By: Ilgın Yıldız
Before embarking on a journey to find his wife, Toru Okada, the protagonist of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, is a man of a simple and routine life. He has no job, he cooks (usually spaghetti), cleans, picks up his wife Kumiko’s clothes from the drycleaner’s. Life is dull, slightly numbing and gradually alienating in its simplicity. What shatters this pseudo happiness is the cat Noboru Wataya’s disappearance. The cat goes missing and this triggers a “loss of reality” for Toru. The cat’s disappearance also foreshadows Kumiko’s “disappearance”: Kumiko later leaves Toru.
In the novel, the loss of the object of desire is what tears the fabric of reality. Toru’s relationship with the outer world becomes more and more ambiguous. Apart from the dreamlike quality shaping the narrative style and the symbolic/metaphoric tools adopted, there is a new reality—or realities—constructed within Toru’s story. Toru is sucked into this new reality and navigates within this new context using signs and symbols, impulses, dreams, and premonitions as his compass. The child of his unconscious, this new reality is full of dangers and navigating its slippery road is not an easy task.
There is a psychotic relationship between Toru and the reality he constructs. In The Loss of Reality in Neurosis and Psychosis, Freud explains the two stages in the psychotic’s withdrawal from reality. In the first stage, the ego is dragged away from reality.i But in the second stage, where a reparation process that re-establishes the subject’s relationship with reality at the expense of the id should occur, something different happens:
The second step of the psychosis is indeed to make good the loss of reality, not, however, at the expense of a restriction of the id –as happens in neurosis at the expense of the relation to reality- but in another, more autocratic manner, by the creation of a new reality which no longer raises the same objections as the old one that has been given up.ii
Thus, the process “serves the desire for the power of the id, which will not allow itself to be dictated to by reality.”iii The id rebels to the external world—it doesn’t obey.iv What gives Toru’s journey a psychotic character is precisely this liberation of the id: it will not be told to quietly lurk in the corners, in the pits and the wells; it will come up to the surface. According to Freud, in neurosis the reality is avoided by a flight from it but in psychosis it is remodelled, actively constructed. “Neurosis does not disavow the reality, it only ignores it; psychosis disavows it and tries to replace it.”v The remodelling of reality is achieved by creating a world of fantasy that gradually constitutes a remarkable part of psychotic’s life. And the real world transforms into “the storehouse from which the materials or the pattern for building the new reality are derived.”vi
In search of the lost-object, Toru constructs/enters a realm of fantasy. Jacques Lacan’s register theory (or three orders theory: The Imaginary, The Symbolic, and The Real) sheds light to Toru’s different realities. In Lacanian theory, The Imaginary is associated with consciousness and self-awareness, and the phase of ego-formation. The Symbolic, characterised by the subject’s entrance to the realm of language, is the register that “refers to the customs, institutions, laws, mores, norms, practices, rituals, rules, traditions, and so on, of cultures and societies.”vii For the singular subjectivity to exist, there has to be the “collective symbolic order (sometimes named ‘the big Other.’)”viii Even though Lacan’s model doesn’t exactly correspond to Freud’s, if we were to consider the three registers theory side by side with Freud’s structural model, “the real is associated with the id, the imaginary with the ego, and the symbolic with the superego.”ix
The Real is the most elusive among the three orders, since it is raw, primal, and impossible. We can only glimpse it; it resists to be captured. For Lacan, The Real is “the ineliminable residue of all articulation, the foreclosed element, which may be approached, but never grasped: the umbilical cord of the symbolic.”x In Murakami’s text, the umbilical cord is the well and it leads to the borders of The Real.
