Haruki Murakami, Kierkegaard, Christmas and the Winter Sun-Shift
Haruki Murakami – A worker bee
Magic realism is supposed to be Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s forte, yet he is in fact closer to a worker bee, as we shall see. But a worker that can suddenly and miraculously transform our world into a range of astonishing phenomena. Just like bees. The Danish thinker and writer Søren Kierkegaard, meanwhile, is supposed to be a depressing, dour we may as well all slash our wrists right now this minute Germanic Lutheran, but is in fact very often hilarious. Just like the Danes.
‘Merry Christmas’ the postcard says – yes, these are those ‘dour’ Danes …
Never judge authors, or indeed races of people, by oft repeated shibboleths about them. Both of these brilliant writers are far more complex and surprising than their typical rubrics would indicate. They also have far more in common than has ever been remarked upon, as far as I know. In my long experience as a writer and reader, fiction authors and writers are often the best thinkers and philosophers. A lot less boring usually, also.
A spaghetti pot – mundane or magic? Or both!
With Murakami and Kierkegaard, their mutual magic is, ironically we feel, to be found in the commonplace, because that’s the only place human astonishment can begin. Astonishment starts with an ordinary thing and ends in transcendence. In this I seem to stand Kant and other philosophers on their heads, as they think the sublime must be something very rare. But it is we humans who impart material things like paintings, toothbrushes, music and poems with magic. Astonishment is Christmas to which we impart specialness with those daft hats, tinkling bells and tinsel and the lowly babe in the refugee camp manger. Magic. Our better selves. The sublime. Humans are magic incarnate. There are of course other miracles at that manger if we dream it to be so.
Christmas and the winter Sun-Shift are upon us. They never fail to excite me and gladden my heart. Every year. And there’s an ancient reason for that.
The modern age’s ‘wine to water’ miracle – dumbing down to ‘facts’.
The modern age, Kierkegaard once said, has managed the strange miracle of turning wine into water. Very funny but also very profound. It is a crucial point. For though I’ve just said that astonishing things come from the commonplace, that is not to glorify the commonplace but to go back into it and feel the miracle there. That added ingredient of human magic again. To imagine water, if you like, into becoming wine. To write or paint water into wine. To raise water to the level of magic – ‘the wine dark sea’ of Homer or the Norse ‘Swan Plain’ (a lake). The modern age does the opposite of this, straining everything down into a pot of alleged ‘facts’. The Science of less is more. More water. Far less wine. I must have been born to be a thinker because like Kierkegaard I always wondered why we couldn’t have both. More wine. More Water. More magic. Why would anyone object to magic?
On the surface at least, Haruki Murakami does often appear prosaic and deadpan in his writing. As if he’s having a chat with his readers – dialogue with readers being his intention. So the phone rings as he’s cooking. Terrific! It’s the start of the ‘Wind Up Bird Chronicle’ and the hero ‘Toru’ is boiling spaghetti. We get all the social realist stuff; the detailed list of what’s in the kitchen – that the pasta is spaghetti, that it’s boiling on a gas ring, the radio is playing music and the phone starts to ring. I’m not a great fan of social inventories in literature but Murakami manages to weave a fascinating sociology – a sort of print out of the fabric of Japan – into a set of beguiling mysteries and weird occurrences. Having been to Japan and having practised its martial arts and worshipped some of its film makers, his ‘Bird’ chronicle is like the whole of Japan in all its rigid formality and flamboyance captured in one single book. Then, with a final look back at the spaghetti, Toru finally answers the phone and the weirdness begins. Murakami is like a book version of David Lynch. It is an extraordinary experience – like exactly where is this bird or birds that are frequently referred to? It is at once a statue in a garden, a night bird and a dawn chorus.
But Murakami also does funny. Take this from his ontological (about life) memoir about running, ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’ – in this case competing in a triathlon. In one passage, Murakami has to abruptly move from swimming frantically in the sea to pedalling furiously on a bike: “you feel like a salamander that’s developed overnight into an ostrich.”
Well … we see how he can take natural science and play with it. More is more. Darwin meets the miracle of human art.
