbolic weight as the film develops: that line is a commentary on everything that the man will experience about life in the dunes. Sand seeps not only into food and clothing and skin but into the very consciousness of all who live in the dunes.
Niki professes to enjoy "local delicacies," but he resists local knowledge, imagining that his "scientific knowledge" is superior. He imagines that the problem with the sand raining down on their heads must be with a damaged roof. "No, it's the same with newly thatched roofs," the woman explains. After he has argued with her about the type of insect that cause the initial damage, she goes on, in her soft tones, to explain that the bugs are not the worst of the problem: "even a beam this big will get spongy and rot," she says, holding her hands apart. How? From the sand. How so? "I guess it draws moisture." He calls this "nonsense. Sand is naturally dry."
"But it really makes things rot." "Use your common sense," he snaps. As he derides the experiential knowledge of the woman, he hands his bowl back to her for a refill and continues: "A desert is dry because it's all sand. Have you ever heard of a damp desert?" So he has laid out what he thinks are both the common-sense and scientific perspectives: the properties of sand are its dryness, and that it is devoid of life.
The visuals underscore a seeming subservience on the part of the woman, yet also the mild way in which she insists on her truth. She brings out a teapot covered in plastic, to keep out sand. After she replaces the covering, she repeats, gently but insistently: "But it does rot. They say if you leave sand on clogs, they'll rot in two weeks." Niki laughs, and chokes on an indigestible fact. "That's ridiculous." The woman also laughs, but continues: "The wood rots, and so does the sand. We found soil in the ceiling of a buried house rich enough to grow cucumbers in." Niki is again dismissive, in the way that one treats people whose delusions are beyond reach. "Okay, whatever you say." After he finishes, he moves the umbrella, and sand descends, as if to rebuke him. The woman continues with her ongoing commentary about how the sand has a life of its own: "When it's windy, two feet of sand can pile up in one night."
The visual narrative continues to illustrate how Niki is deeply invested in his particular form of scientific objectivism. There is an extreme close-up of him pushing a pin through a beetle, and then adding it to his collection on Styrofoam board inside a box. As such images return, as a motif, we come to understand that this is a visual metaphor for Niki's relationship to life: he likes to pin things down. But he himself is pinned down by his attitude. This is "a man whose behaviour betrays his insecurity," Audie Bock notes, as in "his irritating need to dominant or be right when talking to a woman."(24)
Before being offered shelter by the villagers, while asleep in a beached boat, Niki remembered a Tokyo woman who criticized him for arguing too much. "But the facts speak for themselves," he concluded. However, her image is superimposed on the sand, an early indication that the sand will "rub off" his sense of superiority to women, and his sense of distance from/control over nature, which are of course interrelated.
Although the woman on the dunes, who Abe apparently intended to be a sort of anti-geisha,(25) is too servant-like to directly challenge her guest's argumentative nature, she continues to school him. After dinner, when she brings in his bedding, she continues with her argument: "See? Even the futon is damp." And she continues to teach him about the sand's character, in a way that emphasizes both its power, and its relationship to water. "Last year a storm swallowed up my husband and daughter….The sand roared down like a waterfall." When the lamp goes out, she immediately says: "It's the sand." That is, sand attracts water, a fundamental reality of her existence that she continues to underscore, in manners both direct and indirect.
When Niki goes outside the first night to watch her shovel, he asks if she always works at night. "Yes, the sand's moist." She instructs him about the value of community life. "This village has real local spirit," she tells him. He is both uncomprehending, and then dismissive. "What kind of spirit?" he asks with a perplexed, then sarcastic look. "Love of our birthplace," she explains. The biggest imperative is survival: "The sand won't wait," the widow says, having already shown how literally true this is, with the story of "waterfall of sand." Shovelling the sand is truly a labour of Sisyphus. And it is only the love of birthplace, and the community spirit, which ennobles this seemingly pointless labour, in the view of the woman.
Chapter 7 ("Escape") begins with a closeup of Niki's watch, when he awakens and can't leave because the rope ladder has been removed. I wish to call attention to three recurring visual motifs which provide important cues for the film's narrative, and meta-narrative:
1) Time (it ends when he misses his bus. His watch stops working)
2) Entrapment - both pinning and encasing insects, but also Niki framed through "bars" or windows, or shot from a distance as if he were the insect.
3) Eyes and observation: binoculars; crow's eyes, etc.