Throughout the narrative, the concept of reality turns into something slippery and confusing for Toru. He astutely expresses his situation: “My reality was still having trouble locating me”xi and “The important thing was not to attract people’s attention, not to let that ‘reality’ pick up on my passing presence.”xii Slavoj Žižek adopts this idea of an “acting” reality in relation to knowledge in The Real, by using a common scene from cartoons as an example:
The cat wildly pursues the mouse, not noticing that there is a precipice ahead; but even when the ground disappears, the cat does not fall, it continues to chase after the mouse and falls only when it looks down and sees that it is floating in midair. It is as if the real had for a moment forgotten which laws it has to obey. When the cat looks down, the real “remembers” its laws and acts accordingly.xiii
In Toru’s story, the outside reality is precisely this acting reality. After Kumiko leaves him, with the intention to undo this loss, Toru has to play according to the rules of this reality and descend into the unconscious/id/The Real, by going into a well.
Descending into The Real
It may be argued that in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Freud’s structural model of the mind is applicable to Toru, Kumiko, and her brother Noboru Wataya. These characters may be taken as subjects or agents of the three components of Freud’s model: Toru as the agent of the ego, Kumiko as the agent of id, and Noboru as the agent of superego.
Toru’s story may thus be interpreted as the tale of the damaged ego, trying to find its way through the tension between the demands of the superego and the demands of the id. And Kumiko as the lost-object, may be perceived as the medium to settle old scores with Noboru Wataya—the agent of the superego.
Toru is unemployed, leading a life which is neither satisfying nor dissatisfying. His tie with the outer world is very weak. We have inadequate information about his past and family. He almost never speaks about his mother and father. We know that “my mother died the year I entered college and I had a falling-out with my father”xiv and “he had remarried after my mother’s death, and I had not seen him or corresponded with him or spoken with him on the telephone in the years since.”xv So Toru doesn’t really have a relationship with his father. All he has is Kumiko, and she is the sister of a powerful public figure, Noboru Wataya.
As the agent of the superego, Noboru Wataya had a childhood shaped by expectations and demands from him to conform and contribute to the values of the symbolic order/big Other: His “father was convinced that the only way to live a full life in Japanese society was to earn the highest possible marks and to shove aside anyone and everyone standing in your path to the top.”xvi Noboru Wataya successfully lived up to these expectations and fulfilled his integration with the superego realm: he graduated with top grades, became a scholar, published an economics book which became a huge success, and entered politics.
Noboru Wataya, as the protégé of the big Other, is a very disturbing, threatening, castrating figure for Toru. He is “an intellectual chameleon, changing his color in accordance with his opponent’s, ad-libbing his logic for maximum effectiveness, mobilizing all the rhetoric at his command.”xvii Noboru Wataya is the archenemy of Toru who is the helpless agent of the impoverished ego. “When it came to Noboru Wataya, my system refused to function. I was unable simply to shove Noboru Wataya into a domain having no connection with me. And that fact itself annoyed the hell out of me.”xviii Noboru Wataya “had a pretty good idea of what made me tick (…) he could have crushed me until there was nothing left. He was a despicable human being (…) he was a far more capable individual than I was.”xix As such, Noboru Wataya triggered Toru’s feelings of inferiority, creating the overwhelming tension of abject.
Toru had to descend into the id in order to deal with the superego, since the “superego is as much a representative of the id as of the external world. It came into being through the introjection into the ego of the first objects of the id’s libidinal impulses.”xx Thus, Toru’s first descend into the well (unconscious/id/The Real) is triggered by his obsession with Noboru. “Noboru Wataya was always there, arms folded, looking at me with those malignant eyes of his, threatening to suck me in like a bottomless swamp.”xxi Indeed, he sucks Toru in like a bottomless swamp—he sucks him into the deep well. He invites Toru, allures him to come down and confront: “The important thing is to seek out the root. Dig beneath the complicated surface of reality. (…) Then dig even more until you come to the very tip of the root.”xxii He teases Toru and humiliates him: “The stupid ones (…) have lost all sense of direction. They might as well be deep in a forest or down in a well.”xxiii
Ultimately for Toru, there is no option but to confront Noboru. And he can do this only by digging beneath the surface.
The Well Without Water or The Desert of the Real
In the novel, the well is initially a harmless place for contemplation. After Kumiko goes away, Toru starts going down the well to collect his thoughts. But then we come to realise that the well is a dangerous place full of repressed wishes, dangerous desires, and inexplicable pain. It is a path leading to Hades—it is Tartarus.
