Saturday, December 06, 2014

After Rereading Herbert Marcuse

Meher Baba

Looking at the brown leaves yet dangling from near bare limbs against a dismal, foggy sky, cold mist clinging to everything, it is so clear that all our so-called holidays are but the perpetuation of consumerism, of putting ever more wealth in the hands of the rich, the controlling Oligarchy. What were long ago pagan celebrations of Nature, the equinox, the solstice, the changing of seasons, has been conveniently turned into the need to buy things. Thanksgiving-- we are the real turkeys, convinced we should say thanks for what little we have, our low pay, our debt, our need for cars and televisions, the fine feast we get a few times a year. Thankful for jobs working 40 or more hours a week, usually at meaningless drudgery that has no connection to the rest of our lives. We should say we are thankful to all those CEOs making billions and insisting that we work harder, thankful that in a month, we shall have just enough money to go out and buy stuff to give to everyone we care about, as if giving stuff were an expression of love. Look at what is happening in this country, the abusive police, the expanding military involvement, the strip mining and rape of the environment, the rejection of a decent minimum wage, the voter suppression... as we are distracted with sports on television. Amazing how prescient Marcuse was in 1964, just as LBJ was elected and offering us the Great Society-- half a century ago. And like a good, dazed, numbed, drugged citizen of the Oligarchy, I'll do my part, for irony, driving to the Big Easy for meals and friendship; then to Savannah for more. Or in the words of Meher Baba, "Don't worry; be happy!"


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Messiah President (Re-posted from August)

If only the rest of Congress consisted of representatives like mine, what a wonderful country this would be.
John Lewis

Every day intelligent people on the Left despair of war, poverty, and the destruction of our environment. Like me they see the waste and greed of capitalism unchecked and its keeping power through corrupt banking, a bad tax system, and the spending of the military-industrial complex. Because big money is needed to obtain office for most politicians, we end up with a puppet Congress, beholden to the corporations and a President who can only enact a bare minimum of legislation that benefits anyone but the already rich and powerful. Few liberals would disagree with this assessment. The question is what to do about it. Too many liberals are following the pied piper dreams of socialism and pacifism. They want a Messiah President to come and make everything good and righteous once more. Most forget that the closest we've ever had to such a leader is Jimmy Carter, who really did care about the poor and about humanity and the environment. But he dared to tell people to turn down their thermostats in the winter of their discontent. He dared to put solar panels on the White House. He was just too idealistic. We shall not see his like again. Presidents must be practical and that is the way it will stay. 2016 will offer us a so-called moderate Democrat, and a Republican who would give even more to the corporations, the oil companies, the war machine. meanwhile, this year, as liberals despair that Hillary is not one of them, the Republicans will overthrow what sanity is left in Congress by seizing control of the Senate. They will give us the absurdity of impeaching Obama two years before his term ends. That will allow them to increase "defense" spending, lay more polluting pipe lines, and fuck over the poor and the needy. The cruelest irony is that those on the Left who rant the most about inequality and war are, by their idealism and refusal to support the greater good that is electable, thereby bringing about the most destructive outcome imaginable. Perhaps Epicurus was right to see that the world is doomed, that the best we can do is to wall ourselves in with friends who are poets, artists, musicians, and philosophers as the Evil Empire burns.

Jack Miller
Posted by Jack Miller at Friday, August 29, 2014

Friday, November 07, 2014

American DNA

A new study reveals that Americans have the DNA of Neanderthals. 

In a stunning new examination of the brain makeup of Americans, scientists have discovered that the DNA of generations of immigrants who settled in America in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as their descendants,  have taken on the characteristics and makeup of Neanderthal Man.

In research involving millions of test subjects, doctors were unable to explain how the DNA evolved more virulently in white males, seeming to alter their brain functions as they aged.

"It is as if the the DNA has become a virus," senior scientist Skinner Jung said when the results of the study were presented at Georgetown University. "Why the brains of white men are most affected is still a mystery."

Among other evolving traits of those stricken with what is now called the DNA virus is a restructuring of the skull and brain. "When the men acquire this alteration of their genes, they sometimes pass the viral DNA on to their spouses. This explains why unmarried women and lesbians have not become Neanderthals," Jung told an enthusiastic gathering at the presentation.

