The real protagonist of the story, however, is the magic ring, because it is the movements of the ring that determine those of the characters and because it is the ring that establishes the relationships between them. Around the magic object there forms a kind of force field that is in fact the territory of the story itself. We might say that the magic object is an outward and visible sign that reveals the connection between people or between events. . . We might even say that in a narrative any object is always magic.
All morning I struggled with the sensation of stray wisps of one world seeping through the cracks of another. Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes — characters even — caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you.
I have enjoyed discovering a menagerie of characters in these campfire photos from a night my husband and I spent near Great Sand Dunes National Park last summer. It’s a bit like picking figures and objects out of the clouds, but the contrast between light and darkness makes these images very dramatic.
Of all the characters I have described, this one is my absolute favorite, although The Boy Made of Wood (Pinocchio/Puck) is a very close second. There is something melancholic about this woman that I simply can’t resist. Here are two shots of her.
The Soul in the Flame #1
She turns away in her strapless gown, wistful, a shimmering profile. Perhaps the partner she seeks has not arrived, or maybe she plays hard to get. Her hair curls playfully behind her ear- should we ask her to dance?
This week I am sharing a series of photos which I took at our campfire near Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado last June. Looking at them, I not only remember a beautiful, cool summer night at just over 8,000 feet in elevation, but I enjoy making out figures and creatures in the flames. These images are like catnip for my imagination; I hope you enjoy them too!
#1: Twilight: Jupiter and Venus Approach
Night falls like a cloudy blanket while the bright planets preside, named for ancient gods of power and love. My husband wants to douse our firewood with lighter fluid but I, raised in the country, long for a steadier, prettier blaze that doesn’t stink of chemicals. The mountain air is already forgetting its moisture; I remember making fire. The local fire imps are not pretentious; a few matches and some dry wood are enough for their escapades.
#2: He Wore a Stovepipe Hat
Our first friendly imp appears wearing a stovepipe hat, his left hand flashing a peace sign- or is he making a fire bunny? No, it is only his pet snail. Dressed as he is, this dapper guest must be Uncle Sam or Honest Abe or else the duplicitous Cat in the Hat. And who was the surly rogue who fired a shot through his tall chapeau?
#3 Have a Seat
This one is asking for you, this dark skinned prince in a white tunic and headscarf. Nonchalant, he sits in the fire pit, sipping a very dry and spicy martini. While you hesitate, he becomes a gleaming prairie dog sitting before a cash register. “Are you going to pay up?” he chirps. All this talk of payment reminds me too much of Mephistopheles. Such an imp surely puts on airs.
#4 The Boy Made of Wood
Here’s a boy made of wood, his face smudged with ash and his nose lengthening suspiciously as he points into the distance, as if to blame some other soul for his mischievous handiwork. What lies has this rakish Pinocchio told tonight? Will there be more?
Soft boyish cheeks melt into air, revealing a shining, shapeshifting soul. Puck, your tail is showing!
The last deep colors of sunset conjure forth a molten geisha, lovely and untouchable. Her beauty appears delicate, but she would burn you without remorse.
Did you see something different? I’d love to know! I’ll have more fire imps for you soon!
I suppose I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person. But these seemingly fragile people are the strong people really.
Just don’t pretend you know more about your characters than they do, because you don’t. Stay open to them. It’s teatime and all the dolls are at the table. Listen. It’s that simple.
— Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Many literary works are peopled with stereotypes and follow formulae which have been set down by tradition. We are used to villains, jilted lovers, clever servants, even flawed heroes, and we know how they should behave and how their actions should be rewarded. Sometimes it is fulfilling to see our sensibilities validated, especially if we live in a world that does not often recognize those sensibilities, but, as a steady diet, this becomes boring and can even discourage empathy in our daily lives.