Life-changing humour is one of the places where Kierkegaard and Murakami meet and there is another, just as important, shared trait – the existential choice. What to do with your life.
Very early in his journals, the diaries he kept throughout his life, Kierkegaard asks what is it – this thing, this idea – for which he could live and die? This motif runs across all of Murakami’s books, or at least the ones I’ve read. When we are a good bit into his Bird chronicle book, the unemployed Toru says “I don’t have an image of the one thing I really want to do.” It’s Kierkegaard’s leap again and it stems, must stem, from a period of doubt. Depression even. Depression is normal. Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, said Kierkegaard. Toru retreats into a well. Just as Murakami does in his running book. Just as Kierkegaard did with his tungsind – his heavy mind. Looking deep down into their own subjective, psychological, deep wells. We can only ever grasp life if we first grasp ourselves.
Towards the end of ‘What I talk about when I talk about running,’ which title is in itself a homage to another writer saint, another Knight of Resignation – Raymond Carver – Murakami gives an extraordinary description of what he initially calls ‘Runners Blues’. After completing an Extreme Marathon of over 60 miles, he falls into what he describes as “resignation”. He becomes more introspective and says “you might even call it a philosophical or religious” mental state. In fact, it becomes clear that the whole book is at least partly a product of this depression, these ‘Runners Blues’ and Murakami’s emergence on the other side of them. And what does he emerge to? Well in typical documentary Murakami style, he says that all that running and in particular his later change to triathlons may well have been like “pouring water into an old pan that has a hole in it” but, and it’s a big existential but, he goes on to say that “what’s most important is what you can’t see but can feel in your heart.” And so he decides he will keep on running. Keep on greeting other runners. Keep on trying. We are right back with Kierkegaard. Murakami-san is talking just as much about writing and creating art here as he is about running. You have to feel it in your heart before it can move you to artistic creation. You might fail countless times, or feel like a failure, but joy comes from the simple act of trying. Them comes the miracle. The leap that actually does bring you to other side.
What Murakami really wants to do is to write. The running and other forms of sport help him to do that. In other words, he uses physical work to keep his mind and body in great shape to prolong what he really likes doing for as long as possible. Work is exalted. The idea of exertion and effort is exalted. The idea of the body as the temple of the soul, or at the very least as a precious receptacle, a vehicle for profundity, is vibrant. But at the same time, and just as with Kierkegaard, you sense strongly that Murakami really feels for all those people who are not living their life to the full. He writes about and for them because he sees the danger – the ‘sin’ Kierkegaard would say and he’s right – of not using mind and body at full throttle. For all their mutual weirdness, they are full of empathy.
Walk, run, keep moving and engaging, to keep your creativity sharp
In essence, I feel what really unites Kierkegaard and Murakami is their sense of duty to their art and their craft. That includes physical exertion – walk, run yourself through that wall that brings you to inspiration at the other side of physical exertion. That they devote long hours to walking the town as Kierkegaard did – his daily ‘people bath’ – or running marathons in Murakami’s case, is to pay homage, to hone and polish their artistic selves. They are both Knights of Persistent Art but they understand the significance of this in both its negative and positive spheres. This negative artistic sphere is the knowledge that you are a Knight of Infinite Resignation as Kierkegaard put it. This means that you are no saint who can do miracles by the simple act of being. Unlike Knights of Faith who cure the sick, part the seas at will, or conjure the birds from the trees, with a wave of their hands, the artistic Knight of Resignation must paint or write miracles into being with not only inspiration but perspiration. In performing this sacred act, they are almost on a par with the Knights of Faith. Through their art of bringing the impossible into being, they attain the highest heights of faith in that higher sphere of life and the soul. These are just other terms for the unknowable but felt God. I don’t care whether you call it a Divinity or the Glory that is in all matter.
As with other great festivals that humans celebrate all over the world, Christmas is not a question of a series of facts, but what you passionately feel in your heart and your art.
I send best wishes to all my many readers for a Happy Christmas and a peaceful, creative New Year.
Haruki Murakami as a Knight of Persistent Art