Sadly, no cure or way to prevent the Neanderthal Strain is possible at this time.

One particular white male who participated in the study brought some levity to the presentation by asking how Obama was still President when he and so many others like him voted Republican in the 2014 election.

Copyright:  Jack Off-center News Service. All content is unprotected.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Tsunami of Sludge

As Democrats who distanced themselves from Obama all lost, while a few who embraced Obama won, as in Hawaii, billionaires, banks,  bigots, fat cats, Big Oil, corporations, and the Pentagon took firm control of the nation. It would be easy to dismiss the election as unimportant and make jokes-- as Jon Stewart and others will, about the dreadful statements of Republicans. But the devastating result will soon be felt globally and will be undeniable. Man-made climate change will continue unabated. There will be more oil spills and pipe lines through pristine wilderness. There is a lesson here for progressives. Stop thinking there is a revolution at hand-- it's far more likely that the country will become even more radical right wing reactionary! 
God help us if the Republicans take the presidency in two years. I don't think most people have any idea how bad the election is for the country. As a white male I am appalled at white males. They have been essential to the win of legislators who oppose social security, oppose a living wage for the middle class and the poor, who want no national health care, who will not ratify any federal judges not firmly in the pockets of greed driven corporations. We have in power an ecstatic oligarchy, now more entrenched than ever. It won't end in 2016. It probably won't ever end as long as narrow-minded, greedy, and yes, stupid people form the majority. Remember, exit polls showed Americans support legalizing marijuana, support same sex marriage, are against war and involvement in the Middle-East, support a higher minimum wage, believe we should have higher Social Security payments, and disapprove of the Citizens United ruling. Then they voted Republican! 
As I've said all along, no Messiah President will save us and bring power to the people in 2016. Get real. Wake up. Smell the gas fumes! Hillary is the best hope to slow the descent into war and destruction of the planet and the dwindling middle class. And, sure, she too is among the Oligarchs. For the time being, give me a garden with a high wall to keep out the mindless zombies called the electorate.

Americans have spoken; they want the unholy trinity above to control the government. (BTW, This is close to what I was expecting to happen, but I had the fantasy that I was being too pessimistic.)

Jack, 11-4-14

Sunday, October 26, 2014


We mortals are composed of two great schools--
Enlightened knaves or else religious fools. 
--Abul 'Ala al Ma'arri 

It is very important to live in harmony and analyse where the opinion of the other lies. The best way to do this is to engage in dialogue, dialogue and dialogue.
--The 14th Dalai Lama

Photograph I made on our visit to

What is religion? The Oxford Dictionary offers us little help: "The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods." In order to begin a discussion of religion, the distinction has to be made between established and organized religion and personal religion which may or may not adhere to the tenets of a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or shrine. There must also be some discussion of the relationship of a religion to its scriptures, its acknowledged sacred writings, and the body of work created by the revered leaders of the religion. The greatest problem in discussing religion exists in the equivocation of going from personal religion, to generally practiced religion, to shared beliefs of the majority of those practicing a religion, to the pronouncements of the officials and leaders of an established religion. The Bible, for instance, forbids eating shrimp. It would be ridiculous now to say that Christians, generally, condemn the eating of shrimp and find doing so to be abominable. 

There are, as I see it, two starting points for any essay on religion:   first, the views of skeptics, agnostics and atheists such as Abul ʿAla Al-Maʿarri, Karl Marx, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchins, etc.; and second, the exploration of the meaning of what is sacred, in the vein of Mircea Eliade, Paul Tillich, Thomas Merton, Joseph Campbell, Ernst Cassirer, Susanne Langer, and one of my favorite novelists and philosophers,  Iris Murdoch. (click for an essay on her views on religion). I shall take up the meaning of the sacred.