Dalí Atomicus by Philippe Halsman
Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore presents us with characters and a chain of events that are on the other side of the spectrum: illogical, inconsistent, sometimes inexplicable. It often seems as if Murakami himself wasn’t fully aware of the directions his characters were taking. Yet, when looked at in retrospect, there are forces here that can be recognized, providing a sense of cause and effect that is full of synchronicity while avoiding rational sense. Marukami leaves plenty of things below the surface for the reader to find without spelling them out or providing a map.
Two main narratives are woven together: that of a fifteen year old runaway calling himself “Kafka” Tamura and that of Satoru Nakata, an old man who lost his capacity for coherent thought as a result of a mysterious accident in his youth during World War II. These two characters interact without ever coming into direct contact with each other, tied together by a murder which never quite makes sense. Unexpectedly, simple Nakata, who cannot read and spends his days hunting for lost cats, is often an inspiring and even powerful figure, while Tamura does as he pleases and is drawn into a trap which he perceives but cannot avoid.
Each character they interact with has his or her own story, equally fascinating, but peripheral. We may wonder about the lonely and beautiful Miss Saeki, enshrined in a library dedicated to the family of her dead lover; about Sakura, the quirky hairdresser who remains obliging but somehow distant; or about Oshima, the library assistant, a gender ambiguous hemophiliac possessed of deep wisdom and compassion, but these characters are only granted meaning and interest by their relationship with Tamura. The world of Nakata is even stranger, inhabited by talking cats, spirit-concepts masquerading as popular culture icons such as Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders, and one friend, a young truck driver named Hoshino, who becomes Nakata’s disciple.
Every one of us is losing something precious to us. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That’s part of what it means to be alive. But inside our heads–at least that’s where I imagine it–there’s a little room where we store those memories. A room like the stacks in this library. And to understand the workings of our own heart we have to keep on making new reference cards. We have to dust things off every once in a while, let in fresh air, change the water in the flower vases. In other words, you’ll live forever in your own private library.
One of the central metaphors of Kafka on the Shore is that of the mind as a library, a place where our lives and memories exist. Like the novel itself, this library is populated by strange visions of the self and other people. Here are a couple of candles or flashlights that you might find useful if you want to go exploring. I highly recommend you crawl into this novel, get dirty, and see what you can find.
The Larger Mind: The Collective Unconscious Construct
Imagine our world as a library. You and I and everyone else we know are books that stand next to each other on a shelf, supported by other shelves and surrounded by volumes we will never see, let alone read. Each book, from tome to graphic novel, is unique and individual and centers on a main character. Can you imagine that, lying close to each other on the shelves, we might occasionally and inexplicably intermingle our stories? Like Nakata and Tamura, we are partners in something beyond ourselves. What if something that happened to you happened to me instead?
In dreams and fantasies, moments of synchronicity or surrealism, we sometimes get a glimpse of this immense library of human experience. These visions are often celebrated and shared through the arts. The earth moves. The dead show us things and our struggles get confused with theirs. Miss Saeki, a mother figure to Kafka, is known to him in a in very shocking way as he identifies with her dead lover. The Oedipal complex revealed here is one of the most uncomfortable features of the novel and screams to be dealt with in a non-literal fashion.
Imagine yourself as a library of memories and experiences, illogical and wonderful. Can you see within yourself separate characters–the child, the fifteen year old, the newlywed? Some of these selves seem to be from different stories, even different genres. Where do these people go as we age and how do they interact within our own being to make us the people we are right now?
Perhaps all of the characters in Kafka on the Shore are archetypal elements of one person: the absent mother, the oppressive father, the runaway, the wise and holy old fool. This raises another question. Which character is the true main character? This story could be about an old man dealing with the loss of his wife, or a woman coming to terms with her estrangement and separation from her lover and family. It could be about a fifteen year old boy who sees himself repeating the mistakes of his parents. Perhaps it is an allegory about modern Japan itself, still reeling from damage done in World War II. In overlaying a world not so different from our own with visions from the subconscious mind, Murakami has created a library full of stories in one book, which can be reread time and time again from a different viewpoint. Genius!