The "sands of time" impose their own sense of time. At times we see flows like the sands of an hourglass, but the movement of the sands seems quite foreign to clock-time. Predictably, Niki's watch ceases to function after a few days in the sand. When he falls into a sleep-trance in the abandoned, sand-filled boat on the beach, he is entering a sort of dream time. Although Niki will often protest to the woman that he is a respected professional, and that he can't "dally" or waste time, his sense of time will be reconstructed during his time in the sand dunes.
The visual motif of entrapment is reinforced in a variety of ways. At times we see the point of view of the villagers, who look down on Niki as if he were one of the insects that he confines in a vial. They experiment on him, as he experiments on his insects. Both believe this entrapment serves a greater good: science, or the survival of the community.
He literally binds the woman to attempt to force the villagers to free him, but this only serves to reinforce the apparently finality of his bondage: above all, because they can withhold water, the ultimate power and discipline in this environment. Although the early framing tends to be of a rather literal sort of "behind bars" imprisonment, this shifts towards the ends. One memorable shot is from outside, through a small wood-framed window about the size of a prison window, and shows Niki looking out another window, towards the crows, which he has imagined as his means of escape. But this shot shows a particularly meditative Niki. One is put in mind of a long history of visionaries who attained second sight while in prison. In this very scene Niki "catches water," and discovers new definitions of freedom.
The visual narrative about sight, and Niki's efforts to see (correct his myopia), is creative. Some of the earliest iconic images of sight, or eyes, are quite Foucaultian. Immediately after Niki unbinds the woman, we see a man up on the rim of the pit, looking down with binoculars. This reinforces the limits of Niki's ability to achieve freedom through force, or define the terms of his existence as a "helper" in the sand pit.
But the motif of sight is revisited repeatedly. That first morning, he rubs his eyes, trying to make sense of the nude female body sleeping in front of him.(26) Niki cannot make sense of what he sees. We see his eyes superimposed upon the curve of the woman's waist and hip, and then in a match cut we see the woman's curves superimposed on the natural curves of the sand dunes. Sand is already seeping into his consciousness. Later in the film, Niki puts eye-drops in his eyes, trying to clear his vision in both literal and figurative ways.
Water is the most important element in his coming-to-vision, although always in relationship with the sand. In the beginning, his unwilling education about the mystery of water in the midst of dry sand comes through the agency of the woman. Just before he binds and gags her, she has told him: "You shouldn't wear anything in bed…You'll get rashes from the sand….The sand draws moisture" (my emphasis).
In Chapter 16 ("Diversions"), when plotting an escape, he asks for some scissors, which turn out to be rusted. "It's because of the sand." The implication is clear: once more she is telling him that this is because sand attracts moisture. The potential brutality of that relationship will shortly become crystal clear when, during his attempted escape, Niki becomes trapped in quicksand - in the low places where the sand is able to attract a particularly lethal concentration of water.
Interface Between Sand And Skin
Niki arrives in the world of the dunes thinking, with the "second nature" of the anti-natural man, that nature and humanity are separate. But the doors of perception are opened to inter-relationships that had been previously invisible, or seemed impossible, not only sand's ability to attract water, but also the inter-penetration of sand and skin.
After Niki discovers that he has been held captive, his "captor" explains her logic both in terms of human need, and community obligation. She apologizes: "this life's really too hard for a woman alone." The she moves the discussion to the sand, and community. "The north winds will come soon. There may be sandstorms too…If I fall behind, my house will be buried…Then the house next door would be next." This inter-connectedness - of sand and skin, of man and woman, of individual house and the community - is visualized in Chapters 11-13. Chapter 11 ("Suffering") begins with the image of a moth trapped inside a glass lamp globe - symbolizing what Niki has imposed on the woman, but also conditions he is creating for him self, by not allowing the labour necessary in order to receive water. "If I suffer, you suffer," he tells her. But the true nature of the suffering both will have to endure is signalled by more shots of sand falling, looking by turns like an avalanche of snowy- sand, or sand that "roars down like a waterfall."
As Wimal Dissanayake has observed: "The central trope in the film…is sand. It is at once beautiful and frightening, attractive and repulsive."(27) The beauty is inescapable in the artistic sensibility with which Teshigahara and cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa have framed (and of course reconstructed)(28) the sand. The fright, indeed the horror, was evident on the faces of both Niki and the woman when he tried to dig his way out, and unleashed another avalanche/waterfall which almost buried him. Teshigahara's mise en scene here seems to be an homage visual horror we have seen in various science fiction films, when a man or woman is overpowered by an over-sized "monster" or force of nature.