According to Freud, the nucleus of the unconscious is made up of instincts that aim to discharge their cathexis.xxiv As a symbol of the unconscious, the well is crowded by similar instincts. Down there, the sense of time and space disappear, images and identities mend and blend. “The process of the system Ucs. are timeless; i.e. they are not ordered temporally, are not altered by the passage of time; they have no reference to time at all. (…) Processes pay just as little regard to reality.”xxv And Toru tells us, “The passage of time becomes increasingly unclear (…) I can’t decide which one is reality.”xxvi
The Telephone Woman, Kumiko, The Hotel, the whistling waiter, the faceless man, Noboru Wataya, Creta –all these characters or their counterparts reside in this subterranean dimension. The Hotel constitutes the “border” of The Real. Toru says, “wandering through the hotel was like venturing into a vast desert without a compass. I might be sealed up inside this labyrinthine place, unable to return to the real world.”xxvii The hotel is a silent place, ambiguous and mysterious, “like a ruin forgotten by time,”xxviii a desert.
Žižek states that “the Real Thing is ultimately another name for the Void. The pursuit of the Real thus equals total annihilation, a (self)destructive fury.”xxix Toru, unable to find his way to where he came from (Room 208) turns corners, passes forked corridors. When he eventually reaches the lobby where people watch TV, he finds out that Noboru Wataya got attacked by an unidentified assailant with a bat. His skull is fractured and he is in intensive care. We come to realise that the assault weapon, the bat, is the same one Toru used to beat the musician, the same bat he took with him every time he went into the well, but later lost. When Toru finally enters Room 208, The Telephone Woman/Kumiko gives him the bat. Toru attacks someone who comes inside—he can’t see who he is because of the dark. We later understand that this man is Noboru Wataya’s projection in the id/the Real.
When Toru crashes Noboru Wataya’s skull, he essentially damages the superego, and the well starts to fill with water again. It becomes a uterus for Toru, in a sense, it gives birth to him. The incursion of the id into the superego, thus, produces new life: “The well was no longer dry. I was sitting in water up to my waist. I took several deep breaths to calm myself. How could this be? The well was producing water—not cold water, though. If anything, it felt warm.”xxx The urgency of this process can’t be missed: every birth is dangerous and full of risks, to be born is to start dying, to be born is to earn the license to die. Toru says, “I was dying. Like all the other people who live in this world.”xxxi
Cinnamon—a mysterious character who stopped talking in his sixth birthday and regressed to the realm of The Imaginary—saves Toru from this treacherous uterus. Later we learn that Noboru Wataya in the real world had a stroke that damaged his brain and is at the hospital. He is castrated, above all, banished from the big Other, suffered a symbolic death. With Kumiko’s letter, we understand that she decided to kill Noboru Wataya by pulling the plug on his life support system. Thus, with Toru killing Noboru in the realm of The Real/id, Kumiko of The Symbolic is finally able to kill Noboru.
The Real Lost-Object
Who is the real lost-object of Toru Okada? Is it really Kumiko? It may be argued that it is Kumiko, but it is also the cat—to be more specific, it is the bend in the cat’s tail.
According to Freud, “Many of the beasts which are used as genital symbols in mythology and folklore play the same part in dream: e.g. fishes, snails, cats, mice (on account of the pubic hair).”xxxii Also, Freud associates the inaccessibility of the narcissistic woman with the inaccessibility of the cats: from this perspective, “The cat is the signifier of a female sexuality which is self-enclosed, self-sufficient.”xxxiii Thus, the cat can be seen as Kumiko (and her frustrated femininity), as well as an agent of The Symbolic who went to The Real, and returned, albeit differently.
The cat runs away into The Symbolic, just like Kumiko. The cat returns, however now he is changed. When he comes back, it is “covered from nose to tailtip with clumps of dried mud, his fur stuck together in little balls, as if he had been rolling around on a filthy patch of ground for a long time.”xxxiv Perhaps the cat was in the well, too. And now that he returned from his journey, his tail is different, it has mutilated, the sharp bend at the tip has disappeared. And his name is now Mackarel.
In Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Madeleine has a spiral shaped bun. During Scottie’s search for Madeleine as his lost-object, this curl becomes a tool for reality-check. Žižek, making a Lacanian distinction between the object of desire and the surplus-enjoyment as its cause, uses this curl as an example:
Scottie passionately embraces Judy refashioned into the dead Madeleine, during their famous 360-degree kiss, he stops kissing her and withdraws just long enough to steal a look at her newly blond hair, as if to reassure himself that the particular feature which makes her into the object of desire is still there… So there is always a gap between the object of desire itself and its cause, the mediating feature or element that makes this object desirable.xxxv
This gap between the object of desire and the mediating feature that renders it desirable is apparent in Mackarel’s case. Toru, just like Scottie, checks if his object of desire, the real lost-object is still there, and realises that it isn’t. It is gone forever. Kumiko, too, doesn’t return in the end. We learn that she is now in jail for killing her brother.
Malta as a “Double-Agent”
Toru’s ambiguous relationship with reality exhibits itself in his relationships with women. The women in the novel act as boats that carry Toru on the ocean of new realities.
Malta Kano among them is the one that keeps Toru connected with The Symbolic as well as The Real—she is a clairvoyant and a messenger, as well as an agent of Noboru Wataya’s realm (Noboru Wataya is the first person to have connections with her). Malta Kano makes place for the Name of the Father, and in this sense, belongs to The Symbolic. On the other hand, Toru dreams her as having a tail—a phallic symbol from a Freudian perspective.xxxvi In Toru’s dream, Malta’s tail is a cat tail: “it was much larger than the original, but its shape was the same as Mackerel’s tail. It had the same sharp bend at the tip, but this one was far more convincingly real than Mackerel’s.”xxxvii So, in Toru’s dream, Malta acquires the tail which the cat lost in The Real, and she is, in a sense, the “rightful owner” of it.
Malta also wears a hat—a red vinyl hat, to be precise. Red is the colour of passion: a primal emotion associated with the id which says “I want.” This hat doesn’t even go with Malta’s clothes. “Only the red vinyl hat clashed with the rest of the outfit, both in ambience and in material.”xxxviii According to Freud, “the hat (…) is usually employed as a male representation, though at times as a female” and “experience in the analysis of dreams has sufficiently well established the hat as a symbol of the genital organ, most frequently of the male organ.”xxxix Thus Malta Kano’s unlikely apparatus, her red hat, may be interpreted as the symbol of her position as the agent of The Symbolic, whereas her possession of the cat’s tail (the real lost-object) can be seen as the proof of her tie with The Real.
Islands in The Oceanic Void
Terrible things happen to Kumiko before and after she leaves Toru. We know a few things about her: she had a bad childhood. She was “defiled” by her brother, she lost her sister; her relationship with her family is damaged. Kumiko leaves his husband. She was pregnant once but had to have an abortion because she believed they weren’t ready to have a child yet. Her melancholy is particularly feminine.
Kumiko suffers from the consequences of her unfulfilled introjection of the maternal identity. And she occupies the state of the Kristevan “oceanic void” as a result of being subjected to The Symbolic, harshly shaped by the male language. The oceanic void
is a feeling and fantasy of pain, but anestheticized, of jouissance, but in suspense, of an expectation and a silence as empty as they are fulfilled. In the midst of its lethal ocean, the melancholy woman is the dead one that has always been abandoned within herself and can never kill outside herself. Modest, silent, without verbal or desiring bonds with others, she wastes away by striking moral and physic blows against herself.xl
In fact, not only Kumiko, but also Malta, Creta, The Telephone Woman, and May reside in this oceanic void. The Telephone Woman is nothing but a voice without a body, a pure fantasy object. May Kasahara is a witty young woman suffering from depression and solitude (“If I’m pessimistic, then the adults in this world who are not pessimistic are a bunch of idiots.”xli) Creta is a reflection of Kumiko. Toru, in a dream, has sex with Kumiko/Creta/The Telephone Woman—all representing the one and same feminine figure.
