Borges and Murakami
Philosophy in fiction has had a long and storied history, from the mythology of Ancient Greece to existential fiction of the 19th and 20th centuries, but in more recent times there have been two authors that have stood out to me, not because they are philosophers writing a philosophical treatise in the form of fiction, like Sartre or Camus, but because they are authors who seamlessly weave philosophical problems into their stories. Their tales are fictional, of course, but the thoughts they leave you with reverberate around the inside of your skull in a way that some of the world’s greatest philosophers can only manage through dense academic prose. One of the these authors is Jorge Luis Borges, the other is Haruki Murakami.
Upon first inspection there seems to be very few similarities between these two: Murakami, a literary superstar who is a regular at top of the bestsellers lists, often writes lengthy books in startlingly simplistic prose. His longest being 2011s 1Q84, which is comprised of three parts totaling 928 pages. Borges on the other hand is renowned for his conservative, minimalist style. He is possibly the only writer in history with the ability to encapsulate the idea of infinity in the space of a few lines. Take for example Borges’ beautifully short piece of prose poetry A Dream; an infinite paradox captured within the space of 7 lines of text. The longest Borges story I’m aware of is Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, the tale of a world of pure idealism that reaches a whopping -wait for it- 20 pages!
Whereas a Borges story plunges you face first into the depths of the universe, Murakami writes pages upon pages of prose which unassumingly carry you away like a stream drifting into the deepest corners of the author’s mind. Despite their completely opposite literary styles the two of them take places 1 and 2 on my GoodReads top authors list. I’ve now read 7 of Borges’ works, and 5 of Murakami’s and their similarities and influences are becoming increasingly clear to me.
Murakami’s works tend to engage in a form existential meditation, often incorporating elements of the surreal and fantastic. Yet where Murakami’s real strength as an author lies is in his exposition dreams and the unconscious mind, the ideas of Psychoanalysis, in particular Carl Jung, play a major role in Murakami’s work. The Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With Thousand Faces being the foundation of many of his books, each of which contain a series of reoccurring archetypal images: water, wells, shadows, cats, and libraries, for example. As he states in this interview with the Japan Times:
I think that perhaps, in a way, my novels run parallel to the phenomenon of “the diffusion of logic.” When I write a novel, I place more importance on the subconscious world than the conscious world. The conscious world is the world of logic. What I’m pursuing is the world beneath logic.
Borges, on the other hand, was often very critical of psychoanalytic methods of interpretation arguing that ‘the secret of the success of psychoanalysis resides in people’s vanity’, however he was nevertheless also interested in the work of Carl Jung. Much like Murakami, we see in Borges a repetition of a specific set of archetypal tropes that appear throughout his works: books, mirrors, labyrinths, libraries, and yet again, dreams, being just a few.
This fascination with dreams is undoubtedly one that both authors share; they both, in their own way, use dreams as a literary device through which they can attempt to express the inexpressible. For Murakami, dreams give us access to the conceptual realm separate from our day to day existence, a realm that exists inside every one of us. The line that divides waking and dreaming is being constantly rubbed out and redrawn to produce a world of subconscious imagery in which fiction and fact seem to merge effortlessly together.
Although this blending of dreams and reality is in itself extremely Borgesian, Borges tends to favour the metaphysical over the surreal, with many stories incorporating philosophical puzzles and paradoxes. Borges’ story The Circular Ruins depicts an infinite paradox of a man who, at the end of the tale, comes to the revelation that his whole life ‘was a mere appearance, dreamt by another.’
Both Borges and Murakami’s influences are wide and impossibly varied. Borges was influenced by a great many literary writers throughout history including Cervantes, Shakespeare, Swedenborg and Stevenson, yet philosophically speaking he was probably most greatly indebted to Arthur Schopenhauer. Borges would often cite Schopenhauer’s proposition that life and dreams are pages of the same book, reading them in order is to live a waking life, picking pages as random is to dream. Dreams, for Borges are not an inferior dimension of reality, but the only place in which we can formulate accurately the enigmas of living. One of which is the essential multiplicity of our writing, reading and experiencing selves.
A typical Murakami book on the other hand might draw on influences ranging from Kafka to Hegel, Vonnegut to Bergson, or Franz Liszt to The Beatles. Murakami himself has mentioned that in one of his most famous books (and my personal favourite) Kafka on the Shore he incorporates elements of Hegelian dialectic into the story, a fact that is subtly hinted at towards the end of the book by a beautiful prostitute-come-philosopher:
“Hegel believed that a person is not merely conscious of self and object as separate entities, but through the projection of the self via the meditation of the object is volitionally able to gain a deeper understanding of the self. All of which constitutes self-consciousness”
Later in the same scene we’re treated to a short lesson on Bergson’s Matter and Memory:
“The pure present is an ungraspable advance of the past devouring the future. In truth, all sensation is already memory.” Hoshino looked up, mouth half open, and gazed at her face. “What’s that?” “Henri Bergson,” she replied … “Mame Mo Mamelay. You ever read it?”
Murakami (perhaps knowingly, perhaps unknowingly) also draws parallels with some of the more contemporary theories of philosophy of mind. In chapter 25 of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World we are given an exposition of the mind which is strikingly similar to the functionalist models of the 20th century (i.e. the idea of mind as a product a functional algorithm produced by the brain) infused with elements of Freud:
‘The cognitive system arisin’ from the aggregate memories of that individual’s past experiences. The layman’s version for this is the mind.’
