Our friends who do not exist

It must have been more than 20 years ago, one of the last small things that my brothers and I did together, before each of us went our separate ways. We got up in the morning and brought our cereals to the living room to watch some anime on TV, as we did in the old days. We would normally watch Dragon Ball Z for the millionth time, but on that day we found a new series. It started with a giant panda carrying a girl on his back, she was complaining loudly. As it was slowly unveiled, the girl was the panda’s son (not daughter). They were both martial arts experts who came back to Japan after training in China in an area with magic ponds. The father fell on a pond that turned him into a giant panda as soon as he was in contact with cold water. The son fell into a pond that would turn him into a girl. When washed with warm water, they would both turn into their usual selves. They both go to live with the father’s friend and his three daughters. The series is called Ranma½, after the boy who turns girl and back. It narrates his adventures in his new school and has in the background a never-ending love story between Ranma and Akane, one of the three daughters. Several years later I would find this anime again on TV during a difficult period of my life, and it had a strange soothing effect on me. Like coming home for a short while. And it made me wonder why these characters who do not exist could have such an effect.

Sometimes, when I finish a book or a TV series I feel this silly desolation. A farewell, anticipated but still painful. Gratitude and also sadness, as I say goodbye to those characters. The characters are not real, obviously, and yet I know more about them than I know of people who surround me. I know where they come from, what happened to them, their secret wishes, their fears, who they love or hate, their expectations. I know them. Also, unavoidably, I have projected myself onto the characters, so I can easily recognise parts of me in them. At an unconscious level, I have established a relationship with them. In a way, my brain has received all the signals that would label them as friends. And so they are, now, my friends. When they depart, I can’t avoid this feeling of slight abandonment and cannot help to feel that they are taking a piece of my heart with them.

People ask me why I would read a book for a second or third time or why I would watch that film again and again, when there are so many others books to read and films to watch. Yes, but my friends are in these ones, not in all those others. And sometimes I just enjoy spending time with them. One could argue that my “friends” always say and do the same things, that their feelings are the same as they were when I first read the book. Well… yes, the words are the same, obviously, if that is what they mean. But they resonate differently in me, because I have changed. The part of my unconscious that I project onto the characters is different now from what it was 20 years ago. And in this way, since part of what I see and like in the book is my own projection, it has changed for me. They are the same characters saying the same things and yet, I now see a different angle, I discover a new line that has some new meaning for me and had maybe passed unnoticed before. One of the marvellous things about projections is that they change as we change, so the unconscious reflection we see is different each time, even if the object hasn’t changed. Sometimes it happens to me that a character I used to dislike I now understand and can even relate to him. Or a character I used to be in love with I now find dull and unbearable. As if they had changed, evolved. They haven’t, of course, but the way I see them has. So, effectively, the characters have changed for me. My “friends” in the book are the same to an extent, but they have also evolved while I left them alone on the shelf, all those years. And so when I meet with them again, it is like a reunion of old friends.

When we say these characters are not real… Obviously they are not flesh and bone, but can we say they are not real if they have an effect on our inner lives? Sometimes soothing, sometimes unsettling, sometimes encouraging and sometimes indifferent. Wouldn’t I say that a book or a film changed me, that it gave me courage, or even fear, that awakened something inside me? If so, are these “friends” not real? They are my own projection, of course, but how is this not real? Projections are truly fascinating… I often wonder whether we would be able to live without them.