         The Parthenon, Athens

If I were to ask what people hold sacred, I imagine I would receive a wealth of answers. There are sacred spaces or places many of us hold dear. For me they are many, the Parthenon in Athens, the Pantheon in Rome, Delphi, Tōdai-ji in Nara, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Kalani on the Big Island of Hawaii, homes I have inhabited, Big Sur, Mt. Rainier, to name a few. There are things I consider sacred; there are people I consider sacred. Does that mean I consider what I hold sacred to be holy or have some ultimate value beyond the value for me? When I find something to be sacred, I do not expect everyone else to appreciate it as such. The sacred is subjective, not objective, as I see it; even though thousands may share in holding a specific site holy.


Carl Jung, like Eliade, found the experience of the sacred to be universal in human kind. He wrote of and illustrated mandalas as an example. There are patterns of experience of the numinous we all share. For Jung, the experience of god as well as the sacred took form in his idea of the Collective Unconscious. Alfred North Whitehead, among others, attempted to comprehend god as a collective process. For most modern philosophers the idea of a personal god who acts like an individual is inconceivable. Jean Paul Sartre and his companion, Simone De Beauvoir, gave convincing arguments that traditional views of god as an individual who acts and influences world events are self-contradictory. 
That is not to say that holiness is meaningless. Art especially has the ability to embody the sacred. From the poetry of Rumi, the biblical Psalms, and the Hindu Mahabharata, to the paintings of DaVinci and the sculpture of Michelangelo, to the poetry of Keats and Yeats, from the paintings of Schiele to the music of Bach, the arts are for many of us sacred. There is a spiritual reality in the world, quality and value not definable by science alone.

       Huichol Jaguar

That being said, there is also the profane. By the profane, I do not mean the merely neutral, valueless entity or being, but rather that which negates the good and the sacred. It is impossible to discuss religion without discussing evil. Most religions have presented us with a path, a Tao, a means to a holy life, a way to enlightenment, or a code of conduct that will lead to some reward, whether in this life or in an afterlife. The path is always toward the good and away from evil, a path to avoid the temptations and pitfalls of life that might lead us astray. Evil need not be so blunt as Satan or host of devils, it can be something as seemingly innocuous as ignorance. In the Bhagavad Gita, a prince resists the call to war, not wanting to kill friends or relatives on the other side. Yet a deity, talking of immortality, convinces him to accept his caste, to become a warrior. How, we must ask, are we to know good from evil, right from wrong, correct action, noble endeavor, in the modern world.

"There is nothing either good or badbut thinking makes it so." --Hamlet 

My view is in accord with the existentialists that each of us must determine what is right or wrong subjectively. I am responsible for my acts. There is no one else to blame. When it comes to religion and society, however, how can we find consistency and guidance? My answer is to affirm what Eleanor Roosevelt, our first United States Ambassador to the United Nations, advocated and persuaded the U.N. to pass--

    Rights override rites; that is, Human rights as outlined above must, in the eyes of justice and the law, outweigh acts in the name of religion or tradition that take away those rights. For it is in this arena that the most egregious evils take place. In the name of faith and God, the Inquisition burned so-called heretics and witches alive. The practice of burning witches continued for centuries. Christianity can never free itself from the shame of this atrocity, nor can it forget the mistreatment of Galileo and other scientists who spoke the truth against the absurdities of religion. The Crusades were no better. War in the name of religion is the true abomination. No theocracy should have the power to punish those who do not adhere to its religious mandates.

    Rose Window, Notre Dame

    Similarly, belief in a god or gods often leads those in power to assume that they know what god wants. Since many holy writings, like the Bible, the Koran, the Sutras, allow for interpretation, whether literal or allegorical, who has the authority to apply sacred texts? What if religious and cultural traditions lead to harm of others, or to destruction of the Earth and its animal inhabitants? Killing elephants and rhinoceroses come to mind. More devastating, climate change arises as a problem. Those who believe in an afterlife and in all-powerful gods may take destruction of the planet as unimportant. Religion has become in some cases adjusted to capitalism. The ethical problems go on and on.