But the scenes in which the sand overwhelms Niki and the woman seem to bring them closer in the flesh. After Niki is buried following his first escape attempt, the woman wipes the sand off his back, and we get a growing sense of the "attraction and repulsion" between them.
The consequences of sand-on-flesh when an absence of labour has led the sand to build up, and water to disappear, are dramatized in a visual narrative which often takes place at an almost microscopic level. Chapter 12 ("Ideas") opens with a close-up of about two square inches of the woman's face, including only her eyes to the bridge of her nose. The tiny grains of sand in her hair and on her flesh are immediately apparent. The camera creeps down and then right, revealing the dryness of her lips, and then to her neck. Her sweaty skin has become a monumental mosaic, grains of sand imbedded in skin pores. The rasping of the soundtrack reinforces the impression that we are seeing a potentially lethal agony.
Outside Niki urinates into a bank of sand that has already covered half of the woman's shack. He shadow-boxes: still Sisyphus rebelling. His fighting spirit is alive, but nature mocks his citified bravery. The house lurches and sand pours through the cracks in the roof. "Run for it!" Niki yells. The wood structure of the house creaks, clearly close to collapse. An extreme close-up of two of the woman's fingers holding chopsticks reveals even further just how fully sand has penetrated into their skin. A dialogue between the man and woman transpires while the camera lingers over the sand on her hand. "Can't we do anything about it?" he asks. She tells him what is self-evident: "It's because we haven't shovelled any sand for two nights." Sisyphus must put his shoulder to the boulder. But Niki still imagines that water is unconnected to sand. "Water!" he yells at her. "I'm talking about water! Aren't you thirsty?"
With the camera still caressing her sandy hands, the woman responds: "if we just started working again…" But the man still feels like a victim, and clings to a "scientific" perspective. The camera runs across his throat now, also covered by sand, also gulping. But even while in danger of death by dehydration (dig or die), he veers into a semi-hallucinatory state, fantasizing about some rational way to "Make the sand work for you, not against you."
Chapter 13 ("Sand") opens with a shot of the woman's eye which almost completely fills the screen. The grains of sand in her hair are even more amplified, along with sounds. Along with something like a dry rattle, we hear the equivalent of a creaky door opening, as the woman's eye fully opens. The sound and visuals signal that we are moving into a more elemental reality.
This move into the realm of instinct, and the senses, is underscored when we follow her line of vision to the eyes of the man, suddenly turning to the shochu (liquor) that the villagers have left. The shot of Niki's hard, squinting eyes and his sand-caked face looks like a referent for the iconic close-ups of Clint Eastwood in spaghetti westerns. The visual narrative seems to be: "desperate times call for desperate measures."
After setting his mouth on fire with liquor, Niki bemoans how "futile" and "hopeless" resistance to the sand is. His tone and attitude seen hysterical, but his discourse is also "realistic": he has recognized the power and indeed the volition of the sand. "If it wanted to," he muses, "the sand could swallow up cities, even countries." Beginning with his hand on the sand-covered wooden floor, the camera slowly moves up his sand-covered arms, on which he leans, and up to his face, conveying his monumental presence, like Sphinx in the desert. His words reinforce that impression, and the logic of his recognition of the power of sand to dwarf and indeed to swallow human beings. "A Roman town called Sabrata, and that one in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Both completely buried under particles an eighth of a millimetre wide."
In half-drunken rage, Niki grabs a shovel and tries to dismantle a wall, hoping to construct a ladder. In the struggle between man and woman, his hand comes to rest on her breast. Much of the sexual heat is generated by the process of his brushing sand off her. The sand that had come between them now unites them. It becomes impossible to see a full separation, because the sand that still covers them is like a third skin they share. As they slide into lovemaking, the soundtrack reinforces the sense that they are sliding together into the sand. The inter-melting and release is signified by the last shot of this chapter, the slow orgasmic flow of sand, and the first shot of Chapter 14 ("Visions), a crow flying.
In this post-lovemaking chapter, as soon as Niki awakens, he begins to hallucinate the flow of water. To his cry of desperation, the woman appears like an angel, in her kimono, her hair down, in front of a window: "You see, if we just started working again…" And the man gives in to the power of the woman, and of the sand: he will play his Sisyphean role. But he is dangerously dehydrated. As he slides into unconsciousness, a deeper level of his being glimpses the truth of what the woman has tried to tell him. We see (through the filmic representation of sand and water having penetrated his unconscious) water bubbling up from the sand, almost like oil rising to the surface. The gurgling becomes a clear stream over a sandy creek. The camera holds the image of the surface of the water. Then we see slow motion drops of water falling from a leaf, a foreshadowing of the water pump that the man will accidentally "invent."
