Reading and Forgetting

For at least a year or two I believed I hated Haruki Murakami. Before I went to Sierra Leone to work with a non-profit, I packed The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle because I had thoroughly enjoyed Norwegian Wood. Long story short, due to the Ebola outbreak we were forced to stay in the same place for a while. Under the summer heat and lack of electricity, I passed a lot of the time reading the book and grew overwhelmingly frustrated. I got tired of hearing the narrator’s voice, I was tired of all of these weird flashbacks, and, well, I don’t remember what else. All I remember is I didn’t like it, and from that point on I decided I was no longer a Murakami fan (a stance that has since changed after Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki).

I tell this anecdote because while there may have been some truth in what I didn’t like about Murakami at the time, the point is that the way we sometimes remember and talk about books are extremely similar to the way we talk about people, places — probably everything. This post is spurred by an article in The Atlantic, which I thought was not that profound but led me to this article in The New Yorker. The latter references this quote attributed to the poet Siegfried Sassoon:

For it is humanly certain that most of us remember very little of what we have read. To open almost any book a second time is to be reminded that we had forgotten well-nigh everything that the writer told us. Parting from the narrator and his narrative, we retain only a fading impression; and he, as it were, takes the book away from us and tucks it under his arm.

There’s great comfort in the limitations of our memory being “humanly certain,” that there is nothing wrong with us for not being able to remember the exact details of every movie or book we consume. And yet this is just the same as how we go about our daily lives: we experience, stow away particular snatches, and push forward. You may believe you recall all of the details of the time spent with your friends last night, but what you remember is different from what your friends remember. They might remember you looked a little bit more tired than usual, or, going into the night, two of your friends had a conversation that colored the entire evening in a way you can’t imagine — essentially, all of the details that go into the media we consume. The fact that our memory of real life is any better than our memory of books or movies might just be a difference in sensory input, not in some inherently greater significance of what is “real” and what is “fiction” — human memory is limited all the same. We all run through life picking up memories, leaving some behind (not entirely by choice of course), more or less tumbling towards the end in which, as one of the articles puts it, we forget everything in death.

The way I talked about Murakami is a lot like the way I’ve talked about some people. “Yeah I don’t like him, he’s just a bit too dark and drops too many cultural references…” And while at times it’s fine to generalize (after all it’s natural to alleviate stress on our limited minds) when I sit back and think about it, the judgment of a person after one interaction like that is quite absurd. Since my opinion of Murakami has changed, I’ve started to wonder if I didn’t like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle because it was the only form of entertainment I had, not to mention it was read in a stuffy, hot apartment all day until it got too dark to read. I wonder if it was because of my own frustrations with the situation, not to mention the uncertainty. While my circumstances then were quite extreme, the general principles hold for some people as well, where I’ll sometimes come in with a preconceived dislike or like, and then later be thoroughly surprised at just how wrong I was, how much of my assessment was based on the situation.

In short, to say that consuming media is meaningless because we forget it all anyway is to say the same nihilistic thing about life — why do we spend all this money on trips and nights out when we forget most of it anyway? As The New Yorker article says, reading is of course a form of narcissism in that what we have to gain is a better understanding of ourselves. But at the same time, that narcissism is rooted in that bond between reader and writer, where there’s a relationship forged over not necessarily a common understanding of a phenomenon but a common understanding of the fact that it is important in some way. In that sense it might not even really be narcissism at all — art allows us to become someone else for a while and learn from that interaction. What we take away may be a better understanding of ourselves but it comes by virtue of a shared experience.

On a final note, The New Yorker article ends with this:

Part of my suspicion of rereading may come from a false sense of reading as conquest. As we polish off some classic text, we may pause a moment to think of ourselves, spear aloft, standing with one foot up on the flank of the slain beast. Another monster bagged. It would be somehow less heroic, as it were, to bend over and check the thing’s pulse. But that, of course, is the stuff of reading—the going back, the poring over, the act of committing something from the experience, whether it be mood or fact, to memory. It is in the postmortem where we learn how a book really works. Maybe, then, for a forgetful reader like me, the great task, and the greatest enjoyment, would be to read a single novel over and over again. At some point, then, I would truly and honestly know it.

In my experience, writing has been the real act of conquest, reading the mere perception of the beast. Because writing is a more refined version of what the interpretation that goes on in our minds as we read, and because our minds are so finite the only way to really conquer the beast is to set it down in writing, expanding our limits. You can reread as much as you want, but rereading is just a form of reinterpreting and coming to an understanding, all of which is greatly enhanced by writing. So many times on this blog so far I’ve discovered something new about a book I’ve just finished by forcing myself to write about, to come face to face with the beast, fangs and all, and try to understand it. Those hours spent behind a dimly lit screen, hands paused over a keyboard, is the act of giving shape to both the beast and one’s understanding of it.