    Today, there is a heated debate between those who support human rights, who are agnostic or atheists, and those who defend the basic traditions of religion. The former have singled out (always a questionable tactic) Islam as especially hostile to rights of women and minorities. Rather than cite both sides and whether this or that practice falls under the banner of Islam or not, the point I want to make is that there is no reasonable defense, religious or otherwise for the mistreatment of any class of people, whether women, children, gays and lesbians, or an ethnic minority. Nobel Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, we consider a hero because she resisted mistreatment by a religious sect, and risked her life for the good of girls wanting an education.The Caste system is a violation of human rights, as Gandhi eloquently argued. Female genital mutilation cannot be defended in the name of religion or for any other tradition. Male circumcision, though far less serious, has nonetheless been called into question. All religions need reform and it does not matter at all which religion needs more reform than another. In the words of the 14th Dalai Lama, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” The same enlightened response must attend ethical analysis based on human rights. 

  1. Church in winter, Santa Fe
  2. One other criticism of religion is that established religions have become tools for those in power to stay in power, to lull the masses into behavior that benefits the state and its leaders, and give them false hope for an afterlife. Marx's perceptive analysis of how capitalism in particular does this is devastating. That religion is co-opted and misused for power rather than love or whatever other good motives initiated the religion, does not negate the religion; but it gives us all good reason to ask who speaks for the religion and to what end.

    To conclude on an uplifting note, look at a few more artistic achievements directly resulting from religion. All the photographs on this page are by Darryl or by me:

  3. Tōdai-ji
  4. Search Results


      The Alhambra

      Notre Dame

      The Pantheon

      Mosaic, Hagia Sophia

      Sitting Ramesses II Colossus inside Luxor Temple


      Kasuga-taisha Shrine

      Daibutsu, Tōdai-ji

  5. --Jack, October 2014 

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Definition of Marriage, continued

Yesterday, Darryl and I attended the Marriage Equality Rally at Atlanta City Hall. It was a gorgeous, Georgia, breezy, autumn afternoon. Here are my photographs form the rally as well as a link to a site that includes the presentations of a host osf speakers. Following is a post I made last week about Marriage.

Freedom to Marry Site:

The Definition of Marriage

Our marriage in Provincetown
August 2004

Whatever you think of traditional marriage, the expansion of the fundamental right to marry to gays and lesbians is a powerful and moving affirmation of our human rights, giving legitimacy and recognition to same-sex relationships and the love that heretofore dare not speak its name. Heterosexuals may not always realize just how much this means to us, because they have never had to "come out," never had to pretend to have feelings other than those they already have. Seeing gay relationships praised, celebrated publicly before family and friends, and having *all* the considerable legal benefits, is nothing short of breathtaking, awesome, and a wonder to behold.

Where did all these gay people come from?!

Gay marriage is now legal in North Carolina
Same-sex marriage became legal in North Carolina Friday, with a federal judge ordering the state to immediately put aside its ban.

Same-Sex Couples Line Up to Wed, and Courts Regroup After Decisions

A roundup of developments around the country regarding...


Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Definition of Marriage

Our marriage in Provincetown
August 2004

Whatever you think of traditional marriage, the expansion of the fundamental right to marry to gays and lesbians is a powerful and moving affirmation of our human rights, giving legitimacy and recognition to same-sex relationships and the love that heretofore dare not speak its name. Heterosexuals may not always realize just how much this means to us, because they have never had to "come out," never had to pretend to have feelings other than those they already have. Seeing gay relationships praised, celebrated publicly before family and friends, and having *all* the considerable legal benefits, is nothing short of breathtaking, awesome, and a wonder to behold.

Where did all these gay people come from?!

Gay marriage is now legal in North Carolina
Same-sex marriage became legal in North Carolina Friday, with a federal judge ordering the state to immediately put aside its ban.

Same-Sex Couples Line Up to Wed, and Courts Regroup After Decisions

A roundup of developments around the country regarding...