The Limits Of Scientific Objectivity: Catching Water
"Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them," Camus wrote.(29) Abe and Teshigahara animate Camus' version of the Sisyphus myth by recasting the arrogance for which their Sisyphus is being punished as a rigid form of scientific objectivism. They "redeem" him by sending him into nature where he is forced to recognize the limits of his "anti-natural" version of science. But he finds meaning in his Sisyphean labour not by rejecting science, but by applying the scientific method to living processes rather than the study of dead objects, and by dedicating the benefits of his new, more "feminized" knowledge, to his family and community.
It is telling that in the "Sand" chapter, Niki uses the words "futile" and "hopeless" to describe his impotence faced with the sand's power. The gods imagined that there was "no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour," Camus wrote. And they directed their most dreaded punishment against this King of Corinth because of his hubris: "he is accused of a certain levity in regard to the gods. He stole their secrets…[he] put Death in chains."(30)
Cruelty to humans alone is not of sufficient gravity to warrant a life of meaningless sacrifice, which has long been the greatest fear of would-be heroes, as Che Guevara once wrote as a young man.(31) No, his unforgivable hubris was in relation to the gods. He went beyond his station by imagining himself a "peer of the Gods" who had the right to report on Zeus' sexual indiscretions. Hence, many interpretations of the myth have focused on mortal man being forced to recognize the limits of his ambition and vision. For Lucretius, Sisyphus personified politicians who come to realize that the quest for power is an "empty thing." Welcker believed that the myth was a symbolic representation of the vanity of the human quest for ultimate knowledge.(32)
Niki's quest for knowledge is vain indeed: he wants to see his name in a guide book. His hubris is evident in his myopic belief that his scientific world view, attained through killing living creatures and "pinning" them in a system of classification, is superior to the knowledge of people who actually live in nature, rather than merely studying its dead relics.
In "Captivity," Niki declares the woman's labour to be an incomprehensible "self-sacrifice." "Let them deal with the sand scientifically," he urges. He has lost control, but he still believes that as a "scientific man," he has "the upper hand." The beginning of Chapter 10 ("Rations"), begins with a shot of three vials containing insects, one broken. We hear his voice declaring "There's nothing to fear" (or "Why should I be nervous"). But again the visuals cue us: his comment about having the "upper hand" is delivered as the camera pans to him pinning insects. He keeps fear, or his nerves, at bay through retaining his distance from (and delusion of control over) actual life. His scientific world view keeps him "sealed off" from nature.
However, the limits of Niki's practical knowledge are visually burlesqued. He stumbles and bump into things; he brings down suffering on his head. He almost falls into the pit twice before being lowered into it; climbing down the rope ladder, he falls the last 5-6 feet. He bumps into the woman's umbrella. He bumps into the window as he shakes the sand out of his clothes. During his momentarily successful escape, he bumps into a village woman, thus setting the dogs to barking at him and alerting all the villagers to his presence.
In "Ideas," while becoming delirious with thirst, Nike describes himself as "a teacher, and something of a scholar," and still believes that he is "the right man for the right job" in order to "make the sand work for you." Clearly, his ideas are still rigid. When he tried to "scientifically" dig his way to freedom ("It's not impossible. I'm going with the natural slope of the sand"), the "sand roared down like a waterfall."
But his descent into unconsciousness, and the vision of water gurgling up from the sand, foreshadows how he begins to move towards a different sort of knowledge. He will not stop being a scientist; but he begins to incorporate other forms of knowledge. He looks more closely, and begins to see "the world in a grain of sand."
When the villagers first lower Niki in the pit, they warn him: "Don't look up, or you'll get sand in your eyes." Literally, they are telling him how to adjust to life in the pit. On another level, this reinforces Abe's description of the world view of the entomologist as being limited to three square feet around his feet. But on a deeper level, this points towards a process by which Niki eventually learns to see, by looking down even further.
The achieving of freedom through better vision, and a more complete scientific knowledge, is a developmental process. Niki recognizes that his ill-fated flight towards freedom was an "utter failure" because he "should have known the geography." A key transitional moment occurs in Chapter 20 ("Three Months"), which starts with yet another image of Niki's insect collection. But he now has a different catch in mind: crows. When he describes his crow trap as his "last hope"