The little death of Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami, often lauded as the world’s greatest living novelist, is dead.

He died around 7:30pm on the evening of Sunday 23rd October 2011, just as I read the opening line to his latest novel, “1Q84”. His death came after a protracted period of anticipation on my part, stretching back to when I discovered the first two parts of 1Q84 were to be published in the UK as a single volume.

Murakami’s first death came around three years ago when I discovered his novel “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles”. He died in the back of Waterstones in Sheffield, next to the table of ghost-written sports autobiographies. Since then Murakami has died regularly and I have enjoyed each little death more and more.

I will accept some blame for Murakami’s death. In reading those first lines of 1Q84, I delivered the killing stroke. But it was a French academic, writing three years before I was even born, who drew the sword for me. He helped me kill Murakami, Pablo Neruda, Edgar Allen Poe, Paulo Coelho and any number of my favourite authors, and his name was Roland Barthes.

In 1967 Barthes published an essay called “The Death of the Author” in which he outlined a new method of examining literary works. Prevailing academic wisdom at the time suggested that in order to fully understand a text, the reader must first fully understand the intentions of the author. This is known as the structuralist approach.

Barthes railed against that view, arguing that it was the reader’s interpretation that was the most important – not the author’s intentions. For Barthes, once the work was in the hands of the reader the author was so irrelevant he may as well be dead – hence the title of the essay. This is the post-structuralist approach.

“The Death of the Author” is a classic post-structuralist text – classic in the sense that it defines one of post-structuralism’s central tenets, but also in the sense that it’s one of the great critical works of the last century. It’s difficult to explain precisely what post-structuralism is – it’s not like describing an art movement like Dadaism or an architectural style like Gothic.

We could try to describe what post-structuralism is by describing what it isn’t. We could say that structuralism aims to identify underlying structures in cultural products – texts, films, images etc. – and explain these structures in terms of logic and science in order to find its ‘one true meaning’. Post-structuralism is an opposite of that – it aims to critique cultural works from all possible angles, producing varied (and if necessary contradictory) viewpoints.

See? Told you it wasn’t easily defined. And that’s only one of the aims of post-structuralism.

“Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” is one of my favourite films, so I was delighted to discover one afternoon that we would be discussing it during a lecture at university.

My lecturer discussed the meaning of Strangelove’s black glove. He described how the glove was a visual trope put there purposely by Kubrick. It’s been suggested that Strangelove suffered from diagnostic apraxia, so-called ‘alien hand syndrome’, where the hand seemingly operates of its own volition. The uncontrollable gloved hand is a metaphor for General Ripper, the out-of-control base commander. The metaphor illustrates that no matter how much control we think we exert over an agency, we could lose that control at any time and must remain vigilant against it.

Many writers have made the link between Strangelove and the mad scientist Rotwang from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis”; in Rotwang’s case, the gloved hand stems from a lab accident. Others suggest that it may be traced to Dr. No, who wears a glove as a result of a nuclear incident. In ‘Strangelove’ the glove has no such etiology, and is never explained.

So now we have more than one potential meaning, although they aren’t in conflict. The theory that it’s a visual metaphor can coexist alongside the theories that suggest Kubrick is paying homage to earlier films. So far, so good.

If you watch the DVD extras you’d see the documentary “Inside the making of Dr. Strangelove” where one of the crew explains that the black glove belonged to Stanley Kubrick. He used it when handling hot light bulbs on set to avoid being burned. The story goes that Sellers stole the glove as a gag, started wearing it whilst appearing in character and Kubrick went with it. Other versions of the story say that Kubrick suggested that Sellers wear it; further versions say that Sellers himself came up with the link to Lang’s film, or just wore it because he thought it looked menacing.

So now we have a dichotomy. It could be Kubrick referencing Lang, Seller’s notion that it looked menacing, a Sellers gag and a visual metaphor for an out-of-control general.

Kubrick and Sellers are unfortunately no longer about so we can’t question them about the glove. And if we could, could we be sure that they were entirely honest about their comments about the glove? We’ve all said or done something flippantly, which someone else has then taken seriously and proclaimed to be a great idea. So if Sellers had stolen the glove simply for a laugh but then seen it described as a clever visual trope, might he be tempted to claim that was his intention all along? Might Kubrick want to take credit?

We’ll never know; the argument to what whoever came up with the idea actually intended can never be resolved.

Now let’s take the argument to the next logical step. If we can never know what the author intended, should we be taking their intentions into account when critically appraising their work? Is it fundamentally important to our understanding of the work that we can truly know and appreciate the author’s intentions? In this example, is our understanding or appreciation of ‘Dr. Strangelove’ in any way lessened or diminished by not being able to resolve the question of the origins of the black glove?

To me, the obvious answer is no. In fact, I actively enjoy the process of thinking about all the different things that it could be. Moreover; if someone forces an interpretation of the black glove on me, it actually imposes a limit on my understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of the film – because it actively forces me to focus on someone else’s meaning rather than my own interpretation.

The structuralist position is that in order to fully understand the black glove – to truly understand the meaning behind it – one must first understand what the author intended of it. Barthes’ post-structuralist view is that understanding the author is not required. It’s more important that viewers come up with their own interpretations. And therefore once the movie is released and being seen by other people, the author is to all intents and purposes dead.

That’s the main point of “The Death of the Author”; the author’s intentions are an irrelevance once I am watching a film, reading a book, listening to a piece of music, viewing a sculpture… what matters most is the way that I interpret the work and the impression that it leaves on me. It doesn’t even matter if I have several interpretations of a creative work, and that some of those interpretations are conflicting. They all form part of the multi-layered fabric of experiencing the work.

So what did we learn from that? Well, one of the things that draws me to poststructuralism is the rejection of a single correct interpretation. Taking Jean Rhys’ “Wide Sargasso Sea” as an example, I love that I can read it many times and take many different viewpoints, and each time I do that I appreciate new things about the novel. I may read it from the viewpoint of Antoinette, Mr. Rochester, Jane Eyre… or I can take a viewpoint separate to the novel, make a post-colonial or feminist reading. Or I could just critique it from a literary point of view and admire the clever uses of recurring themes, tropes, or the wonderful economy of the prose.

The thought that there’s supposed to be one definite meaning to the novel really saddens me. I see it as limiting the text, just as Barthes did. I think that’s one of the central aims of post-structuralism – to move away from the structuralist notion that there can be just one single correct interpretation of a work, and that’s what we should be striving for. As for my own personal tastes, I always find my petit mort comes from finding and interacting with all the different personalities and voices in a work. So although Murakami-san is dead, I’m already excited to be with Tengo and Aomame; and I’m look forward to Murakami’s next death at the start of 1Q84 book three.

[One from the archives, this one, originally written for The Daily Waffle. Poststructuralism is one of those weird things that can only be defined by what it isn’t; it isn’t structuralism, although some structuralists are poststructuralists. And if you can work out why I persisted with the extended little death/petit mort/orgasm metaphor, you’re a better person than me.-Ed.]