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Jules and Jim

Tonight I experienced this film as one ought, on a big screen, in a ravishing black and white print, if that is the right word. How films are remastered into such perfect moving pictures is beyond me and I must look into it. The clarity and richness of the moving image, which at rare moments Truffaut held in a still, freeze-frame, was astonishing.
What I want to do here is write of my reaction to such a remarkable work of art, my reaction as a gay man, often in my young life bisexual, who pursued the loves and friendship portrayed here. Like the characters, I was often so caught in the moment that I failed to step back, pan as a camera can, to an overview, a necessary distance to appreciate fully the richness of the life I was living.
The film moves from the idyllic and innocent world of the young friends, through their Bohemian days in Paris,  to the ravages of  a war (WWI) in which they fight on opposite sides, to the love affair with Catherine, embodied perfectly by Jeanne Moreau. Their friendship, with never any question of sexual attraction, becomes a strange relationship of empathy, fellow feeling, shared joys of ordinary life and good conversation, then  jealousy, then a deeper sharing, as they both become lovers, then alternate husbands of Catherine, who is the archetype of a Femme Fatale.
There is no Hollywood ending, nor any of the mundane morality of monogamy and family values here. Catherine is moved by emotion, by her own logic and feeling, as the men struggle with their own conflict of emotion and reason. I shall have to read what feminists think of Catherine as a woman, whether they think her liberated or somehow a victim of her society and her relationships with the men.
The view of the limits, especially the false expectations of marriage, must have been way ahead of its time in 1962; the same time that Masters and Johnson were revealing so much about human sexuality.
The ending is sad. We are left feeling it could not have been otherwise. Do we take joy in the menage-a-trois as it was lived out,  do we look for some alternate solution or ending, or should we go with the inevitability of suffering in relationships? Nonetheless, how I admire  the art, the way Truffaut presents life to us. How many of us, I wonder, must identify with Jules?

Jack 9-30-14

Friday, September 05, 2014

The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness

 "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life".-- Oscar Wilde

"The nature which is the fact apprehended in awareness holds within it the greenness of the trees, the song of the birds, the warmth of the sun, the hardness of the chairs, and the feel of the velvet. The nature which is the cause of awareness is the conjectured system of molecules and electrons which so affects the mind as to produce the awareness of apparent nature." --A.N. Whitehead

Ever since Democritus, scientists have jumped to the conclusion that reality consists of atoms in motion. The theory has been promising, leading to century after century of elaboration and refinement. Today, a number of scientists are disputing the existence of nothingness, whether there can be a void in any meaningful sense. They take issue with Vladimir who, in Waiting for Godot, proclaims, "There is no lack of void."

The mistake, both in philosophy and science, that is so ubiquitous today was called by Whitehead "The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness." As the quote above makes clear, the error is to assume that the concept is more real than what it purports to explain. The primal fact is the perception. In the words of Bishop Berkeley, "To be is to be perceived." Awareness comes first. Afterwards, comes the attempt to make sense of perceptions. The pre-Socratic philosophers tried all sorts of explanations: water, air, earth, and fire, followed by all sorts of interesting theories. Ask a scientist today what is real and you get something like this:

My Own Personal Nothingness: From a childhood hallucination to the halls of theoretical physics.

An atom is less real than my perception of this table in front of me. The perception is first. The theory that the table consists of tiny atoms spinning and flying about comes at the end of a long line of abstraction and ideas based on the initial perception. 

That there is an "I" doing the perceiving also comes after a process of  gathering perceptions and unifying them into the idea of a person, an ego, a Vladimir, waiting for Godot to come.

Yes, ideas and theories are real as well as perceptions, for they are based on perceptions. As I see it, the idea of a mind that does the perceiving is existentially more real than the biological theory that all our thoughts and feelings are contained in an organ called the brain. The latter construct is far more complex than the former. You'd have to have lost your mind to believe otherwise.

Ogata Gekkō (尾形月耕, 1859-1920)

The monkey is reaching
For the moon in the water.
Until death overtakes him
He’ll never give up.
If he’d let go the branch and 
Disappear in the deep pool, 
The whole world would shine 
With dazzling pureness.


Thursday, September 04, 2014

Updike on Murakami


John Updike

New Yorker. 1/24/2005, Vol. 80 Issue 44, p91-93.