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Dreams and Kafka on the Shore

*Some spoilers for Kafka on the Shore*

As one reviewer put it (perhaps an article in The Atlantic), reading Murakami is in large part enjoyable because he is a great travel companion. Having been raised in the Western tradition, I have a general distaste for plot holes and artistic excess, but my experience reading Kafka was in large part enjoyable because of its “filler scenes” of characters going out for a walk, eating dinner, and going to cafes. The cliche that, “we read to know we are not alone” rings especially true here, where you are reading not so much for plot development or to excavate some great truth to the world, but simply to feel the presence of another, to be allowed into that intimate space of self-reflection. There’s a scene in which Hoshino goes out to a cafe and listens carefully to and appreciates Beethoven for the first time, and while this contributes almost nothing to the plot other than showing that Nakata is opening Hoshino up to a world beyond that of mundane routine, it’s memorable because it’s so lovingly painted. In many ways Hoshino is the most relatable character because Kafka harbors some darkness that is impossible to understand (who is Crow, anyway?), Nakata is, well, Nakata, and Oshima is a bit too complex for us to understand entirely. Hoshino is simple, likable, and most of all forgivable, for he’s just like anyone one of us stumbling around in life and just trying to do the best that we can. For these same reasons Sakura is sorely missed throughout the book, as some of the scenes with her are well crafted and ground us in reality — I suppose that’s her role for returning only at the end of the story, to ensure that Kafka is back in our world and that we can somewhat find closure in its comforts.

Because the reading is so easy and conversational, I found myself experiencing a phenomenon that strangely tied into the novel itself. When I started being more comfortable with the idea that good literature doesn’t have to be carefully planned and executed in the sense of everything having certain meaning (a “magnetic field” as described in the New Yorker review ) I began letting my imagination run loose: what would I write if I were to just let it all gush forth, all the scenes that randomly spring to mind throughout the day and in my dreams? Might there not be some meaning between it all, even if that meaning is indecipherable? This was in part spurred by the fact that I had been wanting to write fiction for a while but was afraid to start unless I knew exactly what the themes would be, how it would develop, etc. But reading a book in which Colonel Sanders comes out of nowhere as a pimp, or where the entrance stone is literally a stone, and where fish falling from the sky is allowed to remain a mystery, you begin to think differently.

While it’s impossible to ascertain some “core” to the novel’s whirling layers, the fact that an imagination run wild can still lure you with some hint of meaning, even if it is unreachable, is profound in its own way. There’s so much we end up not knowing, about Johnnie Walker and the flute, Crow, Miss Saeki (is he really Kafka’s mother? But really, does that matter for their relationship to have meaning?), what was that slime thing that comes out of Nakata?, etc. but in the end we enjoyed and gained from, the journey. You step into the sandstorm and, even though the sandstorm is nothing but particles thrown spontaneously and randomly against the wind, we emerge changed.

“You’re afraid of imagination and even more afraid of dreams. Afraid of the resposibility that begins in dreams. But you have to sleep and dreams are a part of sleep. When you’re awake you can suppress imagination but you can’t supress dreams.”

This bit on the importance of dreams was intriguing in that it implies there is something, some other world, that lies dormant in each of us and is impossible to keep at bay. Some combination of memory and longing, a raw imaginative force, pulses within us and is beyond even the most herculean efforts to give it shape by narrative. In a sense Kafka mocks those clean cut stories with firm resolution: who are we to dictate what dreams have to say? In that sense perhaps it’s best that Crow remains elusive, that part of ourselves that we know is there and have a relationship with but cannot ultimately be understood on the same plane our world rests on.

Earlier this month I went on a short day trip to Busan, and the entire time I couldn’t help but keep thinking about Kafka. I saw lots of cats lazing about and skirting through dark, narrow alleys, and the waves crashed in and out along the shore that lined the culture village. It was windy and freezing yet a nice, sunny day, reminiscent of the day I went to Odaiba now just about a year ago:

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The winter air lent itself to introspection, though perhaps all shore are like that — we humble ourselves before all that we do not and cannot know, and yet go on living regardless. Sitting there absorbed in the beauty and wonder of the unknown, Nakata asks Hoshino something like, “What lives in there?” Hoshino tries to rationalize all of the creatures and rubble underneath the waves but ends up like the rest of, asking himself: “Who am I kidding, what do I know?” For all our worth in philosophy we will never really be able to be in the deepest depths of the ocean or the furthest reaches of space just as we will never be able to map all that lies within us.

Sure, the Western culture references to literature and music may seem a bit gratuitous at times, but I’ve also started to see this more in terms my own fascination with Japan. For Murakami, the West is like the ocean as well, full of pieces like the Archduke Trio and stories like Oedipus Rex, rich with meaning yet speaking to a wider sea of art that lies in the distance simply by virtue of chance.

For me, Kafka is but a small pebble washed up on a shore looking out into the East, but all works point inward to the depths that extend beyond any regional markers.

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(Busan, South Korea)