Murakami by no means presents a strict philosophical treatise but he selectively chooses to adorn his work with gems of brilliance in a way which will really get your brain cogs whirring.
Whereas Murakami picks and chooses snippets of philosophy to bring out the underlying subconscious elements of his fiction, Borges, in his own right, was, unintentionally, a huge influence for many of the most important post-modern philosophers of the 20th century. Giants of philosophy such as Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze have both cited Borges as a reference in their works. Foucault famously tips his hat to Borges at the beginning of his book The Order of Things:
This book first arose out of a passage in [Jorge Luis] Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought … breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other.
Furthermore, Deleuze, in Difference and Repetition, cites the Borges story in which Pierre Menard reproduces the exact text of Don Quixote as a quintessential repetition: the repetition of Cervantes in Menard takes on a magical quality by virtue of its translation into a different time and place. Art, to Deleuze, is often a source of repetition because no artistic use of an element is ever truly equivalent to other uses. Similarly Deleuze often likes to cite Borges’s famous story, The Garden of the Forking Paths, in which a ‘virtual world’ is described in the labyrinthine book of a Chinese philosopher named Ts’ui Pên:
In all fiction, when a man is faced with alternatives, he chooses one at the expense of others. In the almost unfathomable Ts’ui Pên, he chooses—simultaneously—all of them… In Ts’ui Pên’s work, all the possible solutions occur, each one being the point of departure for other bifurcations.
And finally Borges’ influence can be seen just as evidently in Murakami who claims Borges as one of his own literary heroes. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World many of the characters and settings seem to be drawn out with Borges pen: Libraries, dreams and mythical creatures all take center stage throughout the book. In fact there is a reference to Borges’ wonderful Book of Imaginary Beings in which the protagonist tries to understand the meaning of a unicorn skull through an analysis Borges’ classic bestiary.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
To conclude, I think nothing sums up the philosophical and literary connection between my two favourite authors better than The Carnegie Library’s statement that we should
Think of Borges as the “heads” to Murakami’s “tails” on the post-modern literary “coin”; or, preferably, don’t think of either as either.
Both writers are brilliant in their own way, and both writers are completely different in their own way, but they nonetheless share the same love for the importance of philosophical ideas and how they can be used to influence and shape the literary world.
Reading your first paragraph immediately made me think of Plato: “their tales are fictional, of course, but the thoughts they leave you with reverberate around the inside of your skull in a way that some of the world’s greatest philosophers can only manage through dense academic prose.”
Plato too is a writer of beautiful prose which also leads the reader to deeper understanding of the reality around us. It seems strange that so few modern philosophers have taken his route, perhaps because they feel forced to conform to the unwritten rules of producing academic studies.
I’ve never been able to get into Murakami. Which of his works do you think would be most engaging for a follower of Borges?
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Absolutely. I was thinking of writing a series of ‘Philosophy in Fiction’ articles starting from the Greeks all the way up until the modern day. The fragments of Heraclitus and Parmenides are also brilliant examples of fiction/poetry philosophy. It’s interesting to see the lines of philosophy and fiction crossed in the modern era, especially when it comes from the more ‘pure fiction’ side rather than the fiction of philosophers (as I said about Sartre and Camus – who are both brilliant but are also studied as philosophers in their own right of course).
Murakami is definitely not for everyone. Some people really don’t like his style of writing but I personally find it brilliant, although it can be a little hit and miss depending on the book.
I’d personally recommend Kafka on the Shore as it’s probably one of his most philosophical, you will definitely see elements of Borges in there, but most importantly it’s just a brilliant piece of story telling. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is excellent too.
Specifically related to Borges you might want to try Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. A lot of direct references to Borges in there, although it’s not actually one of my favourites.
As I mentioned they are both so different but the similarities are striking when you read enough of them!
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Oh I’d love it if you did that series!
Maybe one day I’ll get round to it! 🙂
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These are two writers I admire very much — and I hadn’t thought of comparing them. Then after reading your post, I wondered why I hadn’t. Indeed, dreams are large parts of the stories by both authors. And the recurring items in their stories — I smiled when I read your lists. Indeed, mirrors and labyrinths in Borges. And Murakami stories can be played with Bingo cards next to them: check the square for talking cat when you get to that part, then another square for a character listening to jazz / classical / The Beatles. Etc. I read “Kafka on the Shore” this past summer and very much enjoyed it. I’ve heard audio versions of some of his other novels — but I need to get around to actually reading them.
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Thanks Dave I’m glad you enjoyed it. They’re still two of my favourite authors after all these years. One of the interesting things about Borges is that he introduced a lot of these literary tropes into literature which got subsequently taken up by authors from all over the world. Starting with the Latin American boom but reaching post-colonial authors in other parts of the world, and Japanese stars like Murakami. Have you read Bolano? I feel like he’s a good mixture between Borges and Murakami.
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I’ve read some Bolano and liked his stuff. Although, I couldn’t finish “The Savage Detectives” — I think my interest ran out midway through. Still, I’d like to get around to reading “2666” some day. Have you read that one?
I just read 2666. Incredible book, but even more of a slog than Savage Detectives in some regards. I think given the scope of both books they’re worth reading, but I had the same issue as you in the middle of SD. There’s a lot of shifting perspectives and not a lot plot progression, but by the time you finish it it all seems worth it imo, so it’s worth perservering!
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