Professor Emily Francomano
21 October 2011
The Persistence of Memory: Trauma and Coping in “Landscape with Flatiron”
In the article “The Black Hole of Trauma,” authors Bessel A. van de Kolk and Alexander C. McFarlane describe the human response to a traumatic event and the ability of the meaning one attaches to a traumatic event to affect the victim just as much as the event itself. As Miyake in Murakami’s short story “Landscape with Flatiron” quipped, “[some] things your brain can’t help you with” (Murakami 14). In this paper I will demonstrate the near-perfect compatibility of the traumatic symptoms of Junko and Miyake in light of the description of trauma articulated by van de Kolk and McFarlane.
Murakami’s work “Landscape with Flatiron” tells the story of Junko, an runaway high school dropout who works as a cashier in a supermarket, her boyfriend Keisuke, and Miyake, an old bearded man who builds bonfires on the beach a few times each week. The story recounts their personal histories, casual conversation, and responses to the fire, and uses the oppositions of light-dark and heat-cold throughout the narration to refer to the two main characters’ struggles with trauma.
Van der Kolk and McFarlane describe the ability of traumatic experiences to “alter people’s psychological, biological, and social equilibrium to such a degree that the memory of one particular event comes to taint all other experiences, spoiling appreciation of the present” (van der Kolk and McFarlane 488). The memory and personal reconstruction of the traumatic event can rival the traumatic event itself in terms of harmful effect. The memory of the traumatic event, which often “confirms some belief that an individual has tried to evade,” according to the authors, “is not integrated and accepted as a part of one’s personal past” (491). The passage of time has no effect on the propinquity of the traumatic experience; because, in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the individual does not integrate the traumatic event within his life, it exists outside it and eventually comes to frame his life (491). According to the two authors, “there are six critical issues that affect how people with PTSD process information” (491). Among these are the “persistent intrusions” of trauma-related memories, “compulsive reexposure” to experiences reminiscent of the trauma, active avoidance of stimulation and a subsequent lack of responsiveness, the “inability to modulate arousal,” problems with attention and distractibility, and the motivation of defense mechanisms which “provide an accommodation with an intolerable reality” (497). Both Junko and Miyake suffer from persistent intrusions of memories of their respective traumatic experiences and compulsive reexposure to the latter. However, Miyake’s response to trauma embodies avoidance, numbing and the assumption of responsibility for the event while Junko’s response encompasses the inability to modulate arousal and distractibility.
In response to Keisuke’s question about the Kansai earthquake that occurred a month before the action narrated, Miyake replies that he has not had “any ties with Kobe…[not] for years” (Murakami 7). When Keisuke presses him, insisting that he knows “somebody…in Kobe” and asks him if he has seen the news, Miyake suggests a change of subject and a drink of whiskey (7). Once Keisuke has left them, Junko wonders “if, maybe, [Miyake] had a wife somewhere” (14). Miyake’s refusal to recognize his past and his immediate resort to the bottle every time his interlocutor brings up his past indicate his avoidance of the traumatic event through a deliberate “[avoidance of] having the emotions these intrusions evoke” (vdK & M 494). Because “any stimulation [could provoke] further detachment,” Miyake opts to numb his responses to “emotional aspects of life” (494). Later in the text Miyake admonishes himself for “not using [his] brain” (Murakami 15). Though Miyake only provides clues to the traumatic event controlling his life, he perhaps assumes responsibility for the trauma by admonishing himself.
Junko, on the other hand, manifested her trauma in both her inability to modulate arousal and her distractibility. In a flashback, she recalls her days at school in which “she just couldn’t concentrate. She could never finish anything she started…It hurt her to breathe, and the rhythm of her heart became irregular. Attending school was absolute torture” (9). Van der Kolk and McFarlane would probably attribute this behavior to her “inability to decipher messages from the autonomic nervous system,” which “makes [her] tend to react to [her] environment with either exaggerated or inhibited behaviors” (vdK & M 496). Junko’s inability to articulate the “deep, quiet kind of feeling,” the “certain ‘something’” she feels as she stands before the bonfire, could qualify as the “incapacity to articulate how [she is] feeling” before Miyake though her temporary alexithymia does not lead to “exaggerated or inhibited behavior” (Murakami 12, vdK & M 496).
Common to both Junko and Miyake are manifestations of compulsive reexposure to the trauma and the persistent intrusion of the memory into their psyches. If van der Kolk and McFarlane define such an intrusion as “somatosensory impressions” like flashbacks and nightmares, then Miyake’s recurring dream in which hands drag him into the cold depths of his oneiric refrigerator – the dream he started having “[so] long ago I can’t remember when” – qualifies as such an intrusion; so do the intense of emotions of panic Junko experiences during the torture of attending school (vdK & F 492, Murakami 17). In addition to this persistence of memory, both characters find ways of reexposing themselves to their respective traumas. Junko’s relationship with Keisuke, who has an “ugly jealous streak,” harks back to Junko’s mention of the source of her trauma – her father and his ceasing to talk with her after she began to mature sexually (13). Miyake revictimizes himself in his deterministic discussion of premonitions. Just as Jack London thought he would die of drowning and ended up soaked to the core with alcohol, Miyake reasons that his premonition of death by refrigerator must “stand for something else…more intense than reality” (18). Like the character in “To Build a Fire” and Jack London who foresaw their own deaths, Miyake recognizes that his premonition of death reflects the will to die. This self-destructiveness is a hallmark of compulsive reexposure to an initial trauma the reader never discovers. This narrative elision underscores the importance of memory in addition to that of the traumatic event itself; the traumatic event does not inform Miyake’s actions as much as his memory of it and consequent actions.
Despite the uncanny similarity of the characters’ circumstances in the story and the categories listed by the aforementioned researchers, the reader fails to appreciate certain details, such as the oppositions implied by darkness and light, the cold darkness of the refrigerator and the heat of the fire, through a strictly psychoanalytic reading. Nevertheless, in Murakami’s story, Junko and Miyake respond to traumatic events according exactly to the six responses van der Kolk and McFarlane enumerate as ways victims of PTSD process information.
Murakami, Haruki. After the Quake. Trans. Jay Rubin. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. Print.
Van der Kolk, Bessel A. and Alexander McFarlane. “The Black Hole of Trauma.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. 487 – 499. Print.