Wednesday, July 27, 2011

KAFKA ON THE SHORE Close-Read, Vol. 2: The Lyrics to "Kafka on the Shore"

These posts are part of The Atlantic's #1book140 read-a-long of Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore. Last time out, I looked at the first 48 words of Kafka on the Shore (interesting to read that now that I've finished the novel). The following posts attempts to make sense of the novel by looking at the lyrics to the titular song.

Man, Murakami is one slippery writer. His themes and concerns seem to bubble, burst, and then reform, sometimes within the space of a single page. We get philosophy, and then discussions of why philosophy is bogus. We get doublings and dreams, but also bodies, blood, and food (did you notice how much mention there was of meals in this book? I don't know if it was unusually prominent, but the attention to the characters' caloric intake was noticeable).

There's so much allusion, mystery, and contradiction throughout that it's tough for the close-reader to find a hand-hold. That is until you see the inclusion of the full lyrics to "Kafka on the Shore" in Chapter 23. Fictional lyrics within a work are enough on their own to warrant attention, but when the song also gives the novel its title, then it's time to put on the bib and dig in….this could get messy. 

First off, here are the lyrics:

You sit at the edge of the world, 
I am in a crater that is no more.
Words without letters
Standing in the shadow of the door. 

The moon shines down on a sleeping lizard,
Little fish rain down from the sky.
Outside the window there are soldiers,
steeling themselves to die.


Kafka sits in a chair by the shore,
Thinking of the pendulum that moves the world, 
it seems. 
When your heart is closed,
The shadow of the unmoving Sphinx, 
Becomes a knife that pierces your dreams. 

The drowning girl's fingers
Search for the entrance stone, and more.
Lifting the hem of her azure dress, 
She gazes---
at Kafka on the shore. 

The dominant symbol set is of being between: "edge of the world," "crater, "shadow of the door," "window," "shore," "dreams," "entrance stone," "drowning girl," "hem of the dress." These various images highlight the novel's consistent attention to borders: between people, spaces, times, genders, and consciousnesses. At one level, it seems that these liminal spaces are undesirable: Miss Saeki's psychic purgatory, Oshima's indeterminate gender, and Nakata's half-mind are sources of great consternation. Still, other between spaces seem liberating: Colonel Sanders' transcendence of good and evil and Kafka's journey to the forest are both generative. 

We might be able to further separate these borderlands then into positive and negative. On the positive side we might have "dreams," "shore," and "edge." On the negative side we have "crater" (as an image of damage), and "drowning girl," "soldiers waiting to die."

The positive images come from natural sources like the collision of land with water and the shared space of sleep and waking that is dreaming. The negative images are of violence that has happened, happening, or that will happen (crater, drowning, and waiting to die respectively). 

The other way to categorize these might be according to permanence: the borders that are more transitional and in movement tend to be neutral to positive, while the borders that suggest permanent change are characterized as negative. This would seem to hold for the wider novel. Consider that the twinned villains, Kafka's father and Johnnie Walker, are in the business of producing fixity, in the form of sculpture and distilling souls into an all-powerful weapon. 

This preference for movement helps explain the central (in terms of location) image of the song: "the pendulum that moves the world." According to this metaphor, the root of the world, actually the root of that root, is a mechanism of perpetual, cyclical motion. The characters, then, who are fixated (Saeki, Kafka's father, Johnny Walker, and even to an extent Crow) are centers of unhappiness. Oshima, Nakata, and Colonel Sanders, conversely, are centers of wisdom and possibility, precisely because they neither insist on nor are subject to illusions of permanence. To use the language of the second half of that stanza, their "hearts," a sign of interiority, remain "open" to the world. Kafka's journey, in this language, is from "closedness," in the form of his father and of his anger toward his absent mother, towards the openness of forgiveness and indeterminacy. 

The "shadow of the unmoving Sphinx" phrase troubles me a bit here. The logic of the lyrics suggests that the Sphinx's shadow only bothers the closed-hearted, but why the Sphinx? The fixity of the Sphinx is emphasized in "unmoving" but what is it about the Sphinx that bothers the closed-hearted so? Perhaps it's not the Sphinx itself, but what the Sphinx represents. In this case, perhaps it is the central truth of the Sphinx's riddle, solved so long ago by Oedipus (ah, that's the ticket. Our boy Kafka gets his own Oedipean curse), that human life is characterized by change, from infancy, to adulthood, to old-age. Those that are "closed" perhaps are haunted by this simple truth; that change is inevitable, that power, comfort, and knowledge are all conditional. 

It is a happy ending then to have Kafka sit on the shore and contemplate the world's ever-changing nature and yet not be bothered by it. Miss Saeki was unable to relinquish her desire for a single thing, and thus was "drowning" in grief before finding relief in death. Their two divergent narratives give perhaps the simplest gloss of the novel, and it's all here in these crucial eighteen lines. 


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