Kumiko and Creta both get pregnant from Toru. And Toru tells May that if he ever has a baby with Kumiko, he will name it Corsica. We know that in his dream Malta told Toru that Creta had a baby and named it Corsica. Thus, we understand that Toru wishes to realise his fantasy of creating a child with Kumiko, by creating a child with Creta.
Also, Malta, Creta, and Corsica are all island names. They are solitude entities in the oceanic void. Mr. Honda warns Toru: “Beware of water.”xlii Perhaps he refers to both the well that will eventually fill with water (and give birth to Toru), and these women as deadly residents of the oceanic void, as obscure and mysterious as the infinite dark water.
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle recounts Toru’s Orphic journey into the unconscious in search of his lost-object. Toru, as the melancholic subject, is able to born again from the well, but whether he manages to retrieve his lost-object or heal his shattered ego remains a mystery. Perhaps he heals in a sense, when he wishes to realise his fantasy through Creta, by implying that he will father Corsica. In the end, he embraces his symptom and uses it to stay in The Symbolic. Perhaps not a very sad ending.
DiCenso, J, The Other Freud: Religion, Culture and Psychoanalysis, Routledge, New York, 1999.
Doane, M, “The Clinical Eye”, in The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Susan Rubin Suleiman, Harvard University Press, 1986.
Freud, S, “The Loss of Reality in Neurosis and Psychosis”, in The Complete Works, ed. Ivan Smith, 2010.
“The Economic Problem of Masochism”, ibid.
“The Unconscious”, ibid.
“The Interpretation of Dreams”, ibid.
“A Connection Between a Symbol and a Symptom”, ibid.
Kristeva, J, Black Sun – Depression and Melancholia, trans. Leon. S. Roudiez, Columbia University Press, New York, 1989.
Lacan, J, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1978.
Murakami, H, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, trans. Jay Rubin, Vintage, London, 2003.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Jacques Lacan”, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lacan/#RegThe.
Žižek, S, Looking Awry/An Introdution to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture, October Books, 1992.
Welcome to the Desert of The Real, http://www.lacan.com/desertsymf.htm.
“Objet a as Inherent Limit to Capitalism: on Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri”, http://www.lacan.com/zizmultitude.htm.
i S Freud, “The Loss of Reality in Neurosis and Psychosis”, The Complete Works, ed. Ivan Smith, 2010, p. 4094.
ii ibid., p. 4095.
v ibid., p. 4096.
ix J DiCenso, The Other Freud: Religion, Culture and Psychoanalysis, Routledge, New York, 1999, p. 43.
x J Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1978, p. 280.
xi H Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, trans. Jay Rubin, Vintage, London, 2003, p. 228.
xii ibid., p. 254.
xiii S Žižek, Looking Awry/An Introdution to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture, October Books, 1992, p. 38.
xiv Murakami, p. 69.
xv ibid., p. 107.
xvi ibid., p. 44.
xvii ibid, p. 46.
xviii ibid., p. 47.
xix ibid., p. 48.
xx Freud, “The Economic Problem of Masochism”, p. 4079.
xxi Murakami, p. 48.
xxii ibid., p. 144.
xxiv Freud, “The Unconscious”, p. 3009.
xxv ibid., 3010.
xxvi Murakami, p. 219.
xxvii ibid., p. 330.
xxviii ibid., p. 331.
xxx Murakami, p. 352.
xxxi ibid., p. 354.
xxxii Freud, “The Interpretation of Dreams”, p. 825.
xxxiii M Doane, “The Clinical Eye”, in The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Susan Rubin Suleiman, 1986, Harvard University Press, p. 163)
xxxiv Murakami, p. 225.
xxxvi Freud, “A Connection Between a Symbol and a Symptom”, p. 3122.
xxxvii Murakami, p. 146.
xxxviii Murakami, p. 116.
xxxix Freud, ibid.
xl Kristeva, p. 29-30.
xli Murakami, p. 68.