Haruki Murakami’s dreamlike new novel

Haruki Murakami’s new novel, “Kafka on the Shore” (translated, from the Japanese, by Philip Gabriel; Knopf; $25.95), is a real page-turner, as well as an insistently metaphysical mind-bender. Spun out to four hundred and thirty-six pages, it seems more gripping than it has a right to be and less moving, perhaps, than the author wanted it to be. Murakami, born in 1949, ran a Tokyo jazz club before he became a published writer, with the novel “Hear the Wind Sing,” in 1979. Though his work abounds with references to contemporary American culture, especially its popular music, and though he details the banal quotidian with an amiable flatness reminiscent of Western youth and minimalist fiction in the hungover nineteen-seventies, his narratives are dreamlike, closer to the viscid surrealism of Kobo Abe than to the superheated but generally solid realism of Mishima and Tanizaki. We often cannot imagine, while reading “Kafka on the Shore,” what will come next, and our suspicion—reinforced by Murakami’s comments in interviews, such as the one in last summer’s Paris Review—is that the author did not always know, either.

Yet “Kafka on the Shore” has a schematic rigor in its execution. Alternate chapters relate the stories of two disparate but slowly converging heroes. The odd-numbered chapters serve up the first-person narrative of a fifteen-year-old runaway from his affluent, motherless home in Tokyo; his father is a world-renowned sculptor, Koichi Tamura, and the son has given himself the peculiar first name Kafka. He totes a carefully packed backpack and, in his head, talking in boldface, a scolding, exhorting alter ego called Crow—which is what Kafka means, or close to it, in Czech. The even-numbered chapters trace, beginning with a flurry of official documents, the life of a mentally defective sexagenarian, Satoru Nakata. He was one of sixteen fourth graders who, in 1944, while on a mushroom-gathering walk with their teacher, fell into a coma after an unexplained flash of silver in the sky. Nakata was the only one who didn’t wake up, unharmed, within a few hours; when he did wake up, several weeks later in a military hospital, he had lost his entire memory and, with it, the ability to read. He doesn’t know what Japan is or even recognize his parents’ faces. He is able, however, to learn to work in a shop producing handcrafted furniture, and when, upon the owner’s death, the factory disbands he supplements his government subsidy with a modest-paying sideline in finding lost cats, since along with his disabilities he has gained the rare ability to converse with cats. (Cats frequently figure in Murakami’s fiction, as delegates from another world; his jazz club was called Peter Cat.) One cat search leads Nakata to a house—that of the sculptor Koichi Tamura, in fact—where he is compelled to stab to death a malevolent apparition in the form of Johnnie Walker, from the whiskey label. Fleeing the bloody crime scene, Nakata hitches truck rides south to Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four major islands, where Kafka Tamura, as it happens, has recently arrived by bus.

Both the young man and the old, though independent and reclusive, have a knack of forming useful friendships. Kafka befriends Oshima, the androgynous, hemophiliac assistant at a small library where the boy can read all day and, eventually, bunk at night; Nakata in his winning simplicity finds a disciple in one of the truck drivers who give him a ride, the lower-class, hitherto unenlightened Hoshino, “with a ponytail, a pierced ear, and a Chunichi Dragons baseball team cap.” The double plot unfolds in cunningly but tenuously linked chapters. There is violence, comedy, sex—deep, transcendental, anatomically correct sex, oral and otherwise—and a bewildering overflow of possible meanings.

In a prefatory chapter, Crow promises Kafka a “violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm,” with “hot, red blood.” He assures him, and the expectant reader, “Once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through. . . . But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in.” At the center of this particular novelistic storm is the idea that our behavior in dreams can translate to live action; our dreams can be conduits back into waking reality. This notion, the learned Oshima tells Kafka, can be found in “The Tale of Genji,” the early-eleventh-century Japanese classic by Lady Murasaki. Oshima summarizes:

“Lady Rokujo—she’s one of Prince Genji’s lovers—becomes so consumed with jealousy over Genji’s main wife, Lady Aoi, that she turns into an evil spirit that possesses her. Night after night she attacks Lady Aoi in her bed until she finally kills her. . . . But the most interesting part of the story is that Lady Rokujo has no inkling that she’d become a living spirit. She’d have nightmares and wake up, only to discover that her long black hair smelled like smoke. Not having any idea what was going on, she was totally confused. In fact, this smoke came from the incense the priests lit as they prayed for Lady Aoi. Completely unaware of it, she’d been flying through space and passing down the tunnel of her subconscious into Aoi’s bedroom.”