I look at the books on my library shelves. They certainly seem dormant. But what if the characters are quietly rearranging themselves? What if Emma Woodhouse doesn’t learn from her mistakes? What if Tom Jones descends into a sodden life of poaching and outlawry? What if Eve resists Satan, remembering God’s injunction and Adam’s loving advice? I imagine all the characters bustling to get back into their places as they feel me taking the book down from the shelf. “Hurry,” they say, “he’ll expect to find us exactly where he left us, never mind how much his life has changed in the meantime.”
I don’t want to say I hear voices; well, actually I do hear voices, but I don’t think it’s supernatural. I think it’s just that when characters are given enough texture and backbone, then lo and behold, they stand on their own.
In much of Asia there is a tradition of shadow theater, also called shadow puppetry or shadow play, an ancient art in which characters are fashioned from leather or paper and positioned between a light source and a translucent scrim. The audience watches the story unfold from the other side of the scrim.
There are many branches of shadow puppetry. One of the oldest is the pí ying xì of China, which has its origins in the royal court and features a whiter and more refined scrim than many of the other traditions. This allows for more radiant color to show through. Allegedly created to placate an Emperor who had lost his favorite concubine, the tradition contains a wide variety of stories: myths, histories, morality plays and animal fables. Pí ying xì was banned for a time under communist rule because it was seen as a vehicle for religion, but it never died out and is now seen as an art that is quintessentially Chinese. Music videos and animations like Su Yang’s Phoenix, which Synkroniciti has spoken about here, rely heavily on the style and images from this beautiful art form. Here is a short film from a series called Hello China, which will give you a playful taste of this glorious art.
Video via radio86channel on YouTube.
From China, the art form spread westward with the Mongols and, much later, with explorers who brought it to France, where it would be known as ombres chinoises, or Chinese shadows. These shows were performed at various locales, including the famous Le Chat Noir in Paris, and there are a number of such troupes still in existence today.This is Jean de la Fontaine’s fable of a frog who wants to be as big as an ox as told by Le Theatre des Ombres. Hilarious and charming!
The Chinese tradition contrasts sharply with the rougher style which developed in Indonesia and Malaysia, known as wayang kulit, or shadow leather. The characters are much darker, truly looking like shadows due to a thicker, often yellowish, scrim and, sometimes, flickering torchlight. They can be easily identified by their fanciful faces, terrifying, ridiculous, or godlike, but never completely human. Their roots lie in the uneasy presence and influence of two religious traditions: the Hindu, with many gods and monsters, and the Islamic, which, in its most conservative forms, forbids the representation of human and animal face and form. These influences have contributed to the imaginative and non-representational of wayang. Here is a taste of traditional Javanese wayang from the Théâtre du Soleil at the Cartoucherie de Vincennes, Paris. The gamelan accompaniment is quite raucous, but certainly holds the attention. I doubt anyone could sleep through a performance like this.
Video via maisonculturesmonde on YouTube.
Although television is eclipsing shadow puppetry as an entertainment in urban areas, the characters remain important. Recent campaigns for health and wellness and a promotion for Vicks cough drops in Indonesia have translated these images into animation. Figures created over centuries of tradition are familiar and trustworthy in the light of urbanization and technological advances.
The contemporary art of shadow dance theater has also been influenced by the images of wayang kulit, as is revealed by this wonderful shadow dance performance from Indonesia, telling stories from the Hindu epic called the Mahabharata. The first concerns the birth of the Pandavas, heroic brothers born from Pandu, who was cursed for killing a white stag who was a wizard in disguise, and his two wives Kunti and Madri. The second is the birth of the hero Gatot kaça, or Jug Head, a story which implies the dangers of war. The last is about the twins, Nakula and Sadewa, and protecting nature from evil. Incredibly beautiful, this is an exciting blending of styles. Traditional art is wonderful of itself, and certainly worth preserving, but the evolution of art keeps it alive for the future and allows for new avenues and new voices to flourish. Impressive!