Recently, I completed the Gold Coast Half Marathon, slowly and rather painfully. It made me think of one of my favourite writers and his love for long distance running.
Haruki Murakami is a best selling Japanese writer whose works have been translated into 50 languages and sold millions of copies globally. He has completed over 20 marathons since the 1980s and one ultra marathon.
Famous for his fiction works which blend fantasy with realism, it’s his non fiction work “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” [走ることについて語るときに僕の語ること Hashiru Koto ni Tsuite Kataru Toki ni Boku no Kataru Koto] which depicts his love of running so well.
The book’s title was inspired by Raymond Carver’s collection of short stories entitled ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. Murakami sits within the tradition of post-modern writers such as Carver, Kurt Vonnegut and J. D. Salinger. Frequently featuring western pop culture, music and themes, Murakami’s works are a pastiche of impressions, often surrealistic, melancholic or fatalistic, characterised by post-modernist themes of alienation and loneliness.
The reason he is one of my favourite writers is because he paints a world of magical realism; a world in which dream and reality intertwine curiously lending an otherwise inexplicable existence, something magical, something mythical, something akin to wonder.
“What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” recounts Murakami’s foray into long distance running in his early 30s, some five years after becoming a full time writer.
He equates the process of setting out on a long run with writing, both methodical decisions to complete a journey, often pointless to everyone except the one undertaking it. Used as a metaphor for existence, the race and the novel are both grueling but beautiful endeavours, inexplicable yet sweet, painful yet redemptive, each in their own unique way.
Through running, as with writing, Murakami has met many people, seen many strange and remote places, thought hours of his own thoughts and suffered great highs and great lows. It is the same methodical discipline that Murakami applies to writing and to life.
As with Carver’s original, what is talked about when talking about running is far more trivial and yet far more profound. By running and by writing about running, Murakami explores the sweetness and mystery of being and becoming. The sweetness and mystery of life.
In a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, the British comedian Ricky Gervais discussed religion. Colbert, an avowed Catholic asked Gervais provocatively about the existence of God as prime mover:
But why is there something rather than nothing?
Gervais, an agnostic-atheist, countered that the question “why” was irrelevant. Rather, HOW was a much more relevant question.
Colbert, a monotheist would deny the 2999 gods of other religions, but maintains one ….the Judeo-Christian God.
Gervais simply denies one more God than Colbert.
Ricky adhers to the scientific process, exploring the eternal laws of the universe, without needing a recourse to theism to accept existence or manufacture morality.
But science is constantly proved all the time. If we take any fiction, or any holy book, and destroyed it, okay, in 1,000 years time that wouldn’t come back just as it was. But if you took every science book and every fact and destroyed them all, in 1,000 years they’d all be back — because all the same tests would be the same results.
What is interesting about this exchange is the elision of several hundred years of western philosophy.
Friedrich Nietzsche stated at the end of the 19th century, ‘God is dead’. This was not a triumphant declaration on behalf a race who had finally overcome millennia of slavery to the dreams and fairy-tales of their ancestors.
It was a melancholy observation of his times and a gloomy foreboding of the consequence of this for subsequent generations.
Without an understanding of a realm of absolutes, it was not morality that is corroded….. but meaning and identity.
The 20th century found itself contending with existentialism, subjectivism, post-modernism and individualism. We live in a culture of “alternative facts” in which even the foundations of empirical rationalism can be declared “subjective.”
If all the books disappeared from the world, along with all memory of what they contain, humans would return to campfire story telling dreamers. We would return to pre-scientific intuitive learners, oral historians, mythmakers and poets.
We would become religious again.
Knowing this, Carl Jung, following from Nietzsche, sought to re-understand religion and myth, plumbing the depth of our dreams to understand ancient narratives and legends and apply them to human psychology and culture building.
Should all the books of the world disappear, we would have to rediscover the scientific process.
This would require a relearning of an ability to know, to form meaning and have identity.
This would, as it did with the Greeks, the Hindus, the Chinese, the Hebrews, our scientific forbears (and all highly spiritual people), be forged within a framework of absolutes; a transcendental realm in which ideas and knowledge are – within the mind of God.
This semester I embarked on the very first subject of a law degree, a study which, if completed at the current pace of one subject per semester, will take me 12 long years to complete.
As a lover of debate, dialogue, the parsing of meaning, the construction of ideas from mere ink marks on paper, much of law, even the introductory subject I have completed thus far, is fascinating.
For example, the legal definition of a “person” in Australian law is “a body politic or corporate as well as an individual.” [Acts Interpretation Act 1901 (Cth)]. So, to be a “person” in legal terms is to be more than a human individual, but also to be a business, or a nation, at least in terms of rights and responsibilities.