Read in context, in the first section of Arthur Waley’s translation of “Genji,” the episode borders on the naturalistic. Within the tight, constrained circles of the imperial court, emotional violence bursts its bonds. Both women are gravely sickened by the trespassing spirit of one of them; Lady Rokujo, a beauty of great refinement, is horrified that her dreams about Princess Aoi are full of a “brutal fury such as in her waking life would have been utterly foreign to her.” She reflects, “How terrible! It seemed then that it was really possible for one’s spirit to leave the body and break out into emotions which the waking mind would not countenance.”

From the inarguable truth of the second observation the possibility of one’s spirit leaving one’s body could be plausibly deduced in a prescientific, preëlectric age when, Oshima points out, “the physical darkness outside and the inner darkness of the soul were mixed together, with no boundary separating the two.” In Murakami’s vision of our materialist, garishly illuminated age, however, the boundary between inner and outer darkness is traversed by grotesque figments borrowed from the world of commercial imagery: Johnnie Walker, with boots and top hat, manifests himself to the cat-loving simpleton Nakata as a mass murderer of stray felines, jocularly cutting open their furry abdomens and popping their still-beating hearts into his mouth, and Colonel Sanders, in his white suit and string tie, appears to Nakata’s companion, Hoshino, as a fast-talking pimp. The Colonel, questioned by the startled Hoshino about his nature, quotes another venerable text, Ueda Akinari’s “Tales of Moonlight and Rain”:

Shape I may take, converse I may, but neither god nor Buddha am I, rather an insensate being whose heart thus differs from that of man.

Later, with some exasperation, the Colonel tells Hoshino, “I’m a concept, get it? Con-cept!” Concept or whatever, he is a very adroit fixer when it comes to such supernatural hustles as handling the entrance stone to the spirit world, where the dead and the drastically detached live in the heart of the forest like writers at the MacDowell Colony—meals and housekeeping provided and other residents discreetly out of sight.

This novel quotes Goethe as decreeing, “Everything’s a metaphor.” But a Western reader expects the metaphors, or symbolic realities, to be—as in “The Faerie Queene,” “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” and Goethe’s “Faust”—organized by certain polarities, in a magnetic field shaped by a central supernatural authority. No such authority controls the spooky carnival of “Kafka on the Shore.” To quote Colonel Sanders once more:

“Listen—God only exists in people’s minds. Especially in Japan, God’s always been kind of a flexible concept. Look at what happened after the war. Douglas MacArthur ordered the divine emperor to quit being God, and he did, making a speech saying he was just an ordinary person.”

In “Kafka on the Shore,” the skies unaccountably produce showers of sardines, mackerel, and leeches, and some unlucky people get stuck halfway in the spirit world and hence cast a faint shadow in this one. Japanese supernature, imported into contemporary America with animated cartoons, video games, and Yu-Gi-Oh cards, is luxuriant, lighthearted, and, by the standards of monotheism, undisciplined. The religious history of Japan since the introduction of Chinese culture in the fifth century A.D. and the arrival of Buddhism in the sixth has been a long lesson in the stubborn resilience and adaptability of the native cult of polytheistic nature worship called, to distinguish it from Buddhism, Shinto. Shinto, to quote the Encyclopædia Britannica, “has no founder, no official sacred scriptures, in the strict sense, and no fixed dogma.” Nor does it offer, as atypically surviving kamikaze pilots have proudly pointed out, an afterlife. It is based on kami, a ubiquitous word sometimes translated as “gods” or “spirits” but meaning, finally, anything felt worthy of reverence. One of Shinto’s belated theorists, Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), defined kami as “anything whatsoever which was out of the ordinary.”

