Humans are complex and unbelievably difficult to understand. Fundamental truths about human nature can be conveyed through nearly anything, but fiction proves to be an ideal medium for the illustration of truths, as the writer occupies the role of a master of destiny. If desired, a writer can amplify the effects, feelings, and ideas in hopes of conveying some truth. As readers, we must suspend our disbelief to engage in the alternate world, and we can learn a great deal by doing so.
Haruki Murakami’s writing is a quintessential example this; Murakami’s books are extraordinary journeys through the bizarre, in which he illustrates deeper truths of human nature through his manipulation of reality.
In his book Kafka on the Shore, Murakami offers a beautiful explanation of memories. In stereotypical Murakami fashion, the plotline is a tour de force of intertwined character development and otherworldly treks. An interaction between two central characters, Miss Saeki and Mr. Nakata, allows Murakami to illustrate his understanding of memories. An anguished older woman, Miss Saeki, attempts to explain memories to Mr. Nakata, an admittedly mentally weak and sweet older man who has no concept of what memories are. Murakami offers a simple and elegant description of memories:
“Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.”
Wow. That’s powerful.
Fiction as a platform
As a writer develops his/her fictional world, he/she builds a specific reality which, once solidified, intensifies the potency of one-offs on human nature. This is due to the storehouse of reference points built by the writer throughout plot/character development. Each of us could attempt to discuss our understanding of what a memory is, but we lack the same reference points for discussion. Our moods are dynamic; we have plenty of ups and we have plenty of downs. Depending on our current state, our perception of memories will differ. A well-crafted story provides an ample breadth of common reference points for the discussion of human truths, allowing a more targeted interpretation and connection.
Murakami’s deliberate character development guides the reader into a specific understanding of memories. Miss Saeki is painted as an elderly woman haunted by the memories of her past lover. Her choice to live in the same building where her beloved once lived is representative of her determination to reside within her memories, regardless of whether they warm her up or tear her apart. This understanding of memories pushed to the extreme helps convey the duality of memories.
Our fond memories of a past time can be enjoyable to engage in, but they are no longer our reality. With the reminiscence of a past time, the same enjoyable memories of a past reality become consuming and haunting. Memories warm us up from the inside, but then they tear us apart.
Although this is a rather cynical view of memories, even the happy ones, it’s not such a bad thing for memories to be comforting and destructive all at once.
An Additional Pillar
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl discusses the transitory nature of life. His belief centers on the notion that: “in the past, nothing is irretrievably lost but everything irrevocably stored.”
Frankl’s experiences in Nazi concentration camps helped him see two primary constructs: past realities and potential realities. Past realities are those realities which actually occurred; events we’ve lived through. Potential realities are those realities in the future which may or may not be realized. Frankl advocates focusing on the past realities rather than the potential realities:
“Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of suffering bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy.”
Frankl’s past realities occupy his memories, and his grasp of memories seems to be at odds with Haruki Murakami’s. They both allude to the idea that memories can be a source of blissful warmth, but their interpretations differ in regards to the destructive quality of memories.
The Human Element: Freedom
Murakami’s explanation focuses on the duality of memories and the resulting juxtaposition of happiness and suffering. Escaping into our memories can provide momentary bliss, but at the expense of potential wreckage to the present and future.
Frankl’s explanation acknowledges the destructive qualities of memories, but he is primarily concerned with how one responds to being torn apart. Escaping into our memories can provide momentary bliss, and they represent a repository of love loved and suffering bravely suffered.
The principal distinction between these two views is our mindset and thus our response to the suffering. Frankl’s viewpoint is an extension of his idea that “having been is the surest kind of being” which acknowledges the presence of suffering within memories but makes use of the past realities of suffering.
The confluence of these two perspectives of memories provides us with the notion that memories can be blissful explorations into our past realities, but they can elicit suffering and tear us apart (if we let them).
If we let them.
This is key. If we let the suffering tear us apart, it will. Memories will tear us apart by diminishing our value of the present moment. If we escape into our past realities and live within them, we risk stagnation and losing sight of our potential realities. If we escape into our past realities and become overwhelmed by the emotions of them, we risk spiraling out of control and a serious detriment to our psyche.
But, the freedom we have as humans allows us to choose how to view our past realities, both the blissful and the harrowing.
“Let your past inspire you, let it motivate you, but never let it hold you back”
For Viktor Frankl, the memory of his wife was an unwavering source of inspiration while he was in Auschwitz. It was a withdrawal from his repository of past realities of love loved. His experiences while in Nazi concentration camps are another source of past realities and suffering bravely suffered.
We’ve all loved, and we’ve all suffered. Our memories represent past realities of having done so, and this should be a source of inspiration and motivation to all of us.
There’s a thin line between letting our memories tear us apart and using them to inspire us. Haruki Murakami and Viktor Frankl both have compelling definitions of memories, but together they convey the duality of memories and our freedom as humans to choose the mindset best fit for navigating them.