Hyper-Sensitivity

The unknowability of certain men.

In Norwegian Wood, that fantastic novel by Murakami, Watanabe, the aimless protagonist, is someone who lives with a heightened appreciation for his own sensitivity. He is perhaps the best example of an unknowable man. It stems, I think, from empathy. He has so much empathy, and so there is nothing more painful than noticing that his feelings for the two women in his life change. As one grows, the other shrinks.

In contrast, the character of Nagasawa is determined in the pursuit of sex. Nagasawa is debauched, but he also is unswervingly honest, as suggested by his assurance to his girlfriend, Hatsumi, that one day he will leave her to pursue his career goals. Once this happens, Hatsumi, after a brief marriage to someone else, commits suicide in despair, and when told of this Nagasawa remarks that her death is too bad, and that he had warned her. Nagasawa’s honesty is designed to only to protect himself. His is a self-justification, a manipulation, and as such he’s all too knowable.

The ultimate message of Norwegian Wood is that love cannot save us. We are born and will die, alone, and in our own heads. Although this is true – the novel ends with Watanabe, lost, alone, and in an airport – it is not true enough.

Murakami knew this, and was one of the greatest explorers of male characters with heightened sensitivity who reject this truth with all their being. Take Murakami’s short stories. In Drive My Car, the protagonist is wired so that he would never have asked his deceased wife what she saw in other men and why she habitually betrayed him, and he allows these unasked questions to eat him up because the idea that love cannot save us was, for him I think, not true enough. Hyper-sensitivity is forever for those that have it. In the short story Yesterday, Murakami explores the lyrical hyper-sensitivity of birth; and; in the short story An Independent Organ, the belated hyper-sensitivity that can overwhelm and kill. Being hyper-sensitive has everything to do with a connection to someone else, and yet is also completely about oneself. After all, when the west wind dies and you are alone and unsaveable, you will join the Men Without Women.

The original attempt at a hyper-sensitive man who lives in his own heads can be found in a story far older than the ones written by Murakami. In Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground, the underground man finds that he cannot live a normal life. He cannot act, because he does not, he is not. Instead he tries to find meaning in things which have no meaning. He, in my opinion, suffers from a type of lovesickness. For such a man it is a golden idea to be thrown out of a tavern like a tramp because that at least will get him noticed. He operates inside his own head, and plots petty revenges – a game of chicken which he can win without the other knowing they are being used as player two. However, the underground man is selfish and discounts anyone else’s plans as having just as little meaning or no meaning at his own, and this does not map perfectly onto hyper-sensitivity – because for all the underground man’s attentiveness what he lacks is empathy. In the end, he is what he does, and what he does is harm someone and justify it, and so in the end he is no more unknowable than Nagasawa.

The Blood of the Lamb is the only book which, when I read it three years ago, I cried while reading. Hyper-sensitivity does not have much to do with crying though. It’s about attentiveness. It’s about empathy. It’s about being incapable. Have a read of this short story – Cat Person – which is one word too long, and think on the unknowability of certain men.

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