A tenacious adherence to Shinto in the Japanese countryside and among the masses has enabled it to coexist for a millennium and a half with Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, and to be subject to repeated revivals, most recently, from 1871 to 1945, as the official national religion and a powerful spiritual weapon in Japan’s imperialist wars. After Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, Shinto, under the direction of the Allied occupation force, was disestablished, its holidays were curtailed, and the emperor’s divinity—based on the first emperor’s purported descent from the sun goddess—was renounced. But Shinto shrines remain, in the imperial precincts and in the countryside; its rites are performed, its paper wish-slips tied to bushes, its amulets sold to tourists Asian and Western. Shinto’s strong aesthetic component, a reverence toward materials and processes, continues to permeate the crafts and the arts. Kami exists not only in heavenly and earthly forces but in animals, birds, plants, and stones. Nakata and Hoshino spend hours trying to learn how to converse with a stone—to divine what the stone, at times easily lifted and at others heavy to the limits of a man’s strength, wants. Kami pervades Murakami’s world, in which, therefore, many Western readers will feel, a bit queasily, at sea, however many fragments of globalized Western culture—Goethe, Beethoven, Eichmann, Hegel, Coltrane, Schubert, Napoleon—bob from paragraph to paragraph.

The novel’s two heroes interact only in the realm of kami. Of their entwined narratives, the story of Kafka Tamura is more problematic, more curiously overloaded, than that of the holy fool Nakata, with its familiar elements of science fiction, quest, and ebullient heroics. As Hoshino remarks, “This is starting to feel like an Indiana Jones movie or something.” Return and release to the underworld of his childhood coma are the old man’s intelligible goals, for which he prepares with prodigious sessions of sleep. Less intelligibly, the “cool, tall, fifteen-year-old boy lugging a backpack and a bunch of obsessions” labors under an ill-defined Oedipal curse. He hates his father enough to dream of killing him, and to feel little sorrow when he is killed, but we never see the father, unless it is in the bizarre guise of Johnnie Walker, and know only that he was a famous artist and, as such, probably pretty egocentric. Kafka’s mother left home, with his older sister, when he was four years old, and when he encounters her in Shikoku it is in the form of a fifteen-year-old spirit projection of the library director, trim, prim, reserved Miss Saeki, who is over fifty. Miss Saeki and Kafka Tamura talk like this:

“We’re not metaphors.” “I know,” I say. “But metaphors help eliminate what separates you and me.” A faint smile comes to her as she looks up at me. “That’s the oddest pickup line I’ve ever heard.” “There’re a lot of odd things going on—but I feel like I’m slowly getting closer to the truth.” “Actually getting closer to a metaphorical truth? Or metaphorically getting closer to an actual truth? Or maybe they supplement each other?” “Either way, I don’t think I can stand the sadness I feel right now,” I tell her. “I feel the same way.”

Small wonder, as the teen-ager admits, that “the whole confused mess swirls around in my brain, and my head feels like it’s about to burst.” The Oedipus myth, shedding its fatal Greek gravity and the universality Freud gave it, just adds vapor to the mist of fancy and strangeness through which the young hero moves toward the unexceptional goal of growing up.

In the last pages, the novel asks that it be taken as a happily ending saga of maturation, of “a brand-new world” for a purged Kafka. But beneath his feverish, symbolically fraught adventures there is a subconscious pull almost equal to the pull of sex and vital growth: that of nothingness, of emptiness, of blissful blankness. Murakami is a tender painter of negative spaces. After his coma, Nakata “returned to this world with his mind wiped clean. The proverbial blank slate.” In his adulthood, “that bottomless world of darkness, that weighty silence and chaos, was an old friend, a part of him already.” Throughout this chronicle, Murakami describes his characters falling asleep as lovingly as he itemizes what they cook and eat. Refrigerated severed cat heads, like the severed human heads of Tanizaki’s tremendous novella “The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi,” have a lulling serenity, “staring out blankly at a point in space.” Making love to a woman, “you listen as the blank within her is filled.” Kafka Tamura says, “There’s a void inside me, a blank that is slowly expanding, devouring what’s left of who I am. I can hear it happening.” Heading into the forest, leaving all his backpacked defenses behind, he thinks triumphantly, “I head for the core of the labyrinth, giving myself up to the void.” Existence as something half empty—a mere skin on the essential void, a transitory shore—needs, for its celebration, a Japanese spiritual tact.

By John Updike

Updike, John
New Yorker. 1/24/2005, Vol. 80 Issue 44, p91-93. 4p. 1 Color Photograph.
Book Review
KAFKA on the Shore (Book)
MURAKAMI, Haruki, 1949-
Reviews the book "Kafka on the Shore," by Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel.