My post about Japanese doomsday cult turned terrorists Aum Shinrikyo sent me back to Haruki Murakami’s book of interviews with the victims of Aum’s sarin gas attack on the Tokyo Metro in March of 1995: ‘Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche’.
As I said before, Haruki Murakami is one of those writers that it seems I should completely love. His subject matter and interests mesh very neatly with my own, and many people whose opinions I value speak highly of his work. Even in translation he seems like an insightful writer, but for some reason I’ve never been able to make it more than thirty pages through any of his novels. If you’re also one of these Murakami-blind people as well, I still recommend ‘Underground’.
I was struck by the following section near the end of ‘Underground’ both for its relation to my previous post, and for being in its own right a very cogent analysis of compliance, the banality of evil, conspiracy theories and paranoia, and the narratives we create for and about ourselves as we go through our lives. The best part, I think, is paragraph 3: “Mind control is not something that can be pursued or bestowed just like that. It’s a two-sided affair.” Anyway, here’s the rest:
[from page 201 of the 2001 paperback Harvill Press edition, slightly abridged. Apart from the italicised notes, everything below this point is not by me, it’s from Murakami’s book.]
“How could anyone do such an insane thing? [i.e. murder strangers by gassing them on a train] But conversely, to the cultists it was probably quite comforting. At last they had someone to watch over them, sparing them the anxiety of confronting each new situation on their own, and delivering them from any need to think for themselves.
By tuning in, by merging themselves with [Aum Shinrikyo guru] Shoko Asahara’s ‘greater, more profoundly unbalanced’ Self, they attained a kind of pseudo self-determination. Instead of launching an assault on society as individuals, they handed over the entire strategic responsibility to Asahara. We’ll have one ‘Self-power versus the system’ set-menu, please.
Theirs was not [‘Unabomber’ Theodore] Kaczynski’s ‘battle against the system to attain the power process of self-determination’. The only one fighting was Shoko Asahara: most followers were merely swallowed up and assimilated by his battle-hungry ego. Nor were the followers unilaterally subjected to Asahara’s ‘mind control’. Not passive victims: they themselves actively sought to be controlled by Asahara. ‘Mind control’ is not something that can be pursued or bestowed just like that. It’s a two-sided affair.
If you lose your ego, you lose the thread of that narrative you call your Self. Humans, however, can’t live very long without some sense of a continuing story. Such stories go beyond the limited rational system (or the systematic rationality) with which you surround yourself; they are crucial keys to sharing time-experience with others.
Now a narrative is a story, not logic, nor ethics, nor philosophy. It is a dream you keep having whether you realise it or not. Just as surely as you breathe, you go on ceaselessly dreaming your story. And in these stories you wear two faces. You are simultaneously subject and object. You are the whole and you are a part. You are real and you are shadow. ‘Storyteller’ and at the same time ‘character’…
Yet without a proper ego, nobody can create a personal narrative, any more than you can drive a car without an engine, or cast a shadow without a real physical object. But once you’ve consigned your ego to someone else, where on earth do you go from there?
At this point you receive a narrative from the person to whom you have entrusted your ego. You’ve handed over the real thing, so what comes back instead is a shadow. And once your ego has merged with another ego, your narrative will necessarily take on the narrative created by that other ego.
Just what kind of narrative?
It needn’t be anything particularly fancy, nothing complicated or refined. You don’t need to have literary ambitions. In fact, rather the sketchier and simpler the better… A simple ’emblem’ of a story will do for this sort of narrative, the same way a war medal bestowed on a soldier doesn’t have to be pure gold. It’s enough that the medal be backed up by a shared recognition that ‘this is a medal’, no matter that it’s a cheap tin trinket.
Shoko Asahara was talented enough to impose his rehashed narrative on people (who for the most part came looking for just that). It was a risible, slap-dash story. To unbelievers it could only be regurgitated tripe. Still, in all fairness, it must be said that a certain consistency runs through it all. It was a call to arms.
From this perspective, in a limited sense, Asahara was a master storyteller who proved capable of anticipating the mood of the times. He was not deterred by the knowledge, whether conscious or not, that his ideas and images were recycled junk. Asahara deliberately cobbled together bits and pieces from all around him (the way that Spielberg’s ET assembles a device for communicating with his home planet out of odds and ends in the family garage) and brought to them a singular flow, a current that darkly reflected the inner ghosts of his own mind. Whatever the deficiencies in that narrative, they were in Asahara himself, so they presented no obstacle to those who chose to merge themselves with him.”