‘I always suspected that he was more influenced by Jungian psychology than he likes to let on’: Jonathan Dil on Haruki Murakami

By | February 28, 2022

Haruki Murakami and the Search for Self-Therapy, by Jonathan Dil, is out now

How would you describe your book in one sentence?

This books looks at how Haruki Murakami started writing fiction as a means of self-therapy and how he transformed this therapeutic impulse into a literary career of global acclaim.

What drew to you writing about this subject?

In conversation with the Jungian psychologist Kawai Hayao, Murakami once said that he started writing fiction as a means of self-therapy. What he has never gone on to fully explain, however, is what he needed self-therapy for. Reading Murakami’s fiction, I always suspected that he was more influenced by Jungian psychology than he likes to let on, and one of my first aims in researching the book was to try and understand this influence (i.e., I believed that Murakami’s search for self-therapy could be read as a Jungian search for individuation). As I dug deeper into the topic, however, I also became more interested in the biographical and historical factors driving Murakami’s search for self-therapy and the literary models which shaped his therapeutic need into a literary form capable of capturing the hearts of millions. My research also pushed me beyond Jung to consider other psychological theories which can help to make sense of Murakami’s fiction.

How long have you been researching it? How did you come to study it?

This book started as a PhD thesis which was completed at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, in 2008. Since completing the PhD, I have been living and working in Japan, first at Chuo University and then at Keio University. In 2018, I was granted a sabbatical from my position at Keio and became a visiting scholar at Oxford University’s Oriental Institute for a year. I used that year to rethink and update the thesis and to turn it into this book. Upon my return to Japan, I also carried out some field research to try and find out more about some of the biographical factors I believe have shaped Murakami’s fiction. I was also able to interview Murakami twice during the process of writing this book, once when I was working on my PhD, and once near the completion of the book. These interviews are generously quoted in the book.

What does your book focus on that hasn’t been explored elsewhere?

Readers of the book will learn more about some of the personal factors which have shaped Murakami’s fiction, including his difficult relationship with his father and the suicide of an ex-girlfriend. While Murakami has begun to open up about his complicated relationship with his father in recent years, English scholarship has made no mention of the ex-girlfriend, and Japanese scholarship has had only a little to say about her. This book offers new information that will help to make some sense of one of Murakami’s most prominent and repetitive motifs: the troubled girlfriend who commits suicide and the narrator who must learn to mourn her loss.

The book also offers insights into how several Western writers, many of whom Murakami has translated into Japanese, have come to shape his fiction. First and foremost, the book argues for the deep influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald at Raymond Chandler, but other influences discussed include Raymond Carver and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Those interested in understanding Murakami’s literary influences will find a lot of useful material.

Finally, the book offers an eclectic mix of psychological theories that can help to make sense of the thematic development of Murakami’s fiction. In short, the book argues that there are four prominent therapeutic threads woven through Murakami’s fiction. The first thread, informed by the writing of Sigmund Freud, looks at the way melancholia must be overcome for mourning to occur, and can be linked biographically to the loss of Murakami’s ex-girlfriend. The second thread, indebted to trauma studies, looks at examples of intergenerational trauma in Murakami’s fiction and the attempts to heal it through acts of self-sacrifice, a theme that can be linked to Murakami’s strained relationship with his father (a war veteran). The third thread builds on ideas from attachment theory and looks at how characters in Murakami’s fiction seek to overcome avoidant attachment styles and connect with others, a thread arguably also related to Murakami’s complicated relationship with his parents. The fourth thread, based on Jung’s ideas, looks at the search for individuation in Murakami’s fiction as a response to nihilism. What one often sees in Murakami’s novels is a battle between a Jungian-inspired protagonist and a Nietzschean-inspired antagonist. The question Murakami’s novels ask is what, if anything, separates these two figures.

Haruki Murakami and the Search for Self-Therapy: Stories from the Second Basement offers detailed and insightful readings of each of Murakami’s fourteen novels to date and a comprehensive overview of the therapeutic themes that have shaped Murakami’s forty-plus-year career. It will be of interest to scholars, students, and general readers of Murakami’s fiction, Modern Japanese Literature, and World Literature.

What initially drew you to studying literature?

I have always enjoyed studying literature. As an undergraduate student at Auckland University, I majored in English Literature and Japanese Studies. Thinking about my future, I tried several times to veer off into more “practical fields”—law and business primarily—but each time I came back to literature. Though it felt like a precarious path, I then decided to do postgraduate studies in Japanese literature. This book is a product of all these decisions. While I know this book won’t be the final word on Murakami’s fiction, I believe it is a significant contribution to the ongoing scholarly conversation on this important global writer.

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