The magic is that a business is created, or born, when a person or group of people register a business name, acquire an ABN, perhaps create a constitution outlining shares and duties and VOILA, a person is summoned from thin air, from ink marks on paper.
It follows, ergo, that since words create things, and contracts and constitutions, rightly parsed and formally agreed upon, create something with legal force, an entity, a person, out of the air from nothing…. then laws are like spells.
Furthermore, after studying a few semesters of Biblical Hebrew, it came clear that the commonly used magical term “Abbrakadabra” had Semitic roots. “E’barah, ki’dibborah” literally reads “let it be [created] by the word.” The Hebrew verb barah is used in Genesis 1 to describe God’s creation of the heavens and the earth from nothing, from mere words or commands.
What unfolds though is an interesting correlation between ancient literature and modern physics. The Hebrew account of creation, in comparison to many creation myths of the Ancient Near East [ANE] saw all matter arising from the divine word or “logos”. Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Egyptian creation accounts of that time, told of the stars, planets, oceans and mountains being formed from the corpses of slain divinities.
Contemporary physics identifies energy underlying all matter, and asserts that our thoughts themselves create energy. It seems the ancient Hebrews understood the world is the articulation of a spectacular divine thought and word.
Another unique feature of the Hebrew creation story is the nobility granted to humanity. Rather than a servile race, condemned to suffer from the whims of their makers, Hebrews saw humans, gifted with God’s image, capable of further shaping and forming the material world.
Indeed, it is by “words” that humans create laws, contracts, constitutions and so forth, which form societies, nations, businesses, relationships and more.
Percy Shelley in his essay “A Defense of Poetry”  writes “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” What he points out is that by the “word,” poets move ideas into energy. In doing so they bring into being, a force and energy, much like a law or a spell does.
It is their poems, songs, elegies and ballads, which have the force to move humans, to move societies, and to change them and form them anew.
It was and is the job of poets, much like lawyers and good governors, to bring life to societies, to nations, to businesses, to individuals and more.
When Bastian hides in an attic to read a mysterious book, he discovers that this is no ordinary story……..the Neverending Story is a living book.
It tells of Fantasia, a land of magical creatures threatened by the Nothing. The Childlike Empress needs a new name and only a human child can grant it. Hardly believing what is going on and shivering in his damp attic, Bastian calls out the Childlike Empress’ new name and in doing so, he enters the Neverending Story.
He finds himself a character within the story he was reading, Here, Bastian is handsome and bold, a boy equal in strength and courage to Atrayu. As saviour of Fantasia, he is granted AURYN, the gem of the Childlike Empress, inscribed with the words “Do As You Wish.”
Here, his imagination can create worlds. Everything he wishes, comes to pass.
Bastian is cautioned by the Childlike Empress to be aware that his wishes become realities, and these realities affect the fates of other Fantasians. Bastian can only govern Fantasia well when he considers deeply his desires and wishes only for what he truly wants.
However, as Bastian grows in confidence, he becomes less and less aware of the deep desires that motivate him, and less careful of the consequences of his wishes. With every wish Bastian loses a memory of his former life. Atrayu points out, that without memory, Bastian cannot have a true will and without a will, he will lose himself.
Without a will, he cannot wish himself home again.
Can Atrayu save Bastian from his descent into madness? Will Bastian become trapped in Fantasia forever?
Ende achieves in the second part of the Neverending Story, new insights of the significance of dream and myth to human health and happiness. Just as travelling into our dreams and subconscious is necessary for human health, a journey required to understand our deep complexes and to do battle with our subconscious fears, so too the converse journey is critical – the return to conscious life.
It is in the conscious world, our external world, where human relationships occur that the deep desires of the human heart are realised. Here we love, are loved, face external challenges and grow.
A person lost in dream or myth, or a person at the mercy of their fantasies and desires, without touch with the real world, is someone who eventually loses touch with their core identity, their memory, their will, even their own name.
The maddened Bastian becomes so lost in his own fantasy that he needs a saviour, someone who can give him a name and restore enough will for him to remember his father and so desire to return home. Moreover, Bastian needs someone to remain in Fantasia to take responsibility for all the stories that his wishes have given life to.
Atrayu, despite being betrayed and wounded by Bastian steps in, reminds Bastian of his true name and in doing so restores him with enough will and memory to send him back to his conscious life.
It is Atrayu who remains in Fantasia to finish the story. And so Ende delivers the final note to his story. The true hero sacrifices himself so Bastian might have life.
Atrayu is not a product of Bastian’s imagination. He is the character who drew Bastian into Fantasia, he was betrayed and wounded by Bastian his friend, and now as Bastian surrenders AURYN, at his wits end, Atrayu restores Bastian’s ‘self’ and ability to return to a life of relationship and being.
We need more heroes like Atrayu.