Note to Men: Face Your Inner Violence

Lisito, “Kafka and Crow”


Yesterday I cited bell hooks’s The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, which sees male violence as a symptom of how we raise our sons. To seriously address the problem of sexual assault, hooks says, it’s not enough to go after individual men. We need to change patriarchy itself, which is to say, the emotionally abusive system that shames boys when they act soft.

To that end, it’s useful to have powerful literary explorations of the problem. Haruki Murakami grapples with the issue of emotionally abused men in his existential fantasies, especially the mesmerizing Kafka on the Shore. By focusing on the Oedipal and rape fantasies of a 15-year-old boy, the Japanese author shows the conditions that lead men to strive for dominance over women, as well as what they must do to transcend their conditioning.

I start with the most disturbing scene in the book and then work back to determine its meaning. Kafka has been having vivid dreams, and in one of them he visits a woman friend, who is also dreaming, and rapes her. Sakura, who is and is not Kafka’s sister, protests:

Suddenly she snaps awake and realizes what’s going on.
“Kafka, what are you doing?!”
“It would seem that I’m inside you,” I reply.
“But why? She asks in a dry, raspy voice. “Didn’t I tell you that’s off-limits?”
“I can’t help it.”
“Stop already. Get it out of me.”
“I can’t,” I say, shaking my head emphatically.
“Listen to me. First of all, I’ve got a steady boyfriend, okay? And second, you’ve come into my dream without my permission. That’s not right.”
“I know.”…
“Take it out,” she admonishes me. “And let’s pretend this never happened. I can forget it, and so should you. I’m your sister, and you’re my brother. Even if we’re not blood related, we’re most definitely brother and sister. You understand what I’m saying? We’re part of a family. We shouldn’t be doing this.”
“It’s too late,” I tell her
“Because I decided it is.”

 Avoiding responsibility (“I can’t help it”) while asserting domination (“Because I decided”) characterizes many of abusers in the headlines these days. Sakura calls Kafka out:

“I understand,” she says. “I won’t say any more. But I want you to remember something: You’re raping me. I like you, but this isn’t how I want it to be. We might never see each other again, no matter how much we want to meet later on. Are you okay with that?”

You don’t respond. Your mind’s switched off. You draw her close to you and start to move your hips. Carefully, cautiously, in the end violently….Sakura closes her eyes and gives herself up to the motion. She doesn’t say a word or resist. Her face is expressionless, turned away from you. But you feel the pleasure rising up in her like an extension of yourself.

More offensive even than the rape is Kafka imagining that Sakura is enjoying it, a classic male rationalization (“you know you want it”). Otherwise a very sympathetic character—my students fall in love with him—Kafka threatens to lose us here. Some plot background is necessary to understand Murakami’s purpose.

At a young age Kafka was abandoned by his mother, who took his sister with her, and he has been raised by his emotionally abusive father. (We learn from one graphic episode that his father engages in the emotional equivalent of tearing the hearts out of cats.) In a deliberate echo of the Oedipus story, Kafka hates his father and has mixed emotions about his mother, longing to be reunited with her while hating her for leaving him. Some of these same mixed emotions extend to his sister.

Kafka’s father terrifies him with the prediction that one day he will act out the Oedipus story, killing him and sleeping with the mother (and with the sister as well, the father adds). Kafka, like Oedipus, runs away from home to escape such a destiny, later explaining to a woman who is and is not his mother, “I felt like if I stayed there I’d be damaged beyond repair.” And a little later, “I’d change into something I shouldn’t.”

One can’t run away from the anger at one’s parents, however, and Kafka appears doomed like Oedipus to repeat the cycle of violence and violation. He inadvertently kill his father through astral projection, and the woman who is and is not his mother sleepwalks into his room and has sex with him (there’s that supposed helplessness again).

A thought about rape: while psychology tells us that it is about power, not sex, watching Kafka’s fantasies lead me to see it as both. The sexual aspect is the longing for intimacy while the power aspect is the anger over the feelings of vulnerability that accompany the longing. Kafka violates sister and mother because he simultaneously wants to join with them and to punish them. Therapists probably can find versions of this drama occurring within the various abusers we have been learning about.

Kafka is unlike Trump, Moore, and others, however, in that he is introspective and wants to do the right thing. His alter ego, an inner voice that he names Crow, confronts him with the stark realization that he will be doomed to kill and to violate for the rest of his life if he doesn’t change:

You killed the person who’s your father, violated your mother, and now your sister. You thought that would put an end to the curse your father laid on you, so you did everything that was prophesied about you. But nothing’s really over. You didn’t overcome anything. That curse is branded on your soul even deeper than before. You should realize that by now. That curse is part of your DNA. You breathe out the curse, the wind carries it to the four corners of the Earth, but the dark confusion inside you remains. Your fear, anger, unease—nothing’s disappeared. They’re all still inside you, still torturing you.

Return for a moment to our own national curse. It appears that a kind of existential emptiness has entered thousands of men, prompting them to dehumanize the women they encounter. The rot goes very deep.

There’s hope for Kafka, however, because he recognizes how untenable his present condition is. Entering a forest that symbolizes how lost he feels, he expresses his despair:

Alone in such a deep forest, the person called me feels empty, horribly empty. Oshima [a guide figure] once used the term hollow men. Well, that’s exactly what I’ve become. There’s a void inside me, a blank that’s slowly expanding, devouring what’s left of who I am. I can hear it happening, I’m totally lost, my identity dying.

For a moment, like many teenage boys, he considers suicide:

If only I could wipe out this me who’s here, right here and right now. I seriously consider it. In this thick wall of trees, on this path that’s not a path, if I stopped breathing, my consciousness would silently be buried in the darkness, every last drop of my dark violent blood dripping out, my DNA rotting among the weeds. Then my battle would be over. Otherwise, I’ll eternally be murdering my father, violating my mother, violating my sister, lashing out at the world forever.

Because he faces up to his feelings rather than running from them, this scene represents a turning point for him. He plunges deep into the forest and engaged with stand-ins for his father and mother. Holding on to father hatred, he realizes, leads only to a vast emptiness, so he must let it go. He also comes to understand his mother’s pain, why she left him, and forgives her. He has achieved the goal that Crow set up for him:

“You have to overcome the fear and anger inside you,” the boy named Crow says. “Let a bright light shine in and melt the coldness in your heart. That’s what being tough is all about. Do that and you really will be the toughest fifteen-year-old on the planet.”

The book concludes with Kafka returning home, the curse broken. The final passage reminds me of the conclusion of Paradise Lost:

“You’d better get some sleep,” the boy named Crow says. “When you wake up, you’ll be part of a brand-new world.”
You finally fall asleep. And when you wake up, it’s true.
You are part of a brand-new world.

A brand new world awaits American men if they get their act together. Many women are doing their part, revisiting past interactions and sharing their experiences, often in courageous public ways. To escape the desolate cycles of insecurity and violence, it’s now up to men to take their own journeys into the forest.

Real men open themselves to the bright light that melts the heart’s coldness.

A note on the artist: “Lisito” has a series of enchanting illustrations of Kafka on the Shore at

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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