[WITI No. 49] Looking for answers in a Murakami novel, the moment when existence and nonexistence coalesce, costumed bugs
Writing and thinking about parenting and looking for more clues
Hi, I’m George. You’re here because you bumped into me on Twitter or we know each other IRL. I started writing this newsletter as a meditation on a quote from David Brooks’ book, The Social Animal.
The truth is, starting even before we are born, we inherit a great river of knowledge, a great flow of patterns coming from many ages and many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past, we call genetics. The information revealed thousands of years ago, we call religion. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago, we call culture. The information passed along decades ago, we call family, and the information offered years, months, days or hours ago, we call education and advice.
The quote is so rich and touches on nearly every aspect of living, I’m trying to make sense of it by writing What is the Information? my weekly newsletter where I try and share information from what I’m reading, thinking or writing about. Thanks for reading and leave a comment, if you’d like. I would love to chat with you about what you read here.
Finally, I finished Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami. Reading a bunch of Murakami all at once, you start to notice recurring themes. Some themes are mundane, others more captivating. This balance is one of the things that makes Murakami’s writing sparkle.
One such theme is the presentation of intimate details of men living on their own. Murakami meticulously describes the daily routines of the many men from his books. He notes the cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundering, showering, shaving, sleeping, drinking whiskey (usually Cutty Sark).
In the case of Killing Commendatore, Murakami shares the process by which the narrator (and portrait artist) performs his art. He interviews his subject a couple times, then creates the portrait from memory. The description of the artistic process was so detailed, I felt as if a master (Murakami) was lecturing on his own craft of writing.
Here are two examples of many throughout the book. Replace the words canvas and paint(ing) with page and write(ing).
...Once I faced a canvas, my mind would immediately leave the horizon of the everyday, and something would well up in my imagination. Sometimes it would be a productive image, at other times, a useless illusion. But still, something would always come to me. From there, I’d latch onto it, transfer it to the canvas, and continue to develop it, letting my intuition lead the way. If I did it that way, the work completed itself.
...I sat down on the stool, and, sipping hot black coffee from a mug, stared at the empty canvas before me.
I’ve always enjoyed this time, early in the morning, gazing intently at a pure white canvas. “Canvas Zen” is my term for it. Nothing is painted there yet, but it’s more than a simple blank space. Hidden on that white canvas is what must eventually emerge. As I look more closely, I discover various possibilities, which congeal into a perfect clue as to how to proceed. That’s the moment I really enjoy. The moment when existence and nonexistence coalesce.
Another regular theme is the connection to another world—a dream world, spiritual realm or something else, we never really know. Your actions in the dream world have consequences in the real world, and vice versa. This is Murakami’s magical realism, a bit of fantasy within the fiction of a novel.
Music is always an important element of Murakami’s writing. Perhaps a character listening to music is another element of mundane routine but if you’re familiar with the music that is mentioned, it adds a soundtrack to the movie in your mind. Killing Commendatore makes many references to operas like Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Puccini’s La Boheme, and Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. I am not familiar enough with these operas,(or opera, in general) to have let that music embellish my reading of the novel further. I have interrupted my reading on occasion to listen to a song mentioned in a novel. As I listen to the music, I let the music fill the space and the moment that the novel created. I wasn’t able to do this for Killing Commendatore - each of the operas mentioned take about 3 hours to perform.
My favorite part of the novel is the discovery of a painting entitled Killing Commendatore. The masterpiece was hidden away for an unknown period of time. It depicts a scene where Don Giovanni kills the night commander, i.e the Commendatore. The characters are done in a traditional Japanese style but the scene is definitely Western. We learn the artist created the painting to give voice to his involvement in a failed assassination attempt while in Austria as a student. His lover and friends were tortured and murdered, he was sent back to Japan where he became a recluse. He later emerged as a famous Japanese painter. All of this information is revealed slowly as the painting takes on increasing relevance in the story.
What I love most about reading a novel is the experience of watching, listening to, and learning about interactions between two people. Those people may be fictional and situation contrived, but if the writer is good, I never notice. You are able to observe a Monte Carlo simulation of real life.
There’s a moment in the novel when the narrator(and portrait artist) and his wife split up. I observe his response and wonder, would I do something different? The narrator makes a decision to stop painting portraits, yet a mysterious man commissions him for a substantial amount of money. The commission comes with unusual conditions, but the narrator still accepts. Would you accept? The narrator discovers a painting hidden in the attic by a famous Japanese artist and he doesn’t inform anyone. What would you do in that situation?
The question I’ve been batting around in my head is, how well do we know our parents, or even our children? Children grow up living with their parents for 18 years or so, sometimes longer. As children age, their time spent at home decreases till they have their independent lives.
In the novel, the famous Japanese artist’s son is resentful of his father’s distance. He never learns about the heavy survivor guilt that his father carries. In this case, a son lives with his father but they remain strangers. Another character in the novel learns he may be the father to a 13 year old girl who he’s never met. Neither ever learns the truth about paternity, but they do get to learn at least a little about each other.
What do we impart to our kids? What did your parents impart to you? Was it basic human cultural survival skills and ideas? David Brooks’ quote about “inheriting the great river of knowledge” over time rings loudly here. Sure, our parents gave us their genetics, probably their religion, and their understanding of culture (though it seems like it’s rapidly changing) and we tended to pick up things on our own from family, education and advice from others. This isn’t an easy question to answer but Murakami has provided scaffolding for another discussion.
Find of the week
Have you ever experienced the mundanities of life, once removed? I mean, as far as I know most people reading this wash and fold clothes, shop and cook their food, bathe and shave, maybe not in that order but you get what I’m getting at. Being good at those things make living with another human tolerable, being bad at them, makes living with another human extraordinarily difficult. Our culture glosses over that stuff because it is boring but it is important. As my children have indoctrinated me:
Apathy is a tragedy and boredom is a crime. - Bo Burnham
If boredom is a crime, I’m guilty.
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That’s all I got!